No Stopping Me This Time, SME
Martin Virgo & George Sallit
Trevor of Guildford Audio invited George and I to come back to compare and contrast a number of SME turntables.
Frankly, I needed no time to say, ‘Yes please’. Trevor’s listening room is a veritable Alladin’s cave of superb HiFi; although I do confess that I made a strategic error, I am just too nice!
Having arrived with Trevor we shared reminiscences and HiFi news, Audio Research just having died and arisen. George has a couple of their amps and so has some skin in this game.
The system that the turntables would be playing through was:
- Wilson Alexx V loudspeakers;
- A pair of Audio Research Reference 160M monoblock amplifiers; and
- A Dan D’Agostino Momentum pre-amplifier;
- Boulder 1108 phono stage;
- Cabling was Transparent Opus;
- Racks were Quadraspire Reference and Artesenia Exoteryc.
- SME 20 turntable, SME 5 arm, Shelter Harmony Cartridge;
- SME 12 turntable, SME 309 arm, Koetsu Red T Signature;
- SME Model 60 turntable.
In the event, we never made it to the ex factory SME Model 60. A ringer came in its stead.
The mystery third turntable ….will be revealed later.
So what was my strategic error? Being kind and fearing for George’s aged body, I sat on a higher chair while he had pride of place, in the padded swivel chair. Damnit!
So, why was this such a mistake? There is no doubt that this system is focused on the HOT seat, and that was the one that nestled George’s posterior. This being the case I will allow him to give the first set of listening impressions.
George’s view from the hot seat
We started off with SME 20 TT, SME 5 arm and the Shelter cartridge. This complete system was on another level from what I have been listening to, as you may expect. We played a direct-cut album from Mike Valentine of Clare Teal and the Sid Lawrence Orchestra. The dynamics, detail, power and drive of this system were the best I have heard from any system. I suspect it was the quality of the audio and the excellence of the system set up. I have heard equivalent systems at shows but they are not ideally set up or suffer from poor mains. Not an issue here. The first thing that struck me was the cymbals. They were clear, bright and easy to listen to. The treble detail, with no smearing, made a great impression. In then came the drums with an excellent audio image of a drum kit, with real power and drive. As the track progressed and became very busy the sound grew in impact, without any smear. This allowed me to ‘listen into’ the music and identify individual instruments or just relax and let the integrated whole wash over me. Clare’s voice was clear and sounded like she was in total control as she clearly was. Oh, and she was in the room. No stress or strain in the sound. The naturalness of her voice allowed me to easily identify her voice and its character. I have met and talked to her and this was the closest I have been to that memory. What a start.
We decided to use this track for the rest of the comparison.
The next set-up was the SME 12 and SME 309 arm with a Koetsu Red Signature T cartridge. A lesser turntable than the previous SME 20. And a real contrast. The SME 20 was a real detail hound and kept the music a coherent whole. The SME 12 is still a great turntable but whilst not having all the details of the SME20 it had more musical communication and emotion. I initially missed the fantastic cymbal detail but I started to enjoy the drummer’s playing more and then Clare started to sing. Ooh er….this was real emotional communication. I forgot about the extra detail from the SME20 set up and just enjoyed the music more. BUT I can imagine others who want to hear all the detail loving the SME20. For my biases and prejudices, I preferred this setup. Both excellent.
Martin’s impression from the cheap seat!
Having played the first side on the SME 20 TT, SME 5 arm and Shelter cartridge Trevor asked us our view expectantly. I demurred, I was not prepared to give an opinion as my experience was so at odds with George’s, and I was frankly suspicious whether I was compromised by my ears being three feet above George’s. What I had heard wasn’t unpleasant, but all the detail George enthusiastically harped on about was absent for me. The top end was diffuse. Whilst the brass had some rasp it was muted.
The lesson here is to ensure that your setup and position are correct.
There is no doubt that moving to the SME 12 and SME 309 arm with a Koetsu Red Signature T cartridge took things up a real notch from my elevated position. The emotionality was being communicated in spades. After thirty seconds of music I turned and gave Trevor a thumbs up.
Having completed the first two turntables we discussed a setup that Trevor had been working on to satisfy his curiosity; a SME60 holding a Graham Elite tonearm with a Koetsu Tiger Eye. In order to get this arm to fit well Trevor had to make a suitable shim. This arm looks like one hell of a bit of fine engineering, and George and I were keen to find out how it sounded in a great turntable …..despite Trevor’s protestations that he would rather it was just ignored.
George’s view from the hot seat
What could be better than what we heard so far? Well, a Koetsu in the top turntable SME make, the SME 60, and after much arm-twisting Trevor relented and let us hear the SME 60 with a glorious Koetsu. On goes the Clare Teal track and this was the ideal. The music had all the detail of the SME 20 (and then some) with all the musicality of the Koetsu, delivering the music in a totally unfettered way. Listening to this track reminded me why I enjoy writing reviews. It is a chance to hear what can be achieved even if I can’t afford it. So we just played more music. Yes, I relented and Mr Underhill got to sit in the hot seat, generous soul that I am.
Martin’s impression from the not so cheap seat!
OK, everything just snapped into place. Yes, there was the detail but it just added to the dynamics and musicality on show. What a singer Clare Teal is, her voice is a wonderful instrument, and this is the point of a great system, you can CONNECT with the music; you ‘get’ what the performers are trying to communicate.
As a chorister I am privileged to sing some great music. Some of this, while technically interesting, does not move me. Sometimes I can find it hard to concentrate as the words, parts and harmonies hit the spot. Sometimes this can be context driven. For instance, a few weeks ago I sang in a concert in aid of the Ukraine. At the end, we sang, “You’ll Never Walk Alone” in an arrangement by our choir mistress. This song had never emotionally effected me, here I was on the verge of tears. This system had the capability to reach into me a allow me to feel what Clare was communicating.
How to sum up this system and turntables? The turntables are without a doubt some of the best I have heard. The SME 60 is an exceptional turntable and in my view one of the best. The SME 20 and 12 show that SME have some of the 60’s magic in their complete range of turntables. A plea, SME please make the arms available to others. It is a superb-looking and sounding arm and you are depriving a lot of keen audiophiles of this arm.
The overall system was one of the very best I have heard and it was well set up within a great synergistic system. Yes, I know what it costs but it shows what can be achieved. It also shows the folly of the ‘hunt a bargain’ approach to audio. Find a ‘good guy’ dealer and use them. They might offer you a pairing similar to the SME12 and Koetsu. I doubt many people would choose that combination by accident. And on top of that, you can then listen to the combination and hear if it is what you want.