DS Audio’s Master 1 optical phono cartridge is among the more expensive models that Hi-Fi News has tested. But it wasn’t the price that shocked reviewer Ken Kessler, who found himself “staying up until 3am for six nights in a row, playing in excess of 50 LPs, rediscovering old favourites as well as undergoing revelations with discs I had taken for granted.”
In 2013, Japan’s DS Audio pioneered the world’s only current optical phono cartridge. It wasn’t, however, the first… audiophiles of a certain age may recall the brief appearance of ‘the legendary optical cartridge’ in Japan back in the 1960s. Initially developed to great acclaim and lauded for its high fidelity, it then disappeared as quickly as it arrived. Sadly the invention was before its time, as optical technology wasn’t quite yet up to the job.
Fast forward several decades… things have moved forward significantly and who better to seize the moment than DS Audio, a company whose parent is a global leader in optical sensors. Which is reassuring, notes Kessler, since your investment “gets you cutting-edge design and manufacture rather than something a boffin cooked up in a garage.”
The DS Master 1 is the flagship cartridge of the company’s range and comes with its own power supply-cum-phono stage/equalizer. It sports a Super Duralumin body, sapphire cantilever and micro-ridge stylus. Inside the cartridge, light from an LED shines on a highly sensitive photocell, which generates an electrical current. This current is modulated by the cantilever’s movement interrupting the light path.
“After years of using only MCs… the DS Audio Master 1 was a shock because its presentation was so clean and noiseless,” writes Kessler, which can take a little getting used to after “a lifetime with normal cartridges”. In fact, so marked is “this absolute absence of grunge, hum or other background annoyances” that the listener can at first feel slightly disoriented. “’Uncanny’ is a word that springs to mind, while ‘blessed relief’ and ‘a means of seducing people way from digital’ also pops up.”
Shifting his focus from the silence to the music, Kessler found that Judee Sill and Dusty Springfield “enjoyed a naturalness enriched by the breathiness the Master 1 revealed.” With Son of a Preacher Man, “the benefits bestowed upon it by the cartridge went beyond the realism of the vocals… the DS Audio Master 1 spread the soundstage beyond the speakers.”
A number of Simon & Garfunkel tracks “showcased the Master 1’s coherence, allowing the harmonies to blend while remaining separate enough to focus on one or the other. Acoustic guitars oozed with woody resonance, while the piano in Bridge Over Troubled Water grew in stature and majesty.”
“Believe me,” he concludes, “this cartridge is phenomenal.”
Read Ken Kessler’s full review in the December 2017 issue of Hi-Fi News