SME Model 20/12 turntable & 312S tonearm

Much has happened in the analog world since I reviewed SME's flagship Model 30/2 turntable for the March 2003 Stereophile (footnote 1). Back then, spending $25,000 on a turntable (without tonearm) was an odd extravagance intended only for those seriously committed to the format, and who already owned large LP collections. Although new LPs were being pressed in growing numbers, the resurgence of vinyl was still spotty, and the long-term prognosis for the old medium remained in question.

Not any more. In 2009, we're in the midst of an explosion of new vinyl capable of vaporizing the bank accounts of all but the very wealthiest audiophiles. Whatever your musical tastes (save for new classical and jazz releases), with a few clicks of a desktop mouse you can go from 0 to 1000 worthwhile new records—and an equal number of unworthy candidates.

Although the Internet is now the world's largest new and used record store, a network of resilient bricks-and-mortar survivors keep alight the flame of the indie record store. Forgive the morbid thought, but the record collections of aging baby boomers will soon be producing yet another unparalleled wave of vinyl-buying opportunities.

So while spending $25,000 on an SME 30/2 turntable makes more sense today than it did in 2003, that 'table will now set you back $36,000 without arm, or $40,000 with the SME V. As I said, much has changed since 2003. To accommodate their new 12" tonearm, the V12, SME has introduced the larger, more massive Model 30/12 turntable—and that combination will set you back $50,000.

While you catch your breath, consider SME's new 20/12. This somewhat smaller, lighter version of the 30/12, complete with 312S 12" tonearm, will empty your wallet of $28,000. While that's still a lot of money, and puts the 20/12 beyond the reach of most, a grasp of the engineering rationale and construction highlights of this no-nonsense, exquisitely designed and built turntable is not.

Still built to run O-rings 'round the competition
The Scale Model Equipment Company Limited (SME) was founded in 1946 by Alastair Robertson-Aikman to meticulously build scale-model trains and cars and, later, aircraft instrumentation, among other things. Alastair got into the tonearm business by accident in 1959, when he designed and built one for his own use. He died in 2006, but his son, Cameron, has carried on, and today SME is heavily invested in the medical and automotive fields—and still builds turntables and tonearms.

SME sticks to Robertson-Aikman's original design principles for good reason—their turntables' overall build quality, fit'n'finish, and machining have rarely been equaled, and never been surpassed, by any other turntable manufacturer of my experience. The 20/12 is a tank-like machine built to higher than mil-spec tolerances. If you think of the SME 30/12 as a somewhat larger edition of the 30/2, you can think of the 20/12 as a slightly smaller, somewhat slimmer version of the 30/12.

The quality of the construction and of the engineering thinking are evident, even if the look is more machine-tool industrial than highly stylized or even remotely sexy: There has never been, nor will there probably ever be, a candy-apple, gloss-red SME turntable. As I wrote of the 30/2, "this impressive hunk of black metal is not the turntable to impress your friends with—until you play a record on it."

Sensible setup for a sensible design
SME designs its turntables for easy setup, though more likely than not the purchase price will include setup by the dealer. The Model 20/12 arrives tightly packed inside a heavy-duty cardboard crate, its key components locked down to prevent damage during shipping. The drive platter is secured by four setscrews, and a pair of more substantial bolts seals the platter bearing's silicone-damping reservoir, should you need to transport the 'table. The four-point suspension is also screwed down snugly, and a bolt inserted through the bottom of the lower chassis secures the motor. As I freed the drive platter and gave it a spin, unscrewed the motor-locking bolt that allowed the chassis's four steel points to rest comfortably and securely on an elastomer damping platform set into the lower plinth, then freed each of the four suspension towers to a clearance precisely set with a supplied gauge, I felt the 20/12 spring to life under my hands.

Which left not all that much to do: connect the motor drive controller; stretch the flat, ground belt over the crowned, precision-machined, stainless-steel motor pulley; and fit the oversized, 14.3-lb platter. The rigid, compact, no-nonsense, dense Model 20/12 —it weighs almost 75 lbs—was ready for a spin. Still, I couldn't play a record until I'd mounted the 312S tonearm and leveled the turntable by adjusting the threaded feet, which contact the user's choice of turntable-mounting platform via integrated balls or compliant inserts.

Footnote 1: SME Ltd.'s US importer, Sumiko, advertises on my website,
SME Ltd.
US distributor: Sumiko
2431 Fifth Street
Berkeley, CA 94710
(510) 843-4500