Analog Corner #266: SME: Stirred, Not Shaken

The death of a company founder, whether sudden or expected, often produces trauma. Whoever was tapped to replace the visionary Steve Jobs would be handed a thankless task, but at Apple, timid Tim Cook's so-far unimaginative performance as caretaker demonstrates the difficulties of succession. As Jobs beat Sony to the iPod, Cook let Amazon beat him to the Alexa. Apple missed the lead on streaming audio, playing catch-up by buying the MOG music service, which was transformed into Beats Music in 2014. Apparently, Cook doesn't think it's worth pursuing high-resolution audio for iTunes. He's obviously got the resources and the audio talent, but he's going to let others lead in that area while he plays catch-up with other already-developing technologies.

In our little corner of the business world, we've recently seen, at VPI Industries and Wilson Audio Specialties, successful handoffs of company leadership that didn't involve anyone's death, and one still in progress at Basis Audio that, sadly and surprisingly, has.

The death, in 2006, of Alastair Robertson-Aikman, at age 82,1 presented special challenges to SME, the British company he'd founded in 1946 under the name Scale Model Equipment Company, Ltd. (SMEC). AR-A, as he was called by friends and staff, was a perfectionist and, it would be neither unfair nor unkind to say, a control freak. He was also an avid model railroader. SMEC began by making scale-model automobiles and trains, but by the mid-1950s had moved into precision engineering and manufacturing for various industries, including office equipment, automobiles (Rolls-Royce), and aircraft (Hawker/BAe). AR-A even invented and manufactured the Pak Rak—a chrome-plated toast rack designed to collapse like an accordion.

Robertson-Aikman was also a dedicated audio enthusiast. Unhappy with the tonearms available in 1958, he designed and built his own. Percy Wilson, then editor of Gramophone, encouraged AR-A to make and sell the arm, and in September 1959, SME began production on the model 3009 and 3012 Precision Pick-Up Arms. By December, SME was making 25 arms a week, and by the early 1960s, tonearms had become its most important product (footnote 1). SME's arm design quickly became an industry standard, and, through its many iterations, remained in production into the 21st century. In total, over a million of them were sold.

The model-car business began to falter in the late 1950s, and in August 1960 SME got out, dumping and destroying, on AR-A's orders, much of its production drawings, manufacturing jigs, and car kits—even the Pak Rak.


SME's Factory in Steyning, West Sussex, UK

By 1961, SME had outgrown its original factory on Charlton Street, in Steyning, West Sussex, and moved around the corner to its current headquarters, on Mill Street. The company's name was changed to SME Ltd. But sales of the arms continued to, um, pick up, necessitating the opening, in the mid-1970s, of another factory, this one on Elm Grove Lane, for metal casting and plastic molding. In 1979, SME again ran out of space, and added a floor and other improvements to the Mill Street building.

The CD Challenge, the New Tonearm's Success
With the introduction of the Compact Disc, tough times began for SME, which in 1982 sold the Elm Grove Lane factory to an upstart speaker maker named Bowers & Wilkins. In 1984 SME announced the Series V prototype arm. With its tapered, pressure–die-cast armtube of magnesium alloy, the Series V was revolutionary, the state of the art, and thus deserved SME's marketing slogan: "the best tonearm in the world." The production version cost $1750, equivalent to about $4142 today. Despite the great success of the CD, in 1991 SME launched its first turntable, the Model 30. The combination of the Series V arm and Model 30 'table put SME at the top of the analog heap.


At about that time, AR-A's son Cameron joined SME and began moving the company back into the lucrative business of contract precision engineering. SME's expertise proved attractive to the aeronautical, aerospace, and medical industries, and the business again flourished. Manufacturing returned to the Charlton Street location, which had been converted to storage.

In 2006, when AR-A died, SME's business was approximately 70% contract precision engineering and 30% audio. That didn't stop them from launching that year the Model 20/12 turntable, designed to work with the 12" version of the Series V tonearm.

Cameron Robertson-Aikman assumed control of the company and ran it for the next decade, during which SME launched the Model 15, which I consider to be among the company's best-sounding turntables. Nonetheless, it became obvious to many observers that SME was falling behind—in terms of product innovation, marketing, and lack of visibility at shows—just as analog was again accelerating.

The Cadence Group and the New SME, Ltd.
In 2016, the Cadence Group, headed by industrialist and lifelong audiophile Ajay Shirke, assumed control of SME, Ltd. Cadence had previously acquired stakes in Spendor and Siltech. Shirke, a native of Pune, India, now lives in the UK, and ventured into audio more than two decades ago, manufacturing and distributing electrostatic speakers and hybrid tube amplifiers. But his real job is as an industrialist/builder.


SME's CEO, Stuart McNeilis

Shirke named as CEO of SME Stuart McNeilis, who spent 30 years in aeronautical engineering. The two met while McNeilis worked for Hawker Aircraft, a maker of private planes. I met McNeilis at last January's Consumer Electronics Show, in Las Vegas, at Siltech and Crystal Cable's semiannual dinner for audio executives and journalists (their other dinner each year is held in May, at High End, in Munich). At the time, I didn't know that Cadence had invested in Siltech and Crystal and had bought SME, so when I found myself seated next to McNeilis, who introduced himself as SME's new CEO, I thought it an excellent coincidence. No doubt we were the beneficiaries of matchmaking by Crystal Cable's CEO, Gabi van der Kley-Rijnveld.

McNeilis and I had a lot to talk about. I'd visited SME twice, once when AR-A was still alive—we'd spun vinyl in his incredible sound room—and I'd reviewed many of their products. McNeilis was engaging and quick-witted, and we got on well. He told me that SME would exhibit at Munich High End in May 2017, and that it would be SME's first audio show in 27 years. Clearly, a new SME was in the works (footnote 2).

At High End, SME had a large, prominent booth on the main floor of the convention center, with a really big display case that looked like a giant iPhone and contained a few new SME accessories designed by McNeilis. To the left of the case was an imposing black-and-white photo of a young Alastair Robertson-Aikman, and to the right, displayed on a long shelf, was an assortment of current SME turntables, some with new bling accents of gold or silver, as well as a red SME 15 that was a real crowd pleaser. Yes, we were looking at mere cosmetic changes, but McNeilis had then been CEO for only a few months.


In a pod that was part of SME's booth was one of the best-sounding systems I heard at High End 2017. A Model 30 turntable sat on a massive one-off (for now) stand, a version of which I'd seen during a 2014 visit to SME, accompanied by Acoustic Sounds and Analogue Productions' two Chads: founder and CEO Kassem and chief audio specialist Stelly. The electronics were from Nagra, speakers from YG Acoustics. I first met Ajay Shirke there and played for him a test pressing of a reissue of Duke Ellington's Masterpieces by Ellington (LP, Columbia/Analogue Productions AAPJ 4418). He loved it. But then, everyone loves that record. If there's one album everyone must own, regardless of musical tastes, it would be this one—but preferably in the more recent 45rpm edition. McNeilis and Shirke invited me to again visit the SME factory, but as I'd been there only three years before, I filed the invitation away.


argyle_mikey's picture

So glad you enjoyed your trip to our beautiful county, fellow Mikey ! I’m lucky enough to live in a bit of a hifi hotspot. Whilst much manufacturing goes on overseas, we still have SME, B&W, Harbeth, Spendor, Exposure and Bespoke with HQ”s here (I’ve forgotten another speaker maker I think) in what is still a proper rural area. You could make a half decent system from that.

Incidentally, the lack of lifts (sorry, elevators) in creaky-staired, charming historic buildings really is a regular complaint from our ever-welcome US visitors. No, I’m not making this up.

jjljr's picture

Very-few Apple shareholders want anyone but Mr. Cook leading the company. Who cares if Amazon “beat him to Alexa” - while it would be great if Apple/Cook cared about Hi-Rez audio, I’d rather be retiring in two-years - which I will, largely due to Apple gains.

As for SME - I had a Sony ‘table with an SME tonearm and a Shure V15 cartridge for years. Great stuff. Since the UK will be the first stop on the Retirement World Tour, maybe I’ll stop by there …

sktn77a's picture

"SME....... sold the Elm Grove Lane factory to an upstart speaker maker named Bowers & Wilkins."

Come on, B&W are one of the oldest loudspeaker manufacturers. Check out their P2H floorstanders from the mid 1960s. They grew up with SME and certainly were never an "upstart" company (especially by 1982)!