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DS Audio DS Master1 Optical Phono Cartridge and Preamp/Equalizer Review

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I could go on and on, but my last example comes from the Mercury Living Presence LP, HI-FI A LA ESPANOLA. I have listened to this album since my college days. The dynamics, which range from an almost silent pianissimo to thundering crescendos, are incredible, and I have never experienced them like I did with this setup. I could hear and feel the full power of the orchestra like never before, and the sound of the bowed basses was an emotional experience. The orchestra floated in a three-dimensional space around and between the speakers that totally disappeared. When the performance reached its climax, each instrument maintained perfect clarity and definition. It was the best I had ever heard this LP sound on any system.

There are a few other areas I must mention where this vinyl playback system enables my system to perform better than ever before. Let’s start with being able to hear layers upon layers of texture. I can’t overstate how this cartridge lets you hear so many layers of tones and music. With the DS Master1, the texture of bowed strings and the speed, attack and decay of plucked strings is also breathtaking when playing an LP of a great performance. It also makes it so easy to follow the interplay between jazz musicians or voices in an a capella ensemble. I could even hear the differences in the textures and harmonics of Sinatra’s voice on a song he sang as a young man versus the same song when he is older. The ability to hear these layers brings new depth into the emotions of the music.

The DS Master1 is by far the most detailed phono playback system I have heard in my system. I hesitate to say this because of the negative connotation that this statement might have in some quarters. I’m using “detailed” here to refer to how easily you can hear the timbre of each instrument, the air around and within the instruments and the tones and phrasing of the human voice. Even with this detail, however, the sound was neither razor sharp nor a bright spotlight on every little thing. It’s like more music just flows fluidly out of the system into my room.

I don’t mean that I hear things on LPs that I’ve never heard before, but I do hear what’s on an LP more easily and with more timbre, pitch and intensity. The subtle changes in a singer’s voice come to life with breath and immediacy. I also heard the nuances of the instruments, the attack of the leading edge and the timbre of the instrument after the leading edge.

Now, let’s talk about the “WOW” factor — the dynamics and palpability are simply incredible! The sound is so dynamic that the music literally explodes out of the speakers, and with the right recordings, it fills a room with a three-dimensional sound. It can go from completely quiet to full tilt in an instant, and it achieves this range in such a completely effortless manner that you don’t think about what a great performance you are hearing or how dynamic it is. Speaking of completely quiet, I think part of what makes optical cartridges sound so explosive is how quiet they are. I have never heard a source that produces as quiet a background as the DS Master1 cartridge and phono preamp.

The bass is a big part of the “WOW” factor. I had no idea my Teresonics could go this deep. One of the things I love about my Teresonics is that they don’t add an extra bass resonance where there isn’t any. This is equally true of the DS Master1. The result is a bass that can explode into the room, rumble into it or even breathe into the room in a way that can catch you off guard.

In my review of the DS-W1, I talked about how exceptional the cartridge is when it comes to temporal realism. This is also true for the DS Master1. Temporal realism is one of the things that most sets live music apart from recorded music. The timing and flow of music seldom seem correct for music played on an audio system. It seems to me that tape and phono cartridges that are displacement-reading devices are better at this than phono cartridges that use magnets. I’m guessing that the movement of the coils or the magnets simply blurs the timing to some small extent. Moving iron cartridges do this less than moving magnets or moving coils, but none that I have heard can match the DS Audio optical cartridges or the Soundsmith Strain Gauge. I have no idea what messes up the temporal realism on digital playback, but it is one of the format’s real weaknesses, in my opinion. The ability to come so much closer to getting the timing and flow of a musical performance correct is part of what makes the DS optical cartridges so enjoyable to listen to.

I also want to point out how the DS Master1 handles space. As my regular readers know, I don’t make the typical audiophile soundstage a high priority. Instead, I want to hear a coherent, whole soundstage. One of the things that I really enjoyed about this cartridge was its ability to give me the best of both worlds. My system played music that not only reproduced the width, depth and height of the soundstage, it also was able to consistently reproduce a coherent soundstage full of air, space, ambiance and energy. One of my pet peeves is for instruments and bodies to sound as if they are floating in empty space. I did not experience this with the DS Master1. Instead, it consistently produced the widest, deepest, tallest and most lifelike scale I have heard from my system.

There’s one final area where the DS Master1 Optical Cartridge is the best I’ve ever heard. It doesn’t emphasize groove noise, pops and ticks. This probably has to do with the shape of the stylus that somehow allows it to get below the noisy and worn parts of the record groove. Whatever it is that eliminates these annoying sounds, this is a great quality in a phono cartridge.


Listening to the DS Master1 Optical Cartridge with the DS-W1 Preamp/Equalizer

For a couple of reasons, I couldn’t wait to hear this combination. First, this is the configuration I would most likely be able to afford, and second, this is a natural step up for the owner of the DS-W1. I’m going to try to tell you how this combination compares to both the DS-W1 system and the DS Master1 system.

Let’s start with the soundstage; this combo is much wider and taller with than the DS-W1. I would go so far as to say that it played the biggest soundstage I had ever heard in my system before I put in the complete DS Master1 system. On the final cut of my live recording of Les Mis, the entire cast enters from stage left and right and joins the main characters to stretch clear across the stage. I heard the sound begin in the far left and right corners of my room and come forward until it stretched wall to wall. Without a doubt, reworking the cartridge achieved DS Audio’s goal of increasing the size of the soundstage by increasing the channel separation.

Using the DS Master1 cartridge with the DS-W1 phono preamp also extended the frequency extremes. The top-end has more sparkle, and the overall sound from the midrange up was very silky. The bottom end was deep, full and powerful. Both the Duets and Moonlight Serenade albums show this on several cuts. I had never heard Ray Brown’s standup bass play so low and with such air and space. Likewise, Laurindo Almeida’s guitar was quicker and had more sparkle than I had heard before. This top-end sparkle was also very apparent on the Alison Krauss Live LP. The bluegrass instruments really showed this off along with the silkiness of Krauss’ voice.  As good as this combo sounds, however, the bass and top-end are definitely better with the complete DS Master1 combo.

The DS Master1 cartridge with the DS-W1 preamp is also more transparent and quicker than the DS-W1 system. This transparency opens a very clear window on the sound. There is a beautiful touch of velvet smoothness to the sound, and if this is a coloration, it is surely a beautiful one. I don’t really know how to describe this sound. It is nowhere near being overly smooth and the transients are extremely quick and detailed. Both the macro- and micro-dynamics are simply incredible; so do not take my statement about velvet smoothness to imply slow or boring, as nothing could be less true. It simply enables voices and instruments to sound very beautiful on my system.

The total DS Master1 system is even more transparent and quicker without giving up any of the beauty I have described. Maybe the biggest difference in the total DS Master1 system and the DS Master1/DS-W1 combo are an increase in power that enables you to hear so much more of everything.



I won’t go on and on comparing these three combinations. It’s pretty simple, the complete DS Master1 system is the best that I have ever heard, the combo of the DS Master1 cartridge and the DS-W1 preamp is the second best, and the total DS-W1 is the third-place winner. To round out the five best phono cartridges I have ever heard in my system, fourth place would go to the Soundsmith Strain Gauge, and fifth place would go to the Miyabi Standard moving coil with the Shindo Giscours preamp. The area where the DS Audio cartridges are better than the Strain Gauge is their ability to deliver beautiful, rich tones and wonderful harmonics. The place where the optical and Strain Gauge cartridges are better than the Miyabi Standard and Shindo combo is their lack of smear that comes from the magnets moving. I would like to say that I could live happily with any of the DS Audio Optical Cartridge Systems I have heard. I am dying to hear their new entry-level optical cartridge system.

So, let me conclude with two thoughts. The first thought is how great my system sounded with the DS Master1 as its source. I have never heard so much music flow so easily into my room as I did with the DS Master1. The sound is big, bold and oh so alive. I had a couple of visitors ask if Mike from Teresonic had heard this system because they didn’t know there was a Lowther-based system that could play music like this. I’ll invite Mike over the next time he is up this way.

The second thought can best be described by first telling you that I’m a big college basketball and professional baseball fan. Nothing ruins a game more than when the umpires or referees become noticeable. If they do their job right, you seldom even notice that they are there. The same is true of a great audio system. It’s about experiencing the sounds and feelings of the music in a way that lets you overcome the electronic listening experience. The DS Master1 brought my system closer to that goal than ever before. Nuf’ said!


Copy editor: Dan Rubin

3 Responses to DS Audio DS Master1 Optical Phono Cartridge and Preamp/Equalizer Review

  1. Mark Kelly says:

    I didn’t see any mention of the cart/equalizer’s performance on mono lps. As this was a strong suit of the Soundsmith strain gauge unit, I would be curious how they would compare in this regard.

  2. Jack Roberts says:

    I would say it’s about the equal of the strain gauge on mono LPs. I’m sitting hear right now listening to Ella sing Cole Porter and it never sounded better.

  3. Spla'nin says:

    Any chance you will be auditioning the DS 002 system in the future? I noticed that you upgraded your tonearm. It would be helpful to hear the tonearm specs/mechanical ranges DS recommends that best work with their suspension & weight of this technology cartridge ie effective mass in grams, suspension compliance rating of cart, tonearm viscous or mechanical damping potential effects, etc. Maybe the distributor could find out & make that info available to those of us with curious minds for potential pre-purchase due diligence, Thanks.

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