Spin Doctor #11: Alternative Phono Cartridge Technologies and the DS Audio DS-W3 optical cartridge system Page 2

DS Audio has made it clear that their goal is to promote optical cartridges as a concept, not just to profit from their own products. Instead of trying to lock down the company's work behind patents and hidden "secret sauce" circuitry, they have made their design specifications public while supporting manufacturers who want to create their own optical cartridge platforms. A page on the DS Audio website includes a list with photos and specifications of optical cartridge equalizers made by companies such as Meitner, its sister company EMM Labs, Soulution, Soulnote, and Uesugi Research Institute. Ed Meitner of EMM Labs and Meitner was so impressed by the optical approach that he says he will no longer manufacture phono preamps for conventional cartridges. He offers two optical cartridge equalizers, one from each of his companies.

While these cartridges must be used together with a compatible equalizer, DS Audio allows you to mix and match cartridges and equalizers, so you could, for example, buy a W3 from DS Audio and an equalizer from Meitner or Soulution. It also means you can upgrade just the cartridge or just the equalizer. For this review I received, along with the DS-W3 cartridge, its matching DS-W3 equalizer ($10,000).

Until just a few years ago, $15,000 was top dollar for any phono cartridge. Remember though that this is a complete phono system, delivering an RIAA-corrected line-level signal, eliminating the need for a separate phono preamp. I think of it as a $5000 cartridge with a $10k phono preamp.

Over the years, the two most common questions I get asked about the DS Audio cartridges are Do they read the groove walls optically? and Is the signal digitized? The answers: no and no.

Like any other cartridge, optical cartridges have a cantilever and stylus that rides in the record groove physically. The difference is that an LED light source and an optical sensor replace the coils and magnets of conventional designs. Analog purists rest assured: No digital conversion takes place; the signal path is 100% analog.

Another question I sometimes get asked is whether this optical business is just a gimmick—or does it have clear advantages over a more conventional design? The answer: Moving mass is lower, allowing the stylus to follow the groove more accurately.

With any cartridge, the stylus rides in the wiggly record groove, and that in turn wiggles the cantilever, the stiff bar that connects the stylus to the generator inside the cartridge. Because the cantilever has to move freely, up and down and side to side, while reversing direction more than 20,000 times per second, it needs to be as light as possible. Sticking a pair of magnets onto it, as in a moving magnet cartridge, adds a significant amount of mass. Moving coil cartridges reduce that mass to tiny coils of wire, making the stylus more responsive. An optical cartridge takes this a step further, with a pair of tiny ultralight shading plates replacing the wire coils.

I feel that the DS-W3 sits right in the sweet spot of the DS Audio range, benefiting from technology trickled down from the $60,000 Grand Master model, including separate light sources and sensors for the left and right channels. A boron cantilever is fitted with a line-contact stylus. With a mass of 7.9gm and an unspecified but lowish compliance, it should work fine in most modern medium-mass tonearms. I installed the DS-W3 in the Brinkmann 12.1 tonearm, which has an effective mass of 14gm, on my Brinkmann La Grange turntable. The combination worked flawlessly.

The cartridge itself has a curvaceous, brown-painted body without a straight line anywhere, accented by a red vertical line that lights up when the cartridge is powered on by its equalizer, which looks cool and helps a little with alignment.

The procedure for installing the DS-W3 is pretty much the same as for any cartridge, with half-inch threaded holes for the mounting screws, and four output pins that connect to conventional tonearm wiring. All the usual alignment parameters are the same, and you can use your preferred alignment tools. The only thing that's different is that the cartridge needs to be connected to its specialized equalizer.

The equalizer itself is a beast. At just under 30lb, it weighs more than a number of power amps I own. The front panel has a single switch to turn the cartridge and equalizer on and off. Around back is a pair of single-ended (RCA) inputs from the turntable and four pairs of outputs, two balanced with XLR connectors and two single-ended with RCA. Set between the connectors is a toggle switch labeled CUT OFF, with a 30Hz position and a 50Hz position, which determines the amount of low-frequency filtering applied to the signal. In my system, I can control the bass response by tweaking my woofer levels and crossover points, so I found I got the best results in the 30Hz position, which has a gentler rolloff.

After breaking in the cartridge for a while with a steady diet of Ozzy Osborne playing in the background, I started my more attentive evaluation with an original UK pressing of David Bowie's Let's Dance (EMI America AML 3029). Over the last few years, I have installed a handful of other DS Audio cartridges, and I was always struck by their ability to unclutter dense recordings like this one. In place of a wall of instruments, those optical cartridges were able to tease out each individual element of the sound and present its sonic character individually. The DS-W3 exceled at this, so, for example on the title song, I could easily hear how Stevie Ray Vaughan's guitar solos were recorded in their own acoustic, quite different from the acoustic on the rest of the track. I remember how, back when this album was new, I listened for the sections on China Girl when Carmine Rojas started playing a little triple motif on the bass. Back then, this could be tricky to hear unless your system was really dialed in. With the DS-W3 it was stupidly obvious.

Changing gears, I put on Bill Henderson's Live at the Times (Discovery DS-779) and played his well-known rendition of "Send in the Clowns." This simple live recording required no unraveling, but the purity, tonal richness, and conventionality of Bill's vocal was striking. The DS-W3's ability to focus and put instruments and voices in proper perspective was uncanny. It offered a deep and sharply defined soundstage on recordings with that potential, like this one.

John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band (Mobile Fidelity MFSL 1-280) presents John at his most raw and intimate. Each track has an individual sound, with John's voice frequently doubled using the automatic double tracking he preferred. On "Working Class Hero," the contrast between the two edited-together takes was crystal clear with the DS-W3. With this album's stripped-down, intimate production, it feels on every song as though John is standing next to you in the room.

The DS-W3 is one of those cartridges that makes you want to dig through your records, asking yourself, "How is that one going to sound?" It has an extraordinary ability to pull new music and life out of old grooves while not imposing a character of its own on the sound. This cartridge isn't bright or dark, warm or rich, but it can be all those things when the recording demands it. Whether optical cartridges become widespread the way Tetsuaki Aoyagi hopes is yet to be determined, but, based on how the DS-W3 sounds, I feel optimistic that more companies will embrace this reborn technology. In the meantime, the DS-W3 is enthusiastically recommended.


Glotz's picture

DS Audio really has a nice line of opticals' across the board. Hearing their demos a few times really hits home on how unique they are. For a veteran like yourself to say "How's this going to sound?" is a feat for sure. I love that a product (or a full line!) can induce such excitement to play favorite LP's in a new light.