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DS Audio DS 002 Optical Cartridge

A long time before most of you were born, grandpa here used to use a phono cartridge called the Decca London, whose chief virtue was the elimination of what Decca called “cantilever haze.” “What’s that?” I hear you whippersnappers asking. Well, kiddies, it’s like this: All phono cartridges convert the physical vibrations of a stylus into an electrical signal. Most use a cantilever—a thin metal tube equipped with a flexible rubber ring that acts as a fulcrum—to transmit those vibrations from the stylus at one end to the moving magnets or coils at the other. Now Decca claimed that the resonances of that cantilever, the damping effect of the rubber fulcrum, and the sheer mass of the magnetic engine at the far end of this virtual “see-saw” caused losses of clarity, transient speed, and dynamic range—i.e., “cantilever haze.” Decca’s way of lifting that haze was to eliminate the cantilever, using an angled iron armature in its place, with a stylus on the playing end and no moving parts on the other. Instead, the armature was situated directly within a magnetic field, surrounded on top and to its sides by stationary magnets and coils. The iron armature was magnetized by the magnets, and its movement up-and-down and side-to-side caused lines of magnetic flux to cut through the coils, inducing a voltage. Decca called the system “positive scanning.”

“Why are you telling us this story, gramps,” I hear you asking, “when the cartridge under review, the DS Audio DS 002, has absolutely nothing in common with Decca cartridges? Are you going soft in the head?” Well, first, I resent that question. You should show some respect for your elders. And, second, smartasses, the DS 002 does have something in common with the Decca London. It, too, eliminates (or greatly reduces) cantilever haze—only it does so by entirely different means. Rather than a fixed array of magnets and coils, it uses a fixed LED and optical sensor to turn the vibrations of its Shibata-tipped cantilever into electricity.

Two years ago I reviewed the first iteration of a DS Audio cartridge, the DS-W1 “Night Rider,” and though, as you will soon see, several things have changed for the better in the DS 002, the basic operating system remains the same. If I may quote from that review without again being accused of going soft in the head, here is how it works: “The cartridge uses a light source (a miniature LED) that is powered via tonearm cables and internal tonearm wiring by an outboard equalizer/power supply (which you must purchase along with the cartridge and which replaces your phonostage). The record-groove vibrations transmitted by the stylus/cantilever modulates this LED light by means of an ultra-low-mass screen or shutter attached to the cantilever. This modulated light is picked up by the photodiode, which converts the light into an electrical signal, sending it back through the tonearm wires and interconnects to the equalizer/power supply unit where it is RIAA-equalized and amplified into a line-level output.”

According to DS Audio, removing the coils and magnets not only makes the cartridge itself lighter (a mere 8.1 grams) and more responsive (thanks to the considerable reduction in moving mass), it also eliminates the inevitable counter-effect those magnets and coils have on cantilever movement due to weight, friction, and eddy currents. Unlike the engine of a moving-coil or a moving-magnet cartridge, DS Audio’s optical system is said to have “absolutely no [reciprocal] effect on the vibration of the stylus/cantilever system.”

In addition, DS Audio claims that its optical cartridge offers a superior mechanical/electrical interface. Conventional moving-coil or moving-magnet cartridges read the velocity of a stylus’ vibrations, so the strength of their output signal depends on how fast the stylus moves. The DS 002, on the other hand, reads the amplitude of a stylus’ vibrations, so the strength of its output signal depends on how far the stylus moves.

According to DS Audio, this is significant because velocity-proportional devices move faster at higher frequencies, thus making the voltage of those frequencies disproportionately strong (and that of the slower-vibrating bass notes relatively weak). Although the RIAA circuits in phonostages are intended to invert this accentuation of the treble and reduction of the bass, and loading mc cartridges down can also damp this treble pre-emphasis, it is a fact that mc’s, in particular, are relatively “bright” by nature. Thanks to its amplitude-proportional technology, the DS 002 electrical output is not frequency dependent. Thus, it does not exaggerate the treble or reduce the bass, making RIAA equalization relatively simple and extending linear low-end response to well below what mm and mc’s are typically capable of. (In theory an optical cartridge can detect signals as low as 1Hz.)

What has changed in the DS 002 from the original “Night Rider” (which was essentially Toshiba’s optical cartridge from the 1960s updated with present-day materials) is two-fold. First, the LED and photo sensor have been moved closer to the stylus, so that the amplitude of its vibrations (modulated by the screen) can be read with greater precision. Second, thanks to the input of several moving-coil experts (including the folks at Lyra), DS Audio has gone to a more traditional stylus suspension, where the cantilever is held rigidly in place via a small tension wire coming out its back and secured by a setscrew. Once again this greater rigidity allows for better reading of stylus vibration.

These two relatively small changes have made a huge change in the sound of the cartridge. Where I felt the original “Night Rider” sounded like a decent moving magnet, the DS 002 sounds like…well, like nothing I’ve ever heard before—save for a Decca in the way it eliminates “cantilever haze” (though in every other key regard it is much better than that the last Decca I reviewed ten years ago, the $5295 London Reference).

You simply have to listen to a cartridge without “cantilever haze” to understand how accustomed we are to hearing it, even through many of the finest moving coils. With the DS 002, it is almost literally as if a thin curtain of fog lying between you and the music has been lifted, making for a sudden and remarkable improvement in directness, clarity, and realism—particularly in the heart of the midband. To put this plainly, you hear a lot more of what was recorded, including a good deal you haven’t heard as clearly (or at all) in the past.


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

(510) 547-5006
[email protected]

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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