DCS BARTOK DAC/HEADPHONE AMPLIFIER
Stereophile|June 2021
THIS ISSUE: Herb Reichert on the dCS Bartók; Ken Micallef reprises his Schiit Sol review, trying it out with some better ancillaries.
HERB REICHERT & KEN MICALLEF

I finally get what those unboxing videos are all about.

As I deciphered my way through the dCS Bartók’s triple boxes,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 36.8 pounds. 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.2 Apparently, dCS intended the Bartók to be used via Ethernet with their own Mosaic Control app. Which is mostly what I did.

Listening

When the Bartók arrived, I was setting up my floor system so that I could roll some tubes for this month’s Gramophone Dreams. After installing the Zu Audio Soul Supreme loudspeakers, I played Benoît Menut: Les Îles (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 57s with cajones. 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 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 there-ness. 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-offact 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-rhythmkeeping, which I also noticed with the Bartók’s other MQA renderings. In my studio, the Bartók made MQA new again.

With headphones

The dCS headphone amp is specified to put 1.4W RMS into 33 ohms and 0.15W RMS 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 superresolving, low-sensitivity (83dB/mW), 60 ohm, HiFiMan Susvara ($5000) open-backs. 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.

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