dCS Bartók network DAC features all-new Class A headphone amplifier

High fidelity seems to be more and more focused on the inclusion of headphone amplification within not only the strict definitions of preamplifiers or integrated amplifiers, but also for the decidedly digital side of things, where more seems to get packed into the equation for the discerning consumer. Network streaming DACs, for example, with some models – like the dCS Bartók I’ll be discussing briefly here – entirely capable of driving power amps directly from their analog outputs for speaker-based two-channel systems. Goodbye preamplifier if all your looking for is digital NAS/streaming sources and not spinning vinyl or reels.

And if you’re looking to focus on an über high-end one box network-streaming DAC headphone rig, then the all-new Bartók may be just the ticket.

The focus on delivering a high-quality, audiophile-grade headphone experience from a box originally designed to serve the two-channel loudspeaker segment of our hobby is not new, for decades most preamplifiers and integrated amplifiers had a quarter-inch headphone jack that music lovers could plug their Koss, Pioneer or Sony cans into and kick back for late-night (or early morning) listening sessions while the rest of the house slept.

But there has been a change in perceptions by traditional two-channel companies. They are (rightly so) interpreting a positive shift in purchasing demographics of people gravitating more and more to headphone use – high-quality headphones in particular are a burgeoning market.

There is also a resurgence in the high-end headphone amplifier consumer experience, with many historical two-channel manufacturers choosing to design dedicated headamps to help satiate and facilitate the aforementioned demanding hi-fi segment of headphone sales.

Pass Labs, Naim, Pathos and McIntosh Labs are just a few of those upper-echelon companies that have taken this dedicated headphone-amplifier route to great success and critical acclaim. But dCS has taken a different path for the moment and designed a new headphone amplifier with both single-ended and balanced inputs as a holistic segment of another high-visibility product.

The $13,500 USD Bartók is a single-box DAC with network streamer that is being introduced to replace the company’s multiple award-winning DeBussy DAC that was first brought to market in 2010.

But to me, what makes this announcement important is the fact that for an additional $2,000 USD the Bartók can be equipped with a newly-designed, discrete Class A headphone amplifier and that is something that I feel will ignite conversations in the audiophile community. It’s as if to say one can now have a heretofore unavailable level of sound quality and hardware user features in just one box at what is becoming a very competetive price point.

I’m not saying there aren’t alternatives available at lower price points (Mytek comes to mind among many others), but not at this level of sonic performance in my experience. I’ve got a Debussy on hand and I can tell you, the sound quality (SQ) is stunning, as it holds its own against other DACs at twice the price, I’d be a liar if I said I wasn’t extremely curious to see how dCS has improved on the Debussy with the Bartók and if this new discrete headamp is capable of directly translating the infamous dCS Ring DAC SQ through this new bespoke-designed headphone amplifier.

The Bartók features much of the technological DNA of the $24,000 USD dCS Rossini: 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.

On the headphone amplifier, when I contacted John Quick, the General manager for dCS Americas directly, he had this to say “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.”

I pressed Quick further on the headphone amplifier aspect of the new model:”Is the headphone amplifier inclusion a nod to the increased interest across the board, demographics-wise, of a high-end headphone resurgence?” I asked. “Does this signal a shift in how dCS perceives the high-end headphone market and can we expect a standalone headamp version to follow the Bartók?”

“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,” answered Quick. “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!

USB, AES/EBU 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 (as mentioned earlier) independent balanced and unbalanced line outputs.

From the dCS press release: “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.”

For further information on dCS and the new Bartók, which has expected availability in October, please go HERE

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

markbrauer's picture

I followed the manufacturers link and in the Specification tab, Headphone Outputs section, it says "Minimum headphone impedance is 33Ω". Does this mean the Bartok will not likely produce accurate sound with many of the popular planar magnetic headphones, which often have an impedance in the 20s? How about high-end IEMs which are often 16Ω?

Rafe Arnott's picture
I've spoken directly with dCS and they will have a technical explanation of the headphone amp specs listed for me in a day or two.

It's a great question, thanks for asking Mark!

mithrandir39's picture

Planar magnetic headphones are generally impedance agnostic. As long as the amp has enough output, any High to medium efficiency planar should be fine. For iems, you need low output impedance, and an extremely quiet circuit

Rafe Arnott's picture
"The Bartok headphone amplifier is heavily optimised for operation into loads of 30 Ohms or greater, but this doesn’t mean that it won’t operate linearly into lower impedances. 

"As the amplifier operates in Class A for all practical purposes, the maximum power dissipation in the output stage is when the amplifier is idle. Driving the amplifier diverts this power dissipation away from the output stage and into the load. 

"As a result, the amplifier is quite tolerant of lower than rated loads. Into very low impedances (let’s say less than eight Ohms), and at high output levels, there will be an increase in output stage dissipation, distortion will increase a little, and operation may move away from Class A at very high drive – which we define as levels that would not be encountered in any practical situation, i.e. levels that would be hazardous to both ears and headphones!"

– Chris Hales, Director of Product Development, Bartok’s headphone amp designer

jherbert's picture

What is the output impedance of the headphone section? 0 ohm, below 1 or some higher value?

MRC01's picture

It's fun to read about this high end gear, but as an engineer I can't think of any practical reason for it to cost in the 5 figures. Who actually buys these? It must be a miniscule fraction of readers. Reviews like this are entertaining, but not very useful.
It would be more useful to read about gear designed and built to the highest engineering standards, that is also priced reasonably. There is plenty of gear like this out there, and in-depth reviews help us make good gear decisions.

xnor's picture

Rafe, when is this site going to review headphones again or publish any measurements for that matter?

There are hundreds of popular models that Tyll didn't get to reviewing. The list is only getting longer...

Do you have any sort of ranked todo list of headphones which you'll get for reviews next?
How is the new measurement system coming along?

Rafe Arnott's picture
I'll be starting up headphone reviews as soon as possible, having just received a number of them in the post the last couple weeks, I'm sure you can understand that it talks a bit of time to properly set-up a baseline reference for proper review and IF is almost there.

As for measurements, that could take longer, it's UK-based and is still in the final stages of approval.

I'll keep readers posted on the measurement front when I know more.