My new Soundsmith Straingauge cartridge


Well, after a bit of dillying and dallying, I finally got 'round to trying a home trial of this cart. After a couple of hours dialling in vtf, and esp. azimuth, it basically sold itself, and I bought it an hour later!
It's without doubt the fastest cart I've ever experienced, surpassing the Decca London Reference, but with none of that cart's tipped up 'whiteness'. But this blazing speed is combined with the natural sweetness of the Lyra Parnassus. It has the neutrality of the Transfiguration Orpheus with the dynamics and involvement of the ESCCo-modded Zu Denon 103. So, fast AND sweet, and neutral AND involving, combinations often too challenging for other so-called SOTA carts. All the carts I've mentioned I've had in my system over the years. But I admit, I haven't heard current contenders to the crown (Lyra Titan/Atlas, Ortofon Anna, Clearaudio Goldfinger etc) to make comparisons.
It's tracking really is superlative, 3d soundstaging/dimensionality is beyond the room constraints, and I really believe it has the least artifact-laden sound of any cart I've heard, with NO aural evidence of a diamond carving thru wax. It's really complimenting what's already a neutral, fast and dynamic analog rig in my system (Trans Fi Salvation direct rim drive tt/Trans Fi Terminator air bearing linear tracking arm)
spiritofmusic

Showing 34 responses by spiritofmusic

Nope, no experience with these. I only went down the batt psu route when JFrech mentioned good results with RWA on his nagra phono stage.
Ironic, Hynes is in Scotland (me, London). The website looks interesting, and good vfm. Mojo Audio, no comment.
Peter, additionally the box is not a phono stage, but an 'energiser', so is an all-in-one system, although there are other units out there that can be substituted, valve based (Dave Slagle's comes to mind).
A BIG BIG plus point is future cost: replacement stylii are only a few hundred $s - Lyra Atlas replacment is $4000 I believe!?
I'm not going to join in this technical argument, since I'm unqualified to contribute.
What I can say is that this is one hell of a transducer. Bearing in mind it's on what I consider the most neutral and transparent analog rig I've ever owned (Trans Fi Salvation rim drive tt and Terminator linear tracking arm), it's just complementing these so well.
The sound was initially 'light' but when true bass notes arrived and left in lightning fashion, I realised it was a cart with the fat cut out of the presentation.
It really IMHO takes what's great in digital, and combines these with all the hallmarks of what's unique about analog.
There just appears to be no sound of diamond thru wax as notes arise and decay naturally in a soundfield with a vanishingly low noise floor, unique in analog in my experience.
Hi Peter, you may remember my phone call a couple of weeks back to you re your opinion of the significance of azimuth setting on lps not clamped while playing.
Well, I had the trial, and I liked it so much I bought your cart! One of the best audio decisions I've ever made.
My most abiding opinion of the cart is that unlike any other I've had in my system, it demonstrates a digital-like quality of notes rising from an almost non-existent noise floor, with minimal overhang, and decaying naturally into nothingness.
Except, unlike digital, even the best of, there is real tonal discrimination, and an amazing control of micro- and macro-dynamics.
I really feel it's unique in providing a perspective on music that combines the best of digital and analog qualities.
Peter, only the Zu 103 on my Salvation/Terminator. But I have a good recollection of esp. my previous Lyra Parnassus, and Transfiguration Temper and Orpheus, all of these on my Michell Orbe/SME V/Tom Evans Groove Plus SRX phono.
The Parnassus was unbelievably tone dense and rhythmic, really hypnotic, but definitely on the lush, romantic divide. The two Transfigurations were cooler and more neutral, and a lttle more ho-hum as a result.
I know it's a fruitless task to ascribe neutrality easily to an audio component, but I do believe the SG is close to combining the rhythmic drive of the Parnassus and the even handedness of the Transfigs, and with no aspect highlighted I'll call the SG very neutral, but involving.
It's really transparent, and it really allows notes to appear out of apparent nothingness, bloom naturally, and decay to nothing again. Other carts really sound like diamond in wax. You're not aware of this until you 'hear' it's absence.
And it's synergising nicely, speed artifacts minimised nicely with my rim drive tt, tangency artifacts minimised nicely with my linear tracking arm, and now tracking artifacts minimised nicely with the SG.
Am I overusing the word 'nicely'? LOL.
Peter, I know we've conversed on my Salvation tt/Terminator arm thread as to the merits of rim/direct drive v belt drive. I know we have somewhat divergent views, but importantly, both of us are really happy with our respective choices.
I actually auditioned the SG on my dealer's AMG Viella tt with AMG 12" arm. Was v.much impressed with this fantastically designed and carefully engineered belt drive/pivoted arm combination. But v.much convinced my choices right for me.
Anyhow, if you are in the hunt for a cart to replace your AirTight, I'd really urge you to audition this baby. It's apparent lack of typical analog artifacts is quite disconcerting to start, because their absence is so noticeable, and this engenders some unfamiliarity. Then, a couple of tracks in you realise you're not really hearing the medium anymore, just the message. And now all is relaxing and involving. It's highly transparent neutral qualities surely a good match for your SME 30/12.
My analogy is that it has the characterlessness of the best digital downloads, with the full flavour of the best lp playback.
A real achievment.
My take on analog v digital, and how the SG pertains to this. Analog has the better information floor, digital has the better noise floor. So, notes rise from a silent background in digital than analog where notes rise from, and fall into, a noisier background. But, conversely the density of information is so much higher with analog, that the higher noise floor pales into insignificance when compared to the bottleneck of information that digital provides us with.
What I believe the SG is doing (this is not a fact obviously, just conjecture), is providing all the positive information floor advantages that is inherent with analog, with a much reduced noise floor, so that the undisputed plus points of digital presentation are included in the sound.
This may be unique in my experience.
Wrm, please don't leave me, or my thread, LOL! It's mine, not Raul's. I'm happy to contribute further info on my experience with it. Stringreen, I agree it sounds a little 'different', but in my book this is a big increase in esp. transparency and tracking. I really feel it has the least 'character' of any top end MC I've had in my system, but is a little frustrating in it's sensitivity to correct setup. At the moment I am slightly having to readjust my sub crossover levels on my spkrs wrt previous carts in my system.
Dave, I've settled on the basic unit, SG-200, which means I'm obliged to use my current preamp (Hovland HP-200 tube). So, not able to compare Soundsmith's more expensive dedicated line input energiser/preamps.
One thing I can categorically say is that even though the SG doesn't sound like digital, it has allowed my analog and digital front ends to converge.
What I mean is that it uniquely brings to analog replay aspects that I've only experienced thru the best digital ie notes rising from silence, minimal tracking errors, and natural decay into nothingness, BUT combining these with the best attributes familiar to lp replay ie exquisite tonality, transparency, and superior micro- and macro-dynamics.
The combination of digital precision and analog bloom is really enlightening.
Hi Harold, I wouldn't presume it's one of the best, but it certainly outperforms a lot of pricier rigs out there IMHO.
Just installed a Red Wine Audio Black Lightning twin battery psu for the Straingauge. Maintaining all the attributes currently, with a near-zero noise floor. Amazing.
As I've said I'm not an expert to comment on the technical aspects of this discussion.
My q to those who are skeptical of it's approach is what aspects of sound should I be listening for to demonstrate the sound is 'wrong'.
Does this mean that the sound can be 'wrong' but still sound excellent?
My conclusion so far is that the presentation is faster than anything I've heard before, but not at the expense of harmonic development.
However, warm and euphonic it ain't. Maybe this is where it's 'wrong'.
Sarcher, interestingly, vocals are one area where I feel the SG excels. But ACCURATE tonality on voices, or instruments that's another subject. I guess if it sounds different to a consensus amongst other carts, that could/would be an issue.
Peter, if there is any criticism, it's that the bass is a little different in nature than I'm used too. Initially, I thought it was a little light, lacking in heft, but on deeper analysis, it's just so darn fast. Notes really start and stop, but harmonic weight IS there. It's possible that this is being highlighted by the speed of the tt/arm it's attached too. So the presentation is a little airy as a description, but slam is there, ONLY when it's present in the recording. So many other carts sound over-grounded with bass that leaks into the midrange, dulling the presentation.
But, to be sure, some re education is going on. I'm about to demo NAT 70W/ch SET monos, and this may emphasise a stronger bottom end that could well synergise with the cart nicely (my Hovland Radia power amp has always been a little ethereal at lower freqs).
Harold, I'm going to get you to write my biography. You'll help me go down in the annals as a very important man, ha ha!
The setup sure sounds different from any analog or digital I've heard before, actually a little closer to 15ips tape that I've heard in the past.
Combines neutrality with warmth to leave you wanting for nothing.
Thanx for the kind words. Will post further on the batt psu in due course.
Omsed, you've made some v. salient points. IMO, carts and loudspkrs are the hardest components to get right in the analog chain, being the effective transducers, and hence in effect the portal to what's being listened to. Additionally, they end up determining the character of the system. Is it any coincidence that spkrs esp. are always being upgraded by audio nuts such as ourselves and others?
Your description of upper bass/lower mid bass leanness could well be accurate. However I do believe this is preferable to the opposite ie euphonically overwarm (oh, how I remember those mid bass coloured demos of the Linn Sondek LP12 in the 80s, when that tt ruled the analog world, at last in the UK! And Koetsus).
What's interesting is that I used to get a superficially similar tonal balance when using the Lyra Skala, but this resulted in a hard sound with strident treble. The SG, otoh, is a touch lean, but still rich, with no screechiness thru the mid/treble registers.
I'm really getting a sound that breathes, esp. guitar and vocals that take off and have no constraints.
This fast sound is highlighted by the rest of my rig (rim drive tt/linear tracking arm), and I fancy with my 101dB efficient Zu Definitions 4 spkrs an interesting synergy may come with SET amps.
So in conclusion, I'm aware of tendency to leanness, but the richness is still there, and this cart still remains the least characterful I've used, and is opening doors to greater appreciation of analog sound.
Omsed, the installer is coming over to fine tune the cart. I'll talk about apparent bass leanness with him.
My opinion is that the cart is so quick, bass notes have substantially less overhang than any other I've had in my system, and this could be construed as lightness. Anyhow, it's an area that I'm keeping an eye/ear on. Personally, I'm loving the lightning speed of my analog rig now, feeling it matches the neutrality of my excellent cd player.
Price is $4300 in the UK, c$6500 US.
Steve, The dealer is actually coming over to install a new cart, the one in my system being the shop demo version, so a little beyond 'finetuning' (my incorrect choice of words).
I'll freely admit, my knowledge of cart setup is poor (and engine tuning too, hence my handsomely paid car mechanic!), and since this cart needs v.careful adjustment of azimuth in particular, I'm happy leaving it to the person I'm handing £4300 over to.
Tanathen, the sound sure seems accurate and lifelike, a quantum leap beyond other SOTA carts I've run. I have to say I've heard no colourations in vocals on any disc I'm pretty familiar with - Kate Bush still doesn't sound like Frank Sinatra!
Fine tuning of the cart has really paid dividends, the bass has really locked in, and the final piece of this particular audio jigsaw has been completed. Now, I'm getting a naturally extended and warm bass, but still faster than any other analog I know, complementing superlative mids and highs.
Just heard the maxxed install with NAT SET amps running thru my v. efficient Zu spkrs. Wow, I'm totally sold on this sound, and the SG cart really sounds limitless in this chain. Now, where's that chequebook?!
Tanathen, the cart my SG replaced is no slouch and if it wasn't for hearing Peter's baby, I wouldn't have swapped.
This is the Zu Audio Denon 103 ($900), modded by the Expert Stylus And Cartridge Company ESCCo, in England ($500). Total giant killer. See my thread "ESCCo modded Zu 103".
Finally had my Mk2 Straingauge dialled in correctly esp re azimuth, vta and vtf, for a while now.
It's really the best performing cart I've ever had in my system (which incl. Transfiguration Temper and Orpheus, Lyra Skala and Parnassus, Roksan Shiraz, and ESCCo modded Zu Denon 103).
Bass is warm and effusive, but totally textural, never one-note. Mids are clear and transparent. Highs are crystalline and almost unlimited in extension. Tone and precision in equal measure.
Tracking is like a bloodhound, and there is a total synergy with my direct rim drive tt/air bearing linear tracking arm. I'm really detecting no artifacts in analogue replay revealing the shortcomings of the lp medium that bugged me playing records in the last few years compared to playing cds on my really neutral Emm Labs CDSA cdp. This is the closest I've ever got to the Holy Grail of 15 ips reel-to-reel sound that I heard a year ago.
For the first time in 5 years, lp replay is streaking ahead of digital that was previously regularly outperforming it in my system.
Other than experimenting with supports/isolation/power, that's it for my upgrade journey to analogue audio nirvana over 17 years.
Harold, as far as I can tell ALL the Soundsmith Straingauge models are EXACTLY the same cart, only the electronics are different. Personally I didn't want to get rid of my pre amp, so more complicated electronics were not needed by me. hence the cheapest option with SG200 energiser serve my needs sufficiently.
Make sure you go for the recent Mk2 version. I don't know what the electrical differences are from the Mk1, but it was almost night and day in my system, esp re bass performance.
Lawrence, and Raul, please be a bit more specific than just saying "different".
Proftournesol, I agree with you re timbre. Which is why it's so perplexing that so many find voices unnatural thru the cart.
Re the battery psu, it has transformed the cart. Has in particular opened up the top end to demonstrate a really shimmering treble. At the same time there has been no curtailing of low end extension, and mids are showing an amazing natural transparency.
I'd recommend it wholeheartedly, with one proviso - I hit a problem on the original install which needed me to send the SG200 box to Red Wine Audio with the batt psu. Email Vinnie Rossi at the company first to discuss Straingauge install specifics.
Prof, I don't know what to say. Much as I love the "standard" SG200 with the twin 24v wall warts psus, they're really holding back the performance of the Straingauge if the Red Wine Audio Black Lightning (RWA BL) twin battery pack psu is anything to go by.
In a nutshell, the whole top end of the cart is improved, with an amazing increase in shimmer and incision. This is adding a lot of energy to the presentation (could almost be "toppy" if the rest of the spectrum wasn't so good), with ambient cues and microdynamics really enhanced.
The midband is so much more natural and transparent, with female voices esp. sounding more ethereal than ever, but not at the expense of a realistic groundedness.
And the bass is phenomenal, with a whole lot more punch and extension, but not at the expense of real earthy tone.
A slam dunk no brainer for $1500.
Peter, sure. What I mean is that the opening up of the top end of the Straingauge via the RWA BL batt psu is resulting in an amazing "lightness" to music that I think can only now be achieved with crystalline extension of the treble.
If this was at the expense of a lack of power, bass extension, warmth and earthy tone of the lower frequencies, I would have been unhappy with a "wispy" quality. But these positive bass characteristics are all present, and in fact enhanced, leading to an amazing improvement top to bottom. So "ethereal" can co-exist with "grounded". As can "wispy" and "insubstantial/insipid".
As you know Peter, I've reached the end of my analog journey with the Trans Fi Salvation and Terminator tt and arm. No plans to return to belt drive/pivoted arm rigs. And now the RWA BL batt psu powered Straingauge SG200 cart has completed my final destination.
I'm always surprised how few analog high enders have investigated this cart. I've listened to a fair few top carts/phono stages (admittedly only a limited spread) in my time, and really believe this cart is really up there. Yet so few of our colleagues run one (in contrast to all the Lyras, Clearaudios, Van Den Huls, Ortofons, and yes, Airtights, out there).
Of course, Peter. Of the 3 dealers in the UK who stocked the cart, only 1 was prepared to travel (500 mile round journey), and provided a fantastic service leading to my purchase. If he hadn't extended his courtesy to me, I wouldn't have started this thread.
Cfluxa, the cart is powered by the SG200 unit, which has a twin 24V dc psu (two off the shelf wall warts, in effect one per channel). Yes, these in effect are gathering dust. Has been replaced by the single chassis (plus additional charger) batt psu.
The SG200 box has to be powered by something, so will come with the twin 24V dc psu as standard.
Cfluxa, better to explain it this way. The Soundsmith Straingauge comes in two parts; the cart and the "energizer" unit. This unit physically powers the cart, and some of the top models act as an all in one preamp --- I have the base model SG200 which just powers the cart, no preamp function.
It is the energizer unit that also has to be powered in the usual way, in this case via twin 24v dc wall warts. It is these wall warts that I've replaced with the batt psu, NOT the energizer unit.
As I said, Dave Slagle of Emia has a valve based energizer which would swap out the SG200 and assocd wall warts - just not sure if it's as compatible with Peter's SG as pre existing NOS Panasonic SG's.
Cfluxa, yes I was aware of his comments plus others both praising the speed and dynamics of the cart but bemoaning it's lack of texture etc. And other comments that voices sounded unnatural. And Jack Roberts 100% positive review on Dagogo (really worth checking out). What Jack's review stated, was what I found in the demo - if it's not set up correctly (esp azimuth), it can sound thin and edgy. Maybe MF hadn't set it up correctly, I don't know.
However after a good amount of time with the Feikert set up app, it really revealed itself.
I have a very fast tt/arm (rim drive/linear tracker), and any lack of body in the cart would be ruthlessly revealed. I'm achieving amazing bass punch/extension, midrange texture/density, and treble airiness/energy.
I don't listen to a lot of classical, so can't comment at length on strings, but Bach harpsichord has never sounded so substantial and energetic, airy and grounded.
My other main test in audio is snare drum, and the SG200 presents the best combination of stick attack and shell depth I've yet heard.
And the RWA BL batt psu takes it's transparency to new heights.
Yes prof, the SG is a final destination component esp. now w/batt psu. Just so open, textured and tone rich, I feel no need to investigate alternatives.
And with the saving on redundant phono stage, and inexpensive cost of replacement stylus, a true high end bargain.
Hi Cfluxa. I would really urge you to push for a home demo. Spkrs and cart are the two components that I believe set the character of an analog fronted system the most, and you need to be 110% sure you like that character.
Your 3 points - 99.9% of installs are going to be in a pivoted arm, so the q was more if the SG would work in my ultra short 3" wand linear tracker: there should be no issues with a 9" or 12" pivoted --- I don't have any experience of tube phonos, although I run a tube pre (Hovland HP200) and tube monoblocks (Audion Black Shadow SETs) and am a convert to the sound of glowing bottles: all I can say is that the SG is the most liquid sound I've yet heard from analog, that I don't wish for anything --- and re challenging lps: the consensus is to go for the slightly cheaper "5" stylus profile as opposed to the priciest "6". I believe the "5" comes as standard with the kit. The 6's ruthlessly revealing nature makes it a stellar performer with some lps, and too challenging with substandard ones, whereas the 5's more forgiving nature avoids all this hair pulling. My 5 stylus leaves me wanting for nothing.
Lewm, I see you're a convert to rim drive/direct drive. I myself have moved to direct rim drive w/an equally leading edge air bearing linear tracker. The fast, transparent, essentially neutral SG cart has an amazing synergy, and I've been happy to put away my phono, don't class this as a disadvantage at all. Tbh the carts I was looking at in comparison would have cost me well in excess of the SG entry ticket. And I'm really happy that at the point I need to attend to stylus wear, I'll be shelling out only $400-$600, rather than $3000 on a retip. The SG has replaced a previous SOTA Transfiguration Orpheus into the Tom Evans Groove Plus SRX, no slouch itself.
Just a few thoughts, gentlemen. Watts, I'm not qualified to answer your qs, so will leave to others. Peter is not open to batt psu, or tube psu options for his SG. This is a shame, since my batt psu is pushing the cart to new heights of greatness esp re airy highs, and transparent mids.
Re tube options, the Straingauge tech has been around for a long time, and Dave Slagle of Emia fame has a bespoke tube psu for his NOS Panasonic Straingauges, and it may be compatible for Peter's current version. Beyond this I don't know too much, but the options are out there.
Thanx Lewm, but happy to stick as is.