At the risk of sounding like a broken record (see what I did there?), I’d like to tell you about a new optical cartridge from DS Audio—the DS-W3. As some of you may know, I’ve spent the last year or so listening to the DS 003 optical cartridge, which is mounted on my VPI Prime Signature turntable. I’ve written extensively about this technology, which, while it isn’t exactly new, has recently surfaced as the Next Big Thing in analog playback. I’ll lay my cards on the table right now—I’ve been smitten by these cartridges.
I’m not going to spend a whole bunch of time going over the technology that makes these optical cartridges so cool. If you need a backgrounder, I’d suggest reading my original review of the DS 003 cartridge and its matching phono stage, in which I went into great detail explaining DS Audio’s origins and how these things work.
In case you didn’t open that link, here’s a short summary. There are no magnets or coils in DS Audio’s cartridges. Instead, the signal is generated by a powered LED at the front and a photoreceptor at the back. Between them is a shading plate, a sort of sail that’s attached to the cantilever. As the cantilever moves vertically and horizontally, the sail casts a shadow over the photoreceptor in response to the grooves in the record. This variance is converted into an electronic signal. You need a specific type of phono stage, one that’s dedicated to the optical cartridge model, for this to work.
As I mentioned in my review of the DS 003 cartridge, DS Audio says the moving mass attached to the cantilever is dramatically lower than that of a conventional moving-coil cartridge. I’m just spitballing here, but it stands to reason that the lower mass translates to quicker response times and better dynamics. More than that, I’d expect sonic results from changes in the stylus profile and cantilever material would be amplified, more so than with a moving-coil architecture.
DS Audio has been on a roll lately, releasing several new cartridges, all belonging to the Gen 3 series—the most recent being the Master 3, which is armed with a diamond cantilever and a micro-ridge stylus. Above the Master 3 in this series are the Grand Master and the Grand Master EX. Internally, all the third-generation cartridges use the same LED, shading plate, and photoreceptor technology. It’s in the choice of stylus and cantilever that these models differ.
The new DS-W3, one of DS Audio’s third-generation cartridges, is the model one step above my DS 003 cartridge. The second-generation design uses one LED and one photoreceptor to handle both channels, whereas the third generation employs dual LEDs and photoreceptors. Another big upgrade to the third-generation cartridge design is the use of beryllium for the shading plate. This dramatically lowers the unsprung weight of the moving mass.
According to Tetsuaki Aoyagi, president of DS Audio, the biggest difference between my DS 003 and this next-level-up DS-W3 is the substitution of the DS 003’s aluminum cantilever with the DS-W3’s boron cantilever. Further, the DS-W3’s stylus, while still a line contact, is very slightly narrower than the DS 003’s. Lastly, the DS-W3’s body is a lovely polished gunmetal gray, whereas the DS-003’s body is finished in matte gray. Small as they seem, these changes result in a twofold price increase, from $2500 for the DS 003 to $5000 (all prices in USD) for the DS-W3.
I received the DS-W3 cartridge along with the matching DS-W3 optical phono stage (review forthcoming). DS Audio markets each of their cartridges with a matching phono stage. The more expensive cartridges are typically paired with an appropriately more complex phono stage. Matching two-chassis phono stages are available for the two top-end Grand Master cartridges.
That said, it’s possible to mix and match DS Audio’s products without financial penalty. The cartridges and phono stages are priced separately, and there’s no discount if you buy the matching phono stage or a different one from DS Audio’s lineup. Alternatively, you could purchase a DS Audio cartridge and a phono stage from another company without a price penalty.
Better butter your cue finger up
The DS-W3 comes packaged in the same case included with the DS 003—a weighty chunk of milled aluminum with a clear plexiglass cover. The cartridge box nestles safely into a recess in the polystyrene packaging of the DS-W3 phono stage.
It still surprises me that the setup procedure for an optical cartridge is identical to that of a traditional magnetic cartridge. Sure, the optical cartridge needs power—immediately evident from the glowing power indicator on the front of the cartridge—but this is easily satisfied by the negative legs of the tonearm cables, which receive juice from the optical phono stage. But that requirement handles itself, so the setup process of the DS-W3 was familiar and (for me) painless.
I mounted the DS-W3 on the JMW-10 3D tonearm, which is in turn mounted on my VPI Prime Signature turntable. For most of the review period, I used my own Nordost Tyr 2 RCA-to-RCA cable, but near the end, I received a Crystal Cable Diamond Series 2 cable, which I’ll tell you about in my next “For the Record” column.
To remove the DS-W3 from its case, unscrew the cover from the front of the box and release the mounting screws from the back, and the cartridge comes loose. The DS Audio cartridges ship with a well-designed stylus guard that easily snaps on and off, so it’s a fairly stress-free setup process. Sight lines under the curved body are just great, and this made alignment with VPI’s supplied jig easy. Once I checked the tracking force with my digital scale, it was game time.
For the past year or so, I’ve been using the EMM Labs DS-EQ1 optical phono stage and occasionally scabbing over to its little brother, the Meitner Audio DS-EQ2. For this review, all listening was performed with the DS-EQ1.
It gets so sticky down here
Setup time was about 25 minutes from the time I snapped the stylus guard onto the DS 003 to the moment I lowered the DS-W3 onto the first record. While repeated back-and-forth comparisons weren’t possible, the moment of transition between my own DS 003 and the challenger DS-W3 offered that rare chance to hear the immediate difference spawned by a different cantilever.
Whomp! Right in the head—the DS-W3 hit me with a big-ass bass hammer. I’d chosen the 2021 reissue of Road Apples (MCA 3844804) by the Tragically Hip. It’s a noisy little guy, this record. It’s pressed on red vinyl, which, according to the label, is of the virgin variety, but sounds like it’s been around the block—there are lots of ticks and pops. That’s fine by me, as it adds a homey, small-venue feel to this exciting, clever record.
An example is “Fight,” a slinky, long-legged track anchored by Gord Sinclair’s juicy, tasteful bass, which lays a great foundation on which the rest of the band can stretch out. The DS-W3 accentuated everything in and around Sinclair’s bass. First off, the level itself—the volume of the lower end was jacked up a small amount compared to the DS 003. The Estelon XB Mk II speakers were in my system at that time, and this change in bass response meant I had to pull the speakers out into the room a couple of inches to balance out the bottom end. The Estelons were already a bit closer to me, as I’d already done this dance when I received the updated version of the Meitner Audio DS-EQ2 phono preamplifier, which also revved up the bottom end of my system.
Once I’d accommodated this change in level, I found myself submerged in a world of definition courtesy of—I guess—that boron cantilever. Rich overtones around the strings jumped out at me. I could now distinctly hear the interplay between the lowest notes on Sinclair’s bass and Johnny Fay’s kick drum.
Low end became the theme for a week or so as I dragged out a bunch of bass-heavy LPs. The big winner was my remastered Parlophone copy of Talk Talk’s Spirit of Eden (Parlophone PCSDX 105). Even after all these years, I still confuse Spirit of Eden with Laughing Stock. They’re both desert-island discs for me, but it’s side 2 of Spirit of Eden that enchants me. It’s sparse and ethereal, but if you really pay attention, there are so many layers of music that it can be almost overpowering. “Inheritance” features Paul Webb’s menacing bass contrasting with, almost arguing with, Tim Friese-Greene’s simple low-down, left-hand piano notes. There’s a sense of being inside a massive glacier, with a huge weight around and over you, but you’re still able to see right through and out. The DS-W3 enhanced these images by retaining the small details in the low notes while still enabling them to bloom outward.
The DS-W3 decoded complex music in a way that consistently made me look up from whatever I was doing and shake my head in appreciation and surprise. There’s midrange magic here. While I was listening to the magnificent Clear Spot (Rhino/Reprise RCV1 2115 / 603497839490) by Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band, the DS-W3 threw out a huge 1970s soundstage that made me feel as if I were about to climb into a shaggin’ wagon and head out to the left coast for some surfing. “Big Eyed Beans from Venus” is a world-class exposition of clanging funk and proto-progressive rock. It’s Tom Waits singing for King Crimson.
The DS-W3 added a bunch of clarity to this complex, jangling signal. I could more easily hear into the edges of Zoot Horn Rollo’s incendiary lead guitar and how it weaved in and out with Rockette Morton’s rhythm guitar. This song—heck, the whole album—is meant to be a difficult listen. The DS-W3 didn’t pull punches. What it did was render each instrument as a discrete image, without smear, and with what felt like a complete absence of distortion.
I think the nut of the DS-W3’s contribution, especially on this album, comes down to a tighter focus that extends from the basement right up to the top floor. Yeah, the bass is just a touch lifted compared to the DS-003, but other than that, the tonal balance of the two cartridges is identical. The snap, the crispness, the deep musical intent, and its transmission through the speakers are what make the DS 003 so great. All that is here with the DS-W3, but with better focus, and you can clearly hear it in acoustic music. John Zorn’s Alhambra Love Songs (Tzadik TZ 6010) is beautifully recorded, and my pressing is wonderful. This jazz trio plays music that transcends the genre—it’s in the interplay between bass, piano, and drums, and the way they talk to each other and anticipate each other’s voices. It’s musical magic.
The DS-W3 translated that magic—focusing it, more clearly delineating each instrument’s place in space, and imbuing it with just a touch more movement in time to Rob Burger’s piano on "Novato" as it gently nudges Ben Perowsky’s drums. The crisper separation of the rounded rumble of Greg Cohen’s bass added a further dimension of space and established a better anchor for the other two instruments.
As with the DS 003, the DS-W3’s higher output level compared to moving-magnet and—even more so—to moving-coil cartridges gives the DS-W3 an insanely low noise floor. But there’s more to it than that. The architecture of the DS Audio optical cartridge naturally picks up less surface noise—but the result is that the DS-W3 is extremely quiet in the groove, and music emerges from a silent background that just doesn’t seem possible, given that the sound originates from a stone rubbing on plastic.
I mentioned in my review of the DS 003 cartridge that its honest, snappy, dynamic presentation might well be a bit too forward for folks who are used to the slightly warm, romantic sound of a good moving-coil cartridge. The DS-W3 shares the same general personality as the DS 003, but the tighter focus of the more expensive cartridge presents the highs with just a little more refinement, nipping the tiniest edge off by way of reduced smear.
$2.50 for a highball, a buck and a half for a beer
Reading back over this review, I think I’ve let a portion of my enthusiasm for everything the DS 003 does so very well bleed into my impression of the DS-W3. As I’ve said to anyone who will listen, DS Audio optical cartridges (and I’m extrapolating northward in the company’s lineup because I have no reason to doubt that they all sound great) are something special. The DS-W3 is special in its own way too. It’s better than the DS 003, but the improvement isn’t so profound that I feel I’ll be settling in any way when I remove the DS-W3 and go back to my DS 003.
Always at the back of my mind was the question of why the DS-W3 is double the price of the DS 003. Same cartridge, right? Near-as-dammit the same stylus. The only changes are the cantilever and the nice polish on the cartridge body. There’s no question that the DS-W3 is a better-sounding cartridge than the DS 003, but my working-class mindset makes me somewhat suspicious of the additional outlay.
Diminishing returns kick in for every application, though. You want that really fast motorcycle to go just slightly faster? Be prepared to cough up serious bucks. Same with bicycles—you can throw additional thousands at a bike at a rate that will make your head spin, and you still have to pedal the thing up the hill.
But this is SoundStage! Ultra, right? I have to regularly remind myself that, yes, I’m chasing something I’ll likely never catch, and it costs a fortune to stay on the scent. If I were yelling out the window down at, say, Dennis Burger, who’s on the second floor of the SoundStage! building, I’d tell him to save some of his Access bucks and stick with the DS 003—it’s still a great cartridge. If I’m talking to you, fellow Ultra reader, I’ll say that, yes, the DS-W3 sounds better than the DS 003, the improvements are notable, and I thoroughly appreciate them.
. . . Jason Thorpe
- Analog source: VPI Prime Signature turntable; EAT Jo N°8, DS Audio DS 003 cartridges.
- Digital sources: Logitech Squeezebox Touch, Meitner Audio MA3.
- Phono preamplifiers: Aqvox Phono 2 CI, iFi Audio iPhono 3 Black Label, Hegel Music Systems V10, EMM Labs DS-EQ1, Meitner DS-EQ2.
- Preamplifiers: Sonic Frontiers SFL-2, Hegel Music Systems P30A.
- Power amplifiers: Bryston 4B3, Hegel Music Systems H30A.
- Integrated amplifiers: Hegel Music Systems H120, Eico HF-81.
- Speakers: Estelon XB Mk II, Focus Audio FP60 BE, Estelon YB, Aurelia Cerica XL, Totem Acoustic Sky Tower, YG Acoustics Ascent.
- Speaker cables: Audience Au24 SX, Nordost Tyr 2, Crystal Cable Art Series Monet.
- Interconnects: Audience Au24 SX, Furutech Ag-16, Nordost Tyr 2, Crystal Cable Diamond Series 2.
- Power cords: Audience FrontRow, Nordost Vishnu.
- Power conditioner: Quantum QBase QB8 Mark II.
- Accessories: Little Fwend tonearm lift, VPI Cyclone record-cleaning machine, Furutech Destat III.
DS Audio DS-W3 Optical Phono Cartridge
Warranty: One year, parts and labor.
Digital Stream Corporation