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SME Series 30 Turntable Reviewed

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HTR Product Rating

Performance
4 Stars
Value
4 Stars
Overall
4 Stars

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Fastidious. Single-minded. Self-sufficient. The man was a renaissance figure, one who would never suffer fools. He believed that form followed function, that workmanship was as important as performance. His products were (often) the finest money could buy. He was slightly anachronistic. His company was run like a
feudal estate. He was the entire management and board of directors.

I'm talking about Ettore Bugatti, the man who once said to a customer who complained about his car's poor cold starting, 'If you can afford a Bugatti, you can afford a heated garage.' When
the French electricity board gave him a hard time, he told them
to get stuffed and built his own generator. He also managed to
build what many regard as the most balanced automotive design of
all time -- the Type 35B. And nobody can dispute that it was the
most successful racing car of all time.

Additional Resources

What's that got to do with hi-fi? Sadly, not a lot. Men like
Ettore Bugatti are a bit thin on the ground in these days of
public companies, leverages, safety regs and high interest rates.
But much of the above description applies to SME's Alastair
Robertson-Aikman, the closest that hi-fi has ever come to
producing its own Ettore Bugatti.

This above isn't just some twee literary device. I make the
analogy to explain how and why a sane, intelligent man with three
decades in this business can dare to launch a #9000 turntable in
1990. CD has kicked the (commercial) stuffings out of the LP, as
anyone who has looked beyond the confines of the high end
community will realise. The record shops have all but abandoned
vinyl. CD has surpassed the LP in both value and unit sales, and
it looks more and more like the LP won't make it past 1992...let
alone 1995.

So who is capable of launching from scratch a new turntable this
late in the game? Besides companies which already have a history
for producing LP spinners, few would be brave enough to start
afresh. Indeed, I would seriously advise any manufacturer not
already making turntables to seek psychiatric and financial
advice if they have a mind to enter the game. But SME is not your
'normal' hi-fi company, and AR-A (as he's referred to in the
fiefdom of Steyning) isn't your average guv'nor.

SME is, as far as tooling and machining and mechanical matters
are concerned, entirely self-sufficient. Aside from raw
materials, wire and a few tasks like magnesium casting,
everything you find inside a box labelled SME was made in-house,
right down to the plastic handles on the screwdrivers. Because of
this, the company can produce just about any machine-made product
which strikes its or AR-A's fancy. Indeed, I pray still that AR-A
will one day return the company to its roots, the manufacturing
of fine scale models. (SME once made a fine Bugatti...)

AR-A -- despite years of ignoring the pleas of friends and
customers -- finally decided that there should be a turntable
sporting an SME badge. Had any other company chosen to enter
turntable manufacture from cold, it's likely that it would have
had to source plinths, platters, motors, mats, spindles, bearings
or whatever. AR-A merely calls in members of his crack team,
tells them his plan, and hey, presto! fourteen weeks later,
there's a prototype which looks like something off of an
up-and-running production line. Think about it: three-and-a-half
months to go from idea to reality, and the first example is
finished to perfection. Given the same project, your average
hi-fi giant would require 14 weeks just for the memo to travel
from head office to factory, while most other companies would
have needed to same amount of time just to convince the bank
manager that a few quid on the overdraft wouldn't go amiss.

So, the mere fact that the SME Series 30 -- named to mark three
decades since the first tonearm -- appeared at all is noteworthy.
That it appeared so quickly is remarkable. That the first-ever is
built to shop-ready standards is merely inconceivable. I cannot
think of one other company which could duplicate that
performance. (I know, Linn and Michell, too, have awesome
engineering capabilities, but they've been making turntables for
decades.)

Okay, so SME deserves to enter the record books just for the
basic achievement. But what does the SME turntable do for the
ailing LP? And will vinyl fanciers stump up the necessary #9k?

AR-A is the least naive individual I've ever met. He knows full
well that the food which you feed a turntable is in dwindling
supply, the steak we call LPs being replaced by the mystery-meat
we know as CD. But AR-A also knows that the only people who would
even consider the SME Series 30 are those who 1) have the
wherewithal to purchase such a costly device, 2) have enough
respect for the LP to deem it a primary source even into the
digital era and 3) have record libraries which warrant the
purchase of a new turntable and the cosseting it can provide.

[Note: It has come to my attention that some would argue with
Kessler's Only Dictum: the KOD states that anyone whose hi-fi
costs more than his or her software library is a hi-fi nut, not a
music lover, and is therefore of a lower order. Remember, hi-fi
is the means to an end, not an end in itself. Anyway, I would
call for the public hanging of anyone who buys an SME 30, a
Goldmund, a Basis, a Versa or any other state-of-the-art spinner
when they have only 10 LPs. On the other hand, I realise that, at
even #7 per LP, a customer would have to own only 1285 to justify
the purchase of the SME. But that doesn't account for the rest of
the system...]

So SME has risen to the challenge of creating the final turntable
by producing a deck which blends the traditional -- belt-drive,
full suspension -- with the radical. MC's accompanying review
will give you the full details, so I'll stick with some general
observations.

It appears that SME chose to create a deck which can remain
wholly independent of the environment in which it resides. In the
best SME manner, it is designed to be foolproof, so there is no
penalty despite the complexity of the suspension. It's a
four-pointer, the argument running along the same lines as those
for the design of the Basis (see ¬HFN/RR¬ March 1990). As with the
Basis, high mass is used in conjunction with a fluid-damped
support system to create a suspension which offers both isolation
and damping, but SME has opted for what AR-A regards as a zero-Q
tuning. Unlike any other suspended turntable where subchassis
flop up and down to the tune of 2-3Hz, the Series 30 operates in
slo-mo. Press down on the assembly and it returns to normal
height with a slow and graceful ascent.

You get the impression that any unwanted vibrations routed away
from the LP find their way out of the main plate and into the
hydraulic fluid. While I believe that MC had different results
with turntable tables unlike the ones I tried, I found that -- on
an ¬HFN/RR¬ Newsstand,a concrete floor or a Partington-made
equipment rack -- the Series 30 acted as if in an isolation
chamber. It was absolutely unshakeable, easily passing the old
kick-the-tyres test of lowering the stylus onto a stationary LP,
turning up the wick and giving it a thump. What was heard through
the speakers was barely detectable.

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