DS Audio DS 002 Optical Cartridge

Let There Be Light

Equipment report
DS Audio DS 002
DS Audio DS 002 Optical Cartridge

I first wrote about the revelatory experience of listening to a DS 002 in my report on CES, where I heard the voices of Levon Helm and Richard Manuel on the refrains of “King Harvest” from The Band [Analogue Productions] reproduced with such clarity and distinctiveness it was as if each were separately miked, rather than leaning into the same mike. Since then I’ve had scores of these “Aha!” moments with the DS 002, which sorts out simple mixes like Peter, Paul, and Mary’s “All My Trials” (trust me—you’ve seldom before heard them sound so completely like a trio—or heard so clearly the way each voice is being dialed up or dialed back by the recording engineer) to complex ones like “Chan Chan” on Buena Vista Social Club at Carnegie Hall equally well, revealing new felicities with such regularity that it makes listening a non-stop discovery process. Moreover, the DS 002’s stunning directness and clarity are not being purchased at the cost of lifelike tone color; on the contrary, the DS 002 is beguilingly warm and rich in the bass and midrange (I will have a caveat about this in a few paragraphs), and quite solid and three-dimensional in imaging.

Usually when you hear a leap forward in realism—and the DS 002 certainly qualifies as a leap forward, especially for the dough—it’s because you’re hearing more of the musicians and the music (e.g., the Obsidian/Viper’s magic way with Eliades Ochoa’s voice, for which see p. 100). But while the DS 002 most certainly reveals “more,” the more that it consistently reveals is less a matter of select details (although it is certainly revealing them, too) than of a clearer and more complete presentation of the overall picture. After all, making a roughly blended harmony into two distinct voices—as on “King Harvest”—is too profound a change to be called a mere detail. No, there is something fundamentally different about the DS 002’s sound, just as there was about the Decca London’s at its best, that alters the entire sonic gestalt.

So, kids, right about now you’re probably asking, “How do I get me one of these?”

Well, before you reach for your wallets, let’s talk about the downsides of the DS 002, which, while not as compelling as its upside, are enough to give pause. To begin with (and again like the Decca), the DS 002 is not a world-beater when it comes to soundstage width and depth. Though it is far better than the DS-1W in channel separation (about 10dB better, actually, according to Andre Jennings’ measurements), it is still not on a par with the best coils. As a result, something like Keith Richards’ fabulous rhythm guitar on Tattoo You isn’t imaged way outside the speaker enclosure—the way it is via the Air Tight Opus 1 on the Invictus/TA-9000. In addition, due to a slight upper-midrange emphasis (see below) the DS 002 tends to compress depth, bringing centrally miked vocalists or instrumentalists a bit more forward in the mix. Although the cartridge is a whiz at recovering engineering information (such as the reverb engineer Ben Rizzi added to Johnny Hartman’s voice on certain cuts from Once in Every Life [Analogue Productions]), embedding musicians in ambient space (natural or un-) as completely as a great coil does, its comparatively limited soundstaging tends to make you more aware that the sound is coming from loudspeakers. Second, and once again like the Decca, the DS 002 can (depending on the source and the playback level) add a sharp edge, almost like a resonance, to upper-midrange/treble transients; it can also exaggerate sibilance. Frankly, because this upper-midrange issue is spotty I don’t know if it is an inherent property of the cartridge or an instance of acoustic feedback inducing mistracing/mistracking. I do know this: The DS 002’s stylus is sensitive. It doesn’t just resolve musical and engineering details more clearly; it also picks up groove noise more clearly. Plus, unlike a line-contact stylus, which tends to slice through (or play below) dirt, the DS 002’s Shibata stylus is a dust magnet, and you will instantly hear any accumulation of debris. All of which means you have to keep the turntable away from your speakers, the stylus clean, and your records washed. Third, though it is very well defined, full in color, and deep-reaching in the bass—have a listen to David Steele’s keyboards and bass on “She Drives Me Crazy” from Fine Young Cannibals’ The Raw & The Cooked [London] or Victor Gaskin’s standup bass on Johnny Hartman’s Once in Every Life [Analogue Productions] or the bottom octaves of John Ogdon’s piano and the Academy of St. Martin-In-The-Fields’ cellos and doublebasses on Shostakovich’s Concerto for Piano, Trumpet and Strings [Decca]—it doesn’t have all the power-range speed and slam of something like the Air Tight Opus 1 or Clearaudio Goldfinger Statement. (Once again, this may, in part, be stylus-related. DS Audio makes a much more expensive cartridge, the DS Master 1 with a line-contact stylus, that is said to be a smoother operator.) Fourth, the DS 002 equalizer has two RCA outputs with very different equalization curves. If you don’t use the correct output (the one with the double cutoff—6dB/octave below 50Hz and an additional 6dB/octave below 30Hz), the DS 002 will not sound the way I’ve described it. It will, instead, be bloated in the bass and recessed in the midband and altogether meh. Fifth, though at $5000 it is priced quite reasonably for the gestalt-changing clarity it brings to almost every recording, the DS 002 isn’t cheap. Do remember, however, that for that five grand you also get the dedicated DS 002 equalizer/power supply, which obviates the need for a phonostage.

The bottom line here is very clear—at least to me. In the past I’ve been anything but a fan of optical transducers, but the DS 002 is a breakthrough—far and away the best cartridge of its type I’ve heard in my system. By virtually eliminating cantilever haze, it achieves a directness of presentation that will, believe me, offer you as complete and realistic a view of the music and the musicians as any cartridge short of $8–$10k+. Yes, it can be bested in soundstaging; yes, it can (not always, though, as this is source-dependent) be annoyingly rough around the edges on hard transients in the upper-mids and treble, and that may wear you down over time (to be fair, many coils have this problem too); and, yes, it most certainly has a sensitive stylus that has to be kept clean and away from extraneous sources of vibration. But the DS 002’s virtues are so strong—and its sound so unique and pleasing—it cannot not receive my highest recommendation. Which is what it gets—with laurels and oak-leaf cluster. This is one you really don’t want to miss, even if it’s just for an afternoon’s listen at the local high-end dealership.

Specs & Pricing

DS 002 Optical Cartridge
Signal output: Photoelectric conversion
Channel separation: 25dB or more
Output signal level: 500mV
Cantilever: Aluminum
Body material: Aluminum
Tracking force: 1.6g–1.8g
Stylus: Shibata
Weight: 8.1g
Price: $2250

DS 002 Equalizer
Rated output voltage: 500mV
Impedance: 120 ohms
Input: RCA
Output: Two stereo pairs on RCA jacks
Size: 310 x 920 x 235mm
Weight: 4.7kg
Price: $2750

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JV’s Reference System
Loudspeakers: Magico M Project, Magico M3, Raidho D-1, Avantgarde Zero 1, MartinLogan CLX, Magnepan .7, Magnepan 1.7, Magnepan 3.7, Magnepan 20.7
Subwoofers: JL Audio Gotham (pair), Magico QSub 15 (pair)
Linestage preamps: Soulution 725, Constellation Audio Altair II, Siltech SAGA System C1
Phonostage preamps: Soulution 755, Constellation Audio Perseus, Audio Consulting Silver Rock Toroidal, Innovative Cohesion Engineering Raptor
Power amplifiers: Soulution 711, Constellation Audio Hercules II Stereo, Zanden Audio Systems Model 9600, Air Tight ATM-2001, Siltech SAGA System V1/P1, Odyssey Audio Stratos
Analog sources: Acoustic Signature Invictus/T-9000, Walker Audio Proscenium Black Diamond Mk V, TW Acustic Black Knight, Continuum Audio Labs Obsidian with Viper tonearm, AMG Viella 12
Tape deck: United Home Audio Ultimate 1
Phono cartridges: Clearaudio Goldfinger Statement, Air Tight Opus 1, Ortofon MC Anna, Ortofon MC A90
Digital source: Berkeley Alpha DAC 2
Cables and interconnects: Crystal Cable Absolute Dream, Synergistic Research Galileo UEF, Ansuz Acoustics Diamond
Power cords: Crystal Cable Absolute Dream, Synergistic Research Galileo UEF, Ansuz Acoustics Diamond
Power conditioners: Synergistic Research Galileo LE, Technical Brain
Support systems: Critical Mass Systems MAXXUM and QXK equipment racks and amp stands
Room treatments: Stein Music H2 Harmonizer System, Synergistic Research UEF Acoustic Panels and UEF Acoustic Dots and ART System, Shakti Hallographs (6), Zanden Acoustic panels, A/V Room Services Metu acoustic panels and traps, ASC TubeTraps
Accessories: Symposium Isis and Ultra equipment platforms, Symposium Rollerblocks and Fat Padz, Walker Prologue Reference equipment and amp stands, Walker Valid Points and Resonance Control discs, Clearaudio Double Matrix SE record cleaner, Synergistic Research RED Quantum fuses, HiFi-Tuning silver/gold fuses

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