Not a lot seems to change at SME’s HQ in the picturesque town of Steyning, West Sussex. Men in white coats have been building high quality turntables and arms there for so long that several generations of local engineers have toiled at the machinery. So the sale of the company to the Cadence Group last autumn must have sent shockwaves through a company that has been in private ownership since the 1950s. But things are looking a lot more positive now; the new owners have brought in aerospace engineer Stuart McNeilis as CEO and he has already refurbished the paint shop and plans to increase the workforce in anticipation of burgeoning future demand. In the past, SME gave the impression of patiently waiting for the business to come to it – it had, after all, established a reputation for making the finest quality arms and turntables in the business. But there’s no doubt that appointing a UK distributor and encouraging international partners will likely increase sales for the company. It is encouraging to note that McNeilis intends to bring in design as well as engineering skills, so that SME can continue to expand and refine its range. With the death of founder Alistair Robertson-Aikman (ARA) in 2006 the company was left without a real turntable enthusiast at the helm, so some input on the R&D front will presumably be welcomed.
The last product to be developed prior to this change of ownership was the Model 15 turntable, which was the first totally new turntable from the brand since the Model 10 in 1999. The earlier Model 20 and 30 have been refined to their third and second generations respectively as well as growing in girth with what ARA called the “long wheelbase” treatment (that is provision for a 12inch arm) in that time, but new models are pretty rare.
The Model 15 was initially intended to be a more grown up version of the Model 10, but ended up rather closer to the rather more substantial Model 20. It takes its high-mass platter from the 20/2 (which is smaller than that on the current 20/3) and has suspension towers that are very close to those on the 20/3 but 8mm shorter. Each tower supports the plinth and platter on 10 rubber ‘O’ rings, a weight of 11 kilos being suspended on 30 rings altogether. The towers are adjustable in height and set-up involves using the supplied spacer to set the correct gap between the subchassis and plinth. The spacer alone says a lot about SME: all it needs to be is the right thickness, it could be made of plastic, but not only is it precision made in aluminium and engraved with a part number, but this small block is finished to the same standard as the turntable and arm. Which makes it less surprising when you learn that SME makes its own nuts and bolts.
The Model 15 actually feels bulkier than its 11kg weight suggests. It’s a lot easier to move with the platter removed, for example. Despite being made of aluminium, the two slabs that form the bulk of the turntable are very thick, the lower one being the heaviest. Each suspension tower has a damped piston within it and the main bearing under the platter is likewise controlled in order to keep resonance at bay. It’s a suspended design but not a springy one like a Linn LP12, rather it’s a high mass system of a kind that is unusual even in the widely varying world of turntable design. Set up is a case of removing two bolts from the sub platter and winding another four up into the sub platter, SME clearly doesn’t want this part moving in transit. Fit the belt and carefully place the platter over the spindle, its top surface is softer than it looks and easy to mark.
Next you need to adjust the suspension posts so that the aforementioned spacer fits easily beneath each. This can be done with the supplied hex driver that is also made by SME. Now the platter is ready to spin, but first connect the power supply’s DIN plug to the lower plinth, a job that’s considerably easier on the 15 than the 20. The option exists to connect an earthing wire to a gold plated ground post under the top plinth, but this is only necessary if there are hum problems. Once the platter has been spinning for a while you can check the speed with the supplied strobe disc and an appropriate 50 or 60Hz light source, if it needs adjusting this is done with the buttons on the power supply. The latter is a reasonably slim box with a power inlet and fixed supply cable of adequate length to place it several feet away from the turntable.
Once the turntable is levelled and spinning at the correct RPM, you can fit a tonearm. The suffix on the name Model 15A indicates that it’s supplied with a Model 309 SPD arm. This is the least expensive of the tonearms that are based on the mighty Model V that re-established the brand in the early 1980s. The 309 has a removable headshell and dynamic rather than spring downforce, but is otherwise very similar to the V. It doesn’t have the nicety of threaded VTA adjustment but retains the sliding base with rack and pinion control, which is easily the most straightforward stylus alignment system in the business. Downforce adjustment requires the supplied hex driver again, it screws the counterweight back and forth and locks it in place.
All that’s then required is to fix the cartridge in the headshell, set downforce, and use the supplied protractor to move the whole arm until it sits within the provided guidelines when the stylus is on the appropriate point. With the 309 there is an extra stage; the removable headshell means that azimuth also needs to be set; the angle of the cartridge seen from the front. As the 24 page instruction manual points out this is best done with a mirror. Finally VTA can be set with the same gauge that does alignment and the markings on the side of the arm. It really is a doddle by turntable standards, and if you are buying the thing the dealer does it for you of course. Still it’s nice to tweak should you feel the urge.
One tweak that is easy to experiment with is the supplied record clamp, another beautifully machined and finished piece of aluminium that has a coarse thread so that it can be put on and taken of with ease. It comes with a large washer that goes under the vinyl, raising the centre so that the clamp can bend the record very slightly into a convex shape and thus flatten out warps. It also provides greater damping of the disc, which has the effect of reinforcing the bass and dropping noise slightly, resulting in greater perceived dynamic range. I have to admit a preference for unclamped listening, however; without it the sound has more harmonic structure and better timing, a combination that increases musical engagement. It’s hard to say which is more accurate, but I know which one was the more enjoyable.
The sound that the Model 15A produces when equipped with a Transfiguration Proteus moving coil is extraordinarily calm and clean – the notes literally come out of an inky black background like magic. I put on Bugge Wesseltoft’s Trialogue [Jazzland] and was struck by the way that the percussion notes in particular had a solidity and presence in the context of such a quiet background. SMEs have always been good at reproducing notes with a sense of body, regardless of whether they are highs, lows or mids, and the 15 has the same ability. It’s not something that many digital systems can do in the treble and a lot of turntables get a bit thin or rolled off at that end of the band as well. The bass is really powerful too, even without the clamp, it’s not perhaps the fastest when it comes to stopping and starting, but if you want to feel an organ or synth note you won’t be disappointed.
The low noise floor also provides plenty of dynamic contrast between notes, instruments and voices, which makes it easy to hear what individual musicians are contributing to the performance. This is undoubtedly related to the powerful sense of three-dimensional solidity in the imaging. There is always space around acoustic sources because the turntable opens up such a deep soundstage for them to unfold in. Surface noise can be more intrusive than average but it’s nothing that a more fastidious attitude to vinyl cleaning wouldn’t sort out. Meanwhile there’s the distraction of tone, specifically the trumpet on Patricia Barber’s ‘Constantinople’ [Modern Cool, Premonition], which really shines over her clattering use of the piano strings as percussion and the low bowing of the double bass.
This combination of turntable and arm only stumbled once with my repertoire of test discs. Ongoing favourite, Astral Weeks by Van Morrison [Warner Bros], has the track ‘The Way Young Lovers Do’ at the start of the second side and it’s not an easy one to get right. There’s such a jumble of voice and instruments, and the recording is not the greatest, so it takes a very good sense of timing to play the track in a coherent fashion. The SME fares relatively well in decoding this difficult track, but I have heard it more temporally ordered elsewhere. More well-recorded pieces flow beautifully however, and this is a turntable that has no additive distortion to speak of; its sins are only of omission and those are not only hard to spot but don’t get in the way of the musical experience.
I have long been a fan of the SME 20/3 and, as it was to hand, I put the two up against one another to see how they differed. The four footed and pricier turntable with the mighty Model V arm delivers a more solid, assured, and three dimensional sound than its sibling. It produces more depth of image and greater resolution of reverb and harmonics, too. Essentially the character is the same, but you get more of the detail off the disc.
I also tried a different cartridge in the Model 309, this time Rega’s Aphelion MC that I usually use in a Rega RP10. This brought some real daylight and rhythmic bounce into the picture, making the Trialogue album more atmospheric and mesmerizing at the same time; the soundstage remained deep and the bass very powerful, perhaps a little bit too much so. I reduced downforce to the bottom of the cartridge’s recommended range, which helped the lows and didn’t undermine the endless vista produced by the second track on the album, Dan Berglund’s ‘Valiant’, a slower deeper piece that proved remarkably compelling. This assembly of turntable, arm and cartridge seemed to shine with the slower tempo tracks, digging out all the tonal richness of the Marty Paich Big Band’s rendition of ‘I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face’ [The New York Scene, Discovery]. In truth this tune was absolutely delightful, showing that Art Pepper, Victor Feldman, and Jimmy Guiffre at the height of their powers could play show tunes in sublime fashion.
There is no doubt that the Model 15 is very much an SME turntable. The Model 15 has very little character of its own, which means that it can reveal an awful lot about the records it spins. Build quality is in another league to the vast majority of turntables because so few manufacturers have the engineering facilities that a company which provides precision engineering to the aerospace and medical industries can offer. It may not have as many feet as the bigger models, but that does little to undermine its capabilities when it comes to resolving all the fine details locked away in a vinyl groove. If SME can continue to expand its range with turntables and arms of this calibre, its future looks as stable as the sound those record players produce.
Type: Full-size, suspended subchassis, 3-phase motor‑drive turntable
Rotational Speeds: 33 1/3 RPM, 45 RPM, 78 RPM
Supported Tonearm Length(s):
9-inch to 10-inch arms supported
Drive Mechanism: Belt driven via 3-phase, brushless outrunner inductance motor
Speed Control: Closed loop speed control with proportional plus (PI) algorithm.
Platter Type: Machined from aluminium alloy with diamond-turned Isodamp surface
Platter Weight: 4.6kg
Bearing Type: 19mm (3/4”) machined from high chrome tool steel, ground super finished and supported in a sealed housing
Plinth Configuration: Suspended subchassis with fluid damper and resistive ground path for acoustic signals
Dimensions (H×W×D): 176×428×378mm
SME 309 tonearm
Type: One piece magnesium tone arm with detachable headshell
Tonearm Length: 232.32mm
Effective Tonearm Mass: 9.5g
Offset Angle: 23.204 degrees
Signal Cable Length: 1.2m Van den Hul cable with SME RCA connectors
Price: £8,052 inc Model 309 SPD
Manufacturer: SME Ltd
Tel: +44(0) 1903 814321
UK Distributor: Padood
Tel: +44 (0) 1223 653028