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DS Audio Master1 Optical Cartridge and Master1 Equalizer

The Master1 is DS Audio’s current top-of-the-line optical cartridge. At $22,500 ($7500 for the cartridge and $15,000 for the Master1 equalizer designed to go with it), it is considerably more expensive than the Japanese firm’s other offerings—and than virtually every other phono cartridge on the market today. However, unlike a top-of-the-line Clearaudio or Lyra or Air Tight or Ortofon or Koetsu, DS Audio’s flagship cart and equalizer require no third-party phonostage. Given how much the best phono preamps cost (the superb Soulution 755, for example, is $72,000 all by its lonesome), that $22,500 price tag begins to look more borderline nuts than outright insane, and when you add to this the fact that the Master1 cartridge does not have to be used with its companion Master1 EQ—that it can be paired with DS’s  other, far-less-expensive processors (the $1500 DS-E1, $2750 DS-002, or the $8500 DS-W2)—the combined price for cart and preamp drops below the cost of a Clearaudio Goldfinger Statement or an Air Tight Opus-1 or a Lyra Etna SL or a Koetsu Blue Lace without a phonostage. 

No matter which of these DS equalizers tickles your fancy, you’re going to have to buy one of them, since, for reasons I will explain, none of the DS optical cartridges works with a conventional phono preamp and conventional RIAA equalization. I’d like to be able to tell you that you’ll get the same sonic results from the bargain-priced DS-002 that you get from the big-ticket Master1 EQ, but you won’t. So if you want the sound I’m about to describe, you’ll have to go whole hog. You will also have to do some tweaking.

 

How a DS Audio Optical Cartridge and Equalizer Work
Before I get to setup and sonics, I’m going to tell you how optical cartridges and their equalizers work. Although I’ve explained this technology twice before (when I reviewed the DS-W1 and DS-002), the information is worth repeating, as the way an optical cartridge produces voltages and its equalizer processes them is not intuitive or conventional. 

First, to make this clear from the start, an optical cartridge is a completely analog device. There is nothing digital about it. Like mm’s and mc’s, it reads the information stored in record grooves by means of the mechanical vibrations of a stylus. But where mm and mc cartridges produce tiny voltages by transmitting those vibrations to a magnet or a coil, which subsequently vibrates within a magnetic field in sympathy with the stylus, DS audio optical cartridges do not transmit vibrations to relatively massive moving objects situated at the far end of a cantilever. Instead, they generate signals by capturing changes in brightness, using an internal LED as a fixed light source, internal photoelectric diodes (photo cells) as receptors, and a very thin opaque plate (a mere 100 microns thick) mounted directly behind the stylus as the vibrating system. (See the illo on the following page.) Moving up and down and side to side in tandem with the motion of the stylus to which it is attached, this tiny plate intermittently blocks the light from the LED that is hitting the photo receptors for the left and right channels, generating variable voltages in the photoelectric diodes by varying the amount of light and shade they see.

Because mm’s and mc’s generate electricity by cutting through a fixed magnetic field, magnetic resistance always occurs whenever the magnet or coil vibrates. Since an optical cartridge only reads changes in brightness, no magnetic resistance is generated when its stylus vibrates. Since there is no magnetic resistance, the tip of the stylus can move more smoothly in the groove, without the impediment of a counterforce. This elimination of reciprocal magnetic resistance to stylus movement, says DS Audio, is the primary advantage of optical cartridge technology, although the elimination of the moving mass of coils and magnets is a second, large, closely related one.

A third is what DS Audio claims is a superior mechanical/electrical interface. Conventional moving-coil or moving-magnet cartridges read the velocity of a stylus’ vibrations; so the strength of their output signal depends on how fast the stylus moves. The Master1, on the other hand, reads the amplitude of a stylus’ vibrations; so the strength of its output signal depends on how far the stylus moves. According to DS, this is significant because velocity-proportional devices move faster at higher frequencies, thus making the voltage of those frequencies disproportionately strong (and that of the slower-vibrating bass notes relatively weak). Although the RIAA circuits in phonostages are intended to invert this accentuation of the treble and reduction of the bass, and loading mc cartridges down can further dampen this treble pre-emphasis, it is a fact that mc’s, in particular, are relatively “bright” by nature. Thanks to its amplitude-proportional technology, the Master1’s electrical output is not frequency dependent, at least according to DS Audio. Thus it does not exaggerate the treble or reduce the bass, making equalization relatively simple and extending linear low-end response to well below what mm and mc’s are typically capable of. (In theory an optical cartridge can detect signals as low as 1Hz.) 

The equalization and amplification of the cartridge’s electrical signal are taken care of by the Master1 EQ, which also supplies the voltage to power the cartridge’s internal LED and photoelectric sensors, feeding current to the cartridge through the ground legs of the interconnects running between the tonearm and the processor, and receiving the output from the Master1 (a robust 50mV) via the interconnect’s positive legs. 

 

Weighing in at a hefty 53 pounds, the Master1 EQ uses thick, solid copper plates (one of the reason for its mass) as busbars to connect its twelve 120,000µF electrolytic capacitors. Each of its three sets of RCA and XLR outputs (there is only a single set of RCA inputs) runs on a separate power supply via fully discrete, dual-mono circuitry mounted on hand-made circuit boards. The Master1 EQ employs different bass eq curves for each output: a first-order roll-off at 30Hz with Output 1; two first-order roll-offs at 50Hz and 30Hz with Output 2; and two first-order roll-offs at 50Hz and 30Hz, followed by an additional second-order roll-off at 25Hz with Output 3. (With the multi-ported Børresen 05 loudspeakers I preferred Outputs 2 and 3.) 

Judging from what I hear from the Master1 (and the previous DS Audio carts I’ve reviewed), I’d say these bass filters aren’t just latter-day “rumble filters.” They are also correcting for the Master1’s inherent rising response in the bottommost octaves. (Though DS Audio doesn’t comment on this, one would think that reading the amplitude of a signal rather than its velocity should accentuate higher-amplitude vibrations—i.e., bass signals—in the same way that reading velocity accentuates higher-velocity treble signals in an mm or mc. It is a fact that the Master1 EQ provides bass filtration of various orders on all three of its outputs—and no filtration of the treble—which suggests an inherently elevated low end.) The Master1 also has another little measurable and audible quirk in the upper midrange and treble, which we will come to.

What’s New About the Master1?
DS Audio made some changes in the DS-002 that are carried forward in the Master1. The LED and photo sensors have been moved closer still to the stylus, as has the thin opaque plate that serves as the vibrating system, so the amplitude of vibrations can be transmitted and read with greater precision. The use of a traditional suspension, where the cantilever is held rigidly in place via a tension wire secured by a setscrew, has also been retained, where other things, such as the stylus rod and the stylus itself, have been outright improved. The DS 002’s Shibata stylus has been replaced by a micro- ridge type mounted to a sapphire cantilever. The cartridge body, once aluminum, is now constructed of light, strong, vibration-resistant ultra-duralumin.

The Master1 EQ is also improved over the DS-002 EQ. Where the 002 EQ offered two sets of RCA-only outputs (and two levels of bass filtration), the Master1 EQ has, as noted, three sets of RCA and XLR outputs (and three levels of bass filtration). And where the 002 EQ had a power supply with ten 33,000µF electrolytic caps, the Master1 EQ has, again as noted, twelve 120,000µF electrolytic caps, thick solid copper busbars, dual-mono circuitry, and handmade boards.

Setup
Fundamentally, setting up a Master1 optical cartridge is no different than setting up any high-quality moving-coil, moving-iron, or moving-magnet cart. Initially, you adjust overhang via a double-null-point grid; you dial-in azimuth via a Fozgometer or similar device; you determine SRA/VTA (stylus rake angle and vertical tracking angle) as per your usual method (more on this in a moment); and you set tracking force with a meter (and anti-skate to taste). 

Would this were all there was to it. But it is not. Whether the cartridge’s unusual sensitivity to set-up adjustments results from the unique way it generates current (for which, see above) or from the absence of mechanical and magnetic damping (ditto), the Master1 does seem to need more coddling than most to show its considerable best. You certainly don’t have to throw the book away when it comes to setting it up, but you may have to rewrite certain chapters when fine-tuning SRA, anti-skate, VTF, etc. 

For instance, with SRA, the “textbook-correct” solution of 92º or thereabouts (customarily dialed-in via a USB digital microscope and computer software) may not be the right height for the Master1, which (at least for smoothest treble and bass with the ribbon/cone Børresen 05 loudspeakers I’m also currently testing) tends to prefer something closer to 90º, i.e., parallel to the record surface. (Then again, with another speaker, the theoretical and the actual may coincide, and 92º could turn out to be right.) The cartridge, once again in my current front end (Acoustic Signature TA-9000 tonearm mounted on an Acoustic Signature Invictus Jr. ’table), also seems to like a VTF closer to 1.8 grams rather than to the 1.7 grams that DS Audio recommends, with anti-skate set below that. 

 

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.

 

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.)

 

Another singular instance of the Master1’s resolving power is audible on Witches’ Brew—the uncanny way it describes acoustic space, mic setups, and mixing decisions. It is a fact that the recordings in Kingsway Hall weren’t made on the auditorium’s relatively shallow stage but on the orchestra-level floor, with instrumentalists either facing towards or with their backs to the stage. Through the Master1, I swear that, for the first and only time, I could detect (via echo and delay) the shallowness of Kingsway’s resounding stage behind the orchestra and the space between it and the instrumentalists. These are little things, I grant you, but for an RCA hound like me they are special.

To the same point, on the ORG reissue of Jon Hendricks’ Fast Livin’ Blues [ORG 121]—a typical Columbia mess of multiple mics, gain-riding, and artificial reverb—I could not only tell, instantly, that Pony Poindexter was playing a soprano sax, but I could also hear exactly when the engineers drastically reduced the gain of his sax’s mic, making it sound as if he’d suddenly turned his back to the combo and started playing toward the rear wall. 

Although it may appear as if the Master1 is a monster of low-level resolution, it is not—or not exactly. Yes, it catches everything engraved in a groove almost as well as the nonpareil Clearaudio Goldfinger Statement does, but it never etches sibilants or razor-sharpens transients or turns timbre hot and specular the way so many peakier coils do. Thanks to its mechanical silence and tonal neutrality, everything is reproduced evenly—spoken in the same soft, clear, very slightly reedy, remarkably expressive voice.

Conclusion
The Master1 cartridge and Master1 EQ are simply outstanding products, setting new benchmarks for vinyl playback in several areas (mechanical silence, neutral midband voicing, and midrange-to-low-bass realism). Even where they aren’t setting standards, they are now competitive with the finest coils and magnets. Perhaps the best part of all is DS Audio products still have room to grow: in trackability, in soundstaging, in upper midrange and treble flatness, in overall warmth. Remember, the optical cartridge with internal LED and photo sensors is a relatively new thing. That the folks at DS Audio are taking the perfection of this idea seriously is shown by the remarkable sonic progress they’ve made from the W1 Night Rider to the DS-002 to the Master1. I know this much: If I were in the market for a new phono cartridge and I had the money, the Master1 system would be at the very top of my short list of must-hears. Go listen for yourself, and discover not just a new cartridge but a new phonographic paradigm.

Specs & Pricing

Master1 Optical Cartridge
Signal output: Photo-electric conversion
Channel separation: >25db (1kHz)
Output signal level: >50mV
Cantilever: Sapphire
Body material: Ultra duralumin
Tracking force: 1.6–1.8 grams (1.7 grams recommended)
Stylus: Microridge
Weight: 8.1g
Price: $7500

Master1 Equalizer
Output voltage: 500mV (1kHz)
Output impedance: RCA 120 ohms; XLR 600 ohms
Preamp input impedance: >10k ohms
Input: 1x RCA
Outputs: 3x RCA, 3x XLR
Dimensions: 43.6cm x 16.1cm x 39.5cm
Weight: 24.0 kg
Price: $15,000

DIGITAL STREAM CORPORATION
4-50-40 Kamitsuruma-Honcho
Minamiku, Sagamihara, Kanagawa
252-0318 Japan
+81-427-47-0900
ds-audio-w.biz

MUSICAL SURROUNDINGS (U.S. Distributor)
(510) 547-5006
musicalsurroundings.com

JV’s Reference System
Loudspeakers: MBL 101 X-treme, Bǿrresen 05, Magico M3, Voxativ 9.87, Avantgarde Zero 1, MartinLogan CLX, Magnepan 1.7 and 30.7
Subwoofers: JL Audio Gotham (pair), Magico QSub 15 (pair)
Linestage preamps: MBL 6010 D, Soulution 725, Constellation Audio Altair II, Siltech SAGA System C1, Air Tight ATE-2001 Reference
Phonostage preamps: Soulution 755, Clearaudio Absolute Phono, Walker Proscenium V, Constellation Audio Perseus
Power amplifiers: MBL 9008 A, Soulution 711, Constellation Audio Hercules II Stereo, Air Tight 3211, Air Tight ATM-2001, Zanden Audio Systems Model 9600, Siltech SAGA System V1/P1, Odyssey Audio Stratos, Voxativ Integrated 805 
Analog source: Clearaudio Master Innovation, Acoustic Signature Invictus Jr./T-9000, Walker Audio Proscenium Black Diamond Mk V, TW Acustic Black Knight/TW Raven 10.5, AMG Viella 12
Tape deck: United Home Audio Ultimate 4 OPS 
Phono cartridges: Clearaudio Goldfinger Statement, Air Tight Opus 1, Ortofon MC Anna, Ortofon MC A90
Digital source: MSB Reference DAC, Berkeley Alpha DAC 2, 
Cable and interconnect: Crystal Cable Ultimate Dream, Synergistic Research Galileo UEF, Ansuz Acoustics Diamond
Power cords: Crystal Cable Ultimate Dream, Synergistic Research Galileo UEF, Ansuz Acoustics Diamond
Power conditioner: AudioQuest Niagara 5000 (two), Synergistic Research Galileo UEF, Technical Brain
Support systems: Critical Mass Systems MAXXUM and QXK equipment racks and amp stands
Room treatments: Stein Music H2 Harmonizer system, Synergistic Research UEF Acoustic Panels/Atmosphere XL4/UEF Acoustic Dot system, Synergistic Research ART system, Shakti Hallographs (6), Zanden Acoustic panels, A/V Room Services Metu acoustic panels and traps, ASC Tube Traps
Accessories: Symposium Isis and Ultra equipment platforms, Symposium Rollerblocks and Fat Padz, Walker Prologue Reference equipment and amp stands, Walker Valid Points and Resonance Control discs, Clearaudio Double Matrix Professional Sonic record cleaner, Synergistic Research RED Quantum fuses, HiFi-Tuning silver/gold fuses

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