Musings on the dCS Bartók

As a new dCS customer, I thought I would share my thoughts on my new Bartók and how it compares to my out going Esoteric K-05X DAC. I will say my findings are biased by the fact that I’m a classical music lover and violin maker. My findings may not hold true for others who listen to different types of music and may prefer a more voiced sound signature.

I have owned an Esoteric DAC for over 15 years - they have always been reliable products. It has taken me many, many years however, to be able to articulate the issues I have with the Esoteric house sound. JVS at Stereophile described the Esoteric sound as “… a bit yang: stronger in force than in sparkling liquidity”. As a classical music listener, what I hear is a voiced frequency response that is tipped up around 100Hz, mid forward and an emphasis in the lower treble at 5kHz ish (similar to every Esoteric product I’ve ever heard). Sadly this isn’t the kind of thing that ever shows up in DAC measurements. The Esoteric sound can be thrilling and I can see why many like it, it demos well and is vastly better than most chip-based DACs I’ve heard. But with more listening than ever during the pandemic, this stridency really started to get to me.

My current dealer retired and my new dealer (who caries both Esoteric and dCS) suggested I try the dCS Bartok. After two weeks of intensive listening, here are my initial thoughts about the dCS and how it compares to the Esoteric sound.

  1. The Bartok appears to have a very even frequency response (no part of the spectrum is emphasized). The Bartok is more resolving than the Esoteric but without the Esoteric’s strident forwardness.
  2. The dCS ring DAC ‘renders’ audio in a very natural way - there is a cohesive clarity across the entire frequency spectrum, but it seems to be much more than that. The way sound is rendered tonally is natural and far closer to what I hear in live music. Even many CD rips that I thought could never measure up to high res recordings, sound excellent and in some cases very close to high res equivalents. The bottom two octaves in particular, are rendered in a very realistic way. Crapy recordings sound worse than ever however!
  3. The dCS sounds massive with real scale, weight and dynamic contrasts are simply more realistic sounding. I actually hear depth - something I’ve never heard in any DAC in my home.

All in all, the sonic impression is akin to the very best analog setups I’ve heard and far closer to live music than I thought possible. Needless to say, I’m a happy dCS customer.


Nice write-up. Thank you.

Do you know if there are any plans at DCS for making the Apex upgrade available for the Bartok? I see it is only available at least at present for the Rossini and Vivaldi.

For the Rossini and Vivaldi is it an upgrade or just a whole new box? And if the former is it even theoretically possible to upgrade a Bartok?


Thanks, I also share your assessment.

And then I went for a Rossini DAC, and I even like it a lot more… To my ears, it is not voiced, but has more ‘flesh’. Definitely more weight, more musical.

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Same impression here: I had both at my place, and this is exactly how I would say it.

Just one question for @Urbanluthier: you forgot to tell us about the Bartok and violin sound ! Does it sound ok? What parameters are important to you to rate a real instrument, and how do you rate the Bartok reproducing the real thing?

Thank you


Strings sound very natural on well mic’d and recorded material - Best I’ve heard in my home! (compared my old Esoteric and my RME ADI desktop DAC). I forgot to mention that well-recorded vocal music (both singing and speaking) sound tonally correct through the Bartok. From all the reports here I have to hear a Rossini next!

I bet next upgrade for the Bartok will be a software one (free), the one that you can currently find in Vivaldi and Rossini, so there will be 1 step up in all three segments.Apex (Vivaldi) / Apex (Rossini) /Software (Bartok).

Listen to the real thing on a regular basis :wink:



Yes I agree, that’s the only real music.
How would you describe the violin sound you hear through the Bartok, compared with the real instrument?



I formerly had a Bartok, but now I have a Vivaldi One + Clock, needless to say, the difference is huge, but the Bartok has the basics.

I’m sure the 2.0 software upgrade will be a big step ahead.

Though, if you want to hear a violin that sounds “right” harmonics is very, very important. For that a clock is mandatory. The clock shines in acoustic music.


1.- Bartok – very good start

2.- Software upgrade – big step ahead (free) and likely soon released.

3.- If you can have a very good price for a Clock (Rossini or Vivaldi), go for it eyes closed, then you will be able to enjoy the sound of violins for the rest of your life :blush:.


Oh yes I have a Rossini with clock, and all strings are beautifully complex, a true revelation indeed.
I’d like to know the opinion of @Urbanluthier about this: what harmonics, where they come from, and not only speaking of violins, but also violas and cellos: they all have a quite definite body and personality.
With the Rossini + clock I have discovered the magic of a string quartet, which always bored me with previous dacs.


I agree with you about the Esoterics and that is part of how I ended up with a Rossini with the Rossini clock.

I’ve mentioned before that one of my big tests is a certain recording I have - on very, very few DACs does it sound like a real piano, instead the leading edge of notes sounds too sharp, as if the felt were removed from the hammers.

Only Wadia as a brand ever got that right, and only one or two chip-based DACs. Most modern DACs including the Ayre QX-5 Twenty and PS Audio DirectStream, still do not.

The dCS DACs did the right thing but other areas paled compared to my Wadia until I tried the Rossini paired with the Rossini clock. Wadia spent a lot of time focusing on clocking and clock recovery, and I am convinced that’s a big part of it. Turning the clock off and on turns my Rossini from a product I never would have purchased into one that I did - but only with the clock.

I never tried a Bartók with a clock so I don’t know how close it would have come to the sound of the Rossini pair.

@Zapp - to me acoustic music overall sounds very natural through the Bartok - vastly better than my former Esoteric and any of inexpensive super SINAD DACS I’ve hard.

Why? It is hard for me to articulate but the dCS sound is a paradox.

I hear lighting fast transients, (not just the leading edge but the entire harmonic envelope), with a clarity and evenness through out the frequency spectrum. BUT at the same time I hear a smoothness. The result is a sound that is both highly detailed / resolving, yet warm and natural at the same time.

The only analogy I can think of is with sharpening woodworking tools. A plane iron or knife with a burr will cut wood, even shave the hair off your arm, but if there is a burr it isn’t truly sharp. When you look at a sharp blade under a 10x loupe you see it is completely smooth with no wire edge.


I have listened to my Bartok with both a Rossini and Vivaldi clock. As usual with dCS there are step gains all the way. The Rossini clock brings clear improvements but the Vivaldi gives it a further step up. That having been said, I concluded the first step for me would be a Rossini DAC in place of the Bartok and then run that clock test again. I’m never going to get to a full Vivaldi stack.

I should say I did this at home over two weeks and did blind A-B comparisons to avoid confirmation bias issues, which I know has clouded my judgement in the past.

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I look forward to hearing the Bartok with a Rossini clock at some point!

Further musings - on the Bartok with a preamp and direct…

Before my Bartok arrived, I had hoped and really believed that using the Bartok direct as a digital pre into my Bryston amp was the way to go. How could it not be? A pre amp will add more noise etc. I tried it both ways several times just to be sure. Running direct, I used 2v output setting and the volume was around -20dB on the bartok.

With my system (Bryston BP17(3) and 3B(3), I simply prefer the Bartok running through my preamp. It sounds better level matched, it sounds better when played at lower volumes and it sounds better at higher volumes. In short the Bartok sounded more dynamic and effortless through my pre. Running direct as a digital pre, music sounded flatter and less resolving. All and all, similar findings to what many others have reported here.

This makes no sense to me. It may come down to a gain mismatch. I used the 23db setting on my Bryston and at 2V at 0db will be 100w - half the amps rated power. Nevertheless, I wasn’t using anywhere near 100w as I never raised the volume about -10dB.


Further musings on filters…

I’ve played with several filters, and like most, I find it difficult to hear a difference flipping from one filter to another. I’ve tried filter 2 per dCS recommendation and filter 6 for higher res material and filter 5 for 16/44. I left things for a few days but every time i try to change the filter, the next morning I wind up reverting to the F1 default. It sounds the cleanest and most natural to my ears. Most of my music is Classical high res downloads so mostly 24/94.

I have no explanation why I think F1 sounds better (at least for now). Perhaps I’m more sensitive to phasing than timing. Perhaps it is purely psychological. Pure DSD sounds wonderful on the DSD F1 filter.

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I experimented and prefer Bartok with preamp too. At lower volumes it really needs the preamp.

Mine’s been offline while we move. Really miss it :weary:

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That’s a great review that echoes my feelings about the products. I remember (vaguely) a professional review on the Vivaldi stack from a few years ago in which the critic said something to the extent that he wouldn’t know how to describe it better than by saying that it makes a piano sound like a piano, or a human voice like a human voice. No use elaborating on that in HiFi terms. It’s all one could ever expect from a product. Or at least if one is, like me, primarily a classical music aficionado. It’s true that other types of music may not call for realism, as that’s never been what it’s about.

Greetings from Switzerland, David.

Could you give the name of your ‚test recordings ‚? Thx so much!

I have more, but these are the big ones.

Using the listed sources is key; many of these tracks have been remastered and the new versions like most remasters are heavily compressed and sound significantly worse:

"If These Walls Could Speak” - Amy Grant
Source: CD Lead Me On (Myrrh 7016871614) (1988)

“The Water is Wide” - Karla Bonoff
Source: CD Soundtrack from thirtysomething (Geffen GEFD-24413) (1991)

“Fly Me to the Moon (In Other Words)” - Frank Sinatra & Count Basie
Source: CD The Complete Reprise Studio Recordings (Concord Records CRE-33152) (2011)

“A Broken Wing” -Martina McBride
Source: CD Evolution (RCA 07863-67516) (1997)