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dCS Bartók APEX Streaming DAC

dCS Bartók APEX

Data Conversion Systems, Ltd, better known in the audiophile community as dCS, is a company that doesn’t rest on its laurels. Thanks to its R&D team, something is always brewing. In addition, the modularity of its designs, constantly advancing software development, and aggressive factory support ensure that the life of its components is long—six to ten years in most instances. As owners know, updates are a way of life with dCS, thus even the idea of a final, fixed-in-stone production model is, in and of itself, a relative one. (For example, when the Bartók 2.0 software update was introduced, DSD upsampling was improved and new filter options were added including DSD128 capability.) Then along came APEX. This was not just an “over-the-air” software update but a full-blown physical hardware swap that required a return to dCS America. So, as a Bartók owner, I knew this was coming. But what is it?

A bit of backstory. I reviewed the Bartók in Issue 300, December 2019. It was the cover story. This one-box affair remains the most affordable digital music player in the dCS lineup and slots in just below the $32,800 Rossini player ($36,800 w/transport), which colleague Alan Taffel reviewed in Issue 285.

As dCS watchers will recall, Bartók was the replacement for the vaunted Debussy DAC. Critically, what Bartók added to the mix was network streaming capability. Further, it sported, at the time, the latest dCS Digital Processing Platform and Ring DAC technology, which were originally developed for the Rossini series. Capabilities included streaming over Ethernet from a NAS drive or from online music services such as Tidal or Spotify or via AirPlay, as well as full MQA decoding and rendering, plus a much-improved interface and Mosaic app.

Bar none, Bartók was and still is the most impressive stand-alone DAC, network streaming or otherwise, that I’ve had in my reference system. I wrote at the time that Bartók “has a characteristic that is unique from any DAC I’ve reviewed. It produces the body of a performance on more levels and to a degree that I’ve not experienced. By ‘body’ I mean the dimensional expression and weight of venue ambience, amplitude, and acoustics and the physicality of musicians on a stage.” These particular words came back to haunt me in the course of this evaluation.

In 2022, a robust hardware advancement called APEX was introduced for Vivaldi and Rossini. With the goal of reducing noise and distortion and increasing linearity (by over 12dB, according to dCS), this was a deep under-the-hood upgrade. Except for the resistor array, which remains unchanged, the latest generation Ring DAC hardware is all new and includes a completely reconfigured main Ring DAC circuit board with individual transistors on the board replaced by compound pairs (see Sidebar). There have been modifications to the reference supply that feeds the Ring DAC resulting in lower output impedance. Additionally, there’s an all-new analog output stage. Further, the team enhanced the filter, summing, and output stages of the Ring DAC.

In 2023, APEX became part of current-production Bartóks and more recently was made available to early-generation owners as an upgrade. The cost is a heady $9000 plus shipping. Obviously, it requires a factory return that is coordinated by the U.S. distributor. However, owners that make the jump to APEX can be satisfied that they own a component identical to the new model in every specification, including the APEX nameplate on the back panel.

In general, I’m not easily seduced by the lure of “new and improved” audio. But, yes, I was interested. Obviously, APEX was a lot more than just nibbling around the edges. This was a full-fledged rethink and redesign. Still, it ultimately had to prove itself in the field or not at all.

Fortunately, before I plunked down a dime, John Giolas of dCS USA afforded me the opportunity to audition a newly minted Bartók APEX side-by-side with my own first-gen Bartók.

While awaiting the APEX comparison sample, I kept asking myself, “Where is dCS going with this? What could they possibly be after sonically?” I didn’t have long to wait to find out. Within days Bartók APEX arrived and in short order was warming up next to my original Bartók. My initial sonic impressions landed not as a series of head-scratching hunches or tiny question marks; they were more of a jolt. As I listened to the newly heightened harmonic complexities, shifting moods, cross melodies, and inner dynamics of Stravinsky’s Pulcinella, I grabbed the note pad that I keep at the ready during listening sessions and jotted down my first-take summary. I wrote two words—“bartók in small-case letters and, right next to it, with an arrow “Bartók!” in bold exclamatory caps. It’s as if dCS had handed me an aluminum box that was a dead ringer for my Bartók but wasn’t—one where entirely different internals had been sneaked in. Come to think of it, that is kind of what they actually did.

Yes, it sounded and performed like my Bartók (no slouch in the first place), but it was as if every recording that I revisited from my original review was brought to life in a larger venue or theater or concert hall. Ordinarily with other component upgrades I’d note differences in inner details—the micro rather than macro. The APEX upgrade seemed to impact the sound from the outside in—globally, if you will—in the form of a larger, more spatial, and airier soundstage. It was an effect that seemed grounded in the reality of “seeing” the live event, as if I had been an actual audience member. At this point, the sonic differences were coming at me from all directions—low-level detail, color density, spatiality, and enriched harmonic energy. During Holst’s The Planets, the London Symphony Orchestra exhibited more collective weight, contrast, and light. Though it was not quite a slap in the face, I literally had to catch my breath.

In tonality and voicing, the Bartók APEX didn’t change its stripes. It remained as accurate as an atomic clock. But its throat had opened further, exhibiting greater bloom, zero constriction, and wider micro/macro dynamic swings. Singers sounded more relaxed and fluid. The wider timbral contrasts and denser saturation brought notoriously difficult-to-reproduce brass ensembles to life, particularly the body of lower-pitched brass instruments like trombones. Similarly, bass viols and cellos grew more expressive and persuasive—sweeter, richer, even more acerbic and aggressive, depending on the nature of the material.

More specifically, I felt APEX removed a hint of veiling that I hardly suspected was there. I thought my original Bartók had caught all the intimacy and immediacy from Harry Connick, Jr.’s album We Are In Love. Connick’s bereft ballad “Drifting” features a cleanly recorded concert harp backing his vocal. APEX, however, took the harp to a more tactile and expressive level. String transients were superb, and a fuller sense of dimensionality was evident.

And then there was my go-to example, the Rutter Requiem with the Turtle Creek Chorale and The Women’s Chorus of Dallas [Selig, Reference]. I’ve often cited its height and depth components—the pipe organ welling up in the vast acoustic, the holographic view of singers standing on risers at varying elevations, ascending to the rear of the stage. What APEX brought forth was a greater sense of harmonic bloom and air into the soundspace around the chorus. The sound was simultaneously more immersive and the singers more precisely individuated. It wasn’t about adding more edge to extract detail, low-level or otherwise. It was how the timbre and character of each voice seemed to merge as one with the soundstage and the sustain and decay of the reverberant Meyerson Symphony Center. In this example, as in many others, images grew more dimensionally distinct and substantial, as if the APEX put more flesh and muscle on the bones of each instrument. This was equally true with vocal harmonies, such as the lilting vocal blend during Indigo Girls’ (Amy Ray and Emily Saliers) “Closer to Fine,” the uplifting anthem about acceptance while searching for life’s answers. Many will recall this 1989 chestnut was recently used to splendid effect in the movie hit Barbie. Listen to the air and delicate character of the tin whistle during a short mid-song interlude—it’s beautifully defined.

The net effect of all these subtle APEX ministrations—the mantra going through my mind during this evaluation, and the result that overshadowed all else—was the continuousness and cohesion of sound. Music felt as if there was a weightier unmovable foundation supporting it and locking it down. Yet ambience was airier and “wetter” with reverberant fields of energy. Like an ultra-high-resolution photograph, the edge-to-edge expanse and focus within the soundstage were pristine. No dead spots, no softening of images at the corners. Music reproduction was seamless and layered across the acoustic soundstage as it would be in the live experience. In summary, the APEX “effect” was more than just a laundry list of subtle and not so subtle improvements. The end result was a stirring and more emotional experience of the music I treasure.

Bottom line. Is it worth it? Does the sun rise in the east and sink in the west? Let me put it another way. Yes, I could have lived in a state of blissful ignorance, satisfied, enjoying the audible glories of a terrific DAC. But after taking a deep breath and confirming my checking account balance, I purchased the upgrade to my review sample and haven’t looked back since.

Getting down to nickels and dimes, current pricing for the Bartók APEX is $20,950 ($22,950 with Class A headphone amp). My Bartók listed at $13,500. Add the upgrade and the total is $22,500, a sum that’s more than a fair deal in my estimation and in light of the fact that my near four-year-old Bartok was returned to me as an essentially all-new unit backed by a fresh-from-the-oven, one-year factory warranty.

My advice to current Bartók owners: Avoid listening to the Bartók APEX unless you’ve already talked yourself into making the move. While not inexpensive, the sonic improvements are a triumph of naturalism and harmonic detail that will floor even the most jaded audio listeners. There are certain things that the APEX does that, once heard, you can’t unhear.

Kudos are also in order for the talented engineering team at dCS. It’s a testament to their inspiration, and dedication (and likely some long nights) that they could take an already superb device and improve it to such a purely musical extent. The motto at dCS is “Only The Music,” words that have even greater relevance in this context. That is, once every trace of electronic signature is removed from an audio component, only the music remains. An unreachable goal? Perhaps. But Bartók APEX is an astonishing leap towards that goal and the very definition of what the high-end is all about. 

Specs & Pricing

Inputs: UPnP Network interface on RJ45 over Ethernet network; one USB-B type, one USB-A type, (2) AES/EBU, (2) SPDIF (RCA & BNC), one SPDIF optical
Outputs: Line, one RCA pair, one XLR pair
Dimensions: 17.5″ x 4.6″ x 17″
Weight: 36.8 lbs.
Price: APEX upgrade, $9000

DATA CONVERSION SYSTEMS LTD.
Unit 1
Buckingway Business Park
Swavesey, Cambridgeshire
CB24 4AE, United Kingdom
dcsaudio.com

 

Tags: DAC DCS DIGITAL

Neil Gader

By Neil Gader

My love of music largely predates my enthusiasm for audio. I grew up Los Angeles in a house where music was constantly playing on the stereo (Altecs, if you’re interested). It ranged from my mom listening to hit Broadway musicals to my sister’s early Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Beatles, and Stones LPs, and dad’s constant companions, Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett. With the British Invasion, I immediately picked up a guitar and took piano lessons and have been playing ever since. Following graduation from UCLA I became a writing member of the Lehman Engel’s BMI Musical Theater Workshops in New York–working in advertising to pay the bills. I’ve co-written bunches of songs, some published, some recorded. In 1995 I co-produced an award-winning short fiction movie that did well on the international film-festival circuit. I was introduced to Harry Pearson in the early 70s by a mutual friend. At that time Harry was still working full-time for Long Island’s Newsday even as he was writing Issue 1 of TAS during his off hours. We struck up a decades-long friendship that ultimately turned into a writing gig that has proved both stimulating and rewarding. In terms of music reproduction, I find myself listening more than ever for the “little” things. Low-level resolving power, dynamic gradients, shadings, timbral color and contrasts. Listening to a lot of vocals and solo piano has always helped me recalibrate and nail down what I’m hearing. Tonal neutrality and presence are important to me but small deviations are not disqualifying. But I am quite sensitive to treble over-reach, and find dry, hyper-detailed systems intriguing but inauthentic compared with the concert-going experience. For me, true musicality conveys the cozy warmth of a room with a fireplace not the icy cold of an igloo. Currently I split my time between Santa Fe, New Mexico and Studio City, California with my wife Judi Dickerson, an acting, voice, and dialect coach, along with border collies Ivy and Alfie.

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