Soundsmith Strain Gauge


Was gonna give this one some time but people are asking so thought I would answer them all at once with this sort of incomplete review. Although if I'm honest all reviews are incomplete since no one can ever cover everything. We are doing well to hit a few of the essential highlights. With that out of the way, here goes.

The Soundsmith Strain Gauge works on a completely different design principle than the other three main types - moving coil, moving magnet, or moving iron. MC and MM are generators. The faster and farther the cantilever moves the greater the signal they generate. MI is sort of a variation on this I don't want to get into other than to make the point they all generate a signal based on stylus/cantilever velocity.

Strain Gauge does away with all this instead using tiny little strain gauges to use cantilever pressure to modulate a steady voltage coming into the cartridge from the SG200 preamp. In my mind this makes the SG more like a tube or valve. 

A tube is a valve, in which a small input signal is used to control or modulate a larger power source. Never seen anyone describe SG this way but this is the way I think of it. Power comes in from the preamp, and you know it because the SG cartridge lights up with really cool looking blue LEDs. Really, seriously cool looking!

Okay, it is the same blue as my Origin Live Sovereign turntable speed LED, so I may be biased. But wow does it ever look great with the lights down low!

The SG approach has a number of advantages, chief among them being greatly reduced moving mass. The SG cantilever is fastened to a removable stylus body. Where it stops would be where the suspension starts on a MM, MC or MI. Then those would have the cantilever continue on with either a magnet, coil or bit of iron at the end. SG eliminates all that extra length, resulting in a moving mass that is only a fraction of even the lightest MC. 

The cartridge comes fastened to the bottom of a nice wooden box, with the stylus stuck to some adhesive in the lid. Clever packaging. The cartridge body and stylus assembly look to be machined anodized aluminum. It fits precisely into the body, and sort of snaps in and is held in place magnetically. A tiny little set screw snugs down to eliminate any micro-chatter.

Once installed, the cantilever rests against two tiny little pads. These I presume are the strain gauges. Ledermann is mum, but I can't help but notice the whole thing is designed to have each one parallel to its opposite groove wall. 

The SG remember is not a generator. It modulates a voltage according to the position of the cantilever. So there instead of the usual VTF range there is a VTF number: 2.3g. Not +/-, just 2.3g. 

I think a lot of what people say about setup being tricky comes back to the very differences I am trying so hard to explain here. If anti-skate is off for example on a normal cartridge this will make a difference but not that much since the cart is a generator it generates pretty much the same. But with SG if the side bias is off that is putting pressure on one side more than the other which will result in greater signal. In other words it is a lot easier to hear the image move side to side as side bias is adjusted. 

Some may hear this more obvious difference and conclude SG is fussy. I hear this and interpret it as precision. The SG is one incredibly precise cartridge.

This is mounted on the Origin Live Enterprise arm with the OL Cartridge Enabler gaskets. The combination of large cartridge body, with flat sides, and being able to mount it with the stylus safely in its box makes cartridge mounting easier and a whole lot less stressful. The stylus doesn't go in until the cart is attached and ready to be aligned. Sweet.

Once all set up and playing my first impression is of dead quiet. Zero noise, for one, because of auto-mute. This cuts in and out within .5 sec of the stylus touching down or lifting off. But it is also very quiet in terms of groove noise and especially preamp noise. There doesn't seem to be any.

With side bias and VTA dialed in, boy does this thing track a groove! Just huge amounts of detail jumping out all over the place. Transients in particular. Percussion instruments, from wood block to rim shots if you like percussion you will love Strain Gauge. Sax, cymbals, all string instruments, are rendered so believably lifelike it brings them to life. Never enjoyed jazz, classical and blues so much. Top end extension is clean and crystal clear. Don't know why anyone would complain about the top end. They have. Just don't know why.

Best of all though is the magic. That hard to define feeling you get that makes you just want to lean forward and listen. This thing has it in spades. 

The one thing lacking is bottom end authority. Everything else is head and shoulders better than Koetsu/Herron. Bass, not so much. In fact it is more than just bass, there is kind of a general overall lack of body, of fullness. Not much, and bear in mind the Koetsu/Herron is exemplary in this department. It is more a situation of everything else is so stellar that it makes the one bit that is not sort of stand out. 

Interestingly, this is not the case on all records. One in particular comes to mind. Reference Recordings Mickey Hart Rafos is supremely well recorded but so eclectic I have played it maybe 3 times in 30 years, and never once all the way through. Pretty much the whole thing is percussion, and all kinds of odd instruments too. Everything from tiny little triangles to giant monster drums. Listening to it before was always more like a science project or soundstage exam than music session. With SG though it was entrancing, I was genuinely surprised when the first side was done, and flipped it right over to hear side 2. The drums were superb, the whole thing is, including one big drum that shook the room. It was like I could feel the skin of the drum, every individual oscillation, reverberating back and forth, and this was all at some subterranean frequency!

So it is kind of odd and had me wondering what could this be? Undoubtedly power supply related. Others like vinylshadow have recommended a power supply upgrade. After studying some options I have just shipped the SG off to Rens Heijnis in The Netherlands. 

Some may take this as what a POC it shouldn't need a thing, just flip it for a good cart. Like, same people say if Moab is so good how come it needs a whole new crossover? The answer: not need, worth. They are worth it. Also not the total flyer it seems. The idea came from member John in Belgium, who reached out to me on my system page. He is the real trailblazer here. Thanks!

128x128millercarbon

Interesting. Thanks for sharing your experience with the SG.

One comment that you made clarified a curiosity I had noticed on my own mid-level turntable, a Rega P8 with Linn Krystal cartridge: in works for one and two instruments, like piano, or violin, sometimes I would hear one instrument just to the left side of center, and sometimes it would flip to just right of center. I suppose this indicates poor tracking / side bias.  I never heard of side bias before, nor do I know what to do about it, which shows you how much I know about analog in general. . . 

I do agree with what you are hearing about body. I heard the SG with Harbeths with Peter at the NY Audio Show some years back. It was very finely etched but sort of thin. Hopefully, the Dutch guy will sort it out. 

Yeah, thanks, I hope so too!

I wouldn't call it etched. Very liquid smooth, pristine. Just a little thin, compared to the full bodied sound I was getting from Koetsu/Herron. vinylshadow said his improved a lot with a better power supply. What I'm hearing to me fits perfectly with a superbly tracking cartridge that is being slightly let down by the electronics. If I am wrong it will not be an inexpensive error! 

But John has done this and tried power supply alone. This really isn't much more expensive than doing just the power supplies. Farad Super3 ain't cheap. The bespoke one vinylshadow had made costs even more. This is battery isolation, which I have done and am sure will work. Rens has extensive professional experience engineering recording gear, everything from microphones to preamps and mixing boards. The sound qualities people report with his designs mesh with what John heard and what I am looking for- deep, natural, warm and engaging.

Fingers crossed!

Yeah, I forgot etched meant too precise and focused to an excessive degree in audio-speak. I meant it in a positive way as in lifelike—painted realistically, vivid etc. I use Deccas so used to very fast transients. I’m surprised Peter hasn’t worked out this issue. Does he regard it as a shortcoming?

Dang...even for MC that was a wall of text. I had a Win-Labs strain gauge back in the day, a weeks salary at the time. A Dynavector high output moving coil bested it for about the same amount of money. 

Okay, yeah the Soundsmith Strain Gauge is extremely precise and focused, lifelike and realistically vivid. More so than anything I have ever heard. 

I don't know that he considers it an issue. Haven't yet been able to connect with him to talk about it. With certain records like the previously mentioned Rafos it is not an issue. It is superb. Everything I'm hearing backs up 100% what Ledermann says about the importance of low moving mass and its impact on resonant behavior.

For sure some of what's "missing" is actually stuff that never was there in the first place but instead is added by cartridge resonance. The effect is very much like going to Townshend cables or Podiums, where in this case the SG eliminates a lot of coloration other cartridges add. It is hard to live with one a while and not realize a lot of what makes other high end cartridges great is not so much superior tracking as finely tuned euphonic coloration. Call it voicing or whatever it is what it is.

One place it shows up real obviously is sibilance. You might think a cartridge with a more extended top end would highlight sibilance. Not so. Quite the opposite. There's  AKUS cut I love but hate because of splatty sibilance. With SG though there is only an amount that sounds a lot more like the sounds a real person makes, with nothing added. 

Everything is like that. To the point sometimes it is less like a cartridge and more like a precision instrument for transcribing record grooves. Not like there isn't magic. The sound is captivating! And not like there is anything wrong with the other way. I am back to Koetsu/Herron now and after a few days adjustment really not missing much. (It did sound pretty clunky and muffled at first. Anyone thinks I am negative on SG stop and think about that. It is that much better than Koetsu/Herron.) 

Would be nice to talk with Peter about it. Probably up to his eyeballs in work what with everything he's been through lately.

 

The thinner sound is possibly a reduction of colorations inherent in other transducers. I also found that effect when moving to Nobsounds. Switching back sounds leaden by comparison.  Whether the power supply compensates for this cleaner presentation, or whether other system tuning is needed, only time will tell. I'd be inclined to try it without the OL cartridge enhancer thingy.

For sure that is a part of it. I have had the exact same experience with Nobsound, then Pods and Podiums and even F1 cable. They all removed a lot of extra resonant color that while it sounded good, was nevertheless colored. However, none of them had this slightly thin weak bass aspect. With Townshend in particular one of the first things to hit me was improved bass. Tighter, more articulate and tuneful, but always with at least as much slam, impact and body. If not more.

The other thing that is funny, it is not all records. I hadn't really noticed this until a comment from John, that it is not all records. Sure enough once he mentioned this I realized some like the Rafos sounded just fine. Others like Tracy Chapman, bass MIA. With Rens mods this was gone, everything now consistently good. So my fingers are crossed, big time! 

Okay, Dafos, thanks. Mine is a white LP sleeve with a little sticker for a label, the way they wrote it I never was sure and never bothered to search. Like I said, 30 years never even played it all the way through! Until now. Real fascinating record now. 

BTW not trying to pick at you, I just wanted anyone searching to be able to find it. As you noted a spectacular recording.

Best Regards,

 

Jim Perry

@millercarbon

 

One question. Is the stylus replaceable?  I suspect it is since that is their main business. But I’d hate to have to replace the cartridge after 2k hrs.

Yes, and even better USER replaceable! Each stylus does have to be matched to the cartridge. Soundsmith has to do that. But once done then you can swap them out very easily. Mine has been in and out a couple times already.

The stylus mounts into a solid aluminum mount machined to mate perfectly with the cartridge. Line it up and a magnet pretty much sucks it into place. Then a really tiny little hex bolt secures it. Done. That simple.

What I gather from other users is the SG has such low moving mass and tracks so well with infinitesimal record wear that the stylus itself lasts a very long time. Someone checked under a microscope after something like 3k hours and the stylus looked like new. I have a new spare and microscope, plan on eventually checking to compare, haven’t had a look yet.

This is one of the reasons that tilted me SG. Wanted my next cart to be an end game keeper and with long stylus life plus affordable and user replaceable styli that made SG the top contender.

PS-jperry thanks, I frankly always wondered about that and chagrined I didn't catch it myself. Thanks.

Amazing description of the strain gauge you have going millercarbon. Do you know of anyone that might be selling one used? I regularly see the sg-200 going for 5-6K on the used market but never pulled the trigger because reviews for the strain gauge are so sparse.

Only know a couple guys who have them, and we are pretty happy. I got lucky, wasn't even looking. Someone tipped me off to this one. It was fairly new to begin with, then was sent in for a new spare stylus and update. Why I don't know, the "used" stylus looks new, supposedly only a few hundred hours on it. From what I'm told they hardly even wear, someone examined his at 3k hours and says no visible wear. So with two I am probably set for life.

Mine is in The Netherlands being modified by Rens Heijnis with battery power and amplifier stage improvements. At least we hope they are improvements. Rens comes highly recommended and has a professional resume packed with custom recording studio microphone, preamp, and high end home audio work. When I did a search here the only hit came up with a member gushing about the best sounding recording he ever heard- recorded on gear built by Rens. Soon I will have one- the only one in North America. 

Fingers crossed!

Thank you for the comments; very little time these days to respond. The low end of the SG is very different from ALL other cartridges. This is not unusual - I have been involved with products my entire life that do not "sound" like others. The SG could not be sold for over 30 years BECAUSE other carts were so different. I ran into this at Bozak, when I designed the LS-200A in 1976 - a relatively low cost 2 way. ALL of our samples to dealers in the US came back to us with pretty much the same note - "Dear Mr. Ledermann - thank you for sending us the LS-200A sample. Unfortunately, we need to return it, because when we turn it on, we will not be able to sell any other speaker, at any price."

If you measure the SG's low end, you will likely find it is down about -1dB at 20Hz. Almost ALL other tone arms with Magnetic designs have a low end boost, (save for Frank Schroder's arms) of about +2 - 3 dB RISE from 50 HZ down. We have all been listening to that and THAT is what we are "used" to.

If you can measure your response, that is what you may find. As for the changes incurred by other power supplies..........I never tell folks what they are capable of hearing.....or spending.

 

Peter Ledermann/Soundsmith

I do need to mention some additional things regarding power supplies for the Strain Gauge systems. Companies like mine are regulated to ship ONLY CE and RHOS approved supplies into the EU and other countries. The ANALOG DC "wall warts" we supply conform, and therefore allow us to ship. They are well in excess of the current demanded by the SG electronics. I HATE switching supplies - we don’t ship those with either our SG or MAG preamps. Too noisy. Do we make a unit for extreme filtering of the supplied wall warts? Yes, it is called our WWE, and sells for $499. So, what do we do internally in the SG when the power comes in? There are varied means to smooth and filter the wall warts. Firstly, the supplies see LARGE filter caps, THEN regulated supplies with more filtering, THEN more filtering at each IC with local bypass. This is "normal" circuit design for getting rid of power supply noise.

Am I telling everyone that there is no improvement possible by their using a high grade external supply? No, I am not. Have I tried it here, with lab supplies? yes.

Have I received a few Emails from folks who have used battery supplies with our RIAA preamps with "great improvement"? Yes.

~ All the best to all of you this season ~ Peter Ledermann

 

Good one. I figured it might be something like this going on. For sure the SG reveals lots of resonant colorations were going on, that no longer are, and I do mean a lot. Tried calling, never got a call back, figured you were swamped. Would still love to talk whenever you might find the time. 

Thanks for posting!

Peter - Best wishes to you and yours in this Holiday season. Good to see you writing here and regaining health ;-)

A serious question in your listening / measuring experience does the Hyperion in a quality arm like a Triplaner  exhibit the bass peak ? Certainly easy to measure, i just lack the Hyperion. Best to you. Hopefully the pup is well.

Jim

@retipper 

I have not tried the Hyperion in a Triplanar. In my VPI arms I get a boost. In the Schroder Ref SQ, FLAT.  My experience is that there are few arms on the market that disperse / damp or dont reflect low frequency energy dumped into the arm.

It is no surprise that there are many reflections in MOST arms at low frequency. I was sort of shocked when I first tried the Schroder (MANY years ago) on my table here.....and found that my designs sounded SO DIFFERENT......almost unrecognizable....!!!!!  Smooth, clean, no bass boost....

MillerCarbon  try calling. I sometimes pick up the phone.

@retipper (sir) I tried emailing the company, but maybe it got spam/junk-mailed on one of our ends, so I’ll try here.

I am running:

  • Sota Safire
  • SEAC WE317 arm
  • (blue point special replaced with a Garrott-bros p77i)
  • ARC PH2 phonoamp.

To go to a MC cartridge requires a new phono stage (I know you don’t like MC cartridges… But I was leaning towards a Hana at one point.)

Adding up the costs, it looks like it would be cheaper to just go to a strain gauge… compared with a cartridge and new phono stage.

How would we know whether my TT and arm has the right compliance for the strain gauge cartridge?

Should I just call?

Miller Carbon, I've a question for you...

I bought a cassette deck in UK, I need to give it 220 v, what converter do you recommend???

 

Thank you, 

 

Javier

You'd better ask someone else, MC is long gone. Post a thread in the analog or miscellaneous forum.

 

 

@millercarbon Any updates forthcoming? I am very interested to know how the SG power supply upgrade went and your thoughts on how it may have changed the sound quality of your system.

Thanks very much!