SME Model 12A Turntable Review
David Price takes this iconic analogue brand's new middleweight machine for a spin…
Model 12A Turntable
US$11,900 | S$16,000
For decades SME was regarded as a rather quaint, almost stuffy, purveyor of quintessentially British hi-fi tonearms. The 3009 was, of course, the brand's staple – it sold bucketloads for much of the nineteen sixties and seventies, all the way through vinyl's harvest years. Although it looked dated for much of its life, there was no denying the sheer quality of the product, alongside some ingenious design touches that made setting this arm up an absolute pleasure.
In 1979, the quirky SME Series III arrived on the scene. It was a bold attempt to design a tonearm for the (then) brave new world of low mass, high compliance moving magnet cartridges that were in fashion back then, but it arrived just a little too late. By the late seventies, the market was moving to low compliance, high mass moving coils, and the III simply wasn't the right tool for the job. The Steyning-based company decided it was time for a radical rethink.
The nineteen eighties was a watershed for SME. Instead of listening to the doomsayers who were predicting the end of the vinyl LP, it launched the radical new Series IV and V tonearms. These were ultra-modern, state-of-the-art designs that completely disrupted the late eighties analogue market. Soon, a range of turntables followed featuring these new arms as standard – and almost overnight the company became the maker of some of the finest vinyl front ends in the world.
From then until recently, you might say that SME had somewhat rested on its laurels. After the passing of founder Alastair Robertson-Aikman in 2006, his son Cameron took over the reins and proved a 'steady as she goes' hand. The company was then acquired by Ajay Shirke's Cadence group, who appointed former aerospace man Stuart McNeilis as Chief Executive Officer, and things began to change. At the time, McNeilis told me that this was to free up time for SME to focus on designing and manufacturing products, instead of selling them.
Both SME's audio side and its precision engineering business have been relaunched, with the former remaining more important in terms of revenue. The company still does engineering work for other hi-fi manufacturers, plus the medical sector and Formula 1 motor racing. A couple of years ago, the appearance of the Synergy turntable/arm/cartridge/phono stage package was an early sign of the changes to come, and more recently the new Model 12A has started making waves.
According to Stuart this deck now accounts for around a third of total SME turntable sales. Costing US$11,900 | S$16,000 – including a 309 tonearm – it's the replacement to the now discontinued Model 10. McNeilis told me that, “the Model 12A provides the modern look and style of Synergy with a much higher specification and performance than the outgoing 10… it appeals to a wide range of high-end audio enthusiasts wanting the quality and precision that SME represents.”
This expertly made and finished turntable weighs a not inconsiderable 25.9kg. As you'd expect, both deck and arm are beautifully finished and a tactile delight; there's always been something rather lovely about hand-cueing an SME tonearm, and this is no exception. According to the manufacturer, the Model 12A shares the power supply unit, motor and isolation system with the old Model 10, but has a more substantial chassis and subchassis, higher specification main bearing and heavier platter.
The deck is a three-tier structure, starting with a sturdy cast aluminium base. The top-level houses the tonearm, bearing assembly and inner platter, while the motor is isolated by small rubber bands. On top sits the same platter as the pricer Model 15, and its 4.6kg weight spins up swiftly as soon as you touch the electronic control unit. The latter offers 33.3, 45 and 78 rpm speeds, with +/-0.01% fine pitch adjustment. There's also a 'lock' LED to confirm when the deck is running at precisely the right speed, as determined by a microprocessor running the deck's closed-loop servo system.
This package comes with an SME 309 tonearm, but you can specify either a Series IV or Series V. Having sampled all this company's tonearms over the years, I would say the 309 is a great choice but would bet that a Series IV would sound better still. Either will track the best moving coil cartridges happily, but the latter will eke out a few percent more detail. The former's downsides are its slightly less well-toleranced bearings – still better than almost all others, however – and its detachable headshell. Some see the latter as hi-fi heresy, but there's no denying that if you need to regularly swap cartridges, this facility is essential. I know of several hi-fi reviewers who use this model for precisely this reason. The armtube/headshell coupling that SME uses on the 309 is super-solid. The deck comes in a choice of black, dark blue and grey finishes.
Setting up the Model 12A gives you the chance to get up close and personal with its lovely engineering touches – especially the tonearm with its sled system that makes cartridge alignment a joy, compared to any conventional tonearm. After unboxing the deck, you need to remove three transit bolts to free the platter, and another two loosened, then the motor locking bolt is undone from the rear. The motor's PSU cables are then plugged in, and the arm's RCA cable is attached along with twin phono lead earths to the deck's ground, and the motor earth to its earthing point. Fit the belt, place the main platter on the sub-platter, and you're off. Although supplying dealers would typically do all this, this deck's relative ease of setup means that people in remote locations can sort it themselves without any specialist equipment, in under an hour. An EMT JSD 5 moving coil was fitted for this review.
There are two distinct facets to the SME Model 12A's sound – its super-clean, detailed and even character, and its superb stereo imaging. Add to this a generally engaging musical demeanour, and you have the personification of a modern high-end turntable. It's not like a high-end superdeck from the nineteen seventies or eighties, trying to impose its unique character on you. Instead, this turntable does the reverse, stepping aside as much as possible to deliver an engaging yet matter-of-fact sound. It does little in the way of embellishment or editorialising.
Give the Model 12A a great eighties rock recording like Simple Minds' New Gold Dream, and you're instantly immersed into the unique studio sound. Bass is a little dry – just as it should be – and you can clearly discern those trademark over-damped nineteen-eighties snare drum thuds. There's a good deal of detail and an easy, effortless quality that helps the listener get into the groove. Singer Jim Kerr's voice sounded exceptionally natural, his vocals garnished by reverb that imbued the track with a dreamy, almost mystical sound. In the background, swathes of synthesisers floated around, underpinning the drum, bass guitar and guitar work beautifully.
With the softer, fluffier sound of the late sixties folk/rock magnum opus Country Girl by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, I found the SME was able to scavenge huge amounts of detail. This sounds like an old, opaque recording from the mists of time on most decks. Yet this turntable was able to pull off that trick that only great high-end designs can do, which is to usher you into a whole new world of granular detail that takes you right to the recording studio door, so to speak. It's magic that – good as hi-res streaming now is – I've never heard from digital. Not only that, but the listener is never reminded of how low-fi this fifty-plus year old recording is. Instead, you find yourself delighting at the rawness of the guitar sound, the sparkling harmonics of the electric organ and the lovely vocal harmonies of four geniuses involved in this classic track.
To me, this is interesting because it's fair to say that in earlier times, SME turntables could be a tad analytical for my tastes. Their immense detail resolving ability was a spectacular hi-fi feat, yet I sometimes found myself missing the point of it all. That's a criticism that you cannot level at the latest Model 12A; it keeps the music magic and preserves the mood. That's not to say that it has a particularly romantic sound, however, because it doesn't; it isn't one of life's dreamers, making things up as it goes along. Feed it some cool, icy electro in the shape of Kraftwerk's The Telephone, and it captures the sterile, clinical feel of the recording perfectly.
With a track such as this, the SME can really show off its insight – reminding me that 'analogue disc' (as the Japanese call vinyl) is an immensely high-resolution medium, limited only by the microscopic undulations of the record groove. The format may be technically flawed and compromised, yet when it's working properly – which isn't often, admittedly – it's capable of stunning results. The Kraftwerk track worked brilliantly in every way, but one aspect that seized my attention most was the tonal purity. Synthesised electronics create a pristine sound, and the Model 12A didn't sully things one single bit.
In absolute terms, compared to the best turntables money can buy – including the SME's more expensive bigger brothers – I noticed a slight softening of low bass, right at the very bottom. This was more apparent with tracks like Manix's Alright Wid Me – a mid-nineties drum and bass classic that's a sonic assault course for any turntable. The Model 12A doesn't quite have the 'hewn from granite' low end of its siblings; things are just a little lightened and loosened. Yet this is trivial in the grand scheme of things, and more importantly, its bottom end was always enjoyably tuneful.
At the other end of the frequency spectrum, the SME was delightfully clean and extended – better than I remember the Model 10 ever being. It's quite a thing to hear a high-end turntable do intricate cymbal work, for example. Rush's Subdivisions is always a great test of this, as it's blessed with some amazing ride cymbal smashing from the band's percussion maestro Neil Peart – not to mention all his other theatrics with pan rolls, rim shots, bass drum punches, and so on. This deck carried things brilliantly, with a lovely silky sheen to cymbals, alloyed to a sonorous metal clang. Only decks with super-accurate speed stability can deliver such an authentic sound.
I remember the Model 10A's sound staging to be excellent in some respects, but wanting in others. Compared to my (then) reference Michell Orbe it was considerably less wide, left-to-right, but did hang images back further and was also more precise about where it put individual elements of the mix. Indeed, by comparison, the Michell almost sounded more like someone had pressed a 'stereo wide' button, despite it losing a little stage depth. The 12A appears better in this respect; it delivered a decently expansive recorded acoustic from Rose Royce's Wishing On a Star, and I got no sense of things being hemmed in or constrained. The result was a lovely, vibrant, tactile stereo soundscape that made the most of this surprisingly good recording – a suitable tribute to this soaring disco-era soul song!
The Model 12A is not infallible of course, and better high-end turntables do exist. Yet it does more in some respects to justify its price than rivals like Linn's similarly priced LP12 variant and the aforementioned Michell Orbe. Each respective design has its own unique character, of course, so ultimately you should hear for yourself. Yet if you're after something that's there or thereabouts on pretty much every performance metric at the price, then give this gorgeous package a serious listen. To my ears, it's quite a lot better than the old Model 10A and now stands on its own two feet – so to speak – as a serious performance choice.
Despite the pandemic, SME turntable sales have risen by thirty percent over the past year, and that looks set to be bolstered by the launch of the new £6,295 entry-level Model 6 which will be reviewed on StereoNET soon. Yet it's still the Series 12A that forms the lion's share of the sales, and deservedly so. Here's a beautifully made, top-grade, user-friendly turntable without the complexity of the company's ultra high-end designs, and only a little less of its performance.
Stuart McNeilis adds: “As 2021 is a milestone year for SME at seventy-five years, we plan some exciting new turntables to join our highly credible and comprehensive turntable range.” There's no doubt that the company's fusty image of yore has long gone, yet it's to everyone's relief that SME hasn't discarded its engineering and design quality with it. The brand is going from strength to strength.
David started his career in 1993 writing for Hi-Fi World and went on to edit the magazine for nearly a decade. He was then made Editor of Hi-Fi Choice and continued to freelance for it and Hi-Fi News until becoming StereoNET’s Editor-in-Chief.
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