The latest improvements to a long-standing classic are subtle but extremely effective

After launching the turntable range 20 years ago with the Model 30/2, SME founder Alastair Robertson-Aikman followed it with a lighter version called the Model 20 – thinner in upper chassis and subchassis plates, with a smaller, thinner platter and other reductions in mass. In 2006 SME released the 20 in a widened version that would accept a 12in arm. It was a huge success, so the Model 30/12 appeared to equal acclaim [HFN Mar ’09]. In the interim, the external power supply had been upgraded, and was made common to all models, while 2010 saw the introduction of a new black platter mat material.
   Although the ‘regular’ Model 20/2 has been a best-seller, enough had been learned from the development of the 20/12 and 30/12 to inspire a makeover. The 20/3 differs from the Model 20/2 most visibly through its allblack platter, which also enjoys an increase in thickness, size and weight. Add to that thicker chassis plates, greater overall dimensions. The 20/3 also features the latest version of the external power supply; the bearing’s central damper has been uprated more in line with the Model 30’s, and there’s an improved oil
   Remarkably, SME has done all this without upping the price punitively. The Model 20/3, benefiting from all of the above gains, sells for £8560 with arm. In addition to using the 20/3 with the Series V arm, we also tried it with the painfully underrated M2-9 tonearm, just to hear what the combination would sound like, with substantial savings on the package price. Although the audible gains are substantial with the Series V, such an economy might cover a decent moving-coil cartridge and phono stage. (SME’s CEO, Cameron Roberston-Aikman, feels that a more sensible compromise would be to fit a Model 20/3 with the Series 300 Model 309.)
   Set-up as with all SME turntables is thorough and comprehensive. SME’s instruction manuals are models of clarity, and the supply of all of the necessary tools and adjustment gauges ensures that all will operate as it should.

WAKE UP CALL
Armed with a stack of recent 180g audiophile pressings we were able to put the SME through its paces with assorted cartridges. We used – recorded 50 years ago – Billy Cotton’s Wakey Wakey!!! to see what the 20/3 would do for soundstaging. Air and the openness were present in cinematic levels with the 20/3.
   Alma Cogan’s voice possessed both a liquidity and a force that suggested she would have been the ultimate Broadway chanteuse, had she lived long enough. With her powerful, expressive voice backed by a band that redefined ‘brassy’, a lesser system would attack the listener with treble punch so sharp that it would metaphorically pierce your skin. With the 20/3 it was silk and shimmer, a huge orchestral pillow filling the space between and around our Sophia 3 speakers.
   And ‘shimmer’ best describes the way the SME handles the upper midband through to the furthest treble. I’ve heard the strings on Buddy Holly’s ‘Raining In My Heart’ both screech or seduce. Retrieved by the 20/3, ‘charm’ can be added to that.
   But to demonstrate one’s respect for an LP spinner of such elevated status, it was only natural that we ended with Analogue Production’s Nat ‘King’ Cole remasters. Massed strings, perfect microphone set-up, arrangements penned in heaven, a voice with textures as unique as fingerprints, material that defines ‘the standard’. Each and every song sounded fresh, full, rich, as if it were live…‘When I Fall In Love’ aptly describes the first moment we heard this SME Model 20/3.

VERDICT
Each SME model is embarrassingly close to the ‘next one up’. You need a mind-blowingly revealing system to appreciate the costlier siblings. As of now, the Model 20/3 is the best-value deck in the range. Indeed, a masterpiece.

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Originally published in the Yearbook 2011