DS Audio Master1 Optical Cartridge and Master1 Equalizer

A New Benchmark

Equipment report
DS Audio Master1 Optical Cartridge and Master1 Equalizer

I’m loath to give more such examples since what ends up being right for you will depend on your system and your sonic preferences, not mine. Indeed, while this may strike you as hopelessly old-fashioned in this day and age of blind tests and purblind measurements, you should let your ears be your guide to final tuning. The Master1 will tell you what it wants and likes—to an extent that only a few other very-high-quality cartridges I’ve played with do. Just keep fiddling until you achieve the edgeless, colorless neutrality (and the astonishingly realistic playback) this transducer is capable of.

In addition to fiddling with set-up parameters, you may also need to fiddle with your tonearm proper. Since it doesn’t have magnets and coils, the Master1 is a very lightweight device (a mere 8 grams); so you’re going to need an appropriate counterweight to balance it out and set tracking force. This shouldn’t be a problem with most ’arms, which usually come with multiple weights. (But if this remains an issue, you can always Blu-Tack a dime to the top side of the headshell—an old and not particularly elegant solution, but an effective one, nonetheless.) Because of the unusually short height of the Master1’s cartridge body, you may also need to adjust the clearance on your ’arm lift, lowering the lift mechanism some to prevent the ’arm tube (with the cartridge mounted) from rubbing against the rest when the stylus contacts the LP. (If you find the cartridge is mistracking or not tracking at all a cut or two into an LP, ’arm-rest height is the first culprit I’d look at.)

To get the fullest measure of the neutrality the Master1 system is capable of, I’m also going to recommend that you look at a few extras. The first is the $1800 DS Audio ION-001—a free-standing ionizer (like an electrically powered Zero-Stat) that continuously floods the surface of your records with ions and cations to eliminate the static charge on the vinyl. Although the ION-001 does rather “smooth out” tracking by neutralizing static electricity, it also (and more importantly) somehow neutralizes timbre (in the sense of bringing tonal balance closer to colorlessly neutral top to bottom). I don’t know why this should be the case; I only know that it is. (DS Audio’s importer Garth Leerer has suggested that this sonic “neutralization” may result from the fact that the ION-001 is also acting like an LP demagnetizer, such as the Furutech DeMAG or the Stein Music DE-3 LP conditioner—only the ION-001 is working continuously in real time.)

The other tweak I recommend for best results is the $649 Stein Music Pi Carbon Signature record mat, which completes the electrical and sonic “neutralization” process that the Master1 and the ION-001 begin. This paper-thin “mat” (it is, in fact, a sheet of handcrafted Japanese paper embedded with carbon fiber) may not look like it will work sonic wonders, but it does, smoothing out any remaining rough edges in playback and increasing the sense that you’re listening to a sonic “whole” rather than a collection of parts. Things just sound more “continuous” (less jittery, discrete, and, well, phonographic) when the Stein Pi Carbon is in place.


How Does It Sound?
In my review of the DS-002, I began by comparing the Japanese optical cartridge to a London “positive scanning” cartridge. I didn’t do this because the two transducers sounded alike, but because they both greatly reduced what Decca/London called “cantilever haze”—the losses of clarity, transient speed, and dynamic range caused by the resonances of a cartridge’s cantilever, the damping effect of its rubber fulcrum, and the sheer mass of the magnetic engine at the far end of this virtual “see-saw.” 

I’m not sure, now, whether that analogy was strong or precise enough. If you’re used to LP playback via an mc or an mi or an mm, prepare yourself for a new paradigm. The Master1 is dead quiet—no hum, no noise, no grain, not even vestigial levels of same (provided the unit is properly grounded). In this respect and this respect alone, it is like digital playback or, perhaps more appropriately, reel-to-reel tape (minus the hiss). To put this differently, with the Master1 there is far less of the usual sense of listening to a transducer, of listening to a device converting one form of energy into another—in this case, far less of the usual sense of “playing a record.” The mechanical connection to what has been recorded being rendered essentially noiseless, reproduction becomes more unmediated and direct.

After that astonishing absence of hum, noise, and grain, the next thing you’ll notice about the Master1 is its tonal balance, where, if you follow my suggestions about setup and ancillaries, the cartridge is just as astonishing in its neutrality as it as it is in its eerie silences. This thing just doesn’t “sound” on its own (save for a slight rise in the presence and brilliance ranges and in the low bass, the last of which is filtered out by the Master1 EQ). If you’re listening to vocalists, such as the ones on the superbly recorded (and aptly named) Acoustic Sounds’ collection The Wonderful Sounds of Female Vocals [APP 122], what you’ll also notice, alongside the depth of quiet and neutrality of timbre, is the sheer realism with which this cartridge reproduces the human voice.