99 times out of 100, manufacturers deliver review samples. But when I received an invitation to hear the latest incarnation of the SME Music Room, I figured I'd collect the new M2 in person. Perhaps in an upcoming issue, we'll report on the transformation Alastair Robertson-Aikman has wrought on the listening room. For the time being, let's look at The Tonearm With The Toughest Job In The World.
Come again? It's like this: SME hasn't made a big deal out of it, not wanting to cause last-minute panic buying, but the legendary SME Series II arm is no longer. That familiar, hugely successful arm had been around in various forms since 1959 (running in near-parallel with its automotive equivalent: the Porsche 911 and its variants). The Series V and its derivatives cost substantially more, so SME needed a new entry-level design. Enter the M2. It's task? To fill the most famous tonearm cut-out in the world, recently vacated by a million-plus-selling monster.
What's so telling about the plans SME has for it were the first glimpses: the M2 debuted not as a stand-alone purchase but seen at hi-fi shows as an OEM arm supplied to T&A for the G-10 turntable, and the Musical Fidelity M1. There's no doubt that other customers will follow, for the SME offers much that the current OEM champ - the assorted Rega variations - cannot, including adjustability in every plane, interchangeable headshells, a finish above Leica and into wristwatch territory, the best instruction manuals in the business and more. (This isn't a dig at the Rega, probably the best budget tonearm ever. But it isn't the place where I'd want to park my Koetsu.)
Offered in three lengths, the SME M2 truly is a 3009 for the 21st Century. Even if you don't see the logo, modestly relegated to the back of the arm's mounting plate, you can tell straight away that it came from Steyning. AR-A has mixed complementary materials, including stainless steel and assorted alloys, to create a straight-tubed arm with performance nearly as whisper-quiet, precise, secure and resonance-free as the more complex Series V and siblings. But with starting prices at £583 inc VAT, nearly £200 less than the entry-level Series 300 model.
Up front is a detachable, angled headshell using a new mount rather than the long-serving collet arrangement that Ortofon made a world-standard. Unslotted - you move the arm back and forth for overhang - it fixes to the arm with a clamping bolt at its side. Beneath are four detachable cartridge leads, so wire freaks can experiment with ease.
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The internally-damped arm tube extends to a beautifully-machined pivot housing containing ball-races in both planes, while at the rear is a precisely-calibrated counterweight, with tracking force marked in 0.25g turns. Although I'm ham-fisted at the best of times, I compared my settings using just the counterweight's markings, with three different cartridges and - according to two stylus gauges (Technics and ClearAudio) - found it to be within +/- 0.1g each time!
VTA is a delight to set, the new arm featuring a large thumbwheel at the base of the arm pillar that raises it smoothly and gradually. Naturally, the arm is supplied with every sort of set-up aid you could want, including a visual guide to ensure that the arm has been set parallel with the LP. A single bolt at the back of the machined mounting plate locks it in place once height is set. Azimuth is adjusted at the headshell, while anti-skating is applied with a more straightforward hanging-thread system than on the older arms, the bar above the pivot featuring notches in 0.25g increments. Lift/lower height is also adjustable. SME supplies a fine pair of cables that connect to the arm through RCA-type phono sockets, so - as with the headshell wires - experimentation is a no-brainer for tweakers.
Whether you buy the M2-9, M2-10, or M2-12 - the latter number indicating effective length - it's a straight drop-in replacement for any other SME arm of the same length. (The M2-10 was requested by the Japanese market.) I swapped it from SME 10 to SME 30/II in mere minutes, and found changing cartridges to be a breeze. Note, though, that I restricted my listening to Koetsu, Lyra and Grado cartridges; Deccas - which demand damping - will have to wait for the add-on damping kit, due this spring.
I needn't have bothered at all with the home listening, as I'd received a convincing enough demonstration at SME. Quite problematically, the arm is almost too good. Comparing tonearms has always been difficult unless one is armed (groan...) with two identical turntables and cartridges, but it was clear from the outset that the M2 is so good that it just may repeat the Series II's success - albeit on a scale relative to the reduction in the analogue market compared to 1959-1983.
For openers, the arm shares the speed of the Series V to which I compared it in my own system. The attack of the music was one thing; the way it dispatches surface noise is what marks SMEs for me and makes it something of a secret weapon for those of us unable to resist the lure of used vinyl. While the Series V is a shade more confident - I noticed a hint more precision at the frequency extremes - this may have been a function of the arm/cartridge interface as much as it was the arm itself. (Note that I deactivated the damping on the Series V when comparing it to the M2.)
Although it didn't mirror precisely what I heard at SME because the Music Room's set-up involved differing cartridges, it's just about arguable that the M2 gives up a tiny amount of perceived power in the lower registers. This, however, isn't apparent with lesser cartridges nor with systems of less than true full-range capability. What's far more important, given that the M2 is (however ludicrous this sounds) SME's 'budget' arm is that it loses nothing in the midband. But then, how could it, when it was designed by an opera lover who cherishes the most lifelike reproduction of voice?
What I suppose you must take from this review is the following: if you cannot stretch to one of the dearer models, you can rest assured that SME has lavished the same care and attention on the M2 that it does on the others. And that the gains, while just about detectable in cutting-edge systems are very fine indeed.