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Product: SME IV
Manufacturer: SME Ltd. - UK
Approx. price: 1,000 UKP/1,500 US$ - Euro
Reviewer: Geoff Husband
the early eighties CD was about to sweep all before it, and yet at
this time a new tonearm was launched that actually had more of an
impact on the quality turntable market - the Rega RB 300.
Up until this point tonearms were generally basic garage engineering, i.e. most could have been produced, indeed many were, in a well equipped garage sized workshop. Superb arms like the Zeta and Alphason Hr100 started this way.
Even today if you look at most tonearms they are produced from a series of machined components, such as could be made on a small lathe/milling machine, coupled with a piece of tubing that is available off the shelf for use in such things as high pressure gas pipe. Components like bearings and headshells are then bought from OEM manufacturers and either glued or screwed into place to make the finished structure. Sometimes this technique can produce superb results and finish, but it is labour intensive and quality control is a nightmare.
Alternatively Japanese OEM manufacturers could produce tonearms by combining various components from their bit boxes to produce a bewildering variety at any price point, at the "High End" the ITTOK was perhaps the best known of all. These OEM arms totally dominated the budget arm market - look at a catalogue for the early 80's and you"ll find budget tonearms from AR, Linn, Alphason, Mission, Audio Technica, Goldring, Ariston etc etc, almost all of far eastern manufacture.
Look five years later
and they're almost all gone - and when did you last see one? Why? CD?
No - Rega upset the applecart by taking a radically different
They had a successful turntable and were looking for a tonearm to replace the OEM one fitted at the time.
With a market already there for the turntable package they took the risk in producing the worlds first tonearm cast in one piece.
This obviously cost a great deal more to set up, but if volume could be guaranteed the tubes could be produced more cheaply than the fabricated tonearms that had gone before.
The big advantage was that with a one piece cast tonearm the tube could be tapered, reducing ringing resonances and there would be no joints between headshell and armtube to colour the sound.
The result was a
runaway success, a tonearm that sold for entry-level money and yet
was stiff enough and had good enough bearings to hold a top moving
coil cartridge. This was an arm that on some turntables (not the
LP12) could take on the ITTOK at five times its price.
The result? All other budget tonearms were wiped out almost overnight, leaving Rega the market to themselves. Not only that, more expensive arms suddenly found themselves in trouble and so the few that survived had to be something special beyond what the Rega could offer.
The Rega was not
perfect and so could be taken on by expensive arms. That masterful
tapered armtube contained the bearing housing but not the
counterweight stub, which was a separate part. The thing had no VTA
adjustment and the cables were pretty basic, after all, this arm sold
for 100 pounds!
Though never putting a foot wrong the Rega often sounded a bit "grey" and undynamic", sounding safe rather than scaling the heights of the best.
In Britain the result
was that in the mid 80's three manufacturers took up the challenge
with, for the time, hugely expensive state-of-the-art designs. The
Linn EKOS, was a beefed up ITTOK with glued rather than screwed
A perfect match for the LP12 but a rare beast on any other turntable. Likewise the Roksan Artemiz, was aimed specifically at the Company's own turntable. It was left to SME, the oldest arm manufacturer of them all, to take up the challenge of a top arm suitable for a wide range of quality turntables. The result was the SME V, closely followed by the simplified, but very similar IV.
So what was so special that made SME able to claim to make "The Finest Tonearm in the World". To find out I had SME send the cheaper of the two - the IV.
When SME designed the
V (1986) and IV (1987) I have a feeling their aim was to do a "Rega"
to the top end of the market. They too adopted the expensive approach
of using a cast armtube, this time in magnesium.
In this case a budget price point wasn't a problem and so they went the whole hog and the casting turned out to be a beautiful heavily tapered affair including the bearing housing and the counterweight stub. The process allowed not only the taper but different wall thickness throughout its length.
This arm has no joints whatsoever in the armtube with the inevitable exception of the counterweight which is slung and clamped under the counterweight stub. Below this there is a tool steel shaft where upright, massive and state-of-the-art ball bearing races form the bearing surfaces.
The bearing housing etc are also pressure cast, but this time from a massy Zinc alloy which damps out vibration. This makes the arm noticeably heavier than most, too heavy for an LP12 to be happy for example - more on this later... for a full technical description and history of the arm go to the SME website which is a fascinating read...
Just as the some arms
are a sod to set up the IV is a joy. The arm upright being clamped in
a 'sled". Undo two allen bolts and insert a splined lever in a
hole and you can crank the whole arm back and forth to get perfect
alignment - it takes seconds with the template supplied, no more
farting about trying to wiggle a reluctant cartridge up and down some
headshell slots then trying to tighten the bolts without the
cartridge moving... I review cartridges and hate swapping them
It is a time of maximum risk and minimum pleasure! The SME "sled" and the template supplied mean I can now change a cartridge in about 10 minutes from play to play - absolute heaven... VTA adjustment is simply a case of pulling the arm up or down after finishing alignment, the arm holds itself at any level without the sled bolts being tightened so no risk of arm and cartridge crashing down...
The IV differs from
the more expensive V in several ways. First there is a threaded VTA
adjuster and damper available as an (expensive) option, the V has it
as standard. Second the downforce is altered by a simple dial where
with the IV you have to count turns on a tiny vernier as it winds the
weight back and forth.
To be honest neither of these will effect the sound (see postcript!), merely make the already simple set-up even easier, though the damping does help some less well behaved cartridges....
Here some will argue that the sprung downforce dial is sonically superior to the simple see-saw balance of the IV.
Others argue that the simpler design offers less colouration, that the counterweight being closer to the headshell reduces inertia and that the V's performance would be better with the balance dial set at zero and the downforce set as with the IV. Having never done a comparison back to back I can't comment I merely point out the debate.
Interestingly the same argument rages between owners of Rega's 300 and simplified 250...
The only other
difference is in the wiring. The the IV uses copper Litz internal
wiring and the V silver, the lead out cable is VDH on the V, OFC
copper on the IV.
Here there will be a sonic difference, the silver sounding brighter and a little more incisive if my comparisons of other silver cables are applicable.
This may or may not be an improvement depending on you system and tastes though the leadout is undoubtedly better, a possible later upgrade? To my mind this makes the IV better value sonically than the V. But - that VTA adjuster is a tempting proposition and its cost puts the IV much closer to the V...
Finish is beyond
reproach, camera chrome, silver "paint" and styled to
please, though I'm sure SME would claim "form follows function"
- me I think they wanted to make it beautiful...
It is also a perfect match for my Gyro, the silver finish must come from the same pot, and the quality of engineering shines through on both products. Niggles? The arm is so heavily tapered, much more so than the Rega, that the clearance for warps is only 3-4 mms, if that is what it takes to give such an uncompromised performance then so-be-it.
The anti-skate dial is stiff and the cueing device works through a slightly odd arc. It also seems a little slippery, the arm often wanting to return towards the arm rest even after cleaning. Oh! the arm rest...
A little roller on the top of the plastic clip allows the arm to slip in like a Bentley door shutting - class!
Well enough of the preamble, who cares what the thing looks like or how long it takes to set up - What does it sound like!
If you've only had a
Rega before, or have never heard a top arm/TT combination you're in
for a treat/shock... Here is an arm that has amazing control. With a
top arm you know you are near the mastertape so low is the
colouration, here the IV is better than any arm I've tried.
The Rega comes close, but is left totally stranded when it comes to dynamics. This is an arm that produces fireworks when the occasion demands, massive drum hits, cannons, rim shots - wow! In no way can it be described as "easy listening", but so low is the colouration that this display of muscle never becomes wearing.
Almost all my records
are second hand and many misused in the past, but this arm crushes
surface noise. Yet it has an extended top end, crystal clear without
ever becoming sharp. Joe Morello's cymbal on Brubecks
"Time Out" album showing shading and size
Detail was as good as I've ever heard, backing vocals suddenly showing distinct singers, rather than a homogenised harmony, often stepping away from the lead singer.
On Nancy Griffiths "Last of the True Believers" Lyle Lovett's harmonies separated from Griffiths "fingernails on a blackboard" singing in a way I'd not heard before. Throughout imaging was always rock solid with no wandering, though I've heard other top arms as good.
At the bottom end the
bass is seismic. Perhaps here more than anywhere else did the arm
pull ahead of other top arms like the Artemiz, Alphason HR100, EKOS
etc. Bass is massive but controlled, the lowest registers clean and
fast, here I'm sure that it's capabilites are now well ahead of the
rest of my system. An example... Marley's
"Real situation". Here the SME made it sound almost as
if another bass guitar was joining in - but no.
In fact it was the arm pulling out more of the fundamental, around 40 Hz, to go with the louder first harmonic. This was repeated time and time again on records that went low. The down side was that the arm plainly showed those records where the engineer had decided that fundamentals were optional to music.
I always feel that a
good test of a component is if it can pick out the sonic signature of
a recording. Here the IV made the best of recording but showed the
different quality of each clearly.
Some LP's have a track list where songs are recorded at different venues and you could plainly spot the change.
Sting's "Nothing Like the Sun" is recorded at "Air Studios" in Monserrat. One track "We"ll be Together" is recorded at "Masterdisc" in New York. He should have stayed away from the "Big Apple", this track sounds harsh, tinny and compressed with no low bass.
It stands out like a sore thumb and in every respect is an obvious "filler". Bad enough to make me avoid the track altogether. The IV made this worse.
During the two months with the arm I've used an Ortofon MC20 Supreme, Shure V15, Dynavector DV20XL, Slate Audio Brazen and an AT33e. It coped with ease, each cartridge showing its strengths and weaknesses without prejudice. In this respect it is a reviewers tool "par excellence", it's greatest strength being that it has no overriding sonic signature to colour the sound, it just extends any cartridge to the limits.
What can I say? This is the best arm I've ever heard. It has no significant faults or weaknesses. It would be impossible to better its fit and finish, merely to match it - the V is sexy black lacquer but would clash with my Gyro :-) To beat it an arm will simply have to do something - anything better and yet give nothing away. It is a hard thing to ask.
So who won't like it?
Well perhaps if you like your sound a little rose tinted it may just
be too forthright, but then SME have that covered with the
prehistoric SME 3009... There is a caveat.
Because it is so rigid, with a very solid mounting it puts huge energy into a turntable. This sort of "passes the buck" to the design of the turntable. Some TT's like the LP12 deal with this by having a "lossy" armboard/chassis so that the LP12 is a good sonic match. The problem being that with all the steel and zinc alloy the arm puts the suspension under some strain (as does the EKOS incidentally...).
Others damp the whole thing with mass, or absorbent Carbon fibre. The point is not the method, but whether it is effective. I Have a feeling that here my Gyro may need its subchassis damped as it does ring...
So have SME a
competition destroyer in the V/IV as Rega did at the budget end? Yes
and no. I've kept watch on all the new turntable launches over the
last ten years, and surprisingly there have been a lot.
With the exception of those turntable manufacturers who make arms (Linn, Wilson Benesch, Audionote, Clearaudio etc) all that I have seen have been supplied for review, and have had publicity photographs taken with one of the big SME's. Even some of the Roksan Xerxes X's were fitted with an SME rather than the company's Artemiz.
Thus the SME's have become the badge of a quality table, as if by putting an SME on it shows it is a "serious" product. And where are the other "ultra rigid/low colouration" arms?
Apart from the Ekos and Artemiz, forever tied to their own tables? The rare Zeta, the odd Kuzma, but otherwise they've gone and I'd bet a weeks wages that the SME's outsell any of these companies 20 to 1. But the "High End" allows manufacturers much more scope for alternatives than the budget end.
Where the SME does have rivals they have moved the goalposts, avoiding a straight fight by being unipivots of various kinds (Grahams, Wilson Benesch, Hadcock, Naim Aro, Morch), parallel trackers or just plain weird (WTA). Here I have to admit ignorance. I've heard and been impressed by some of these, but never in my system. They may take the SME's on sonically, but to do that they are going to have to be very, very good...
You can guess that I was besotted by the IV, and taking my job seriously as a reviewer, its lack of colouration and ease of adjustment make it the perfect review arm. So yes I bought it - great excuse eh? Convinced my wife anyway :-)
However I decided to
go the whole hog and buy the damper VTA adjuster too. At 150 pounds
its hideously expensive for a trough and paddle with a couple of
screw adjusters, but the way is snaps together to form an integral
part of the arm goes a long way to justifying the price.
It's justification for me was that it allows you to alter VTA in tiny increments and to do it, and move the sled for alignment adjustment whilst the record is playing!
Now SME don't advise this, and children, if you do this at home you must have an adult with you, but by loosening the sled and being very careful, you can gently wind the arm up, or back and forth whilst finding the "sweet spot". Once there of course everything must be clamped up, but what a superb way of getting a setting spot on. With a normal arm this could take hours (or months...), and then one slip and you've lost the setting, or the cantilever!
But what I didn't
expect was the effect of the damper. That trough of silicon gloop has
a paddle that can be moved up or down to give a complete range of
damping from nothing to enough to make the Shure
V15's built in damper redundant. Its effect varies from cartridge
to cartridge, but all improved with just a touch of damping. The V15
being very high compliance needed more, the Dynavector just a touch
but it was an improvement in both cases well worth the extra 175
With it there was even tighter control in the bass and the improvement was very noticeable. Too much damping and the sound could become a little 'sat on", but it takes seconds to get it right.
I have to admit that having declared the SME the "lowest colouration arm I've ever heard" to find that the bass could be improved yet further rather took me aback.
So for now I'm happy, the SME V is supposed to be even better, maybe one day I"ll find out, but for other manufacturers out there - "I'm ready to find a better arm", send all comers...
© Copyright 1999 Geoff Husband - http://www.tnt-audio.com
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