DS Audio DS-W1 “Nightrider” Optical Cartridge

Let There Be Light

Equipment report
Musical Surroundings DS-W1
DS Audio DS-W1 “Nightrider” Optical Cartridge

It is not always (or often) the case that theoretical advantages translate into sonic ones. The Nightrider is an exception—or appears to be. It does not, in fact, emphasize high frequencies in the way velocity-proportional moving coils do. Indeed, in tonal balance it sounds more like an exceptionally quick and detailed moving magnet than a moving coil. (Another reviewer has compared its sound to reel-to-reel tape, because, I guess, of its treble-range smoothness, though the Nightrider doesn’t have anything like the dynamic range and sledgehammer low-end power of tapes.)

For those of us who are wedded to moving coils, the Nightrider’s presentation takes a little getting used to. Though an mc’s added energy in the upper mids and treble can be disconcerting (if not outright annoying in worst cases), it also adds (or can add) something essentially lifelike to the sound: transient speed and resolution.

It’s odd how important transients are. They aren’t “musical” in the sense of having a fundamental pitch followed by an orderly series of overtones, and yet without transients a listener cannot reliably distinguish where an instrument is located in a soundfield or how its being played. Indeed, absent a starting transient it is often impossible to identify what kind of instrument is playing. That’s how crucial these starting and stopping noises are to ears, music, and high fidelity.

Now most transients live in the upper midrange and treble, and because of their velocity-proportional design, moving coils are particularly adept at reproducing information in this very area. It could—and often has been—argued that mc’s over-emphasize transient attacks (along with treble-range overtones), but when mc’s are properly designed and set up, the best of them (such as the Clearaudio Goldfinger Statement) can deliver the whole package—transients, timbre, resolution, soundstaging, imaging, deep bass, midbass slam, etc.—with amazingly lifelike fidelity and without sounding too bright or knife-edged.

Though superior in this regard to moving magnets and many coils, the Nightrider cannot deliver Goldfinger Statement-level transient speed and resolution. This is not to say that it blunts attacks or smears detail. It does not. It is very quick, hard-hitting, and high in resolution—very rich and full-bodied in timbre, and very transparent to sources (with the Nightrider RCAs sounding like RCAs, Mercuries like Mercuries, Deccas like Deccas). It just doesn’t have quite the snap and slam of a fifteen-grand coil feeding a thirty-grand phonostage. To be fair, there are plenty of listeners, including many on our staff, who would prefer this smoother, darker, politer presentation.

The other thing that the Nightrider can’t deliver that something like the Goldfinger can is a wall-to-wall soundstage. Of course, nothing (or nothing I’ve heard) is quite as good at this as the Clearaudio is, but the Nightrider isn’t just a little inferior to the Goldfinger in this regard; it’s a whole lot less panoramic than the Clearaudio—and than most coils I’ve tried. Oddly enough, this is something that was verified when my friend Andre Jennings measured the Nightrider’s crosstalk (with the cartridge mounted in the TW Acustic Raven 10.5 tonearm on the $40,000 Raven Black Knight turntable), which barely registered 20dB left-to-right and right-to-left (though its phase numbers were excellent). By comparison, the Goldfinger and the Air Tight Opus measure upwards of 35dB (and are equally impressive in phase angle when azimuth is properly adjusted). The sonic upshot of these measurable differences is a narrower soundstage, once again rather more like that of a moving magnet than a moving coil.

Lest I scare any of you off, let me be clear: This is an excellent cartridge—certainly the finest of its kind I’ve heard—that seemingly combines some of the best features of mc’s and mm’s. Though I’ve compared it repeatedly to moving magnets in this review (and another reviewer has compared it to reel-to-reel tape), that is because of the natural warmth, richness, and smoothness of its timbre, particularly in the upper mids and treble, where it has a tape-like recessiveness rather than a coil-like aggressiveness. In transient response, resolution, and imaging, it is more like an mc than an mm; it’s just not the full equal of an über-coil like the Goldfinger Statement, Air Tight Opus, or Ortofon MC Anna in these regards. Its only significant deficiency vis-à-vis coils is, as noted, soundstage width—but I wouldn’t call that a deal-breaker—while its advantage over coils is the aforementioned liquidity of its tonal balance.

In fact, when you consider that you get this marvel of engineering and its dedicated EQ/power supply unit for $8500—and that you don’t have to buy an outboard phonostage to boost its output to line level—I’d call it a very good buy. Yeah, you can do better, but, as I said about the Odyssey Stratos monoblocks, do you really want to spend five times the money—say $15k for a Goldfinger Statement and, oh, $30k for an ARC Reference Phono 10—on an analog rig? Though the sound will undoubtedly improve in every respect if you do so, I can’t honestly say it’ll be anything like five times better.

If sheer niftiness and excellent sound at a substantial savings vis-à-vis other ultra-high-end cartridge and phonostage combos are high on your analog agenda, the Nightrider is definitely a cartridge I’d seek out.


Type: Optical phono cartridge with dedicated EQ/power supply unit
Output voltage: 500mV
Recommended tracking force: 1.3 to 1.7g
Stylus shape: Shibata
Cantilever: Boron
Weight: 6.5g
Price: $8500 (with phonostage)

(510) 547-5006

JV’s Reference System

Loudspeakers: Raidho D-5, Raidho D-1, Avantgarde Zero 1, Avantgarde Trio/Basshorn, MartinLogan CLX, Magnepan .7, Magnepan 1.7, Magnepan 3.7, Magnepan 20.7, JL Audio Gotham subwoofer
Linestage preamps: Soulution 725, Audio Research Reference 10, Siltech SAGA System C1, Zanden 3100
Phonostage preamps: Audio Research Corporation Reference Phono 10, Innovative Cohesion Engineering Raptor, Soulution 725
Power amplifiers: Soulution 711, Siltech SAGA System V1/P1, Constellation Centaur, Audio Research Reference 250, Lamm ML2.2, Zanden 8120, Odyssey Audio Stratos
Analog source: Walker Audio Proscenium Black Diamond Mk V, TW Acustic Black Knight, AMG Viella 12
Tape deck: United Home Audio UHA-Q Phase 11 OPS
Phono cartridges: Clearaudio Goldfinger Statement, Ortofon MC Anna, Ortofon MC A90, Benz LP S-MR
Digital source: Berkeley Alpha DAC 2
Cable and interconnect: Crystal Cable Absolute Dream, Synergistic Research Galileo LE, Ansuz Acoustics Diamond
Power Cords: Crystal Cable Absolute Dream, Synergistic Research Galileo LE, Ansuz Acoustics Diamond
Power Conditioner: Synergistic Research Galileo LE, Technical Brain
Accessories: Synergistic ART and HFT/FEQ system, Shakti Hallographs (6), Zanden room treatment, A/V Room Services Metu panels and traps, ASC Tube Traps, Critical Mass MAXXUM equipment and amp stands, 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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