Iron and light
Stereophile|November 2021
GRAMAPHONE DREAMS
HERB REICHERT

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). 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).1 Undeterred, I went ahead and installed the made-in-Japan DS-E1 because Garth was right: I needed to know what this newfangled photooptical cartridge would sound like in my system.

My religion forbids excuses, but one reason I took so long to install the DSE1 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 LSDbeautiful Grado Labs Aeon3 moving iron cartridge I reviewed in GD37.2

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 threedimensional. 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 backstory 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 photooptical cartridge and its even newer matching ($3500) 003 energizer-RIAA equalizer. I smiled and thanked them both.

MM, MI, MC, PO

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 amplitudes 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 mic 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. 3

According to DS Audio President Tetsuaki Aoyagi, the DS003 photooptical 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.”

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