AXPONA 2012: The Magic that is Soundsmith

Peter Lederman is the Soundsmith, and it’s to the Soundsmith that cartridges go when they die.

As near as I can figure it, Soundsmith is known for one thing. Well, no, let me back up. They’re known for a lot of things, but the thing that I hear most commonly is that bit about cartridges. Peter is one of the few folks still out there that is universally known — and admired — for his ability to bring the dead back to life. Dead, or at least aging, phono cartridges that is.

His expertise in this field is legendary, so it’s forgivable if that’s where you start. At least, that’s what I hope, because that’s where I started, when I cast off into the turbulent waters of desire, longing and uncertainty that marks the mist-shrouded coasts of audio’s high-end.

The cartridges he makes and customizes are, I think, worthy of similar acclaim. His latest, the Hyperion, which quite frankly is entirely magical, uses a freakin’ cactus needle as a cantilever! How cool is that!?! According to Peter, the cactus needle is God’s Little Gift to vinyl. It’s naturally anti-resonant and entirely non-hygroscopic. Peter, in a stroke of sheer genius, stuck a diamond on it. Where does inspiration like that come from? The Unseelie Court, that’s where.

The Hyperion is available now for $7,000 and comes with not only a 10 year warranty but free retipping for the lifetime of that warranty. Given that a cartridge is generally “good” for about 1,000 hours (which is about 8 hours/day of playback, 5 days a week for 6 months), we’re talking a lot of value here.

I had a chance to ask him about the strain gauge and about the audiophiles who howl about the non-standard (ie, non-RIAA) curves that such a system uses to create music. He held up both hands and pooh-poohed me. “You know what those mastering engineers did to the music on those grooves?” he asked, and then answered his own question by shaking his head at the sad violence of it all. I’m paraphrasing, but his response continued something like this: “They did whatever they wanted to, whatever it took for the music to sound like they wanted it to. By comparison, the liberties my Strain Gauge takes are inconsequential.”

Me, I’m trusting my ears and my ears tell me this: the Strain Gauge sounds good.

At AXPONA, he was running the signal from the VPI HRX turntable into his $700 (yes, seven hundred) phono stage and from there into an analog input on his Strain Gauge phono preamp and out to a pair of his Soundsmith amplifiers and out to … what the Shadow was that?!

Turns out that the that was Dvorak. A Speakers Corner/Living Presence Stereo LP featuring Janos Starker.

I remember standing there, marveling at the majesty of the Hyperion, pondering idly on what he’d told me about the Strain Gauge System, and half-eavesdropping on Peter’s routine with some other folks in the room, when something happened and my head whipped around, looking for the source of that sound. It was only then that actually I noticed the his speakers, maybe even for the first time in several shows, and said to myself, holy cow! No, really, I said that. At least, I thought that I said that to myself, but Peter suddenly stopped mid-spiel and commented mildly in his rumbly voice, “Yes, they really are something, aren’t they.”

Something remarkable, surely. On display today were the $2,000 Dragonfly, a 12″ tall monitor with a 4.5″ woofer (87dB, 56Hz-22KHz) and the $3,000 Monarch, a 14″ tall monitor with a 6″ woofer with pretty much the same specs. While I was visiting on Day 2, Peter and crew were running the little Dragonfly speakers. And the sound, oh the sound, that these pint sized wonders threw out. Wow. I mean, wow. I suppose that I’ve been bedazzled by all the audio treasure that Peter typically stuffs his lair demo rooms with that I hadn’t even noticed. Dude. Seriously. If you’ve never been to one of his rooms, let me tell you, it’s like walking into the Mines of Moria before Great Evil awoke and everything was still new and shiny and proud. There’s gold on the floor and mithril in the walls. It’s crazy. I can see how folks can spend three days here, lost to the world, only to find that the sun has set and Sunday has ended and now everything is over, the dream, spent.

It’s a kind of magic.