Manufacturer: SME Limited
ecently I read something that confirmed what I long suspected, that Japanese companies have something that we, so called Western people have lost somewhere on the way. Researches checked over 2 million firms and brands to choose 20 000 oldest ones, still active today that also operate longer than 100 years. The results were quite surprising – over 3000 of them, existing for more than 200 years came from Japan, over 800 from Germany, more than 200 from Holland and almost 200 from France. Almost 900 companies operating for more than 100 years employed less than 300 people.
Why Japan? As it reads on „BrandTransactions” blog, there are 7 firms in Japan older than 1000 years. One can find also a list there of the oldest firms, see below, and 6 of the first 11 firms is also from Japan:
established 705, Keiunkan, Japan, hotel
Jan Astner, Najstarsze marki i firmy świata, „BrandTransactions”, Apr. 2nd. 2011, [as per: Sept. 03rd 2015].
Looking for a reason for some many oldest businesses coming from Japan one interpretation seems particularly interesting – most of these long existing companies have always run by families. In Japan even many big concerns, like Honda for example, still operate this way. Only when there is no suitable successor in current CEO's family someone from outside family can be selected. But even than such a person is not just a manager hired to do a job, but rather a new member of family, so to speak, who plans to stay in the company for a long time.
There are such old (although not that old) family businesses also in audio industry. One of them, soon to become 60 years old, is the British SME Limited. It was founded in 1959, when Alastair Robertson-Aikman (1924-2006) designed a first tonearm. A commercial product based on this first design, model 3009, was released in September, later the same year. Initially due to manual assembly process only 25 pieces a week were produced. But this tonearm in Mk.1 and Mk.2 iterations was made until the beginning of present century and thus it reached a staggering total number of over a million sold units! After Alaistar's passing (on Nov 3rd 2006) his son, Cameron, took company over which means that SME has been under one family management throughout its whole history. And nothing indicates that it could change any time soon.
As many manufacturers of this kind, SME's portfolio includes only few products – tonearms and turntables – that rarely undergo any changes. So when it finally comes to introducing a new product it is a big deal. Beginning of 2015 SME released such a new product - a turntable called Model 15. It is positioned between Model 10 and Model 20/3 in company's offer.
Model 15 is described by a manufacturer as „ultimate in recovery vehicles”, and it seeks to emulate the excellence of Model 20/3 and 30/2 in a more compact body. The model 15 sub-chassis is suspended on thirty purpose molded 'O' rings and pillars, that SME's well deserved reputation is based on. The aluminum, damped platter (4,6 kg) together with sub-chassis weight 18,5 kg. It uses a BrushLess Direct-Current motor with an electronic motor controller that uses a high performance microprocessor. It allows playback of 33,33, 45 and 78 RPM records.
The SME 309 SPD (228, 6 mm | 9”) tonearm seems a natural partner for Model 15, but one could use also 9 and 10 inch arms from other manufacturers. We received this deck partnered with 309 for a review. I must say that this is a very attractive design – it is still quite compact but looking at it one can simply feel that this is a real SOMETHING. The deck (without tonearm) is called simply Model 15 and it costs 31 990 PLN, and a deck with SME 309 arm is called Model 15/A and the price tag says: 40 790 PLN.
SME was delivered for test together with 309 tonearm and Shelter 5000 cartridge, but I also tried it out with Miyajima Laboratory Madake and Zero. I used three different phonostages: RCM Audio Sensor Prelude IC and Sensor 2, and also with Amare Musica Diamond ASPIRIAA. Both turntable and phonostages were placed on Acoustic Revive RAF-48H platform and Franc Audio Accessories Classic feet on my Finite Elemente Pagode Edition rack. Signal from arm to phonostage was delivered via SME cable. As my reference I used for this test Acoustic Signature Thunder with three motors (review for „EnjoyTheMusic.com”) and Transrotor Zet 3 Infinity (two motors, TMD bearing and rack).
Records used for test (a selection):
If one tried to attribute a type of personality to a brand, for SME, for their approach to their products and their sound philosophy one should use a word: professionalism. Słownik języka polskiego issued by Wydawnictwo Naukowe PWN (Warszawa 2007) defines “professionalism” as „somebody's high skills and high quality of job done by this person”, it also adds that “this word is usually used to express appreciation”. Something that is professional “is made by people highly skilled at what they do”.
So when used to describe an audio brand it would mean a well thought-through design, with properly balanced proportions, with careful selection of acceptable compromises. The final effect must be in accordance with designers ideas, must be exactly as it was supposed to be. Manufacturer takes a full responsibility for it and it is ready to back the choices they made with some serious arguments. But one should not forget about other meaning of this word – professional means also detached; one can't be professional and emotionally involved at the same time. To really perfect something one has to be able to keep some distance from it to assess it properly. SME Model 15 with 309 tonearm fulfills all requirements of any meaning of the word: “professional”.
It is a turntable that is able to balance emotional involvement and some detachment. It was surely more difficult to achieve the latter because when creating products with limited budget, and Model 15 belongs to this kind – it is not easy to achieve resolving sound and good differentiation without using means like: an emphasis in upper midrange and in the attack phase. When one wants to avoid the latter one should let it go and focus efforts on achieving good resolution and focus.
But in this particular case SME engineers didn't completely let go – they found some compromise here. Model 15 does not sound bright nor dry. Sound is rich and bass presentation is good. Sound is also nicely differentiated. Whenever recording includes a powerful, well defined bass, like on Jarre and Tangerine Dream maxi-single, it is presented just as intended. One will not just hear it but also feel its power. On the other hand when bass has natural timbre and dynamics, like double bass on Tsuyoshi Yamamoto Trio's album, this turntable shall never make the bass sound “harder” than it is, it might actually even make it sound “softer” at the very bottom end. One can always count on a lively, agile, dynamic low range, as opposed to what most mass-loaders offer which is particularly taut bass without real fire in it.
Both range extremes seem slightly rolled-off. They are extended, one can hear lowest and highest notes, but the further up and down the range the lesser focus and imaging. This way of presentation is somehow similar to that of turntables that excel in sound richness at the cost of differentiation, but SME does that in a more balanced way, taking no shortcuts. I could easily hear everything I just described but it never bothered me, never spoiled the pleasure of listening to the music.
The soundstage is created in front of the listener, between speakers. Within this “window” everything is presented in a particularly orderly, clean, well defined way. It's not only about exact placement of each instrument on the stage, but also about well differentiated timbre of each of them. The latter is particularly important for this type of presentation. This slightly detached performance is compensated or complemented with a particularly good timbre differentiation. And this creates impression of a very rich presentation. The soundstage is quite deep, but it doesn't excel. It can also move closer to listener, even surround him – that's what happens on Jarre’s maxi-single, or the new re-issue of Roger Waters' Amused to Death. I can hardly imagine someone who wouldn't be fully satisfied here.
The advantages of more expensive turntables are not that easy to point out. It's like the difference between Air Force One and Air Force Two both made by TechDAS. On one hand difference is obvious, on the other it is really hard to describe it, one has to think really hard before spilling it out. And even than the description might be still ambiguous.
The same goes for this SME. Without going into details one might just say that what it offers is a high quality performance, a very “honest” one. Spending more money will give us a richer sound, better definition in both range extremes and deeper soundstage. Soundstage will be also even more precise and there might be less noise from record's groove. There will be some gain in sound volume, and one will enjoy even better impression of instruments texture.
This turntable is both – precise and full of passion. It has its limitations but it manages to overcome them so that they don't spoil the pleasure of listening to the music. It offers a well differentiated, colorful, dynamic, particularly vivid sound. SME is able to offer a nice, interesting sound even when playing less-than-perfect records like, for example, digitally recorded Brothers in Arms, or Julie London album recorded using solid-state equipment in 1958. The shortcomings of such recordings are perceived as a certain flavor, a curiosity and not a flaw as such. It is one of the products that will be offered for years and won't need any improvements. It will also set a bar, pretty high, for many other manufacturers who will treat it as a reference.
Model 15 is a suspended design but with relatively heavy sub-chassis and platter (4,6kg) – together they weight 11kg. Whole deck weights 18,5kg. Its shape seems to be a combination of those of Model 10 and Model 20/3. It seems that designers decided to reject all unnecessary elements. What was left was almost round shape with diameter only slightly bigger than platter's. Plus there were these three pillars with 30 O-rings used to suspend sub-chassis. To prevent horizontal movement an additional O-ring was used under chassis that pulls it in the opposite direction than the belt. Model 15 sports a substantial clamp with a shape that shadows a shape of the whole deck which makes it very comfortable to use.
The pillars and motor are mounted on the chassis. Turntable is driven by a 3-phase, brushless outrunner inductance motor with 8-pole Neodymium magnets and 3 integrated Hall position sensors. The electronic motor controller uses a high performance microprocessor, optimized for motor control. The controller looks really nice and it is easy to operate. Small buttons are used to turn on and off selected speed - 33,3, 45 or 78 RPM. Belt drives a sub-platter and the main platter is placed over it. SME uses a wide, flat belt. Motor sits under the platter so it is not visible. Platter is extensionally damped, the top surface being diamond-turned with a fine scroll. This method of finishing upsets a myriad of tiny fibers which interface with the underside of the record.
A perfectly executed design.
- Turntable: AVID HIFI Acutus SP [Custom Version]
- Cartridges: Miyajima Laboratory KANSUI, review HERE | Miyajima Laboratory SHILABE, review HERE | Miyajima Laboratory ZERO (mono) | Denon DL-103SA, review HERE
- Phono stage: RCM Audio Sensor Prelude IC, review HERE
- Compact Disc Player: Ancient Audio AIR V-edition, review HERE
- Multiformat Player: Cambridge Audio Azur 752BD
- Line Preamplifier: Polaris III [Custom Version] + AC Regenerator, regular version review (in Polish) HERE
- Power amplifier: Soulution 710
- Integrated Amplifier: Leben CS300XS Custom Version, review HERE
- Stand mount Loudspeakers: Harbeth M40.1 Domestic, review HERE
- Stands for Harbeths: Acoustic Revive Custom Series Loudspeaker Stands
- Real-Sound Processor: SPEC RSP-101/GL
- Integrated Amplifier/Headphone amplifier: Leben CS300XS Custom Version, review HERE
- Headphones: HIFIMAN HE-6, review HERE | HIFIMAN HE-500, review HERE | HIFIMAN HE-300, review HERE | Sennheiser HD800 | AKG K701, review (in Polish) HERE | Ultrasone PROLine 2500, Beyerdynamic DT-990 Pro, version 600 - reviews (in Polish): HERE, HERE, HERE
- Headphone Stands: Klutz Design CanCans (x 3), review (in Polish) HERE
- Headphone Cables: Entreq Konstantin 2010/Sennheiser HD800/HIFIMAN HE-500, review HERE
- Portable Player: HIFIMAN HM-801
- USB Cables: Acoustic Revive USB-1.0SP (1 m) | Acoustic Revive USB-5.0PL (5 m), review HERE
- LAN Cables: Acoustic Revive LAN-1.0 PA (kable ) | RLI-1 (filtry), review HERE
- Router: Liksys WAG320N
- NAS: Synology DS410j/8 TB
- Interconnects: Acrolink Mexcel 7N-DA6300, review HERE | preamplifier-power amplifier: Acrolink 8N-A2080III Evo, review HERE
- Loudspeaker Cables: Tara Labs Omega Onyx, review (in Polish) HERE
- Interconnects: Acoustic Revive RCA-1.0PA | XLR-1.0PA II
- Loudspeaker Cables: Acoustic Revive SPC-PA
- Power Cables: Acrolink Mexcel 7N-PC9300, all system, review HERE
- Power Distributor: Acoustic Revive RTP-4eu Ultimate, review HERE
- Power Line: fuse – power cable Oyaide Tunami Nigo (6m) – wall sockets 3 x Furutech FT-SWS (R)
- Power Cables: Harmonix X-DC350M2R Improved-Version, review (in Polish) HERE | Oyaide GPX-R (x 4 ), review HERE
- Power Distributor: Oyaide MTS-4e, review HERE
- Stolik: SolidBase IV Custom, read HERE/all system
- Anti-vibration Platforms: Acoustic Revive RAF-48H, review HERE/digital sources | Pro Audio Bono [Custom Version]/headphone amplifier/integrated amplifier, review HERE | Acoustic Revive RST-38H/loudspeakers under review/stands for loudspeakers under review
- Anti-vibration Feets: Franc Audio Accessories Ceramic Disc/ CD Player/Ayon Polaris II Power Supply /products under review, review HERE | Finite Elemente CeraPuc/ products under review, review HERE | Audio Replas OPT-30HG-SC/PL HR Quartz, review HERE
- Anti-vibration accsories: Audio Replas CNS-7000SZ/power cable, review HERE
- Quartz Isolators: Acoustic Revive RIQ-5010/CP-4
- FM Radio: Tivoli Audio Model One