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RMAF 2014: Optical Cartridge Lights Up Musical Surroundings

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Logo - Blue Vectorby John Stancavage

There was a red glow coming from the end of the tonearm playing a live Curtis Mayfield recording in the Musical Surroundings room.

The place was dark, but the light being given off by this cartridge allowed you to see quite a bit. In fact, looking closer, you could marvel at a product that promises to link the distant past to the future.

The glow was coming from DS Audio’s DS-W1 optical phono cartridge. RMAF 2014 was the U.S. debut for the device, which uses an innovative modern method to read those old-school slabs of vinyl.

For many years, phone cartridges have relied on a stylus physically riding in the groove. In the mid-1980s, a company called Finial developed a turntable that used a laser to read the information on the record. The unit reportedly had issues playing dirty LPs, since there was nothing to push the dust out of the way. The laser tried to read the grunge, too. On top of that, Finial’s timing was bad: the compact disc appeared, using lasers to read pits rather than grooves. The Finial table never went into production. A Japanese company, CTI, bought the rights and created an offshoot, ELP Japan, to continue work on the design. In 1997, it finally brought the ELP LT-1XA Laser Turntable to market. It used two lasers to read the LP and three to position the head.

Despite all the high-dollar turntables and cartridges that have been introduced since then, things have been rather quiet on the laser front. That is, until now. DS Audio is a startup, but is part of Digital Stream Corp., a company that has been making industrial lasers for 25 years.

DS Audio’s idea is to merge the old and the new. It uses a Shibata stylus with a boron cantilever, which is not unusual. Tracking force is 1.5 grams, also pretty close to standard. The trick is how DS Audio reads the groove.

In both moving magnet and moving coil cartridges, the vibration of the stylus turns into an electronic signal through electromagnetic induction. DS Audio believes a potential problem with that system is that there always will be frictional forces that bring noise and distortion into the signal.

The laser company’s answer is to use a beam of light to detect stylus movement. This, DS Audio’s designers say, eliminates the problems of frictional forces. The optical system also is said to not need any equalization, outside the standard RIAA curve, and requires very simple circuitry.

“This enables a pure and clear sound reproduction without any treatment on the recorded signals on a vinyl record,” according to the company’s materials.

It also means your turntable continues to be an entirely analog system. Nothing is ever turned into ones and zeros. (Unless, of course, you’re playing those unfortunate digitally mastered Beatles stereo records.)

What’s the price for all this technology? It’s still a moving target, but Musical Surroundings guesses the DS-W1 will be about $8,000 to $10,000 when it hits these shores. Considering you won’t need an extra phono preamplifier (the device comes with its own black box), this would seem to offer good value for the money for those who play at this price level.

Of course, cool red glow or not, the key question is: How did it sound? Listening to the Curtis Mayfield live album, the music had analog warmth with CD detail. Dynamics were good, but not aggressive, while soundstage depth and weight was as good as it gets. The other thing you noticed right away was how quiet the system was. The space between instruments seemed larger and there was a “blacker” background than you usually can manage on many analog rigs.

I hate to gush too much based on 20 minutes of show listening (that’s a hint for a review loan), but overall this was one of the more intriguing introductions at RMAF.

Helping the DS-W1 sound good was an excellent setup by Musical Surroundings that featured a number of other product introductions, including the Aesthetix Metris line preamp ($20,000) and Graham Phantom Elite 10-inch tonearm ($12,500).

Monoblocks were the Aesthetix Atlas ($16,000 a pair), driving the mighty Focal Stella Utopia EM speakers ($97,500 a pair) via Nordost Valhalla 2 interconnect, speaker and digital cables and power cords.

Also on hand in the well-outfitted room was a Clearaudio Master Innovation Wood black lacquer turntable ($29,400), AMG 12J12 tonearm ($4,500) and Aesthetix Romulus Signature DAC/CD player ($10,000).

As great as all the rest of that equipment was, though, all eyes were drawn to that red glow on the turntable. That’s the way it is with some innovations. Only time — and further listening — will tell if there’s truly light at the end of the tonearm.

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About Scot Hull (979 Articles)

Founder, Editor and Publisher at Part-Time Audiophile and The Occasional Magazine.

3 Comments on RMAF 2014: Optical Cartridge Lights Up Musical Surroundings

  1. I think you need to change a setting on your camera somewhere for photographing audio equipment: much of it has dark cosmetic finishes or, as in this case, the image is of a large black disc. On the default settings, the camera will boost the exposure too much – I think images look a lot ‘classier’ when allowed to be properly dark rather than attempting to get an average 50% or whatever. There may be a setting that allows the camera to meter differently..? You could also post-process to adjust gamma in some cases..?

    Maybe you’re well aware of this already. If so, apologies! Maybe the image of the LP was deliberately boosted in order to see the stylus that was in shadow, but I’m thinking of other images on the site which I think are a tad too light and/or the shadows boosted too much (possibly gamma over-tweaked by an intelligent algorithm in the camera..?)

    • Part-Time Audiophile // October 29, 2014 at 11:17 AM //

      Image editing isn’t a science, sadly, and the defaults on my camera often result in unusable white balances. I’m pretty sure it has to do with the flash being a completely different color from the ambient light, so there are situations where I’ll get a shot that just looks weird no matter what I do with it. If it’s too obviously off the mark, I’ll delete it, but if not, I’ll just edit it to something that “looks interesting” and/or shows enough detail.

      The challenge with hotel rooms that have open windows, of course, is more exposure related. Too much back light will blow out the image on a default exposure. You compensate with a fill, but the results are rarely “natural” without some serious set up.

      But I do appreciate your pointing out my lack of technique. 😉

      • Honestly I wasn’t criticising your technique – and I think this web site is a very good looking one, especially because of the photos. It’s just that I have some experience of fighting the ‘helpful’ things my camera likes to do when taking images of equipment to stick on eBay or whatever.

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