SME Model 12A: Model 12 Turntable and 309 Tonearm

Honoring Tradition

Equipment report
SME Model 12A: Model 12 Turntable and 309 Tonearm

SME’s new model is the latest turntable-with-tonearm package from a company whose long and honorable history makes one regret the adjective “iconic” has been so preposterously overused these last many years. As over a half century of innovative design and standard-setting precision in engineering and manufacturing lie behind this new product, it is worth tracing its lineage. SME stands for the Scale Model Equipment company, a British firm founded in 1946 by Alastair Robertson-Aikman to manufacture precision models for the exhibition and model-engineering trade. An opera lover, AR-A, as he was affectionately known throughout the company (and eventually the world of high-end audio), quickly embraced the long-playing record. But finding himself dissatisfied with existing tonearms, he decided to design one for himself. This was in 1958. “I recall going into the small tool room,” he said many years later, “and asking if we had any aluminium tube!” Within the year he had built a prototype that he showed to the Senior Technical Editor of Gramophone magazine, Percy Wilson, who told him that two or three of his friends might like one, adding, “Perhaps an annual turnover of as many as a thousand pieces might be possible.” This figure stuck with AR-A because during the week of one of Wilson’s last visits to the plant, SME had “built a thousand units and was averaging seven-hundred-and-fifty units per week.” 

This first arm officially became a product in 1959. AR-A named it the 3009 and billed it as “the best pickup arm in the world.” Immodest no doubt but far from an idle boast at the time and for at least two or three decades to follow, depending on your choice of phono cartridge. This is because, with knife-edged bearings and low mass, the 3009 was ideally suited for the low-mass, high-compliance moving-magnet pickups, capable of tracking at forces below 1.5 grams (0.75 for the ADC XLM, much admired by TAS founder Harry Pearson in the early issues of this magazine), that likewise dominated the market during the first quarter century of stereophonic reproduction. If no accident, it was surely a marriage made in heaven that SME’s first U.S. distributor was none other than Shure, which coined the word “trackability” and established low tracking-force as a necessary condition for state-of-the-art record reproduction and preservation. Despite the fact that Ortofon marketed some of its moving-coil pickups in headshells designed expressly to fit the 3009—further proof of SME’s hegemony that its bayonet-style connector became the industry standard for removable headshells—SME continued to cater to moving magnets. Indeed, the reason the 3009 II Improved, the last iteration of the 3009, was made available with the option of a fixed headshell is that eliminating the connector reduced effective mass from an already very low 6.5 to 3.5 grams. 

Including all its variants and versions—Series II, Series II Improved in both 9- and 12-inch lengths (AKA 3012)—SME is said to have sold between half a million to a million units (sources differ) worldwide between 1959 and 2008, the year it was retired. The statement I’m about to make may be wrong—though not by much—but inasmuch as AR-A died in 2006, the SME 3009 Series arms may constitute the longest-lived components in the history of audio to have survived the death of their inventor as in-production products unmodified by any hands other than his own.

According to SME, the 3009 II Improved was still selling well when it was retired, but long before then, high-end enthusiasm had gone overwhelmingly in favor of moving-coil pickups, starting, I think it fair to say, with the advocacy of Harry Pearson and The Absolute Sound in the mid- to late-seventies. AR-A was somewhat behind this particular curve, and for the better part of the decade between the late seventies and the latter half of the eighties, you didn’t read much about SME in the audio press. Turns out this was because for over four years AR-A was working on a wholly new arm that became the Series V, introduced in 1986. It was a significant departure from the 3009. Die cast in magnesium as a medium-mass, one-piece tapered tube from headshell to counterweight rail, the V was almost universally acclaimed a masterpiece of engineering that set new standards for rigidity, resonance suppression and dissipation, and captive, seemingly friction-free gimbal bearings that are also completely free from any sort of play or slop. It readily established itself as a reference record-playing component, especially for moving-coil pickups with their high mass and medium-to-low compliance stylus assemblies, arguably the reference at the time and for a fair while afterward, at least when it came to pivoted arms with fixed-bearings (as opposed to unipivots or other kinds). AR-A believed the V, in combination with the proliferation of moving-coil pickups, “no doubt helped to euthanize” the 3009. “Blocked up at either end,” he boasted, “one of the SME Series V’s arm sections will support the weight of a 10-stone [140 pound] man standing at the center of it!” While it’s doubtful such overbuilding was really necessary, it’s an indication of the expertise, thoroughness, and foresight with which this arm was conceived and realized that it remains both the flagship in the line and a reference still, despite the fact that it has been unchanged since its introduction thirty-four years ago. 

There were only two problems with the Series V: the first that it was so heavy some suspended turntables couldn’t support it without bottoming out, the second that AR-A doubtless felt it was so good no existing turntable would allow its full potential to be realized. So, in 1991, SME debuted the Model 30 turntable, another masterpiece and genuinely groundbreaking in at least one critical area. AR-A believed a tuned suspension the proper route to ultimate protection of the stylus/groove interface from outside disturbances—what David Fletcher, auteur of The Arm, once called, with a touch of the dramatic, “an unknown and hostile environment, your listening room”—but was wary of the high compliance of sprung and hung suspensions, the way they bounced, jiggled, or otherwise reacted either to external disturbance (notably structural-born feedback) or to the eccentricities and anomalies of record pressings. In other words, he wanted the filtering action of tuning but without the possibility of the entire subchassis being set into motion. His solution was to use a highly viscous fluid that damps the motion of the suspension, thus eliminating overshoot (recovery almost “zero Q”) while conducting “unwanted reactive energy to ‘ground’.” Offhand, I can’t think of another turntable that handles the critical matter of isolation in quite this way and very, very few that even approach it in effectiveness. The result was another reference-caliber product that, like the Series 3009 and V arms, has entered the audio pantheon of great designs. Now in its 29th year, it remains, like the V, unchanged as flagship of the line (the “/2” version denotes no change in the table itself, rather an upgrade in the outboard power supply, which was upgraded yet a second time, but AR-A didn’t feel a new number was required). 

 The twenty-one years between the introduction of the Series V arm up to Robertson-Aikman’s death must be counted among the most fruitful, creative, and productive in his company’s long existence. During this period and beyond—AR-A’s widow Marion and their son Cameron ran the company after he died—SME broadened its tonearm and turntable lines (notably, in 2011, with a stellar upgrading of the Model 20 table [see Issue 216]), to include six of the former and seven of the latter, with 12-inch arms and accommodating tables. Yet regardless of cost, design, or complexity, every model can lay serious claim to being class leading in performance and build at its price and market point because every model receives the same commitment to the highest possible parts, precision, and workmanship down to the smallest details. And because SME also manufactures in house every part in every product, the company is able to exert a peerless control over quality, execution, and reliability that is the envy of the industry. (Of the numerous SME products that I have owned or reviewed over the past forty years, just one was defective, and the apologies of both importer and manufacturer were exceeded only by the speed with which the item was replaced.) Throughout this whole period SME was also diversifying its Precision Engineering division into other sectors such as aerospace, Formula One, automotive, and medical enterprises (less well known is that the company is also the original equipment manufacturer of parts for other audio manufacturers, including the subchassis for Linn and parts for CD players).

It would be an exaggeration to say the audio world was rocked by the announcement in 2016 that SME had been purchased, mère et fils bought out and departed, and the company brought under the wing of the Cadence Audio Group, which includes Crystal Cable, Spendor, and Siltech among others. But many of us were surely worried lest this be yet another great audio company that would soon lose everything that made it great, with only the shell of its name surviving. Fortunately, the new owner Ajay Shirke and the new CEO Stuart McNeilis appear so far to have resisted the temptation to reinvent the wheel so to speak, i.e., gratuitously putting their marks, like dogs in new territory, on established products the success of which cannot be gainsaid. Instead, in 2018, while maintaining the line of AR-A’s products, they struck off in a new direction for SME with the introduction of Synergy, a fully integrated record-playing ensemble consisting of an SME turntable, an SME arm adapted from the Model IV (itself a simplified V), an Ortofon MC Windfeld Ti pickup, and a Nagra phonostage built into the base of the turntable.