SME 60 record player

Creating a new flagship model is never an easy task for an audio company. A good designer will have already incorporated all his or her best ideas into the prior flagship. For a follow-up, you typically get a scaled-up version of what came before, incorporating the kind of improvements a bigger budget will allow.

SME's history is well-documented. The company started out, in 1946, as an engineering company for hire. In 1959, after a few years supplying parts for the scale modeling and various other high-tech industries, company founder Alastair Robertson-Aikman wanted a better tonearm for his personal use. He leveraged the capabilities of his small engineering company to create what eventually became the legendary 3009 and 3012 tonearms. The reputation of the new arms spread quickly, and from the mid-1960s through the 1970s, SME dominated the high-end tonearm market. SME's corporate slogan was The Best Pick-Up Arm in the World, and few people at the time would have challenged that claim.

Sadly, AR-A died in 2006. The company was handed down to AR-A's son, Cameron, who steered the ship until 2016 then sold the family business to Cadence Audio. (I knew Cameron Robertson-Aikman when we were kids in the 1970s, in the same year at school, so my tenuous connection to SME goes back a long way!)

Two types of companies make turntables, I've found: the type that assembles them from outsourced parts and the kind that manufactures them. Most high-end turntable companies fall into the first group: They use subcontractors to make most if not all of the 'table's component parts, to the turntable company's specific design and specifications. Turntable manufacturers, on the other hand, build the individual parts themselves—most of the parts anyway, including the key parts—then assemble them to create a finished product. Usually only bigger companies with deep pockets can manage this; larger production numbers justify the investment in costly machine tools. SME, on the other hand, has survived as one of a handful of small, specialist turntable and tonearm manufacturers that build the mechanical parts for themselves, in part by continuing to take on subcontracting jobs, much as the company did when it was founded more than 75 years ago.

When you make everything yourself, you have much more control over the process, and you can introduce small changes quickly with relative ease. Prototyping is much faster, making it easier to try out different solutions to a problem without having to wait for a subcontractor to make the required parts.

When you walk into the SME factory in Steyning, England, you see rooms crammed with state-of-the-art manufacturing—giant CNC milling machines and lathes—whirring away making turntable and tonearm parts. Almost every mechanical part they use, down to the tiniest screws and washers, is made in their factory to the same exacting standards as more substantial parts like bearings and platters.

For more than 30 years, SME's audio business was strictly all about tonearms, but in 1990, they took the next logical step by producing their first turntable, the aptly named Model 30. The Model 30 was an all-out effort to deliver state-of-the-art performance. It raised the performance bar in many ways, but the timing wasn't so great. In 1990, vinyl records were fading into oblivion as CDs came to dominate the prerecorded music market; launching the costly Model 30 made about as much sense then as introducing a state-of-the-art fax machine would today. But the company survived and versions of the Model 30 are still in production. Thirty-plus years have passed, and vinyl has come roaring back. So, recently, SME decided to rethink the challenge of building the best turntable possible when cost is not a concern.

The Model 60 shares much of its mechanical design with the Model 30, but with everything maxed out and fully optimized. One key difference from the 30 is the switch to an AC synchronous motor, replacing the DC motors used in all their prior turntables. Generally, AC motors are considered to offer a tighter grip on a turntable's platter speed, but unless it's handled carefully, an AC motor can be a little noisier and not quite as smooth as a DC motor. SME went to great lengths to minimize noise, providing the Model 60's motor with an extremely pure AC waveform, provided by a power supply split into two chassis to isolate the motor from potential noise sources. Apparently, SME was impressed enough with the new AC motor drive system developed for the Model 60 that they have now incorporated AC motors into almost every SME turntable, creating new MK2 versions.

Another component that has seen extensive reworking for the Model 60 is the Series V tonearm, now designated Series VA; the A stands for "Advanced." In my brain, I still tend to think of the Series V arm as a relatively recent model, but it was launched way back in 1986. It has remained in production, with just a few minor changes, for more than 35 years. The Series VA doesn't replace the Series V; the older version remains in production for use with the Model 30, 20, 15, and 12 turntables. The Series V's cast-magnesium-alloy armtube is one of the few mechanical parts brought in from an outside supplier, but for the VA arm, an entirely new type of armtube is machined in-house from a solid block of polymer resin. This new design has a trilobular cross section, which SME says increases stiffness. The advanced polymer resin is said to be far more self-damping than the old magnesium casting.

A minor cosmetic issue plagued the old Series V arm. Over time and repeated use, the plastic armrest clip would polish the satin paint finish on the armtube. After a few years of use, you would begin to see a narrow shiny band in the paint across the top of the tube. This problem has been solved on the VA by replacing the clip with a U-shaped cup, which the arm simply rests in when not in use. This is an example of the kinds of simple optimizations SME has performed for the Model 60.

Over the years, SME has used several suppliers for their tonearms' internal wiring. Now that SME is part of Cadence Audio, it makes sense that the arms now use wiring from another Cadence company, Crystal Cable. The connections between the various power supply boxes also got attention, and these interconnections are made by cables supplied by another Cadence company, Crystal's sister company, Siltech.

Despite its shelf-bending 105lb weight and its utter solidity, the Model 60 is compact compared to many other mega turntables. At around 22" by 16½" deep, it's only about 4" wider and 3" deeper than the already surprisingly compact Model 30, while the weight is up by about 15%. The word that comes to mind when you handle the Model 60 is dense, and while it may not overwhelm anyone visually due to its massive size, most people will revise that opinion the first time they attempt to lift or move it.

Perhaps the most visually distinctive feature of the older Model 30 is its four suspension towers, each of which holds up one corner of the rectangular upper plinth using 12 rubber suspension bands. The Model 60 uses a similar damped rubber band system to isolate and suspend the upper plinth, but with additional horizontal bands to control its lateral movement as well. Also in the Model 60, the rubber suspension bands are all hidden away inside the four corner towers, making the turntable look sleeker and less fussy.

Unpacking and setup
The Model 60 arrived beautifully packed and immaculately presented, as SME products tend to do. Everything comes in a single large wooden crate, which has an additional internal wooden divider for added strength. The parts are nestled in a series of layered high-density foam trays, which provide excellent protection and cushioning.

The first piece to come out of the crate, conveniently, is the main chassis. As it weighs nearly 90lb, SME sensibly says this needs to be a two-person lift, with one person at each end. SME's importer, Bluebird Music, generously offered to send someone to assist with the lifting and to help with the setup, but I decided instead to get a workout and do it myself. My chiropractor says thank you.

That very first lift is the only physically challenging part of the setup; once you have the plinth positioned, the rest of the work is straightforward. SME has always provided excellent tools with their products—most of the tools are also made in-house—and the Model 60 comes complete with every tool required to complete an accurate and comprehensive setup. Those of us who work with a lot of turntables tend to have our own preferred gadgets for performing various setup tasks, and the SME way of doing things doesn't always make it easy to use alternate tools and approaches with their products. More about that later.

The rest of the Model 60 setup will be familiar to anyone who has worked with a Model 30 or 20; with all three 'tables, you follow the same basic steps. Once the main unit is on your stand, you level it by rotating the corner feet. Next, the motor's transit screw is removed, and the motor is leveled using the thin end of the supplied feeler gauge and the motor housing's three adjustable spikes. Next, top up the main bearing oil, which comes mostly filled, then back out the subplatter's transit screws. At this point, the subplatter can spin freely, so install the belt and place the main platter on the inner platter.

SME Limited
Mill Rd., Steyning
West Sussex BN44 3GY
(416) 638-8207

AnalogueFan's picture

The one reviewed on yesterday is much more innovative.

Anton's picture

Well, that's a relief. Those people with more money than brains who spring for 80,000 dollar + turntables really can't be bothered with that tweaky audiophile stuff.

If only SME could make a fully auto table! Or, make a changer!

jimtavegia's picture

I still think that beyond the Model 6 is serious diminishing returns, but YMMV. Then you have to buy a cartridge worthy and then a phono stage, then the rest of your system might need an upgrade. Moves and counter-moves will be in order.

And then there is only a 2-year warranty. A repair on that would not be cheap.

Glotz's picture

Get on your knees and HAIL the greatness of SME!

If it had laser beams, I would only wish it would zap the naysayers.

Ortofan's picture

... "Best Pick-Up Arm in the World" retailed for about $150.
Mount it on a Thorens TD125, a Linn LP12, a Technics SP10 or a Sony PS2251 - none of which cost more than $400 - and that was the state-of-the-art record player of the day. $550 all in, equivalent to $3500 now. They were great performers back then and are still great today.

MhtLion's picture

Great review! I like it. Wish I can afford it.

volvic's picture

Then again, I don’t as an owner of the 10, which I already think is a great table. I’ve heard the 12, and the 20, and each one offers more. I can only imagine how great the 60 is. I want one, but then again I can’t afford one.