SME Series V tonearm

Once upon a time, SME made "the best tonearm in the world." That claim may have been justifiable through the 1960s and early '70s, but then something happened—SME failed to keep pace with their competition in coping with the increasing popularity of low- to medium-compliance, highish-mass, moving-coil cartridges. I had just about written SME off as a serious high-end company when, at the 1984 Summer CES, I saw the first prototype of the Series V.

It wasn't being played, there was no way to tell how it sounded, but it certainly looked the business. Delays due, among other things, to problems in finding subcontractors who could carry out work to the desired degree of quality—SME's Alastair Robertson-Aikman will not release a product until he feels that it is right—meant that it took almost two years for that arm to hit the market. However, SME is now back—with a vengeance! I believe that, once again, it is fair to say that SME makes "the best tonearm in the world."

The Technology
To call the Series V a good-looking tonearm is something of an understatement. It not only looks good, it looks right. The arm-tube and headshell are pressure-diecast in one piece, magnesium alloy being chosen because of its very high stiffness-to-weight ratio and its suitability for diecasting. Diecasting produces an alloy both very homogeneous and highly amorphous. More conventional metals—such as titanium, which cannot be diecast, or aluminum, which can be diecast but is normally machined from a block—have far more crystalline structures and higher Q resonances (the material has less inherent damping). The arm-tube itself tapers radically from pivot to headshell, lowering its contribution to the effective mass—or alternatively allowing rigidity/stiffness to be increased for a given effective mass—and again lowering the Q of its resonant behavior.

The counterweight is very close to the pivot point (again minimizing the effective mass), and hangs down from the rear of the arm-tube, placing the center of gravity in the horizontal plane, at the surface of the record. In addition, the hanging design (also employed on the Eminent Technology Type II) avoids the concentric reflection of vibrations back into the arm-tube, which can be a problem with conventional counterweights. A thumbscrew moves the counterweight on a track to allow the arm to be balanced, a lever then locking the weight in place. In lieu of the traditional headshell slots, there are only two holes to take the supplied Allen-head mounting screws. Rather than having to move and twist the cartridge in the headshell to minimize the lateral tracking error, the entire arm assembly is moved on a track.

While this would seem to reduce the effectiveness of the coupling between arm and armboard, SME asserts that the design causes locking force to be shared equally between the pillar and track assembly, "effectively locking the components into a single unit." I must say that I heard no imperfections in the sound that could be attributed to a poor arm/armboard interface. The VTA/SRA can be adjusted while playing by means of a threaded shaft. The fittings are internally spring-loaded, so that adjustments can be made without the need constantly to loosen and tighten set screws. Only when the desired settings are finally obtained is it necessary to lock the set screws. The Series V makes no provision for adjusting azimuth, the manufacturer claiming that this could not be incorporated into the design without sacrificing rigidity.

I found the Series V to be one of the easiest arms to set up I've ever encountered, ergonomic considerations having been very well thought out. The arm has a solid feel; though I didn't try it, I had the sense that had I inadvertently dropped the arm into the bathtub, it still would have worked fine after drying out.

The Sound
I pitted the SME Series V against a group of arms widely recognized as among the more serious contenders for the title of "Best Pick-up Arm in the World," including the Eminent Technology Type II, the recently discontinued Sumiko MDC 800 ("The Arm"), and the latest revision of the Alphason. Testing was done with a SOTA vacuum turntable (Mark II model), as well as a standard SOTA 'table to insure that any differences heard were not attributable to better compatibility with the vacuum clamping system. The acrylic Supermat and SOTA reflex clamp were used on both 'tables. A wide range of different cartridges, including the Sumiko Virtuoso DTi, Monster Alpha 1, and Kiseki Purple Heart Sapphire, were employed to confirm that results were not cartridge-dependent. All arms were used on both 'tables and with all cartridges.

There was not a lot to criticize with any of these arms, but it didn't take long to hear the difference made by the Series V. In comparison with the other arms, the Series V's sound could only be described as unique. Let me first give my impressions of the three arms used for comparison.

The British Alphason, made from titanium alloy, is S-shaped with an integral headshell. Its looks are rather plain, but the workmanship is first-rate. In sound quality the Alphason is my least favorite of the three arms. It has excellent bass, and takes a lot of detail off the record, but, even with the recently improved internal damping of the arm-tube, there are noticeable resonances, particularly in the upper midrange and lower treble. This gives the Alphason a bright, juicy sound with a slight sense of false detail—which some audiophiles prefer.

The Sumiko MDC 800 ("The Arm"), though now discontinued, has become something of a modern classic. Handmade in the state of Washington, it is an exquisite example of the machinist's craft. The Arm was fabricated from machined aluminum, and pressure-fitted by hand to avoid the introduction of a different material at the mechanical interfaces. The bearing assembly is the best I have ever seen in a tonearm. The Arm has incredible bass, and takes even more information off the record than the Alphason, but it, too, has noticeable resonances above 1kHz. Though not as severe as with the Alphason, these resonances still lead to a general loss of HF detail.

Prior to the introduction of the Series V, the Eminent Technology II was, in my opinion, the best arm on the market in terms of overall sound quality. Though the ET doesn't pick up quite as much detail as the Alphason or The Arm, it has a better tonal balance than the former and fewer resonance problems than either. The ET also has outstanding high-frequency performance, with exceptional accuracy and extension. The ET does have a slight lower-treble prominence, which can result in a mild glare on some recordings, but it is far less extreme in this regard than the Alphason. The soundstage it produces is very spacious and quite stable.

There are, however, weaknesses with the ET. The bass is flabby, with a slightly bloated midbass and a weak (and definitely rolled-off) bottom octave. It also has a general air of futziness that requires true dedication to sound quality (as well as a great deal of patience) to forgive. The ET's propensity for going out of adjustment is unmatched by any arm I've ever encountered. This problem is vehemently denied by many ET aficionados, and I suspect the problem may be to some extent sample-dependent. Despite its flaws, however, the ET seems like a bargain at $800; despite the Series V's somewhat superior performance, I consider the ET the most cost-effective high-end arm on the market.

As I said above, the sound of the Series V is unique, its most distinguishing feature being its lack of resonances. Compared with the Series V, resonances in other arms which had seemed reasonably well-controlled suddenly become intolerable. The word "neutral" is thrown around a lot in the hi-fi press—it often means "a component with no gross colorations"—but even minor aberrations can produce colorations readily noticeable when compared with truly neutral sound reproduction. After listening to the Series V, I am convinced that tonearm resonances are responsible for much of what gives records that distinctive vinyl sound. The Series V is startlingly neutral, endowing LP sound with many of the characteristics of good reel-to-reel tape, or with the better attributes of CD. There is a solidity to the sound that I've not heard with any other arm. This results in a far greater sense of the physical presence of performers in the listening room, and adds body to the music without adding coloration.

Since tonearm resonances are most noticeable in the upper midrange or lower treble region, they can produce a brightness or glare which, even if minor, grates on the nerves after extended listening and—because of the ear's greater sensitivity in this region—limits the volume level at which one can listen comfortably. With the Series V, I found myself able to listen at higher average volume levels, despite the fact that the Series V seemed to have a greater dynamic range than the other arms.

I suspect the absence of resonances is also a factor in the SME's outstanding harmonic and tonal accuracy. It comes closer to getting the notes—and the relationships between them—right than any arm I've heard. The harmonic accuracy of the Series V is most apparent on woodwinds, particularly on solo passages where an instrument runs up or down a scale. With the Virtuoso DTi cartridge (reviewed in Vol.9 No.4), which is also outstanding in this respect, the results are little short of amazing.

In terms of the absolute level of detail the Series V can pull off the record surface, it is not noticeably superior to The Arm or the Alphason in the midrange, but the absence of resonances results in a much cleaner sound, and a greater sense of detail. The Series V is considerably better than the Alphason or The Arm in retrieval of HF detail, coming very close, in fact, to the ET, and having a better tonal balance in the top octaves. The soundstage and imaging are good, but not vastly superior to that of any of the other arms used for comparison. The Series V does produce an exceptionally wide soundstage matched only by the ET, but the soundstage is not quite as deep as The Arm's. The image is very stable, and the instruments are well separated and properly placed on the soundstage. Speaker placement is very critical; unless the speakers are precisely aligned, there is some tendency toward "hole in the middle" effect, a problem shared with the ET or, in fact, with any component that throws a very wide image.

The bass on the Series V is so tight you can crack an egg on it, but it's a bit lean in the lower midbass region when compared with most arms. Whether the SME's bass balance sounds right or not is largely system-dependent, determined by the bass response and rolloff characteristics of your speakers. With speakers that rolloff noticeably below 40Hz, the SME's bass sounds slightly thin and lacking in drive, though it does retain the tightness referred to above. The Series V reproduces the octave below 32Hz with a power and authority matched only by a good CD player, especially evident when heard through subwoofers. On a system capable of accurate reproduction in the low bass, the Series V sounds right. It can walk a bass line like nothing you've heard short of live music, and the distinction and separation of different instruments in the bass, particularly the distinction between synthesized and natural bass percussion, is a major improvement over any arm I've heard.

The one major disadvantage of the Series V is its price. At $1750 it is not the most expensive tonearm on the market, but still out of reach of most audiophiles. The best rarely comes cheap, however, and the quality of both sound and construction justify the price tag (footnote 1). While the Series V may not be perfect, it represents the state-of-the-art in tonearms, defining a standard against which all comers will be judged for some time. It is a sufficient improvement over the competition that I recommend any audiophile seriously striving for the best possible sound reproduction to consider upgrading to the Series V—regardless of what arm he now owns.—Steven W. Watkinson

Footnote 1: Unlike many audiophile components made in the UK, the importer does not seem to be sticking it to American customers. (Perhaps this magazine's prior criticism of price gouging on UK imports is having some effect.) At current exchange rates, the price of the Series V in the US is only about 10% higher than in the UK. Even with the VAT saving on export, custom duties, freight, and insurance probably would put the final price of a privately imported Series V about even with the cost of one brought in by the authorized importer. In view of the potential need to return the arm to England should servicing be required, there's no reason to buy from other than an authorized US dealer.—Steven W. Watkinson
SME Ltd.
US distributor: Acoustic Sounds
(785) 825-8609

Osgood Crinkly III's picture

Have been using the V since it came out (w/ Kiseki Purple Heart Sapphire and Sota Star Sapphire IV). No problems, no complaints. No fuss, no bother, no tweeking. Just music.

volvic's picture

I have had mine for 9 years now, same as fellow above, no fuss no mess. Perhaps newer arms sound better but its build quality, ease of set up and reliability has me yearning for no other arm and that is what big expensive hi-fi purchases should be about; lasting you a lifetime so that you can enjoy your record collection......Nuff said.

w1000i's picture

Can we have a review for the new model C109 from JAMO , which was the largest manufacturer of speakers in Europe one day. :)

midimaniac's picture

Believe it or not, about 12 years ago I purchased a Sota Star Sapphire TT (Vacuum Hold down with an SME V mounted on it...for $300 at a used gear shop!! Obviously the shop didn't know what they had, nor did I. I sent the table to Sota, where they re-fitted it with their latest silicone vacuum lip, zirconium ball and sapphire thrust plate. Can't remember what they charged me. It wasn't more than a few hundred dollars. Nowadays just the tonearm costs more than 10 to 20 times that amount. My records sound really good!