Early on in my hifi journey, the days when I had to scrimp and save for months to afford my first half reasonable turn table (Dual 505 Mk2), it often struck me just how overpriced some hifi accessories were, most especially the humble tonearm. “Why?” I thought, “all a tonearm does is hold a cartridge at one end, balance at the other and contain some cabling to send the signal to the amp”. In some ways, I still do consider tonearms (some of them) to be ridiculously priced compared with the cost of manufacture, but the same can be said for just about anything in retail marketing, so there has to be something about a good tonearm to help you past that initial shock of “how much?”
So what is the “tonearm x-factor”? For me, it’s a tonearm that’s superbly precision engineered, has been carefully thought out in respect of ease of use and adjustability and performs well with a wide variety of cartridges without introducing distortion or its own “colour”. Not too much to ask? I put it to the test when I took delivery of a demonstration ‘309 and a Michell TechnoArm(A)
The source kit used for the test was a Gyro SE, and EAR 834P phono stage and Dynavector DV20xl low output MC cartridge with the appropriate tonearm mounting boards for the arms.
First up was the TechnoArm.
Initial impressions were good. In typical Michell style, they’ve taken what was already a landmark arm in the Rega RB250 and heavily reworked it using some clever and well executed engineering. The arm itself has been bead blasted to harden the surface and drilled to reduce overall mass and to disperse structural resonances. Damping has also been improved. Bearings are re-adjusted before final assembly to ensure that tolerances are strictly adhered to. Internally, the standard wiring is replaced with individual litz wires terminated in silver plated cartridge tags. A Michell Technoweight arrangement replaces the standard stub arm and cylinder weight. This is to lower the centre of gravity and hence inertia of the arm and why Rega can’t use this method on their standard arms I don’t know. The revised arm is fitted into a new mounting column which includes a very welcome VTA adjuster. On the whole it looks very well made and some thought has obviously gone into the revisions with an eye to usability and improved sonic performance.
TechnoArm Sound Quality
OK so it’s not an exhaustive test with a wide variety of cartridges but the Dynavector DV20xl was chosen for its commendably flat frequency response, full bass and great detail, hence no real nasty surprises should be lurking in the wings. Initial impressions with several albums, ranging from rock to classical, and in particular opera showed something of a Jekyll and Hyde character. There was plenty of energy, transient response was great and bass was generally good but with all records I still found myself grating slightly at a little shrillness in the upper registers. I re-checked cartridge set up, which was fine, so no gremlins there. I also found that whilst a major improvement on the stock RB250, or even an RB600 I’d had, the arm still retained to my mind something of a grainy nature which I’ve always found with Rega arms. I don’t know whether it’s the considerable energy introduced by a lowish compliance MC cart causing unwanted resonance in the arms, but drilled holes and all, I still couldn’t warm to the TechnoArm. It didn’t do anything really badly, in fact it excelled in several areas.
Bass was good, mids were clear and detailed but I couldn’t live with the HF response, something tested to extremes with some of the operatic soprano arias. I tried lowering VTA, but all it did was kill a little of the detail.
Onto the SME309
This comes attractively and carefully packaged with a lovely set of precision engineered tools and full instructions. It’s a real joy to behold in the flesh. SME’s small precision model making history can clearly be seen today by the attention to detail and sheer simplistic beauty of their products and the 309 exemplifies those virtues. This, the latest model was an improvement on older models which had been accused of being a little too polite and dull, so SME reacted by changing the arm to a one piece magnesium alloy extrusion in keeping with their top end models. The arm comes with its own 5 pin mini din plug and cable which I believe is a VDH hybrid design. Set up was a breeze thanks to the ridiculously clever and precision engineered adjusters. In particular, the grief was taken out of cartridge set up.
The 309, like all 3-series arms, use’s a detachable head shell in which there’s no slots, just holes which precisely locate the cartridge body. Cart alignment is done with a nifty little protractor which is placed on the turntable and the arm adjusted from the rear with an allen key adjuster until it lines up with the template. Couldn’t be easier. Centreline markings are provided on the arm to aid arm leveling courtesy of a friction column adjuster which is locked in place once desired VTA is reached.
There was an immediate difference in sonic character compared to the TechnoArm. Sound was much more architectural, with more authoritative bass. Mids were slightly more pronounced which leant a slight warmth to the music in direct comparison with the TechnoArm, but the SME wasn’t coloured by any means, in fact I’d say it was more neutral and more detailed, and in being so showed up some of the perceived flaws of the TehcnoArm. HF response was sublime. No more tizziness on the operatic arias, just high “C”’s which drifted to the rafters without grating or showing any signs of siblance. Lovely. Rock was handled with equal aplomb, the 309 sharing the TechnoArm’s good transient response with taught bass. The overall balance leads to a more 3-D and believable soundstage and I soon found myself getting drawn into the music and not critically listening to tonearm traits. That has to be a good thing.
From purely a sound quality difference, I would have to score a one-nil victory to the SME which is what one would hopefully expect given the price difference between them. However had the Technoarm been up against competition more in its own cost ballpark the result may well have been different for it.
Not to say the TechnoArm is bad, because it’s not. It’s a huge improvement on the donor arm and an improvement on the RB600 which once graced my system. It has many redeeming qualities and is beautifully made, but for me I can’t live with its slight foibles.
The SME is so much better IMHO with just about every music genre. How it compares when mounted on other decks and with other cartridges I don’t know. Needless to say the demonstration arm didn’t go back. A quick phone call, a debit card payment later and it was mine. I’d say that it offers 95% of the performance of the SME V at half the cost and is one of Hifi’s true gems.
The SME309 has the tonearm “X-Factor”!
Price (at the time of the review test)
TechnoArm(A) = £480
SME309 = £1100
Build Quality: TechnoArm(A) = 8; SME309 = 10
Sound Quality: TechnoArm(A) = 6; SME309 = 8
Overall: TechnoArm(A) = 7; SME309 = 9
Author – Paul