Have you heard a quarter of a million-pound system?
I suspect most of us have, but generally in a space set up in a dealers or a hotel room to accommodate a large-ish number of people; so, hardly an ideal listening environment. My experience is that attention to detail really matters, and that can take time as well as experience.
When I think back the closest I have come to hear a top system that was exquisitely set up was a full 500 Naim system, which if I add it up would come to about £60k. The system I am going to describe here was at Guildford Audio. The proprietor, Trevor, has a dedicated room populated with brands with which he has a vast amount of experience; and it showed.
If I wanted to comfort you, and ME, I would say that there is a diminishing rate of return ... and it still needs to be set up with an excellent amount of attention to detail to get the best from it; none of that means that I can claim that my system delivers in the same way as this top of the line system; I will return to this theme at the end of these observations, thoughts and reflections.
George was invited to go and lay ears on the new SME turntable, the Model 60. I think it would be fair to say that these are currently as common as hen's teeth, but Trevor had two! In order to put these under as thorough a microscope as possible Trevor and Gavin had put together:
- Wilson Alexx V loudspeakers;
- A pair of Audio Research Reference 160M monoblock amplifiers; and
- An Audio Research Reference 6SE preamplifier.
- SME 60 turntables with the DS Audio Grand Master cartridge system;
- SME 60 with a Koetsu Tiger Eye Platinum cartridge;
- These via a Tom Evans Groove + SRX phono stage.
Additionally, Trevor played us one of the same albums via his Otari MTR-12 reel to reel using a quarter-inch master tape!
The new SME 60 turntable has been created, in part, to celebrate the company's seventy-fifth anniversary. Trevor was very impressed by the new engineering that has gone into the 60, which includes flipping the suspension. To say that they looked solid would be something of an understatement, as you can see here:
Now, I should say that this is NOT a review. Although we spent five hours with Trevor and Gavin this was only enough to gain an impression of the SME 60 and the system, it was in no way sufficient to truly get truly under the skin of such a suite of equipment, especially playing a number of unfamiliar albums.
Having spoken to the guys about a range of topics George and I settled in. George being the primary guest I settled into the secondary seat with a bad grace!
Quentin Collins All Strar Quintet. a day in the life;
Clare Teal: Tribute to Ella Fitzgerald with the Syd Lawrence Orchestra; and
Daft Punk: Random Access Memories.
The first two albums are both Mike Valentine Direct to Disc Recordings, using a Neve desk at Air Studios with the signal going up 2 floors into the mastering suite to the cutting lathe.
Tracks were first played on the blue SME 60 equipped with the DS Audio Grand Master cartridge system, followed by the silver SME 60 with the Koetsu Tiger Eye Platinum. We finished by playing a master tape:
The listening experience was consistent. The SME 60 with the DS Audio Grand Master cartridge system managed to extract an extraordinary amount of detail. This was in no way sterile, etched or distracting. You could listen into the detail to the extent that you, as a listener, felt your attention and interest take you.
The system itself was transparent with a straight line from bass to treble. There were no apparent frequency peaks but an ability to let the source shine through. I would not describe the system as being warm in the way some valve amplifiers can present. Trevor’s wish to provide us with a magnifying glass onto the sources was well achieved, but in no way sterile or uninvolving.
The Koetsu fettled silver SME 60 didn’t have the detailed immediacy of the DS Audio, but that is not to say that the detail wasn’t available. I felt that I was sitting a bit further from the performers. Where the Koetsu truly shone was with its tonality and warmth. I hesitate to write warmth as I don’t believe this is truly accurate, it is more that there was a tad more richness to the human voice a certain instruments.
Trevor finally served up a helping of Mike Valentine master tape, served via his freshly refurbished Otari MTR-12. This was just a bit special. Somehow this melded the strengths of both the SME 60 front ends, combining the magnificent detailing of the DS Audio with the tonality of the Koetsu.
And now Part II from me.
Whilst talking to Trevor at Guildford Audio he mentioned to me that he would be getting an interesting turntable soon and would I be interested in hearing it. He said I thought you would be interested. He was right. It was the new SME Model 60 TT, which was creating a bit of a stir.
So, for those not paying attention at the back a bit of history from our friends at Wiki:
SME was founded by Alastair Robertson-Aikman in 1946 under the title The Scale Model Equipment Company Limited to manufacture scale models and detail parts for the model engineering trade. It was During the 1950s the company moved away from model making to precision engineering, principally parts for aircraft instruments and business machines.
In 1959, Robertson-Aikman required a pick-up arm for his own use and an experimental model was built. It received such an enthusiastic reception from friends in the sound industry that it was decided to produce it commercially and the first SME precision pick-up arm appeared in September 1959. Production was 25 units per week composed entirely of individually machined components. At this time a new factory situated in Mill Road, Steyning was opened and the Company's name was changed to SME Limited, a less committal title to suit its new activities.
1961 the company opened a new factory in Mill Road, Steyning Sussex and the name was changed to SME Limited.
In December 2016 the company was acquired by Ajay Shirke with a view to preserving the brand's legacy and extending research and development activities, appointing a new CEO.
In May 2018 the company acquired the rights to the Garrard Transcription Turntable brand as well as Loricraft Audio, the only officially authorised Garrard service agent. Intending to develop the Garrard audio brand in the near future.
As a result of considerable new engineering and development, SME released their new flagship turntable earlier this year. And what a flagship it is.
Normally I will only review items in my system and room as I know them well. But, being honest, there was no way my set-up could show what this front end could do and with a mass of over 50kg it was impractical, so it was over to Guildford Audio’s new listening rooms.
I thought it would be great to get two views on this turntable and asked Mr Underhill if he would be interested in hearing the Model 60 TT in a great system. It took him 0.1 microsecs to say, YES.
So we arrived at Guildford Audio’s new listening room, which I have already written about.
And we were greeted by not one but TWO Model 60s, one in standard silver and the other in fetching blue. The images of the Model 60 do not really show the superb engineering and finish of this product as one might expect at a cost of £60K. And a lot of the engineering is hidden behind some great finished metalwork.
Martin has described the two front ends feeding this system and the records we used to really show what this system could do.
We started with the DS Audio cartridge and the sound was stunning and overwhelming with every and all the audiophile bases covered.
The sound reminded me of the quality of master tapes. There was all the detail you could imagine; it was organised into a great 3D sound stage with tight timing. Being a Mike Valentine recording using valves microphones the sound was incredibly natural. To be honest this was way over my normal reference points apart from hearing it live or from the recorder at a concert. We then listened to the second Model 60 but with the Koetsu cartridge. We had now moved a few rows back. This was different in that the DS Optical was like hearing the recording and the Koetsu was like being there. I can imagine someone saying the DS Optical presented the detail in an easier way to hear whilst the Koetsu was more like being there. Pays your money and you take your choice.
The Daft Punk track favoured the DS Optical cartridge as it was a mixture of natural instruments and synths. I favoured the voices through the Koetsus.
Two great frontends feeding a very detailed system that was natural, realistic and dynamic.
I said I wasn’t sure we could get much better than this and Trevor commented that we might be able to. He mentioned the Otari tape recorder, which had lightly used tape heads and how he had refurbished some of the electronics. He said we could play his Mike Valentine second-generation master tape of Clare Teal.
On it went….and wow. This had all the best bit of both turntables but had real-life dynamics and naturalness. Obviously, the ARC and Wilsons allowed that to come through at real-life dynamics levels. I was in audiophile heaven. This was off-the-scale good and all my references were er…re-aligned.
And then it was all over. So tremendous thanks to Trevor and Gavin at Guildford Audio for giving up their time to entertain myself and Martin.
In discussions with Trevor, he made an offer, which I will reveal at the Show. Don’t miss it??
By the time this is posted you will have missed it. Trevor offered a return visit for 5/6 Wammers to hear this system in all its glory. And we raffled it off with the proceeds going to charity.
Guildford Audio: https://guildfordaudio.co.uk/