dCS Bartok D/A processor/headphone amplifier Herb Reichert June 2021

Herb Reichert auditioned the dCS Bartók in June 2021 (Vol.44 No.6):

I finally get what those unboxing videos are all about.

As I deciphered my way through the dCS Bartók's triple boxes (footnote 1), my sense of audiophile entitlement rose as I opened each successive box. Inside the last box, the Bartók was wrapped in a black velvet drawstring pouch. That made me smile until I realized that the Bartók was so big that I had nowhere to put it. It requires a shelf at least 19" deep that can support 36.8lb. My desktop system shelf is only 16" from its front edge to the wall; previously, the biggest DAC/headphone amp I've installed there was the Mytek Manhattan II, which only needed 14" front-to-rear (including space for cables) and only weighed 16lb.

On my desk, the dCS Bartók usurped 323 square inches (17" × 19" with cables connected). Which suggested to me that it was intended to be installed not on a desk or shelf but on a fancy equipment rack.

When I moved the Bartók to my not-so-fancy equipment rack, I discovered it provides no line-level inputs. Therefore, even though the Bartók includes the optional headphone amplifier, I'd need a second headphone amp to listen to LPs via headphones.

As I double-checked the innermost box, I realized the Bartók has a front-mounted volume control, but a remote control is not included (footnote 2). Apparently, dCS intended the Bartók to be used via Ethernet with their own Mosaic Control app. Which is mostly what I did.

Listening with loudspeakers
When the Bartók arrived, I was setting up my floor system so that I could roll some tubes for last month's Gramophone Dreams. After installing the Zu Audio Soul Supreme loudspeakers, I played Benoît Menut: Les Éles (24/96 FLAC Harmonia Mundi/Qobuz) performed by cellist Emmanuelle Bertrand. As I listened, I kept thinking that I've underestimated these Soul Supremes. They're much more resolving than I've told my readers. Maybe it's the amp? Or the Triode Wire Labs American Series speaker cable? I wondered.

Right then, powered by Ampsandsound's Bigger Ben headphone and speaker amplifier, the Soul Supremes sounded like Quad ESL-57s with cojones.

I had never before experienced so much natural-sounding micro-micro information. That new nanodata just rippled and sparkled as it charged the air between and behind the Zu speakers. I had never experienced this kind of electrostat-like definition from the always-fast but slightly grainy (and occasionally gruff) Soul Supremes. It was disturbing.

What I was experiencing was the dCS Bartók DAC forcing the Zu speakers to sound more dynamic, detailed, and scintillating than I ever heard them sound with the HoloAudio, in ways I never expected to hear from digital. It was a very exciting audio moment, and I had not done anything: no setup, or filter choices, no manual reading, nothing—except plug the Bartók into the system and listen casually.

Filters: Exploring the Bartók's filters was slightly daunting. Usually, I pride myself on being able to distinguish the sound character of digital reconstruction filters; typically I end up preferring one or another type of linear phase, slow rolloff.

With the Bartók, I struggled to grasp filter-to-filter differences. Its filters did not fall into any of my preconceived sonic types. After a couple of days experimenting (and asking friends what they use), I settled on the short, linear-phase Filter 3, mainly because I liked its bite and contrast structure. It struck a nice balance between hard and soft, played the whole piano note, and kept the music taut and lively.

Via USB: The dCS Bartók is the first DAC I've used in my studio with an Ethernet port, which I was excited to try, but I thought I should begin by comparing the Bartók to my reference HoloAudio May (Level 3) via USB, using the same AudioQuest Cinnamon cable connected to my Mac mini.

Playing my new favorite Charles Mingus recording, The Complete 1960 Nat Hentoff Sessions (16/44.1 FLAC Essential Jazz Classics/Tidal), both DACs showed me how clear and descriptive and solidly there this recording presents Mingus and his band. Both DACs delivered the fun and excitement of that thereness. But! The dCS Bartók took the excitement factor to a higher, more explicit level.

My only complaint with the HoloAudio May, which always seems completely insightful, exceedingly undigital, and extraordinarily neutral of tone, is that it can sound too matter-of-fact and maybe a little shy on vivo. I've noticed a similar just-the-facts manner with other, more expensive, R-2R DACs, so I presumed those qualities are a byproduct of the May's R-2R architecture.

The much more expensive dCS Bartók sounded as undigital and steady-handed as the May but delivered recordings with a more titillating vividosity that I found extremely appealing. It took recordings like this Mingus, which I already thought were superinvolving, and opened them up further, making them sparkle and dance in a way that didn't happen with the May.

Via Ethernet: Mosaic Control is the name of dCS's iOS and Android app for music streaming and device management. Downloading it from the Apple App Store allowed me to upgrade the Bartók to the latest firmware and (finally) experience streaming without my draught horse computer in the source chain. Everyone always told me that bypassing my computer would get rid of grunge and noise, but I never imagined how much new clarity I would experience. My Bartók listening via Ethernet forced me to admit that I've been a fool to hang on to my computer this long. (Too soon old, too late schmart.) Now it is forcing me to employ audio journalism's No.1 cliché: Many veils were lifted! Without the computer, recordings felt more alive, naked, and pure. Tidal seemed fresher and Qobuz seemed more hi-rez.

Also, with the Bartók via Ethernet, Tidal Masters (MQA) delivered more of its storied lucidity, tonal correctness, and spatial acuity than it does with the Mytek Manhattan II DAC (via USB). Also, playing Bill Frisell, Dave Holland, and Elvin Jones (24/44.1 MQA Nonesuch/Tidal), I noticed a distinctly improved sense of beat-and-rhythm-keeping, which I also noticed with the Bartók's other MQA renderings. In my studio, the Bartók made MQA new again.

Listening with headphones
The dCS headphone amp is specified to put 1.4W into 33 ohms and 0.15W into 300 ohms. Output levels of full-scale, –10dB, –20dB, or –30dB may be selected in the menu.

As always, I began my headphone amplifier auditions with the super-resolving, low-sensitivity (83dB/mW), 60 ohm, HiFiMan Susvara open-backs ($5000). If the Bartók drives the Susvara's gold-sputtered nano-thin planar-magnetic diaphragms, it will probably drive the rest of my headphone herd.

The main reason I use high-resolution headphones like the Susvara is that they enable me to better "peer into" recordings like Cabaret Modern: A Night at the Magic Mirror Tent (16/44.1 FLAC Winter & Winter/Tidal). This album is a surrealistic sound collage that attempts (ironically) to mimic a live cabaret experience. Superficially, it is a homage to the famous 1966 John Kander and Fred Ebb musical Cabaret. It is very cinematic in its you-are-inside-the-tent effects. With the Bartók translating Cabaret Modern through the Susvara, the sound was squeaky-glass clean and direct. I felt more connected than ever to Nöel Akchoté and his band of artist-performers. The Bartók DAC made the collaged effects of MC chatter, singing, applause, and audience mumblings almost humorously obvious. Voices were so crisply rendered that syntax and semantics were exposed equally—in a way that made the words extra-humorous and extra–tongue-in-cheek.

Now, if I were asked by a bloke on the street what headphones to use with their new Bartók, I would likely recommend Focal's dynamic Stellia closed-backs ($2995). They have an impedance rating of 35 ohms, and their 106dB/mW sensitivity makes them a cinch to drive. The Stellia's pure beryllium domes transcribe almost as much data as the Susvara. Their cognac-and-mocha styling makes them a perfect luxury-styled accessary to the Bartók's sleek design. Besides their powerful, extra-tight closed-back bass, the Stellia's chief sonic virtue is the vibrant intensity with which it portrays tonal gradations in the midrange. This makes them perfect for my latest obsession: 1952 Columbia recordings of the Budapest String Quartet performing Beethoven quartets.

With the Stellia, Beethoven's Grosse Fuge in B-Flat Major, Op.133 (24/192 FLAC Columbia/Qobuz) was relaxed, detailed, and authoritative, but maybe a little astringent through the upper octaves. Sometimes with the Bartók (and Filter 3), the Stellia's beryllium dome got a little metallic-sounding. This never happened with the HoloAudio May or Mytek Manhattan II DACs, but then neither of those DACs played Beethoven's Grosse Fuge as vigorously or high-rez vividly as the dCS Bartók. To my ears and taste, the Bartók and Stellia made an attractive, lucid, and musically rousing partnering; one I could live with forever.

dCS crossfeed: I've never understood the attraction of crossfeed. As I said, I use headphones to excavate the smallest hidden sounds buried in a recording—especially the reverberation and 3D volumes of room air. I'm not looking for remixing or remastering—just the clearest possible view. But the dCS Bartók includes a crossfeed feature, so I felt obliged to try it, just in case it did something really special.

The stated purpose of crossfeed is to reduce those distracting right-left stereo effects that are unavoidably exacerbated by headphones. The first overtly right-left album I could think of was Sonny Rollins's Way Out West (24/192 FLAC Contemporary/ Qobuz), so I tried it.

When I first engaged the Bartók's crossfeed (via the Mosaic app), the effect was pleasant enough but dulling, undermining engagement. Then I noticed what appeared to be two additional crossfeed options: Expanse 1 and 2. Hmmm? Expanse 1 seemed to restore musical energy lost with the simple crossfeed while simultaneously moving Sonny's sax to a center position, outside my head. Expanse 2 seemed to further enhance energy and three-dimensionality. Further comparisons with the original recording indicated these "expansions" involved a much more complex processing than a simple crossfeeding of stereo information.

Curious about what was happening, I discovered a white paper that explains dCS's apparently unique approach.

The problem crossfeed aims to address is that with loudspeakers, the left ear receives information from the right speaker, and vice versa, at lower amplitude and with a slight delay. With headphones, there's much less of this. The cheap-and-dirty solution is to feed a fraction of the left-speaker signal to the right ear, and vice versa. That approach has some disadvantages, though—not least the fact that much natural reverberation information is contained in the difference signal between the two channels, so the crossfed signal cancels some of it out. Another complication is that different headphones are tuned differently and that everyone's head is different—so in principle, crossfeed should be optimized for every headphone and each person's individual head. That's not practical.

The white paper explains the dCS approach, incorporated in the two Expanse options—how the incoming signal is equalized and preprocessed in the digital domain. Height and width information are enhanced, extending soundstage width and stabilizing reverberation content. Then, in the crossfeed stage, the signal is delayed to simulate left signals being heard by the right ear and vice versa. The delay and frequency profile of the crossfed signal is based on some "large corpus" (dCS's term) of head-related transfer functions—an average head, you might say—so that dCS's version of crossfeed doesn't work better for some people than for others.

I asked dCS's John Quick what the difference was between Expanse 1 and Expanse 2. "The difference between the two Expanse modes comes down to the amount of recovered reverberant information the Expanse DSP delivers," he replied. "We provide this to allow listeners to decide for themselves what balance of instrumental timbre versus acoustic spaciousness suits them best."

So, dCS did concoct something special. Something I might approve of. Compared to the uncrossfed 24/192 Way Out West, Expanse 1 and 2 improved the punch, presence, clarity, and impact of this album.

Of the three crossfeed options—simple crossfeed and the two Expanse modes—I ended up preferring the Expanse 2 option, although ultimately I prefer the uncrossfed sound of the Way Out West LP, simply traced by my Koetsu phono cartridge.

vs Feliks Euforia: I was curious to see how the Bartók headphone amplifier would handle powering the 300 ohm, 97dB/mW ZMF Vérité closed-backs and how it would compare to the $2599 Feliks Audio Euforia headphone amplifier. The tubed Euforia has no output transformer, so the sound is lively, direct, and unmolested. I expected the sparkling vitality of the dCS DAC to complement the shimmering triode-tubeness of the Euforia, and it did. The dCS DAC made the Feliks amp sound more awake and vital than it ever did with the HoloAudio May or the Mytek HiFi Manhattan II.

The Bartók's headphone amp delivered a classic, clean, solid state sound, which in comparison made the Euforia sound a little dawn-in-the-forest misty.

My alien abduction
Less than 1% of my music is stored in files on hard drives. Despite people's urging, I have felt no pressing need to add a streamer or control app (like Roon) to my listening lifestyle. When I use Tidal or Qobuz, I've simply used their streaming apps, running them on my computer.

Obviously, and unfortunately, I did not grasp how my computer was indeed a sonic ashtray, and that giving it up would make the air in my music that much fresher. Likewise, I never imagined how a simple Ethernet cable and streaming control app could force me to reconsider what digital transparency sounds like.

At Munich High End in 2019, I kept grinning and effusively praising the Bartók when I auditioned it via its headphone amp. Therefore, I was not surprised at how easily and musically it handled every headphone I tried.

But the wonderment that overshadowed everything was: The DAC inside the Bartók hit my listening life like a UFO landing in my room. Its vibrant effect on familiar recordings was nothing short of spectacular. I am not exaggerating when I say that no digital component has raised the level of my listening pleasure as much as the dCS Bartók.—Herb Reichert

Footnote 1: The dCS Bartók costs $14,500 plus $2750 for the headphone-amplifier option.

Footnote 2: A remote control is available, and remotes from other dCS products will control the Bartók, too.

Data Conversion Systems, Ltd.
US distributor: Data Conversion Systems Americas, Inc.
Waltham, MA 02454-1443
(617) 314-9296

Ortofan's picture

... match the levels by measuring at the speaker terminals with a precision voltmeter.

georgehifi's picture

Am I missing something? or did not the reviewer try going direct to poweramp and set the gain level so the Bartok's volume control was used near full?

Cheers George

Bogolu Haranath's picture

May be Jim Austin could also do a comparison follow-up review with the PS Audio DirectStream DAC with the newest 'Windom' software update? :-) ..........

tonykaz's picture

I applaud folks that try to find something special about any modern DAC.

I tried and failed.


in my systematic hunt I learned about Tube Rolling and how economical it is to make significant changes to the performance of a Pre-Amp by Tube Shopping. Hmm. Art Ferris of Audible Illusions spoke of his Modulus Preamps having great sounding tubes but I wasn't paying attention properly, I had to relearn that basic truth from another Schiit Valhalla 2 Audiophile at an Ann Arbor Michigan Headphone Meet.

I also felt my hearing was defective, so I hired the University of Michigan Audiologists do a rather complete work-up; my hearing response curve tapers off over 8k.

The good news could be that the psychiatrists reveal how a person's brain adjusts and extrapolates sounds to complete the missing bits. ( if allowed and encouraged )

Bob Katz the Mastering Engineer has useful opinions about DACs, as does Jason Stoddard.

For all I know, now, DACs are dam good and won't "Move the Needle" like a Power Cord, PS Audio Power Plant, a good 12ax7, new CAPs in an Vintage AMP., Good Cabling and Class A's sweet sound.

Tony in Venice

ps I'd be surprised if this review read any different.

JBLMVBC's picture

Bartok? Vivaldi? Haut Brion?
I guess the low end of the line will use a Ducon DAC, a National Lampoon turntable, a Burger King amp feeding some American Standard speakers through Pepsi Zero cables...

barrows's picture

from dCS: "He acknowledged that chip DACs Big IC companies, he pointed out, tend to go where the money is. There's a risk that in their efforts to make DAC chips more mobile-friendly—more compact or energy efficient—the unique needs of audiophiles will be sacrificed, or at least neglected"

While the above may be true in some cases, or in the future, it is clearly not the case now for all DAC ICs. If we hold this comment up to the light for a minute, we see that ESS indeed makes some "compromised" DAC chips, designed specifically for mobile uses (the Q2M series I believe), and therefore to run on less power, and perhaps not at the top possible level of sound quality. But none of those things are true of ESS' top of the line DAC chip, the 9038 PRO, which requires stout and very sophisticated power supplies, and is a fairly expensive and non-compromised part. By no means do I intend to suggest that the ESS 9038 Pro is the "best" way to make a DAC, or that discrete implementations have no possible advantages, I am just pointing out that this part is not compromised in any of the ways which dCS' John Quick suggest "could" generally be the case with DAC chips. In any case, I suspect the Bartok, like most of the current offerings from dCS which I have heard, is an excellent sounding DAC.

Jim Austin's picture

While the above may be true in some cases, or in the future, it is clearly not the case now for all DAC ICs.... By no means do I intend to suggest that the ESS 9038 Pro is the "best" way to make a DAC, or that discrete implementations have no possible advantages, I am just pointing out that this part is not compromised in any of the ways which dCS' John Quick suggests "could" generally be the case with DAC chips. In any case, I suspect the Bartok, like most of the current offerings from dCS which I have heard, is an excellent sounding DAC.

I couldn't have said it better myself. John Quick and David Steven's forward-looking point is well-taken, and the Bartok sounds superb. But the fact remains that, for the moment, based on this audition at least, the best chip-DACs appear to be sonically competitive with more expensive-to-produce technologies.

None of this--neither the competitiveness of cheaper technologies nor dCS's response to my review, lessens my respect for the company or the excellent products they produce.

Jim Austin, Editor

Bogolu Haranath's picture

May be JCA could also review the Auralic VEGA G2 streaming DAC ($6,599)? :-) ..........

Bogolu Haranath's picture

AKM also makes some excellent DACs (chips) which are used in several hi-end audio DACs :-) .........

barrows's picture

"None of this--neither the competitiveness of cheaper technologies nor dCS's response to my review, lessens my respect for the company or the excellent products they produce."

Totally agreed Jim! Thanks or the review.

joemariano's picture

Way out of my league for now lol but great review Jim! What you said about A/B comparisons really resonated with me and my way of evaluating my upgrades.

JRT's picture

Based on the review, I am confident that this DAC delivers performance fully adequate to the intended applications.

It is also an expensive DAC, and I think it integrates too much functionality within one box. I don't mind high levels of integration at price levels suitable to short-lived disposable electronics, but for me the price of this well exceeds what I would spend on short-lived disposability.

I would not buy one for the simple reason that it does not separate out the IP streaming functionality to a separate box that can be separately placed in the trash when it soon becomes obsolete, when orphaned out of active technical support and security vulnerabilities are unpatched.

This DAC is priced high enough to afford a separated multi-box solution.

JRT's picture

The known cybersecurity vulnerabilities "Urgent/11" related to orphaned IPnet code mentioned in the links below extend well beyond medical devices to many industrial, defense, security, and consumer electronics devices. I am not implying that this DCS device includes these vulnerabilities, because I do not know that it does or does not. And I have no way of knowing that if it does, that it has been patched or will soon be patched, or if it will have long continued support in this to provide future patches for any future problems, if and when any are discovered. That is why I do not want that functionality integrated in what for me would be an expensive device.





Bogolu Haranath's picture

So, if it is hacked, it will start playing Rap and Hip-Hop, when you want to play Classical music ........ It will stream Howard Stern show when you want to listen to Rush Limbaugh ............ Just kidding :-) ........

Robin Landseadel's picture

Is it gonna hook you up to the broadcasts of Madame Psychosis?

Bogolu Haranath's picture

"The man was so cross-eyed, he could stand in the middle of the week and see both Sundays" ......

That would be 'Infinite Jest' :-) ..........

Jose luis's picture

How would you compare it to the Mytek Manhattan 2?

SNI's picture

I wonder why dCS marks the BNC digital input as S/P/DIF inputs, as this is non standard.
The BNC connector is solely used for AES3 unbalanced, which has twice the voltage of S/P/DIF. And S/P/DIF is practical for cable runs up to 10 meters, AES3 unbalanced can do 1.000 meters.
S/P/DIF subcodes are different, and can contain DRM information, which is not the case with AES3 unbalanced.

hollowman's picture

One of the main features of the Bartok is the headphone amp. It has a unique "crossfeed" topology from what I've heard. Surprised Stereophile did not review the headphones section. For that, John Darko somewhat covered the Bartok and 'phones in his YouTube review.

Ali's picture

Thanks Mr.Austin for review, have you had any chance to use Bartok directly to amplifier without pre with good result?

tonykaz's picture

No experienced listener has ever described any DAC with such wonderful reveals. ( never, ever )

I've been chasing DAC improved performance with the idea that they are Transducer Devices, in the same manner as/that Phono Cartridges are transducers. Surely, some transduce better than others. ( don't they ? )

So, why is it difficult for me to hear meaningful DAC differences when I can easily hear all manner of differences in Loudspeakers ?

That is until now: Now, Mr.HR. is hearing things never before revealed!
Is it the Connecting Circuits ?,
Is it the missing Apple Computer ?
Is USB a serious problem ( like Schiit Claims it to be ? )
Is it a new strain of Wacky-tobaccy hitting NY ?
Is it nice sounding resistors instead of Chips ?
Is it modern recording technology being revealed by circuits designed to reveal it.

Is it a combination of careful designs not constrained by Chip pricing parities ?

This Bartok device re-opens a range of important questions, especially considering that the Device's Retail price is'nt far from the price of a desirable Phono Cartridge. ( not even considering the outrageous prices for today's Arms & Turntables or $100 Vinyl Re-issues from Kansas )

Tyll did his 2015 Big Sound Comparisons that featured the best of the then available DACs ( or so I thought ), no-body noticed differences in any of the DACs. ( including Bob Katz, I think )

This little review deserved ( or should've had ) a Photo on the Front Cover if DACs are getting this dam good !

Ten years ago we got the iPhone that changed the entire World, this next 10 Years will probably bring 16/44 to amazing performance levels.

God bless the Joe Bussard Collectors out there, Vinyl is still cheap.

Tony in Venice Florida