2021: A Year in Review

dCS Managing Director David Steven reflects on some of our highlights and notable projects from the past 12 months

Tags: Music, Mercury Living Presence, News, Review, Technology & Innovation, Events,

It’s hard to believe 12 months have passed since our last end of year review. 2021 seems to have hurtled by at alarming speed, bringing a mix of hope and chaos.

Apart from managing the Covid situation, and trying to make sure everyone at dCS was safe and connected with each other while they worked, our biggest business challenge of 2021 was managing our supply chain during an extremely turbulent time for the industry. With the electronics sector badly hit due to the pandemic, it has been a constant and ongoing effort to ensure we maintained a steady supply of parts, and could continue manufacturing products.

In the UK, most of us were able to return to some sense of normality during the spring and summer months, and enjoy a welcome respite from home working, Teams/Zoom/Google Meet calls and lockdowns, yet the events of the past few weeks have led to another strange and uncertain festive season.

Whatever happens this winter, we’ll be doing all that we can to protect ourselves, and remain connected with both each other and the wider dCS community as we head into 2022. We may, once again, be spending more time at home, but we’ll continue delivering products, supporting customers, and engaging with music and audio fans around the world. 

As of December 24, we’ll be taking a short break to rest and recharge, but we’ll be back at work on January 4. Before we finish up, however, we’d like to share some of the many projects we’ve been working on throughout 2021...

Launching the new dCS website

It was a busy spring for the dCS marketing team with the launch of our new website, dcsaudio.com. When we began work on the website back in 2020–which now feels like a lifetime ago–our aim was to create a richer and more engaging experience for our customers, friends, partners, and those wishing to find out more about dCS. We set out to create an informative, intuitive platform that would allow people to find out more about the work that we do, and the values that drive us. Beyond this, we wanted to provide music lovers and audiophiles with a wide range of content that speaks to their shared interests. 

With that in mind, we redesigned each aspect of our online presence, creating dedicated sections where people can learn more about our heritage, culture and innovations in audio. We also created a streamlined support hub, and an online journal, the dCS Edit, which provides us with a space to host films, podcasts, playlists, and articles, as well as news and updates from dCS. 

Building a website is an ever-evolving process–in many ways, it’s a project that never ends–and we’ve lots more planned for dcsaudio.com in 2022. For now, we’d like to thank all those who’ve explored the site so far. The response from the dCS community has been hugely positive, and we’ve been thrilled to see so many people taking the time to visit and explore the site. You can read more about the thinking behind the website and some of the new features we've introduced here 

Exploring clocking, filtering and the dCS Ring DAC

If you’re a member of head-fi.org or the dCS Community forum, you might have encountered our posts on filtering and D/A conversion. Over the past few months, we’ve been working on a range of content that we hope will help people gain a better understanding of digital audio in general, as well as the dCS approach to digital playback. Our latest series, which launched this month, will focus on clocking: why it is important, and what happens when clocks fail to produce an accurate signal. We'll also be discussing clock synchronisation in audio systems with multiple units, and dCS Master Clocks.

We created these posts in part because wanted to help people learn more about our products, and the steps we take to ensure dCS systems deliver a truly class-leading performance. However, we also wanted to help people make more informed choices when selecting audio equipment. Choosing components can be a daunting and bewildering process, and it’s not always easy to find reliable information online, which is why we've decided to share some of the knowledge we’ve gained from over 30 years in the field. 

While we hoped people would find our posts interesting and useful, the series has been even more successful than we’d anticipated, prompting comments and messages from audiophiles in various corners of the world (and sparking some healthy debate on head-fi.org). You can follow the discussion on the dCS Community forum here, or join in on head-fi.org here

Celebrating the 70th anniversary of Mercury Living Presence

Following the launch of dCS Legends in 2020, we continued our efforts to celebrate musical artistry and innovation this year with the launch of ‘Trust Your Ears’: The Mercury Living Presence Story, a podcast and film series documenting the history of one of the world’s most pioneering classical record labels.

Produced in partnership with Decca Records, the project commemorates the 70th anniversary of Mercury Living Presence, the US label behind a renowned collection of recordings produced in the 1950s and 60s. Through exclusive interviews and musical excerpts, it explores how Mercury became a leading force in classical music, releasing over 200 LPs with leading orchestras in the US, Russia and Europe, and reveals how the label's talented production team were able to capture the unique sound and atmosphere of live musical events with remarkable clarity. 

The project also documents how dCS’s first ever audio device, the dCS 900 A-D converter, was used to transfer many of Mercury’s best-known recordings to the digital domain in the 1980s and 90s, resulting in a set of remasters that still sound sensational almost 30 years on (and are now being given a new lease of life on streaming services). 

It was both a pleasure and honour to reveal the craft, dedication, and technological innovation that led to the creation of such an inspiring catalogue of music, alongside delving into dCS's history and early years in audio. We hope you enjoyed the series, and we’d like to extend our deepest gratitude to everyone who worked with us to create it–in particular, Tom Fine, the team at Decca, Charlotte Gardner, and Simon Barnett, as well as our fantastic interviewees. If you haven’t yet tuned in, you can find all three podcast episodes and both films here

Transforming the dCS factory

It wasn’t just the dCS website that was transformed this year: over the summer, we carried out a major refurbishment of the production area at our Cambridgeshire factory. Both the ground floor and mezzanine level were redesigned to provide a better workflow for our talented technicians to hand-build and test dCS systems.

The renovation also provides us with more space to host guided tours, which we hope to resume at some point next year. Now the refurbishment is complete, we’ve turned our focus to exploring how we can create a great factory visitor experience, and an exciting collaborative space for our staff to work in.

Alongside this, we’ll be looking at how we can engage with people who aren’t able to visit us in person, and share more of the work that goes on behind the scenes here at dCS.

New starters and milestones

The dCS team continued to grow this year, as we brought in new talent across the business. Engineering Director Afonso Marques joined dCS in September, bringing a wealth of engineering and leadership experience. He has worked in startups and multi-national organisations in the UK and his native Portugal, and has been involved in a broad range of projects spanning industries from medicine to gaming and defense. He’s also a keen musician, and loves nothing more than embarking on a new DIY project, whether it’s metalworking, building power amplifiers, or 3D printing...

With Afonso on board, our Technical Director Andy McHarg and Product Development Director Chris Hales will be able to spend more time exploring the future of digital audio, and developing new technologies, products and features for dCS.

We also welcomed Max While-Paddon and Paul Haynes in Production, Krzysztof Brychcy in Service, Oliver Lambson in Operations, and Janice Adshead in Finance, and celebrated dCS Technical Support Specialist Martin Reynolds’ 25th year at dCS. Martin’s knowledge of dCS products is second to none–he has been with us since the summer of 1996 (the year we launched our first consumer DAC) and has delivered specialist support to countless customers in his time here.

Reviews and awards 

The dCS Bartók continued to generate fantastic reviews this year, with Stereophile, AV Forum, The Audio Beat and Russia’s Stereo & Video praising the system’s performance. Ethan Opolion, producer at CanJam Global, also published a comprehensive review on head-fi.org, declaring the Bartók Headphone DAC a "truly spectacular product".

Alongside excellent reviews, we received awards from AV forum, who named the Bartók Best High-End Hi-Fi Product in their 2021 Editor’s Choice Awards; The Absolute Sound, who awarded the Vivaldi, Rossini and Bartók in their annual Editor's Choice roundup, and Hi-Fi+, who honoured dCS with a Sound Innovation Award in their 200th anniversary issue, in recognition of our continued efforts to advance the standard of digital playback. Thank you to all the magazines, blogs and sites who’ve featured dCS this year, and to all the writers and editors who’ve provided us with insightful and entertaining audio content in 2021.

The dCS community

The dCS forum has welcomed many new members this year, and has become home to a wide-ranging collection of threads covering music, audio and all things dCS. We’ve had over 200 customers share details of their audio systems in the ever-popular 'Showing (off) your dCS setup' thread, and each month, listeners share their favourite tracks via our community-founded ‘What’s Spinning’ thread. We’ve also seen dCS customers assist each other with technical queries, trade tips on where to find new music, and debate the future of streaming audio.

Since its launch, the forum has done exactly as we’d hoped. It has brought people together to discuss our products, as well as music and audio more generally, and participate in reasoned discussions and thoughtful debates. It’s also allowed us to share news and updates with our valued customers, and better understand the needs of our community. We look forward to reading more comments and conversations next year, and seeing more pictures of your amazing listening rooms.

Live music and events 

2021 didn’t quite provide the return to normal we’d hoped for in the U.K., but it did give us lots to be thankful for, such as the return of live music. While Covid of course remained a real and present threat, increased safety measures and vaccinations allowed thousands of people to safely participate in concerts and club nights over the summer, and few images brought us as much joy this year as the sight of musicians once again taking to the stage to share their work with the world. With restrictions now tightening in many countries, we hope that artists, crews and live venues are given the government and financial support they need to survive, and can soon resume live events once again. In the meantime, we’ll be reminiscing and listening to some of our favourite live performances from home.

In the audio world, we were pleased to see the return of Hong Kong High-End AV show, Tokyo International Audio Show, TAA International Hi-End Audio Show in Taiwan, and BAV Hi-End Show in Bangkok. While we weren’t able to attend these events in person, we were able to participate in collaboration with our fantastic distributors. We also had a great time teaming up with JS Audio in Bethesda, US to host a special Mercury Living Presence listening event with mastering engineer Tom Fine. We’re hopeful our team will be able to get back on the road and travel to more head-fi and hi-fi events in 2022. For now, our thoughts go out to everyone who’s had to cancel or postpone planned conferences and gatherings in 2021.

New Music, Classical Choices, and a look back at classic albums

On the dCS Edit, we continued to provide a regular selection of articles celebrating outstanding new releases and classic albums from decades past. Our new 'Revisiting…' series has seen us examine the brilliance and impact of bestselling albums by Sade, Duran Duran, and Wings, and provide an in-depth look at the production techniques, recording spaces and equipment that shaped their sound.

Charlotte Gardner’s popular Classical Choices playlist has showcased some of this year’s finest classical recordings, and Sharon O’Connell’s ‘New Music’ series has championed exciting and innovative releases from both established and emerging artists in genres from punk to pop, rock, electronica, jazz, and soul.

In addition to sharing recommendations from esteemed contributors, we’ve curated a number of exclusive playlists for our social media followers, with themed collections inspired by city life, contemporary electronica, and the return of disco, to name a few. Going forward, we’ll be bringing you an even bigger selection of music recommendations and as always, we welcome your suggestions on the dCS forum and our social media pages. 

dCS Expanse

It’s been 12 months since we launched dCS Expanse, a proprietary headphone processing platform developed by dCS engineers. At the beginning of this year, we spoke to dCS Technical Director Andy McHarg about the platform’s development, and the ways in which it aims to enhance the headphone experience. (You can read the full article here.)

The platform was recently awarded a patent for its novel approach to headphone optimisation, and we’ve continued exploring Expanse and gathering feedback from users throughout 2021. We’re pleased to see that many people have found it delivers fantastic results when engaged with a diverse range of music: The Audio Beat’s Mark Blackmore found it particularly compelling when listening to ambient recordings by Joseph Beg, Brian and Roger Eno, and Jefferson Airplane, while Stereophile’s Herb Reichert found it seemed to "restore musical energy" and provide a heightened sense of three-dimensionality with Sonny Rollins's 'Way Out West'. Click here to listen to our latest Expanse reference playlist on Qobuz (or click here to listen on TIDAL).

Navigating the unexpected 

As we've mentioned, companies in all sectors have been struggling with the impact of supply chain issues caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. Parts and labour shortages, shipping delays and the increasing cost of raw materials has made it difficult for businesses to source vital components for a wide range of products, from cars to smartphones and even some essential food items. The electronics industry has been particularly hard hit, with a scarcity of chips and semiconductors causing organisations in several areas to massively delay shipping, or halt production on some items altogether. 

At dCS, we’ve been working hard to continue making and shipping systems to listeners around the world. Thanks to a huge team effort from our staff, manufacturing partners and trusted suppliers, we’ve been able to continue fulfilling orders, and we’ll do everything in our power to ensure this remains the case in 2022. Meanwhile, we'd like to thank everyone who's made it possible for us to source parts and build dCS systems during what is perhaps the most chaotic period we've ever encountered.

A final word…

Before we wrap up for the holidays, we’d like to thank everyone who’s supported dCS this year, from our retailers, distributors and suppliers, to our customers and friends in the industry. You have helped us enormously, and we hope we’ve also been able to bring some comfort and joy to your lives in what has been yet another uncertain year. If the events of 2020 and 2021 have taught us anything, it’s that we have absolutely no way of predicting what might happen from one month to the next, but we do have some very exciting projects planned for 2022, and we’re looking forward to sharing these with you. For now, we wish you all the very best over the festive season, and thanks again for being a part of the dCS community.

David Steven

Managing Director

dCS

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