Listening #152 Page 2

Lower still is the cost of maintaining Ledermann's top cartridge model, the Soundsmith Strain Gauge ($8600, including the most basic version of its requisite preamp, footnote 3): Replacement styli can be swapped out in the field, and range in price from only $350 to $950.

User-replaceable styli with three-figure price tags are made possible because the transduction principle for which the cartridge is named—at least two other strain-gauge pickups have appeared on the market in years past—is so different from that of most other phono cartridges. MI, MC, and MM cartridges all respond to the bumps in the groove of a moving record by generating their own electrical signal. (As pointed out in the June 2014 "Listening," those products are unique among all source components in that regard.) But a strain-gauge cartridge responds to those bumps by modulating a current supplied by its partnering preamp, which it does by means of a tiny silicon element that varies resistance in response to physical stylus deflection. Thus the Soundsmith Strain Gauge can claim even lower moving mass than an MI cartridge—and, as a bonus, its modulated signal requires only minor amplitude-response correction, and not the full-blown RIAA equalization required by most phono pickups.

Ledermann would also have you know that, because of its incomparably low moving mass and its freedom from the mechanical compression that bedevils electromagnetic cartridges, the Soundsmith Strain Gauge cartridge is an incomparably good tracker. Indeed, he says, the Strain Gauge is kinder than most cartridges to one's records, a claim he illustrated by playing for me a record that not only had lots of bass, treble, and sheer juice, but that exhibited not a single tick or pop. Except it wasn't a record—it was a half-speed–mastered lacquer. While a typical lacquer can't be played more than a few times before audible groove damage sets in, Ledermann said that this lacquer had been played approximately 150 times—but only with a Soundsmith Strain Gauge.


The Soundsmith Strain Gauge cartridge with stylus removed.

The rest of that playback system seemed similarly impressive—and, with the exception of the VPI turntable and Schroeder tonearm, all components were designed and made by Ledermann. The cartridge was the Soundsmith Strain Gauge Signature Series SG-810 ($33,900), the partnering preamp for which also includes line inputs, manual and remote controls, a tape loop, and automatic cue-up muting. Power amplifiers were a bridged pair of Soundsmith HE-150 zero-feedback, 200Wpc MOSFET monoblocks ($43,000 each), and loudspeakers were the compact (14" tall), two-way Soundsmith Monarchs ($4000/pair), mounted on Soundsmith Versa-Stands ($900/pair). The sound lacked the casual, natural forcefulness I hear through my Altec horns, and when I played an LP I'd brought with me—Country Cooking's 14 Bluegrass Instrumentals (Rounder 006)—I was surprised to hear a less dry, more echoey sound than I hear at home. But color, detail, scale, and width of frequency range were all very impressive. I may or may not have been correct in attributing to the Strain Gauge cartridge the system's abundance of sonic detail, but there was no doubting the little Monarch speaker's ability to sound surprisingly huge, and to play low-frequency tones I would have thought beyond its reach.

Grace notes
After a bit more listening, Ledermann and I retreated to a local restaurant for some lunch and a more relaxed, far-ranging conversation. We hit upon all manner of hi-fi and music topics, during which I became acquainted with some of Ledermann's likes and dislikes regarding analog playback in general. For the sake of both sound and cartridge longevity, he is an ardent believer in keeping records clean, and prefers radial-slot, vacuum-dry cleaning machines such as those from VPI and Hannl, the latter of which Soundsmith offers for sale. (Earlier in the day, when we were about to play that Country Cooking LP, Ledermann asked if I'd let him wash the record beforehand; having recently cleaned it on the Audiodesksysteme Gläss Vinyl Cleaner, which I prefer, I declined with thanks.) As for stylus cleaning, Ledermann recommends lowering the tip into a gummy, sticky, putty-like substance, which is presumed to retain any and all contaminants, and which can be reused multiple times. (Although Ledermann doesn't specifically endorse it, the Onzow Zerodust cleaner works in that manner.)

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Ledermann also has much to say about cartridge alignment—but is refraining from making detailed comments on the topic until such time as he can deliver one of his next commercial products, the Soundsmith Cartright. This bundle of hardware and software, reportedly in the works for some time, is expected to carry a price in the high three figures. For now, suffice it to say that Ledermann's geometry of choice is Baerwald—and take to heart his observation that "azimuth is a supercritical alignment, but there is a difference between generator alignment and stylus alignment." That's not as enigmatic as it sounds.


The lion in early spring: Peter Ledermann at lunch.

But of all the topics that inspire Ledermann's passion and industry, none seems as near to his heart as his favorite charitable enterprise: the worldwide abolition of childhood slavery. To that end, he has created his own record company, DirectGrace Records. The label specializes in direct-to-disc recordings of acoustic music, recorded and mastered by Ledermann on a Neumann VMS70 lathe at the Soundsmith offices; all proceeds go to support such nonprofit organizations as the African Network for the Prevention and Protection Against Child Abuse and Neglect ( Among the titles presently available are Flower by the Dry River, by jazz pianist Elio Villafranca and his ensemble (LP, DG 00106 S), and the eponymous debut album by singer-songwriter Samuel Searle Morris (LP, DG 00103 S). You can buy one or both of them right now and do something nice for the world and your ears.

After lunch, we returned to Soundsmith for a little more listening, and to drop in to see their cartridge-repair department—a visit I'd looked forward to all day. Among some phonophiles, Soundsmith is best known for its ability to retip and repair almost any phono pickup you can name, from Allaerts to Zyx—and for a price usually considerably lower than that charged by the original manufacturer. Soundsmith can do this in one of two ways: The repair technician—Ledermann himself, or the affable David Moskowitz—can remove the entire cantilever and replace it with a brand-new cantilever-stylus assembly, with various options regarding the material of the former and the profile of the latter. Alternatively, the technician can leave in place the original cantilever and remove only the stylus shank—usually by dissolving the cement that holds it in place—after which a brand-new diamond can be fitted. Costing between $350 and $650, the latter is Soundsmith's more expensive option, simply because it's difficult to perfectly align—within an opening that may not have been correctly made in the first place—a microscopically small nub of transparent material. By choosing the cantilever-plus-stylus route, the consumer is on the hook for as little as $150, with prices in some cases ranging up to $450.


The faceplate of the Soundsmith SG-810 preamplifier is machined from cocobolo, a popular tonewood; the light-colored strip near the bottom edge is of sapwood, prized by some luthiers for adding visual contrast to the backs and sides of instruments.

Even the highest of those prices seems cheap, and may well coax from the cynical that great refrain of American salesmanship: Why pay more? The answer, from some, might be that a new stylus isn't enough to fully reset the odometer on a high-performance cartridge, which may also require a remagnetized magnet, a thorough purging of magnetically permeable detritus, retorquing of the tensioning wire, and, most of all, new suspension parts. Soundsmith, of course, can do much of that work themselves, although many notable cartridge makers do not make available to other service facilities their proprietary replacement materials—and so they have the advantage. (Just as Ledermann believes the materials he chooses for his cartridges are the best, so may other cartridge makers suggest that they, too, chose for their products the best possible materials in the first place.) But no matter how you look at it, spending $650 or less for a fresh start with a brand-new stylus, especially on a megabuck cartridge, has tremendous appeal.

For reasons almost entirely selfish, I asked: "Can you replace the elliptical stylus of a 12-year-old Japanese cartridge with a spherical tip?"

I received from Ledermann the answer I expected: "Why would you want to do that?" When I pressed him, and explained that I simply prefer the unfussy sound of a spherical tip, he said he would be happy to make the change whenever I wish. Setting my selfishness throttle to full steam ahead, I then offered for his inspection a very old Decca Gray that someone had given me just a few days before. Ledermann kindly put it under his 'scope and, in short order, discovered two things: The Gray's own spherical tip showed no wear whatsoever, and one of its coil wires had come unsoldered, rendering the thing useless; the latter more or less explained the former. In any event, Ledermann offered to try to fix it.


Left behind in the good hands of Peter Ledermann: my Decca Gray.

And so, when I left Soundsmith that day, I left a little something behind. Ledermann saw me to my car, and we chatted a few minutes more. Then we shook hands, and I set my Garmin for the trip home. It was afternoon rush hour, and before I reached the Newburg-Beacon Bridge, it had begun to lightly snow—on April 23. It had been a long winter. Now, I wondered if that would ever change.

Footnote 3: Michael Fremer reviewed the Soundsmith Strain Gauge cartridge in March 2011.

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