I can report the results of a brief ‘surprise’ Bartok Apex comparison yesterday at my local dCS dealer. They were doing some headphone comparison sessions, with Qobuz and Bartok as source. Headphones were Stax Lambda and one of the Omega models (with a Stax valve energiser, connected with phono plugs to the Bartok), and several Focal models driven from the Bartok’s headphone output. I was listening to the current Utopia, mostly. The ‘surprise’ bit was that there were two Bartoks in the equipment rack, one Apex and one not. I was not told which was which.
In my own system I have a non-Apex Vivaldi, and Sennheiser HD800S phones (and Benchmark headphone amp).
I had a bit of trouble getting myself into listening mode, having cycled straight from work (complete with employee access card still hanging on a lanyard round my neck). I was in a fairly quiet room, on my own.
My initial impression, listening to familiar material (not really audiophile), was actually disappointment. I should say that I hadn’t heard the Focal phones before. Certainly they don’t suffer from the Sennheiser’s Achilles heel - a peak in the upper midrange/low treble which was ameliorated but not removed in the HD800S variant - but they (the Focal) cost approaching 4x as much and I wasn’t hearing other benefits. My disappointment was the same/similar with the other phones although they did sound different.
The biggest improvement in the sound quality and realism I heard (and it was obvious) was by switching source to the second Bartok. This yielded something beginning to approach what I am used to hearing. The dealer confirmed that the second unit was indeed the Apex version.
I didn’t try Expanse, or play around with Bartok filter settings. After about an hour and a half I came away with the opinion, which I suppose I had before, that the quality of the source is immensely important to listening enjoyment. I was surprised by the fact that headphones, at least the ones I listened to, seem not to have improved over the last 5-10 years quite as much as I had imagined. The prices have certainly risen a great deal. Perhaps members here have had better experiences with other brands?
The last thing I decided, reluctantly, was that I’ll probably have to get the Apex upgrade for my Vivaldi and do it before the next price rise. That wasn’t really what I expected to conclude from this demo! A friend of mine has just had his Apex’ed unit returned, so I’m keen to learn what he thinks.