This article will be an overview and guide into the world of the vintage tonearms of SME, specifically the 3000-series in its different versions and series. that were produced from 1959 to around 1986.
The 3009 tonearms consists of four major revisions or series, with subversions under them again. This writeup will focus on the differences and what to look for when you purchase them. As for technical specs, these are easily found around the internet and from SME themselves. As for matching cartridge, turentable and tonearm – this is something i will cover in a later article.
The first 3009 (Also known as Series I) and 3012 where in themselves rather crude in design, but at the same time, simple and well engineered tonearms. They introduced the design idea: it utilized a S-shaped tonearm, with a horizontal ball-bearing, a knife-edged bearing for the vertical movement and a rider weight for countering the offset caused by the S-shaped tonearm.
The production started in 1959, with a very small number of produced tonearms, with all individually machined parts.
This tonearm is easily identified with the top of the bearing assembly being round, and sporting a flat piece of metal for the antiskating-weight assembly.
In 1962 the Series II tonearm took the place of the Series I after 3 years of production.
The Series II version is very similar with the series I from a visual standpoint. The major difference being the top of the bearing assembly, the lifting mechanism and the shape of the counter-weight.
Both the Series I and the Series II seems to have almost the same “balance” between arm length behind and in front of the knife-bearing. This makes them a bit more balanced to look at.
Compared with the Series I, this is very much easier to find in good condition. This because it was a very sold tonearm.
As for headshells, there exists different versions; solid white on black background, either “Shure SME” or just a slanted “SME” for the Series II and a straight “SME” with a white outline for the later SME Series II Improved tonearms.
Both the Series I and the Series II both sports downwards-facing tonearm connectors – this was an issue with some turntables, so you might find a turntable (Like an ERA or early Delphon) that was originally sold with the SME tonearm mounted, where the entire subchassis of the tonearm has been removed. This was done by the seller, as a means of fitting the tonearm to the turntable. I myself have had issues on my Luxman PD-441, since it requires the feet to be adjusted outside their optimal range.
After 10 years, production stopped in 1972 with the introduction of the SME 3009 Series II Improved tonearm. This tonearm was lighter and meant for sporting high-compliance cartridges.
For an explanation on compliance and matching of cartridges and tonearms – look forward to the article Introduction to tonearms
This meant producing tonearms with a lower effective mass, and this was achieved with much slimmer tonearm. The main difference here between the Series II and the Improved version is the counter-weight assembly – the knife-bearing was converted from a steel knife-edge to a plastic edge and the counter-weight would be fixed also to a plastic carrier.
The Series II improved was only available in 9″ length, but it came in two versions, one with a fixed headshell and one without – again this was to reduce weight, to be used with high-compliance cartridges.
Addendum: In 1978 SME introduced the SME 3009 Series III, with a completely different look and functionality than the rest. This futuristic, spaceship looking tonearm was very light, so light that the instead of having a removable headshell, it had a removable arm-tube so the weight could be transferred to the spindle, thus decreasing the effective mass. The initial arm both named 3009 Series III and just SME Series III came with a fluid dampening system. It was expensive and very difficult to set up and get working (You had to wait all night for the fluid to enter the system). So SME released the Series IIIS, which was cheaper and didn’t include the fluid damper. Some early Series III carry the name “3009 Series III” other just carry “Series III”. The best quess from me, is that it is a product if internal revisions – not enough to justify a new version, just slight variations. But whichever was first, is anybodys guess. We would have to compare Serial Numbers.
The above has been added after it came to light versions of the Series III was called 3009 series III and therefore needs to be a part of this page.
In 1980 the last version of the 3009 arrived, with the 3009-R tonearm. The 3009-R was a “Return” to the classic visual approach of the Series II, but with some direct improvements. It was to put it simply, re-engineered to become the best version of the 3000 series.
Firstly it was made with a stainless steel armtube, this was done to bring down the arm-resonance, but also to greater increase the weight of the arm-tube. Also, the counter-weight was now fixed to an internal threaded rod inside the arm-tube, so that minute adjustments could be made via a dial on the backside of the arm-tube.
The counter-weight itself is also made out of different weights, that fit together via an O-ring and pressure fit – different counter-weights was sold, so that the tonearm could accommodate very heavy cartridges, like an Ortofon SPU.
It came in 3 different lengths; 9″, 10″ and 12″ variants. Length is when it comes to tonearms a questions of “bigger is better” from a theoretical standpoint, the distortion will always be smaller with a longer tonearm. However it can be harder to keep a good balance between a low enough arm-resonance, and a long tonearm, since it will mean more material, and therefore more weight.
From a practical standpoint, I would go with the 9″ tonearms, i haven’t found advantages in performance that could out-weigh the down-sides of the bigger arm. The downsides for me has been that they are always more “flimsy” feeling and looking, and you need a massive turntable if it is to look nice – only a handful of original turntables can actually fit a 12″ arm.
In the end of the day, it is all up to you, what you prefer and what you think you need, the 12″ versions are always more expensive than the 9″ counter-parts. they are harder to find and there are more material, so it makes sense.
What to look for, and how to value a SME 3009 tonearm
So you’ve now found the tonearm that suits your turntable, cartridge and you want to locate one for a fine price. Considering some of these tonearms were produced in huge numbers, others weren’t, the price is for some series linked to availability more than performance.
Instead of making price-estimates, that will be inaccurate depending on the market and geography, i will instead make an ordered list, so i am ranking the tonearms from cheaper to expensive.
The list will only cover the 9″ versions, and not the 12″ or 10″ versions, as they are either not entirely comparable since some of the series didn’t have 10″ or 12″ variants, but also because they are the same tonearm, just in a more expensive, longer version.
- SME 3009 Improved w. Fixed headshell
- SME 3009 Improved
- SME 3009 Series II
- SME Series III
- SME 3009-R
- SME 3009 Series I
As you can see from this list the Improved tonearm is at the bottom of the list in terms of price, whereas the Sme 3009 Series I is on the top – the reason this tonearm is at the top, is not in terms of performance but rarity and history. They are rare and are primarely for collectors. A better and more usable tonearms with todays cartridges would be the 3009-R, which I would strongly suggest of all the series 3000 tonearms.
The Improved tonearm with fixed headshell, is not a bad tonearm. It is just very limited in terms of cartridges it can use. No Moving Coil (MC) cartridges can easily be used and because of that it is not that sought after and therefore also cheaper to buy.
Myself, i use the Series II right now, but the 3009-R is competing for it’s place.
- SME Heritage – Retrieved 2019 from https://sme.co.uk/heritage/
- H. Trass 2003/2006 – Retrieved 2019 from http://www.analogue-classics.com/html/sme_3009___3012.html
- VinylEnginge – Index of SME tonearms, manuals and more: https://www.vinylengine.com/library/sme.shtml
For other guides and historical product overviews, check out the JBL L-100 Speakers – An overview and guide to to the 70’s icon or the category: overview