We are now well into what I might describe as the second-age of high-end steaming and dCS has completed its renaissance by discontinuing all its older models, leaving the company with three distinct product levels. Sitting firmly at the top is the Vivaldi, comprised of anything up to four boxes in complexity and quality, though there is also a limited edition single box model named Vivaldi One. Just below is the Rossini range, which recently had a separate SACD transport added. But now we have the Bartòk. At the moment there are two models. The straight Network DAC that you see here or the DAC plus integrated headphone amplifier, which costs approximately £2,000 more and that we will take a closer look at in the near future.
For me, the Vivaldi changed everything as far as digital replay and streaming are concerned and the Rossini obviously benefitted enormously from that platform. Now the Bartòk steps into the fray and the DAC is another impressive product that sets an extremely high performance plateau, with the potential for firmware updates long into the future. I have seen how the Vivaldi has benefitted from this over the years and how the Vivaldi DAC is now a far better and musically ‘deeper’ design than it used to be. This came about through work on just about every aspect of its technical performance through new mapping algorithms, digital filters, development of the Ring DAC, and other sections of the Vivaldi platform. For serious digital companies this open-ended commitment to future firmware updates has become the way forward and the Bartòk will be no exception.
Somewhere in the back of my mind and probably because I was bought up in the vinyl age, for a long time I had a simmering conflict where digitally encoded music is concerned. How can something as creative, limitless, organic, and human – along with all the billion nuances that the musical performance might contain – be contained within a tiny digital package ready to be regurgitated and reassembled while still maintaining all that speaks to us musically? For a long time, it seemed as though it couldn’t. I guess it sounds a little naive to ask such a question right now while I am sitting listening to that very thing happening so wonderfully through the Bartòk DAC, but it has long been a serious consideration for me. The over-mechanical, almost robotic realisation of rhythm and tempo, the somewhat bleached and chilly tonality of earlier bandwidth-limited streamed digital has gone now, as has the detached and harsh performance of the streaming services. But, these days, get the digital side right and the world of music is at your fingertips and it’s becoming more real and more human as time passes. I was, after all, a very late adopter.
The Bartòk is a full width box that doesn’t feature the sculptured front panel of the other dCS products, but it has just about everything else. It is an Upsampling Network DAC with full streaming abilities that borrows its Ring DAC from the Rossini.The company has been involved with intense development of their unique converter for a long time now. It’s one of the main weapons in their armoury and they have learned how to control and deploy it since its inception all those years ago. The Bartòk supports UPnP, asynchronous USB, and Apple Airplay as well as AES and S/PDIF digital audio streams. At the time of writing Bartòk is also entirely compatible with both Tidal and Spotify Connect, but I can imagine that other streaming services may well be on the firmware horizon plus increased compatibility with other operating platforms (apart from iOS perhaps). If you have a separate dCS CD transport (no options are currently available within the Bartòk range), it will accept everything up to and including SACD data through its Dual AES inputs.
Bartòk shares the same basic platform as the Rossini and, as such, should be utilised with the dCS custom control app that gives users the option to decide their source for music playback by offering digital and UPnP sources while also providing straightforward access to the DAC settings. Upsampling can be selected as either DXD or DSD and dCS have also provided a wide range of DSP filters that you could use to trim the unit’s performance for your individual taste. The combinations available are comprehensive, but my experience is that, after an initial period of experimentation, you will end up with a choice that suits you and your system and then you’ll most likely stick with that. The choice between DXD and DSD oversampling for instance had always been an interesting one for me and depending on the music and my mood, I can hear a strong case for either, although I tend to stay in DSD most of the time.