REVIEW: DS AUDIO DS-002 OPTICAL PHONO CARTRIDGE
DS-002 Optical Phono Cartridge
USD $5,000 MSRP
For a medium created that was created in the 19th century, vinyl has continued to defy the odds with a following these days bordering on the obsessive.
I was bitten by the bug early, and after owning various Rega, Luxman, Pro-Ject, Pink Triangle, and many more turntables, I finally settled on my pride and joy - a Lenco DIY battleship.
You see there’s a certain beauty about listening to music via good old black vinyl. Yes, there’s a bit of surface noise and the odd pop and click, but it’s an organic, living, breathing thing that the listener can see working its magic. A tiny stylus tracks the groove of a record and transforms the physical vibrations into an electrical signal. There is visual drama for sure, but an excellent vinyl rig is for me, the last station at the end of the line when it comes to listening satisfaction.
Don’t get me wrong, CD players, streaming, and music servers also produce the goods sonically, but the pageant of placing an album on the platter, rotating the platter by hand before powering on and lowering the arm onto the vinyl just can’t be beaten.
To me, it’s musical hands on stuff at its finest, and although the underlying technology dates way back, vinyl has held its own against an onslaught of different music delivery formats, most of which the humble record player has seen come and go.
Vinyl replay technology, however, hasn’t exactly stood still. We’ve had belt drive, direct drive, idler drive and rim drive, ceramic cartridges (avoid), moving magnet/iron, moving coil and so on.
Vinyl is not a perfect medium. As I mentioned earlier it has surface noise, the vinyl itself is easily damaged, and there are inherent effects on sound quality caused by the arm, cartridge cantilever and stylus.
Any audio component that vibrates will create resonance of some form, leading to a subtle loss of clarity and detail, let alone compressing dynamic range. It’s an often difficult problem to solve in vinyl replay, but there is, quite literally, a light at the end of the tunnel.
It's high tech and comes from a brand called DS Audio, and its DS-002.
I describe the DS-002 as a cartridge system, comprising the cartridge (of course) and the accompanying pre-amp/equaliser. The difference between DS-002 and other cartridges is the novel way it goes about transforming those vibrations into an electrical signal.
The cartridge incorporates a tiny LED light powered by the pre-amp/equaliser. Vibrations picked up by the stylus and transmitted by the cantilever are then replicated by the LED and turned into an electrical signal using a photosensor built into the cartridge body. The result is an electrical signal, which theoretically is minus the inherent resonances created by the Shibata stylus and aluminium cantilever used in the DS-002.
It indeed is high tech stuff, and this method is the reason why the cartridge can’t be used with any phono stage other than the accompanying pre-amp/equaliser.
Intrigued? I certainly was, and after a couple of phone calls, I'd arrange a review sample.
A short drive home and I eagerly set the cartridge up on my Lenco L75. The main arm on the turntable is an Analogue Instruments Siggwan, an outstanding arm (especially for the price) and an example of boutique Kiwi analogue at its best. I had no illusions that the DS-002 would perform better if mounted on a tonearm in keeping with its price, but once set up, the Siggwan proved an excellent platform for the anticipated audio talent of the DS-002.
As the Siggwan has pre-drilled holes for mounting (without slots a-la Rega RB800 etc.) mounting the cartridge on the arm was a piece of cake. All I had to do then was adjust the counterweight using a pressure gauge, and that was it.
The phono pre/equaliser, made specifically for the DS-002, features left and right RCA inputs and two sets of RCA outputs – presumably the second set of outputs would come in handy for those wishing to digitise their LP albums.
Both the Japanese-made cartridge and phono pre/equaliser are exquisitely built, while the phono pre in particular looks and feels like it has been carved from a solid billet of aluminium. It’s a heavy beast!
The DS-002 is presented in a beautiful routed aluminium case that offers the ultimate in protection when in storage or transport. Yes I know, it’s not a budget cartridge so this sort of luxury packaging should be expected, but I’ve seen some really expensive kit wrapped up in some pretty unglamorous carton work.
Unfortunately, I only managed to spend few days with the cartridge before work reared its increasingly ugly head (using a turntable on a ship out at sea has obvious drawbacks). However, the DS-002 sample had seen a hundred hours or so of use so was nicely run in for my testing, which began in earnest.
Like most music lovers I have my favourite albums and these get played again and again much to the dismay of my long-suffering partner. This time I decided to drag a few gems out of my collection from the past along with a few newbies, and I must admit, a few of the usual suspects to provide my much needed ‘fix’.
So onto the platter went Beck’s deluxe 2LP 180g version of Colors. This latest recording has an upbeat, fresh pop sound and the DS-002 conveyed this very well. Beck’s phasey vocal on the title track shone clear from what is a congested mix, while the faux panpipe sample was reproduced with all its synthetic breathy realism.
Beck’s more upbeat recordings have quite a ‘wall of sound’ Spector quality to them, and Colors is no exception. The DS-002 acquitted itself very well with an easy to follow bassline, handclaps, strings and backing vocals/harmonies which were all clearly delineated from the mix.
Time for a bit of melancholia I thought, so under the needle went Substance, the 2LP compilation by Joy Division. One of my all time favourites, Atmosphere is a brooding monster of a track with a shimmering swathe of chimes as the song enters its bridge/hook. It sounded fabulous, Ian Curtis’ droning vocals provide an almost sombre requiem for his eventual death only a few months after the release of the song. Peter Hook’s unique high bassline, pounding tom-toms and chapel-esque synthesisers were all captured eloquently by the cultured DS-002.
Marlene Shaw’s iconic Woman of the Ghetto from the compilation Soul Women album is one of my faves from that great era of the late 60’s/early ’70s. While it won’t win any awards for production values, I didn’t care – it’s a killer track with a Bootsy-inspired repetitive bassline and her soaring, funky vocal.
At about the 3-minute mark there’s a freaky sound in the left channel. I wouldn’t have a clue what it is (some sort of gong by the sound of it), but it just projected itself from the left speaker like a demented demon. Yes, the DS-002 does dynamics, happily though it’s subtle enough not to colour subdued music with its own colouration.
Also on this album is a very spunky version of Led Zep’s Whole Lotta Love, if you thought it couldn’t get any better than the Zep version, take a listen to Tina strutting her stuff on here. Oozing sex appeal via the microphone, Tina monsters the mic like a 12-foot tall Amazon warrior on this track. ‘Every inch of my love’ is a whole lotta love indeed when Mrs Turner growls this infamous line, and the cartridge captured every vocal inflection perfectly.
The Ballad of Bill Hubbard from Roger Waters' relatively miserable AND magnificent Amused To Death album then sprang to life on the system. I’m pleased to report that the dog did indeed sound like it was in the yard next door! As many would know, this album is mixed in Q Sound, a very tricky 3D sound processing technique more commonly used for video games and it is extremely effective here.
This is a heart-rending piece of music, essentially the music platform for a WW1 soldier recanting the time he left his fellow soldier Bill Hubbard to die in No Man’s Land. It’s a harrowing listen, but beautifully recorded and a sombre reminder of war’s folly and senseless waste of life. It was terrific listening, and the Q Sound recording has an eerie 3D effect where sounds emanate seemingly from everywhere in the room (and beyond). There were no disappointments listening to this masterpiece via the DS-002.
Other vinyl gems found their way onto the platter including Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories, Cliff Martinez’ beautiful score to the sci-fi movie Solaris, and even prog metal in the shape of Swedish metalheads Opeth with Blackwater Park. All of them sounded exceptional, the surprise being the Opeth album. It starts acoustically, but there are elements of death metal in the album, and this is when all hell breaks loose. The DS-002 cracked it, proving itself a sophisticated performer with the ability to reproduce what is in the groove without ‘toning it down’.
DS Audio has designed and manufactured a wonderful phono cartridge system in the DS-002. It’s as close to a plug and play cartridge that I’ve ever seen. No cartridge loading or pre-gain required, and all that’s needed is to mount it correctly using a protractor or other alignment tool, set the counterweight correctly using a pressure gauge, adjust the anti-skate – and it’s done. Simple!
It happens to sound amazing too!
The DS Audio DS-002 is available now.
For more information, please visit DS Audio.
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