DS Audio Grand Master EX Cartridge Page 2

It required a varied mix of genres because it wasn't just a case of smoother behaviour, as PM pointed out upon revealing that the curves were nearly identical. The original Grand Master cartridge is already a 'smooth' operator and I found nothing in its behaviour that I thought might need taming, polishing or refining. Opening with Albert King's Born Under A Bad Sign [Craft/Stax CR00513], I was struck not so much by the timbre of the guitar and its fluidity, the veracity in the reproduction of his rich, deep voice, nor the absolutely mesmerising punch of the Memphis Horns. Instead, I was bowled over by even more taut bass – with no increase in aggression – and a soundstage so cavernous as to challenge my all-time reference, the Denon DL-103 [HFN Jul '09].

Massive Attack
I should add here that, even with the Grand Master Extreme's supremacy exhibited at such an early stage in the sessions, part of me stayed grounded enough to acknowledge that its hyper-precision and the nakedness of the sound might not suit every listener nor every system. But can a cartridge be too revealing? Purists, transparency addicts and those who dream of master tapes might say 'No!', but I am reminded of Peter Lederman's guidance when advising his customers as to which SoundSmith strain-gauge cartridge [HFN May '21] will suit their system.


Gold-anodised plates inside the GM equaliser connect the six huge electrolytics feeding each side of the fully discrete, fully balanced filter and output stage [far right]

At a certain level, you need a system that can handle the information: attack bandwidth, dynamics, what-have-you. It is the reason why I have not abandoned SoundSmith's Hyperion, the various Koetsus and Londons/Deccas, which I use as the mood strikes. And because King's album is one I have owned for over a half-century and have played at least 200 times, I was stunned by the Grand Master Extreme's ability to extract even more from the grooves. As with the changes in the curves, the gains were minuscule but inescapable, the precise sorts of nuances which separate two vintages of the same wine (or even two bottles from the same case).

How much of this was due to what my tiny earth brain attributes to the Extreme's quietness, and thus its refusal to mask low-level information, I cannot say. But when I moved on to Son House's far leaner, utterly minimalist Father Of The Folk Blues [Analogue Productions/Columbia CS9217], which features only voice and guitar for the bulk of the album, I was able to focus on his metal slide's contact with the strings and the textures in his vocals, with no other distractions.

Ready To Rock
If one's yardstick for system performance is the sensation of placing the artist in the space in front of the listener, the Extreme has very few peers. While I always seem to make reference to Denon MCs when this aspect of playback is discussed, a well-tuned Decca or Urushi-lacquered Koetsu [HFN Jun '13 & Nov '19] is also 'up there'. What the EX showed, even with this uncrowded session, was both width and depth, but that only meant the sense of air. For scale, I needed majesty.


Rear view of the PSU [bottom] and equaliser [top]. The pick-up's internal LEDs are powered via the R– and L– pins while the output is returned via R+ and L+, all via the 'Input' RCAs. Three eq'd line outs, on RCAs and balanced XLRs, offer three bass roll-offs from two different – 30Hz and 50Hz – turnover freqs.

Whitesnake's remastered Slip Of The Tongue [Rhino 0190295409784] is one of those joyous contradictions in which an eardrum-bursting band actually cares about sound quality. While my go-to heavy metal/hard rock artists are Mountain, Cream and Blue Cheer, this band's time with guitarist Steve Vai provides ample opportunity to assess the sheer mass of a recording. Vai's pyrotechnics are also ideal for gauging the attack of transients, while the vocals are out of the stadium filler's handbook.

Extreme Epiphany
This album offers the kind of contrast that fastidious listeners and audio veterans relish: as far removed from Son House as possible, Whitesnake's massed instruments, with so much going on, enabled the Extreme to demonstrate its prowess with a different sort of challenge. I am not suggesting for a second that House's one instrument and voice is easier to reproduce than an onslaught from a big hair band, but the Extreme adapted to it as easily as a Lotus moves from road to track.


The GM EX's pins are clearly marked and separated. Just visible are the shading plates, diamond cantilever and Micro-Ridge stylus

There's usually a moment of epiphany when one track tells you all you need to know. Even after going from electric blues to acoustic, followed by hard rock and with a number of genres inbetween, it was a 34-year-old country LP that made me fall in love with the Extreme: Dwight Yoakam's Just Lookin' For A Hit compilation [Reprise 7599-25989-1], an exemplar of a genre which was out of fashion when he arrived in the 1980s.

What it does for assessing hi-fi systems is deliver a ton of 'redneck bass'; that deep, snapping, funky lower register, underlining slightly nasal vocals, as if ol' DY was doing an impression of ol' Buck Owens. Now this music might seem more at home via an 8-track player in a pick-up truck but, hot damn, it made me forget all about the system and spoke directly to my inner cowpoke.

DS Audio's Grand Master Extreme is that kind of cartridge. It should come with a warning: you need to bring plenty of food and drink into your listening room because you will not want to leave.

Hi-Fi News Verdict
Despite my adoration of Decca, Soundsmith and Koetsu pick-ups, HFN Feb '21 saw me write, 'The Grand Master is so truly supreme in resolution, transparency, spatial recreation, neutrality and any other parameter I can name that it's impossible for me to not say what I usually try to avoid: "This may be the best cartridge I've ever heard"'. This time, I cannot deny: the Grand Master Extreme is even better.

Digital Stream Corporation
Kanagawa, Japan
Supplied by: Soundfowndations Ltd, Berks
0118 9814238