An Analogue Fan...
Ever since I was bitten by the analogue bug, I became very interested in the development of new analogue products, especially those that may give me a different perspective of analogue reproduction. A number of years ago, that enthusiasm, curiosity and anxiety brought me to purchase the SoundSmith StrainGauge phono system, without any audition. That decision did not disappoint me, even to this very day. It was not better than my other MC cartridge and phono stage combos, but it did present me a very different kind of analogue presentation that was both tasty and refreshing.
The StrainGauge employed different kind of technology compared to the DS Audio's Optical Phono Cartridge and Equalizer (DS-W1) system (hereinafter referred to as DS Audio). The StrainGauge measures displacement (rather than velocity) from the vibration of the stylus, whereas the DS Audio uses a beam of light to detect stylus vibration and that photo-electric conversion generates the audio signal which will be sent to its dedicated equalizer/power supply (for the beam of light). From that equalizer unit, the generated signal is strong enough to work with most line stage or pre amplifier.
You can imagine my excitement when Tetsuaki Aoyagi of DS Audio replied me that a review sample was ready to ship out to me, after a year since my first request to them. The DS Audio arrived well packed with attention to detail in every aspect to secure its safe arrival. I was mightily impressed with the aluminum block used to make the box to secure the optical phono cartridge.
The First Impression...
The outlook of the DS Audio is clean and simple. There is no sophistication in its operation. No loading option or gain setting that are available in most normal or conventional phono stages. Affix the DS Audio Optical Cartridge as you would any other phono cartridge and then hook up the phono cable from the tonearm to the DS Audio equalizer unit as if you would to a phono stage.
But, the DS Audio equalizer unit does have two output option (both are RCA output); where Output One has 35Hz signal cut off at 6db/oct, and Output Two has 50Hz signal cut off at 6db/oct. These output options have an obvious impact on the low frequencies. The listeners have to choose or play with either output option to select one most suited to his audio system's ultimate performance. I opted with Output One throughout this review unless indicated otherwise.
The recommended VTF is around 1.5 gram (min 1.3 gram - max 1.7 gram) which I do not agree after some experimentations. But of course, some may disagree... knock yourself off and enjoy the process (I sure did). My preferred VTF was around 1.3 gram which is the minimum recommended VTF. In addition, I found the best overall result was achieved with the VTA set with the optical cartridge's top surface (or the flat surface of the head shell) be parallel with the record surface. I did find that the DS Audio Optical cartridge requires more attention in its set up. In a way, this cartridge is more revealing of the set up discrepancies than any other cartridges that I have the pleasure to play with. In other words, the optical cartridge is also (very) sensitive to the condition of the grooves on the records. In addition, it allows the user to know better his records' condition and/or his phono cartridge set up skill.
I did set up the DS Audio on a number of analogue rigs in my arsenal and on a friend's that comprised of the Acoustical System's Aquilar tonearm and Acoustic Signature's Thunder (model) turntable. I have to admit that the general result at both systems were quite agreeable...(read on)
After some hard work, the result spoke...
What really impressed me immediately was how much details were projected at me. It's transparency to the recording was immediately apparent. I felt that I could hear more into the recording. The DS Audio was able to present complicated orchestra works in all their glorious detailing. I played the "Massenet", City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (Klavier Records KS 522) where the scale of the full orchestra came into life with its intended full impression, weight and clarity. It was the vividness of every musician in the orchestra that spelled out the magic. In any lesser than stellar analogue system, the high number of musicians here would have been presented as a "mess of sound".
When I played the "Fiesta!" by Howard Dunn conducting the Dallas Wind Symphony (Reference Recordings RR-38), I noticed that the presentation of soundstage was wider and higher comparatively, as if the soundstage open out throughout my entire listening room (or audio den). The musicians were farther separated and that contributed to the ease of following the work. The flow of the presentation was clear and clean. In addition, every musical instruments were presented with such glorious energy. They were well extended from the low to the higher region of the bandwidth. The bells (from the first track, side 1) were more extended in the highs and mid range, comparatively. The trumpet blows were well extended with transient of energy and dynamism. I did find such presentation more exciting and uplifting (to my taste), thus presented the work with its intended life and energy.
Next, I played the "Wagner: Ride of the Valkyries" (Sheffield Lab Direct Disc Recording 7) where Erich Leinsdorf conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic. The beginning of that big play was filled with such grandeur and energy (again, I know), and DS Audio presented that work as it was, with grandeur and energy (I am repeating myself). In addition, in the midst of bombastic macro details, the subtleties and micro detailing were not clouded or suffered but were in their intended place. That was the testament of its ability to separate the elements in the musical work and (still) maintained them in complicated passages. I dare say that the TriangleArt Apollo MC phono cartridge together with the Vitus Masterpiece MP-P201 or FM Acoustics 223 phono stage were the best that I have heard thus far, especially in those areas of retrieval of maximum detail and separation (and of course many other areas too).
Here, in terms of detail and separation, the DS Audio was not a TriangleArt Apollo MC cartridge with either Vitus Masterpiece or the FM Acoustics phono stage but it was not far behind from my "analogue best" (in my audio den, of course).
Down to the intimacies...
My next question is how intimate the detailing is to improve the realism of the musical instrument as a whole amidst others in the work. Most audiophiles have and/or heard "Art Pepper meets The Rhythm Section" (Analogue Production APJ 010). That was a well known vinyl album for good reasons...both the music and the recording were good. Here, you want to catch Art's skill with his alto sax and how well the combination with his accompanied Rhythm Section. The DS Audio nailed Art's artistry with his alto sax well with vividness into the breath and blow into that instrument. The weight and size of the alto sax was right on the scale in comparison with the accompanied piano, bass and drums.
The piano notes were cleanly presented at the right tempo. In other words, each note's start and stop were clear, and with only the right amount of decay. The bass (the instrument) was not clouded by the mid but was clearly defined and its image was well delineated. The drums' thwack and attack were nothing short of impressive. You would hear the micro detail of every hit on the drums' skin. I noticed that each instrument was presented with a certain touch of bloom that was most suitable to the high level of extracted details; texture, layering and weight that ultimately added the palpability and density in its presentation (as a whole).
I always wanted my audio source components (and all my other audio components) to introduce the least amount of color, as possible, into the ultimate presentation. I realized that there was no such thing as "true to the source". That was and still is an illusion. The DS Audio did not change my perception (of course), but it did bring me closer to that illusion. Firstly, I noticed no exaggeration in any particular range of frequencies or bandwidth. I felt it was tonally clean (which I cannot say for many phono cartridges and phono stages) but may not be "tonally natural". What is "natural sounding" and "true to source" can be quite subjective. "One to his own taste and arguments", is my reply to most. What the DS Audio brought to my analogue plate was the transparency to detail, separation, great soundstage and instrumentation in its full and unadulterated clean bandwidth.
Let's get a singer...
The human voice can be very complicated to reproduce. It is not enough that the audio component's output to have a balance or a clean tonality. It must be able to extract that layer of resolution that I like to term the emotional content that is able to touch the very soul of the listener. I m not trying to be gnostic but I have experienced enough to know the existence of that layer of resolution. It's not (just) the "tube effect" that many try to credit the realism in vocal reproduction. Some believed that slowing down the tempo allowed more "feel" into the human element in the vocal reproduction. If that is true (to an extent), then the reproduction of the other musical instrument, especially the piano and bass will suffered. Therefore, I still (like? to) believe it was that layer of resolution that spelled out the human vocal in an audio system's performance.
I played my usual test vocal vinyl album, by a Singaporean female diva, (Ms.) Kit Chan (New Century Workshop NCKCLP 001). Here, I found her sensual and intimate voice back by a single piano (on track 1, side 1) was most suitable to describe the above. The DS Audio was there to extract that layer of emotional content that brought breath into her vocal. That breath came with it energy that I would deemed life into her voice. To stretch the same further, I played Radka Toneff and Steve Dobrogosz, "Fairytales" (Odin LP 003) where I heard enough substance and presence in her voice that the other musical instrument (piano) did not drown hers out. That voice maintained a steady and strong position, in a space of her own, within a wide soundstage. The whole presentation was surreal. Comparatively with my "analogue best", I would say that I would want more of that density and palpability that I am used to (I am being picky here).
Backed by a background that was...
"I would cried out loud now, that was the quietest phono system that I have ever came across (thus far)!", that was all over my initial notes for the review of the DS Audio. I would like to add that the quietness was scary. It resulted the surreal experience of having vocal(s) and musical instruments, each having its own space, floated out within a soundstage that was as massive and dead quiet, as my audio system can project. Here, I played "Blue City" by Isao Suzuki Quartet + 1 (Three Blind Mice TBM 24 / Trio Records PAP-20015) where the musicians played in a semi dark and confined recording studio.
I would push my statement further that I felt (not just heard) that each musician in that session was in my audio den and made that recording here. To me, an extreme quiet audio component could have that effect on the listener. The DS Audio scored highest in that department!
What more could I say?
The DS Audio Optical Phono system is not a "Do It Yourself" product by someone in his basement. It is a creation by a team of engineers (headed by Tetsuaki Aoyagi) in an established corporation, the Digital Stream Corporation (DSC) that specialized in laser-optical based technologies for more than 25 years, in the Land of the Rising Sun (Japan). The finished product spoke for itself in build quality and performance, at an asking price of a high end phono cartridge only (without the necessary phono stage). If you are in the market for a really good phono cartridge and/or a phono stage, I believe that it is to your benefit and good experience to audition the DS Audio...highly recommended!
Text: Dato’ Danon Han
DS-W1 retail price is US$8500.