Next you need to adjust the suspension posts so that the aforementioned spacer fits easily beneath each. This can be done with the supplied hex driver that is also made by SME. Now the platter is ready to spin, but first connect the power supply’s DIN plug to the lower plinth, a job that’s considerably easier on the 15 than the 20. The option exists to connect an earthing wire to a gold plated ground post under the top plinth, but this is only necessary if there are hum problems. Once the platter has been spinning for a while you can check the speed with the supplied strobe disc and an appropriate 50 or 60Hz light source, if it needs adjusting this is done with the buttons on the power supply. The latter is a reasonably slim box with a power inlet and fixed supply cable of adequate length to place it several feet away from the turntable.
Once the turntable is levelled and spinning at the correct RPM, you can fit a tonearm. The suffix on the name Model 15A indicates that it’s supplied with a Model 309 SPD arm. This is the least expensive of the tonearms that are based on the mighty Model V that re-established the brand in the early 1980s. The 309 has a removable headshell and dynamic rather than spring downforce, but is otherwise very similar to the V. It doesn’t have the nicety of threaded VTA adjustment but retains the sliding base with rack and pinion control, which is easily the most straightforward stylus alignment system in the business. Downforce adjustment requires the supplied hex driver again, it screws the counterweight back and forth and locks it in place.
All that’s then required is to fix the cartridge in the headshell, set downforce, and use the supplied protractor to move the whole arm until it sits within the provided guidelines when the stylus is on the appropriate point. With the 309 there is an extra stage; the removable headshell means that azimuth also needs to be set; the angle of the cartridge seen from the front. As the 24 page instruction manual points out this is best done with a mirror. Finally VTA can be set with the same gauge that does alignment and the markings on the side of the arm. It really is a doddle by turntable standards, and if you are buying the thing the dealer does it for you of course. Still it’s nice to tweak should you feel the urge.
One tweak that is easy to experiment with is the supplied record clamp, another beautifully machined and finished piece of aluminium that has a coarse thread so that it can be put on and taken of with ease. It comes with a large washer that goes under the vinyl, raising the centre so that the clamp can bend the record very slightly into a convex shape and thus flatten out warps. It also provides greater damping of the disc, which has the effect of reinforcing the bass and dropping noise slightly, resulting in greater perceived dynamic range. I have to admit a preference for unclamped listening, however; without it the sound has more harmonic structure and better timing, a combination that increases musical engagement. It’s hard to say which is more accurate, but I know which one was the more enjoyable.
The sound that the Model 15A produces when equipped with a Transfiguration Proteus moving coil is extraordinarily calm and clean – the notes literally come out of an inky black background like magic. I put on Bugge Wesseltoft’s Trialogue [Jazzland] and was struck by the way that the percussion notes in particular had a solidity and presence in the context of such a quiet background. SMEs have always been good at reproducing notes with a sense of body, regardless of whether they are highs, lows or mids, and the 15 has the same ability. It’s not something that many digital systems can do in the treble and a lot of turntables get a bit thin or rolled off at that end of the band as well. The bass is really powerful too, even without the clamp, it’s not perhaps the fastest when it comes to stopping and starting, but if you want to feel an organ or synth note you won’t be disappointed.
The low noise floor also provides plenty of dynamic contrast between notes, instruments and voices, which makes it easy to hear what individual musicians are contributing to the performance. This is undoubtedly related to the powerful sense of three-dimensional solidity in the imaging. There is always space around acoustic sources because the turntable opens up such a deep soundstage for them to unfold in. Surface noise can be more intrusive than average but it’s nothing that a more fastidious attitude to vinyl cleaning wouldn’t sort out. Meanwhile there’s the distraction of tone, specifically the trumpet on Patricia Barber’s ‘Constantinople’ [Modern Cool, Premonition], which really shines over her clattering use of the piano strings as percussion and the low bowing of the double bass.
This combination of turntable and arm only stumbled once with my repertoire of test discs. Ongoing favourite, Astral Weeks by Van Morrison [Warner Bros], has the track ‘The Way Young Lovers Do’ at the start of the second side and it’s not an easy one to get right. There’s such a jumble of voice and instruments, and the recording is not the greatest, so it takes a very good sense of timing to play the track in a coherent fashion. The SME fares relatively well in decoding this difficult track, but I have heard it more temporally ordered elsewhere. More well-recorded pieces flow beautifully however, and this is a turntable that has no additive distortion to speak of; its sins are only of omission and those are not only hard to spot but don't get in the way of the musical experience.
I have long been a fan of the SME 20/3 and, as it was to hand, I put the two up against one another to see how they differed. The four footed and pricier turntable with the mighty Model V arm delivers a more solid, assured, and three dimensional sound than its sibling. It produces more depth of image and greater resolution of reverb and harmonics, too. Essentially the character is the same, but you get more of the detail off the disc.