SME Model 20/12 turntable & 312S tonearm Page 3

Another issue worth considering is the dynamic behavior of a longer, higher-mass tonearm. A longer arm's moment of inertia is greater. It takes the longer arm more time to react to a warp or eccentricity, and more to "settle" again afterward. Applied in moderation, damping, like a car's shock absorbers, can limit excursions and help control arm behavior.

Longer arms require less of an offset angle, which means there's less skating, but there still is some; some means of applying an antiskating force is still required. SME implements it with a tension spring and filament.

To sum up: A 12" tonearm has some minor theoretical advantages, as well as a few disadvantages that, if not properly addressed, will probably outweigh the advantages, in my opinion. SME has adequately addressed these issues, producing, in the form of the 312S, a tonearm that has all of a 12" arm's theoretical advantages and none of its disadvantages. Whether it's worth spending the extra money for those advantages is another issue.

Well-balanced sound
Using the SME 20/12 was about as easy as using a turntable can be. It was trouble-free, it got up to speed within seconds, and its speeds were precisely correct. As with other SME 'tables, the platter surface is made of a softer-than-vinyl material called Isodamp, which is diamond-turned with a fine scroll to produce a fiber-like finish that SME claims provides superior record/platter contact. A reflex clamp (supplied) secures the record tightly to the platter surface.

When you pay as much or more for a turntable and tonearm as you might for an automobile, you should expect from the best recordings: deep bass extension coupled with nimble control and expressive touch, "black" backgrounds, fully realized microdynamic expressiveness, and unlimited macrodynamic explosiveness with equally robust control.

You should also expect tightly focused images, free of grain and edge, that maintain a supple three-dimensionality, clarity, and specificity, no matter their size. You should expect harmonic generosity that fully expresses instrumental colors, and textural resolve that produces both the hardest edges and softest touches with equal finesse—and, when required, simultaneously. Transients should be resolved with the speed and cleanness heard in concert, but without the hardness and brittleness so common in reproduced sound.

Attacks should be fast, sustains prolonged, and decays should be natural, extending into a real-world pitch-blackness that digital enthusiasts don't believe is possible from analog. Noise should inhabit a spatial zone far removed from any musical information. Unwanted impulses, such as pops and clicks, should be heard as brief, well-damped episodes that quickly dissolve.

In other words, when you spend $28,000, the sound should approach transportive reality with zero mechanical aftertaste. The sounds of the playback mechanism should be neutralized. The wires holding up the flying actors should be invisible. All of this, of course, is made possible only by speed accuracy and control that surpass the limitations of record eccentricity.

The SME 30/2 could manage all of that. So could the Rockport Technologies System III Sirius, though I don't recall it having provided the 30/2's bottom-end heft and weight. Until the Continuum Audio Labs Caliburn entered my life, the 30/2 was the best turntable I'd heard.

Too many intervening system changes prevent any sort of meaningful comparison of the 30/2 and 20/12. Still, I can confidently say that the 20/12, while having excellent bottom-end extension and cleanness of line, lacked the bigger 'table's subterranean weight—which is not to say that that's a deficiency. Some 30/2 detractors with whom I've spoken argue that the bigger 'table is "overdamped" and somewhat "thick" on bottom.

But I didn't hear it that way back in 2003, and based on hearing the 30/2 elsewhere, I still don't. Then again, my system at that time couldn't reproduce the bass weight, cleanness, and authority it now can. It's possible that those who think the 30/2 is too heavy on bottom may find the 20/12's tight, deep, yet nimble bass performance just right. When you spend big bucks on a turntable—or loudspeakers, for that matter—two things you should get are exceptional bass extension and, especially, bass control. The 20/12 delivered both.

For a review of a recent reissue, on 180gm vinyl, of The Band's eponymous second album (Capitol), I spent an entire day comparing various pressings played on the 20/12 with Lyra's Titan i cartridge installed in the 312S arm. That cartridge can carve out all of the bass weight and textural details found in any record, and proved a good match for the SME combo.

The Band was mostly recorded in Los Angeles, in Sammy Davis, Jr.'s pool cabana, which the group had turned into a studio with the help of Capitol engineers. The cabana was thickly padded and damped, and Levon Helm played an antique, wooden-rimmed drum kit keyboardist Garth Hudson had picked up in an L.A. pawnshop. All of this helped give the record a thick, woody sound that, when played back on most late-1960s turntables, turned the production into sonic mud.

Kudos to original mastering engineer Bob Ludwig (look for "RL" in the "deadwax" near the label) for not rolling off the master tape's bottom end. Played back on the best modern turntables, the original edition of The Band conveys the group's sonic and musical intentions, and does so better than does any reissue, vinyl or CD.

The 20/12's rendering of the thumpy kick drum and the thwack of Helm's meaty snare was somewhat drier and less infused with skin than through my far more expensive reference 'table, the Continuum Audio Labs Caliburn with Cobra arm, nor was it as sensationally dynamic—but the day's listening answered the question I asked in the February issue, at the end of my review of VPI's Super Scoutmaster Reference Rim Drive: What, if anything, do you gain by moving from the $8200 VPI to a turntable costing more than $25,000, especially given the VPI's impressive bass performance?

With the SME 20/12, at any rate, you get plenty on the bottom, assuming your speakers can deliver bottom-octave density, control, extension, and—especially—textures. I recorded the outputs of both 'tables with my Alesis Masterlink; comparisons of the resultant CD-Rs (to keep the comparison fair), showed that while the SME didn't produce more bass than the VPI, it produced tighter, cleaner, more controlled, and better-proportioned bass. The SME better revealed the room sound behind the players, reproduced producer John Simon's occasional tuba in greater relief and with more detail, and presented Helm's drum kit in explosively clean three dimensions while better separating out Rick Danko's bass-guitar lines.

Nor did the 20/12 produce the Super Scoutmaster's "balance that, on top, leaned slightly toward the warm, enticing side of neutral." Instead, it opened up wide, deep vistas of air and space, producing levels of grit- and grain-free transparency, and especially finely drawn and stable image specificity, that only the top-tier combos of turntable and tonearm can produce.

Classic Records' 200gm reissue of Neil Young's Massey Hall 1971 (Reprise/Classic 43328-1) produced an impressively black backdrop out of which rose a palpable yet subtle sense of hall space behind a stable, tightly focused image of Young and his acoustic guitar and piano. When Young sang and played quietly, the hall was only a sensation. When he brought up the volume a small amount, the sense of space opened up. When he really raised it, the echo of his voice ricocheted well behind him and around the room, producing a far greater indication of the size of the space.

The ability to define and control these low-level dynamic gradations—not to mention reproduce and control the big ones—are among the important performance characteristics that separate the cardboardy, dynamically restricted performance of low-priced turntables from the costlier rigs. Better to limit an inexpensive turntable's deep bass than try to reproduce it at the expense of control and rhythmic drive. This is one reason the less expensive Rega turntables have been so successful: they get the rhythmic drive right while trimming the extension on bottom.

However, the sound of a $28,000 turntable-tonearm combination should have none of these performance compromises, and the sound of the SME 20/12 with 312S didn't—which is not to say it's the very best-sounding turntable you can buy, or that its sound was entirely without character. It aimed for full bass extension and got almost all the way there without compromising rhythmic control. It maintained tonal neutrality and transparency throughout the midband, and extended into the uppermost octaves without adding grit or grain. The 20/12's sound was nonmechanical, with a very low noise floor and excellent control of unwanted impulses. It maintained unwavering image stability and solidity. In fact, the SME 20/12–312S did everything a $28,000 turntable-tonearm combination should.

Are there blacker backdrops to be had? Yes. Are greater bottom-end weight and extension possible, along with even wider macrodynamic range and a somewhat sweeter overall sound? Yes—from the SME 30/2 and the Continuum Audio Labs Criterion, if my sonic memory doesn't fail me, and definitely from the five-times-more-expensive Continuum Caliburn. And there are probably some others I haven't yet heard.

Did the 20/12 have an identifiable sonic character? Switching among familiar cartridges indicated that, tonally, the SME was an essentially neutral carrier. If I had to pin a character on it, I'd say it was on the slightly dry, analytical side, more similar to the SME Model 10 (which I reviewed in the April 2000 Stereophile) than to the Model 30/2.

Were I buying a 20/12, I'd opt for a richer, less analytical cartridge than the Lyra Titan i; say, a Dynavector XV-1s or the Sumiko Palo Santos Presentation, which was just beginning to break in nicely when I had to pack up the 20/12 and ship it out for the cover photo. No doubt the Presentation was voiced on one SME or another.

Were I spending $28,000 on a turntable and arm, I'd insist on build quality as high as is obvious in the SME 20/12 and 312S. At or near the price, I'm not sure anything else comes even close.

The SME Model 20/12 is among the best-built turntables in the world, and with the 312S, one of the most neutral cartridge carriers. Together, they'll fully inform you of any cartridge's sonic qualities and groove-tracing abilities. It would be unfair to say that the combo had "subtractive errors," but it wouldn't be unfair to say that greater bottom-end extension and weight can be had from the 20/12's bigger brother, the Model 30/2, and elsewhere, if at far greater cost.

However, you could also spend a great deal more and get not much more for it than a lot of unnecessary engineering hocus-pocus, grandiosity, and showmanship. You could also spend more for homemade brews that can't begin to compete with the SME 20/12's machining excellence.

As for the value of a 12" tonearm: I believe that, because of the tradeoffs involved, the advantages can be more theoretical than actually realized in the real world. The numbers appear to back me up: there's more distortion added by other elements of vinyl playback and by the other components in your system than by the distortions created by the tracking errors of 9" arms. I've come to feel the same about tangential tracking, but I'm always open to be proven wrong. Certainly, in the 312S, SME has produced a tonearm that has all of a 12" arm's theoretical advantages and none of its disadvantages. But whether it's worth spending the extra money for those advantages is another issue.

One thing's for sure: Should you have $28,000 to invest in a turntable-tonearm combination, you can't go wrong with the SME 20/12.

SME Ltd.
US distributor: Sumiko
2431 Fifth Street
Berkeley, CA 94710
(510) 843-4500