Listening #152

The Nautilus ($2250), whose nameplate is made from natural shell, is among Soundsmith's new series of medium-output moving-iron cartridges; a low-output version, the Paua, is also available.

During our second trip to the UK, my wife and I drove from Heathrow Airport to Swindon, to visit an older couple we'd met on our first trip. We arrived around noon, and Vera and Ross made us a nice lunch, which we enjoyed while looking at scrapbooks filled with family photos and well-worn newspaper clippings. Vera asked where we intended to spend the night, and I said that our next stop was York.

Our friends were horrified. "That's hours from here: You can't do it in just one afternoon!" (Our UK road atlas suggested we could make the drive in about four hours; it took slightly longer, only because I felt compelled to stop along the way to photograph a magpie, as I'd never before seen one.) We assured our hosts that, as Americans, we were used to driving hundreds of miles in a day, even for routine trips. Nevertheless, Vera and Ross insisted on packing a meal—cucumber sandwiches with salad cream, some nice cookies with jam filling, a container of orange soft drink—and extracting from us a promise that we would stop and rest along the way.

Vera and Ross, two of the sweetest people I've known, passed away long ago, but I think of them every time I set about driving any distance greater than 100 miles. I pack a meal, whether or not I think I'll want one—I almost always do—and I make sure to pause every few hours to rest my eyes and stretch my legs.

So it was on April 23, when I set the controls for the heart of Peekskill, New York, intent on visiting the headquarters of The Soundsmith (footnote 1): a manufacturer of electronics and loudspeakers that also happens to be one of only two makers of high-fidelity phono cartridges in all of North America (the other being Grado Labs, footnote 2). Soundsmith is owned and operated by Peter Ledermann, a self-taught engineer whose love affair with audio began when, at the age of three, he assembled a crystal-radio kit his father had given him. By the time he'd entered his teens, Ledermann was salvaging and repairing all manner of electronics—radios, tape decks, even television sets—but it was the acoustic phonograph for which he felt a special affinity: "I understood Edison's elegant invention at a tender age," he says. "It matched the impedance of the groove to the impedance of the air. I got it!"

After a few semesters of college in the late 1960s, Ledermann began his professional career in retail, doing repair work for Audio Experts, a shop in White Plains, New York. After that, he worked at RAM Audio in Danbury, Connecticut, alongside chief designer Richard Majestic—with whom he devised, among other things, a loudspeaker feedback system that used a transformer to derive an error signal. (I always perk up when I hear the word transformer.) Then, in 1976, Ledermann undertook his highest-profile audio job yet: director of engineering at Bozak, Inc. Once there, he was assigned to reengineer Bozak's entire line of loudspeakers and mixing decks—after which he designed a new miniature loudspeaker, the MB-80, by transforming Rudy Bozak's well-known 6" aluminum cone into a full-range driver.

In 1979, Bozak sold the company that bore his name, and Ledermann struck out on his own. He supported himself with repair work for a year, then began an 11-year stint at an IBM engineering think tank nestled away in the company's T.J. Watson Research Center, in Yorktown Heights, New York. Despite his lack of formal training in engineering, Ledermann says, he "became known in the company as someone who was resourceful and inventive. I paid my dues through intuition. I paid my dues by being as curious as I could be."


Technician Joe Davis-Logan assembles a Soundsmith cartridge; in the background, Theresa Pineiro tests coil assemblies.

But Ledermann's interest in designing and making audio products never waned. Indeed, he says, he created Soundsmith all the way back in 1970—as an audio-industry "mentoring company"—and kept it going throughout his other professional engagements. Then, in 1990, Ledermann left IBM and began to devote all of his energies to Soundsmith.

The needle wags
Peekskill is a decent enough small city, and Soundsmith is located in a decent enough industrial park, bordered on one side by the Hudson River and by historic US Route 9—aka Broadway in both upper Manhattan and Saratoga Springs— on the other. While navigating the latter, I scarcely missed being involved in an accident between the Toyota Prius directly in front of me and a pickup truck whose driver seemed oblivious to the hazards of sudden lane changes in busy traffic circles. Good thing I was well rested.

Less harrowing was my elevator ride to the fourth floor of 8 John Walsh Boulevard, where Soundsmith occupies two adjacent spaces totaling some 8000 square feet. The door to the first and larger of those spaces opened onto a small reception area decorated with photographs, posters, awards, and a silent display of mint-condition vintage hi-fi gear. (MasterCard and Visa signs suggested that consumers are, indeed, welcome.) From there, Peter Ledermann led me to a large, well-lit room, where two of his 13 employees were engaged in the commercial activity for which Soundsmith is now well known: the manufacture of a line of phono cartridges, the vast majority being of the moving-iron (MI) persuasion.

On the subject of his transducer technology of choice, Ledermann is passionate and articulate. While acknowledging that there exist many good cartridges of the moving-coil (MC) and moving-magnet (MM) varieties—in the former, tiny bobbins of fine wire are stylus-shook within the flux fields of stationary magnets, while the latter employs stationary bobbins of wire, in whose face the needle wags one or two tiny magnets—Ledermann prefers the MI, in which magnets and coils stay put and the stylus coaxes into motion a very small piece of magnetically permeable metal, which displaces the flux lines of the former and induces signal in the latter. In person, as on his website, Ledermann points to numerous advantages of his third-stream technology, most pertaining to a single fact: In an MI cartridge, the moving mass tends to be lower than in other cartridge types. And, as Ledermann says, "I am an absolute believer that moving mass is the enemy of cartridge performance."

The moving element in Soundsmith's MI design is appropriately tiny, but that isn't its only claim to fame. Inspired by a design created in the 1960s by Bang & Olufsen—replacements for whose cartridges and styli are now manufactured, under license, by Soundsmith—Ledermann chose for his moving element a cross shape, and aligned it so that, when the cartridge is subject to the prescribed downforce and placed on a record, the cross hovers perfectly equidistant from four stationary coils and magnets. When stylus deflection moves one leg of the cross away from one set of magnetic flux lines, the position of the opposite leg of the cross is moved closer to its own electromagnetic sweet spot—and so the Soundsmith design avoids the dynamic compression that would occur if a single element were moved too far from the flux-line epicenter. It is, in a real sense, a push-pull cartridge.


Where do ebony cartridge bodies come from? They come from a CNC machinist, who supplies clamshell-like halves in a manner reminiscent of model-car kits.

Thus my amazement to see, in real life, how tiny are those crosses and coils, and how much painstaking care is required of the technicians who align and assemble them—and who anneal the magnetically permeable elements, and weld in place the thinner-than-hair wires, and perform all manner of other seemingly impossible tasks. Surely, the clinical lab at our local hospital has at its disposal fewer microscopes than does Soundsmith, where I counted at least eight in the cartridge-assembly area, and a couple more in Ledermann's office alone. All Soundsmith cartridges are made by hand, and most are the products of a few different technicians; the top-of-the-line models are built solely by Ledermann.

Pecos Pete
Distinctions among Soundsmith's various MI models fall into a few different categories. The company makes cartridges that produce low, medium, and high output voltages, with suspensions that exhibit low, medium, and high levels of compliance. Cantilever choices include aluminum alloy, telescoping aluminum alloy, boron, ruby, and specially treated cactus spine. (The last is no joke: Not long ago, Peter Ledermann discovered that, carefully trimmed to the right shape, the once-popular stylus material makes a superior cantilever that offers a virtually perfect combination of self-damping properties and stiffness.) Stylus shapes include titanium-bonded elliptical, nude elliptical, contact line, and optimized contact line. And, of course, the bodies of Soundsmith cartridges are made of different materials, including acrylic, composite (think: kitchen counters), and various species of wood.

Taking into account the options described above, as well as the company's unusual naming conventions, there would seem to be about 30 different Soundsmith cartridge models—a high enough number to impart to this perfectionist brand the slightest whiff of JC Whitney. The actual total is closer to 60, given that all of Soundsmith's MI models are also available as mono cartridges. The mono versions are still push-pull, still four-coil cartridges, but with coil arrangements that differ, electrically, from those of their stereo counterparts. Thus, by sheer numbers alone, Soundsmith is pretty much Mono Central. And it's no coincidence that Ledermann shares my enthusiasm for single-channel playback, hailing its comparative lack of phase distortion and consequent sonic wholeness and whomp.

Ledermann's enthusiasms also include a healthy sense of thrift: While it's true that no Soundsmith MI cartridge has a user-replaceable stylus—an unavoidable state of affairs, given the high level of skill required to align the teensy iron cross vis-Ö-vis the cartridge's similarly small signal coils—the company guarantees that every cartridge it sells can be retipped for 20% of its original price. Repeatedly.

Footnote 1: The Soundsmith, 8 John Walsh Boulevard, Suite 417, Peekskill, NY 10566. Tel: (800) 942-8009, (914) 739-2885. Fax: (914) 739-5204. Web:

Footnote 2: Shure Brothers phono cartridges are now made in Juarez, Mexico. Stanton Magnetics, now owned by the Gibson Guitar Corporation, of Nashville, Tennessee, recently ceased production of all cartridge models and all but one of their replacement styli.


Jeff Joseph's picture

I was a teenage audio enthusiast. One of the stores that I visited when I could persuade my mom to take me there was The Audio Experts in White Plains, although Frank Elau had this annoying habit of painfully pinching my cheeks. My older brother Ken had a Sony TC-377 reel to reel recorder that kept me occupied making air check recordings or home-made "Chipmunks" versions of Bruce Springsteen songs. (Badlands can be found on youtube!) One day the recorder broke, and I decided to try and fix it myself. It didn't go well, and a few days later I found myself face to face with the scrawny yet stern repair technician at Audio Experts. Peter told me that as a policy he did not work on units that have been tinkered with by others. "Have you been inside this machine?" Peter gave me a knowing and intimidating stare. I denied everything. "The way I can tell that you've opened this machine is that the screw heads are stripped" For some reason, Peter decided to take pity on me and repaired the Sony. Some weeks later he offered to teach me about proper repair technique and electronics. Every week my mom would drive me to Peter's house where we fixed my dad's Advent cassette player and my Pioneer SX-434, adding preamp outputs to make it operate as a Tuner/Preamp. By now, I'm sure there are dozens of people who can speak to Peter's generosity of spirit and technical knowledge. I'm glad to see that Art has captured some of the mad scientist for this article.

Retipper's picture

Dear Jeff;

How kind of you to post that.

What you may not understand is that it provides me no small amount of joy to realize that you went into audio as a profession, and that I had some small part to play in that. You have given to the world some dynamic and unique speaker designs that have been extremely well received.

One of MY favorite memories is calling you 15 years (!!) ago and asking..."Jeff - are you going to CES, and if so, are you bring a table?" "Yup.....why do you ask?" - you said.

I said - "I have developed a new Strain Gauge cartridge and was wondering if you would let me use it in your room?"

Long silence on the phone. I have speculated what was going through your head.
"....if I say no...will he ever talk with me again....what if it sounds like crap, and makes my room sound like crap....."

"Sure thing - no problem" you said. Pretty gutsy my friend. Lots of trust there. And we introduced it to the world, and it got lots of press, including Michael Fremer, who later reviewed it.

And you got everyone who noticed it glowing blue over there in the corner to take a photo of it, saying to them....."You know, it's kind of hard to take a good photo of....." and having thrown down the gauntlet, many photos resulted.

Over the years, so many times people have come up to me and said "You really know Jeff Joseph?" Yup - I say. And smile. But they think I am smiling at them. You have paid me back for the time spent teaching you in your youth many times over. I know that somewhere, some kid is saying..."when I grow up, I want to be Jeff Joseph".

Often, it's me saying that.

Peter Ledermann/Soundsmith