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DS Audio

Manufacturer: DS AUDIO
Price (in Poland): 45 600 PLN



Provided for test by: RCM

DS AUDIO is a Japanese company specializing in optical systems. Using its experience, they proposed a phono cartridge in which instead of a coil and a magnet there is a diode and a photo cell. The light falling on the photo cells is modulated by a tiny element attached to the cantilever at the same place where the magnets (MM cartridges) or coils (MC cartridges) are usually placed. It is a completely ANALOG system, which aims to eliminate the main issues of classic phono cartridges. We get to test the DS W2 system.

The last High End Show in Frankfurt at the Kempinski Hotel took place in 2003. This was the first audio show I attended as a journalist, back then of the "Sound & Vision" magazine. In addition to several conversations that I carried out at the time and a few devices that impressed me, I still remember only two presentations, two sounds that I "carry" in my mind ever since. One of them was prepared by the German company Ascendo, which presented its room acoustics correction system, and the other by the Japanese company ELP Japan.

The ELP presentation concerned a turntable in which vinyl records were read by a laser beam - in a similar way as is the case of optical discs (CD, DVD etc.) players. The system called LT-1XA Laser Turntable was very large, very expensive and extremely sensitive to dust on records, but the sound was remarkable. The idea of using a laser to read a groove of a vinyl record was not a new one, as it had been developed since 1972, and in 1977 at the 57th Audio Engineering Society (AES) meeting, William K. Heine presented a document titled A Laser Scanning Phonograph Record Player, however, a working record player was presented only in 1997.

Despite significant financing, the bankruptcy of the Finial Technology, the first company that dealt with this topic, even more money invested by the ELP, the idea did not work out. Why? As it seems, the key obstacle was on the one hand the funds that were still lacking, and on the other, the habits of audiophiles, who the laser and - more broadly - the optical technique associated only with digital recordings, and thus did not give it a chance. And yet the ELP turntables were completely analog and had nothing to do with the "digital" playback.

| LED cartridge

It seems that DS Audio was more fortunate and its products were accepted, despite also using optical reading system. Its mother company, the Digital Stream Corporation, was founded in 1998 by Tetuji Aoyagi and specialized in developing advanced optical technologies. For example, twenty years ago, they were Microsoft's partner at the time when the company introduced optical computer mouse to the market (more HERE), and today it produces almost all systems in the world used to test drives and CD-ROMs.

DS Audio is its "audio" division and its director is Tetsuaki Aoyagi, 33-year-old son of Aoyagi. The company focused on cartridges. The idea for an "optical" cartridge is not a new one. Already by the late 1940s, the model called Beam of Light was presented by Philco. The cartridge, however, got very hot during operation, making it unreliable. The C-100P cartridge of this type proposed by Toshiba was not entirely successful either. But it was the impulse or inspiration for development of the first DS Audio product.

The first goal was to identify issues of classic cartridges. The quick response is that there is always an issue with a vibrating mass and a low level of the output signal. The first problem is addressed by replacing magnets attached to the cantilever with coils – i.e. changing the MM cartridge into a MC one - and then reducing the number of turns in coils, and the latter by using stronger magnets and more precise winding of the coils. Both methods, however, have their limitations and small improvements require investing significant amounts of money.

DS Audio is a company specializing in optical technologies - its mother company is a manufacturer of industrial computer drives for testing errors on CD-ROMs. So they did a seemingly simple thing and replaced a coil-magnet system known from classic cartridges with a diode-shading plate-photo cells system. So there is a classic stylus, a classic cantilever, but at the other end there are no coils but rather a square element that obscures photo cells. When the stylus with the cantilever vibrate due to modulated grooves of the record, the shading plate also moves to the rhythm of the vibrations.

It's a completely analog system, the cartridge behaves like any classic one, however, on its output we get a completely different signal. The MM, MI and MC cartridges are speed measurement systems in which the output voltage increases with both increasing speed and frequency. In turn, the optical system proposed by DS Audio is sensitive only to the amplitude of vibrations. To properly "translate" this signal and to amplify it in a classic line preamplifier, one needs to combine a dedicated phonostage with DS Audio cartridge.

| DS W2

The DS W2 is one of the latest models of this brand and it is located below the top DS Master 1 in their portfolio. On the outside it looks like any other cartridge - it features an aluminum body with holes for mounting screws, a boron cantilever and a Micro Ridge stylus (both made by another specialist, Adamant Namiki Precision Jewel Col, Ltd.) and gold-plated pins that send the signal outside. The whole weighs 8.1 g, which is in the upper registers of the medium weight range. For comparison, the Miyajima Laboratory Madake cartridge weighs 9.7 g, and the Denon DL-103 - 8.5 g. Also, its VTF is completely "standard" with recommended value of 1.7 g.

The element that differentiates it from “normal” cartridges is the red LED highlighting the translucent element on its front, and a solid, weighing 12 kg, DS W2 EQ phonostage. The company describes the color of the diode as "Natural Rose". The phonostage is actually a powerful power supply, equipped with twelve capacitors smoothing out grid ripples, with a capacity of 56 000 μF each, with a thick, copper base and an aluminum housing. The top cover is transparent, which allows us to see the inside. As it reads in an interview I've already pointed you to, it was designed by an engineer responsible for the amplification system for Toshiba cartridges from forty years ago.

The actual phonostage circuit is small - it is a vertical PCB with precise elements, with input and output sockets soldered to it. There a single, unbalanced input using RCA sockets. There are two outputs, however, each of them featuring both, RCA and XLR sockets. These outputs offer different characteristics. One of them (No. 1) offers a flat frequency range, and low tones are cut below 30 dB (6 dB / oct). The second (No. 2) features two cut-off points - first at 50 Hz (-6 dB / oct), and then at 30 Hz (additional 6 dB / oct). The user can decide which one suits him better.

The preamplifier delivers an output signal rated at 500 mV, which is similar to the one gets from most classic phono preamplifiers.


The DS Audio DS W2 is a complete system consisting of a phono cartridge and a phonostage. One can not be used without the other, which is a similar solution to the Soundsmith's Strain Gauge system. This system needs to be compared to other cartridge/phonostage sets.

In our test the DS W2 was used in the Schröder CB Tonearm on the Döhmann Helix 1 turntable. It was compared to the Miyajima Lab. Madake cartridge on the ViV laboratory Ltd. Rigid Float 7/Ha tonearm. The signal was amplified in the RCM Audio Sensor Prelude IC phonostage, the Ayon Audio Spheris III linestage and the Soulution 710 power amplifier.

Records used for the test a selec- tion):

  • Bill Evans Trio, Waltz for Debby, Riverside Records/Analogue Productions APJ009, „Top 25 Jazz", Limited Edition #0773, 2 x 180 g, 45 rpm LP (1961/2008)
  • Brendan Perry, Ark, Cooking Vinyl/Vinyl 180 VIN180LP040, 2 x 180 g LP (2011)
  • Frank Sinatra, Swingin’ Session!!!, Capitol Records/Mobile Fidelity MFSL 1-407, “Special Limited Edition | No. 346”, 180 g LP (1961/2012)
  • Janusz Zabiegliński And His Swingtet, Janusz Zabiegliński and His Swingtet, Polskie Nagrania „Muza”, „Polish Jazz vol. 9”, LP (1967)
  • Joscho Stephan Trio, Paris-Berlin, Berliner Meister Schallplatten BMS 1817 V, „Limited Edition | No. 53”, 180 g Direct-To-Disc LP (2018)
  • Max Roach Quartet, Live in Tokyo Vol. 1, Denon Jazz YX-7508-ND, LP (1977)
  • Shinji Tanimura, Shinji Tanimura, Stereo Sound SSAR-013, „Studio Master Series. Stereo Sound Analog Records Collection”, 180 g LP (2017)
  • Takeshi Inomata and his Friends, Get Happy, Audio Lab. Record ALJ-1030, LP (1975)
  • Yama & Jiro’s Wave, Girl Talk, Three Blind Mice/Cisco TBM-2559-45, „45 RPM Special Limited Edition | No. 0080/1000”, 2 x 45 RPM 180 g LP (1975/2006)

You do know that there is no such thing as an "analogue sound", right? This is just an idea, a stereotype that makes it easier for us to communicate. There is no such thing in the sense, that it is impossible to explicitly point to a repetitive set of features that would make the sound "analog" as opposed to "digital" one - because this is a dichotomy it is usually about. There are so many different turntable systems that it would be really difficult to isolate a common "core" set of features from them. It would be even more difficult considering the fact that the DSD256 digital recordings are more and more "analogue".

If we add to it yet another variable, or reel-to-reel tape recorders, it turns out that the term "analog" has such a wide meaning that in practice it ceases to describe one type of sound. And yet - when I heard the DS Audio cartridge in my system, when I compared it with - almost textbook “analogue” - Miyajima Labs Madake cartridge, the “A” term came to my mind right away.

The optical cartridge sounds so creamy, dense. It presents large phantom images from the foreground, adding some body to them, as it also does to everything around them. The Joscho Stephan and Sven Jungbeck guitars from the direct-to-disc record by Joscho Stephan Trio had a larger volume, were warmer and smoother with it - but smoother in the sense that they seemed more "analogue".

Partly responsible for this effect is the deepening the midrange, especially in its lower range. It was obvious not only with the aforementioned album, but also with the original, monophonic pressing of the Janusz Zabiegliński And His Swingtet from the Polish Jazz series (vol. 9), which with the Miyajima cartridge sounded quite high, a bit like watching one of the Polish comedies from 1960s. With the DS Audio its sound has deepened, lowered and got richer. The sound was still open, based on the upper midrange, but now with a stronger bottom and better bass.

I heard it also with the fantastic re-edition of the Bill Evans Trio Waltz For Debby, prepared by the Analogue Productions label on two 45 r.p.m. records. Its sound with the DS Audio was juicy, saturated and smooth. In turn, the Miyajima was more intense in presenting dynamic shifts, as well as more clearly differentiated the sounds of cymbals, here mostly sweet and heavy.

The DS Audio system has something in it that calms the sound down - it does not put listeners to sleep but relaxes them. This is not a "race-car-type" audio product, but rather a comfortable limousine. Both the Waltz For Debby and another great re-release, this time by Cisco label, Yama & Jiro's Wave album titled Girl Talk, sounded ultra-analogue, if you know what I mean. Because there was an incredibly fast sound attack, both when it came to the lead piano from the record originally released in Japan by Three Blind Mice, as well as from the one by the American label Riverside.

It was interesting to hear, that the optical cartridge controlled the bass so well, and that it was a bit stronger and denser with it. I listened to a few records, including the Brendan Perry's Ark, and it turned out that DS Audio has something like a "brake" in-build that counteracts the prolongation of the bass sound. It makes it not go so far down as with the Miyajima Labs cartridge, nor so dynamic, but it is always well-controlled and on the right side of power.

It also affects the way the vocals are presented. Frank Sinatra from the re-release of the Swingin 'Session album, Shinji Tanimura from a record released by the 'Stereo Sound' magazine, aforementioned Brendan Perry, etc. - all those vocalists with the optical cartridge had a slightly larger volume and were presented in a richer, more substantial way. Does it make that this presentation was superior? It depends, as always, on what one considers to be "better" :)

The DS Audio cartridge achieves all this in a way that a cynic might call a "trick", and what I would rather consider a "measure". What it does, it approximates the foreground plan, which makes it a bit larger and seems more substantial. It also pulls the back of the sound stage closer, and as result what is closer to us seems richer, denser. The Miyajima's cartridge builds the soundstage way back, more accurately - for example - by separating percussion on the Zabiegliński's album from the leader's brass, pushing the guitars away on the Joscho Stephan album, giving them more space to "breath".

While adding a bit richness to the presentation, the optical cartridge also levels the "importance" of individual events. The point is that everything is nice and pleasant with it, rich and refined - but I mean everything and not just what the sound engineer placed in the foreground. It offers incredible effects, as with the Sinatra's record, who had a truly seductive voice, like with Evans' piano, which sounded almost as if it stood in my room, just slightly diminished. Also records sounding a bit bright, somewhat - let's say - digitally, are subjected to these measures.

It is delivered effortlessly, beautifully, but there is a cost to it - a little lesser - though still excellent! - color differentiation or a smaller depth of the sound stage. However, all this is happening at such a high level of performance that it is really difficult to say which way is better or worse, it will depend on what one expects and which compromises are acceptable. Because there are always some compromises with both, DS Audio and with Miyajima.

The optical cartridge has a feature that makes it necessary to select the records carefully - it is a design that strongly reacts strongly to uneven plates, i.e. wobbly records. Classic cartridges, due to their design, to some extent are able to absorb such defects, while the DS Audio shows them directly as the variation in a pitch. So you have to listen to perfectly flat records with it.

On the plus side, we are still talking about the playback mechanics, one can write down the fact that the DS Audio system is completely quiet: there is no hum, and the noise is located almost exclusively in highest frequencies. The RCM Audio phonostage I use is a little bit less noisy, but only at the very top – in the midrange and bass area there is more noise than in the DS Audio system. Generally, therefore, the optical system from Japan adds less distortion to the sound than classic cartridges and phonostages.


Rarely, very rarely in audio we encounter a technical solution that brings something valuable enough that the solution doesn't matter anymore, but rather what it has to offer. The DS Audio optical system is one such proposal. Technically it is radically different from classical solutions, but it doesn't make its performance quirky or even different, and yet it does have features that are typical only for it.

The sound it offers is extremely comfortable. It is rich from the top the the very bottom, it beautifully shows the foreground, which is large, rich and strong. There is high dynamics here and great resolution. The cartridge tends to slightly embellish the sound and focus on a close, strong foreground. The presentation is complemented by perfectly controlled, meaty bass and sweet treble.

This is a proposal for refined high-end-fans who do not search for the most detailed, most resolving sound anymore but rather want to enjoy their records with a wide spectrum of music in comfort.

Technical specifications (according to manufacturer)

VTF: 1.6-1.8 g (recommended: 1.7 g)
Chanel separation: >25 dB (1 kHz)
Weight: 8.1 g
Output: >50 mV
Cantilever: boron
Body: aluminum
Stylus: Micro Ridge

Output: 500 mV (1 kHz)
Output impedance (RCA | XLR): 120 Ω | 600 Ω
Dimensions (W x H x D): 430 x 107 x 384 mm
Weight: 12 kg


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