SME Series V tonearm Anthony H. Cordesman 1986

Anthony H. Cordesman also reviewed the SME V in September 1986:

I get quite a number of excellent products to review, but I only want to steal a few of them. This list, naturally enough, includes those items where performance has been the design goal regardless of price, or which have superb performance but also some minor quirk that limit their value as references to a reviewer (footnote 1). It is, in many ways, an honor roll of the high-end, including such items as the Koetsu Signature Red, Audio Research SP-11, New York Audio Laboratories OTL-1, Apogee Scintilla, and so on.

Technology Worth Stealing
The SME Series V tonearm joined this list of equipment worth stealing within hours of being mounted on my turntable. The very idea of a $1750 tonearm leads to considerable culture shock, even in this hardened reviewer, and I would dearly love to say it isn't worth the money. Unfortunately, I can't. There is one annoying design problem, but the SME Series V is simply too good. Accordingly, I am forced to adopt the Abbie Hoffman school of reviewing: few may be able to pay this much for a tonearm, but the SME Series V is definitely good enough to steal!

More seriously, the Series V is a superb reference tonearm. It provides virtually every adjustment the audiophile needs, its medium mass is well chosen for most of today's best cartridges, and its variable damping feature allows good performance with even the few cartridges having compliances over 18cu. Most high-end audio products are packaged as if they have somehow escaped from Igor's basement, along with the spare parts for Dr. Frank's latest monster. The SME Series V looks like it had been packaged and shipped by Tiffany's.

It is almost an insult to the manufacturer to say that the bearings appeared superbly made, with just the right amount of freedom from play. In a world where far too many products are half-finished or have obvious quality-control problems, the SME Series V has a finish and overall standard of machining and manufacture which set a new standard for the industry—certainly a new standard for tonearms. All the proper adjustment tools and gauges are provided and—for once—the tonearm cable is really excellent!

Technical and Ergonomic Quibbles and Nitpicks
The arm is so flexible in use that I should probably focus on its few limitations, rather than spend several pages describing its merits. Just assume that where I don't complain, the SME Series V deserves nothing but praise.

This is a medium-mass arm, unsuitable for ultra-high compliance cartridges unless careful attention is paid to damping. Check with Sumiko or SME if you use a cartridge with a compliance over 18cu.

The V can bring the rear of the tapered arm-tube a bit too close to the record with some cartridges and turntables, and can foul on warped records. This problem is not uncommon, and is probably the arm's one really serious design fault. You should check carefully with your cartridge and turntable on a mildly warped record to be sure that the SME V will be compatible. This limited arm clearance at the rear, as the arm moves towards the inner grooves, could mean that the arm will cause problems with some future cartridge or turntable of yours. You can solve the problem in part by putting washers under the arm base, or shims between cartridge body and headshell—clamping down like hell in either case—but that does kind of destroy the whole concept of rigidity around which the SME has been designed. Hopefully, the manufacturer or importer will announce a magic solution . . .

The wires and cables are a little short: about 0.5" more length is needed in the headshell leads to accommodate the Clearaudio cartridge, and another 0.5m in the tonearm cable would be desirable in many installations.

The mounting hole is the standard SME mounting hole, but a few turntables, the Linn for example, require some attention to the woodwork for the cable to clear without fouling. The tonearm cable must be carefully looped to free the suspension in those turntables that are cable-sensitive.

The VTA/SRA adjustment is essentially a one-way adjustment if you adjust while playing, and is not as precisely calibrated as I'd like.

Azimuth adjustment is impossible, except by using shims. This is a significant shortfall, since proper alignment of the cartridge cannot be achieved with many cartridges and tonearm mounting boards without adjustment of tonearm azimuth; even a 5° error can be significant in terms of separation and upper octave performance. But the name of the game is rigidity, and I see no way to provide azimuth adjustment without giving up a level of rigidity which probably has no equal.

The use of an adjustable base to set overhang makes it impossible to twist the cartridge to optimize tangency of the stylus to the groove. A fair number of van den Hul, line-contact, and MR styli come slightly misaligned with the cantilever. This, however, is a laboratory exercise to check; most users will find the inability to introduce errors to a properly aligned stylus to be a major advantage, this feature improving performance over arms which permit play in mounting the cartridge.

If this list seems a bit overwhelming, remember that most fixed headshell pivoting arms also don't provide VTA/SRA adjustment, azimuth adjustment, or flexible overhang adjustment. The Syrinx is the only high quality competition with adjustments in all these areas, but it is not the sonic equal of the SME Series V; nor can the VTA/SRA be adjusted during play.

I should also stress that the SME does what it does with more grace and precision than any tonearm I know of. I could, for example, fool around with overhang while the tonearm was playing; it was fascinating to listen to the effects. Even minor VTA adjustment quickly allows you to tune in the right setting by ear, and no tonearm I have ever used has coped so well with mildly warped records. More important, this is the arm for audiophiles who don't want to tweak, but who do want absolute reliability and consistency. This is a Rolls Royce product: completely hassle-free.

Overall Sound Quality
I must stress that my findings are preliminary; I want to make much more extended comparisons with other arms, using a wide range of turntables. However, I can already say that no pivoting arm I know of is a full rival, the SME Series V simply redefining the state of the art in terms of transparency, detail, and control. It is amazing to see how many "exciting" colorations and resonances in other tonearms disappear with the Series V.

The initial impression is of a slight loss of life and excitement, but only until one really starts to listen. Then, the SME Series V emerges as the arm which sounds musically natural, accurate, and introduces the fewest surprises or question marks. You begin to recognize how much of the musical "life" from moving-coils played on lesser arms simply isn't real, and how important control is in sustaining the natural enjoyment of music. A significant part of the forward or bright sound of many passages turns into more natural depth, imaging, and timbre.

The SME Series V also defines the state of the art in the bass. It has more control, more extension, more frequency resolution, and more true bass than any tonearm around. This is as close to true concert-hall bass as I've ever heard with analog records; in this regard the SME Series V clearly outperforms Sumiko's The Arm and some of the classic high-mass Japanese arms. Not only is the SME unequalled in the bass, it clearly outclasses the Alphason, Syrinx, and Zeta in overall sound quality, consistently providing more convincing detail than these three leading contenders. If you want reference quality in a pivoting arm, the SME is Class A in a world where even the nearest competition is Class B.

Where the SME Series V does have competition—from a few of the very best straight-line-tracking arms—is in the midrange and highs. It has no peer in handling low-to-moderate compliance cartridges, although I cannot rule out the possibility that relatively low-mass pivoting arms, like the Alphason or Well-Tempered arms, would work better with high-compliance cartridges if you encounter problems with the Series V's damping provisions (footnote 2).

Some Initial Comparisons
The three straight-line arms I see as competition are the Goldmund T-3F, Eminent Technology Two, and Souther Triquartz (footnote 3). The Goldmund T-3F has good bass, outperforming the Eminent Technology Two and Souther Triquartz in this area, although I have never heard it equal the SME. It can sometimes provide more inner detail than the SME Series V, particularly in quiet passages, but the SME generally rivals the Goldmund's extraordinary strength: removing the noise from the record to reveal the music.

Both arms are excellent in terms of the feeling of musical life and excitement. The Goldmund sounds more alive and dynamic, the SME Series V more realistic and natural. Even Goldmund owners will admit that their arms are more variable than the pivoting kind, varying slightly in sound quality with the phases of sun, moon, and local power company. In balance, the SME Series V emerges with the same superb control and silencing of external noise and coloration, and more consistent resolution. This, not excitement, is the state of the art in tonearms.

The Eminent Technology and Souther Triquartz are not rivals in the bass and lower midrange to either the SME or the Goldmund, having only good, rather than excellent, bass, regardless of the cartridge used. Both, however, allow very precise adjustment of azimuth; to my ears, this is more important than precise adjustment of overhang, and as important as proper adjustment of VTA/SRA. When properly set up, both also offer a kind of detailing and life which seems extraordinarily realistic.

The SME Series V also always seemed more natural playing orchestral or concert hall music than the Eminent Technology Two or the Souther Triquartz, which, with the optimal cartridges, are slightly more forward in hall position, have slightly more air, and are slightly more dynamic. (Although all three straight-line-tracking arms sound different in small ways, they are remarkably alike from about 100Hz up, in terms of overall sound.) The SME gave a natural listening-position character to the timbre, dynamics, transients, imaging, and depth, while the Eminent Technology and Souther Triquartz seemed to move the listener a bit closer to the performance, slightly elevate the midrange and highs, and add detail and life at the expense of naturalness and sweetness. With chamber music, jazz, solo instruments and voice, however, I kept hearing small differences that simply did not lead me to a clear preference. The Eminent Technology Two also has a special ability to extract musically convincing detail in the mid and upper octaves with low-to-moderate compliance cartridges that makes it a seductive rival to the SME.

In balance, I came to prefer the SME Series V in terms of overall integration of musical dynamics and timbre. Its superb bass and lower midrange kept providing the added degree of natural warmth that I hear in live music, but rarely in home systems. The Series V gave strings, male voice, and woodwinds a special natural quality.

I slightly preferred the Eminent Technology, however, in terms of ultimate resolution of both the top octaves and imaging placement, although the SME Series V was perhaps just slightly superior in depth, and slightly more stable in imaging and centerfill, at the expense of soundstage width. The Souther had similar merits, though it was not as stable or consistent in the details of imaging as the Eminent Technology.

As for cartridge compatibility, the SME Series V gradually emerged as superior. It handled virtually all moving-coils without any damping, although, curiously, it generally sounded better with half the tracking force applied by the counterweight rather than by the spring adjustment. The relatively high horizontal mass of the Eminent Technology Two is not much of a problem with most cartridges, since once the mass starts to move at the start of the record, it keeps moving at a constant rate on any decently centered record (footnote 4). However, the Eminent is still not the arm for the highest-compliance cartridges. The Souther will deal with any moderate-to-high compliance cartridge, but is not the arm for really high-mass, low-compliance, cartridges, or the bigger Kisekis and Koetsus.

Oddly enough, the one thing I never heard was any difference between the pivoting and straight-line arms in terms of inner groove coloration, even at the point of maximum tracking error in the SME. I cannot say that such overhang error is not audible, but I didn't hear it. I would not, therefore, buy a straight-line arm on the grounds that it somehow has superior geometry. In fact, normal parallax and mechanical set-up error may introduce at least as much tracking error with the Eminent Technology and Souther over the entire record as the SME Series V set up with the Dennessen protractor.

This ability to equal the best straight-line tonearms on their home turf is a powerful argument for the sheer simplicity of the SME. The Eminent Technology and Souther now have excellent set-up and adjustment instructions, but they are demanding products and require tweaking. I am sure that many audiophiles with $1750 in loose change may just love to spend hours at such tweaking, but a few may be as lazy as I am. This is the arm for audiophiles who want an arm that can be set up quickly and easily—and then stays set-up.

Is it Really the World's Best?
I cannot say that the SME Series V is the world's best tonearm in every respect. I also feel that something needs to be done in a hurry about raising the rear of the arm-tube to clear warped records, as well as enabling it to work with all turntables.

I can say, however, that the SME Series V is the world's best tonearm in terms of bass response, and is a contender in every other respect. It has already taught me a great deal about what cartridges, turntables, and records are capable of, and if you enjoy live music, you may well find that no other arms is more consistently capable of giving you the natural enjoyment and beauty available from the very best recordings.

I still feel there is more to be learned from comparing the Series V with the Eminent Technology and Souther. Moreover, there is a definite difference between paying $1750 for the SME Series V and paying less than $1000 for the Eminent Technology or Souther Triquartz. Nevertheless, I can't think of a safer purchase than the SME Series V, and I will let you know whether I fall so much in love with the arm that I actually steal it!—Anthony H. Cordesman

Footnote 1: Remember that a reviewer needs extremely broad compatibility in his reference electronics, long term reliability and consistency without change in sound character or tweaking, the ability to quickly move components in and out, the ability to move speakers in and out, and wide-ranging freedom from technical limits that degrade the sound. Consumers have far more freedom in creating a top quality system. All they have to do is listen to music!—Anthony H. Cordesman

Footnote 2: Which I did not encounter, even with an old ADC-10EII and an experimental moving-coil with a compliance over 25cu.—Anthony H. Cordesman

Footnote 3: I have not heard a Goldmund T-5 that approaches the sound quality of the SME Series V, Goldmund T-3F, Eminent Technology Two, or the Souther Triquartz—Anthony H. Cordesman

Footnote 4: Therein lies the rub!—John Atkinson

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!