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 on analogue reproduction. A number of years ago, that enthusiasm coupled with curiosity brought me to purchase the SoundSmith StrainGauge phono system, without any audition. That decision did not disappoint, even to this day. It was not better sounding 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 employs a 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 that is converted into a photo-electric generated audio signal. This is then sent to a dedicated equalizer/power supply which is strong enough to work with most line stages or pre amplifiers.
You can imagine my excitement when Tetsuaki Aoyagi of DS Audio informed me that a review sample was ready to be shipped out after a year of my asking. The DS Audio duly arrived, packed professionally with attention to detail in every aspect. 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 options (both are RCA); 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. Listeners have to choose or play with either output option to select one most suited to his audio system’s ultimate performance. I opted for Output One throughout this review unless indicated otherwise.
The recommended VTF is around 1.5 grams (min 1.3 grams – max 1.7 grams), which I do not agree with after some early experimentations. But of course, some may disagree…
My preferred VTF was around 1.3 grams 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) 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 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 his phono cartridge set up skills).
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 results on both systems were quite agreeable….(read on)
After some hard work, the results spoke…
What really impressed me immediately was the amount details that were projected at me. It’s transparency 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 “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 opened up throughout my entire listening room. The musicians were farther separated and the passages were easier to follow. The flow of the presentation was clear and clean.
In addition, every musical instrument was presented with such glorious energy. They were well extended from the low to the higher regions of the bandwidth. The bells (from the first track, side 1) were more extended in the highs and mid-range. The trumpet blows were well extended with transient of energy and dynamism. I find the overall presentation more exciting and uplifting and concluded that the piece was presented with life and energy as intended.
Next, I played “Wagner: Ride of the Valkyries” (Sheffield Lab Direct Disc Recording 7) with Erich Leinsdorf conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic. The beginning of that big passage is filled with such grandeur and energy, and DS Audio presented that work as it was composed, 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 but were in their intended places. This was a testament of its ability to separate the elements in the musical work and (still) maintain them in complicated passages. As an aside, 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 heard or owned the album “Art Pepper meets The Rhythm Section” (Analogue Production APJ 010). This is a well-known vinyl LP for good reasons – both the music and recording are excellent.
With this recording, Art’s skill with his alto sax and how well he combines with his Rhythm Section comes to light. The DS Audio highlighted Art’s playing, with such vividness, every 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 was clear, and with only the right amount of decay. The bass was not clouded by the mids but was clearly defined and its image was well delineated. The drum’s thwack and attack were nothing short of impressive. You could hear the micro detail of every hit on the drum’s 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 to 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. “To each his own taste and argument”, is my reply to most. What the DS Audio brought to my analogue plate was 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 balanced 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. It’s not (just) the “tube effect” that many try to credit the realism in vocal reproduction. There are those who believe that slowing down the tempo allows more “feel” into the human element in vocal reproduction. If that is true (to an extent), then the reproduction of the other musical instruments, especially the piano and bass will suffer.
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 backed 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 and energy into her vocals.
To stretch the same further, I played Radka Toneff and Steve Dobrogosz’s “Fairytales” (Odin LP 003). I hear enough substance and presence in her voice that other musical instruments, like the 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, to say the least.
Backed by a background that was…
Here’s what I wrote in my initial notes for the review of the DS Audio:
“I would like to cry out loud now for that was the quietest phono system that I have ever come across (so far).”
In addition, I would like to add that the quietness was something else. The surreal experience of having vocal(s) and musical instruments, each having its own space, floating out within a massive soundstage (and dead quiet) as my audio system can project was something to behold.
I put on “Blue City” by Isao Suzuki Quartet + 1 (Three Blind Mice TBM 24 / Trio Records PAP-20015) where the musicians played in a semi darkened and confined recording studio. I felt (not just heard) each musician was in my audio den and made the recording there and then. To me, an extremely 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 DIY product made by someone in the basement of his house. It is a creation by a team of engineers (headed by Tetsuaki Aoyagi) in an established corporation, namely the Digital Stream Corporation (DSC) that specializes in laser-optical based technologies for more than 25 years in Japan. The finished product speaks for itself in build quality and performance, and at an asking price of a high end phono cartridge. If you are in the market for a really good phono cartridge and/or a phono stage, I believe you owe it to yourself to audition the DS Audio because it is highly recommended!