Tone arm-and-a-leg: SME V

Taking a break from the marvellous conversations sparked by recent interactive posts, I want to catch up on events in the audiophile department. I am also going to post some more records shortly, but LJC will be back with more polls and interactive questions, don’t worry. Earlier posts remain open if you want to add to those, you are welcome.  I have had some terrific suggestions. Thinking of suggestions, when I was playing in a band many years ago someone came up to us and asked:  Do you do requests?  Sure, I said, what would you like us to do?  Why don’t you hurry up and get off the stage!

It’s my blog, and we are going to have a little variety.

Live music versus recorded live music

One of the highlights of the National Audio Show the other week was an interesting presentation by a sound engineer of the difference between live music and a recording of live music. An acoustic guitarist played, following which we listened to a recording of what we had just heard – a Nagra 24/196 digital recorder, played back through an audio monitor system, of course. It was with some relief I thought the musician playing sounded better than the digital recording, but it was a close-run thing. If anything the digital  playback sounded fuller and richer than the real thing  – hi fi added qualities. A lot attention is given to these qualities by hi fi enthusiasts, and I wouldn’t have been surprised if some of the visitors actually preferred the digital replay, a better experience than reality. It was a useful reminder not everyone is looking for the same thing.

“Music, not hi fi”  requires very good hi fi

What I am looking for is always the time machine experience, being transported back to the moment of recording and playing, presence of musicians in the room, not listening to hi fi noting the bass floor or the absence of distortion in the upper register, but following the artists musical intent, the individual  skill and artistry in improvisation,  the responsiveness of the musicians to each other, and the ability to track four or five different instruments simultaneously. At least I don’t have to think about what the words mean, as I have no singers on vinyl (my loss, I am sure).   At times in the past  the hi fi has got in the way, but as you find your way up the upgrade path, you reach a point with the right balance of the right equipment, the hi fi steps aside, offering something very close to the real thing.

It all starts with a good recording

You need a well-engineered recording that is a good pressing to start with, by which I mean vintage vinyl. Whether the music and musicians are any good is entirely a matter of your personal taste. There are people out there with just Dark Side of the Moon on their record shelf. The vinyl source is what it is, but the equipment which reads that source is highly variable in its performance, its ability to retrieve information from the groove and to hand it all over to the amplification department in good order. Vintage records are not matched by vintage hi fi.

A balancing act

The vinyl interface is a balancing act: you need a good turntable, an equally good cartridge, and an equally  good tone-arm.  Since the cartridge and  turntable upgrades, the tone arm has long been a weak point in my system. You also probably  have weak points in your system, even if you don’t think about it.


The SME V tone arm

I’d like to introduce the new arrival chez LJC, the long-awaited arrival of a tonearm worthy of the Dynavector TKR cartridge and the Avid Volvere Sequel turntable, the classic SME V tone arm. In SME’s  own words, this British precision engineering company set out to do what I would have wanted them to do:

“…the challenge is to design and build a pick-up arm which, unlike others in existence, would make no detectable sound contribution of its own.  Series V sound has an almost startling dynamic range and neutrality.  It escapes the ‘LP’ sound and demonstrates that structural resonances in pick-up arms are responsible for much that makes vinyl records readily discernible from master tapes.

What’s more, it looks good, and functions beautifully. Its expense is not small, but not unlike that of the Dynavector TKR, being half the cost of one copy of Blue Note Mobley 1568.


The SME tonearm takes a grip in the music in the groove like nothing I have experienced in the last five years of upgrades. Music comes to life in a way that will bring tears to your eyes, effortless in perfection in dynamic range, rhythm and timing, much-loved records emerge with new beauty.


Functionally, the SME’s precision engineering renders every action smooth, secure and a pleasure to execute. Smooth damping ensures near perfect cueing, the lift stays lifted until you want it to drop.

The Dynavector cartridge is held secure and rigid to allow its profile stylus to do its job with ruthless efficiency – tracking every nuance cut into the vinyl by the stamper/mother/master,  an  effortlessly fast response to multi-tonal complexity, attack and decay, resulting in frightening realism. The sound image is firm and  confident. Well engineered records simply burst into life.

The beast is very difficult to capture photographically in use, so any equipment fetishists might appreciate the “official” slightly clinical rendition:


I am conscious not everyone visiting LJC  is a hifi enthusiast. Many are just passionate about the music, however it is delivered. To me the Hi Fi is a means to an end, not an end in itself (which it is for some of the people I chatted with at the National Audio Show the other week, who live and breathe Hi Fi). However if you would like to experience the closest to “being there”, the nearest available experience to the LJC Time Machine, the key is vintage vinyl, and equipment that can retrieve it and serve it up for you, “as though you were there”

What’s next?

The  replacement of the Origin Live Encounter  by the SME V has allowed every other component to shine. It still has limitations, for example the Van den Hull interconnect cable can be improved on, as can the arm wiring itself. The quest for performance improvement has no stopping point. Things can always get better. Don’t you want better?

In the listening department I look forward to becoming reacquainted with many musical old friends in the coming Winter months. And of course new friends, some of which I secured in just the last few days from a North London record shop which had just acquired a fine jazz collection. More to come…

Unsponsored link

No financial inducements unfortunately, just simple customer satisfaction:  My thanks to West London-based  Infidelity Hi Fi, of Hampton Wick, Surrey, for supply and fitting the SME V arm, set-up by maestro  Derek Jenkins.


For anyone interested in statistics, this is LJC’s 500th post, and looking forward to crossing the half million page view mark, which is tantalisingly close. I do wonder why I do this blog sometimes. The glib answer is “attention seeking”. Perhaps, we all like a little attention. What I really like is the conversations between different posters, and the amount of advice and recommendations I would not get any other way.


44 thoughts on “Tone arm-and-a-leg: SME V

  1. Hello, been lurking for about a year so thought I would make a first post.

    One true test of the difference in what is coming out of your speakers is to take the grills off and watch the cones move. I listen to both Vinyl and CD but my preference would always be for the vinyl. The LP will be full of scratches sometimes, pops and clicks – the CD will likely come out of a black background – but it just connects more with my ear. If you look at your cones – I use an old pair of AE 1’s most of the time (front ported) – they jump and put out a very noticeable air stream – change to CD and nothing seems to move at all. I always have CD’s playing about 10 stops louder than LP, for this reason. The vinyl delivers much higher oomph, it might be self delusion, but it also makes your foot want to tap along more too. No idea of the technical specs and measurements, but playing vinyl on my goodish record deck with a decent but not mind-blowingly expensive Ortofon MC it hands-down beats the presence and ‘connectivity’ of my very nice sounding Wadia 16.

    In the end what you like is what you like and if anything I derived more out and out pleasure from old vinyl played in my teens and twenties (40ish years back) on pretty shonky equipment than sitting in front of equipment that would pay for a small family car, maybe because the energetic need to get up and dance that was so present then has faded now (or my knees wouldn’t take it). Still, music still has the power to move – it’s worth whatever you have to invest in it. From £300 to £30K probably isn’t that far apart in the musical pleasure you can get from your LP’s, CD’s and equipment.

    • Not so “Quiet Kenny” now. Hi and welcome..
      You put your finger on it: music has the power to move, and I think move more powerfully than any of the other senses. Certainly compared with something that smells for 45 minutes, and who looks at a painting for 45 minutes? Music wins every time. I think that’s what sustains it’s interest across a lifetime. The audio toys are fun, but I’m sure I got as much pleasure from my 1960’s Dansette.

      I shall have to look more closely in future at the cones on my Linn 242’s, see how they dance.

  2. “…and I wouldn’t have been surprised if some of the visitors actually preferred the digital replay, a better experience than reality”

    – Esteemed Webmaster

    Andy, this heretical thought calls for immediate confession and penitence. 100 Pater Nosters and Ave Marias right away, and 25 strokes with a wet analogue noodle, (kneeling time in the corner optional).

    Digital better than (real-time) analog? All hell done broke loose!!! Vade retro! 🙂

    • Is analog ‘real-time’ as opposed to digital which is not as real? As far as I can see analog is tape and digital is ..well digital. I’,m beginning to agree with Eduard on this point – that there is no inherent problem with a digital recording or a digital representation of an analog recording from a tape. If you spend a lot of money on this type of equipment then vinyl is going to sound good, But at my level I sometimes wonder why I hunt down expensive vinyl when there are the RVG remasters available at low prices. People write a lot of non-sense about these not sounding good or they are too bright etc but to me they normally sound fine.
      The reason I prefer vinyl is unfathomable and illogical … captain.

      • Original vintage vinyl is like a beautiful woman who never ages. You can not improve on it, and as your equipment upgrades, you will get more out from it. They are not making any more of it, they can not equal it with modern technology and I have heard nothing digital that comes even close.

        Even when my vinyl equipment was much more modest, there was never a time when all pressings sounded the same. Better has always sounded better than lesser. Many reissues sound quite acceptable. It is when you A:B them against an original that you realise how wide the gap can be. Let your own listening be your guide, and go with what you hear.

        • Wise words I’m sure. My first pressings do generally sound the most engaging. But I’m not sure the difference is so pronounced at my budget – moving magnet – that it warrants the prices that some of these records command. There are also the occasional disappointments when, to my ears, a reissue or a CD actually does sound better even than an original. I’m seriously thinking of simply upgrading my CD player so that I can buy all the Blue Note sessions I want and laying off buying vinyl for the moment until I can afford to upgrade. Sad, but much more economical.
          Trouble is for some unknown reason CDs seem to go the shelf and stay there whereas vinyl seems more fun to play.

          • I had a few Blue Note titles on both original mono vinyl and RVG digital stereo remaster, and even though the records were in pretty good shape (VG+ I’d say) and the distortion from groove wear was minimal, the distortion was still there, and I had to be honest with myself that the digital remaster just sounded miraculous because the fidelity was so damn good. If I had perfect, near-mint mono copies of those records, maybe then I could say with equal enthusiasm “wow, this sounds great!” (equal, not greater), and maybe I would say I prefer the original mono mix, but really it would have nothing to do with the textural characteristics of vinyl. I think a well-mastered, well-pressed record will actually imitate digital quite well.

        • I agree that for the vast majority of modern vinyl (save Kevin Gray stuff and some Classic Records stuff) is inferior in terms of the handiwork that goes into making it, and it probably has to due with the fact that everyone is trying to cut corners with cost nowadays and no one cares anymore.

          I don’t mean to spur on a debate about the differences between vinyl and digital, but play me a well-mastered vintage mono record in near mint condition, then play me a high-fidelity digital file made from the same master tape and I highly doubt I will be able to detect a significant difference urging me to prefer one or the other, from a purely sonic perspective. In many instances, I have to admit that digital remasters even sound superior to vintage records–especially if the record is not near mint, if we’re talking strictly about fidelity. Some people actually like the sonic “imperfections” of vinyl. I just like old things and I like to get “touchy-feely” with music!

          I guess I don’t expect everyone to effectively communicate their preference of something to me, but I’m in complete agreement with Andy C. I would just like to people to be honest about whether or not they are really hearing a difference versus having an ideological preference.

      • I identify with your honesty about your “illogical” behavior, Andy! =P

        In the case of my hero RVG, tons of his mono masters cannot be faithfully reissued because he did his mono mastering on-the-fly and from two-track tape. But overall I’m with you 100%: at the end of the day, the music is the same, whether it’s an original mono record or a modern digital stereo remaster–both are equally effective at getting us the message. I personally get off on hearing the music in its original format that was given the utmost care and attention (with RVG, mono vinyl). But yeah, so many people talk about the differences and their preferences in the audiophile world without having any real proof that things sound even *different* let alone “better”.

      • Thanks Andy. Let me add that I really love vinyl because “I just like old things and I like to get touchy-feely with music“ (© DG Mono). There have been many occasions when I thought to myself: Man, this old record sounds way better than the CD I bought the other day. BUT: The digital rip of the record still sounded better than the CD. So there must be something wrong with the CD, and it surely was not the fact that it was “digital“. Nobody knows what sort of incompetent tampering had been involved in the remastering process. Example: Stan Kenton, Adventures in Blues, Capitol Records, original vinyl vs. CD re-issue.

        By the way – whenever LJC invites us to compare different pressings of the same music, we must never forget that what we are listening to is digital. Lo-fi MP3, not CD. And still we pride ourselves at detecting all kinds of nuances and subtle differences in these recordings – and rightly so! They are different, and the differences are preserved in the digital rips. What’s more: I even like the idea that – theoretically – analog recordings “are infinitely resolvable“ (LJC) whilst digital copies are not. But this is really a philosophical question rather than a practical one.

        • Not necessarily low-res MP3s, and again I did A-B’ing when I was younger and I was hard pressed to hear a difference between a 192k MP3 and a CD…YMMV of course.

          That “infinite resolve” refers to the continuity of sonic information over time in an analog recording, whereas a digital recording is discrete over time and hence discontinuous. But I encourage people to note that, once the digital-to-analog conversation has happened and the music is coming out of the speaker, it is (obviously) again continuous and analogous. People have a right to debate whether or not there is a noticeable alteration in this discrete copying and analog reassembly done by AD/DA converters, but my argument is that as long as it’s done at a high enough sample rate, humans can’t hear any difference and it sounds identical.

          • I don’t have a problem with differences of opinion, its all good. Personally, I have only two fixed points:

            1. No one else knows what you hear (or like).

            2. What you hear is the only thing that counts (for you).

            Some people get pleasure from listening to music and trying to improve things, others get pleasure from trying to prove other people are wrong. I would just refer you to points 1 and 2 above.

            When I say (In my opinion) “something is better” it is based only on my experience. YMMV, though I emphasise – your mileage – not someone else’s. I would urge you to do as much comparative listening as you can, draw your own conclusions about things, your own mileage.

  3. 500 posts… Congrats! For the time being I have to make do with the setup I have at home; high-end components are simply beyond my means. Still I enjoy every second of the music when I play it at home and if I really want to use a high-end setup, I just pop over to my neighbour! 🙂

    • In your shoes, I would do nothing different Matty. It’s for us “old men” to have the youth-injecting sports car and upholstered blonde on the arm, figuratively speaking. I mean, what else have we got to look forward to? I had some roof repairs done recently and the chipper Essex roofer breezily assured me he offered a ten year guarantee. I said I wished my doctor would offer me the same.

  4. Congratulations and thank you for an enjoyable ride.

    I believe that once your audio nervosa outlays to reproduce Hank Mobley’s music exceed the lifetime earnings of said Hank Mobley, it might be time to slow down. (This of course coming from someone who just plunked down $3K for a new set of Reference 3A speakers last week.)

  5. Congratulations, LJC.
    @ DG Mono. I guess you have to relate expenses also to the rest of the chain. The world of hi-fi is magic, but where the magic is, there are also tricksters. What I’ve experienced from B&W speakers for example (sorry proud owners) that it’s good, well branded furniture. A lot of WAF (Wife Acceptance Factor) is put into these, very little music. I guess it’s up to your ears… I’ve had the possibility to play on a 10k record-player, but the acoustics were horrid. Making it an ‘ok’ sounding player. Not sure if 1 on 1 comparisons would be really useful because it’s so ‘chain-based’. 90% of audio-reviews is like; I love my stuff, I threw more money to it and it seems like someone removed a veil that was hanging in front of my speakers.
    One of the best things I did, and hifi-on-a-budget I can totally recommend. Getting vintage speakers and upgrade the Capacitor, with any luck you just need 2 of them. I’ve replaced the ones in my vintage missions (for left and right they used a different one?!) with Audyn Cap Plus, same value as the old ones. Beautiful.
    I tried really good speaker calbe in between my system (Audio Note AN-BA) and before the capacitor-upgrade it was the best thing, after that it was just too clear, and the music got a bit slow. But now I’ve decoupled my speakers a bit better, which made the sound ‘faster’, I’d like to try these cables again. I guess it’s just trial and error..
    I think it all gets down to -as opposed to one thing better than the other- building a set with an idea, knowing what you want from hi-fi. If I’d had the money I’d go for Audio-note. I’d love to try speakers from Musical Affairs with that set-up.
    LJC, if you get the opportunity you should try a DAC from Audio-note between the streamer and your pre. One of the expensive brands that I am impressed with; clean, detailed, layered, well articulated and really well placed.
    And thanks again for the stereo/mono switch. On my set I enjoy mono records the most!

    • Audio-Note, yes. They were by far the most impressive stuff I heard at the NAS the other week.. They were late, had the smallest demo room, and whatever they were playing sounded intoxicating. I know nothing about them but I can remedy that. The budget is a little pinched right now due to the SME, Of all the kit, the Linn Akurate pre-amp is the one with its coat is on a shaky nail. There is an awful lot of electronics in there which has no purpose for me (SPDIF/ knect/ home cinema)

      I’m afraid I have already overshot the WAF by several degrees. Future changes need to be all but invisible, or its my coat that’s on a shaky nail.

      • Hah, glad we share opinion. It was Hiroyasu Kondo who introduced silver into the world of Hifi, wrote a great essay about that as well. The Japanese Audio Note let SME make a special arm for their TT, you two might get along very well.

        As for all but invisible, perhaps it’s nice to try out Ebony wood underneath your spikes. I did this myself and made a huge improvement, tried it out because I saw people modding DL103 cartridges with Ebony. And since it has special acoustic qualities it makes sense somehow? Ebony makes a sturdy nail, uh spike.

  6. “LJC Finds Digital Sound Fuller and Richer Than the Real Thing!“ – Now we’re getting somewhere… Had they used a state-of-the-art analog tape machine, chances are that to the listener the result would have been much the same, provided the rest of the equipment – microphones, audio monitor system… – had remained unchanged. It’s a simple fact that recorded music sounds different from live music.

    It’s true to say that “not everyone is looking for the same thing“ – well, if you are looking for utmost verisimilitude then listening to live music is the only answer.

    • Whilst I am sure you are right, unfortunately, I find very little interest in today’s live musicians. They don’t make them like they used to. Where can I go and see Coltrane live? And persuade him to play in my front room? Vinyl is as close as I am going to get.

      • LJC, I would be perfectly happy with most of the arguments brought forth in favour of pristine vinyl, were it not for one unresolved problem. Records have centre holes, and centre holes should be at the centre. Aberrations exceeding 0.2 mm will result in audible “wow“, a phenomenon that in some cases may be much more annoying than the (purported) shortcomings of digital reproduction. Throughout the history of hi fi, there has been only one successful attempt to get rid of this bug:

        To me, things like these seem much more important than, say, certain aspects of tonearm adjustment.

        • Excellent point…off topic a bit I suppose, but still a great point. Many records sold in “near mint” condition are actually pressed off-center and thus do *not* play back near mint :O

          • LJC, let me quote from your link: “…it is numerically clear that some correction process is needed for the vast majority of records, if they are to be audibly pitch stable.” Now the number of records that are badly off-centre may be small (apart from cheap pressings, that is), but then again, how bad is bad? Given the standards you apply to sound quality, it surprises me that you have never been faced with the problem.

  7. 500 posts – Wow, congratulations!

    One little question: have you considered using a mono cartridge? From my experience, it made the biggest difference to the quality of my time travels, by far:-)

    • I am sure you are right but a logistical impossibility for me, unfortunately.
      With half my record collection stereo, and the one turntable with one tonearm capability, the issue is – stereo cartridge plays mono “tolerably” with a mono switch in the pre-amp; mono cart is rubbish at playing stereo. Its a no brainer for me really. How do you handle the mono / stereo divide?

      • Do you have a preamp with a mono switch, LJC? I thought you had that box that your buddy made for you?

        In any case, a mono “switch” is the ideal modern solution for mono listening IMO because most modern “mono” carts are really stereo carts that do the same exact thing as summing the channels (I think the Denon 102 is the only modern cart that either does not have vertical compliance, or if it does the magnets don’t “read” the vertical i.e. stereo info). Otherwise, I think your only other option is finding a true, vintage mono cart without vertical compliance in which case you may or may not be able to find a repro stylus for it :\

        Speaking of ABX comparisons, I would love to hear a comparison of a summed stereo cart with a “true” mono cart (one without vertical compliance). Theoretically, I could see that there may be some difference in the reproduction (a summed stereo cart “cancels” vertical info “imperfectly” so to speak, while a true mono cart will not even read this information to begin with), but whether or not that difference is at all significant would need to be heard.

      • Of course you don’t want to play a stereo record with a mono cart. The reason I use mono cart is because it does not pick up the vertical movements where more than half of the noise comes from. Much better than using a ‘box’ or mono switch.

        At first, I used two turntables, but now I use Dynavector 507 mk2 tonearm which takes carts with headshells. Swapping carts only take less than a minute. Some people use turntables with multiple arms.

        i think it is well worth it. You’ll be surprised how your bad record sounds great with mono cart.

  8. I have an SME V for stereo records with a Garrard 401. Great arm, and a true piece of precision equipment. But I have to admit, that most of my vintage Jazz is happier on my old Lenco’s with the heavy L70 tonearm.

  9. Congrats on 500 LJC. Dedication and longevity are traits to be admired indeed.

    I am a self-described “audiophile (and record collector) on a budget”, meaning I believe I have the attention to detail of the average audiophile but not the depth of pockets. I think as I grow older and I hopefully have more money to allot to my record collecting hobby, despite having a keen eye to the details of the sound reproduced by a setup, that my money will largely go to records opposed to equipment. I admit that this philosophy of mine is ideal, however, due to the fact that I have never really heard an “audiophile” setup. In the various instances that I *have* experienced and heard comparisons in fidelity, I find that there is a certain point in which it takes the most acute and intense focus to detect an improvement in fidelity. What I mean is this: I believe there is a certain very low, budget level of audio equipment in which sound reproduction is very noticeably inferior to that of more expensive but still consumer-level equipment. But the differences I have always heard between moderately priced consumer equipment and high-end consumer equipment is quite minimal to my ears, and i can only imagine that the improvements in the audiophile domain are even more difficult to perceive.

    In short, I don’t identify with the average audiophiles’ interest in “luxury” equipment. What I would love is to experience some real-world tests and comparisons between high-end consumer equipment and audiophile equipment with controlled variables in which there is a noticeable improvement in fidelity without any strenuous focus. (Though I’d rather not be given a reason to follow the seemingly never-ending trail of audiophile system upgrades, I would love to be proven wrong!) For instance, it would be great to hear the difference in the reproduction of your system with the old and new tonearms with all other variables identical including the record. Your description of the difference piques my interest but I wanna *hear* the difference!

    Another example would be to compare a Technics 1200 turntable with stock tonearm and a “mid-range” cartridge with the same preamp, amp, and speakers as a “hi-fi” turntable setup…or any another swap in equipment comparing a $500 item with a $2,000-$5,000 one…is there a place online that documents stuff like this?? If so please share!!

      • Eduard, this was exactly what I was looking for, thanks! I took a good look at the information (which was overwhelming but I did my best). A couple thoughts:

        It seems like there’s a number of people out there who want to draw an overgeneralized conclusion about the effectiveness of these kinds of tests, which I think is absurd because, at an extreme, you could compare a clock radio with LJC’s setup and no one is going to fail that test. So it seems pretty clear that one cannot say whether or not these tests are useful in general (let’s also not forget the differences in hearing from person to person). So it then becomes a question of what the uncontrolled variable is (in this case, what component of the setup), but also, what specific products are being used in the comparison.

        I will say that, from the casual browsing I did, it seemed like there were a lot of tests showing that people can’t hear the difference between cables, so I thought that was interesting. I didn’t see a lot of comparisons between cartridges, turntables, and preamps. The results seemed kind of mixed regarding amplifiers, which makes sense because in some instances there are probably dramatic differences between the components of the amps and in other instances not so much. And, from my experience, it makes sense to me that these kinds of tests would prove most effective with speakers and headphones. The other tests I found interesting were comparisons between bit and sample rates, which seemed to indicate that people can hear differences between 16- and 24-bit, and also between 44.1k and 88.2k.

        I just don’t think I’m the kind of person who would ever spend thousands of dollars on a piece of equipment if the improvement in fidelity couldn’t be proven to me and it wasn’t significant (hundreds, maybe). I will, however, admit that this may have something to do with the fact that I can’t afford equipment that expensive right now, so perhaps my opinion is skewed by that. Although, I do feel that I’m more of a “DIY”, “power-to-the-people” kind of music appreciator, so I think that regardless of how much money I have, I will always feel good about getting the most out of moderately-priced equipment…there is something that feels honest about being genuinely content with a Technics 1200, a Shure cartridge, a Marantz amplifier, and a pair of Polk speakers =P

  10. Congratulations and thank you for letting us share your experience and participate in this tremendous adventure.

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