Anyone have experience with Soundsmith’s strain gauge?


After watching Peter Ledermann’s excellent presentation on phono cartridge design I am now quite interested in his Strain gauge cartridge. Unfortunately reviews for the product seem to be sparse and are from nearly a decade ago. I’m wondering if anyone here is an owner of such a system and if they’d be so kind as to share their experience with it. I currently have the Aida cartridge from their high output MI lineup and I want to know if the sound really is a big step up from what I currently have. 
thermionicvinyl
Hi, I'm a long term user since 2014, in that time going from SDS-5 stylus to the -6, and two upgrades to PSU to energiser (first, Red Wine Audio Black Lightning battery pack, and now bespoke LPS).
I've previously run Roksan Shiraz, Lyra Skala and Parnassus, Transfiguration Temper Supreme and Orpheus, and ESCO-modded  Zu Denon 103, carts.
My LPS'd Straingauge combines many of these carts' best traits, none of their weaknesses, for a transducer performance I believe is up w the very best.
A member on my main forum, What's Best, has compared it to pricier carts going thru a top Boulder phono, and at a fraction of the cost, the Straingauge wins.
Happy to help further, just can't offer a comparison to the Aida.
Ever since hearing the Straingauge years ago, I heard it as one of the "best" ever heard. 
The fact it wasn't on an uber setup(VPI HRX) made it even more attractive.

I heard  it along with  a couple other top SS models demoed by Peter.  The  cactus cantilever Hyperion is also an impressive cart.

Either one would be a last for me.
I recall reading an article some time ago by Fremer stating it tends to produce a polarizing sound that people either gush over or completely dislike. I have not heard it myself but from what I recall reading the clarity and speed of data retrieval produced are almost startling but possibly to the point certain aspects (vocals for instance) didn’t even sound recognizable to Fremer on some albums. I’d be very interested to hear a demo sometime.
I had the pleasure of meeting Peter in NY earlier this year and auditioning both the SG and the Hyperion at his facility.  His setup included top line VPI, two tonearms so I could quickly switch between the two carts, his preamp/amp and his monitors.  (Incidentally, I was absolutely amazed by the sound of his monitors especially the bass response considering that they don't have a large woofer like a floor stranding .) I brought my own vinyl which I have listened to extensively on my system (AMG with turbo arm, Ortofon cadenza black, Rogue Audio ares magnum phono and Rogue Audio  RP7 preamp and Stereo 100 amp, vahallia 2 cabling and Sonus Faber Amati tradition speakers.)
Both carts were excellent, but the SG was truly exceptional in its speed, articulation, tonal accuracy, sound stage, presentation, etc.  I listened to classical and jazz only so I cannot comment on voices, but even difficult to reproduce instruments such as organ were near perfect. I listened for nearly 4 hours and stopped only because I had a 7 hour drive ahead.
I took extensive notes for both carts which I can share if you like. I could not find any faults with the SG (SG-6 stylis).  
Peter is brilliant and so willing to teach and truly friendly.
I am placing my order for the SG in June.  
This "not recognising vocals" criticism...I'm not getting it. Firstly, who knows what Frank Sinatra or Kate Bush or Peter Gabriel etc TRULY sound like? And I don't mean amplified mike on stage. I mean him/her singing for you.
I've run six top carts ahead of the SG, and not once has SG presentation ever appeared skewed tonally or timbrally to me.
It may be stripping some colourations that sugar coat vocals.
Put it this way, imho a fat Koetsu or cheaper sharper Lyra is more likely to alter vocals off neutral than SG.
craig has another of several highly compelling SG impressions, all of them consistently positioning it among the very finest on the market. Truly amazing considering when you get into that range you're talking more for the phono stage alone than the SG, which as a system needs no phono stage. It does however use a power supply. Which when that is improved then you are by all accounts talking a true cost no object reference system- yet still for less than a lot of those same cost no object phono stages alone, to say nothing of the cartridge. A stone bargain. Which is why its at the very top of my list. 
This "not recognising vocals" criticism...I'm not getting it.

Hey, just the messenger here as I recall what I read.  I did have the same thought...what's the point of reference?...your onw system?  Fremer usually is able to take such viewpoints into consideration when making statements like that so I felt it perhaps had some merit for discussion anyway.

I found a link to the article from 2011.  Here are a couple of quotes that stuck in my memory:

This character had me pulling out records like the Byrds' chimey first album, Mr. Tambourine Man (LP, Columbia). Roger McGuinn's 12-string Rickenbacker and the constantly rattling tambourine were reproduced with greater clarity, authority, and purity than I've ever heard, yet neither sounded too bright or edgy. On the other hand, McGuinn's voice was less coherent; its timbre was slightly off, making his very well-known voice less recognizable. But if you try to predict how familiar recordings will sound with the Strain Gauge, you'll probably be wrong much of the time. As with the Decca cartridges, I found that how a particular record, or a particular instrument on that record, would sound through the Strain Gauge was not at all predictable.

There's a banjo part in Virgil Thomson's The Plow that Broke the Plains, performed by Leopold Stokowski and the Symphony of the Air (LP, Vanguard VSD 2095). Through the Strain Gauge, it had a startlingly distinctive metallic ring that some would think realistic but others might find hyped-up and "hi-fi"–ish. It was in that region of the spectrum—cymbals, banjo, plucked guitar strings, etc.—where the Strain Gauge's most distinctive personality trait manifested itself.

Here's a link to the article.  https://www.stereophile.com/content/soundsmith-strain-gauge-sg-200-phono-cartridge-system
Hey my friend, no ire directed at you. I'm a pretty fussy listener, and I went into the demo aware of these comments. I honestly walked out w no hint of perceiving issues here. All my other carts had varying levels of colourations and characters, not so the SG.
I hate the words neutral and transparent because, for one, neutral to what? And two, transparent means cool to one listener, and lacking depth to another.
My parameters are...do instruments appear vital and differentiated, and do the same instruments sound very different lp to lp? Are voices vibrant and evocative and immersive?
So, if Jaco Pastorius truly sounds different from Jack Bruce, as opposed to more amorphousness as w some overly sharp or overly fuzzy carts...and if Kate Bush and Peter Gabriel brings you to tears, and makes you joyous track to track, lp to lp, then you have the perfect cart.
For me the added bonus going SG has been revitalising my jazz and classical collection. My prog rock and fusion nailed by my SG. But my Miles and Coltrane and Bach and Rimsky Korsakov that had been languishing a bit...fully immersive now.
"(Incidentally, I was absolutely amazed by the sound of his monitors especially the bass response considering that they don't have a large woofer like a floor stranding .)"

This post reinforces my experience. I didn't include in my post that the amazing sound was coming from wimpy looking bookshelves!

I had Peter play the record I had. Even he was surprised.So much, he wanted to keep it! It was  a stellar copy of the David Gilmore debut album and the cut was "There's no way out of here."


And don't forget the reduced costs of l/t ownership.
So, buy a Top Wing Red Sparrow cart for $15k.
Retips every 2-3 yrs c. $10-12k
SG? $9k minus trade in for phono (that can be spent on LPS).
Retips c $1k each.
The numbers don't lie Lol.
Does Ledermann still have them 25% off?
Not SG, I believe. Never did. Unless I'm  v much mistaken.
Coulda sworn with the shutdown thing he put everything 25% off.
This is from another thread here, submitted by Mr. Lederman himself...

"We are building to order, so there will be delays, but the above comment is correct ~ it is a great moment to buy a Soundsmith design. Our 6 top designs are discounted 25%; LOW OUTPUT - Hyperion, Sussurro, Paua, Zephyr MIMC Star, HIGH OUTPUT The Voice, and Aida."
The sound of the Strain Gauge is really polarizing, I guess.

I have heard it vs. DS Audio and DS Audio was the clear
winner. Both have outstanding clarity, „room“ and dynamics.

But the SG was „CD-like“ for my taste and DS Audio transported
the magic of vinyl. So I bought it. And the current DS Audio models
are even better than the original DS-W1 was.
Racedoc, audio certainly polarises. I've seen comments that the DS is digital-like, the same way you feel about SG. Horses for courses.
Install is everything in analog, SG maybe more than most. It is v sensitive to azimuth...get setup wrong/sub par, and you're "rewarded" with a thin, non immersive sound. Crack azimuth, and VTA for every individual lp, and you're *rewarded* with a true holographic presentation, excellent tonal and timbral discrimination, bass energy and start/stop nature that really feels realistic, and lifelike speed. All of which is taken up a notch or three w addition of quality LPS.
Congrats on yr DS, like me w SG it seems you've found yr analog nirvana.
So much for perfect.

At any rate the first thing I look at is tracking. It has to do better Than 70 um at 315 Hz preferably better than 80 um. This is a spec that is frequently missing. If a cartridge has a stellar reputation I'll buy it and if It can't meet the spec turn around and sell it at a loss. I refuse to let any cartridge damage my records. Fortunately, I have not had to do this in a while. Cartridges are getting darn expensive.

Many of Micheal Fremer's comments have psychological underpinnings.
He could never admit than his mega buck phono amp was outdone by a system that cost a fraction. Same for his tonearm. Take everything he says with a grain of salt. 

Back in the late 70s I had a Win Labs STD 10 strain gauge cartridge. It was not awful but close. I only kept it a month or so before throwing in the towel. So, I suppose I'm a bit sour on the idea. I would have to hear one extensively before jumping on that bandwagon again.

MC, I see you still have the "jitter" bug.
Mijostyn, you mean MF's infamous retraction of comments re Whest v Boulder phonostages? I'm glad you've confirmed that, I was told I had that story wrong. Yep, I never paid any attention to his words after that low point.
I did have one negative observation about the Strain gauge...

It has that corny 1980's blue LED! That would be the first thing I would try to disable. It's 2020, are there STILL fans of the blue LED on audio equipment?

Blue LED's remind me of stuff made in...oh that's another thread. BAN the Blue LED!
Tablejockey, you are supposed to paint your turntable with phosphorous:)
I love my blue LED...really. For me, it's just another touch of unorthodox to go w my LT air arm, direct rim drive tt and 93 kg Stacore pneumatic/mass loading support.
So Thermionic, can I answer anymore Qs you might have re SG?
Yes, I was wondering if there’s any sonic differences between the versions of the SG. I see you can pay more for a fancier preamp and you can pay even more and get one from their reference line. The other question I have is how exactly the stylus replacement works? It is like the Ortofon cartridges?
Levels of preamp if you're just using the solitary analog SG-based source.
For those w cdp, streaming, tape, AV...it's not really practical.
Cannot comment on those different units, I have the energiser-only "entry" model.
Stylii slot in and out on a screw-in assembly, c$1k for replacements.
I think @spiritofmusic has covered this well.

I have an SG-210 system and have used various cartridges in the past: Lyras, Clearaudios, Ortofons...but the most recent vintage of those is a Titan 'i', which I used with an Audio Research Ref Phono, with Teflon caps, NOS Mullard, Siemens, Telefunken and other tubes. But I can't compare these carts, it has been too long and much has changed -- I moved, have a different listening space and system.

What I can say is this. The SG is truly exceptional in my experience, but it does require very careful setup to get best results. I know everyone here takes setup seriously, of course. But small adjustments matter. Dialed-in, this cartridge allows the music in the groove to be presented without (to me, anyway) impediments. Small little things in the mix that were previously vague or entirely absent are just there, as natural as anything else in the mix. Timbres and instrumental textures are laid bare. This cartridge just doesn't stop delivering the music, in a holistic and coherent fashion.

I am sure some would prefer a SoundSmith MI cart, or a fine MC from another source. We don't all have the same tastes, in music and sound. And I myself was on the fence for a while before electing to go all in. But the SG is truly special, and LPs a greater source of delight than anytime in perhaps 50 years of spinning vinyl doughnuts. Of course, YMMV.

Jeff B 
Nicely summarised Jeff.
My additional thoughts are that despite increased micro resolution, this is not a forensic presentation, more a lifting of veils.
For me, the startling uptick going to my LPSd SG is lifelike speed at no compromise to tone density. This fast but full sound means a startlingly lifelike representation of pace and texture.
And timbral discrimination is right up there. Most critical in areas like massed strings and horns, jazz w dual horns, and differentiating the low registers on acoustic bass, piano and kick drum.
Yes, my enjoyment of jazz, string quartets, solo piano, big band and massed orchestral, are transformed.
Just checked w my contact
He runs his SG w
Kecces P8 24V, 2 no. R and L channels, $700 each
Absolutely transforms microdetail resolution, air, imaging, grain reduction, bass power, speed
...basically impvts across the board
$10k gets you a world class cart w no need for phono
Imho, superior to Transfiguration Orpheus and Lyra Parnassus which I've run in my system
Leaves Zu Denon 103, Lyra Skala, Roksan Shiraz, in it's wake
Yes that sounds quite incredible according your description and I can understand why some people may not like the sound. It reminds of the reaction people get when moving from electrodynamic speakers to magnepans or electrostats, it’s very different. You mentioned your Turntable is extremely high end and it makes me wonder if my Prime Scout is up for the job or if the money is better spent elsewhere. 

Also has anybody heard the optical cartridges from DS audio? They seem to be a similar concept for a comparable price.
@spiritofmusic first and importantly, yes I have and seek out opportunity to hear unamplified singers as references- Sarah McLachlan, The Wailing Jenny’s, etc.... Peter Gabriel would be a treat. small but world class chorale groups....certainly maintain the emotional connection is important:-) 

you imply each record on the SG has distinct and optimal azimuth and VTA. How much adjustment are you doing in actual practice?

Fremer is in love with the pricetag And long term loans. I listen to inputs from long term owners who are not constantly flipping references and I especially discount those raving on about stuff they have yet to hear.. So before falling all over myself, I will invest in hearing it.

the life cycle cost advantages are not insignificant:-) Good for Peter - my hope is he can thrive as we seek refuge in music

grace and peace


Thermionic, my tt/arm not considered high end, but I've maxxed out performance w some fairly radical mods incl €6k Stacore isolation.
Audio is a synergy and a blend, and I've spent as much on the tt/arm as I have on the SG which I consider a cart/phono system.
So in pure monetary terms the SG is not out of place or extravagant here.
Tomic, don't say it! I had to wait 9 months for my Zu Defs 4 spkrs  after the reviewer wouldn't let them go. At least he wrote a good report Lol.
Azimuth set once during initial install. VTA set on the fly, a matter of seconds per lp.
@spiritofmusic good news on Azimuth then :-) I have a Triplaner with a Delos and VTA  is easy :-)
Best !!!!

jim


Tomic, I used to laugh at those audiophiles who were OCD on setup...no more, SG has really taught me EVERY detail and adjustment parameter matters.