FIRST LISTEN: dCS Bartók – Unshackling the music

Since its low-key introduction some months back, the dCS Bartok network streamer/DAC/pre-amp has been in high demand globally. We managed to grab a brief, first listen to the much-vaunted newcomer

By Deon Schoeman

The dCS Bartók comes with a prodigious pedigree. It also packs a lot of features and functionality into a single, minimalist box executed to palpably high standards.

It combines comprehensive network streaming capability with a Rossini-standard pre-amp/DAC, and there’s the added-cost option of a high-end headphone amplifier. I

If that sounds like an enticing prospect, you’re not alone: strong global demand has ensured it’s in short supply just about everywhere – including South Africa.

I therefore grabbed the opportunity to spend a brief few days with the newcomer with both hands (and ears). With limited time in the company of a brand new machine, the result isn’t a full review, but rather an initial impression – hopefully there’ll be a future opportunity to delve into its talents more thoroughly.

AT FACE VALUE

As I’ve come to expect of dCS gear, the Bartók shows off a clean, no-nonsense presentation that’s informed by function, and underpinned by the reassuring solidity of an all-aluminium construction.

It certainly looks and feels the high-end, indestructible part, and close up, it’s finished to a very high standard, but don’t expect anything too glitzy or glamorous.

The front fascia features a small-ish but clearly legible high-res screen on the left, a row of tiny soft-touch buttons and, in the case of the test unit, a pair of headphone outputs – XLR for balanced connection and a 6,35 mm jackplug for conventional, unbalanced cans.

There’s also a rotary volume controller on the far right, confirming that the Bartok can operate independently of a pre-amp, and can be hooked up directly to a power amp, if you are comfortable with only having digital inputs (and network connectivity) at your disposal.

The rear panel offers both XLR and RCA stereo outputs. On the input side, there is a choice of SPDIF over coaxial RCA, BNC or Toslink optical. Two AES/EBU inputs are provided, which can be used in tandem in conjunction with dCS digital sources for optimum performance (including accepting DSD-encrypted data), but they also operate individually in conventional mode.

In addition, both Type A and Type B USB inputs, are provided: the former is meant for the connection of flash or external USB drives, while the latter allows hooking up the Bartók to a computer.

A pair of Ethernet sockets, an RS232 port and an EC kettle plug-type power receptacle with master on/off switch complete the picture rear panel picture.

UNDER THE COVERS

I don’t want to go into too much detail here (most of the tech stuff is available on-line here .

However, highlights include the proprietary Ring DAC technology also used in the top-end Vivaldi system, together with the Rossini’s DSP platform. It features a single field-programmable gate array (FPGA) for streamlined processing and flexibility, as well as firmware-driven upgradeability.

The Bartók’s multistage oversampling design provides for DXD upsampling as standard, but also caters for upsampling to DSD, and a selection of DSP filters to allow customisation based on personal preference or music choice.

The network streaming function, I assume, has been taken over from the impressive dCS Network Bridge (see review here ), which runs up to 384 kHz/24-bit as well as DSD128, and supports all major lossless codecs, as well as native DSD, and DSD over DoP.

The Bartók allows streaming from NAS devices linked to the same network, while it also supports streaming services such as Tidal and Spotify Connect, as well content from iDevices via Apple Airplay. MQA decoding and rendering is supported via the network interface, too.

The aluminium casework isn’t just attractive, but is fitted with substantial internal damping to address vibration and magnetic interference. The power supply is a multi-stage design with dual mains transformers, allowing separate supplies to the DAC and headphone amp.

Talking of which, the custom-designed headphone amp has been designed to cope with both high and low-impedance headphones with equal aplomb, and accommodates both single-ended and balanced connections. Four-stage adjustable gain is offered on both connections.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

SETTING UP

Because the Bartók became available for review at short notice, and was only available for a week, this should be treated as an impression, rather than a full-scale review. It stands to reason that there also wasn’t enough time to fully explore the Bartok’s extensive feature set.

Instead, I decided to concentrate much of my listening around its network connectivity and DAC capabilities, using a Roon-based setup, with the Bartók acting as a lossless endpoint.

I was able to access and play music across a range of formats, both from my Tidal selection, and actual music files stored on a Synology NAS.

I also used the Bartók in conjunction with my ageing but still impressive Esoteric UX-3 SE universal player, the latter acting as a transport and hooked up to the dCS via coaxial RCA.

A more comprehensive review will hopefully follow later, and will afford an opportunity to evaluate the Bartok’s USB stage, its selection of SPDIF and DSD-focused digital filters, as well as exploring its capabilities as a headphone amp in greater detail.

Also worth noting is that dCS has now introduced its own music management and control interface, dubbed Mosaic. It extends the music service offering to include Qobuz and Deezer, as well as an array of Internet radio stations and podcasts.

Mosaic also provides cross-platform control via an iOS or Android app with a much more user-friendly interface, making both content and device settings and controls more intuitive. The processing aspect of Mosaic is already contained in the existing dCS streaming products, and is firmware-activated.

SOUNDS LIKE …

The dCS Bartók was evaluated in conjunction with an Electrocompaniet EC4.7 pre-amp, PS Audio Stellar M700 monoblocks, and Vivid V1.5 loudspeakers, as well as a pair of Sennheiser HD800 headphones running in single-ended mode.

The unit’s overriding sonic character was airy and expansive, painting a large, generously rendered sound picture, and creating a strong sense of walk-in dimensionality.

I was also impressed by the Bartók’s exceptional transparency, which freed the music from the electronics, and created a vibrant, full-bodied and engrossing sound image.

There was an overriding sense of musical accuracy and credibility, with the streamer/DAC able to capture and project the finest slivers of detail and the subtlest nuances.

But this ability to resolve the music only served to underscore the integrity and believability of the overall performance: the Bartók does not extract detail to analyse it in isolation, but rather to ensure the listener is given access to the full musical picture.

The dCS was able to capture the coherence and temporal essence of the performance, creating a sound that was lifelike and realistic without having to resort to hyperbole.

Listening to the energetic, boisterous vocals of Camille Thurman on ‘I Just Found Out About Love’ off her riveting Waiting For The Sunset set, the Bartók captured the distinctive ambience of the recording, and accurately placed drums, guitar, sax and vocals on the spacious stage.

Thurman was given all the space and scope to show off here dynamic, even acrobatic vocal skills (and equally gripping sax work), but the dCS also paid attention to the less apparent nuances of her delivery, creating a compelling sense of realism.

so Steve Williams’ drumwork is an unexpected highlight of this recording, not least because the lucid production allows it to come to the fore so emphatically, and the Bartók made the most of it, bringing the drum kit and its eloquent master right into the listening environment.

I enjoyed the way the dCS allowed the music’s natural ebb and flow to dictate the pace of the delivery: there was a real sense of ease and grace to the Bartók’s approach that added to the accessibility and enjoyment of the music.

The Punch Brothers’ banjo-driven, roots-inspired music is multi-faceted and absorbing, but also poses unexpectedly stern dynamic challenges. ‘Jumbo’ (from All Ashore) is a case in point, but the Bartók easily expressed the momentum, intricate fingerwork and timbral splendour of the music, providing the listener with both close-up insight and musical thrills.

The headphone amp seemed to have both the urge and the clarity to deliver the musical goods to the same levels of accuracy and engagement, and certainly had no problems coping with the Sennheiser’s challenging load.

THE BOTTOM LINE

There’s a lot more to the dCS Bartók than covered here, and hopefully there’ll be a second, more extended opportunity to put it through its paces more thoroughly. That would also open the door to an appraisal of the dCS Mosaic interface and control system.

However, from my limited time with the new streamer/DAC, it’s clear that the Bartók retains the essential accuracy and musicality that has made the brand a favourite among music fans and audio enthusiasts, while adding all the versatility that network streaming suggests.

I’d also suggest that it sounds more expansive, more expressive and ultimately more musical than the dCS Network Bridge, which is already an impressive practitioner of the streaming art, albeit minus its own DAC.

As is the case with all the dCS gear in SA, the asking price isn’t exactly cheap, but given overall standards of construction and performance, as well as the future-proof nature of the design, the value proposition remains a strong one.

VITAL STATS

Platform: dCS Ring DAC
Connectivity: 2x Gigabyte Ethernet, Apple AirPlay
Digital inputs: USB Type A, USB Type B, 2x AES/EBU (combinable), SPDIF RCA, SPDIF BNC, Toslink optical
Clocking: Auto reclocking (internal), 2x word clock BNC inputs, 1x word clock output
Analogue outputs: 1x stereo balanced XLR, 1x stereo RCA single-ended
Headphone outputs: 1x XLR 1x 6,35 mm three-pole jack
Headphone amp output: 1,4 watts RMS (at 33 ohms), 0,15 watts (at 300 ohms)
Headphone output levels: 0, -10, -20, 020 dB, selectable

File format compatibility:
FLAC, AIFF, WAV up to 384 kHz/24-bit PCM
ALAC up to 192 kHz/24-bit PCM
AAC, MP3, WMA, OGG up to 48 kHz/24-bit PCM
DFF, DSF and DoP up to DSD64 and DSD128
Apple AirPlay up to 48 kHz
Control: Dedicated dCS Bartók app, or Mosaic interface
Dimensions (WxDxH): 444 x 430 x 115 mm
Weight: 16,7 kg

PRICE
R199 900 (R179 900 without headphone facilities)
SUPPLIED BY
Fundipoint

SOFTWARE
Camille Thurman – Waiting For The Sunset (Chesky)
Punch Brothers – All Ashore (Nonesuch)