It’s been almost ten years since our last interview. A lot has happened in the meantime. I’ve asked David J. Steven, dCS managing director a wide variety of questions, that touch upon different aspects of the brand, newly introduced products, Apex update, etc.
Please list the current product portfolio.
Vivaldi – featuring the Vivaldi Apex DAC, Digital to Digital Upsampler, Master Clock, and SACD Transport.
Rossini – featuring the Rossini Network Streaming Apex DAC, Master Clock, and SACD Transport as well as integrated Rossini CD Player/Network DAC.
Bartók – distilling our high-end two-channel technology into one single unit capable of acting as a DAC, Network Streamer, Upsampler, Pre-amp, and (optional) Headphone Amplifier.
Lina – a new dCS system, purpose-built for headphone listeners featuring a dedicated Network DAC, Headphone Amplifier, and Master Clock.
Would you say that dCS DNA can be found in all products? If so, in what ways and to what extent?
Of course, every product we design and manufacture shares the dCS DNA.
For example, all of our DACs utilise a variant of our digital processing platform. This platform has many functions including audio processing, l/O encoders and decoders, oversampling, filtering, volume adjustment, and user interface. In addition, our approach to clocking is shared across the product ranges, from Vivaldi to Lina ensuring that all dCS DACs deliver world-beating standards of accuracy and jitter control whether they operate standalone or synced to a master clock.
As you know the Ring DAC found in each dCS range, from Vivaldi to Lina, is a proprietary dCS design that uses a combination of powerful hardware and ingenious software to achieve exceptional noise performance with vanishingly low distortion, ultra-wide bandwidth, and very low jitter.
Likewise, all of our streaming products share the same Mosaic platform, which is a carefully assembled collection of hardware and software modules that combine to deliver outstanding sound and a seamless listening experience, bringing together audio from multiple sources in a single, intuitive interface.
Something else we work very hard at is ensuring the functionality and performance of our products is software-controlled, this means we are able to continue delivering new product features and enhancements to dCS owners via simple software updates. Each system we create takes huge financial investment in R&D and years of intense development. dCS products do not use off-the-shelf chips, each system is built on unique hardware and software designed and maintained by dCS.
What makes Vivaldi so special and different?
With Vivaldi, we set out to advance the state of the art in digital music playback and create a system with almost limitless potential. Vivaldi actually started out as a research project as our engineers tried to improve performance across various areas including noise, distortion, crosstalk and jitter.
As they developed prototype technologies the next challenge was bringing these to life through iterative development and careful listening. Through this development journey, Vivaldi as a multi-box system took shape in the form of DAC, Digital to Digital Upsampler, Master Clock, and SACD Transport.
For us, Vivaldi is the ultimate expression of what dCS is capable of. It is a product of visionary thinking and fearless engineering and remains the most revealing and lowest distortion playback system in audio. With Vivaldi DAC Apex I think we have managed to advance further, bringing a greater sense of dynamic drive, microdetail, and an open window to the music.
The biggest news of the year is undoubtedly the Apex upgrade for Vivaldi and Rossini. What was the reason for this and how do these two products benefit from it?
The idea behind Apex actually began with the 2.0 software update for the Ring DAC which provided additional mapping algorithms and ran at a higher speed than before.
Since the 2.0 release, we continued to explore how we could push the Ring DAC’s design and capabilities even further. During the lockdown, our Director of Product Development Chris Hales decided to turn his focus to the Ring DAC hardware – in particular, the Ring DAC circuit board and analogue output stage.
The Ring DAC circuit and analogue output stage already delivered an outstanding measured performance but the new Ring DAC APEX hardware features several modifications.
See our in-depth article on what Apex delivers: https://dcsaudio.com/edit/apex-a-closer-look
The Ring DAC™ APEX board reduces noise and distortion even further and is around 12dB more linear than previous generations. These improvements in measured performance have allowed us to enhance further the musical performance of our Vivaldi and Rossini DACs, and the Rossini Player, resulting in an even more compelling, resolving, and engaging experience for listeners.
The recent free Bartók 2.0 update has certainly excited owners with its new features. Please tell us more about it.
2.0 is a significant update to the mapping algorithm that controls the dCS Ring DAC. It also includes improvements to DSD upsampling and adds new filter options. The new mapper improves on the technology at the core of dCS DACs. The 5-bit binary music data obtained after the oversampling and digital filtering stages is assigned or mapped, onto forty-eight latch outputs at the core of the Ring DAC™. These outputs drive balanced current sources which are mixed, filtered, and amplified to produce the analogue output signal. The new mapping algorithm has been developed to run at higher speeds while better avoiding mismatches that occur between outputs, further reducing any errors correlated with the signal. The results are superior linearity, even at very low signal levels.
What sets the internal horologe of dCS in motion when it comes to product design and development?
We are never satisfied so always trying to learn and improve every aspect of our products. Sometimes an idea, challenge, or problem will come from the outside world and other times it will come from the team at dCS.
You have a long tradition in the field of professional audio. Are you still active in this segment and what particularly is different from the high-end audio segment?
In 1987 dCS was founded in Cambridge, England by Oxford University graduate Mike Story and a team of electronics engineers. The company started out offering consultancy services to aviation and aerospace companies and soon earned a reputation as a leading expert in signal conversion. Alongside its work in aviation, dCS began exploring how its technologies could be applied to digital audio and set its sights on creating digital converters for professional recording studios.
In 1989 dCS made history with the launch of the dCS 900: the world’s first 24-bit analog-to-digital converter. Thanks to its innovative design and unique ‘Ring DAC’ circuit, the 900 was able to record audio at a much higher resolution than conventional ADCs, resulting in a more natural, emotional, and accurate sound. The device became an instant hit with professional mastering engineers and music labels worldwide.
Following the success of the 900, dCS developed the world’s first 24-bit digital-to-analog converter, the dCS 950. Created for professional use, it soon became popular with consumers in Japan and Hong Kong, with audiophiles using the device to extract a more analogue sound from their home Hi-Fi systems.
Inspired by the success of the 950, dCS teamed up with industrial designer Allen Boothroyd to create the Elgar – its first consumer product, and the world’s first 24-bit resolution DAC designed for home use. The device marked a major step forward in digital playback, bringing studio-quality sound to music lovers around the world.
Within a few months of the Elgar’s release, dCS released another landmark device, the 972 – a 24/96 digital-to-digital converter that could be used to convert audio from one native bit depth and sample rate to another. The launch of the system led dCS to discover an effect known as upsampling – a then-unknown term in the audio world. By the mid-2000s, upsampling had become a globally recognised technique, inspiring a whole new generation of audio products.
dCS were also pioneers in the use of external clocks in digital audio and 1999 saw the launch of the 992 master clock. Designed to reduce jitter, it allowed engineers to sync multiple converters to a single reference signal, leading to greater accuracy and enhanced sound quality when using dCS equipment.
In 2000 engineer Bob Ludwig mastered the world’s first commercial Super Audio CD – a recording of Guano Apes’ Don’t Give Me Names – using dCS converters. The project followed dCS’s instrumental role in the creation of the SACD format, with the company developing ADC and DAC software compatible with 24/352.8 and 24/384 audio (later named DXD).
Working with renowned recording and mastering engineers and the top labels and studios of the day was great for the company as it inspired so much of our thinking and technology.
However, it became too difficult to work across consumer and professional audio, and around the early 2000s the shift in the pro world was towards recording live using lots of channels and low-cost, portable equipment. We continued to work closely with mastering engineers but over time we moved away from the recording industry to focus on high-end two-channel playback devices.
We hear a lot about measurements and listening. How does dCS deal with this juxtaposition?
I always say that our engineers intuitively know that improving measured performance in certain areas can improve the musical performance of our products.
Reducing crosstalk, for example, can lead to enhanced stereo imaging, minimising distortion can present more micro detail while controlling jitter can deliver a better sense of timing and rhythmic flow.
However, it is not about chasing a single measurement or set of measurements. Measurement and listening go hand in hand and that is why we adopt a holistic approach to design, testing, and measurement, using our experience in interpreting a vast array of measured parameters to understand the full impact of each design decision we make.
To do that in the development of products takes mastery of the audio domain, rigorous testing and measurement, and skilled judgment in making a complex set of engineering trade-offs.
You offer additional clocking options for many devices. How important is clocking?
Hugely important in several ways, some obvious and some not so obvious. We developed a series of technical posts explaining the importance of clocking in audio which can be reviewed here:
In the context of digital electronics, the term clocking to dCS refers to a signal that keeps all of the circuits within a system in sync and operating at the same time. In order to generate a precise and reliable signal, the clock system must have a source: something that defines how long a period of time is. This source usually comes in the form of an oscillator – an electrical circuit that provides a regular rising and falling of voltage.
At dCS, we use quartz crystal oscillators as the basis for our clock systems. Quartz is a piezoelectric material, meaning that when a voltage is applied to it, it physically deforms and flexes back and forth. The crystal can be designed to resonate mechanically at a particular frequency (for example, every 44,100th of a second), and with a correctly designed electrical circuit, this resonance can be converted into an oscillating voltage.
The frequency of the crystal’s resonance lets a system know how long a specific increment of time (such as 1/44,100th of a second) is. Through measuring these increments of time, a system can accurately space audio samples apart. This avoids any unwanted movement of the samples in time, which, if it occurred during the digital-to-analog conversion process, could cause distortion of the audio signal heard during playback.
Arguably, clocking can have as much of an impact on sound quality as DAC circuitry, and it’s vital to consider the design and implementation of the clocking system as a whole, rather than selecting simply selecting components that have an impressive specification on paper.
Is SACD still relevant?
SACD is a wonderful format although there are less new releases each year. We believe it will have a long tail and many audiophiles will continue to purchase and enjoy new SACD releases and their collections.
You just introduced the LINA headphone system. Please tell us more about it.
With the Bartók Headphone DAC, we designed a hybrid DAC to support both speaker and headphone-based playback. In addition to operating as a high-performance stereo DAC, we developed an internal headphone amplifier that could drive a wide range of headphones.
After the launch of Bartók Headphone DAC in 2018, we then turned our attention to improving headphone playback and developed our patented processing platform, dCS Expanse which allowed us to deliver enhanced headphone optimisation with a wide range of stereo recordings.
Following the Bartók Headphone DAC’s release and how positively Expanse was received by the headphone community, we decided to push ourselves further and create a system purpose-built for headphone listening.
We are very happy with each Lina component individually and with the Lina as a system.
Although developing the amplifier was new territory for us … we certainly wanted to incorporate all the elements of the dCS sound – the neutrality and faithfulness to the music that is really our hallmark.
Achieving the dCS sound was a prime consideration in the Lina design – excellent linearity, low noise, wide bandwidth, and high slew rate – all of the things which play their part in making a piece of dCS audio equipment transparent.
Whether we’re creating a DAC, upsampler, or amplifier, our aim is always to create components that work in service of the music and hold a mirror up to the sound. It was something we felt was particularly important when developing a system for headphone listeners.
Some manufacturers have worked hard to give their headphones a unique voice, and listeners often look for designs that have a particular character – be it warm or cool, or anything in between. Some listeners, meanwhile, might choose to own a range of headphones for different types of music.
Developing a highly transparent design allowed us to ensure Lina wouldn’t favour some headphone types at the expense of others. Listeners would be able to experience the true character of their headphones.
This design goal required us to test the Lina Headphone Amplifier with various designs. We conducted many, many rounds of listening tests with team members and critical listening experts in our dedicated head-fi space during the development process. We used over a dozen different models from a range of manufacturers and studied the performance of the Lina system and the headphone amp in particular with each.
After each round of tests, our listeners presented feedback to the dCS R&D team, who would interpret comments and use them to enhance further and improve their design. We repeated this process over several months until we were confident that the Lina system delivered an outstanding experience with whatever headphones we selected.
Making the headphone amplifier has been a fascinating challenge – and we’re delighted with the results. Through rigorous testing and development and an unwavering commitment to our vision and design principles, we’ve designed a headphone playback system that we believe offers an exceptional level of performance, whatever your headphone preferences or musical tastes – and we are thrilled to be able to share our design with listeners around the world.
Which proprietary technologies are you particularly proud of?
All of them! And I mean that sincerely. At dCS we have 30+ years of expertise in every stage of the signal path; from recording to playback. We also have vast experience in the analogue and digital domain and in manufacturing so every project we undertake is an opportunity to put all of that expertise to use. We are always trying to learn more about how our products are used, what they are used with, and where they can be improved so rather than be proud of a particular technology its really a team effort and all about how our products make people feel and how they connect with their music through our products.
If I had to choose I would say our powerful digital processing platform as it provides our systems with unrivaled intelligence, flexibility, and infinite scope to evolve. With its state-of-the-art performance, flexible architecture, and FPGA-based design, it provides us with complete control over audio signal processing, and the freedom to bring even the most ambitious product ideas to life.
How many more bits and resolutions do we need to reach the holy grail, or are we already there?
We have come a long way in a short space of time. The move from primarily silver disc 16/44.1 to 24-bit high res recordings being streamed to our home is wonderful so right now I think we are in a good place as music lovers.
Analog or digital? Is that still relevant or just a matter of preference?
Digital to analogue 😊.
Does form follow function in dCS products? You do not just put a lot of effort into the innards, but also into the outer design. Is the properly styled enclosure a mandatory part?
We design our products to be beautiful but purposeful. First and foremost they are designed to support the performance of the product and comply with test and certification standards. At the same time, they should reflect the ebb and flow of music and be timeless in their design. Each product is built with bold and precise geometry. We think visual exactness outside communicates technical exactness inside.
High-end and luxury? It seems that they go hand in hand more and more by each year.
At dCS, we realize how important music is to our customers. Music and audio is our passion like our customers. If they are to use our product every day of their lives then it has to perform, it has to be simple to use and it has to disappear and let them enjoy their music. Luxury is not something we think about but we are obsessed with the user experience and how our products sound and interact with dCS owners.
How important is the headphone market to you? It must be because you offer an Expanse!?
Yes, it’s an exciting space. As I said earlier the success of Bartók Headphone DAC gave us lots of ideas on what headphone listeners wanted from electronics and this inspired us to create Lina.
There is some very interesting work going on with headphones so we are excited to see where Lina goes.
We are certainly influenced by the digital distribution possibilities of the 21st century. But do you still offer physical drives?
Yes, we still offer CD Players and SACD Transports as part of the Rossini and Vivaldi ranges.
Tell us more about Mosaic.
dCS Mosaic is really based around two core elements: a custom control app and the Mosaic processor. Together, these elements provide a unified playback and control interface for all dCS owners.
Available on both Android and iOS devices, with absolute feature parity between the two, Mosaic Control allows you to browse and play music from a vast range of sources and adjust the settings on your dCS system through a single platform.
We have also added features such as Apple AirPlay, TIDAL Connect, Spotify Connect, and Roon Ready to the Mosaic platform in recent years.
Streaming? The future?
I think it will play a big part in sharing how we access, discover, share and listen to music.
Local storage vs. streaming?
Both. Streaming services are great for music discovery but many of us, myself included still have huge CD collections we have ripped to NAS drives and this music is an important part of our collection.
What exactly does the slogan dCS – only the music refer to?
It’s that moment, the feeling you get when it is just you and the music. That is why we do what we do as everything is in service of the music and bringing that moment to people.
What does the high-end mean for dCS?
For us, it is being performance-driven. It is about continually trying to understand our products, limitations, and opportunities. There is the occasional major breakthrough but often it is about achieving marginal gains across every part of the company.
What would you say differentiates dCS from the competition?
There are some great companies in high-end audio and many of us share the same philosophy. Our technology obviously sets us apart.
How would you describe dCS customers in the past and present?
Music lovers who care deeply about sound.
What achievements are you particularly proud of?
Winning the Queen’s Award of Innovation was a highlight as it was a real team effort and gave us the opportunity to reflect on the amazing journey the company has been on since it was formed.
How do you see the current state of the high-end audio industry?
For small-scale electronics manufacturers in the UK, the last few years have been very challenging due to Covid, Brexit, and supply chain issues. The increasing popularity of streaming services and the promotion of high-res studio masters can only be a positive for our industry and I hope it encourages more music lovers to be curious about hi-fi and what the right equipment can bring to your music.
What can we expect from dCS in the future?
We will keep trying to do what we do in this challenging environment.