DS Audio Master1 Optical Cartridge and Master1 Equalizer

A New Benchmark

Equipment report
DS Audio Master1 Optical Cartridge and Master1 Equalizer

As I’ve noted so many times before that you’re probably getting tired of reading it, the secret to the realistic reproduction of music isn’t just a matter of well-reproduced parts but of the gestalt arrangement of those parts into lifelike wholes, replete with a synesthetic component that almost lets you see what you’re hearing. The means of getting this whole enchilada is neutrality—the absence of the artificial emphases in color, intensity, pitch, and duration that remind you you’re listening to a stereo system. While, as I’ve noted, the Master1 isn’t completely devoid of such artificial emphases, throughout the vast majority of its range it is more colorlessly neutral than any other cartridge I’ve ever heard, which, in combination with its mechanical noiselessness, makes it seem as if it isn’t there in the way that every other cartridge is. Listening to the Master1 is like listening to the original MartinLogan CLS—only a CLS with a fuller power and bass range and a more extended treble. The Master1 has that same astonishingly colorless neutality, that same see-through transparency, that same reduction of the sense of a transducer, that same disappearing act as a sound source, which, of course, makes everything else in the system seem to disappear more completely, too. 

Thanks to its transparency, the Master1’s reproduction of detail is uncannily precise and musical. On the Festival Quartet’s recording of the Brahms Piano Quartet No. 3 in C minor [RCA LSC-6068], for instance, it’s almost as if you’re not only hearing the instruments but also looking at the score unfold in front of you, as if it were superimposed in SurCaps; so when at the start of the third movement andante the lovely viola and piano melody descends by thirds, you hear the interval unmistakably (same, for another example, with the quarter-note durations of the notes in the trio section of the second movement scherzo). In other words, the Master One’s reproduction of pitch and attack is extremely accurate, only paralleled (though not surpassed) in my experience by certain Ortofons like the A90 and A95. 

While, as I’ve noted, for the most part neutral and natural enough to set new standards (and induce a “man, that sounds realistic” double-take), the Master1’s reproduction of timbre isn’t completely flawless. For one thing, tone color isn’t as ravishingly beautiful and fully fleshed-out as it is through my reference Clearaudio Goldfinger Statement or Air Tight Opus-1. What’s holding the Master1 back from perfection, I think, is the slight but audible rise in the upper midrange and treble I mentioned, which tends to accentuate the starting transient portion of the dynamic/harmonic envelopes of instruments (pulling them a bit more forward in the soundstage) and to slightly short-shrift steady-state tone, reducing natural warmth and body. As a result, something like the upper octaves of Diana Krall’s Steinway on “A Case of You” (from Live in Paris) sounds a bit more electric than acoustic (though the Steinway’s middle and low octaves are superbly realistic in timbre—and everything else). Again, while clear as bells, the winds, strings, and harp glissandos in Jean Morel’s performance of Bizet’s L’Arlésienne Suite No. 1 [RCA LSC-2327] are also a bit thin in timbre, making these instruments sound more like they were playing in an empty house (which, of course, they were, when they were recorded) than a full one. 

I don’t want to overemphasize this point because it leaves the (wrong) impression that the Master1 suffers from a fatal brightness. It does not; this is, as I’ve said, overall the most neutral, uncolored transducer I’ve heard. Even in the upper mids and treble where the presence/brilliance rise slightly thins timbre, it does so without etch or peakiness. With careful setup, the Master1’s slight added emphasis in presence and brilliance can be ameliorated (though not completely eliminated). In any case, the cartridge is never analytical or overly aggressive, just leaner, quicker, and more forward (not altogether bad things, as they increase clarity and presence) than the finest coils.

I’m happy to report that the soundstaging of the Master1 is considerably better than that of the DS-002, which tended to crowd even the most panoramic recordings into the space between the speakers. With the right LPs, the new DS Audio will image “outside the boxes” and throw backup instruments and vocalists, like the six singers accompanying Ry Cooder on “The Very Thing That Makes You Rich” (from Bop Till You Drop [Warner 3358]), well behind the soloist. (On this recording, by the way, these singers, are also so clearly individuated you can count and idenitfy each.) Though it still does not have the fabulous breadth, width, and depth of a Goldfinger Statement, the Master1 comes closer to that ideal than the DS-002 did.

The Master1, with its new microridge stylus, is also a better tracker than the DS-002. Though not flawless in this regard (very occasionally, I heard some mistracking on heavily modulated bass passages), it is certainly a considerable improvement. However, as with the DS-002, the stylus must be kept clean or you will get persistent mistracking and, ultimately, outright groove-skipping. 

Perhaps the Master1’s microridge diamond (which tends to track at a deeper, less well-worn level of the groove than the DS-002’s Shibata) helps accounts for the explosiveness of the Master1’s bass. With the right cut on the right LP—say “Danse Macabre” from the great Decca/RCA Witches’ Brew ([RCA LSC-2225], recorded, of course, in Kingsway Hall—you will not only hear things in the bottom octaves more clearly than you have before; you will also hear, unmistakably, the hall itself, adding its powerful alto note of reinforcement to the orchestra on big tuttis. (You will hear that damn subway, too, running below Kingsway, as if it’s running beneath your floor.)