Ben Ashcroft (pictured above) – he’s head of dCS’s service department and he’s deep into techno music. He’s still smiling too, despite the ‘help’ provided by Andy McHarg, dCS Technical Director. When Ben first joined the company as an apprentice he was tasked with developing a ladder DAC (dCS make DACs). McHarg assisted Ashcroft hard-wiring some of Ashcroft’s beloved techno into the logic board to expedite listening tests. How thoughtful.
Vengaboys is techno, right? Worse: McHarg had made this Euro dance pop non-defeatable so that Ashcroft would have to endure it for the entire project. dCS may strive to make the best DACs in the world but they retain a sense of humour.
dCS (Data Conversion Systems) initially made analogue to digital converters (ADCs) for the military in the late 80’s – the Gulf war period. The noise floor of their electronics was lower than the competition, enabling the Sea Harrier’s sonar to see further than other jets. That’s useful when you’re being shot at. dCS would soon migrate to audio electronics, providing ADCs and DACs to studios, and were only pulled into the home audio space when customers started using their digital encoders/decoders at home.
David M. Steven led a management buy out in 2005 but sadly passed away two years later. His son, also David, took over as Managing Director in 2009. He is still captain of the ship when I visit in January 2019. Showing me around their Cambridgeshire facility were Steven Jr., the aforementioned Andy McHarg and Sales Director Rav Bawa.
It’s a tightly run operation: no external funding or debt; cash in the bank; steady year on year growth; a market leading position; and a reputation for engineering excellence.
According to our hosts, engineering integrity, product performance, customer service and build quality are the cornerstones of dCS. During my visit, I witnessed first-hand words substantiated by actions: the mandatory use of anti-static straps on the shop floor and the tone of conversation when talking to customers. Business values are often no more than marketing straplines. That isn’t the case at dCS.
On engineering – if it moves, measure it, if it doesn’t, measure it. This objective approach is augmented by extensive listening during a product’s 2-3 year development cycle. It has to measure well though – dCS DACs are most definitely not voiced for a particular sound (best not get Andy onto rolled-off non-oversampling chips). The company’s roll of honour – firsts for the audio industry – is also impressive: first 24/192 DAC and ADC, first PCM to DSD converter, first DoP DAC, and more.
Build quality is about attention to detail. Like the six hours a hunk of aluminium spends on a 7-axis CNC machine being cut into a Vivaldi fascia. Like the bank of test machines rigorously soak testing every aspect of a product. Or the power supplies: a hybrid of switching and linear.
Customer service in the broader sense is all about keeping a product leading edge as long as possible, about extending its longevity. The target is 10 years for flagship ranges. Witness the Debussy updated in 2018 for DXD and network Bridge compatibility, a decade after its launch. To this end flexibility is built into all the ranges – plenty of headroom for software updates for example. Reliability targets are tough too – 1% failure rate for products without a disc mechanism, 3% with.
I was surprised to find their service department – hi again Ben – will check over equipment purchased second hand. Seen an eBay bargain? dCS can check the serial number and tell you its provenance, then look it over if you take the plunge. There were two Elgar DACs in on the day I visited. Oh – and the contractual obligation for dealers to contact customer 18 months before their product’s warranty expires – pernickety but positively so.
The net of all of this? Were I a potential dCS customer, I’d be reassured by what I saw.
The dCS range is based on two platforms – Vivaldi and Rossini – that use fundamentally the same hardware, the core of which is the dCS Ring DAC. What differentiates the two platforms is their software. This begs the question as to whether dCS is a software company doing hardware or a hardware company doing software. David Steven says “both”.
The Ring DAC itself was first released in the 1990s but has seen considerable development ever since. As with fellow high-enders Chord Electronics and PS Audio, FPGAs are favoured over off-the-shelf chips. Add sophisticated mapping modules and dual-mono analogue output stages (a strong focus) and you have the Ring DAC.
dCS’ headquarters focuses on design, assembly and testing. Components are sourced from a closely knit supply chain that’s within a 60-80 miles of the Cambridge factory. There are two exceptions. Transport manufacturers are consolidating fast so choice is increasingly limited – the best come from Austria and Japan. And network cards come from Austria, courtesy of StreamUnlimited (originally part of Philips).
The network cards are heavily modified by dCS for their streaming platform, identical across all products. A key benefit of working with Stream Unlimited is speed – no need for individual development to integrate services like Deezer (for example).
Where are we in 2019?
dCS’ two platforms can be found in three product ranges – Vivaldi, Rossini and the newer Bartók. The Debussy has been discontinued.
The Rossini was introduced in 2015, with the main choice being DAC (£17.1k / $24k) or Player (£20k / $28.5k). The Player adds a CD transport and outsells the DAC heavily. Counterintuitive in these days of streaming maybe, but clients are persuaded when they listen according to Rav. An external clock (£5.5k / $7.5k)) is also available, plus a newly announced CD/SACD transport (£16.5k / $23.5k). The Rossini’s software has also just had a major update with dCS pleased at the results – that adaptability and continuous improvement in play again.
Standing taller – literally and figuratively – is the Vivaldi range. The choice is single-box Vivaldi One (£55k / $80k) or the heady £79k / $115k four-boxer. The One delivers close to the big stack’s sound from a single box – Future-Fi for the well-heeled. Or start with a Vivaldi DAC and add upsampler / clock / transport later.
Bartók is essentially a dressed-down Rossini: one transformer (not two) and simpler casework. It’s also one firmware release behind the Rossini. You won’t find a dedicated transport or external clock, but it does have that optional headphone amp. £10k / $13.5k without, £12k / $15k with.
Then there’s dCS Network Bridge (£3.3k / $4.8k) that many customers are using with non-dCS DACs. For those keeping it in-house, many are mating the Bridge with the Vivaldi DAC for a relatively cost-effective solution. dCS happily admit that this use-case blindsided them, requiring additional development to better marry them. Other customers have added a Vivaldi Clock to the Vivaldi One, trashing the one-box benefit in the process but taking sound quality up a notch. Oh – and those with deep pockets can opt for the gold finish, which is impressive if not to my own personal taste.
The product roadmap presently stretches two years into the future, the first one fixed, the second flexible. So what’s coming?
Signal processing and multiroom are a firm yes, multichannel is a no. The former affirmative caught me by surprise — a significant new direction. The challenge for dCS is how to shrink the technology to get it into other rooms in the house. Running with the signal processing further, I asked about room correction. No dice.
Branching off into amplifiers isn’t top of dCS’s to do list, the exception being the optional headphone amp in the Bartók. That’s a journey they’re excited about. Crosstalk DSP in the works with EQ for specific headphones coming soon. No hint on who they’re working with though.
Also on the software side, a web-based control interface will soon be made available. dCS would also like to have DAC control options built into services like Roon so that customers use a single app for everything. That felt like closer to a wish-list item than reality.
I’m not told if new hardware is due soon – dCS were understandably coy. Software is a different issue. Airable – provided by Tune-In who work with Stream Unlimited – is coming soon, which hastens the potential integration of numerous music services. A point dCS was keen to stress. Their job is to enable everything for customers, to let them take advantage of the vast number of sources of music, not to restrict choice.
MQA is an example of this service agnostic approach. The market demanded it, the market got it. Done the dCS way – the stock MQA solution was developed over a 12 month period to optimise sound quality. dCS provides its own filters for example. But ask if they think MQA is good and you get their inscrutable side – it’s not for them to say.
The listening room
So how does that all sound in practice? Toy time…..
In a recently relocated listening room, Wilson Alexx, D’Agostini Momentum 400, Transparent Magnum Opus cabling plus a full brace of dCS products. With the Vivaldi 4-boxer in play, we note over £250k of audio hardware. I was very careful with the iPad volume control.
The dCS building is a modern industrial unit and the listening room’s steel beams needing tightening to stop them vibrating along with the music. This meant uprooting the office above. The pursuit of excellence is never smooth.
Thirty minutes of Tidal was nowhere near enough. Impressions included a soundstage bigger than Glastonbury, imaging less precise than I anticipated but beautifully conveying performers, and bass that seemed to go on forever. One was enthralled. And eager for more – any chance you could leave me the keys one weekend David?
Next stop, please
I came away from Cambridge genuinely impressed. Many audiophiles know of dCS’s reputation for sonic excellence (with pricing to match!). I saw what underpins that – genuine people striving to deliver the best products and arguably succeeding given their position in the market. With some companies you get the corporate pitch, their world view foisted upon you. At dCS, it wasn’t so much the words I heard, but how they were conveyed. A quiet sense of confidence seems to pervade the company.
Factory tour don. Contact/s made. What’s next?
A Bartók in headphone amplifier configuration is heading Darko’s way sometime soon. I’m taking delivery of a Network Bridge for review once the new firmware is released. For that I’ll need an AES/EBU cable as it doesn’t do USB – dCS couldn’t get it to work well enough so didn’t include it. Fastidious – a word that typifies dCS’s approach to digital audio.
Further information: dCS