dCS Bartòk Network DAC

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Digital-to-analog converters,
Music servers and computer audio
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dCS Bartók

The Network interface is a critical aspect of the success of the dCS range and on the Bartòk it runs at up to 24-bit, 384kHz and DSD 128. It is capable of supporting all lossless codecs, plus DSD in DoP format and of course native DSD. The onboard clocking is derived from the dCS auto-clocking architecture from the Vivaldi.

If you are already plugged into a quality streaming service and have realised just how far this technology has come over the last year or so, then you are going to be delighted with what the Bartòk achieves. In systems like this, the upsampling network DAC capabilities of the Bartòk really does tie the whole streaming experience together seamlessly. If you like the functionality and the superb presentation of the Roon software, as I do, then so much the better.  You can stream through Roon or you can access Tidal directly through the dCS Bartòk app. You can even spend your time comparing the difference between the two of them if that’s your thing. Tidal Masters offers increasing access to MQA encoded music and as you might expect, the Bartòk is your friend here too.  Accessing the music you want, when you want it, at high quality or hi-def, is really what Tidal is all about. Roon gives you a more elegant browsing experience with reviews and facts about the music and many links to enable you to seamlessly cruise around the extensive library. For a long time I saw the whole streaming ‘thing’ as a second source, but no more: it has become the go-to listening set-up and over the past couple of years I have been lucky enough to have experienced all the dCS streaming solutions, as well as a few others. And if you see your future access to music as being streamed, then the Network DAC is going to lie at the heart of your system. Also, the time has come where the different sounds of available DACs have become more and more evident. So much so in fact that I find there is only one way to discuss their various merits and that’s through the prism of their musical performance.  

But, look a bit deeper. Gaze into the heart of the music and you will find that artistic, instrumental, and vocal composure, and especially their complexities, show significant differences between components from different companies.  I’m someone who tends to ask the simple question,  “Am I enjoying the music?”  If I know a piece well, I will consider if this version brings anything new in terms of technique or nuance, or whether it is just different.  There’s a perfectly understandable human trait when considering music and audio systems, to regard what we know as some sort of reference of ‘rightness’ and to measure all newcomers against that. But, overall, I have also found that, if the system does small things like getting the leading edges just right and has expansive timbre, then it’s usually pretty good. Down at note level, the Bartòk, like the Vivaldi and Rossini before it, is exemplary. That minuscule moment where the instrument or vocal-chords are energised is more than important: it’s critical.  Get it right and the rest can often follow. Get it wrong, in that there is a touch of compression or a minuscule blurring, and you can be left with what I would term a leading edge ‘blister’ and it will seldom be as satisfying despite the initial feeling of speed and excitement.  I would also add here that, despite enormous strides being made in the streamed quality, there are still times when things just aren’t right and you are dealing with a less than optimum music file and then it can sound awful. Perhaps this is to do with the location of the source in question or there may be some variance in the original quality along the line. I really don’t know but, from the evidence of my own ears, these incidents are getting rarer and, in this regard, things are definitely improving.

Bartòk, like the other current dCS DACs, has a very capable variable output stage that can be utilised to drive a power amplifier through either single-ended or balanced connections. Control is accessible through the app, the optional remote, or via the front panel knob. Historically I would avoid using these in preference to a dedicated preamplifier, but the model that dCS incorporates is rather good and ,unless you have a really superb preamp, you may well find it preferable, which would eliminate the expense of a separate preamp and cabling.  Output levels are switchable too through the deeply comprehensive menu system. If you are using headphones, then the low output settings of 0.2 or 0.6 will be relevant, but for straightforward output levels into a pre or power amp the choice is between 2v or 6v RMS. If your preamp has enough headroom then I am going to suggest that 6v is the way to go.  The musical ride is more interesting and the system inevitably sounds faster, more dynamic, and generally ‘on it’, if you know what I mean.

Although I have spent hours and hours with both the Vivaldi and the Rossini systems, I never felt that the Bartòk was a significant step down.  Its performance is so complete and beautifully balanced; it  remains completely focused at whatever you ask it to do, and it has a way of projecting the music through its wide soundstage with a stunning sense of musical separation and then aiming lead vocals or instruments straight across the room at you. Its ability to superimpose layers and layers of musical detailing one upon the other is really enjoyable and quite overt at times. I was taken aback on many occasions at just how fresh and hard-hitting it could sound. I might even describe it being forward. This exuberant liveliness is addictive. You probably won’t listen to Agnes Obel’s Late Night Tales [Night Time Stories] for the stinging heavy-metal in her music.  Agnes is about space, texture, and mysterious and dark ambience – and the Bartòk is expansive in these situations. It maintains a wonderful sense of occasion and often conjures up a rather spooky mood.  It is colourful too and full of nuance both tonally and expressively.  Throughout her 2010 album Philharmonics [Play It Again Sam records], Obel coaxes the piano into some interestingly atmospheric situations, changing the mood by feeling out the notes and colouring them with her technique. As the opposing instrumentation lays across the backdrop it throws the piano into stark relief and the bass washes around between the speakers until her rather ethereal voice just happens and kicks you in the face. 

The Bartòk’s command of such relative volumes and its ability to paint dynamic tonal colour with such bright markers is marvellously expressive, intimate, and perhaps best of all, surprising.  But all this is tied together by a superb sense of sheer dimension to the musical presentation. The music lives and breathes, has height, width, and depth, and is always interesting enough to lead you on to new pastures.  It is powerful too with a really tangible feeling of strength and weight allied to heavy-duty rhythmic impact.  You can spend a long time in front of your system with a Bartòk. 

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