Analog Corner #291: SME Synergy LP player, Boulder 508 phono preamplifier

Since acquiring SME in late 2016, Ajay Shirke's Cadence Group has moved cautiously. First, it revamped and cleaned up the company's somewhat chaotic worldwide distribution. More recently, the new owners eliminated from the bottom of the line the SME Model 10 turntable, introduced in 2000.

The Model 10 was the first SME turntable to not use the company's familiar O-ring suspension, as well as the first to use the company's M10 tonearm, which was not available separately. The M10 was said to be a derivative of the tapered armtube 309 and, according to SME, a superior performer—though it certainly didn't look better (or even as good). That combo, which I reviewed 19 years ago, then cost $5500 without arm or $5995 with the M10 (about $9000 in today's dollars). In other words, SME threw in the arm for $495, which made it a very good deal.

At the 2018 High End show in Munich, SME introduced the Synergy, a $22,995 luxury plug'n'play turntable; this year, at High End 2019, they debuted the $10,900 Model 12A turntable, which looks very much like the Synergy, minus its full-feature plug'n'play capabilities and fitted with the 309 arm: less costly than the Synergy's Series IV arm. Everything about the 12A shouts "SME" in ways the Model 10 only whispered—and for not that much more money, adjusted for inflation, than the original Model 10.

SME's first-ever integrated turntable
In creating the all-in-one Synergy, SME partnered carefully with three outside suppliers: Nagra supplied the player's built-in MC phono preamplifier (a mains-powered version of their $2395 battery-powered BPS); Ortofon supplied their $4390 Windfeld Ti moving-coil phono cartridge ($2395); and Crystal Cable, in which Mr. Shirke is now a major investor, the tonearm's monocrystal internal wiring and DIN-to-RCA cable. (The silver cartridge leads are from Siltech, which is Crystal Cable's sister company—or, more accurately, their husband company, since Siltech's Edwin van der Kley is married to Crystal Cable's Gabi Rijnveld.)

1119acorn.arm

Conveniently, I've already reviewed the Windfeld Ti (in the August 2017 Stereophile) and the Nagra BPS phono preamp, so I had a good idea what I'd hear going into this review. Plus, I've reviewed the SME Model 15 and other SME 'tables.

The Windfeld Ti features an SLM (selective laser melting) body of titanium, a boron cantilever to which is fitted a Replicant 100 stylus, and coils of gold-plated copper wire. Recommended tracking force is 2.3gm, and it outputs a low 0.2mV.

The Synergy uses the SME 15's approximately 10lb, 12"-diameter platter, which is topped with SME's diamond-turned-and-scrolled Isodamp material, plus a modified version of that 'table's bearing. The three pillars that support the aluminum subchassis, which in turn supports the main bearing assembly/subplatter and tonearm mount, are isolated from their surrounds by means of an aerospace polymer developed to SME's specifications. (SME's new CEO, Stuart McNeilis, comes from the aerospace industry. If you're sensing a pattern here, I am too—a very smart one!)

A high-mass aluminum base sitting on three adjustable feet contains the phono preamp, as well as the Model 20-derived three-phase inductance motor with neodymium permanent magnets and three integrated Hall position sensors. The motor is physically decoupled via large rubber O-rings as is typical in SME motor-isolation designs; drive is via a flat belt fitted around a metal subplatter.

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The motor control unit, housed in an hourglass-shaped, machined aluminum case sculpted to "nest" neatly against the turntable chassis, contains a microcomputer-controlled closed-loop servo system that allows for instantaneous switching between 33.3, 45, and 78rpm. Out of the box, the platter ran ever so slightly slow, but that was no problem—microfine adjustment of each of the three speeds is easily accomplished. The platter got up to speed quickly, and as you can see from the charts, speed consistency was very good.

1119acorn.chart

Together, the main chassis and power supply weigh 35lb; the former measures approximately 15" × 14" × 7", with the latter measuring 6.75" × 12" × 2.65"—a surprisingly compact design, considering the mass.

Setup and use: With this product, SME makes it easy to own a high-performance turntable—though the Synergy is not exactly "plug'n'play." (In fairness, that was my label, not SME's!) Removing the motor-transport locking bolt and adding oil to the spindle bearing are the two most difficult setup items—but considering the price, it's likely a dealer will take care of them. Otherwise, because the arm and cartridge come prealigned, with preset tracking force and antiskating, there's not much left to do—just making sure the chassis is level, connecting the motor and phono preamp umbilicals (the power supply for the built-in Nagra phono pre is moderately large but can easily be placed out of sight), and grounding the turntable itself. So the Synergy is close to plug'n'play.

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If you've never handled or closely examined an SME product, you probably haven't come to the realization that, in terms of build quality and fit'n'finish, few if any turntable manufacturers match or even approach what SME manages. A few brands I can think of that compete are TechDAS and Brinkmann; certainly there are a few others—but not many! And while SME's industrial design is on the austere side—especially the looks of their bigger, squarer 'tables—they also exude a comforting, machine-shop solidity that gives you the feeling they will spin on for your lifetime and those of future generations of vinyl enthusiasts (which we can now be confident there are and will be).

With its one-piece pressure-die-cast magnesium armtube and its obviously high-quality bearings—the latter provide a solid, secure feeling that's especially important for a vinyl newbie—the player's 9.18" Series IV arm, badged with the Synergy logo, is a pleasure to look at, use, and listen to. That said: It doesn't provide for either azimuth or zenith angle adjustability (the headshell isn't slotted), so on those counts, you're at the mercy of the cartridge manufacturer. (That's another good reason for SME to have chosen a top-tier Ortofon.) So those who feel they need the last bit of setup perfection may end up looking elsewhere. This is something SME should address in the future.

It's easy to imagine this handsome-in-an-understated-way piece of high-class machinery gracing the desk of a music-loving executive, or on the shelf of a well-to-do digital audiophile—the kind of guy or gal who says "Let me hear what the big deal is all about with vinyl." Play one good record on this sweet yet detailed-sounding setup, and any skepticism will be digital toast.

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The Windfeld Ti is a high-performance cartridge that extracts and provides a great deal of detail, but it is not at all "analytical" or mechanical sounding. It's sort of the "Dockers" of high-performance Ortofons. The cartridge has a relatively sweet, lush midrange compared to the more detail-oriented Ortofons like the A95 and especially the new Anna Diamond. The Windfeld Ti is harmonically generous, with transients that are clean but don't bite. I went back to my Windfeld Ti review, and what I heard here was essentially what I wrote there.

I revisited the recordings I auditioned for that review (and of course many more), among them the Bach Brandenburg Concertos, with Karl Münchinger conducting the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra (3 LPs, London CSA 2301), and another version with Nikolaus Harnoncourt on cello and conducting the Concentus Musicus Wien, from an original black and gold Das Alte Work Telefunken set (SAWT 9459/60).

I don't know how anyone who hasn't been exposed to great analog reproduction would react with anything but "Wow!" to the sounds of these LPs on the Synergy. The graceful attack and natural sustain produced by this rig and the complete freedom from mechanical artifacts—plus the soundstage three-dimensionality—betters the best digital. I've been playing the Telefunken set for 50 years (!), and it's still dead quiet and never fails to fully engage my attention.

From a grouping of Command Classics recorded to 35mm tape, I pulled out Virgil Fox Plays (Command CC11018SD), which was the very first recording made at Lincoln Center's Philharmonic Hall on the Aeolian-Skinner organ that was later removed during the hall's first major renovation: the first of many failed attempts to get the damn place to sound any good, which it still really doesn't. (The organ ended up at Robert H. Schuller's Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, CA, now a Roman Catholic church.)


Footnote 1: SME Limited, Mill Road, Steyning, West Sussex BN44 3GY England, UK. Tel: (44) (0)1903-814321. Fax: (44) (0)1903-814269. Web: sme-audio.com. US distributor: Bluebird Music Ltd., 1100 Military Trail, Kenmore, NY 14217. Tel: (416) 638-8207. Fax: (416) 638-8115. Web: bluebirdmusic.com.
ARTICLE CONTENTS

COMMENTS
Spla'nin's picture

Thanks for the tuneage and the reviews- we always appreciate it !

tonykaz's picture

I don't see very many used tables on eBay ( other than Thorens ), do folks just put the old tt in the storage closet or set up a Second Turntable for some special purpose use. ( like a back-up )

Maybe Vinyl people are impulse buyers ( kinda like me ) who suddenly give-in and buy a whole new vinyl playback system. ( Headphone people seem to own multiple nice headphones, for some reason ).

I sold SME Arms, back in the day, they always worked but were fiddly with the little dangle weight and silicone dash pots.

I'm curious to learn what makes this $22,000 player an improvement over an owners existing player. ( kinda the price of a Car level of commitment ).

It could be that this Writer/Reviewer specialises in servicing the Caste that is multiple tranches up & beyond while readership simply read all this out of Covid boredom. ( it's gotta be somewhat better than following cutiepie or disputed politics ). This SME is 1/10th the price of the previous $250,000 Table from a short while ago.

So I ask the BIG question : How is this format more worthwhile than Streaming? This question will keep coming back as our civilization advances into the depths of this 21st Century.

The Vinyl/Streaming debate could go-on indefinitely except that Vinyl gear is increasing Astronomically in Cost whilst Streaming is well within reach of anyone able to listen to David Solaman of Quobuz for more than a few minutes of sweetness.

I do the Ben Franklin benefits Close with all the established benefits of both systems.
33.3 didn't do well!

Then again 1),
I know a fella that just outfitted a Vagabond 42 Sailboat for Around the World Solo Sailing, a major expense proposition, completely dangerous, life threatening and isolated.

Then again 2.)
New Vinyl people might be trying for a scalable adventure of discovery, reliving our best years and experiences when we didn't have time or money to absorb the greatness we were living.

Then again 3.)
Mcintosh people are presenting a Las Vegas style Light Show Hi-Fi at their East Coast Place, the Audiophiliac just reviewed it a couple days ago. It the gaudiest dam thing-- gaudiness beyond D'Augistino Gear for gods sake. Its for Dentists and Medical People or higher, much like the Analog Planet stuff except it's got 900 Watt tube/ss Mono Amps with green glowing tubes. Makes a person gasp, on first sight!

All remains well

Tony in Venice

Ortofan's picture

... speculates that the target customer for this product might be, "an audiophile finding a way into vinyl."

volvic's picture

I have four running simultaneously, just like I used to run two CD players simultaneously. Got rid of the CD players as I needed the inputs for the turntables. ;). Thank God for computer audio which has rendered CD players redundant.

tonykaz's picture

Can you play all the imputes simultaneously? are all 4 players playing on top of each other ? is that like a tape player playing 4 channels at once ?

There must be some utility for what you suggest, can you help by explaining ?

I do know of a disc jockey using 2 turntables but that application involves only one turntable in use at any given time.

How did you come by 4 complete turntables.

You might hold the Record except Harry Weisfeld of VPI has quite a few 33.3 music systems in his home.

4 entry level tables today will have about a $80,000 price, wouldn't they?

Tony in Venice

volvic's picture

They all play simultaneously to satisfy my "collecting and hoarding" fetish you so easily denigrate, and they sound marvelous. Ask nicely next time.

tonykaz's picture

You can be angry, if you wish but you had your chances to explain and enlighten.

I once had nearly every Turntable Made, in Stock and operable! Esoteric Audio , Farmington Hills, Mi.

Your posting here suggests a certain openness to discussing your opinions and relevancy .

Tony in Venice

volvic's picture

But in a civil and not sarcastic manner. Mockingly asking questions gets you ignored. Have a lovely existence. You’ve lately become too acerbic for any meaningful discourse. Bye!

tonykaz's picture

Acerbic is sharp & focused. Hmm.

Do you realise that all this is Opinion?

Are we looking for pleasant platitudes here ?, discussing an entry level $22,000 record player.

I'm an Engineer and turntable specialist.

Platitudes would be for $3 Audiophile fuses, not for critical evaluations about our Marketplace or the price for entry level Transducer systems. for gods sake.

Meaningful discourse is, by nature, focused!

Tony in Venice

Ortofan's picture

... by deciding to discontinue the separate sale of SME tonearms?

volvic's picture

Mr. Fremer posted this review one month before SME ceased selling arms separately. I will put in my two cents worth and find Mr. Shirke's decisions and pricing to be counterproductive to the well being of SME, and I am being very diplomatic. I also find his decisions and pricing with the Garrard brand to be worrisome, what Mr. O'Sullivan did with Loricraft over the years was extraordinary and I am now concerned SME will make the same strategic mistake with that brand as well. Time will tell but I look at what Gunter Kurten is doing at Thorens and find his approach to be far more refreshing than what Ajay Shirke has done to SME.

Ortofan's picture

... the website - and assuming that the original author is still on board with the magazine - perhaps that staffer could be offered the opportunity to add a postscript reflecting any relevant information or developments that have come to light during the intervening time.

dial's picture

Nobody buys SME tonearms separately anymore, I personnaly got me a Project "Genie S" hugely discounted (125 $ and so my Thorens 318/SME 3009 II is on sale). With Jelco's (ultimate ?) demise (their prices weren't appealing considering the famous quality ratio*) , you can own for example a Michell Engineering T2 (a super Rega 220) for 300 $ ! As I know price is important, for perhaps better results buy a Shick (it's without antiskate that said but some have detachable headshell, the 12" is 2000$ or so...).

* it was difficult to adjust the height on modern models

volvic's picture

SME made the decision almost a year go to stop selling them to the public. I can tell you from my hi-fi and analog groups that numerous people owned the newer models and were stunned to see SME make that decision. Schick is a great tonearm but the weight times are long and it won't work on every turntable, SME had a complete range of arms for different tables. As good as the Project, Rega and Jelco arms are they are not in the same category as the SME arms, I should know I own five of them and have owned numerous tonearms over the years, none of them had the fit and finish and sonics the SME arms offer. The only one that was their equal was the Alphason HRS arm I owned that I now regret selling, it was better than my late serial number Ittok LVIII MK2.

dial's picture

Why do you mean by not working on every turntable ? What SME do you use ? By category you mean price or technology or both ? I was in several audiophile groups too but for vinyl it's difficult to offer scientific results. Myself still own my Goldmund Studio2/Magnepan/Ortofon X3 mainly to record on PC.

volvic's picture

Two people in two different groups had the Schick and were underwhelmed with it, which surprised me considering the great press the arm has received. One had it on a 301 the other on a TD-124. Both people are individuals whose opinion I respect, one swapped for a Jelco and preferred it and the other I don't recall what he switched it for maybe Groovemaster but don't quote me.

Both; category and price - The SME's are far better than the arms you mentioned.

I own five; two IV's, one 309 that are mounted on different tables and one M2-9r and M2-9 waiting for new tables. Are they the best arms on the planet? Of course not but the leap in quality I got over the Regas, Profile, Linn Basik, and other arms I cannot even remember now was impressive. Also, the ability not to spend endless hours fiddling with the overhang was so easy to do with the SME. Fit and finish is the best I've seen and the customer service is stellar.

dial's picture

I owned a Basik+, an Akito, Rega RB 300, Goldmund T3B, Syrinx PU 3 and many turntables. Still have a Delaleu and of course as said a 3009 from the sixties and a Magneplanar.
The problem with the Schick is no antiskating is provided on the 12". The Groovemaster must be excellent.

volvic's picture

Yes, and I think they are pretty competitively priced if memory serves correctly.

dial's picture

Cheaper than the Schick. Despite a 10% price increase.

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