SME’s name precedes the brand itself. Everyone in the audiophile world knows it’s a superb company, with a fantastic heritage behind it. The quality of any SME product is assured, and it has never made a duffer. Or has it? You see, there are some people who don’t look on the Series III, launched in 1978 and recipient of a British Design Council Award no less, as worthy of the marque.
Indeed, even people I have spoken to inside the company itself, quietly confide that they don’t think the Series III was the high point of their history. This is reflected in the fact that SME don’t actually support the III anymore; the company won’t service or rebuild them, and doesn’t carry many spare parts. This isn’t so amazing in the great scheme of things, but for SME whose afterservice is legendary, this is baffling. In short, if ever there was an ugly duckling made in Steyning, the Series III is it.
I often wonder why it is so unloved. Let’s look at this dispassionately; if the Series III was launched today, how would one react? Well, you’d be bowled over by the build quality – although you might find some of the plastic superstructure around the bearings a little naff. You’d think the finish of the titanium nitride arm tube to be excellent, and you’d congratulate the company on using such an advanced material – for reasons of stiffness and low mass, of course. You’d like the ‘carrying arm’ design which means you can swap cartridges easily without compromising structural integrity. And you’d love its flexibility, including that slick gear driven overhang adjustment.
You’d love the thought that’s gone into the geometry of the tonearm. For example, its vertical bearing angle is coincident with the headshell offset to prevent azimuth change during vertical arm movement. The vertical bearing itself is set at the same height as the stylus to minimise overhang variation when playing warped records. And the laterally adjustable counterweight is designed to equalise the force on each vertical knife-edge bearing. The result is an arm that feels lovely to use – from its silky Nylon knife-edge vertical bearings to its low mass, precision finished carbon fibre headshell.
It can’t be any of the aforementioned reasons, can it? Surely the Series III’s unpopularity stems from the fact that it was designed for a fundamentally different set of user requirements to the ones we have now. In the same way that the Jaguar XJS V12 came out when petrol was a pound a gallon – and therefore isn’t a practical proposition these days – so the Series III came into a world of low mass moving magnet cartridges tracking at unfeasibly low weights. One of the best cartridges of the day – at least according to conventional wisdom was the Shure V15 mk4, and this was designed to track at 1.25g with very high compliance in ‘ultra low mass’ tonearms. The SME III was perfect for such duties, but correspondingly when the world realised that the higher mass moving coils from the likes of Supex and Koetsu were actually a lot better, the Series III suddenly seemed like a V12 Jaguar in the middle of an oil crisis. It may have been a wonderful thing, but it was no longer a practical proposition.
This beautiful low mass tonearm may have been able to help Shure and Ortofon moving magnets ride record warps better, but it wasn’t able to get the best out of the new breed of super moving coils that emerged in the late nineteen seventies and early eighties. In all fairness though, the III was unusually versatile, and you could employ its silicon damper to good effect on the likes of a Linn Asak, and mass load the headshell and counterweight so it would work better with medium compliance cartridges, but it was never going to be a Zeta or even a Linn Ittok. Fundamentally, the SME III was simply designed for another world – at the time obsessed with a different type of cartridge technology.
Sonically, it’s less spectacular than the IV and V that followed it, but if you keep it within its comfort zone, it’s superior to the 3009S2 it effectively tried (and failed) to replace. It has a soft sound by modern standards; it’s a pleasingly smooth and sweet one but the bass seems vague and the treble diffuse. The midband isn’t as intricate and insightful as a middle ranking modern Rega arm either. So you’re left with a rather plodding but pleasant sound. Still, it seems to roll along nicely in a rhythmic sense, even if does sit on dynamics and blur transients.
The SME Series III is a likeable arm to listen to – in the same way that an EL34-aspirated tube amp will also make a sweet, nice, smooth sound. But it isn’t the last word in vinyl performance, which ever way you look at it. These days, prices remain locked between £150 and £250, with most buyers simply wanting them to fill an SME-sized hole on an arm board. They’re a lovely blast from our nineteen seventies past, but don’t expect them to fulfil all your future vinyl needs!