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Ex-IBM engineer builds innovative phono cartridges

Soundsmith's Peter Ledermann not only makes a full line of highly innovative phono cartridges -- the company also offers amplifiers and speakers.

The Soundsmith phono cartridge in action. Steve Guttenberg/CNET

Peter Ledermann is one of just a handful of highly skilled people on the planet who designs and hand-builds phono cartridges. These tiny electro-mechanical devices are usually machine made, but Ledermann builds world-class cartridges with his hands and a microscope. His company, Soundsmith, also manufactures speakers and amplifiers, and services vintage Bang & Olufsen and Tandberg products.

Ledermann's resume is impressive: He was the director of Engineering for Bozak, one of America's leading speaker manufacturers in the 1960s. And for 10 years, starting in 1980, he was an IBM senior research engineer and is credited as the primary inventor of 11 IBM patents. He started Soundsmith during his IBM tenure, and Ledermann currently employs 15 people in his 8,000-square-foot facility in Peekskill, N.Y.

Ledermann personally builds and repairs all of the top Soundsmith cartridge models. He and his staff also can repair other brands of high-end cartridges on site. As we talked, Ledermann didn't strike me as a straight-laced engineer type -- no, the man loves music and takes real delight in his work. He strives to make cartridges that can so precisely trace an LP's incredibly complex, microscopic groove wiggles that you hear only the music. Ledermann feels that with the best cartridges and turntables, an LP should sound like the master tape. "If it sounds like a record, you've blown it," he said.

A Soundsmith technician at work. Steve Guttenberg/CNET

Ledermann's large listening room -- outfitted with his Strain Gauge phono cartridge, SG-810 preamplifier, HE-150 amplifiers, and Monarch speakers -- sounded wonderful. His cartridges really did minimize LPs' ticks and pops to a remarkable degree; even old records were eerily quiet. I'm not claiming they were 100 percent noise-free, but definitely quieter than what I'm used to.

Soundsmith's hand-built phono cartridges start at $480 for the Otello, and go up to the high four figures. Phono cartridges are usually very delicate devices, as are most Soundsmith cartridges, but the company offers two "unbreakable" Irox models. They're designed for folks who throw parties and play a lot of records, blind people, or listeners with limited or unstable hand motion. I know of no other manufacturer of high-end cartridges that offers that type of model.

Ledermann also has a recording and mastering studio onsite where he records music, without tape recorders. He instead records direct to disc, on a record cutting lathe. Ledermann doesn't make records to earn a profit -- all of the money is earmarked to help rescue children around the world working as slave laborers. The DirectGrace records I listened to really are exceptional.