DS Audio’s Flagship Optical Phono System, DS MASTER 1 (Review Part 2 of 3)






A 3-part introduction and review of Japanese audio company/ maverick/innovator DS Audio by Dato Danon Han. Stand by for Part 3 for the ‘Big Bang’ surprise…



Part Two


Enter the Master of Optical Phono Cartridge System 



Another review meant another series of sessions listening to music that I am most well aware of. That was necessary so that I could identify any nuance in any area of the musical presentation from the component in review. You can imagine my excitement when something ‘new’ could be highlighted from a well-heard record! 



Occasionally, I would invite some experienced audiophile guests over for a listen and hear their respective comments. Some of those comments maybe agreeable but others were biased by their respective preference and expectations (which were not wrong…aren’t we all biasedone way or another?!). However, I like to record them in the review directly and/or indirectly. 



I felt honoured to review the DS Audio W1 some years ago. Therefore, when I read of their flagship, the DS Master1, I wrote to Aki-San for a review sample. Unfortunately for me (but fortunately for) DS Audio could not manufacture enough DS Master1 to satisfy their local market in Japan. However, my patience paid off recently with the first DS Master1 coming to Malaysia for review (grateful…thanks Aki-San). I thought too that the timing would not be better to have the DS Master- now so that reference could be made with some serious phono stages competition, FM Acoustics 223 Phono Master, Vitus Masterpiece MP-P201 and the Kronos Reference Phono Amplifier. 



Here, the DS Master1 would be of the lowest retail price analogue component at US$22,000 (including in the package, the DS Master1 Equalizer and DS Master1 Optical Phono Cartridge), whereas the others did not include a (MC or MM or MI) phono cartridge. Do the math and you would know the abovementioned competitors could cost double and/or easily triple (3x) the retail price of DS Master1. However, please do not be naive to seek the same percentage of improvement from any of thecompetition over the DS Master1. At Ultra End Audio (above High End Audio…snob?), every percent of improvement and/or change of coloration in tonality would easily cost thousands of U.S. dollars! (And YES!) The DS Master1 was ‘somewhat’ of the same league but not the same to the rest.



The Master’s ‘Unheard of Silence’


Audiophiles in the know would understand vinyl playback’s ‘kinks and tempers’. The possibility of audible ‘hum’ and/or artifacts alone has plagued and even deterred many enthusiasts. These problems did not escape even the ultra end vinyl playback components. Therefore, most enthusiasts took efforts to minimize the audible ‘hum’ and/or artifacts through careful component placement, cable selection and management, grounding and electrical management, etc. The list of efforts continues, depending on the sensitivity of the other accompanied audio components, in the chain of the audio system. 



Here, the DS Master1 surprised me with a level of silence that I have yet to experience even though I had the DS W1 of similarly applied technologies. I believed the DS Master1, coupled with its ‘Herculean’ power supply, hasachieved a new level of low in noise, in comparison with the earlier DS W1. Here, the technologies applied presented not a hint of hum and/or artifacts, even when the Master1 Optical Phono Cartridge was lifted with the volume of the pre amplifier set at high, as per a quiet digital source. However, expect the usual ‘click and pop’ and surface noise of the vinyl record being played. 



After sometimes, I could appreciate some audiophile’s comment that the DS Master1 sounded ‘digital’ which I believed was due to that ‘unheard of silence’. I admit that that silence took me awhile to get accustomed to. But once I got to understand and appreciate that ‘silence’, I realized that it was the DS Master1’s foundation for its new level of transparency to native recorded detail, that most ultra end phono stages were striving to achieve.



To illustrate, I played Arnold Overtures (Reference Mastercuts/ Reference Recordings RM-1518) Malcom Arnold conducted The London Philharmonic Orchestra with David Nolan. That ‘silence’ immediately brought to light the whole orchestra and its presentation. It was as if the whole presentation was lighted up with details. I would not call it a ‘bright presentation’ with irritating and exaggerated higher frequencies that gave the illusion of ‘extra details’. Nor would I call it an analytical presentation. Here, it was more akin to a listening session of a well lit venue, where no musician was missed. It was for me a well familiarized record and I thought to myself that some musicians that were distanced in the soundstage could not possibly be brought out any clearer, but the DS Master1 presented them clearer and as full bodied musicians at their respective position in the soundstage.


At Howard Dunn conducted The Dallas Wind Symphony for ‘Fiesta’ (Reference Recordings RR-38), even the whole recording venue was given the same treatment with its depth, width and height clearly marked out. To me, the DS Master1 would not leave any detail unturned or stayed illusive, and likened to a team of ‘CSI’ that seeks the native truth (of the embedded musical details on the vinyl record…being dramatic).



Therefore, if a listener expected his or her analogue music to have some ‘cloud of mysticism’ or ‘details revealed half-way’…look elsewhere(!). Believe me there are audiophiles who believe in certain perceived coloration as ‘analogue sound’ (as above).



Honestly Revealing and Surreal, but Artificially?!


I remember an audiophile commented that it was ‘artificial’ that so much ‘detail and clarity’ being presented through an ultra end audio system that even a ‘live’ presentation of the same could not be had. I did remind him that we were hearing a recording that involvesa number of additional factors, equipment and editing. 



In addition, there were differences between the recording venue and my audio den; namely the width, height, depth, acoustic, etc (not an exhaustive list)…I doubt I could identify the individual musician’s playing among other musicians in an orchestra, in a massive hall. In a recording, the involved recording engineer could have easily manipulated and/or enhanced the presence and music(ianship) of any particular musician(s) among the musicians in the orchestra. Therefore, we were playing back a recording that involved more than the musicians and the venue. But, I doubt he agreed with me as he argued that ‘live’ presentation should be the yardstick. To me, I like to believe that the actual ‘live’ presentation should be the yardstick for the recording engineer and in turn, the recording should be the yardstick for the playback system. However, one should not go wrong when he got to hear more of the music, or resolution of it.



The DS Master1 was not embarrassed to showcase that ‘artificial(ity)’ of a recording. On Winds of War and Peace (Wilson Audiophile Recordings/Analogue Productions APC 8823), where Lowell Graham conducted The National Symphonic Winds, I believed that ‘artificiality’ brought out the ‘detail and clarity’ of the ‘drums and their leather skins’, even amidst a large crowd of musicians playing dynamically at high volume. 



My amazement was piqued when I was presented with possibly the cleanest transient of lowest bass energy and attack. In terms of quantity, each hit at the drum sent wave of low bass energy that literally rattled the edges of my trousers. In terms of quality, I could easily detect when and where each wave of low bass energy started and ended. The depth and direction of each hit at the drum were clearly and cleanly delineated and defined (similarly at The Dallas Wind Symphony for ‘Fiesta’ (Reference Recordings RR-38))



At the higher frequencies, when Alexander Gibson conducted the Royal Opera House Orchestra Covent Garden for Gounod ‘Faust’ Ballet Music and Bizet ‘Carmen’ Suite (Analogue Production APC 2449 / Living Stereo LSC-2449), I could not have asked for a more surreal presentation of the trumpets played together that were enough to give me a ‘fright’. It was that unforgettable! (or should I add ‘artificial’?…more to come).


End of Part Two.


Stay tuned for the final Part Three next Friday.