The controversy continues

July 31, 2022
 by Paul McGowan

When I wrote about my memories of the strain gauge cartridge it was presented as mere ramblings. Since that post, there's been a swirl of controversy and questions. Who knew?

One question, in particular, revolved around the cartridge's supposed disregard for the need of the RIAA curve. Several among you, including my friend Richard Murrison, questioned the pat explanation as presented on the internet by (among others) Soundsmith, the company that currently manufactures a strain gauge cartridge (which I understand sounds exceptional).

Out of the woodwork comes my friend, engineer Gary Gallo. Gary wrote the following which I share with you here:

Back in 2016 I wrote an article for Linear Audio on RIAA EQ for Displacement-Sensitive phono cartridges. What prompted this investigation was Soundsmith’s claims for their strain-gauge cartridges, and their explanation of RIAA EQ, which is simply incorrect. Peter Lederman refused to answer my questions about how his cartridges could maintain flat response in the constant-velocity portions of the RIAA curve – I made three attempts to get an answer out of him, but he cut off correspondence with me.

You’ll note that DS Audio, manufacturer of LED cartridges that are also displacement-sensitive, holds the same views as me on RIAA EQ. I quote a letter from their chief engineer in my article.

In 2018 I gave presentation for the Connecticut Audio Society on this subject, and took things a bit further than the article. Strain-gauge cartridges use piezo-resistive semiconductors, and I think a piezo-resistive semiconductor’s internal capacitance, interacting with the load, is probably why the constant-velocity portions of the curve flatten out. I repeated that presentation for the New York chapter of the Association for Recorded Sound Collections later that year. Suffice to say, ANY phono cartridge claiming to be displacement sensitive, that outputs a flat response without any RIAA equalization, isn’t truly displacement sensitive. The old Panasonic strain-gauge cartridges certainly weren’t, and I think my simulations on their EQ circuit demonstrate that. That EQ circuit, as you’ll see, compensated for several anomalies in the cartridges response.

As they say on those cable TV ads, “Wait…There’s more!”

The presentation I gave for the NY ARSC Chapter can be seen on their YouTube channel:

Linear Audio ceased publication a few years back. All back issues are now available in electronic form, along with the printed volumes:

I love our community.

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24 comments on “The controversy continues”

  1. Why are RIAA equalization curves so readily accepted and required in the land -o - vinyl. (I understand the justification of why it’s there) Yet equalization is virtually taboo in any other part of the higher end playback audio chain?

    Finally a controversy I can totally ignore… 😉

    1. I think the answer here is quite simple. In our systems everything is flat in frequency. EQ'ing alters that. From flat to something else. Something artificial.

      In the RIAA we start by pre-equalizing the source. There's 40dB of EQ applied to the vinyl. It's anything but flat. EQ (or something) has to be used to return it to flat.

      1. Paul does the frequency response of the phono cartridge compensate for the RIAA curve and return it to flat? Or are you saying we might have to use say a pink noise album and an EQ with spectrum analyzer and mic to flatten the curve? I really never noticed my albums sounding anything but flat only altered by the type turntable and phono cartridge I use or the amount of isolation of the turntable from resonances.

    1. It also seems to me, that this (RIAA) is something we have to live with, as any other attempt wasn’t clearly better or useful so far from what I recognized.

      But seriously: if Paul would be in the vinyl optimizing business without the focus on transferring the signal to digital inbetween, this could mean quite some potential, I’m sure. With what he does already (phono pre etc.), it certainly improves, too.

  2. Well, these posts certainly get you thinking which of course is part of the purpose. I don’t know much about RIAA curves and not being into vinyl don’t feel the need but, if I came at this knowing nothing, looking at it from a total novice’s point of view, I would likely think the source, vinyl, is flawed.
    I would then ask,
    Why did they proceed with such a source?
    Why wasn’t an alternative source used such as tape?
    I would imagine that within the answers to both those questions ‘commercial considerations’ would emerge as part of the answer. Also, as a developing technology it was ‘acceptable’ and for the majority of users and listeners that’s all any product needs to be. The tweaking, polishing and refining can be done by the enthusiasts.

  3. While I prefer vinyl for the experience and sound (although less as DACs and room correction options develop), this subject touches on its biggest drawback. It’s a very difficult landscape to understand and weigh out options.

    With a DAC, it’s very easy to substitute and evaluate options using 2 inputs, or quick swapping. I know from trying a myriad of DACs that my personal preference is to avoid any DAC with an ESS chip. It’s sound just isn’t for me. Other than that, I simply pick up a DAC try it, and return it if I don’t like it.

    The vinyl landscape is way more complicated. There are tables with wide varieties of designs, a plethora of arm options, widely varying cartridge designs, equalization curves, mono/stereo schemes, gain variances, phono preamp options, etc. Aside from the phono preamp, it’s almost impossible to A/B options. Any change to any one of the other pieces involves tedious installation of varying degrees of fragile components, resetting of anti-skate, re-leveling, pressure adjustments, sometimes hundreds of hours of break in (ex. new cartridge), etc. It takes me weeks of tweaking before I feel like I get them dialed in. Then after all break in occurs, another round of tweaking.

    I have no reservations getting a $10K DAC to try out. Giving a go at trying $10K vinyl change, given the fragility of the components, is an entirely different thing. Consequently, I have no idea what I could be missing with no real easy way to figure it out.

  4. Question, is there any justification for the cost of a cartridge at $1k and above.
    Can any difference be heard between a cartridge at $1k vs $15k ?

    1. David, I am fortunate enough to be able to answer this question although I do not have a cartridge that cost $15K. Over the years I have gone from cartridges that went from $1K to $3.5K to over 6K and with an extra identical tonearm I have compared them. The difference between a $1K and one that cost over $6K is clear as can be.

      1. Tony, interesting! Were these cartridges of the same mechanical technology. Sound wise what did the higher priced cartridge add to the experience. My guess, the hand made cartridges are probably the best because of the attention to detail during assembly.

        Last time I used a turntable was over in Thailand during the Vietnam war. The base had a room of 10 turntables and 10 reel to reel tape machines so we could convert the records to tape. Along with a great library of records.

        1. David, It looks like you have reminded me of my good fortune twice in one day. I was lucky enough not to be drafted to serve in Vietnam. Thank you for your service and I am glad you survived.

          So here is the deal on the cartridges. I have a VPI TT. BION, Harry Weisfeld, the founder of VPI, invited me to his house ( he lives in NJ and I live in NY ) to do a cartridge shootout between three cartridges that ranged in price as follows: a Benz-Micro Ruby3 $3.5K ( my cartridge at the time ), an Ortofon A95 $6.5K and a Lyra Atlas $11.5K ( Harry had the last two cartridges ). Since they were all on the same model VPI tonearm and changing tonearms on a VPI TT is trivial. this was a true apples to apples shootout. All of the cartridges are MC cartridges.

          What was amazing was how much better Harry's two cartridges sounded than mine. It was like mine was a minor league baseball team and Harry's were the Yankees and the Mets! What amazed me was how the A95 sounded different but just as good as the Atlas even though the Atlas cost almost twice as much. I left Harry's house and bought an A95 as soon as I could!

          1. Thanks Tony,
            After reading through the nomenclature on the 3 cartridges it appears the manufactures focus was on eliminating parasitic vibrations in the cartridge. This makes sense to me. On the other hand considering the cartridge is a consumable item? I guess we have to pay to play, haha..

    2. Very, very, very much so.

      The difference between a $3800 Lyra Kleos and a $12,000 Lyra Atlas is far from insignificant, though of course whether it is worth the money to you is your own decision based on what YOU feel most important.

      1. After a quick search, found the average life cycle of the Lyra is between 2500 and 3500 hours which my listening frequency would hit in five years. This works out to be about $4 an hour, reasonable.

        1. To this end I only play vinyl when my wife and I have the time to sit down and seriously focus on the music. If we are eating dinner then the music comes from SACD's or CD's. If I am working on the main floor and want background music the tuner goes on.

  5. Gary's instructive response - including the YouTube video you linked to - is both comprehensive and spot on. I'm glad I sat through it 🙂

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