SME Series I, II, III Tone Arms Reviewed
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Last year, when SME unveiled the M2 tonearm, it signified - quietly - that an era had ended. Founder Alastair Robertson-Aikman told
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Think about it: the original SME arm Series I, II and II Improved achieved the sort of sales figures you attach to £99 amplifiers, or £200 loudspeakers, not separate, high-end tonearms. By their very nature, separate arms are the province of hardcore audiophiles, not casual buyers. They imply a customer's dissatisfaction with whatever a turntable manufacturer might be supplying as standard, at the same time recalling the days when all audio systems were assembled by enthusiasts with a frisson of DIY madness - and when most turntable manufacturers didn't even make arms to match their decks. And from 1961 onwards, the tonearm base cut-out that served as the default for countless manufacturers, from Garrard to Thorens to Technics, was that of the SME.
SME didn't start out as a manufacturer of audio components. The original company was born in 1946 as The Scale Model Equipment Company Limited, manufacturing scale models and parts for the model engineering trade and hobbyist model builder. Interestingly, there is a sub-culture completely divorced from the audio industry's respect and affection for SME that barely knows we exist: when you say the letters 'S', 'M', and 'E' to a model collector, he pictures vintage ERAs and Bugattis, made from a block of wood, a collection of fine parts and a blueprint, requiring skills far in advance of those needed for Airfix-type kits. 'Tonearms? What are they?'
Another aspect of SME of which many audiophiles are unaware is the company's contract work in other, more serious fields. It was in the 1950s that SME moved away from model making to more critical precision engineering, including the production of parts for aircraft instruments, business machines and other devices not in the leisure industries, now including medical and Formula 1 clients.
Alastair, or AR-A as he's known in the world of audio, recalls that, 'The Series I precision pick-up arm was envisaged in the Autumn of 1958. It came about because my burgeoning interest in hi-fi had reached the point where I was dissatisfied with what the market offered. At that time the Scale Model Equipment Co Ltd, as SME was then titled, had a useful precision engineering capability built up over the preceding 12 years and I recall going into the small tool room and asking if we had any aluminium tube!
'By the Spring of 1959, a prototype was in use and it was decided to show it to the then Senior Technical Editor of the
Alastair says that, 'I particularly recall this estimate because in the week of one of his visits, not so long before he died, we built 1000 units and were averaging 750 units per week.'
In August 1961, SME opened a new factory in Mill Road, Steyning, Sussex, while the company's name was changed to SME Limited. After re-tooling the Series I, by then in production for three years, it was replaced with the Series II in 1963. Instead of a steel arm tube, the Series II used a polished, bright-anodised aluminium arm tube, 9.5mm diameter with a wall thickness of 0.56mm. A fibrous lining assists the dissipation of acoustic information. Moreover, SME was able to move from machining every part to using techniques such as pressure die-casting. The Series II stayed in production for 10 years. 'And for much of the time,' AR-A remembers, 'there was a backlog of more than two thousand units.'
In 1973, SME met the demand for an arm of lower mass than the Series II with the Series II improved, which also offered for the first time a fixed headshell version. [Note: There was also a short-lived, completely different arm called the Series III, an ultra-low mass type aimed at users of ADCs, Shures and other cartridges aspiring to sub-1g tracking.]. All of the same basic family ran for the next 30 years. By 1982, with the sudden burst in popularity of the moving-coil cartridge with lower compliances and higher tracking forces, AR-A recalls that, 'cartridge developments precluded a "one size fits all" philosophy. For the next four years, we developed the Series V, an arm of extraordinarily structural integrity dictated to the needs of medium and low compliance moving coils. It's still regarded by many as the best pick-up arm in the world, its pressure die-cast magnesium arm tube making it unique.'
Consistent from the very first model was SME's insistence on zero-compromise standards of manufacture, finish and construction. Thus, all production was (and is) carried on 'in house', including screws and tools for the arms' installation and set-up. SME's in-house capabilities include all design work and tool-making, through every stage of production, including CNC machining, pressure die-casting, injection moulding, metal finishing, electro-plating, anodising and many other processes. One world-class watch-maker, upon seeing the factory and acquiring his own 3009 Series II Improved, was moved to describe SME's capabilities as 'the equal of anything made in Switzerland.' And yet this was available to an SME 3009 owner for a price less than the cost of the steel bracelet on a Rolex.
As expected, countless SME Series I, II and II Improved owners moved onto the Series V. AR-A proudly points out that, 'Blocked up at either end, one of the SME Series V's arm sections will support the weight of a 10-stone man standing at the centre of it!' Its success led to it producing 14 variants of the basic design concept. AR-A feels that this, '...no doubt helped to euthanise the original type arms.'
But the cost difference between an SME Series II Improved and a Series V kept the former in production for its value as an entry-level product. In 2004, though, SME, '...filled a gap at the bottom of our range with the new M2 Series arms, drawing on the most worthwhile design features and offering what we believe are unbeatable value and performance for money.'
The 3009/3012 Series
Dubbed from the beginning as the 3009 for 9in versions (and 3012 for the 12inch version), the arm is identified in 'collectors' shorthand' as 3009/1 and 3009/2 to indicate which model series is which; you'll also see '3009 Series II improved'. As you'd expect of any product with such longevity, it has developed cults that are either 'pro' or 'anti' certain variations.
Fixed headshell or removable? 9in or - for the Japanese - 10in length from pivot to stylus? It's only when you ask AR-A directly that you learn, for example, that Americans insisted on calling some arms '16in' because they could play 16in transcription discs; unlike UK users who refer to it by effective length (pivot to stylus), the US users added in the counterweight and shell. As for the rarer 10in versions of the Series II and II Improved, these were supplied primarily to suit certain Japanese turntables. Then there were gold-plated limited editions, variations in the form of cable connectors, choices of counterweights - it's nearly as bad as Leica fetishism.
But certain details were common to all, from 'J'-shaped arm tubes to the methods of applying tracking force. The arms used high-precision, fully-protected ball-races for the vertical axis and 0.13mm radius knife-edge bearings in chrome seatings for the horizontal axis. SME produced a low-inertia, design with the fixed elements of the balance system made light, while the heavier movable elements were set close to the fulcrum.
Precision was such that accurate tracking force up to 1.5g could be applied without a tracking force gauge. Vertical tracking force was set using weights on an outrigger, while lateral balance was achieved by changing the distance of the outrigger from the main counterweight, performed with an Allen key. The barrel-shaped main counterweight's position was adjusted by turning small dial at rear of arm, and it could be split into two pieces to change the range of acceptable cartridge mass. Two weights were available, of 64g and 77g, allowing the use of very heavy cartridges, up to 32.5g. SME employed a hanging-weight-on-a-thread to set adjustable bias corresponding with tracking force, via notches on a rail.
Total flexibility and dependable set-up were intrinsic features of the arm, the only major 'add-ons' or alterations during the arm's lifetime being generated by changes in the status quo for cartridges or pressure due to audiophilic tastes, e.g. the optional FD200 fluid damper for the Series II and later models, changes in effective mass, and the availability of a fixed-headshell model. (Some audiophiles refused to believe that a detachable headshell could boast the rigidity of a fixed model.) Users delighted in the most coherent and thorough owner's manuals ever seen in audio, and niceties such as a baseplate that allowed the arm to slide forward or back for set-up with the supplied protractor. All of the arms were fitted with fluid-damped lowering and raising devices, and VTA was easily-set thanks to the adjustable arm height.
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