Analog Corner #309: SME Model 6 turntable, Sculpture A.3L phono cartridge

April 9, 2023 0 By JohnValbyNation

“I got some Audio-Technica ATLP120X turntables in the other day, which had been back ordered for maybe 6 or 7 months, so I called to see if they had more. I was told there were 17,700 of that model on back order,” a dealer I know told me recently in an email.

That number surprised even this diehard vinyl advocate. The $279 direct-drive AT-LP120X looks somewhat like a Technics SL-1200; it could almost be a knockoff. For a few hundred dollars, it includes a tonearm that won’t ruin your records, a built-in phono preamp, and an AT-VM95E cartridge—an upgrade from the AT-95SE, which is already stupidly good for not much money (footnote 1). The AT-LP120X offers decent performance and even has a built-in A/D converter and a USB output.

If you want one, though, good luck. As I write this, Crutchfield’s website says, “Temporarily out of stock, expected 4/30/2021.” Anyone who thinks the vinyl resurgence is a fad or a bubble about to burst is living in one.

Here’s where I would normally say, “It’s okay. For an additional $100, buyers can step into a Pro-Ject T1 Phono SB, which offers far superior sonic performance,” but when I again went to Crutchfield’s site, I found that it and the basic T1 ($349) and the Pro-Ject Debut Carbon EVO ($499) were all “Temporarily out of stock.”

Even if you assume that the turntable shortage is due to COVID-19, is it because of COVID-related parts shortages and factory shutdowns or because people stuck at home are buying turntables and records? (footnote 2)

If you are having trouble getting new LPs or seeing release-schedule delays, it’s because pressing plants worldwide cannot keep up with the demand (footnote 3). That’s a better problem to have than idle presses—or worse, scrapped ones.

With The Model 6, SME Goes Down-Market
An under-$500 SME record player won’t arrive anytime soon, but the company, which is celebrating its 75th anniversary this year (footnote 4), decided it wanted in at the under-$10,000 price point.

Twenty-one years ago (!), I reviewed the now-discontinued SME 10, which sold then for $5995 with the M10 arm. I called the price “rather stiff.” My perspective has since shifted, as has the top half or so of the turntable market, toward increasingly costly products. In today’s dollars, the SME 10’s $5995 is about $9100. Fitted with SME’s familiar M2-9 arm, the new Model 6 sells in America for $8995—about the same as what the Model 10 sold for in 2000.


Until the introduction of the Model 6, SME’s least expensive turntable was the $12,500 Model 12. Why Model 6? Because it’s SME’s sixth all-new turntable design. Models 30, 20, 10, 15, and 12 are the others.

SME manufactured its first turntable, the Model 30, in 1990, just as the LP was supposedly fading away. Called the Model 30 to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the company’s first tonearm, it’s still in production 30 years later, enhanced and upgraded but relatively unchanged. It cost around $12,000 then—around $24,000 in today’s dollars. Today’s improved Model 30/2 costs $38,400 without an arm.

The Model 30 and every subsequent SME turntable model until the Model 6 was manufactured in-house, from aluminum. For good reason: The company’s tooling, machining, and manufacturing capabilities—utilized for the medical, aerospace, and military industries—are formidable. When you buy an SME turntable, most of what’s in the box is made at the Steyning, West Sussex, England factory.

I’ve toured SME twice, once in 2015 and again in 2017, after the Cadence Group bought the company from founder Alastair Robertson-Aikman’s family and appointed aerospace-industry veteran Stuart McNeilis as CEO.


For the Model 6, SME jettisoned the O-ring suspension and thick aluminum plates found on more costly SME ‘tables in favor of a main chassis CNC-machined from what the company says is a “unique polymer high-density resin material,” which it claims has “superb resonance absorption.”

It’s a relatively high-mass, compact platform weighing approximately 20lb (including the 4lb platter, with its ribbed surface, which appears to be machined from Delrin or a similar material). It sits on four elastomer feet made from what appears to be a silicone or another vibration-absorbing compound. As with all SME turntables, there’s no dustcover.

SME says that “the main bearing, spindle, and drive pulley are precision made to the same exact standards as all SME high-end turntables.” There’s no reason to doubt that: SME would have to struggle to downgrade anything machined in-house. A flat belt fitted around a crowned aluminum motor pulley drives what appears to be a black-anodized aluminum subplatter.

The tonearm is an “improved” (in what ways isn’t specified) version of the familiar SME M2-9 9″ arm featuring ball-race bearings and an internally damped stainless steel armtube, finished here in attractive black chrome. (The M2-9 was once available as a separate product for about $2100, or about a quarter of the Model 6’s price, but SME no longer sells arms other than mounted on its own turntables.) The M2-9 can accommodate cartridges weighing 5–12gm. The magnesium-alloy headshell allows for azimuth adjustment. VTA/SRA is adjustable, though not “on the fly,” which is fine with me. SME supplied a set of Crystal Connect RCA–RCA interconnects. (The Cadence Group also owns Crystal and Siltech.) For setting MM loading capacitance, it would be useful to know the cable’s capacitance, but SME doesn’t provide that information. Not supercritical.


A large, outboard power supply housed in a 4.5lb high-density–polymer chassis controls the 24V AC motor via a biphase, DSP-based sinewave generator; a dedicated, discrete power amplifier generates two pure sinewaves that drive twin AC motor coils. 33 1/3 and 45rpm are supported, and the speed is adjustable in 0.0133Hz steps, allowing for precise pitch control.

Setup: The Model 6 sets up relatively easily, though its feet aren’t adjustable, so you need to be able to level its supporting shelf. I found it odd that the SME’s instructions do not mention the importance of leveling.


The instruction manual diagram shows the arm pillar sitting in the familiar SME oval-cutout base, which allows for easy, convenient pivot-to-spindle adjustability; the headshell is slotless, and overhang is set by varying the pivot-to-spindle distance. Loosening two base screws allows precise fore and aft adjustment.

Let me interrupt here to ask you to read this Analog Planet story, which demonstrates, thanks to microscopy from WallyTools’s J.R. Boisclair, that setting the zenith angle (which, on most alignment gauges, is attempted by ensuring that the cantilever is parallel to “hashmarks” located at the “null points” where the stylus achieves groove tangency) is often grossly inaccurate as a result of poorly mounted styli. That’s a problem cartridge manufacturers need to address.

Boisclair has a solution for the problem until industry tolerances are tightened, but it can’t be applied to SME arms because of the company’s slotless headshell overhang system—ingenious and convenient back when it was introduced but less effective at a time of exotic stylus profiles and lax cartridge manufacturing precision. SME should add some slot “play” to allow zenith angle adjustment without giving up its classic system, even if only on an optional headshell.

While I’m high on my horse: The manual’s instructions for setting VTA/SRA and azimuth are inadequate—not that SME is unique in this respect. Setting up a cartridge so that the arm-wand is parallel to the record and the cantilever is, by sight, perpendicular to it are inadequate ways of setting VTA/ SRA and azimuth. Woah, Nelly! I’m dismounting.

SME sent a $2729 Ortofon Cadenza Black mounted in the headshell of the M2-9, but Ortofon had previously sent me a new, limited-edition $999 2M LVB (Ludwig Von Beethoven) Black that utilizes the Cadenza’s boron cantilever and nude Shibata stylus as well as a newly developed elastomer suspension-damping material, so I first set up that cartridge.


Despite my griping about the lack of zenith-angle adjustability, there’s something to be said for being able to set the tracking force first and have it not change when you set overhang. VTA/SRA adjusts by loosening a locking screw and rotating a large circular ring that raises or lowers the threaded arm post. It’s an effective (and cost-effective) way of adjusting VTA/SRA. The antiskating system is the weight-and-monofilament type.

Easily adjustable speed means you can get the turntable spinning at precisely 33 1/3 or 45rpm. The PlatterSpeed app indicates that the SME 6’s platter ran with good speed consistency, with ±0.02% relative maximum deviation.

Use: Once set up, the SME Model 6 was easy and enjoyable to use, and it performed well consistently—except for the screw-down three-piece record clamp, which I found unusable. The plastic-collet center piece gripped too tightly, making clamp removal impossible without rocking or prying, which I felt was bad for bearing health. My solution was a lightweight, $30 clamp from Record Doctor.

Footnote 1: Herb Reichert auditioned the AT-VM95E in Gramophone Dreams #44.

Footnote 2: For Julie Mullins’s Re-Tales column in November 2020, Sunil Merchant of Covina, California’s Sunny’s Components told her that sales of a particular moderately priced turntable had increased dramatically during the pandemic.

Footnote 3: The Apollo lacquer fire has had very little effect on record production.

Footnote 4: SME, Ltd., Steyning, Sussex BN4 3GY, England. US distributor: Bluebird Music, 40 Sonwil Drive, Buffalo, NY 14225. Tel: (416) 638-8207 Web:

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