LIVE concerts and studio sessions despite covid. Soundsmith Strain Gauge

Yes, despite the Covid “lock down”,  I have had the enjoyment of hearing the Chicago Symphony, London Symphony, Bill Evans, Gillepsi, Ellington, Basie, Perlman…. All in the last several months.  

For several months ago, I received a SoundSmith strain gauge SG-200 cartridge with the SG6 stylus.  Once mounted on my AMG Viello turntable and JT12 (12 inch “turbo”) arm, my listening room has been filled with symphonies (sometimes gets crowded with the larger orchestras) and big bands and trios ( I had to move the furniture to fit the piano and large drum sets)  each providing private concerts.  Such privilege I have never before enjoyed!

The SG presents a sound stage that is as wide as the room, as deep as well, and a “presence” that depending on the recording either places you centered in row 20 of the concert hall (eg Deutch Grammophone) or at the table adjacent the stage (most of the jazz trio recordings such as Jazz at the Pawn Shop).  I am standing next to the recording engineer in studio recordings. The medium may be auditory, but the sensation is palpable.

The brand and style (grand vs upright) of the piano, the subtlety of the pedals dampening or lengthening a note, the “twinkle” of the higher octaves and the reverberations of the lower are so evident.

I can appreciate the different techniques applied by the bassist  to each note, a staccato pluck, a forceful pull, a strum, a pluck and compression in quick succession, the whole message of the composition and the brilliance of the musician’s interpretation becomes so evident.

Direct to Disk recordings such as Vivaldi in Venice reveal the resonance of the venue, the reediness of the bassoon, the resonance of the cello placing me in the first few rows from the stage.

Lt Kiji begins with a lone trumpet physically located off stage, distant.  The SG presents this so realistically, that you actually turn to see if there is indeed a bugler behind you in the corner of the room.  

The end of 1812 overture is no longer a muddled barrage of bells, canons, timpani and every other instrument in the orchestra.  Rather the church bells are distinctly heard in each section of the city, the canon in the foreground, other battle sounds further away. What typically has been merely “loud” now coneys the story and image, the battle and celebration of victory.

A Night on Bald Mountain has the necessary intensity to be “scary” at the beginning, a storm of proper proportion. Yet with the dawn, the SG presents the calm and serenity,  the peace  and comfort.  

The pixie dust of Mysterious Mountain is sprinkled with such delicacy, the harp (sorry the cliche, but it is true) heavenly, delicate.

I have several LPs of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, one with Issac Perlman as soloist, another with a small chamber assemble. The difference in the principal violin’s interpretation or technique is so clearly evident — the variation in the character of the sound/note that Perlman can evoke, the interpretation that he presents with his technique, is so readily appreciated with the SG.  The SG’s clarity, agility, speed, low noise level (that permits such articulation) allows the listener to hear the “bouncing” on the strings, the amount of pressure, the angle of attack of his various bowing techniques.  It is amazing how much was lost in the transcription by typical magnetic cartridges.  I should emphasize that such “detail” is NOT at the expense of the lyricism of the music. The SG is not so analytical as to present the listener with only a technical perspective. Rather, the listener can now enjoy the musician’s and composer’s technique AND the beauty, passion, angst of the composition.  

The Great Gate of Kiev or the final variation of Egnima Variations  are so powerfully, clearly, articulately presented that you sense the power, the grandeur,  even perhaps emotionally love.

More specifically:

Bass is tight, clearly spoken without blur or muddiness.  There is proper resonance and reverberation.

Where the drum is hit, the type of drum, cymbal, brush vs mallet, vs stick is perfectly articulated and even in the fastest passages (Far More Drums) every note of the roll is distinct.

The midrange is full but not blurred.  There is excellent separation of instruments within a trio or orchestra or big band and you can appreciate all four notes in a chord played by, for example, the trumpet horn sections.  Top hats, different forms of mutes, are all now distinguishable and allow an appreciation of the musician’s interpretation or the composers skill.

Treble is again quite articulate.  Unless due to the recording, it is not harsh, brittle, grating or bright.

When called for, there is a good blend of bass, mid and treble to provide a “whole” musical or lyrical presentation.

It should be explicitly stated that there is essentially no noise.  Between tracks, pauses (tactics) in the music are absolutely dead silent (assuming, of course, that the record is not damaged, properly recorded and clean).  I assume this is the “noise floor” so often mentioned in reviews;  with the SG, be careful not to fall into the abyss. 

DG recording of Bach’s organ renders the throatiness of the bass, the twinkle of the extended treble, the power of the large chords (which are no longer merely barrages of loudness, but collective voices of each note).  The volley of the right vs left hands supported by the sustains of the foot notes.  Power is conveyed to the limits of the system without veil, cloudiness, blur. Each pipe’s voice can be discerned if you wish, or relax and the cohesiveness washes over you.

Mysterious Mountain has “pixie dust” sprinkled throughout.  These delicate treble notes are often lost in the fullness of the orchestra, yet due to the expanded soundstage, the ability to locate each section of the orchestra as would be apparent at a live presentation, the pixie dust comes through, delicate emanating from a wand as only Disney could have drawn.

Note must be made, however, that the SG does not take the proverbial prisoner.  Bad recordings will be difficult to tolerate.  The producer who chose to compress, that did not pay careful attention to the mixing, will be called out in no uncertain terms.  But, when the recording was miked carefully, skillfully and thoughtfully mixed, and care taken throughout the production of the vinyl, then the reward is truly a live concert, or a private recital or a personal music lesson with great musicians and your soul is filled and moved as only music can.

When I first started listening to my SG, I occasionally noted some harshness to the treble.  This was concerning since I explicitly wrote in my notes during my audition of the SG in Peekskill, NY (at SS’s facility) that this was NOT the case.  Over the course of several weeks, I began to note that this characteristic was only noticeable with certain specific recording labels and not others, and is the basis for my earlier comment regarding the “honest” presentation the SG provides of the LP.  

On the other hand, I can now appreciate the craft of the recording engineer and the producer. This ads to the musical experience, another “dimension” to the music, and makes owning different recordings of the same composition so worthwhile. 

As an aside, I read while considering the purchase of the SG, that some dislike the blue lights on the front of the cartridge.  Actually, these are very helpful…. When positioning  the stylus on the lead-in groove, you do not need to even look at the stylus per se. Merely place the outside row of lights on the edge of the record (“eyeballing” being quite sufficient) and the stylus will be positioned perfectly.  Really quite nice.

With regards to cost:  (a) the price includes the proprietary amp so you save the cost of a phono preamp;  (b) the stylus can be changed by the user and additional styli are very reasonably priced (far less than any reasonably good  MM cartridge); (c) should a mishap occur, repair is a small fraction of the cost of the cartridge, far below other companies;   Thus, all aspects considered, the SG is very reasonably priced.  I believe it outperforms cartridges from Ortofon or Clearaudio that are thousands more.

There is one negative with respect to cost:  if you do not already have excellent cables and components, you will soon after installing the SG because this cartridge will utilize to the fullest potential every component you have and the improvement in sound, the “experience”, justifies every penny on other components in the system, so it induces a nearly uncontrollable need to “upgrade”.  

I have mentioned only classical and jazz since these genres dominate my listening, but I will admit that Kenny Rogers dropped by the other night to give me a private audition of The Gambler and other of his great songs.  I didn’t break even, I won!

Fabulous review craig, well done and thanks!

Often times my research leads me to things I’m not quite ready for and this is one of those times. Upgrading to Koetsu and then Herron opened my eyes to just how much is there with analog, just sitting there on the table. Some highly experienced reviewers have compared SG very favorably going up against rigs where the cartridge alone costs much more than the SG. Which as you pointed out includes the phono stage. So it seems Ledermann has provided true SOTA performance for what is as these things go a very reasonable price.

The dead silence you heard is a consequence of the SG exceptionally low moving mass. Since the cantilever is mounted directly to the strain gauge then the cantilever and stylus are the total moving mass. Compare that to a MC where the cantilever must be much longer to extend through the suspension, and then be attached to the coils. Peter Ledermann has some great videos explaining vibration and resonance and how this results in jitter, the stylus literally bouncing back and forth not so much tracking as sampling the groove.

Sounds like you did a lot of research. You may have come across this already. But as good as the SG is it can be improved with an even better power supply. Worth mentioning because otherwise it would seem the only "downside" is there being nowhere to upgrade to! With the power supply there is a clear upgrade path. As if you need anything better!

Also good to know Peter Ledermann the Soundsmith is still around. I was beginning to worry after some of the news from him last year. Congratulations on a great purchase and thanks again for your extensive and thoughtful review!
I've been running the Straingauge system since 2013, initially the SGS-5 stylus, w Red Wine Audio Black Lightning battery psu to energizer, and now SGS-6 and Alternative Audio bespoke LPS.

I'm not gonna make any claims on it's superiority, and I have heard some superlative carts recently (Aidas Panzerholz, Top Wing Red Sparrow and Dava field coil), but 8 years of ownership and the SG still delivers.

I've not had my system fully cooking on jazz and classical, but in the last 12 months I've installed an improved version of my Terminator LT arm, and SOTA motor w Farad LPS to my tt, plus optimal 6DJ8 tubes in my preamp, and my analog has transformed, particularly way more tonally transparent and timbrally accurate, which has wholly benefitted my acoustic music collection of classical and jazz.

And my Straingauge is being fully revealed as an amazing performer, a really excellent balance of tonal fullness and colour, excellent timbral accuracy and discrimination, and exemplary dynamics and air.

Prior to Covid, me and the missus were attending at least three dozen live classical concerts annually over a 5 year period. I got a good feel for instrumental accuracy, both tone and timbre. And the reproduction of LPs of classical, and jazz, at home has a real connection to what I had been hearing live, particularly revealed with my major recent upgrades.
Straingauge is a winner across the board.

It is! Much as I loved the Red Sparrow and Dava carts I heard, they were just too much on the lush side for me, compared to the Straingauge.
The Aidas Panzerholz was probably the closest in terms of dynamics and position on the tonal spectrum
Lyra/Clearaudo TOO COOL >>>>>
>>>>> Straingauge JUST RIGHT >>>>>
>>>>> Koetsu TOO WARM
I have my first Soundsmith cartridge, The Voice, still in it's box until I get another turntable. I have talked to Peter about the strain gauge. I owned  a Wyn Labs unit years ago and it was not very good. My daughter lives in NYC so, my next trip down I plan on stopping by and having a listen. He keeps one set up. The build quality of The Voice is impressive which makes me much more comfortable spending big bucks with him. We shall see. 
I'm soon to order up to four replacement stylii, and Level Twelve mods to my Straingauge energizer. Fully signed up to l/t ownership, at least 2027 lol.