SME Series 30 Turntable Reviewed

Published On: February 13, 1990
Last Updated on: October 31, 2020
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SME Series 30 Turntable Reviewed

No Ken Kessler review could be complete without a car comment and in this review this SME table gets the comparison to a Bugatti. Yes, a Bugatti. Some who love digital suggest that a turntable should get a comparison to horse drawn buggy but then again those people don't live in the UK do they?

SME Series 30 Turntable Reviewed

By Author: Home Theater Review
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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.

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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

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

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.

The 'springy' bit of the suspension consists of an array of 10
precision-made rubber bands on top of each of the four pillars.
Allied with the fluid suspension, the combination produces a
player which is immune to upset. Lest you think that this hybrid
creates a nightmare for the installer, note that the transition
from the packed, in-transit lock-up mode to the
correctly-adjusted, free-floating state takes mere minutes. A
clever arrangement of locking screws marries the upper section to
the base plate, at the same time sealing the fluid chambers.
Release the screws and you're floating again. As for adjustments,
the sheer weight of the assembly makes it self-levelling, while
the correct ride height is achieved by turning screws in the tops
of the pillars to create a gap between the upper and lower
sections of the pillars. Naturally, SME supplies the necessary
jig, a strip of metal which you insert in the gap.

The main chassis, though, should be levelled first, using a
built-in spirit level in conjunction with height-adjustable feet
reminiscent of Micro-Seiki's Microsorbers. Place the belt over
the pulley and sub-platter, add the main platter (after freeing
the sub-platter which locks with three nylon screws), place an LP
and the screw-down puck on the spindle and carry out the
adjustments as outlined above. It actually takes longer to
explain it that to do.

All that's left is to connect the outboard power supply to the
motor via its DIN-type plug, the motor mounted on the main
chassis as per the Basis. The motor and the power supply are the
only parts of the '30 sourced from outside of SME but they're
modified and fine-tuned at Steyning to SME spec.

That's it. Naturally, an arm must be fitted, but it's likely that
most will come from the factory with an SME Series V in place. It
can be ordered without arm for those who already own an SME arm;
I would not want to bear witness to a request for a Series 30
sporting any other company's arm-mounting hole. Should high-end
turntables survive beyond, let's say, the next Grand Prix season,
I've no doubt that some aftermarket wizards will produce
unauthorized adaptor kits for Air Tangents, Ittoks and the like.

Ergonomically, the SME will present no surprises to those
accustomed to players with 'mandatory' clamps. SME's is a
two-sectioned puck which screws down onto the disc, as per the
Oracle's and the Basis' clamps, mating the LP to the mat-less
platter. Close examination of the platter's surface reveals that
it bears an etched finish, almost like an LP's groove, which
catches micro-grit, preventing it from being ground into the
underside of the LP. Additionally, this sculpting minimizes

I heard the SME in A-RA's legendary listening room before
spending an intense five days with the lone example in my own
'studio'. Cartridges tried with the '30 included the Lyra and the
Koetsu Urushi, side-by-side comparisons with the Basis being easy
because my sample was fitted with a SME V and I had a spare Lyra.
To allow for cartridge-to-cartridge variations, the transducers
were swapped again and again. The rest of the review system
consisted of my well-worn Audio-Research SP-14 pre-amp, the
Aragon power amps and DAX'ed Apogee Divas. I list the equipment
because my findings differed considerably from MC's, and we both
acknowledged that the experience suggests that systems-matching a
turntable to the rest of your hardware may include a lot more
that the fitting of the 'right' arm and cartridge. As MC also
used an SME V and an Urushi -- and I don't think that two Urushis
could sound that wildly different -- I caution readers to examine
our findings closely, and to factor in the differences in the
rest of the review systems.

My next remarks are not meant as an aside, but to help understand
both MC's and my responses to the SME Series 30 and to help
explain how two reviewers can have such differing reactions.
Leaving aside those political reviewers who, for example would
give a Naim or Linn product a good review even before the box was
opened, MC and I find ourselves too often in agreement to worry
about clashes in print which could confuse the readers -- or our
Editor. What's so continually fascinating about this is that MC
and I have different approaches, personal preferences, priorities
and tastes, as well as dissimilar reference systems. And we don't
listen to the same types of music, either.

Although we tried to avoid collaborating too closely on this
two-man* review, at least until we'd formed our own independent
opinions, we were concerned enough about our differences to
compare notes. Before launching into these differences, I'll try
to recall the characteristics of the SME on which we concurred.

Although MC and I differ slightly into what aspects of bass
reproduction should take precedence, it was agreed that the SME
exhibited superlative bass control; I would go so far as to say
unmatched. I do not, as regular readers may recall, have any
great love for over-damped bass; the Series 30 takes it right to
the limits without stepping over the edge. To best experience the
'30's capabilities in this area, I listened mainly to acoustic
bass; had it failed, the SME would have made an well-thumped
upright sound like a Stanley Clarke'd Fender. It didn't fail, and
the acoustic bass was deep and rich, but without any flab.

Another area on which MC and I more or less agree is that of
precision. And it's here that taste may be as important as
objectivity, because over-etching, hyper detail and other
manifestations of minutiae can be determined as 'realism' or
'hi-fi' depending on your viewpoint. Whatever, the SME produces
clearly defined images which do not wander, a sound stage with
three-dimensional boundaries and well-defined internal locations,
and a wealth of low level detail which is somehow diminished in
lesser systems.

Now we part company, because my priorities differ from MC's in
the are of 'rhythm' and 'pace'. I fail to comprehend, however
much I rub my Mensa card, how a turntable can bugger about with
the 'time' aspects of a musical event if the speed is spot-on at
33 1/3 under all conditions -- which I believe the SME's rotation
to be. It's one of those subjective mysteries, like Linn's
infamous 'tune-playing' propaganda, or how you can't even tell
what song it is if it's played via CD or whatever. You play for
me a Sam & Dave track on a cylinder, over the telephone, or via a
paper cup and a piece of string, and I tell you the name, the
composer and the goddamned matrix number. So -- I prefer to
restrict my observations to far more empirical artefacts, like
spatial recreation, tonal aberrations or accuracy, the retrieval
of detail, bass extension and so on. Whatever criticisms I've
heard about the way the SME handles rhythms and pace, I've had no
problem gettin' down with whatever slab of funk I chose to

What I cannot call 'state of the art' are the SME's bass
extension nor its way with crowded passages up to and including
the upper bass/lower mid region. In both of these areas, I
preferred the Basis, despite assurances from SME that the Series
30 was cleaner throughout the bottom octaves. Maybe so, but the
bass and lower-mid from the Basis were more convincing, adding
greater weight and impact, with the price being the SME's
superior control.

Unlike MC, I found that SME to possess superb dynamic
capabilities, my feelings being that the '30 has few if any
rivals in this department. Confused? Mazel tov . Whether listening
to solo acoustic guitar, a cappella or a mass of synths, I
detected near-perfect handling of musical details recorded
concurrently at a wide range of levels. Subtle details were never
swamped, transistions from soft to loud and back were always
smooth and consistent. Even when playing LPs with restricted
dynamic range, eg heavy metal recordings where the meters barely
flicker, the SME was able to balance the loud with the soft. The
sheer lack of compression imparted a sense of the real which
means the difference between great hi-fi and the merely adequate.

Where the SME shined brightest was in the mid-band through to the
lower trebles, handling voice exactly as you'd expect of a player
designed by an opera fanatic. My nastiest test, the
sibilance-heavy 'Keep On Tryin'' by Poco, sounded about as good
as it's gonna get. I mentioned before the way with spatial
concerns, so the five vocalists and the lone acoustic guitar
enjoyed clearly defined spaces; the removal of much of the
spittiness on 't's and 's's came as blessed relief. (Why is it
the the best pop performances are rarely well-recorded, while the
most tedious enjoy studio treatment beyond compare?)

The comprehensive retrieval of details meant that such
suggestions of reality as the sounds of breathing and clothes
a'rustlin' were there for all to hear. Again, you may judge the
presence of such details as 'hyper-reality', but I dare you to
defend a system with even 'beneficial' losses; I know, having
defend the euphonic over the accurate and taken much stick for
it. Whatever, the SME leaves little to the imagination, which is
what every hi-fi product should do. After all, we're listening to
a complete aural experience; you shouldn't have to fill in any
missing sounds.

For all of this, the SME is a bit cold, maybe even 'formal'. It's
a turntable to admire rather than adore, a Porsche instead of a
Ferrari. That's not to say it isn't musical, but the difference
is the same as that between a precision German marching band and
a bunch of New Orleans street-players playing some John Handy.
The former will play it note-perfectly, the latter will make it
swing. But should a piece of playback equipment have a
contributory role?

My mind says 'No'. The musicians did the work when they laid down
the tracks. So this makes me respect the SME in a way I respect
few other components. Then again, 'respect' and 'love' ain't the
same thing. Still, the SME Series 30 is a genuine tour de force ,
a wonderful way to support the LP through its dotage.

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