dCS Bartok D/A processor/headphone amplifier Page 2

I differ from some of my colleagues, though, in believing that straight-up A/B comparisons can be useful. All but the most subtle changes in the character of sound, I've found, can be discerned in level-matched A/B switching—and this approach can expose common reviewing errors, like mistaking a small difference in volume for a difference in quality. Playing the same passage over and over, switching between (or among) different source components, is an effective way to hear even subtle differences in spatial performance, reverberation tails, and other manifestations of low-level resolution.

I started my listening to the Bartók by running the output of my analog front-end through a Mytek Brooklyn ADC I have on hand. I then ran the 24/192 output from the ADC into two different DACs: the Bartók and the Mytek Brooklyn DAC+ (footnote 4). I connected all three analog outputs—direct from the phono preamp and from each of the two DACs—to inputs on my preamp. Both DACs have volume controls, so I used them to match the DACs' volume to the volume of the vinyl source, monitoring levels with my iPhone's DecibelXPro app.

Why such a complicated test? I wanted to start with a true analog source—I only played records that had been recorded and mastered in the analog domain—and compare it directly to music that had been digitally processed. This, then, was a three-way comparison: I could compare the two DACs to each other and each of them with the original analog. Would I be able to detect a unique digital signature that had imposed itself on the music? Would it be worse with one DAC than with the other? Pressing buttons at random on the preamp's remote control, I soon lost track of which source I was listening to at a given moment.

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Fun idea, boring outcome. I listened to tracks from several albums—but could hear no differences among the three inputs. It was easy to tell why: There was too much noise in the source. Whether it's because of the quality of my vinyl front-end, the condition of records I played, or the intrinsic limitations of vinyl, anything added or subtracted from the sound by the ADC and DACs was swamped by noise and distortion from the analog front-end. I would not call this test successful, but I did learn from it.

It convinced me that 24/192, with a high-quality ADC and DAC, is sufficient to capture the sound of analog—anyway, my analog. PCM proved a transparent container, preserving the sonic character of vinyl in my system while adding or subtracting nothing audible.

I moved on to long-term listening, now with digital sources, using my Roon Optimized Core Kit (ROCK), which I built on an Intel NUC, directing data to the Bartók via the network connection, from Qobuz and Tidal and files collected on my Synology NAS.

The Bartók, in the context of my current system, consistently and unambiguously revealed the character of the recordings it played, with clarity, pinpoint imaging (even at low volumes), excellent image depth, fully saturated tonal colors, and no noticeable emphasis on any part of the frequency spectrum. This is the highest praise. Consistent with my expectations, there was no discernible "digital" sound.

On "Top Hat," from Andy McKee's album Sound Roots (Mapleshade 4432), Alex Foster's tenor and Ryan Kisor's trumpet were uncannily tangible and textured, surrounded by a convincing sonic space (not my space but the space in the studio, or a good approximation). The ride cymbal struck a great (I think natural) balance between sweetness and that little bit of harshness I typically hear in real cymbals, live.

I listened to a lot of recordings, but my listening notes are boring—essentially repetitions of what I wrote above: Recordings sounded like themselves. Mostly these were good recordings, and they sounded very good. With recordings that have that AM radio character, my system sounded like an AM radio. I was able to listen with pleasure to the particular sound of each recording.

The pursuit of transparency
There's something to be said for those DACs that have been influenced, directly or indirectly, by the needs of pro audio. Pro audio needs DACs that approach transparency, to the point at which several passes through the DAC (round-tripped via a companion ADC) change the sound negligibly. That puts consumers at a huge advantage, since the music only passes through our DACs once—any alteration in the sound will, therefore, be a fraction of what it would be in a studio.

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DACs that achieve a high degree of transparency must sound very much alike: If A and B both equal C, then A must equal B. Therefore, DACs that do have their own sound—those that stand out from the crowd—must deviate from transparency. This isn't from listening tests or technical theory; it's the most basic logic.

Toward the end of my time auditioning the Bartók, I went back to the Mytek Brooklyn (in fact I now used the Brooklyn Bridge, to take advantage of its Ethernet input). I set up two zones in Roon, then grouped them. I matched volumes. Then I listened to a few tracks, switching between them rapidly—now with digital sources, delivered via Ethernet from my collection of files plus tracks from Tidal and Qobuz—and also listening to the same track for several minutes, via one DAC and then the other.

It was not hard to hear a difference between the Mytek and dCS DACs, although that difference was subtle enough that I doubt I would have noticed it if I had not had the ability to switch rapidly back and forth, although the effects of the difference could still have made themselves known over time.

The main difference was this: In the middle of the soundstage, where it's usually deepest, there was a slight smoky haze with the Mytek. This had two subjective consequences. The illusion of space around the instruments (usually piano) was better with the dCS. Especially when a double bass was centered and not a piano, the bass's higher notes were woodier; this same difference somehow uncovered more treble energy. One track I heard this on was "Lonnie's Lament," from John Coltrane's album Crescent (heard via Qobuz in 24/192, originally on Impulse!). Images were dryer, less spot-lit, a little more sharply defined via the Bartók, with clearer edges. Curiously, I found this difference easier to hear on older recordings than on newer, cleaner ones.

After I'd finished with my listening, dCS alerted me to a possible error in my methodology: Grouped zones in Roon may not be bit-perfect. If the two DACs aren't both receiving the same, unaltered data, the test is invalid. But in my case, the data apparently were bit-perfect: When I played an MQA file through each of two grouped zones to both MQA-enabled DACs, both indicated that they were decoding MQA, which, according to both Roon and MQA experts I talked to, is a clear indication of bit-perfect playback. Indeed, dCS writes in the Bartók manual, "MQA decoding is not possible if the original MQA data has been changed." Enno Vandermeer, Roon's CEO, told me via Facebook Messenger: "It's certainly possible" to get bit-perfect playback in grouped zones, "especially on a stable network, We just can't guarantee that the slave zone will be bit-perfect."

Just to be sure, I decoupled the zones, did some additional listening, and heard some additional differences, always subtle, always in the Bartók's favor.

Wrapping up
The Ring DAC is based on technically solid ideas, with clear, definite advantages over other DAC technologies. There is value here—absolutely—but, even though this is dCS's least expensive component that can play music, it's still not inexpensive.

A well-designed chip-based DAC can achieve superb measured performance, both measured—consider the Benchmark DAC3 HGC I reviewed for the November 2017 issue of Stereophile—and subjective.

I asked dCS's John Quick whether the best chip-based DACs have closed the gap with dCS's Ring DAC: After all, one main problem with chip DACs has been processing power, and there's far more of that now than there was a couple of decades ago. 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. After decades of improvement, DAC chips could start to get worse. He's making a serious point. At the moment, though, chip DACs are very good, approaching the performance of dCS's Ring-DAC technology.

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After all these words, I still haven't written about filter choice (I listened mostly with Filter 4), DXD vs DSD upsampling (I tried both but mostly listened with the default DXD upsampling), or the Bartók's headphone amplifier, which the company seems to have invested much thought and resources in.

Before I began to listen seriously to the Bartók, and later, when I was done with serious listening, I spent a lot of time with it playing music in the background at low to moderate volumes. I write "in the background," but I often found my attention drawn to the music, and it was always a pleasure. Sure, we audio geeks put music at the center of our lives, but there is much to be said for components, and systems, that can be enjoyed unobtrusively.

Someday, I hope to hear the company's grand flagship system, the full Vivaldi stack, in a familiar system. For now, the Bartók seems ideal: How much better could the Vivaldi be? (I could ask the same about expensive, top-end DACs from other companies.) Until then, I'll consider the Bartók the state of the art, while noting that there are other, cheaper products nipping aggressively at its heels.


Footnote 4: I chose the DAC+ because, having reviewed the very similar Brooklyn Bridge just last month, I feel familiar with its sound. I chose the DAC+ instead of the Brooklyn Bridge because it has an AES/EBU input.
COMPANY INFO
Data Conversion Systems, Ltd.
US distributor: Data Conversion Systems Americas, Inc.
Waltham, MA 02454-1443
(617) 314-9296
ARTICLE CONTENTS

COMMENTS
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.

but...

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
Stereophile

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.

https://www.fda.gov/medical-devices/safety-communications/urgent11-cybersecurity-vulnerabilities-widely-used-third-party-software-component-may-introduce

https://www.armis.com/urgent11/

https://www.us-cert.gov/ncas/current-activity/2019/07/30/cisa-releases-advisory-wind-river-vxworks-platform

https://www.windriver.com/security/announcements/tcp-ip-network-stack-ipnet-urgent11/

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?

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