In Part One, I did everything within my limited technical ability to share how this interesting and different cartridge design works. Now, let’s talk about the only thing that actually matters: how my system sounded with the DS Audio DS-W1 optical phono cartridge responsible for getting the music out of those record grooves. I can tell you this to start with: It is much quieter than any phono cartridge I have had in the system. It also sounded smoother through the midrange and top than any cartridge I’ve had in my system. I am saying that it’s even quieter and smoother than my Soundsmith SG-220 Strain-gauge cartridge. Don’t forget this initial impression; I think it’s important to many of my observations about the DS-W1.
One of the other early impressions I had with the DS-W1 in my system was that it was more like tape than vinyl. I’m not saying it sounded like a reel-to- reel setup. I’m saying the smooth, dynamic sound without the noise I usually hear from record grooves reminded me more of the sound of magnetic tape than of music reproduced by a magnetic cartridge.
I have spent over forty years listening mostly to moving iron and moving coil cartridges, but for the last three years, I’ve been listening to a strain gauge. I love that it doesn’t require a phono stage or an SUT and doesn’t give anything up in sonics. As good as all the best moving iron and moving coil cartridges sound, they all seemed to blur the music just a little and have a peaky upper midrange in comparison. These peaks in the upper midrange are measurable but with the best moving coils, it comes through as aliveness. This is a sound that most vinylphiles love. Thus, they may find it difficult at first to adjust to the sound of no magnets vibrating. The sound of the optical cartridge was so quiet, so clear and so smooth that it’s just not what we think of vinyl sounding like, but it’s definitely not what digital sounds like.
The DS-W1 gave me an incredibly clear window on the event just like my strain gauge. Still, there were significant differences between the two. The optical cartridge is rich and beautiful with very natural tone and warmth. It has a smoothness and sweetness in its timbre that was very seductive. It’s not the least bit analytical and like the Shindo LP system, it plays music in a very relaxed and satisfying way; a way I described in the Shindo review as listenable. Even with all this beauty, it has exceptional transparency and PRaT. When I was listening to the intro to the Beatles Love soundtrack, I felt the same desire to stand up and clap that I had when I heard it performed at the Las Vegas Mirage.
One of the other reasons the optical cartridge reminds me of tape sound was that in the tape-like, smooth and sweet upper midrange and treble ,the DS-W1 does not exhibit a moving coil’s attenuation of these areas. Now, here is where the problem comes for most long-term moving coil lovers: With the best moving coils the attenuation of the upper midrange and treble is mostly controlled. In contrast, a great moving coil adds what we think of as a sense of aliveness to the music. Many vinyl lovers have come to associate this sound as a very positive thing. I have never heard this sound from tapes. I fear most have come so accustomed to this sound that they think a lack of it is incorrect, even not faithful to the sound of the master tape. If you give yourself enough time with the DS-W1, I think you will find yourself liking the tonal balance of it better than that of moving irons or moving coils.
There is another area where the optical cartridge distinguished itself, the bass. In my system the bass took me by surprise; I mean I had always thought the bass was one of the strong points of my strain gauge, and it is. Still, I had never heard bass like this from my Teresonic, not with any analog or digital source. Personally, I felt the bass was slightly too much when played from the non-RIAA output one, but from the second output with the RIAA equalization, the DS-W1 produced bass that was bigger, deeper and more powerful than I had heard before from my system. Furthermore, with the DS-W1 the bass in my system was also able to sound either warm or tight depending on the recording. The bass simply sounded very realistic with the DS-W1 in my system.
Another significant difference between the strain gauge and the DS-W1 was that the strain gauge let ever little part of the recording really pop. With the DS-W1, however, you may not hear quite as much detail, but you will hear an entire performance in a more holistic and for myself, a more satisfying way. So, in this review instead of talking about how the parts of the frequency range sounded with the optical cartridge as the source, let me tell you about how certain instruments sounded.
Violins, Violas, Cellos, and Most Importantly Fiddles
To me, strings are a big test for any speaker. The DS-W1 allowed my Teresonic to play bowed strings with the power of real life. The sound varied from incredibly sweet to very rosiny. For example, one of my favorite recordings is King of the Cellist, Starker plays Kodaly. This is one of the most beautiful recordings of a cello I have heard. With the optical cartridge in the system his cello sounded warm, full of body, beautiful, and still I could easily and naturally hear the movement of his fingers up and down the fingerboard. The difference with the DS-W1 from other cartridges was the fingering, and the bowing seemed to be very much from the same instrument. In my experience, this is very difficult with a cello recording.
On other recordings that had violins and violas, they sounded just as good as the cello, very sweet, never the least bit bright or strident, though they could show good bite when the performance called for it. Massed strings were full bodied and extended while never being abrasive. They were both powerful and relaxed.
I listen to a lot of bluegrass music, so it is important to me that a system can make a violin sound like a fiddle when it is played that way. I love the fact that the optical cartridge could let me hear the speed of a fiddle but at the same time hear its sweetness. Norman Blake’s more aggressive style of fiddle playing came across with all the musical aggression without becoming strident. My favorite jazz violin payer is Stéphane Grappelli; I put on an LP to hear how he sounded on this system and before I knew it I had listened to two complete LPs. I love how my system played these string instruments with the DS-W1 as the source. I own over a dozen Ray Brown recordings and the impact of his standup bass was like nothing I had ever heard from my Teresonic Ingenium. The amazing thing was how the DS-W1 did this with beautiful warmth without even the slightest hint of looseness or hangover.
Plucked Stringed Instruments
So how did guitars, basses, harps, and the like sound? It didn’t matter whether it was a blues guitar, a standup bass in a jazz group, or a harp in classical ensemble, they sounded great. On these instruments, I heard superb harmonic structure and texture. The optical cartridge had a way of sweetening the leading edge without slowing it down. I think most people will love this about the DS-W1 though some will miss the more aggressive leading edge of a magnetic cartridge. I thought the system sounded very quick, and most of all the instruments sounded a lot like they do at a live event.
I spent hours listening to Wes Montgomery, John Williams, Hendrix, Clapton and Chet Atkins. The amazing thing was with each of their different instruments and styles, they sounded nicely alive but with great harmonic structure and texture. The tonality of the guitars was so beautiful with the optical cartridge in my system.
As I mentioned above, I listen to a lot of bluegrass, and it’s a music genre with lots of emotion and incredible micro-dynamics from all the different handmade, small, plucked string instruments. The DS-W1 surprised me here. I thought with all the rich harmonics I might miss some of the speed and emotion of the music. Instead, I found the sound sweet, not dulling, and the combination of leading edge and incredible quietness and smoothness, enabled me to experience the soul of a bluegrass performance in a way that was completely satisfying.
I’m going to include the piano in this group. The optical cartridge played over such a large frequency range, it could be played with a great, powerful sound or a soft one. It reacted sonically to how hard or easy the pianist struck the notes. It could sustain a note, or the note could be quickly released. The piano is capable of such incredible dynamics; the good news is that the cartridge was up to the task of reproducing a piano in the ways I just described but also with all its overtones that all those strings inside a wooden structure produce. The piano is an instrument that simply sounded more real with the beautiful tonality of the optical cartridge.
Like with Stéphane Grappelli when I put on an LP from Oscar Peterson’s box set For My Friends, I ended up listening to three whole LPs before I took a break. These recordings are of great music, but I had never heard the piano have the kind of weight and authority that afternoon. Again, I think it’s the way the DS-W1 played harmonics and produced such beautiful tone that made the piano sounded so fine; of course, it did have something to do with how great Oscar plays.
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