DS-W2 OPTICAL CARTRIDGE & PHONO STAGE REVIEW


When the DS Audio DS-W2 cartridge and phono stage arrived approximately a year and a half ago, I jokingly said on Facebook that the cartridge has got “Frickin Laser Beams” made especially for Dr. Evil. Tetsuaki Aoyagi (or just “Aki”), President of DS Audio, saw my Facebook post and quickly pointed out that DS Audio has got nothing to do with lasers. My sense of humor was probably not appreciated at the time. Aki is correct, DS Audio’s product is often misunderstood as having lasers or digital signals. It should be clarified at the outset, that DS Audio’s optical cartridge systems are in fact, purely analog devices. The cartridge generates an analog signal and the phono preamplifier which DS Audio calls “Phono Equalizer”, is also is an analog signal amplifier. It amplifies analog signal the same way as any common phono stage on the market, except it has a gain level and equalization designed to match with the DS Audio cartridges, and it also supplies power to the LED. There are absolutely no digital signals, nor does it involve any digital conversion in the entire process. 

The “DS” of DS Audio represents “Digital Stream Corporation”, a company started by Aki’s father, Tetsuji Aoyagi, more than 30 years ago. More appropriately, they should be called “Optical” Stream Corporation, as they are the world’s leading provider of industrial laser optics systems as well as Disc tester optics, accounting for nearly 95% of the entire world’s market share. 

They co-developed the LED Optical Mouse with Microsoft, and their fingerprints can be also be found in the development of the version 1 of the USB connection standard, the optical joystick for gaming applications, as well as myriads of medical and industrial optical test equipment. Their records are on high - they are the world’s foremost experts on laser and LED optical technologies.

As the name suggests, the main difference between a DS Audio “Optical Cartridge” versus traditional cartridges on the market is how they generate electrical signals. Traditional moving magnet, moving coil or moving coil cartridges are all mechanical devices that move a coil windings in between magnets (or vice versa) to generate electrical signals. 

The optical cartridge also has a diamond stylus and a cantilever, but attached to the end of the cantilever are not coil or magnets, but a screen and a photodetector that detects shadow changes generated by an LED light. 


(Traditonal Cartridges) (Optical Cartridges).

As the stylus glides along the grooves of an LP, it moves a light shading plate (screen) attached to the end of the cantilever, which causes the photodetector to generate a weaker or stronger signal based on the brightness of the shadow being detected. As with any signal generating device that involves a moving mass, the smaller the mass to be moved, the more agile the stylus and cantilever can maneuver along the LP grooves. In optical cartridges, the cantilever is attached to a screen with a thickness of only 100 microns, which makes the moving mass much lower than even the smallest of moving coil cartridges, thereby delivering more details and better dynamics - the DS-W2 excelled on both, as you shall see later on. 

The DS-W2 Phono Equalizer performs two additional functions on top of a normal phono stage. It supplies power to the LED lights via the Blue and Green wires. As the signal enters the DS-W2, the equalizer will amplify by it approximately 20dB, as well as performing RIAA equalization. Unlike traditional MM/MC cartridge, the amplitude of the signal is not affected by the speed of the rotation, therefore much less RIAA equalization is required. In other words, the DS-W2 equalizer is designed to work only with DS Audio cartridges, and not ordinary MC/MM cartridges.

The DS-W2 retails at US$13,000 and ranks second in DS Audio’s line up, just behind the DS Master 1 at US$ 22,500. At nearly one half the price of the Master 1, the DS-W2 cartridge shares the exact same internals components as the Master 1. It has a Micro-ridge stylus mounted on a sapphire cantilever, except it is housed in an aluminum body instead of a more expensive material called Ultra Duralumin used in the Master 1. The DS-W2 Equalizer comes housed in a solid aluminum chassis elegant to the touch and feel, it’s clear acrylic top reveals a serious array of capacitors and internal circuitry which one could easily be mistaken as a nuclear reactor; it is a conversation piece in itself. 


Setting up the DS-W2 cartridge is a breeze as threads are tapped into the body to accept standard mounting screws. Using the Acoustical System SMARTractor, the cantilever has enough visual exposure to allow for a clear and unobstructed viewing angle. The Phono cable goes into the input of the Equalizer, which has 2 sets of outputs. The first set of output has a low pass filter which reduces frequencies below 30Hz by 6dB/oct, the second set of outputs cuts off earlier at 50Hz by 6db/oct. I could hear no discernible difference in sound between the 1st and the 2nd output, except the 2nd output reduces unwanted woofer movements in the blank grooves of the LP. 


The DS-W2 cartridge has a patch of “silicone” located just above the top side of the stylus tip. Should the cartridge dropped onto the platter or LP by mistake, it serves as a cushion to prevent damage to the cartridge suspension. However, the silicone does attract dust and will appear as if “gunk” has accumulated on the surface.


Dust accumulation on the “silicone patch”.


One swipe with a Q-Tip and it is back to “As good as new”.


After less than just 20 hours of use, I saw dust accumulated on the “Silicone Patch” as well as on the diamond tip. The Q-Tip cleaned off the dust on the silicone but failed to remove the dust on the stylus tip. However, upon close examination with a 400X magnification microscope, I realize that the dust patch was, in fact, a patch of glue which secures the stylus in place. 

After 50 hours of use, visual inspection revealed no stylus wear whatsoever on the stylus tip, except for some minor dust accumulation on the silicon patch. I have been told by the factory that there is actually no need to clean the silicon patch on the cartridge body, and it is better just to leave it as is as it is normal for all DS-Audio Cartridges. 

The Sound of the DS-W2


I must admit, I was not a fan of optical cartridges before listening to DS Audio, and I remained skeptical even halfway into the review. My previous experience with other optical cartridges is that they are smooth sounding, with very little grain and sibilance but lacking in texture and dynamic contrast. Their silky smooth makes them wonderful for vocals or smaller-scale presentation, but their lack of dynamism renders large scale presentations rather unexciting and blend. 

For the first two months, I swapped the DS-W2 between the 12” Reed 3P Unipivot tonearm, and the Graham Phantom II Supreme B52, and 3 separate turntables (JC Verdier, TW Raven, & Micro Seiki RS5000). Immediately, the DS-W2 exhibited sonic characteristics that are unlike anything which I have in my arsenal of cartridges. What immediately stood out, was once again the ultra smooth sound, most noticeably in the mid to upper frequency ranges, which makes it particularly suitable for voices, violins, cellos and violas. It is not as voluptuous as Koetsu or Kondo cartridges, but it shared some of the sweet and seductive characteristics of both. Like the Koetsu and Kondo, the “lines and edges” around the objects which floats in the acoustics space appear rounded and smoothed out, this takes away any grain, sibilance or glare, but it also reduces texture and contrast to projected images in the soundstage. I also find the entire presentation to be pushed forward, with less depth and layering to the soundstage. I thought to myself if this was all the DS-W2 is cracked up to be, then it is just more of the same as its predecessors. 

Thankfully, my patience and diligence paid off when I switched the DS-W2 cartridge over to the 12”, Glanz MH-124S Premium and the Acoustical-System Axiom Anniversary tonearm, both of which gave the DS-W2 a new life - way better than using Uni-pivot arms! The much needed texture and dynamics improved dramatically, and my perspective on optical cartridges began to change for the better. I did try it with other tone arms such as the Rossner & Sohn 1.2i (also a gimbal pivot), but the sound did not came alive as much as it did versus the other two. Careful attention must be paid on tonearm matching, not everything works with the DS-W2. I also prefer the sound of the DS-W2 on the Micro-Seiki RS5000, rather than on the TW Raven AC or the JV Verdier La Platine turntable.

The DS-W2’s strength is well demonstrated by Solveig Slettahjell’s Live at Victoria album, if you haven’t bought this album please do yourself a favor and hurry before the press runs out. 


Listening to Is My Living in Vain Slettahjell’s voice hangs in mid-air, on a backdrop of a live audience clapping and powerful bass drums. Compared to my Lyra Olympos, or the My Sonic Lab Signature Platinum (MSL SP) using the same arm and table, the DS-W2’s gave a presentation that puts you closer to the front row seats, as if Slettahjell is sitting just a few feet away from you. You can feel the impact of the drums, as well as the 3-D surround sound of the hand clapping, almost as if you’re in the band. The Olympos and MSL SP puts your further back by comparison. 


Equally satisfying is Slettahjell’s rendition of Leonard Cohen’s “Come Healing”, the DS-W2 puts you much closer to Slettahjell as well as her piano, as if you are “in” the soundstage rather than looking at it from further away. The instruments appear to be closer, bigger, and more immediate. You are much closer to the music. 


Another old favorite album of mine is Vangelis’ “1492 Conquest of Paradise”, this very limited production soundtrack is a little difficult to find as very few copies were released. Be prepared to pay over $ 100 on eBay, but the well recorded album is worth the ticket price, however avoid the Brazilian pressing at all cost and stick with the UK labeled German pressing. Given the high quality of the recording, all of the cartridges gave a heroic performance which makes you want to stand and sing with the chorus. What struck me the most is the apparent difference in spatial dimension of the project soundstage between the DS-W2 versus traditional cartridges. Again, the DS-W2 projected a soundstage which puts you much closer to the choir. The Olympos and MSL SP gave more depth perception and layering, where as the DS-W2 projected a wider soundstage that is closer, more upfront but with less depth perception. The difference is not subtle, if your system is capable of projecting spatial dimensions, you will notice a difference to the relative position of instruments in the acoustic space. 


I am normally not a Jazz music fan, but I find myself looking into my limited collection of jazz music with a whole new light, the DS-W2 also made go back for more and more. The relatively upfront and immediate presentation of the DS-W2 excels particularly with Jazz music. It is well demonstrated by Blicher Hemmer Gadd’s “Special 33” album, produced in collaboration with Brinkmann Audio. 


Thanks to the “Ah Wher”, the Analog Guru of Hongkong, who was kind enough to give me number 137 of only 500 copies produced as a gift. I particularly enjoyed the track “Babylon” which opens with a cough, and “I’m Not Really Much of a Dancer”. Here is where the DS-W2 transforms my listening room into a Jazz lounge, where the drum is snappier, and the saxophone is up close and real. Again, the relative position of the instruments in the acoustic space presented by the DS-W2, is physically different than the rest of my cartridges. 


Because I was not present at the live recording venue, I cannot say which is a more accurate recreation of the real thing, all I can say is the DS-W2 seems to highlight the vividness of each individual instruments, making it my GO TO cartridge for Jazz Music. 


The same can be said of Hiromi & Edmar Castaneda’s album “Live in Montreal”, again grab it before it goes out of print. The duo is a perfect match of musician showing off their fiery and funky improvisations. Castaneda showed us how a harp can be made to sound like a guitar in “For Jaco”, and “Fire” is a dazzling display of Hiromi’s speed and power on the piano. 


Both tracks are also a true test for the DS-W2’s transient response expressed through the agility of the cantilever, as promised the low moving mass of the DS-W2’s internal components offered unrestricted mobility which translates into fast transient responses, which culminates into an added ounce of realism to Hiromi & Edmar Castaneda live presentation. 


How does the DS-W2 setup handle large scale music which needs a bit of an oomph? I pulled out The HU’s debut album “The Gereg”. The HU is a Mongolian rock band that has taken the world by a storm. They combine Mongolian guttural throat singing with traditional instruments such as the Morin Khurr (horsehead fiddle), Tumur Khuur (Jew’s Harp), Tovshuur (Mongolian guitar), blend-in with modern drums. The vinyl which was first released on digital is of surprisingly high quality.


The DS-W2 rise to the challenge by delivering earth on the demanding track “Wolf Totem”, with earth shattering dynamics and chest pounding bass drums beats, which sends soundwaves directed as your chest, you can physically feel the punch of every beat. Amidst the complexity of the thunderous rock music, the minute details and texture from the strings of the Morin Khurr were not drowned out, you can still hear and feel the vibrations of the notes across the room. 


How does the DS-W2 fair with classical music? I find myself wanting to listen to piano and violin concertos rather than symphonies, most likely because of the DS-W2’s ability to zoom in on a particular instrument and make it appear focused, and closer in physical proximity. An example would be Camille Saint-SaĆ«ns’ “Rhapsodie D’Avergne” (Turnabout TV 37108S), with Louis de Froment directing the Orchestra of Radio Luxembourg. The DS-W2 did not give the most textured and dynamic presentation, versus the MSL SG or the Lyra Olympos, yet the piano was crisp with every keystroke, full of colors and contrast. What the DS-W2 does well is that it brings you very up close to the grand piano, almost as if you are standing a few feet from it, making it an immersive experience similar to that of a front row seat in a concert hall. 

I have often been asked a similar question by many people, that off all the top cartridges I own, which is the best cartridge that does everything well. My answer is always the same, there is no such thing. In my experience, there is no such thing as a perfectly transparent cartridge, all of them exhibit a sonic character of their own. In my book, a cartridge which does everything well, also means it does not exhibit particularly strong sonic traits, in other words, they can be rather bland sounding. A Toyota Camry does everything well, but it can never be Ferrari or a Hummer, and you can be sure that the DS Audio DS-W2 system is not a Toyota Camry. It has strong personality traits that make it special. 

I have never reviewed a product that has invoked as dramatic an experience as the DS Audio DS-W2. I did not like the sound at the beginning, and it took me a few months of swapping between arms and table to bring out its advantages. In my case, the DS-W2 did not match well with Uni-pivot tonearms, and only with Gimbal-pivots, and very quality ones too. But once I reached that point, it became obvious to me that its strong and easily identifiable sonic traits which are unlike anything I have ever owned before. It fills void in my analog arsenal and nothing else sounds similar to it. It’s smooth and non-grainy character allows me to listen to music for hours without fatigue. It’s upfrontness and immediacy allows me to enjoy my small but growing collection of Jazz music with a realism which my system didn’t have before. It is an innovative and unique product that deserves my recommendation. Highly recommended!

Richard H. Mak, Analog Editor