DS Audio Master 3 Cartridge

hfnoutstandingConceived to replace the Master 1, but with all the 'third generation' technology unveiled in the Grand Master, the Master 3 is described as a 'semi-flagship' pick-up...

To borrow a phrase from the Buffalo Springfield (though it defined a far graver situation than a change of cantilever), 'there's something happening here – what it is ain't exactly clear'. DS Audio has released yet another cartridge in the Master series, the Master 3 (£8330 without PSU/equaliser) and I fear it's going to be an even bigger disruptor than the Grand Master EX [HFN Oct '23].

All DS Audio's optical pick-ups require a combined outboard PSU, to power the LED light sources, and equaliser, to manage the output from the photocells. Personally, I consider the equalisers to be less important in determining overall sound than the cartridges, so if the £18,885 Master 3 Equaliser is not within your reach, then the Master 3 cartridge will sound just as seductive via the DS-003 Equaliser [HFN Oct '21] for £3660. Naturally there are differences between the equalisers but these are not deal-breakers: slightly greater headroom, a touch more solidity in the bottom but – repeatedly – I've heard bigger differences from cartridge to cartridge.


DS Audio uses a polished 'ultra duralumin' alloy for the body and a stainless cradle, inside, for the optical mechanism

Pretty In Pink
In the Master 3 Equaliser, massive at 452x153x484mm (whd) and weighing 23kg, the power supply has been improved. Like DS Audio's other Master equalisers, it provides three sets of outputs with varying filters, each on single-ended RCA or balanced XLR connections. Cut-offs of 30Hz or 50Hz are selected by a toggle on the back, with each output adding a unique slope. I reviewed the Master 3 through full-range loudspeakers with massive amplifiers, so chose the setting with least filtering.

When switched on, a vertical strip on the equaliser lights up in a pink/purple hue to match the LED on the front of the cartridge. An arbitrary measure of the added capacity of the equaliser's power supply is that it took considerably longer for the lights on both cartridge and equaliser to fade to black after switch off.


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

The Master 3 is one of DS Audio's third-generation designs, all now utilising independent LED and photo detectors for the two channels. A greater photocell output voltage is claimed, from 40mV to 70mV, with improved channel separation and lower noise. I already thought that DS Audio cartridges presented the lowest noise floor imaginable but this baby is even quieter.

Physical changes include a 50% weight reduction in the reshaped shading plate, as well as a change from the second-generation cartridge's aluminium to 99.9% pure beryllium. Just as Lotus always pursued lightness for better performance out of its racing cars, so has lower moving mass been a goal for every cartridge designer since the dawn of the microgroove record.

Hip To Be Square
Because of these changes, the third-generation shading plate's weight has been halved from 1.56mg to 0.74mg, which is, says DS Audio, 'less than a 10th of the mass of the core and coil system of a typical moving coil cartridge'. The internal wiring is 1.6x thicker in these third-gen designs, lowering their impedance, but this has no impact on the moving mass.

While all of the above matters, after a long conversation with PM we agreed that perhaps the most important element of this cartridge, and which pretty much undermines all that has gone before, is the change from circular to a square cantilever cross-section. Although the Master 3 has a diamond 'Micro-Ridge' stylus bonded to a diamond cantilever, as does DS Audio's Grand Master [HFN Feb '21], the square-section rod is stiffer – ie, more resistant to bending across the square of the cross-section, as illustrated in the micrograph picture.

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