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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. 

 

As the associated manufacturers that contributed to Synergy suggest, this is no obeisance to dumbed-down mass-marketing, rather, a record-playing ensemble for both the well-heeled audiophile and the discriminating consumer tempted by the SME brand but daunted by the rigors of selecting and installing the requisite pickup, then casting about for a phonostage. However conceived for ease of use and convenience of setup, Synergy is clearly intended to compete at a very high level of performance. Which brings us back to the products under review, since the turntable/arm complement of Synergy was released late last year as a separate product, the Model 12A, the first wholly new SME turntable designed and built under the new ownership.

Product Description
Let’s start with the matter of nomenclature. An “A” suffix in the model number of any SME turntable indicates that it comes fitted with an SME arm. Thus, technically speaking, there is no Model 12 as such, only the 12A since the table is sold only with the entry-level 309. SME will happily substitute, with appropriate pricing adjustment, the Model V should a customer wish, but the table must and can only be purchased with an SME arm. Relative to which, and more or less concurrent with the launch of the 12A, SME announced that its arms will no longer be sold as separate components. The tables (excepting the 12A) remain available sans arms, but henceforth the only way to acquire a new SME arm will be on one of the company’s integrated “A” packages. (As of this writing, a few dealers still have SME arms in stock, but once they’re exhausted—well, then it’s on to the second-hand market. I found several 3009s of various vintages on eBay, but almost no Model Vs, IVs, or 309s.) No compelling reason for the decision accompanied the announcement. (Inasmuch as prices of the arms have risen precipitously over the years, maybe they’ve become too work intensive, thus too costly for a realistic profit margin?) 

No matter, the 309 is a superb arm that brings you a helluva lot of the performance of the V to a considerably more affordable price point—the V alone retailed for $6300, the 12A/309 package costs $11,900—and boasts several of its key features, notably the one-piece magnesium construction from fore to aft, save that unlike the V, the 309 has a detachable headshell (see sidebar for more on this). As with all SME arms, cueing is spot on and now that Cadence owns the line, internal wiring and cable are by Crystal. Being entry-level, the 309 is also the appropriate mate for the new table, which is intended to replace the previous entry-level Model 10, the very first SME I ever reviewed for TAS, back in Issue 129, nineteen years to the month as I am writing this, and fitted with the selfsame 309 arm. 

SME’s North American distributor Bluebird Music sent its field man Chad Stelly to deliver the 12A and set it up, which was fine by me. That’s a job I’m really good at but happy to have someone else do. The task was accomplished in fewer than 45 minutes and would been completed in half that time except that Chad paused from time to time to point out several improvements over the Model 10. (The exemplarily clear, copiously illustrated instructions make the job so easy that even those born with more than the standard-issue two thumbs should be able to manage it without mishap.) Once set up and running, it soon became perfectly obvious this pairing is SME through and through—hard to imagine it wouldn’t have drawn a nod of approval from AR-A himself. Here are all the meticulous workmanship, ultra-precision machining, fanatical attention to detail, fit, finish, and finesse, and not least the lustrous industrial aesthetics, sleek yet solid, for which the company is renowned. This first impression was reassured when I moved it to the equipment cabinet. Despite the open architecture, the lack of a plinth, and the compact, rounded footprint—not much larger than an LP’s (excluding the outboard power-supply and the peninsula that supports the arm)—it weighs in at a substantial 57 pounds. No surprise there: SME has never subscribed to the oil-derrick-in-your-living-room approach to turntables, e.g., at 17.75″ wide and only 13.75″ deep, the top-of-the-line 30/2’s footprint is smaller than that of many standard electronic components, but it tips the scale at 92 pounds. AR-A believed that a smaller footprint of judiciously applied mass and controlled damping is preferable to a larger one for sonic as well as aesthetic reasons. High mass, as in density, and stiffness, as in strength, lie at the center of the company’s philosophy, the better to absorb or dissipate spurious resonances and other unwanted energies that impinge upon the stylus/groove interface. Weighing almost 20 pounds more than its predecessors, 12/A’s base is machined from a solid billet of premium-grade aerospace aluminum, which then undergoes a multitude of finishing processes, including one by hand. The sides of the outboard power-supply now curve inward, allowing the rounded base of the table to nestle elegantly within it, the whole ensemble cutting a graceful, considerably less severe and angular figure without wholly shedding the company’s signature industrial style. 

The platter, belt-driven and weighing over ten pounds, is machined from aluminum alloy and damped with SME’s proprietary “isodamp” material, diamond-turned with a fine scroll to ensure tight coupling to the platter. As I’ve observed with each of the four SME tables I’ve previously reviewed, this material together with the reflex clamp ensures without qualification the most effective platter/mat/clamping intimacy in my experience and the only one that can be fairly said to come close to vacuum hold-down (I was unable to find any warped records that couldn’t be at least adequately flattened). The outboard power-supply, considerably improved over the 10A’s, allows for 33, 45, and 78 speeds and pitch adjustments of +/- 0.01%, while the powerful new 5.5-pound motor (six MOSFETs supply up to 1.2 amperes of current), is isolated from the subchassis by urethane mounts and spikes. I understand the reasoning behind some designers’ preference for low-torque motors, requiring hand start-up and stop, because they allegedly don’t pass their vibrations to the platter. Maybe that’s necessary with motors that aren’t so well made and designed as this one, but once you’re used to an SME, where pressing the speed button gets the platter up to speed in a second and pressing again stops it on a dime—well, anything else feels pretty rinky-dink. SME’s claim that the motor is “ultra-low noise” and “virtually vibration-less” is certainly born out in the listening, as I detected no hint of motor noise being passed along to the platter, nor of any effects from the 1MHz microprocessor servo system except that of rock-solid speed accuracy and stability. 

With its usual thoroughness, SME has retained from the 10A the U-shaped piece of tubing that protects the stylus when the arm is in its resting position. How is it that 19 years after the 10A every other open-chassis turntable still lets the stylus hang out there all by itself, unprotected in open space, ready to be annihilated by a careless movement of the hand?

 

Sound
In preparing for this report, I reread all my past SME reviews (Issues 129, 140, 154, and 216) to remind myself what sources I used and associated equipment. One thing emerged with unmistakable clarity: SME’s “sound,” beginning with the Series V arm and its derivatives (IV and 309) and the Model 30 table and its derivatives (30/2, 20, 20/2, 20/3, and 10), is nothing if not consistent, and not just consistent but consistent at a very high level that eclipses most of the competition with which I have any long experience either through ownership or reviewing. The quotes around “sound” indicate the irony, inasmuch that sound consists in all but peerless neutrality; deep background blackness; and, related to that blackness, a dynamic range that is second to none. I shall return to these in a moment, but first let me get a few obvious considerations out of the way. Tracking is limited only by the ability of the phono pickup (assuming it is compatible with a medium- or higher-mass arm). As already touched upon, speed stability and constancy you can banish as concerns. Ditto for that elusive entity called “timing”: SME components I have owned or reviewed provide as “together” a presentation as the state-of-the-art allows, by which I mean that things start and stop at the same time or not as required by the music and the performers, and so it is with the 12A. 

As for tonal balance, it is my belief and also my experience that with competently designed tables and arms this is determined for the most part by the phono pickup and/or the source (and of course at the other end of the chain by the loudspeakers). Not that some record-playing setups don’t exhibit a distinctive tonal balance, but if they do, and it really is all that distinctive, then we are talking about reinterpretation, not reproduction of sources. For this review I relied on two very different pickups: Ortofon’s Cadenza Bronze moving coil and Shure’s V15 Type V MR moving magnet (NLA but still an indispensable reference of mine). (At first glance the high compliance of this pickup may suggest it’s not ideally compatible with the SME arm, but so long as the stabilizer brush built into the stylus assembly is deployed there is no problem, while the Shure test record revealed no untoward resonances in the warp region and tracking was perfect.) 

The Ortofon is your typical audiophile dream: brilliant, detailed, really vivid with plenty of snap and transient action. It’s a tad recessed in the upper midrange, which serves only to accentuate its brilliance owing to the rising top end. The Shure is practically neutrality personified. If you play it right after a long session with the Ortofon or several other moving coils with their own flavors, you might find it a bit polite, lacking in personality (isn’t this supposed to be a virtue?), perhaps a little unexciting. But for me anyhow, this was only an initial reaction owing to the contrast; soon enough it was displaced because the presentation drew all the attention to the music. In particular, there was an impression of almost ruler-flat response from bass through to 10–12kHz, exactly according to Shure’s specifications and how it measured in every report I could find that measures such things. This results in a reproduction of instrumental timbres and voices with a lack of coloration or other sort of editorializing that really does make me feel as if I were listening back to the source. 

One of the first things I put on was Jacintha’s cover of “Sweet Baby James” (Groove Note) and it was quite instructive. The Cadenza Bronze both brightens and lightens her voice a bit too much, making it sound pitched higher than it is. In fact, it makes her sound considerably younger, closer to the Jacintha we first discovered in 2001 on Here’s to Ben. The Shure restores its body, removes the bogus brilliance and edge, and reproduces what she sounds like now, 19 years later. (I should add that I know the sound of this voice. My family and I attended one of the recording sessions for the recent James Taylor tribute; and during the time she was in LA making the album, she treated a small invited audience to a musical soiree in our home.)

The pickups’ tonal characteristics or lack thereof were similarly revealed on the Doris Day classic Hooray for Hollywood (with a sun-drenched “Over the Rainbow” that is very different from but scarcely less compelling than the despair of Judy Garland’s 1955 Capitol recording). Another favorite from the Capitol stable is Sinatra’s Come Swing with Me (Acoustic Sounds reissue). Sinatra is on top form here, as is Billy May, with his typical brass-dominated arrangements. This is a very exciting album, but also a very bright one, to my ears almost intolerably so on many setups, including even with the Ortofon. Switching to the Shure made it much more listenable without any sacrifice in energy and excitement. 

Now, obviously, short of mastertapes, there is no way one can with absolute certainty pronounce one component truer to the source than another. But thanks to DSD technology, not to mention carefully implemented PCM, you can come pretty close. Take Robert Silverman’s beautiful recital Chopin’s Last Waltz, produced by Ray Kimber for his IsoMike label. The original recording was made with DSD sampled at the quad specification of 11.2MHz. Commercially it is available only as a DSD download from Native DSD Music in 64, 128, or 256, or else on vinyl. According to Kimber, the transfer to vinyl is as accurate as is technologically possible and completely free from any processing of any kind except conformation to the standard RIAA curve. This, then, makes it possible in effect directly to compare the source in native DSD—in my setup at 128fs via an Aurender A20—to the vinyl. Such a comparison isn’t necessarily perfect, but it’s pretty damn close, especially as no decent or better music server or DAC that I’ve ever used has frequency-response aberrations that result in much other than tiny tonal anomalies (certainly not the Aurender), and nothing anywhere remotely as gross as most vinyl setups. The SME/Shure acquitted itself astonishingly well in the comparison. Was there a tad more warmth with the vinyl? Maybe. There was certainly a smidgeon less top-end extension, but that has always been the case with this Shure pickup (I should add that it was properly loaded as regards capacitance). Of course, the 12A can’t do anything about the slightly off-center pressing, so beautiful as the analog transfer is, I prefer the DSD file.

Another comparison: Groove Note records its albums in analog and releases them in both vinyl and SACD. Comparing many Groove Note recordings—Jacintha’s whole catalogue, Bill Cunliffe’s Live at Bernie’s, the Jung Trio’s Dvořák—was likewise revealing and decisive. This tells me there are virtually no colorations in the tonal sense that I reliably attribute to the arm and turntable used in tandem. The trace of warmth with the Shure pickup was not in evidence with the Ortofon, which suggests it originates in the pickup or its interaction with the arm. Now in saying this, I am by no means suggesting the 12A is unique in this regard. Many other fine arm/table combinations would pass this test equally well, including the Basis 2200/Vector IV that has been my reference these past several years and is likewise notably even handed when it comes to tonal balance. But what I can say with certainty is that the 12A is most emphatically in that group of record-playing components which can be relied upon to allow your pickup to do the best job it’s capable of when reproducing what is on the record. Roses in, roses out, garbage in, garbage out—if you don’t like what you’re hearing with this ensemble, get a new pickup. If you do, then you can be pretty sure you’re hearing the sound of your pickup as it truly is.

 

I shouldn’t want these remarks to suggest that I didn’t like the Ortofon with the SME. On the contrary, though it’s plainly not the more the accurate of the two, it’s a pickup I really do like for its pizzazz, its up-front immediacy, its transparency, and I guess for want of a better word I’d call its wowie-zowie factor, especially on a lot of pop, rock, and driving jazz. With classical recordings its slight presence dip results in an impression of greater depth in the soundstaging, even a touch of romance owing to a bit of midrange dominance, especially those recordings that are very closely milked, while the top end rise and extension heightens detail but not without some edginess with many recordings. 

Regardless, there is about this and every other SME product I’ve used an unmistakable sense of really deep background blackness that suggests there’s considerable validity to Robertson-Aikman’s liberal employment of mass and density to handle unwanted resonances. The background is so clean that once again you hear some reviewers and audiophiles fretting about the putative “darkness” or lack of ultimate involvement of SME components. At the risk of sounding arrogant, I think this a canard, and I’ll quote what I’ve written in the past by way of explanation, to wit, “this is a complaint typically made by the naïve against components with superior damping and control of spurious and unwanted resonances. The ear responds to and even up to a certain point ‘likes’ information, even if it’s information that’s not part of the sources, which is precisely what resonances and other noises that originate in the equipment or its relationship to its setting are.” Then there’s the kvetching from the toe-tapping gallery, suggesting SMEs are a bit slow and plodding in the rhythm department and overall lack involvement. Well, all I can report is that during the evaluations I threw every damn rock ’em, sock ’em, driving, propulsive LPs I typically use for such purposes at this setup—M&K Realtime’s Earl “Fatha” Hines, For Duke, Hot Stix, Encore; The Sheffield Drum Record, Thelma Houston and Pressure Cooker; Ali AkBar Kahn’s “Morning Raga” (from Morning and Evening Ragas [Connoisseur Society]); Brubeck’s Time Out; Paul Simon’s Graceland; The Dave Grisman Quintet; and the literally sensational recent Analog Spark vinyl reissue of the original cast of West Side Story. And thanks, maybe, to that powerful motor, the 12A has stupendous slam, crunch, and dynamics (try M&K’s Flamenco Fever or “Set Down Servant” and “Dry Bones” from the same label’s Encore). Once again I shall risk arrogance and suggest that anyone who can remain physically unresponsive or viscerally uninvolved listening to these or countless other sources over the 12A or any other SME setup should have his pulse checked or be examined for ADD.

That West Side Story deserves a bit more talk. I have this recording in several formats, including the original and a later vinyl release and at least two of Sony’s digital remasterings, not to mention Red Book files on Tidal and Qobuz. None of them prepared me for how completely blown away I was by the immediacy, transparency, and sheer exuberant vitality of the performances as revealed in this new vinyl reissue, the lacquers for which (there were two, as it’s a double LP, albeit at 33rpm) were cut directly from the original 3-track analog masters. The original recording, made in 1957 at Columbia’s 30th Street Studio, was produced by Goddard Lieberson, who was as dedicated to preserving the heritage of Broadway musicals as he was the legacy of contemporary classical composers such as Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Webern, Berg, Ives, and Bernstein himself. One very special achievement, and a bit unusual for Lieberson, is the use of the medium to create a soundstage, an aural theatre as it were, anticipating the kind of staging for the microphone for which the estimable Decca producer John Culshaw would become famous for the Solti Ring cycle. With dynamics that veritably leap out of the speakers, Prologue, “Cool,” Quintet, Rumble, “Somewhere” ballet, and “Officer Krupke” all make thrillingly dramatic use of the soundscape, such that on a good system you feel as if the reproducing chain really does disappear to reveal a flesh and blood, smell of the greasepaint, roar of the crowd performance in all its theatrical glory (it certainly can’t have hurt that the recording was made just three days after the Broadway opening). 

One final point about the sound. My regular readers know that all other things being equal, I prefer turntables with tuned suspensions. So does SME, except that it is cost prohibitive to put the kind of suspension-cum-damping on the entry-level 12A that we find on the upper models. So I guess it was the devil in me that led me to start my serious evaluations with The Power and Glory, Volume 1, M&K Realtime’s almost terrifyingly spectacular direct-to-disc recording of the pipe organ in the First Congregational Church here in Los Angeles. Guilty confession: I think I was secretly hoping the 12A would come a cropper on the opening of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor with its powerful, sustained bass frequencies, if only to justify my bias for tuned suspensions.

Well, no sirree, no waaay—the reproduction was stunningly clean, clear, and powerful, the big pipes sounding like exactly what they are—huge shuddering columns of air. I cranked the volume up to ear shattering levels without any hint of smear, roughness, loosening, or muddiness, the lines remaining firm, controlled, superbly registered with outstanding definition and clarity regardless of how thickly piled on the textures became. However SME has managed it, the way this new table isolates the stylus/groove interface is impressive by any standard. The 12A may be the welterweight in the company’s lineup, but it can certainly hold its own in the ring with the big boys. 

Conclusion
There are two things, among many others, I’ve always admired about Alastair Robertson-Aikman. The first is that he lavished the same thoughtful design, precision execution, and classy presentation upon his lowest- as upon his highest-priced products. You never get the feeling you’re merely settling for something less, being brushed aside, or condescended to just because you didn’t buy the top of the line; instead, I always believed he wouldn’t sell a product he himself would not contentedly use if he had to. Relative to which, I treasure a story from a journalist who visited AR-A at home and was surprised to find not a Model 30 but a Model 10A in his state-of-the-art system. This was in the early aughts, and AR-A explained that the 30 was selling so well there wasn’t one to spare for the boss. “It wouldn’t be fair,” he explained, “to deprive a customer.” This brings us to the second thing, which is related to the first: how close in performance the second and third in the lines come to the flagships, so much so it’s by no means easy to distinguish them (see, in particular, my review of Model 20/3 [Issue 216]). I suspect he would be overjoyed to know that in the 12A, a clear advance over the 10A, the new ownership is honoring the tradition.

Of course, commitment to such quality doesn’t come cheap, and at a C-note under twelve grand the 12A can by no means be considered inexpensive, which doesn’t mean it lacks high value. I have seen and heard arm/table combinations costing multiples its price that come nowhere near its level of performance, to say nothing of the caliber of its build and construction. And then there is its sheer pleasure in use, just as are all four other SME tables I’ve reviewed over the years: LP by LP, hour by hour, day by week by month by year, it just works, to perfection, without fuss, bother, anxiety, or maintenance. If, as the great Edgar Villchur once said, the job of the turntable is “to stay out of the picture,” then SMEs are among the most discreet, unobtrusive, self-effacing, yet utterly dependable of stage managers in the theatre of vinyl. With an SME behind-the-scenes, the show always goes on.

Specs & Pricing

SME 12 Turntable and 309 Tonearm
Arm length: 9-inch
Bearing: Gimbal (captive)
Speeds: 33, 45, 78 (variable)
Suspension: Fixed
Dimensions: 15″ x 7″ x 14″ 
Weight: 57 lbs.
Price: $11,900

BLUEBIRD MUSIC (North American Distributor)

bluebirdmusic.com

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