Bartók network DAC replaces dCS Debussy

When a company as serious about music reproduction as the UK’s dCS (data Conversion Systems) sets out to replace their entry-level DAC offering – especially one that is as highly regarded and has as many Product-of-the-Year awards as the Debussy DAC – there is no doubt that there has to be an incredible amount of thought put into what replaces it.

After all, it’s the entry-level offerings of most companies that draw in the bulk of consumers with the idea of creating a positive relationship: the hope being that this organically-produces a dedication to the brand with resultant incremental moves up the product ladder. Individuals I’ve spoken to about dCS all said they started with a Debussy and most now have a Rossini.

dCS Debussy.

Brought to market in 2010, the entry-level Debussy aimed to feature as many of the technological breakthroughs that years of R&D had produced for the company’s much higher-priced models, but at a more budget-conscious MSRP.

The Debussy has the much-lauded previous-generation dCS Ring DAC coveted by the $24,000 USD Rossini for example, where all incoming data gets oversampled to 5-bits at 2.822 or 3.07MS/s, implementation of asynchronous USB, the use of hybrid power supplies, careful shielding of delicate analog and digital signal paths, FPGA – Field Programmable Gate Arrays – which allow for more logic capacity and a fully-balanced Class A output stage. That’s a fair amount of cutting-edge tech – never mind SQ if you’ve ever had the opportunity to hear one – at a price point of $11,000 USD.

Now, $11k may not seem to fit the term “budget” or “entry level” for some audiophiles, but you have to consider the level of R&D involved, the quality of parts used, plus the design and build quality that dCS was able to pack into the Debussy and AES3, Dual AES and S/PDIF inputs along with USB 2.0. A pretty impressive feat in 2010 to be as future-proof as it still is and with seven years between model upgrades, a testament to what dCS achieved sonically.

Now we see the company unleashing less a replacement for the Debussy and more what I consider a revelation in the Bartók.

The $13,500 USD Bartók is a single-box DAC with network streamer and can be equipped with a newly-designed Class A headphone amplifier for an additional $2,000 USD. It too, features the Rossini DNA of Ring DAC architecture, a custom high-performance UPnP music streamer, the dCS digital-processing (DSP) platform, multi-stage power regulation, dual isolated mains transformers (for DAC and head-amp) and chassis and casework made of aerospace-grade machined aluminium complimented by specialized internal sound-deadening panels. Firmware updates can be achieved remotely as well.

The unit will be Roon Ready.

On the headphone amplifier, John Quick, the General manager for dCS Americas said “The Class-A headphone amplifier is new for us, and it’s something we’re really excited about because it’s not simply a tick-box feature or afterthought; rather, the amplifier is a new ground-up discrete design we’re proud to put the dCS name on. We’ve been thinking about this design for some time, and considering the recent growth and quality of offerings in the head-fi space, we thought premiering our contribution in Bartók would be appropriate.”

A Class A headphone amplifier that supports both balanced and unbalanced connections is accessed via the front panel.

USB, AES or S/PDIF digital inputs along with Ethernet allows for interfacing with online streaming services such as Tidal, Spotify, and AirPlay, it also does full MQA decoding/rendering and the DAC section features independent balanced and unbalanced line outputs which are capable of directly driving power amplifiers, so if you don’t need a preamplifier, your box count just went down and your wallet just got fatter with what you end up selling it for.

To get more inside-track skinny on Bartók, I conferred further with Quick, here’s our back-and-forth:

Rafe Arnott: Why the focus on including the headphone amp as part of the package on the Bartók? Is it a nod to the increased interest across the board, demographics-wise, of a high-end headphone resurgence? Does this signal a shift in how dCS perceives the high-end headphone market and can we expect a standalone headamp?  

John Quick: “There’s no question the level of innovation and quality has elevated substantially in the high-end headphone space over the last 5-10 years.  We’ve also become aware of a growing number of dCS customers using their DACs in high-end headphone-based setups, some using headphones as their sole, primary source of musical enjoyment. That said, I’d have to say the answer is yes: our decision to invest the required resources to include a dedicated headphone amp in Bartók is definitely an acknowledgement we felt it was time to develop something that would speak more directly to that customer. As a to whether we’ll release a dedicated headamp – there are no plans presently, but I wouldn’t count us out!

RA: The new Bartók is set to replace the Debussy and is jam-packed with new features, is it safe to say that dCS wanted a revelation rather just a replacement for their entry-level offering?

JQ: Looking at everything Bartók is capable of, I guess you could say that. However there are a number of practical reasons why Bartók ended up being such a feature-packed offering. For one, the world of digital audio has changed quite a bit since we designed and launched Debussy in 2009-2010. There are new codecs to process such as MQA, for example, but the way people are listening to/consuming music has also fundamentally changed, so Bartok needed to be designed with these trends in mind. Beyond that, we rarely bring new products to market and plan on long product lifecycles. That meant Bartók had to be based on a modern dCS processing platform that would provide owners access to much of what we’ve developed for Rossini and Vivaldi AND allow for upgrades and new features down the line. It’s the way we’ve always approached product design.

RA: At $13,500 USD, dCS has positioned the Bartók to firmly compete with offerings from several upscale Streamer/DAC manufacturers: MSB, Naim and totaldac are three that come to mind who offer options at roughly the same price point. From my personal understanding of dCS, the Bartók feature set, pricing and lineup positioning must have come about through exhaustive research & development, market analysis and testing. Can you talk about that?

JQ: It’s true we take the same care in planning for a new product as we do in our approach to everything else we do. One of the things any manufacturer should consider is what feature set customers are asking for, and part of that investigation does involve learning what’s been successful for other manufacturers. The fact of the matter is we have a unique platform that allows us great flexibility to add features and improve performance as we make meaningful discoveries through ongoing research and development. Often these features and improvements can be, and are, applied across our entire product range.

In designing Bartók we set out with the same objectives as we had for Debussy in our last generation of products: distill everything we’ve learned developing our flagship ranges into a much more affordable package, all while making as few compromises as possible. Our aim was to be in the general vicinity of Debussy’s MSRP, and while we ended up with a price that’s a bit more than 12 per cent higher, Bartók also does quite a bit more.

We are getting better economies of scale using Rossini’s processing platform as a base, and our design team worked diligently to produce a chassis that was much less expensive to manufacture, both in parts cost and in assembly time required. So I guess what I’m saying is Bartók is starting off with the benefit of the six-plus years we’ve invested in continually improving our current platform, and we saw no reason to hold anything back.

RA: With both single-ended and balanced outputs for directly driving a power amp (or monoblocs) and a Class-A headphone amplifier as a $2,000 USD option it seems the whole calculus of the Bartok's abilities is as a formidable all-in-one weapon for an audiophile to arm themselves with. Is it safe to say the Bartók is a shot across the bow of other manufacturers in your territorial waters – so to speak?

JQ: Well, I’ll say first that our DACs have always had the ability to drive amplifiers directly from both single-ended and balanced outputs, however the volume control and analog output stage fitted in our current range of products is the best we’ve designed and best suited to replace a preamp. With regard to your question about whether Bartok represents a shot across the bow of other manufacturers, some may look at it that way, but as I explained above, in truth we simply aim to produce the best product we can, each and every time.

From the press release:

“The Bartók Headphone DAC features a custom designed headphone amplifier that works extremely well with both high and low impedance headphones in balanced or unbalanced formats. Taking the dCS analogue output stage as a starting point Bartók maintains that level of analogue performance at the same time as being optimized for a range of headphone impedances.”

“Bartók DAC has a powerful new user interface, plus a custom control app that lets listeners manage their music playback from any source in an elegantly simple way – accessing iRadio channels, digital and UPnP sources all from one control point. The Bartók app provides easy access to the DAC settings. Featuring DXD upsampling as standard, the multi-stage oversampling design offers optional DSD upsampling plus an extensive selection of DSP filters to suit individual taste and music choice.”

“The network streaming functionality within Bartók is proven in terms of jitter, ease of use and sonic performance. The network interface currently runs at up to 24-bit, 384kS/s and DSD128, supporting all major lossless codecs, plus DSD in DoP format and native DSD.

“Bartók supports all major codecs including high resolution PCM and DSD, with user-selectable upsampling. There is a suite of DSP filters to tailor the sound to suit individual taste, and great care has been taken to minimize jitter at all stages with the dCS ‘auto clocking’ architecture.”

Further information on the Bartók available HERE

Data Conversion Systems Ltd
Unit 1, Buckingway Business Park, Swavesey, Cambridgeshire, CB24 4AE, United Kingdom
+44 (0)1954 233950

Anton's picture

Dunce question:

If I had a computer with Tidal, I would plug this into that DAC and be done?

If so, what’s the network bridge thing do?

My apologies for me digital phobia!

Everclear's picture

Bridge to nowhere :-) ............

Rafe Arnott's picture
Hi Anton,

You could plug your computer's USB output or an Ethernet network directly into the Bartók as it has a built-in UPnP streamer and digital inputs which support a "NAS drive or online music services such as TIDAL™ or Spotify™, and from Apple devices via Airplay™. The network interface can perform full MQA™ decoding and rendering."

The Network Bridge could also be used in conjunction with the Bartók as it does exactly what its name suggests: it acts as a multi-input and output bridge between your locally stored (NAS or USB-drives) or cloud-based music files and your DAC.

In the most basic terms it's equipped with enough digital inputs and outputs to take in anything as an input, and send it out in pretty much any current digital iteration that any DAC could want or need.

It's not just for dCS products, it will work with any DAC out there.

Hope that helps.

Having used one here to familiarize myself with the unit, I can attest to a marked increase in SQ when placed between any incoming digital source and a DAC.

A review on the Network Bridge and Bartók will be coming soon, as I have both a Rossini DAC and the Bartók coming. The Network Bridge will be reviewed with a number of DACS – not just dCS models.

Andy88488's picture

Okay, you can make a case that the $11,000 price is justified, if you like. That doesn't make it "Entry-Level". I guess you're trying to say that this is the least expensive DAC this company makes.

I personally am not interested in reviews of insanely expensive systems, which is what this site tends towards. I would like to see more actual Entry-Level equipment reviewed, especially since we are not familiar with Rafe's judgement yet. Waxing rhapsodic about extremely expensive equipment is neither as interesting to read as you think nor as informative as you might imagine.

Rafe Arnott's picture
Hi Andy,

Yes, the $11,000 USD Debussy is dCS's entry-level model.

I'm not here to justify the price of any product from any manufacturer. The price is the price, usually for reasons I pointed out in the article.

If you're not personally interested in high-end reviews, that's your prerogative. You're one person, this site has hundreds of thousands of visitors a month so I have zero expectations of pleasing everyone, I wish I could, but that would be fantasy.

sagar's picture

Hi Rafe Arnott,

"High-end is not simply audio equipment that costs more" - Jack English

After you took the managing editor responsibility at Audiostream, you have NOT published a single article on affordable audio. Your reply to Andy shows your arrogance and unprofessional attitude. High-end does NOT mean expensive equipment. Read the article printed and reprinted by Stereophile. Do you agree with JE? JA does.

Rafe Arnott's picture
Hi Sagar,

Thanks for the five-year-old link to Jack's well-written opinion piece. I've read it long ago. You seem very taken with it. John Atkinson is free to agree or disagree with whatever he chooses and that has zero bearing on what I do or think.

Not sure what you're real name is, but your IP is from Asia and you've been a member on AS for all of three days which leads me to believe that your bait troll, not some outraged long-time AS diehard reader, but whatever, here goes...

First and foremost, "affordable audio" is a completely relative term. What you think is "affordable" your neighbour may think is "cheap crap" and yet another may see it as "crazy expensive." Do you understand what I'm getting at?

The review queue at AudioStream is finally (after taking over the site cold-turkey and months of many phone calls and emails to dozens of manufacturers and distributors and the none-too-fast parcel delivery services) full of gear ranging in price from under several hundred dollars to more than several tens of thousands of dollars.

As managing editor, it's my mandate to publish what I deem the most interesting, salient, cutting edge and highest quality audiophile gear of worthy of investigation – price agnostically. Period.

I also love music reviews, turning readers on to new music or technology and esoteric, consciousness-expanding columns by writers, industry experts or manufacturers who I strongly feel are true sentinels of healthy audiophile psychology and that I feel add immensely to the tenor and timbre of the character of this site. To them, I am truly grateful.

I'm happy to take requests from readers who would like to see a specific product reviewed, so if there's a piece of kit you want reviewed let me know and I'll consider it.

I don't set the price of the gear I receive for review and I don't review unsolicited gear. So everything I've been previewing so far as I put together the reference review system here at AudioStream is based on my own personal experience.

Experience with products at dozens of bricks and mortar shops around the world, in spending time with fellow audiophile's home systems or at one of the many international trade shows where I've reviewed hundreds of various manufacturer's equipment.

I hope that answers your question.