SME 3009 Series III tonearm
The third iteration of SME's 3009 is one of the most versatile tonearms around. For the same reason, it is also one of the most tedious to set-up because, since every parameter is adjustable, every parameter must be adjusted.
Unlike most arms with plug-in headshells, the SME has a plug-in arm, which accomplishes the same thing but places the additional mass of the plug and socket back near the tonearm base, where its effect on the cartridge-system effective mass is minimal.
The arm is available with an optional viscous-damping system, presumably for the benefit of those reactionary souls still don't comprehend how viscous damping works and thus prefer not to use it. The fluid supplied is, however, too thick; the arm should be purchased along with Shure's "Thinning Fluid," which latter should be added (and excess fluid removed) until the arm takes about 1 second to drop from a height of 1" with the smallest paddle in place and the tracking force set for 1 gram.
With high-compliance cartridges, the arm is almoat completely free from resonances (outside of the usual system bass resonance, which is a function of effective mass and cartidge compliance), and produces only a satisfyingly uncolored "clunk" when shock-excited. (This is partly accomplished through the use of a pasty compound, supplied with the arm, which firmly binds the body of the cartridge to the headshell.) As a result, the arm has little sound of its own and, in fact, makes some cartridges sound almost overly rich in quality. (The SME 3009 Series II, by contrast, was rather bright and a little harsh.)
With relatively low-compliance cartridges, which tend to impart stronger vibrations into the arm, some of the additional mass needed (say, about 50% of it) is best added right at the headshell rather than entirely in the tonearm base, for the slight flexibility of the armtube may otherwise cause the cartridge to decouple itself from the base end, with resulting spurious and unnecessary rsonances. (Some moving-coil cartridge manufacturers specifically recommend a high-mass arm. We cannot condone this, for the subsonic impulses that result when tracking warped or eccentric discs cause more problems of system distortion and degraded imaging than they solve.)
Our experience with the SME 3009 III over a period of several months has shown that most cartridges produce a more tape-like sound in this arm than they do form any other arm (with the possible exception of the Breuer arm, which we have never felt obliged to test because of its cost and virtually zero availability). The SME is still our first choice and, as of now, our reference arm for all phono cartridge tests.
Incidentally, the manufacturer's set-up adjustments are right on the money, and should be followed to the letter.
It should be noted that SME now has a cheaper version of the 3009 III, designated the IIIS, which saves you $50 for the privilege of doing without the damping. We advise against that.
The SME 3009 III may not have the glamor of some of the more exotic arms currently on the market, but we suspect that most sane people will still hold it in high regard when those exotics are into their tenth modification and workin on their eleventh.