Gramophone Dreams #54: DS Audio DS003 optical cartridge & EMIA, Lundahl, Koetsu, Sculpture A step-up transformers

In the household I grew up in, telling a lie was a death-penalty offense—worse than murder or leaving crumbs on the kitchen counter. So, believe me when I tell you that way more than a year ago, Musical Surroundings' Garth Leerer sent me DS Audio's lowest priced optical cartridge, the DS-E1 ($2750 with energizer/equalizer, footnote 1). He said, "You need to know about this." Then every few months he would write and politely inquire how I was liking it. Each time I would write back saying, "I'm sorry Garth, I haven't tried it yet, but I'll install it right after deadline."

That was a score of deadlines ago. When I saw Michael Fremer's full DS-E1 review in Analog Corner #306, I was crestfallen: He beat me to it (again). Undeterred, I went ahead and installed the made-in-Japan DS-E1 because Garth was right: I needed to know what this newfangled photo-optical cartridge would sound like in my system.

My religion forbids excuses, but one reason I took so long to install the DS-E1 was that I had heard DS Audio's second-from-the-top cartridge, the $7500 Master1, at Munich High End. My curiosity was high, so I listened carefully, hoping to discover through a very good but unfamiliar system some idea of what this new "optical" cartridge was capable of. I concluded that the Master1 displayed an unusually brilliant clarity framed in a luxuriously quiet background. Its depth and brilliance reminded me not only of all the strain gauge cartridges I've heard but also of the $8000 death-quiet LSD-beautiful Grado Labs Aeon3 moving iron cartridge I reviewed in GD37.

Unfortunately, as I left the demonstration, I had this strange feeling this radically new light-n-shadow transducer was leaving something out. I wasn't sure what. There was something about the experience I was disinclined to revisit.

When I finally heard DS Audio's entry-level E1 playing records in my system, it was obvious what the Master1 left out. I figured it out halfway through the first side of the first record. What was missing was the grain and low-level hum I associate with moving coil cartridges. The DS-E1's lack of added texture was subtle but uncanny. The impact of this absence of imposed texture was less subtle: It made silences more intense and images more three-dimensional. The DS-E1 displayed a significant portion of the "depth and brilliance" I had experienced with the Master1.

I am telling this short DS-E1 back-story because I want more audiophiles to be aware that DS Audio's founder, Tetsuaki (Aki) Aoyagi, has created something I now believe is important. At $2750 (including energizer-RIAA corrector), the DS-E1 offers a moderately priced entry into what I consider the elite zone of phonographic reproduction and, maybe, a glimpse into the nascent future of analog.

With a desire to learn more, I wrote Garth and asked if I could review something a little higher up DS Audio's price ladder.

Garth wrote back saying that he and Tetsuaki would give me first crack at DS Audio's completely new design: the midpriced ($2500) DS003 photo-optical cartridge and its even newer matching ($3500) 003 energizer-RIAA equalizer. I smiled and thanked them both.

Moving magnet, moving iron, and moving coil phonograph cartridges are velocity-sensitive groove-measuring devices whose voltage output is directly related to excursion over time. They measure the rate of change. In contrast, DS Audio's photo-electric cartridges produce output voltages that are directly proportional to the amplitude of cantilever movement. They measure the amount of change. This reminded me of the distinctions recording engineers make describing dynamic vs condenser microphones.

Like magnet-and-coil cartridges, dynamic microphones are velocity-sensitive; engineers value them for their ruggedness, punch, power handling, and ability to separate strong nearfield sounds from a noisy environment. The heft of their moving parts limits the subtlety of their transient response, but that isn't necessarily bad.

In contrast, condenser microphones are delicate, pressure-sensitive devices that employ low-mass diaphragms that are easy to move. They are valued for their ability to pick up subtle, quiet sounds and rear-stage detail. But that isn't always good.

Mastering engineer Alan Silverman (Arf! Mastering) explained it to me this way: "From the practical engineer's perspective (mine), it seems that the more mass that has to move to generate the voltage, the less detail but also the warmer and possibly more ear-friendly the sound. Condenser mikes have low-mass diaphragms, and they don't need to move very far, so they are uber-detailed. But sometimes, if not often, the slower, heavier moving coil of the dynamic mike may be more desirable, warm, and lush."

I smiled when Alan said this, because his observations about microphones seemed amazingly similar to my observations about iron-and-coil vs photo-optical phono cartridges.

The DS003 cartridge
Like all DS Audio cartridges, the $2500 DS003 operates by projecting light from a miniature LED onto a tiny, extremely thin "shading plate" mounted at the center of the cantilever. As the stylus moves through the record grooves, the cantilever and shading plate move and varying amounts of light reach the photodetector, which generates an electric current in proportion to the amount of light it receives.


According to DS Audio President Tetsuaki Aoyagi, the DS003 photo-optical cartridge is a completely new design. "This third-generation optical cartridge features a comprehensively redesigned optical system that now provides independent LEDs and PDs [photo-detectors] position-optimized for the left and right channels. As a result, crosstalk is reduced, greatly improving left and right channel separation. The high-frequency separation has improved by 10dB in comparison to its DS Audio forebears, and the cartridge output voltage has increased 75%, from 40mV to 70mV.

"Despite this dramatic increase in output, the excellent signal to noise ratio that DS Audio's optical cartridges are renowned for has not been compromised. The DS003 offers greatly improved signal/noise when compared to its stablemates."

According to the same source, "separating the LEDs and PDs into independent right and left channels allowed DS to reduce moving mass by 50%." Second-generation cartridges used a single square aluminum shading plate that weighed 1.56mg. Third-generation cartridges, like the DS003, use slender V-shaped shading plates made of 99.9% pure beryllium. This plate weighs just 0.74mg. According to the DS Audio guide, "[T]his is less than 1/10th the moving mass of a typical core-n-coil moving coil." Hence my dynamic vs condenser microphone analogy.

The 7.7gm DS003 features a plump aluminum body (fronted by a pointy blue light), an aluminum cantilever, and a line-contact stylus. Recommended "needle pressure" (VTF) is 2.1gm. According to Garth Leerer, the DS003's dynamic compliance is 7 × 106cm/dyne at 125Hz.

DS003 + E1 energizer
Customers have the choice to pair any DS Audio optical cartridge with any of DS Audio's five equalizers, which range in price from $1500 for the E1 to $45,000 for the Grand Master. When the DS003 cartridge arrived, I used the E1 to power it for a few weeks because the 003 energizer had not yet arrived. The DS003 cartridge + E1 energizer was quieter and more 3D-lucid than the DS-E1 cartridge with the same energizer.

It wasn't until I connected the new, bigger, fancier-packaged, discrete-transistor 003 energizer (the E1 uses op-amps) that I realized the E1 energizer was dry and slightly gray. Using the DS003 cartridge, I switched back and forth between the 003 and E1 energizers. The difference was significant—think fatter and wetter vs leaner and drier. The more expensive energizer improved the transparency and bloom of the E1 cartridge.

Whichever energizer is used, the DS003 is a giant step up from the DS-E1.


DS003 + 003 energizer
DS Audio's DS003 photo-optical cartridge sounds so much different than the sound of tiny coils wiggling in magnetic fields that it took a full night of listening for my brain to adapt. By the second night, I forgot to listen critically. I leaned back and listened and was inspired by the sound of great voices like Mahalia Jackson's. On songs like "Just Over The Hill" from Mahalia Jackson's Greatest Hits (Columbia LP CL 2004), Mahalia's voice bends and stretches and, as always, at just the right moment, soars to heights where sound and spirit become inseparable. Jackson's incomparable voice is always a good audio test, because when it sounds like I know it should, I can see heaven and feel the doubt-erasing powers of good Gospel music. The DS003 brought me closer to Mahalia's powers than any other cartridge in my brood—except the much more expensive $8495 Koetsu Rosewood Signature Platinum moving coil connected to its $4995 matching SUT and the $1995 Tavish Design Adagio phono stage.

Folks, here's a record to die and go to heaven for: Roscoe Holcomb/The High Lonesome Sound (Folkways LP FA2368). For me, Roscoe Holcomb is the purest soul of Kentucky mountain music. Folklorist John Cohen coined the phrase "high lonesome sound" to describe the form and mood of Holcomb's art. The first time I heard that phrase, I said to myself, "that's me. That's my art, too!" In this case, the word "high" refers to the elevation of sentiments expressed by Roscoe's singing and banjo playing. If you've never heard Roscoe, think of him as the somberest priest in the same church as Bill Monroe and the brothers Stanley.

This High Lonesome Sound disc is so simply and cleanly recorded—no compression, mixing, or editing—and Roscoe's singing and banjo accompaniment are so disarmingly sincere, I often use this recording to judge a component's or system's ability to bring it all out—to excavate the form and emotional content buried in its high-lonesome grooves. The DS003 dug deep and pulled out a sound that felt direct and raw from the tape but also fresh and beautiful to observe. Roscoe's banjo sounded extremely vivid and unusually physical.


Whenever I use the word "vivid," I am not trying to convey something added to the recording during playback. I mean the opposite. When the sound from my speakers sounds vivid, it means I sense fewer obstructions between my psyche and what's buried in the record's grooves. I mean less processing, less dynamic compression, less electronic haze. Vivid sound is raw, clean, and direct. More than any other trait, DS Audio's DS003 specialized in producing a vivid clarity framed in a beguiling chiaroscuro.

Overall, it is fair to say, DS Audio's DS003 photo-optical cartridge with the matching 003 energizer delivered the complete menu of elite cartridge perks including super-silky silences, taut, tuneful, textured bass, and a vivid, Leica-focused midrange that no digital source could hope to match. Sincerely recommended.

Newfangled SUT Cores
In one of my past lives, I was the US distributor for made-in-Japan, Hirata-designed Tango transformers. During that time, I also collected and measured transformers from companies like UTC, Acrosound, Western Electric, Peerless, Chicago, etc. That means I have a four-decade familiarity with the sound character of permalloy-cored transformers. Permalloy is one of several words and phrases for iron-based materials with a high nickel content. Others include alnico, mu-metal, and (in the UK) radio metal. No matter what you call it, or where it is in the audio chain, it always pleases me.

Footnote 1: DS Audio, 4-50-40, Kamitsuruma-Honcho, Minami-ku, Sagamihara, Kanagawa 252-0318, Japan. Tel: (81) 427-47-0900. Web: US distributor: Musical Surroundings 5662 Shattuck Ave. Oakland, CA 94609. Tel: (510) 547-5006. Web:

Jonti's picture

Thanks as always for an engrossing read, Herb. The month doesn't officially begin until your most recent Gramaphone Dreams are revealed unto us!

By the way, I notice that you often touch on materials as having inherent sounds - wood, plastic, glass, etc. in a cartridge body context; permalloy, copper, silver, etc. in a transformer/chassis setting; cables too, I imagine - and I have the same impression that what we hear is largely dictated by what is making (or channeling or communicating) the sound: I'm very much a wood and copper and gold kind of guy. Silver I keep well away from my system (cables included) because, to me, it sounds too much like chalk on blackboard.

On a separate point, the optical cartridge concept is fascinating and you describe it as a fourth category along with MI, MM and MC, but what about still other unique cartridge structures? I'm particularly thinking of the cantilever-less London Decca carts - what are your impressions of those? (I tried Googling "Herb+Reichert+Decca" but nothing much came up.)

Thanks and godspeed!

Herb Reichert's picture

I am grateful you enjoy my Dreams. I try to have fun writing them.

And naturally, you guessed right: I am a forever fan of those super-exciting hyper-dynamic London Decca cartridges. But sadly the only one I ever owned, I accidentally dropped the tonearm on the second record I played. And the needle stuck in the vinyl !!!!

So I haven't spent much personal time with London Decca.



Jonti's picture

...and sorry for your loss, haha. But yes, I would love to see Stereophile source one of the modern London Super Gold carts for you to investigate. And, for that matter, an EAR Yoshino Phonobox - the last phono stage produced by the late, great Tim DeParavacini. I've been using the latter very happily for the past 12 months.

Anton's picture

That's also a fine headshell.

I like playing with different headshells...great toys, don't take up space, usually affordable.

Ortofan's picture

... energizer combo, DS Audio can attempt to achieve a flatter frequency response.

Maxson's picture

Herb--You start out writing about the distinction between dynamic and condenser mics, suggesting there are trade-offs to the detailed sound of the latter, namely in warmth and "ear friendliness." What about with the DS Labs cart? Is there no down side?

Herb Reichert's picture

the Allan Silverman analogy applied. That's why I included it. That's why I asked Allan if my velocity vs amplitude observations made sense to him. Yes Maxon, the DS 003 played like a condenser microphone. But that's not a downside.


Maxson's picture

And no sacrifices in terms of warmth or ear friendliness?

Herb Reichert's picture

does not appeal to me.

And I try not to review cartridges that are not "ear friendly."

I wrote this story to encourage readers to give these extra-ordinary beautiful-sounding DS Audio cartridges a fair listen.

Why not try one and judge for yourself?


Ortofan's picture

... a Stax condenser phono cartridge?

tonykaz's picture

This Report and this reporter better capture the essential elements of what it means to be an Audiophile than any Audiophile writer in my memory.

This is Research

and ...

it's what makes Stereophile the one and only A+ hobbyist Journal. ( thank you JA & JA2 )

We as a group, at Esoteric Audio, did this type of close scrutiny ( with the help of Wild Turkey and wacky tobaccy ) for nearly two complete years. We evaluated gear and sold stuff. It was wonderful while it lasted but I had my Auto Industry and Wife tearing me away from that thrilling addiction.

Reading along with Mr.HR's adventures has me again feeling like a fellow traveler, experiencing another's searching curiosity, placing reveals along side my own existing contexts, taking me back to a great number of comparisons that I and my pals worked thru.

Being a 1980's Audiophile, listening to the performance differences in product offerings and locally tuned Audio Gear was an achievable avocation even though the prices were somewhat High, after all we would and could easily sell anything we had on hand.


...MSRP ( Manufacturer Suggested Retail Price ) prohibit any sort of steady group effort to evaluate Audio devices , don't they ? A person or group would have to have quite a few thousands of dollars to manage, preserve and protect in Gear, Building Facilities, Utilities, comfortable accommodations, Locked Security, insurances and communication gear systems. Phew ! ( I'd estimate a Solo researcher to need a $150,000 funds float )

I suppose that we all hope to do some level of basic research but I doubt that most individuals will ever be able to get somebody like Transparent Cable Karen Sumner to "long term loan" a few of her exotic cables. Or have a Koetsu Guy long term loan a couple of Phono Cartridges worth $ 7,000+ each .

The closest most of us will ever get to an insightful exploration of interesting audio gear will probably be reading one of Mr.HR's mental telepathy images converted into word constructs published here on these pages.

The Work here is brilliant, the writing is brilliant !

Thank You,

Tony in Florida

ps. ) despite having decades experience with Phono gear, I'm 100% certain that I won't be considering investing in any of the above Vinyl gear but ... just reading the reporting made this entire issue well worth having.

Herb Reichert's picture

but only 101 — right?


thethanimal's picture

Herb, for a contemporary take on that high lonesome sound, check out Tyler Childers’ 2020 release “Long Violent History” in 24/96 on Qobuz or MQA on Tidal.

Astolfo's picture

I just got a BD present... a Koetsu Rosewood
Signature and I have a Manley Labs Steelhead.
It will go in a Kuzma 4point in a Acoustic Sound Typhoon.
What are your thoughts about needing a SUT?
Thank you

audionut01's picture

Did the manufacturer or distributor mention the cost of re-tipping? DS Audio carts have been very fragile in the past and expensive to repair. I had a W2 for a short time.

tnargs's picture

My light-sourced music player also has an “uncanny lack of added texture” that results in “unusually brilliant clarity framed in a luxuriously quiet background” and “silences more intense and images more three-dimensional”.

Bubbamike's picture

Roscoe Holcomb, his records are on Qobuz and searching for them lead me to Malcom Holcombe, who seems to be an interesting singer with a rasp for a voice. Now I got some listening to do.