Soundsmith Strain Gauge SG-200 phono cartridge system Page 4

The differences between a great MC system and the Strain Gauge can make evaluating different pressings of the same album difficult. Right now I'm listening to the two new Rolling Stones boxes. Tattoo You sounds positively muffled and dynamically dead through the Ortofon A90, but through the Strain Gauge it sounds reasonably alive on top, though still dynamically dead. The life has been compressed out of the new records, though not so the ABKCO box of the earlier Decca/London-era Stones.

I suspect that the Strain Gauge cartridge's displacement-based operating system was in some way emphasizing the RIAA HF boost. It's not the same as the resonant peak found in the sounds of most MC cartridges, because it's not an obtrusive brightness or a detail-obscuring ringing. Instead, this rising top end was an addictive, finely focused light that, with the right recordings, reproduced with astonishing clarity and definition tambourines, cymbals, and electric guitars, particularly Fender Stratocasters.

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.

An example: I predicted that Vladimir Ashkenazy's piano, on his set of the Beethoven concertos with Georg Solti and the Chicago Symphony (LPs, Decca SXLG-6594-7), which I use as a reference, would sound tinkly through the SG-200. That's not what happened. Instead, the first thing I noticed was how the Soundsmith's astonishing stop-on-a-dime speed laid bare Ashkenazy's pedal work. When he took his foot off and the damper hit the strings, the stopping of the sound was head-through-the-windshield fast as I've never before heard it. The hammer attack was equally precise, but the overall piano sound was somewhat recessed and almost drab in the midrange, as if the sustain was being absorbed by a sponge.

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.

After spending a few weeks listening to the extra-cost SGS-6 "Optimized Contour" line-contact stylus, I switched to the less severely profiled but equally setup-critical SGS-5 line-contact stylus. While everything I'd heard previously remained, the emphasis on instrumental attacks was now somewhat diminished. That helped to produce a less hyper, more unified sound that I felt was less hi-fi and more natural, though the mids were still less than generous and somewhat recessed relative to the octaves above and below, and the HF emphasis remained. In my system, I preferred the standard SGS-5 to the SGS-6.

Adherents of strain-gauge cartridges warned me that, once I'd heard one in my system, I would become hopelessly addicted to it. After spending a few months listening to the Soundsmith Strain Gauge SG-200, and despite the obvious need to pick apart its sonic character for this review, I've found that they were right. The SG-200 is a unique game-changing product.

Switching to Soundsmith's Strain Gauge SG-200 from a standard magnetic cartridge, MC or MM, produced a seismic sonic shift similar to switching between speakers based on different technologies. But it's a far more practical way to add a transformative component to an audio system and to swap it in and out with ease, particularly if your analog front-end has two tonearms or your arm has detachable headshells—or, like the Graham Phantom II arm, interchangeable wands. The SG-200 is a perspective-changer, that's for sure, and not because it adds gross colorations—though with that apparently rising high end, it definitely has a unique sonic character. Don't expect unrelenting brightness, because it didn't consistently sound like that. That particular quality seemed to be record-dependent, and not predictably so, for reasons perhaps Peter Ledermann can explain.

If I could afford it right now, I'd buy the SG-200 in a Peekskill minute. It's as addicting as its proponents say, and I'm going to miss it.

The Soundsmith
8 John Walsh Blvd., Suite 417
Peekskill, NY 10566
(800) 942-8009