SME Model 10A

4 TWhen launched a decade and a half ago, this was a breath of fresh air in the turntable world, offering genuinely high performance from a compact package. It also offered the handy option of buying it with the excellent SME Series V tonearm included, as the 10A rather than the armless Model 10. This deck is the Steyning company’s attempt to make high quality vinyl replay accessible, to provide world-class sound without the  clutter of wires, suspension, separate motor units and other associated ephemera. Basically, it is purposed to be ‘plug and play’ vinyl at its best.

The Model 10 is small but perfectly formed; measuring just 370x250x161mm and finished in sober satin black, it is not going to impress someone who craves vast expanses of shiny metal. Whilst some will think that anyone spending this much on a turntable should get something at least as large as a Michell GyroDec, others will see the Model 10’s small footprint as a positive boon. It certainly looks unassuming on an equipment rack, but as soon as you use it for its purpose, you find its performance is anything but.

Despite the diminutive dimensions, build and finish are sublime. I can confidently say I have never come across anything better finished, at any price. Even classics like Trio’s Lo-7D or Nakamichi’s TX-1000 are as good as but no better than the SME. That same ‘camera finish’ given to the Series V tonearm is in evidence here, with the satin black aluminium base almost silky to the touch. The way all the bits fit so accurately and so slickly into everything else will be familiar to anyone who’s stripped down a Honda motorcycle engine. By way of comparison, the two thousand pound Michell Orbe feels considerably less finely finished – and that is already one of the best built in the business!

What makes the SME Model 10 so accessible is the fact that, unlike its bigger 20 and 30 brothers, it has no suspension. Instead, the whole assembly sits on three large polymer isolators, with adjustable feet allowing quick and easy levelling. The subchassis is carried on three polymer loaded towers (similar to Sorbothane but apparently more pliable), and there’s an inner platter around which a tight, square section rubber belt is attached and driven from a crowned aluminium motor pulley. The platter is a fully machined 4.1kg aluminium disc with a sticky top surface. On top of this sits a largish, fairly massy record clamp which screws into the 19mm high chrome tool steel spindle. A spiral channel in the bearing surface lifts oil to the top for effective lubrication, and a tooled-steel ball at the bottom sits in a bronze thrust plate, softer to give effective seating.

The AC synchronous motor is isolated from the subchassis by three long polymer sleeved pins, and driven by the external power supply which has an internal quartz crystal reference that monitors the speed 120 times per revolution in a phase-locked loop configuration via an 8-bit microprocessor. It provides 33, 45 and 78rpm operation, complete with a ‘lock’ LED when the deck reaches the right speed. Pleasingly, there’s a polished stainless steel stylus guard which runs up from the base and provides a handy platform on which to rest the back of your hand whilst wielding the arm’s finger lift. Finally, a soft dust cover is provided.

The deck arrives in a largish box, and requires self-assembly unless your friendly dealer will come around and do it for you. Without recourse to the instruction manual, I managed to do it in one hour including fitting and aligning the tonearm and cartridge, although I am already well versed in SME Series V setup. The Model 10’s compactness and relatively light 16kg weight mean that it’s easy to work on, and assembly is the matter of removing the transit bolt, fitting the arm and cartridge, then putting the main platter on and plugging in the power supply. The turntable itself has very few adjustments.

The Model 10 needs no excuses made for its diminutive dimensions – here is a turntable that’s utterly competitive in performance at the price with anything, large or small. Its basic characteristic is one of clarity; it makes, for example, a GyroDec sound very warm and rather opaque. Considering the Gyro does this very trick to most other turntables (sometimes at four times the price, too), that gives you an idea of just how transparent the Model 10A. Pound for pound, I’d say it is surely the cleanest, most clear device on the market. Running the Series V tonearm, the midband was staggering in some respects with an uncanny ability to get right to the back of the mix, and open it up and throw the nuances right out at you just like they were lead instruments. Importantly however, when it did throw out all that detail, it was presented with order and grace rather than just dumped in front of the nose on your face.

This is the next key point of the SME Model 10 – it has a wonderful sense of scale. Instead of pushing everything out around the plane of the speakers, the SME is able to hang the recorded acoustic way, way behind if need be – yet you can still hear all the way into it. Conversely, lead instruments in the mix, or lead vocals, project comfortably ahead of the loudspeakers. Compared to the Gyro, the SME was substantially more dimensional in terms of front to back, but interestingly not from side to side. In my experience, the Orbe and Gyro have one of the most expansive (left to right) soundstages in the business, if not the most. The SME threw out a confident left-to-right image, but it didn’t quite have the width of the Michell. The result then was a much deeper sound, if not quite so expansive.

Tonally, the Model 10 is not a warm, euphonic deck by any stretch of the imagination, but to say it is clinical is wrong. Rather, we’re back to the glassy clarity than just cuts through the mush and tells you what’s on the vinyl. Both the Linn LP12SE and Michell GyroDec are considerably warmer than the SME, but the SME is by no means cold or lightweight. Rather, it lets you size up each individual instrument in the mix, without fear nor favour. The SME doesn’t editorialise at all about the tonality of an instrument, and as a result it has a wonderfully varied palette of colours.

So, we have a tremendously clear device with  capacious soundstaging, inside which is a detailed and tightly framed stereo image. What then of the SME’s rhythmic and dynamic prowess? Well, once again it was spot on. Highly modulated sections of the groove don’t throw the deck into a rhythmic wobble, and it gives an abiding impression of being in total control. The big meaty drum sounds on Roxy Music’s Avalon were a joy through my system, sounding tremendously powerful and self-assured, and when called upon so to do, the SME Model 10 really caught dynamic swings.

Rhythmically it is very accomplished – it’s certainly a lively and engaging performer, so much so that you wonder why some people think the Series V tonearm is emotionally uncommitted, but I would say that the Model is not the most gushingly emotive sounding turntable. Once again, the obvious comparison is the (rather more expensive Linn LP12SE) which really got to grips with the ‘feel’ of UB40’s King better than the SME. What the SME did was give an amazing, almost ‘infra red’ exposition of everything that was going on in the mix, whereas the LP12 simply unbuttoned its top button and started to boogie. Interestingly, the Michell GyroDec was barely any less rhythmically infectious than the Linn, leaving the SME Model 10 alone as the most matter-of-fact sounding, and – truth be told – the most incisive.

Overall then, the SME is a dizzyingly high resolution device with no obvious weak points, and a surplus of strong ones. It is massively clear, dimensional and almost ‘architectural’ in the way it digs out the basic structure of the recorded acoustic and hands it to you in such a conscientious way. It is tonally neutral, but can do warm or icy too – just as the occasion (i.e. recording) demands. It is a little looser in the bass than it might be, but this in no way detracts from the overall listening experience, and it doesn’t have the supernaturally wide imaging of the Michells, but it still comes out as nothing less than deeply pleasurable thing both to listen to, and to behold.

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