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Review: The DS Audio 003 Phono Cartridge

This review covers the DS Audio 003 optical cartridge along with its companion DS Audio 003 Equalizer – Power Supply.  

Quick Summary 

The DS Audio 003 is the entry level model in the DS Audio line of phono cartridges. All DS cartridges work on a different principle than the conventional moving magnet or moving coil cartridges we are accustomed to. I’ll explain later on why an optical signal generator is potentially desirable. But first I want to explain that the DS Audio 003, while entry level for DS, is not inexpensive. The cartridge is priced at $2500. I should say that while this is not inexpensive, it also isn’t in the $10k or higher range where the most revered moving coils and phono stages tend to be priced. However, if you are currently using a moving magnet or moving coil cartridge, you will need another box, which DS Audio calls an equalizer, that works with optical cartridges. Conventional phono stages or transformers won’t work with an optical cartridge. There are various reasons for this, but fundamental among these is that MC and MM cartridges are velocity sensors and optical cartridges are amplitude sensors, resulting in the need for much less and different EQ. The DS Audio 003 Equalizer – Energizer that I used is $3500, so you’re looking at $6000 all-in if you buy these products in the U.S. Hopefully that helps you decide whether this review is worth reading further. 

The other thing that may help is a brief overview of sound quality. That, fortunately, is pretty easy. The DS Audio 003 cartridge system sounds different from and more accurate than any cartridge I’ve heard near its price range. The central sonic element of the DS sound is a level of clarity that comes from removing a top-to-bottom kind of veiling that accompanies all the competing MC cartridges I’ve heard. Because this feature seems endemic to MC and MM cartridges, we might not really notice it until it is removed. Which I think is why the DS 003 is so shocking. I should say, in addition, that this increased clarity and the resulting character of the DS 003 system may or may not be to your liking.  

Why An Optical Cartridge? 


You may have figured out by now that I’m somewhat fascinated by alternative audio mechanisms that attempt to address fundamental issues in sound reproduction. I think the DS cartridges are that sort of thing. I’m interested because in my typology, the DS cartridges are a Type 2 product, meaning that they use a different-than-conventional technology that attempts to improve the price/performance possibilities offered in the market by more than an incremental amount. Most products are Type 1, which aim for refinements that perhaps a 0.1% improvement – valuable but subtle from generation to generation. Type 2 products are aiming for more like a 1% improvement. But by changing technologies, Type 2 products often invoke tradeoffs that may reduce the net benefit. Type 3 products, which are very rare, are fundamentally different in that they try to solve a problem inherent in the music reproduction architecture. These are going for maybe a 10% gain. I say all this to help you frame the size of the changes wrought by the DS 003 system. It is in the 1% camp. 


To do this, DS Audio alters the means by which the cartridge generates an electrical signal. As usual, I will simplify how this works with the aim of making understanding easy.  

We should start with a standard moving magnet or moving coil cartridge design. These, and the DS Audio, start with a stylus that rides in the groove of the record and is deflected by the wiggles of the groove. The stylus is installed in (or sometimes part of) a cantilever, which is a thin tube or bar that runs up through an elastomeric “bearing” in the cartridge body. Above the bearing, the cantilever continues and has some part of the generator system attached to it.  

Moving Coil design

  • In a moving coil cartridge, there are wire coils glued to the cantilever. Very close by, attached to the cartridge body, there are fixed magnets. A basic electrical principle is that when a wire is moved in a magnetic field, a current is generated in the wire. That electrical current is the signal that goes to a phono stage and then is eventually equalized and amplified a lot to drive your speakers.

Moving Magnet design

  • In a moving magnet cartridge, there are magnets glued to the cantilever. Then wound coils are fixed to the body of the cartridge. You still have wires moving relative to a magnetic field, because the magnets move when the stylus does. And you still generate a current in the wires. 


  • You have, perhaps, noticed that MC and MM cartridges have fundamentally similar electro-magnetic generator systems. The difference is an important executional one: the magnets and the wires that work in practical designs have different masses and that affects the output level and signal accuracy of each design. But for our purposes, the generator systems are rather similar electromagnetic motors. 


  • The DS Audio optical cartridges are not electro-magnetic. I should say that, for those of you old enough to recall earlier optical ideas, the DS is also not a laser system that reflects light off the record grooves. Apparently, that was commercially unworkable. In a modern optical cartridge, there are “shading plates” glued to the end of the cantilever inside the cartridge body. Attached to the body is an LED light that shines on a light sensor for each channel. The shading plates control the amount of light which goes from LEDs to sensors. 


LED and Sensor

The “so what?” of the optical cartridge idea involves several ideas. First, it may be the shading plates have lower mass than practical coils or magnets. This lower mass might lead to better tracking by the stylus and the generator elements. It is not hard to imagine that a given cantilever would be subjected to large forces when whipping around at, say, 100 hz or 1,000 hz. If mass, and those forces, could be reduced, accuracy might improve. No one, to my knowledge, publishes these masses, so this is more the theory than known practice for any specific set of cartridges.  

There is another aspect to optical cartridge theory that isn’t conjecture at all but is a bit hard to understand. This is the known property of magnetic circuits to exhibit hysteresis. Basically, hysteresis is a non-linearity in a magnetic circuit caused by the output of the circuit varying depending on the immediately prior output. If the coils moved in a positive direction and then reverse direction, the electrical output caused by the magnetic field will be different than if the coils reverse direction from a previously negative position for example. Non-linearity may sound fancy and obscure, but basically it means this causes a distortion.  

Hysterisis curves

Optical cartridges don’t have magnetic circuits at their core, so they don’t exhibit hysteresis. That doesn’t automatically mean they don’t have non-linearities, for example in their optical sensors, but the idea is that these are easier to correct. The DS Audio phono stage exists in part to do this.   

As I mentioned previously, optical cartridges are amplitude sensors, not velocity sensors. This and other distinctive elements of optical cartridge design, mean that the equalization and amplification needed in the equalizer-energizer box is different and less radical than with MC or MM cartridges. Perhaps this also has sound quality benefits. 

Now, as I’ve said before, I don’t think most of us can reason from theory to sound quality very well. I present this information to give you an idea of whether the DS cartridges might be worth investigating. You might expect them to be more different than, say, two good moving coil cartridges and you might expect that difference to be more a difference in kind than in degree. So, if you’re looking for an improvement on your current cartridge in one particular area where it slightly bugs you, the DS Audio line probably isn’t your solution. But if you might want a larger step away from where you currently are with analog, this is worth checking out.  

Sound Quality 

The DS 003 sound in my experience generates very different reactions from various listeners. I have talked to many of these listeners to try to understand this, and I hope to use the resulting framework in explaining the DS sound to help you decide what you might conclude after listening to the DS 003.  

As I said, the 003 strikes me has having three basic, immediately noticeable qualities. First is the clarity that I mentioned at the beginning. With the 003, records simply sound more open and more resolved. My sense is that some layer of subtle noise or distortion has been removed. The 003 is just more transparent to the source, or that’s my reaction to it.  

Another element of the 003 is that, in my judgement, it has flatter frequency response than many cartridges. I don’t know that this is a measured quality, but the 003 just sounds very balanced and “right” in the character of instruments and their balance across the band or orchestra.  

Finally, the imaging of the 003 seems a bit wider and deeper than with similarly priced cartridges. The DS cartridge just sounds more “airy”.  

That all may sound very positive, but as I said, some listeners don’t view it that way. Why? 

One reason may be that there are many cartridges that do not have ruler flat frequency response and these cartridges are often chosen because their deviations from flat lend a beautiful, engaging or dynamic character to the music in certain systems. You could say that these cartridges are being used as tone controls, but if you listen you can also say that these cartridges have wonderfully and expertly judged tonality that brings LPs to life. And anyone who thinks the rest of their system is ruler flat is delusional. So, you could say that all systems are balancing tradeoffs in the frequency domain and ask why the cartridge shouldn’t be part of this system design work? 

Another way of comparing the DS Audio sound to similarly priced MC cartridges is to say that the DS 003 sounds more like digital recordings than old-fashioned analog does, but in a very particular way. Don’t think of “digital” here as a one-dimensional thing, because it isn’t. The DS 003 has the smoothness and naturalness of analog together with the linearity and transparency of digital. I think the better high-end MC cartridges have been moving in this direction, too.  

Now, it is very important to note that this comparison is better made between the DS 003 and hi-res digital decoded on a high-end DAC. The DS doesn’t sound like Red Book CD, especially when Red Book recordings are played on modest DACs that emphasize the characteristic digital distortions in the upper frequencies. You don’t find those with the DS 003. But we should note the digital also has characteristically lower harmonic distortion and flatter frequency response. Much lower, in fact. This is where the DS 003 seems to shine.  

So, from one point of view, the DS 003 is closer to digital in its balance and transparency, but without the ugly distortions than can be part of the digital package. From another point of view, digital is sterile and excessively clean, though I feel this characterization ignores the progress made with hi-res recordings and high-end DACs. 

I take you through this “on the one hand, on the other hand” set of perspectives because you aren’t me and your reaction could well be different from mine. I found the DS 003 sound to be all gain and essentially no pain. The clarity is impressive and I enjoy the neutrality. I love the smooth, natural character. But I also am enthralled with high res digital which can do these things too, albeit in a different mix. And I like the sound of live music.  

So, if, like me, you think the DS 003 character sounds attractive, you might ask “why bother; why not just use digital?” Which leads us to the difficult-to-answer question of “what is it about analog that people love and does the DS 003 deliver that?” 

One big part of the answer is that for older recordings that are 16 bit/44.1k in digital form, the vinyl version generally avoids the digital grunge that is sometimes endemic to the Red Book CD format. If much of the music you like was recorded between 1955 and 1985, and you have it on vinyl, then you might be better served by vinyl through the DS 003 than with digital.  

And if you listen to more modern recordings in high-res digital, I think you might find the DS cartridge to be more synergistic with the balance of your system if you tuned it for digital (or vice versa) than you might find many MC cartridges.  

Another part of the answer to “why use vinyl with a cartridge like the DS 003” is that there is an “analog-ness” to vinyl that is refreshing. Or seemingly more natural. It is an “I know it when I hear it” kind of thing. But I don’t think it is magic. Some of the analog character comes from avoiding the medium-res digital distortions mentioned above, but some of it comes from the properties of vinyl reproduction. An example may help. Channel separation with vinyl systems that are expertly set up is in the 27-30 db range. Channel separation with digital is normally greater than 100 db. That isn’t a minor difference. It is unlikely that it doesn’t have a sonic effect. You might think lower channel separation would be deleterious, but I observe this: 


  • normal stereo can often have sounds that appear to come from or to be locked on to the speakers


  • with vinyl, the central image can be stronger, perhaps as a result of the lower channel separation


  • getting the image to seem less artificial, as vinyl may do, can help with the suspension of disbelief and create a more relaxed and musically-attentive listener


I don’t know if this explanation is correct, and I think there are likely other elements of analog-ness. As an example, analog doesn’t have to have a ‘brick wall rolloff” at 20khz that Red Book digital requires. We’ve already discussed avoiding Red Book format grunge, but there might be another element at work here. There are some papers that suggest that human hearing – in the time domain — extends well above 20k, so it could be that vinyl preserves important information that Red Book files do not. Interestingly, it isn’t obvious that the DS 003 response extends much above 20khz. But maybe that extension is enough.  

My point isn’t so much that I can fully explain the advantages or distinctiveness of vinyl, but that there are reasons it might exist that aren’t in the realm of magic. So, you might want to use a turntable with important recordings and the DS 003 might be the ideal cartridge for maximizing the vinyl experience if you value realism and transparency.  


So, to summarize: 

  • The DS 003 system has a distinctive clarity and transparency among cartridges around its price point
  • It has a neutral frequency balance that is impressively accurate but may or may not be what you want
  • It preserves much of the special analog character that many people greatly enjoy


This is my favorite cartridge right now. I haven’t used the top-end moving coils, so I’m not saying it is the best cartridge on earth. And I hope I’ve been clear that some people would rank other cartridges above this one. Also, some people like me keep another cartridge on hand for those times when favorite LPs need something different (mixing and mastering have changed a lot from the 1950s). But for realism at what seems to be to be a reasonable price based on our value criterion, this one is a winner.  


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