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

Over the last 50 years, I must have installed well over 1000 phono cartridges, but I still remember the very first one: a Goldring G850 I put into the family Garrard Autoslim turntable when I was 11 years old. In 1973, the G850 was the least expensive moving magnet cartridge Goldring made. The change from the flipover-stylus ceramic cartridge that came with the Garrard wasn't an attempt to satisfy a youthful audiophile itch but, rather, a result of my first encounter with a system compatibility problem.

A few months earlier, I had convinced my nonaudiophile dad to upgrade the family stereo. We went from our ancient Monacor SMX-50 tube receiver to a pretty weird but less ancient Sony all-in-one cassette system called the TC-133CS. I failed to understand that the new Sony's magnetic phono input was incompatible with our old ceramic cartridge. Once I figured that out, I tried to convince my dad that what we really needed was a Shure M75ED. After all, that cartridge came from the same company that made the legendary V-15 Type III, widely regarded as the best cartridge in the world at the time. My dad, however, had different plans. Guided by his home-product purchasing bible, Consumer Reports, he decided we should go instead with the less-costly Goldring.

By this point I had already shown a keen interest in audio systems, having moved the old speakers from the Monacor system upstairs to my bedroom, then wiring them into the Sony through a speaker switching panel I built using four old light switches—an early multiroom audio installation! So it fell on me to get it installed and hooked up, and somehow I managed to do it without breaking off a headshell clip or mangling the fragile stylus and cantilever.

The Autoslim had a removable headshell to make things a bit easier, but fancy adjustments such as SRA, azimuth, antiskate, and even overhang weren't possible with the very basic Autoslim tonearm. It did have a spring you could twiddle to change the tracking force, but with no equipment to measure it, I just took a guess at where to set it.

This is a skill I will still occasionally test myself on, seeing how close I can get to a desired tracking force just going by feel. (Don't try this at home.) The G850 has a tracking force range of 2.5 to 4gm, so it is tolerant of this type of potential abuse. I still own many of the Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple records I played on that turntable all the way through my teenage years, and they sound just fine, so I can't have been wildly off.

Crystal and ceramic piezoelectric phono cartridges have had an up-and-down roller-coaster ride of popularity over the decades. In the 1940s, as acoustic phonographs were being replaced by electrical record players, crystal piezoelectric cartridges dominated the market, and it wasn't until the late 1940s and early 1950s that magnetic cartridges began to assert their superiority. More reliable ceramic piezoelectric designs eventually replaced the fragile crystal ones, and even into the early 1970s, ceramic cartridges were being fitted to low-cost console and portable record players.

By the 1980s, as the Compact Cassette and eventually the CD replaced vinyl records for most casual users, these cheap cartridges all but disappeared. The vinyl revival of the late 2000s brought ceramic cartridges flooding back, as millions of teenage girls bought low-cost suitcase record players from stores like Urban Outfitters to play their Taylor Swift and Demi Lovato records. Most of these came with a ceramic cartridge called the Chuo Denshi CZ800, either that or a Chinese knockoff.

These days, most audiophiles tend to think of cartridges as falling into one of two camps: They're either moving coil or moving magnet. But that's a bit like thinking that all cars are either automatic or stick shift. While the vast majority of cars fit into one of those two categories, plenty of cars out there have CVTs, and an increasing number of electric cars don't use a variable transmission at all.

Over the decades, there have been a slew of different cartridge technologies that don't fall neatly into the two main baskets. For starters, consider induced-magnet cartridges, which typically get tossed into the moving magnet camp despite having magnets that don't actually move. Instead of mounting the heavy permanent magnets directly on the moving cantilever, these cartridges use a lighter piece of iron or other permeable metal, positioned so that its movements cause the magnetic field between a fixed magnet and coil to fluctuate. The goal is to combine the low moving mass of a moving coil design with the high output and user-replaceable stylus of a moving magnet. Also called moving iron cartridges (and "fixed coil" by Soundsmith), this approach is favored by Grado, Soundsmith, Goldring, and Nagaoka.

Then there are cartridges that get away completely from the coil-and-magnet approach. Stax, today best known for their electrostatic headphones, made a range of electret-condenser cartridges including the CP-20, CP-40, and CP-X. Toshiba also made cartridges of this type. Then there's the ELP laser turntable, which reads the groove using reflected laser beams. Another legendary design is the strain-gauge cartridge, with products like the Euphonics Miniconic integrated arm and cartridge from Puerto Rico and the Panasonic EPC-450 and EPC-451 cartridges, which in the 1970s and '80s were adopted by high-end companies Win Labs and Electro Research and possibly others. Strain-gauge designs went dormant for a while until the technology was revived by Peter Ledermann at Soundsmith in the form of his SG system, one of which I recently installed.

Finally, there's the optical cartridge, which many folks are surprised to learn goes back more than 80 years, to Philco, which in 1941 introduced a record player that would play "music on a beam of light," using an optical sensor receiving light from a bulb reflected by a tiny mirror attached to the cartridge's cantilever. Back then, they were playing mono 78s with a standard groove, but it was still a remarkable achievement. Unfortunately, Philco's timing wasn't good, as the United States soon entered World War II. The "Beam of Light" record player went away as the company switched over to the war effort.

The DS Audio DS-W3
Decades later, the optical cartridge was revived by Toshiba, leading directly to the latest generation of optical cartridges from DS Audio, thanks to Tetsuaki Aoyagi.

Toshiba's C-100P optical cartridge

Shortly after leaving university, Aoyagi, DS Audio's CEO and founder, set himself a life goal of creating a unique product that would bring people joy. He knew that to be successful he would need to have the acumen to start and run a business, so he tested his ability by giving himself a year to pass Japan's tough Certified Public Accountant exam. He figured that if he couldn't manage that, he simply didn't have the chops to be an entrepreneur. He would just enter Japan's corporate world instead.

After passing the exam, Aoyagi quit his job at an auditing firm, then went to work for his father's contract optical-engineering company as he figured out what unique product he wanted to bring to the world. Digital Stream Corporation specialized in small-scale optical-technology contract work. While working there, Aoyagi had a chance encounter with a Mr. Yamada, a consultant for Digital Stream. Yamada, who was an audiophile, invited Aoyagi to visit his home to experience the sound of vinyl records played through his audio system. Aoyagi wasn't an audiophile, but the clarity and dynamism he heard listening to Michael Jackson's Thriller made him realize how much he had been missing listening to music through his MiniDisc player and iPod. Yamada attributed much of the performance of his system to the phono cartridge, a vintage Toshiba C-100P optical cartridge made in the 1970s (above) and its matching preamplifier (below). The C-100P was an extraordinary cartridge, but it had a reputation for fragility due to the heat generated by its incandescent light source.

Toshiba's optical supply/preamplifier

Aoyagi quickly realized that he had found his unique product. He leveraged the resources of Digital Stream to create a new, more reliable optical cartridge with a cool-running LED light source and modern materials and manufacturing. DS Audio's first optical cartridge, the W1, was launched in early 2014. In the decade since, the lineup has expanded up and down in price, to six models. The most recent, the DS-W3 ($5000), is under review here. It sits near the middle of the range. "W3" indicates that it's the technology's third generation.

Footnote 1: DS Audio, Digital Stream Corporation 4-50-40, Kamitsuruma-Honcho, Minami-ku, Sagamihara. Kanagawa 252-0318, Japan. Tel: +81-427-47-0900. Web: ds-audio-w.biz US importer: Musical Surroundings, 5662 Shattuck Ave., Oakland, CA 94609. Tel: (510) 547-5006. Web: musicalsurroundings.com


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.