After my review of the dCS Rossini Apex DAC with matching clock, the next logical step was to explore dCS’s flagship digital system, consisting of Vivaldi Apex DAC, upsampler, and master clock. Along with the recently introduced Bartók DAC update, the already available optional Vivaldi DAC APEX update was introduced at the same time as the Rossini DAC upgrade and many owners who leveled up have already responded with extremely positive feedback.
APEX is a new, improved version of the dCS Ring DAC™: the digital-to-analog conversion system found in all dCS DACs. Originally developed for their professional audio products, this unique system has been continuously developed and refined over the last three decades and remains renowned for its technical and sonic performance.
APEX is the latest generation of the dCS Ring DAC™ analog card, introduced in March 2022. After extensive research and development, dCS has made several improvements to the Ring DAC hardware. The APEX represents dCS’s latest thinking on analog gain stages and voltage regulation and offers a number of sonic and measurement improvements.
With APEX, dCS has reconfigured the Ring DAC™ and developed a new analog output stage. This has further reduced distortion and increased linearity, resulting in a number of measured and sonic improvements – including an even stronger sense of dynamics, detail, finesse, and vitality.
APEX DAC Key Features
- dCS Ring DAC APEX™ hardware further reduces distortion and improves linearity for enhanced musical performance
- Utilises the latest generation dCS Digital Processing Platform for state-of-the-art measured performance and unrivalled fidelity
- Designed for maximum flexibility by accepting audio data from a variety of digital sources
- Flexible output configuration can be optimised in systems with or without preamplifiers
- Comprehensive clocking architecture plus an auto-clocking mode used in the Vivaldi range improves ease-of-use and minimises jitter
- USB interface allows easy connection to a computer, accepting PCM data at up to 24/384 and DoP (DSD/64 or DSD/128 over PCM)
- The interface runs in asynchronous USB mode, making the DAC immune to jitter from noisy computer master clocks
- Improved power supplies give lower running temperature and superior tolerance to AC supply variations
- Multi-stage regulation ensures sensitive analogue circuitry is unaffected by digital interference
- Separate power circuits for the digital and analogue sections further enhance the purity of the power supply
- Aerospace-grade machined aluminium chassis fitted with tuned acoustic damping panels reduces magnetic effects and vibration
- Features a full MQA™ decoder. This MQA™ implementation is unique, as it is the first opportunity to enable a DAC which, by providing exact rendering to beyond 16x (768 kHz), matches the desired temporal response with very low modulation noise
Filter, Output and Mapper Intrigue
After my dCS, Rossini Apex DAC/Clock engagement and review came many inquiries about the well-known dCS filters, mapper options, and adjustable output.
In addition to A/B evaluations, and blind listening tests performed by myself and the guests, many objective aspects make certain settings sound more pleasing than others.
In most cases, I would prefer the F1 filter with both DXD and DSD upsampling. There are certain scenarios that F3 or even F5/F6 filters would fit better, but the differences are far more subtle than with Mappers and voltage output.
2V / 6V
The 2V/6V setting depends largely on the gain and impedance matching between the preamplifier and amplifier, but in general, 6V leads to more speed, dynamics, more brute raw force, and a more rigorous lower register. But!!! The music can also sound too pumped if the voltage matching is not optimal.
My suggestion is to try it out and see the technical specs of the preamp and amp, or even discuss it with the manufacturer of the electronics.
With a certain type of music, 6V may feel better and it will depend on the mastering or how it was recorded. Especially with live acoustic music without limiters or where a compressor is used slightly.
The 2V is the most universal setting that will work optimally for most systems and will not push the sound into dynamic congestion.
Mapper 1 operates in the range of odd harmonics and Mapper 3 in the field of even harmonics. These two settings can be heard instantly. It was interesting to observe how various people react to the changes because the differences are not imperceptible.
Some who prefer more detail-oriented listening might choose Mapper 1. It’s of course system dependable, but Mapper 3 creates a more inviting, slightly dark (natural) warm feeling that is so closely related to the sound of real instruments in a real acoustic space.
I have also found myself reaching for Mapper 1 when I am fully focused and immersed in the music. On the other hand, when too tired or listening after a long, wearying day, I reach for Mapper 3.
There’s also the original, the Mapper 2, which keeps the legacy alive. I can understand why some owners of earlier dCS units would favor this Mapper, but in my experience, both Mapper 1 and 3 offer considerable performance shifts up.
With three boxes and all the cables needed to connect the Vivaldi Apex DAC to the Clock and Upsampler, the task may seem daunting, but anyone who follows the instructions should be able to do it rather quickly.
The Vivaldi DAC features AES3, dual AES, SDIF-2, and S/PDIF inputs, as well as an asynchronous USB 2.0 interface. Its enhanced digital volume control allows direct connection to a power amplifier for those who prefer such connectivity, where maximum output power can be set to one of four levels (0.2, 0.6, 2, and 6 V) to support a range of amplifiers and speaker combinations.
The Vivaldi Master Clock’s enhanced clock system uses Word Clock In1 and In2, which can be used together to facilitate use in situations where the source sample rate changes frequently, especially when streaming of all types or switching upsampler output rates to find the best optimal sound.
dCS products have had clock multiplication for several years, but it’s much more difficult to keep the clock jitter-free when switching from 44.1 788.2 / 176.4 to 48 / 96 / 192.
That’s why Vivaldi Clock’s outputs are divided into two groups, the first set to 44.1kHz and the other set to 48kHz (or a multiple thereof). A word clock connection from each group is connected to the word clock In1 and In2 of Upsampler and DAC.
With the Vivaldi system, there is no complicated menu diving, as everything is laid out logically. After a quick scroll through the submenus of all three devices, I set the stored states to Lock & Load on each power-up sequence.
My appreciation and affection for such tactile interaction go way back. Vivaldi’s logic of operation and interconnectivity brought back pleasant memories of working and interacting with hardware music devices, including samplers, synthesizers, studio effect processors, etc. To this day I am still fond of these interfaces. There is something tactically alluring about hardware, and dCS Vivaldi embodies this in the best possible way.
Having used dCS Mosaic software extensively with dCS Rossini Apex, there was zero transitional lag and no getting used to the interface. Playback is easily managed through dCS’s proprietary Mosaic platform, which lets you browse music from multiple libraries and make settings through a single, easy-to-use mobile app (Android and iOS). I am a purist at heart, and Mosaic appeals to me for its straightforwardness, with all the necessary controls for hardware and software logically and visually appealingly arranged. It’s easy to find music, create internal playlists, or even add or remove tracks from the existing Tidal playlist.
Since I am constantly evaluating digital front-ends, I have gotten into the habit of using the Tidal playlist to easily evaluate music with each new product in circulation.
Last but not least, design. My fondness for industrial design extends to watches, cars, furniture, sneakers, etc. A refined industrial design adds value to the well-executed and seamlessly-functioning high-end audio device and the dCS Vivaldi Stack represents a pinnacle of high-end industrial audio design with its sculptural beauty that is not only exceptionally stylish but also highly recognizable. Nothing looks like dCS and they have managed to create a strong visual identity that so many brands are looking for.
In today’s world, it’s important to talk about esthetics, as more and more people of all ages are entering the world of high-end luxury audio with high expectations of what they have come to know and appreciate in dealing with upper-echelon products from other luxury industries.
Vivaldi looks unmistakably different, with the stylishly carved luxury front panels inspired by the shapes and lines of nature, which immediately capture the attention of even people who have no concept of high-end audio.
Combined with the performance, build quality, and refined industrial design, Vivaldi is one of the (if not) most complete and great-looking ultra-high-end packages.
There is simply no dearth of great music, and the Vivaldi Apex System has performed with sovereign strength in all genres of music, undulating with ease along with every type of music in focus from electronica to classical.
Vivaldi Apex, Vivaldi Master Clock, and Upsampler have removed some underlying layers and allowed to hear more of what is, a deeper dive into the art of how an album was produced, mixed, and mastered.
The way dCS Vivaldi Apex captures a musical moment is something very special, and that was immediately evident on “Phantoms,” Low Roar’s album 0.
“Phantoms,” with its tremendous sonic power and spectrum, not only provides a solid foundation for hearing what any digital front end (especially cost-no-object) is capable of, but it is also expertly mixed and mastered, pushing the evaluation of any digital front end to the extreme.
The dCS Vivaldi Apex system expanded transparency by avoiding the artificial gloss and sheen that is often added (even to top-of-the-line DACs) but presented an ethereal appeal without laser focusing on sonic details, enabling the sonic power at its core and released potency of the music language to run freely.
The Sea Change is among Beck’s most personal works, it reminds me of a particular time with some challenging changes in my own life.
With the dCS Vivaldi Apex Stack Sea Change, emotiveness and expressiveness unfolded even more profoundly, inundating the listening experience with more emotion and deeper affinity.
The Vivaldi Apex DAC system also fetched an interesting dynamic momentum that I felt had no limit to scalability. It reproduced minutely comprehensive details and musical intervals harmonically and with a far greater sense of involvement than I would have even remotely expected.
As an analog aficionado, constant globetrotter, and owner of a high-tech studio with multiple highest-gate electronic music devices, Bieger’s relationship to music composing and sound is quite different and very sublime.
The “Stars” sound rich and expansive on their own, but the combination of dCS Vivaldi Upsampler, Vivaldi Apex DAC, and Vivaldi Master Clock brought out even more subliminal molecular forces of this minimalist but magnificently composed and sounding music with a new level of expansiveness and control.
A newfound authority, density, and intensity permitted the kick drum to form a remarkable epicenter unaffected by the surrounding frequencies of the lower registers, while the space between the notes grew larger to take on their intended shape and factor. This a remarkable achievement that deserves high praise for any digital front-end, regardless of price.
The ethereality of Boards of Canada’s “An Eagle in Your Mind'” is unique and still resonates well all these years after its release.
The dCS Vivaldi unfolds the beauty of this kaleidoscopic, surreal masterpiece with even more depth, bringing out the tonal diversity and melodic variations of the Technicolor-esque “An Eagle in Your Mind'” more radiantly and with better dynamics, making it an even more enticing sonic escapade with lasting impact that invites repeat visits to discover what else is hidden in these aural landscapes.
Superunknown by Soundgarden is still perhaps one of the most memorable and rock genre-defining albums of the 90s and “Black Hole Sun” a song that shaped the era and still inspires so many musicians and music lovers.
The dCS Vivaldi Apex Combo sheds new light on the iconic, melancholic nature of “Black Hole Sun” and expands its vastness and immensity, bringing out the musical mark by extracting and encapsulating the best moments with a neutral dynamism, creating a sense of more stretch in the aural field and an increased density that grants it, even more, affecting interactivity.
Too often, even the top-tier DACs merely abstract around a particular idea. In contrast, and most obviously with Superunknown, the dCS Vivaldi largely materializes the music without tampering with the progressive harmonic structure, bizarre narrative, or detached mood of the era. A splendid outcome!
With the dCS Vivaldi Apex digital Stack Contrasts for Orchestra: V. Allegro marciale – Presto – Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra (Minnesota Orchestra) – Antal Dorati – Paul Fetler – Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra (Minnesota Orchestra) – Antal Doráti.
“Contrasts for Orchestra: V. Allegro marciale – Presto” was not just another subject to a different interpretive framework. dCS Vivaldi brought the orchestral narrative to forte, making Contrasts for Orchestra a full-fledged embodiment of a symphony of colors and textures that sounded more vital and closer to reality, without reducing a central energy that can all too easily become off-center even with digital front-ends at this level.
The dCS Vivaldi Apex Stack easily presented an obligatory, much larger picture of the orchestra without obliterating dynamics or bursting the bubble of a harmonic whole, that in the real-world scenario travels toward the listener as one unified entity. Perhaps most importantly, Vivaldi Apex resolves the dilemma of adequate formation and propagation of orchestral music in the digital domain.
With the arrival of the dCS Vivaldi Apex DAC and its two components, I have begun to think about and reconsider various audio-related and interconnected matters.
There is little doubt that we have come a long way with the recently launched digital front-end products.
With the price increases of the last few years, many expectations have also emerged. The top-end digital sources are hovering on the edge of what is possible, sometimes even in the realm of fringe science. dCS, however, objectively escapes such preconditions and labelling.
What I was able to decipher from Vivaldi Apex’s inner workings and clocking is its unique ability to translate the still-fragmentary micro-universe of zeros and ones to the level of enhanced music listening. As usual in a professional audio studio, Vivaldi glues the tracks together without neglecting the blend of all the technologies used.
This is something that simply cannot be done quickly, but takes time and effort to channel properly and effectively. The Vivaldi Apex DAC from dCS clearly shows how conscientious the engineers and team at dCS have been in developing and cultivating a unique, intimate interaction with the music, telegraphing the musical message and consequently evoking emotions with a level that indicates a much more intense response than I am used to and frankly what I’ve expected.
All this shows that the Apex upgrade was well-planned and launched at just the right time.
dCS has not only taken a consistent direction but a solid one as well, with the constant development and especially with the recent Apex upgrades. The dCS team has put a lot of effort into making the Vivaldi Apex a flagship of its kind, even more, conducive to natural music reproduction.
The dCS dedication to the art of producing digital music at the highest level, while constantly competing with the best digital front ends, has resulted in a product with fewer digital artefacts and an immersive, fatigue-free listening experience that bridges the gap between the music and the listener, bringing the listeners closer to the music and giving them an unbridled sense of joy and awakening, beyond the usual and obvious.
A couple of people who have visited my system were utterly surprised with the digital reproduction and perhaps the comment of one of the “golden-ears” sums it up in the best way. “There is a difference between high-end and ultra-high-end, and this is pure ultra-high-end.”
The analogy of forest and tree is perhaps most apt to describe Vivaldi Apex impact. Not for the sake of theorem differentiation, but for the sake of unique juxtaposition. The overarching goal of the ultra-high-end is always accuracy, which is a crucial part of the sonic lexicon, including musicality, expressiveness, complexity, and nonetheless depth of meaning.
All this takes taking the fidelity of consumer playback systems to a new level that does not exactly fit the group of usual suspects.
Vivaldi Apex introduces a measure of reality that reflects rather than imitates the actuality. There is a big difference in how the dCS Vivaldi Apex Combo uncovers the music hidden in the digital data. In the golden trinity (yes, they work best in tandem), the dCS Vivaldi flagship system delivers authority, control, and the sheer drama and dynamics that are especially evident in orchestral and electronic music easily discernable with the Zellaton Reference MK2 speakers, driven by TIDAL Audio Ferios monoblocks.
There’s no shortage of reasons why many audiophiles and music lovers who can afford high-end products balk at getting their money’s worth, and there’s little doubt that the high-end segment is quite resilient.
Prices in the high-end audio market have skyrocketed, and many companies that do not have much to offer upon closer inspection make potential upper-echelon customers skeptical, often reacting on the verge of cynicism. Especially when admiration for a product shatters like glass when it’s time to examine the blur of marketing claims.
After the arrival of the Vivaldi Apex and after I tested the Rossini Apex DAC, many emails followed with questions, comments, heated statements, etc. Exaggerated statements only last as long as a new “glitzy” thing comes along. Yes, the market, like any other industry, needs to be fed attention-driven marketing mechanisms, but when recognition is due, it finds its way into my articles.
The combination of dCS Vivaldi Apex, Vivaldi Clock, and Vivaldi Upsampler represents the pinnacle of digital to analog conversion, an amazingly refined DAC system that pushes the boundaries of what is possible in the digital realm and provides the framework for an amazingly capable ultra-high-end audio system (if the rest of the system allows it) where there really can be no excuses when it comes to achieving the fundamental essence of audio axiom and audio nirvana.
Whereas in the past digital music, narrative could easily drift to technical aspects and virtues, the DCS Vivaldi Apex stack focuses and gravitates tremendously towards the essence of music with a joie de vivre momentum that stimulate the spirit of music, where both calm and poise, as well as heat and thunder, have their respectful place without ever losing the principle of dynamic animation while engaging the amygdala and hippocampus of the brain.
The Vivaldi Apex is the culmination of dCS’s decades of experience with digital products. It doesn’t just measure better, but conveys emotions pleasantly and with the intrinsic differences.
All too often, the content of thought is not properly and completely channeled into the final result. This is where the dCS Vivaldi differs by far, representing a vessel capable of transporting the listener into deeper musical worlds, of course within a well-balanced high-end audio system.
After my experience with dCS Rossini Apex, I am quite enamoured with dCS Vivaldi Apex DAC system. In my reference setup and familiar domain, the dCS Vivaldi Apex DAC, along with the Upsampler and Clock, has set new standards for the digital. I gladly give the Vivaldi 2023 Mono & Stereo Editors Choice Award for the sum of all Vivaldi virtues, but especially for one the kind ability to perfectly habituate the essentials of high-end audio music listening.
As in any industry, there is little doubt that there have been various challenges to overcome recently. Still, David J Steven pivots the brand with a clear focus and while many digital brands, especially exotic, single-person, or small scale operated ventures are still in their infancy compared to dCS, the dCS gives the high-end audio industry a much needed leg up in a broader sense.
Bill Evans spoke of a “universal mind” in which true music speaks to the universal mind in all people, and I believe the dCS Apex DAC is unique in that regard, being able to tune into the universal spirit of the music, unlike anything I have heard before with the digital. There you go, I’ve said it.
I would like to thank dCS, Absolute Sounds London and Imacustica Lisbon for arranging the review samples. •
- Vivaldi Upsampler: £27,500
- Vivaldi Apex DAC: £38,500
- Vivaldi Master Clock: £20,700
- Dimensions: 444mm / 17.5” x 435mm / 17.2” x 151mm / 6.0“. Allow extra depth for cable connectors
- Weight: 17.4kg / 38.3lbs