DS Audio DS-E1 Optical Phono Cartridge / Phono Energizer
My first encounter with DS Audio's fascinating line of optical cartridges and matching phono energizers (the term that DS Audio uses to describe the outboard power supply/phono equalization units supplied with each cartridge) occurred at the 2020 Florida Audio Expo Show, held last February in sunny Tampa, Florida. Musical Surroundings distributes DS Audio's growing line of products here in the United States. In the Musical Surroundings suite, company head honcho Garth Leerer and his team put together a swell little system headlined by the affordable and overachieving Maggie .7 speakers, a stem-to-stern suite of Rogue electronics, Wire World cables, an eye-catching cobalt blue AMG Giro turntable, and matching arm, this fronted by an entry-level DS Audio DS-E1 optical cartridge and matching phono energizer (DS Audio system cost $2750).
Although there wasn't much bass on offer (the little .7s only dip down to about 50Hz or so), where this impressive system played, it played with a conviction, resolve, and momentum that commanded my undivided attention. I found the presentation utterly open, transparent, rich in tone, and strikingly natural in timbre. The resolution of fine musical details boarded on the extraordinary.
In my glowing show report, I praised the system's rock-solid musicality, startling transparency, and disarming naturalness. Jazz songstress Cassandra Wilson's bouncing rendition of Seven Steps to Heaven filled the small exhibition room with pure analog magic (assisted here by more than a frisson of optical and laser-inspired wizardry, about which more below). To my ears, the DS Audio optical cartridge proved a model of clarity and balance, with lightning-quick transients and shuddering dynamics. At Garth's urging, I promptly agreed to review the entry-level DS-E1 cartridge/phono energizer "sooner rather than later" in my reference system.
The Technical Details
Aside from the novel optical design architecture, several features of DS Audio's impressive line of optical cartridge/phono energizers bear mentioning. Like its pricier brethren, the DS-E1 requires a dedicated outboard power supply and equalizer (hence the "energizer" designation – no bunny jokes, please) to provide RIAA equalization. DS Audio supplies dedicated energizers with each cartridge, but one can use any energizer with any cartridge in the line (but not, for obvious reasons, with other traditional moving coil or moving magnet designs). This interchangeability means that one could invest $2,750 in a DS-E1/energizer "entry-level" combo and add a better energizer as a potential upgrade option as funds permit. Mr. Leerer reports that the use of a better (and pricier) energizer will deliver better sound, although I have yet to test this proposition in my system.
DS Audio's cartridges differ one from the other in body material, cantilever and stylus design and in the distinct lighting color scheme used to delineate one model from the next. The semi-matte silver-colored DS-E1's front-mounted lamp glows green versus cobalt blue for the DS002, red for the DS-W2, purple for the DS Master 1, and white for the newly introduced Grand Master transducer. What the units below the Grand Mater have in common represents (at least in my experience) a first in modern high-end cartridge design: identical overhang geometries, a common 8.1-gram body weight, and identical VTA and downforce (1.7 gram) requirements.
All this shared technology makes swapping one model for the other a proverbial "walk in the park" as far as overall system setup and future upgrading are concerned. Echoing this "cut from same cloth" design ethos, the DS-E1 shares the body, cantilever materials, and the wire suspension system from the DS Master 1 for better performance and broader tonearm compatibility also used in the pricier DS-002 but employs an elliptical stylus profile. By way of contrast, the firm outfits the DS-002's aluminum cantilever to a Shibata stylus.
Optical cartridges are nothing new. Like the strain gauge cartridge technology revitalized by Soundsmith a few years back, optical cartridge technology emerged as the next best analog thing in the late 1970s, an advance championed by the likes of Sharp, Toshiba, Trio, Kenwood, and others. Introduced at the dawn of the digital / CD era, optical cartridges "read" the record grooves through the needle and detect musical signals by capturing "shadow" changes (changes in relative brightness) using LEDs and photocells. By way of contrast, moving coil and moving magnet designs also "read" the record grooves through the needle, detecting the associated musical signal as the velocity from the magnet (or coil) situated within the magnetic field. Quoting directly from the DS Audio web page, because "MM and MC cartridges generate electricity by cutting off the magnetic field, magnetic resistance always occurs when the magnet (or coil) moves."
Optical cartridges do something altogether different. As the optical cartridge stylus "reads" or extracts information from the LP groove walls, this vibrational energy runs from the stylus to the cantilever and from there to a "light shading plate", the latter boasting a thickness of only 100 microns and low overall mass. As the shading plate vibrates (sympathetically with the stylus/cantilever assembly), it blocks light from a fixed-point LED positioned between left and right channel photocells. The photocells register the constant variations in LED light signal intensity as the analog waveform.
This "light-to-dark" and "dark-to-light" signaling is the actual musical signal "read" or measured by the left and right channel photocells. These photocells output this "light-to-dark" and "dark-to-light" variation impulse as voltage. The voltage signal output by the photocells is the signal that the DS Audio outboard energizers amplifies (modestly as it turns out because the photocell signal is relatively high voltage) and then gently equalizes with the RIAA curve. This simple "light-to-dark" jitter and then to voltage arrangement is said to gift lower noise and better sound overall.
Optical cartridge systems offer an added benefit: since they only detect changes in brightness (what DS Audio calls "shadow movement"), they effectively eliminate any form of magnetic resistance when the vibration system moves. Since there is no magnetic resistance applied to the vibration system (meaning the tip of the stylus and the cantilever), the tip of the needle moves smoothly as it traces the LP grooves, exhuming, at least in principle, more information from your favorite discs. Additionally, the low-mass light-shielding plate, when coupled to a stylus/cantilever assembly unencumbered by any form of magnetic field resistance, should ideally translate to lower noise and superior transient response fidelity.
Unfortunately, this promising technology had its legs taken out from under it by early digital's widespread adoption and the new cartridge technology's reliance on standard bulbs as the light source. Put simply, these "easy bake oven" bulbs generated too much heat, and heat that warmed and softened the cartridge damping rubber over time. Ultimately, this altered the system's compliance characteristics leading to audible performance drops. From that point until a few years ago, optical transducer architecture very much remained an innovation in search of equally creative and, more importantly, mechanically reliable supporting technologies. The introduction of today's high-intensity/low-heat LEDs eliminated the heat gain problem and, when paired with modern high-speed/high-precision photocells, paved the way for a resurgence in optical cartridge design that DS Audio has spearheaded.
Light from Darkness
Alas, I also noticed a slight thinning of tone and timbre, artifacts that I attributed to the need for the stylus and cartridge compliance to settle. After 100 or so hours, everything more or less "snapped" into place sonically. Not unlike a Magneplanar speaker or an Audience power conditioner, two product lines that I hold in the highest esteem, the DS-E1 needs time to settle. Do give this little number the time that it deserves to "break-in". It will gift your patience richly.
Once broken in, the DS-E1 sounded more like a genuine reference-caliber transducer than a reasonably priced affordable overachiever. The sense of composure and balance that I mentioned earlier intensified, as did the system's (meaning the cartridge plus energizer) transient quickness and dynamic reach. After break-in, tone and timbre improved, too, only more dramatically, imbuing naturally balanced recordings with a "reach out and touch it" palpability and dimensionality.
To my ear, and paired with my reference lineup (Kronos Sparta 0.5 turntable and Jelco TK-950S MKII tonearm, Mola Mola Makua preamp and Kaluga mono-block amps, AUALiC G1 Wireless Streaming Transport, Von Schweikert Audio Unifield 2 Mk. III compacts, Audience AdeptResponse aR12-T4 Power Conditioner and frontRow powerChord, and a loom of Kubala-Sosna Sensation cables), three aspects of the DS-E1's sound stand out: the system's overall noiselessness, it's beguiling transient fidelity, and it's stellar retrieval of low-level detail.
As I noted in my Audience AdeptResponse aR12-T4 Power Conditioner and frontRowpowerChord review over at our partner publication Positive Feedback (here) "those audio components that effectively reduce (or vanquish outright) extraneous noises, distortions, phase anomalies, and the like, will better enable tonal colors, vocal and instrumental textures, and associated ambient details to sing in stark relief in the musical mix, as if projected from a silent (or inert) black background."
This is where the rubber hits the road so to speak, where optical cartridge potential, canny material science analysis, and DS Audio's obvious attention to fine manufacturing detail synergistically converge. The remarkably low mass stylus/cantilever/shielding plate assembly, one free from any type of magnetic field resistance and therefore incredibly responsive to low-level signal shifts, rewards with a sonic presentation virtually devoid of self-noise and cantilever-induced jitter. After months of serious listening, I detected no phono-stage (energizer) induced hum and no tendency to exacerbate LP surface noise.
On the late Neville Marriner's gorgeous Argo recording of the works of Barber, Copeland, Ives, Cowell, and a host of others, this featuring the Academy of St. Martin in the Field, [Marriner: Quiet City, Barber Adagio, etc., Argo ZRG 845], the ensemble's moving rendition of Aaron Copland's introspective Quiet City rewards on a naturally resolving system with impressive soundscaping, a fine depth of field layering, and lovely tone. Reproduced by the essentially "noiselessness" DS Audio components (these feeding one of the quietest preamps I have ever heard, the Mola Mola Makua), this warhorse disc allowed my compact reference system to replicate the touch and feel of the famous recording venue, St. John's Smith Square in London, to an amazing degree.
I would be remiss if I failed to mention the contribution that the superb DS Audio ION 001 Vinyl Ionizer makes in reducing overall noise. In much the same way that the DS-E1 heroically suppresses cantilever-induced distortions, the Ionizer suppresses static noise artifacts to equally negligible levels. Just make sure to sit the Ionizer high enough so that the green static-reducing light shines down on the LP surface. Because of the height of my Kronos 0.5 table, I had to place a CD box set underneath the Ionizer to get it to the proper height. Maybe DS Audio can offer a taller version of the Ionizer for those wax heads with extra-tall turntables like mine.
The magnetic resistance-free/low-mass stylus/cantilever/shielding plate architecture also delivers standout transient performance, as one would expect. So, from Analogue Production's tour de force vinyl reissue of pianist Bill Evans's complete Riverside recordings box set [Bill Evans: Riverside Recordings], a disc much like the pathbreaking Sunday at the Village Vanguard delivers unexpected pleasures. Evans's piano-fronted jazz trios, especially the iteration that featured drummer Paul Motian and bassist Scott LaFaro, redefined the art form. Together, the group championed a counter-melodic style that routinely emphasized LaFaro's upper-register rich harmonic and improvisational work as a counter to the pianist's introspective flourishes.
In this reimagined universe, each player – piano, bass, and drum kit – speaks to one another, and to the listener, as both supportive rhythm instrument and as a harmonic foil. Hushed rhythmic and harmonic interplay became the common tongue that the trio employed.
The DS Audio system's ability to untangle these subtleties, to segregate the various threads of the cloth one from the other without ever unraveling the texture and feel of the cloth itself, is simply remarkable. On the playful Gloria's Steps, penned by LaFaro as a teasing and loving homage to his dancer girlfriend (who's footfalls LaFaro recognized immediately when she climbed the apartment stairwell home), the DS-E1 tracks every musical nuance like a bloodhound, from the teasing pitter-patter of Motian's drumming, to the wispy lyricism of Evans's piano, to the lilting bounce of LaFaro's bass.
The DS-E1, at least to my ears, leaves nothing at the table sonically.
This micro-dynamic expressiveness goes hand in hand with the cartridge's stunning retrieval of both coarse and low-level musical detail. It exposes bad recordings for what they are, but also tells us why we love great LPs. On the aforementioned Gloria's Steps, not only does one hear the almost telepathic rhythmic interplay between Evans, Motian, and LaFaro; one feels the texture of the skins as Motian bobs and weaves between Evans and around LaFaro; one senses the way LaFaro's fingers pluck and glide along the fingerboard; one floats out of the body as Evans caresses the melody with plucky 16th note runs and splashes of impressionistic tone color. As icing on the cake, the DS-E1 presents each performer in a lovely pocket of air, delivering striking soundstage width and depth and class-defining image specificity.
Putting It All Together
A product of the year candidate for sure. Very highly recommended.