Despite the total dominance of electro-magnetic pick-up technology – be it fixed or moving-coil in nature – there has always been a steady stream of alternative offerings or variations on the theme when it comes to extracting a meaningful signal from the squiggly grooves embedded in the surface of LP records. It’s not too hard to understand why, given the all too audible flaws inherent in and challenges presented by both moving-magnet and moving-coil designs. Throw in the essential mechanical crudity of the process and it’s hardly surprising that designers and end-users alike crave a more sophisticated and elegant solution. Yet, such is the dominant nature of these ‘conventional’ designs that they totally define the context in which any alternative is viewed or judged.
On the most obvious level, products like the Soundsmith Strain Gauge cartridges or the subject of this review, the DS Audio DS-W1 optical cartridge, dispense with the requirement for (and cost of) a conventional RIAA/phono-stage – the necessary functionality being included in the price of the cartridge. That doesn’t just muddy the water: depending on whether you have a pre-amp with a built-in phono-stage, you already own the phono-stage of your dreams, how much you paid for the phono-stage you already have, whether it’s salable (should you want to sell it), or whether you actually own any sort of phono-stage at all, the real cost of owning such a device might vary dramatically – along with the competition against which you might compare it.
But like I said, that’s just the most obvious example. Start to examine DS Audio’s DS-W1 in any detail and even a rudimentary understanding when it comes to the mechanics of phono replay should indicate that this cartridge is definitely swimming against the analogue stream. In a world seemingly obsessed with ever longer tonearms and the low-compliance cartridges they demand, the DS-W1 is both light and lively, weighing in at a mere 6.5g and with a compliance of 15cu vertically and 25cu laterally. That suggests that you’ll need the sort of lightweight arm that has long faded from fashion if you want to avoid resonance issues and actually benefit from the DS Audio’s advantages. Right about now you are probably wondering just what those advantages might be and what could possibly make them worth the bother and brain-ache of building them into your system? Which makes it time to discuss what makes the DS-W1 so different – and so special.