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Vintage SME 3009 Tone Arm Rebuild, Part 1

07-30-2017 | By John Marks | Issue 92

In this exciting episode, our good friend and courageous audio guide John Marks of The Tannhauser Gate (http://www.thetannhausergate.com) announces his intention to take on a rebuild on the venerable SME 309 tone arm. But this project will be with a twist!

For part one, and to find out what the twist is, read on, dear reader, read on...

Dr. David W. Robinson, Ye Olde Editor

My music-loving friend who upgraded his Bricasti M1 to the gold-plated edition wanted to be able to continue to listen to Long-Playing vinyl phonograph records. However, while Bricasti's M12 Source Controller does have a set of analog inputs, the M1 does not.

I suppose I should now insert a Heresy Trigger Warning Alert, in that I believe that in most cases, LPs are not really a high-resolution format—compared to anything as good as or better than 20-bit 44.1kHz PCM. So I chose the expedient but gratifyingly effective path of specifying an affordable Analog to Digital Converter that I surmise was made for the Custom Installation market, the now-discontinued Key Digital AXXDA, for the princely sum of $50. That unit is based on a 24-bit, 48kHz chip.

Click on the link to hear the surprisingly good results from a MoFi vintage Frank Sinatra 180-gram remastering!

Do not despair that the Key Digital boxlet is NLA: the functional equivalent (and, who knows, perhaps the very same chip) can be had from Geffen for $62.95.

Anyway, powering up the LP/ADC/M1 signal chain revealed an unacceptable and disappointing amount of hum and noise. Disappointing in that the tone arm had been rewired. Sigh. Investigating, I discovered that the shop that had done the work (perhaps at the dealer's request) had used a particular brand of analog interconnect, but…it was a line-level analog interconnect, and not wires made specifically for tone arms. That's important because the phono stage cannot differentiate between the capacitance of the cartridge and that of the cables; it lumps them together.

Also, I suspect that the original grounding scheme had been circumvented by grounding the cable shields at both ends and not letting the shield float at the phono-stage end, which I believe is necessary in a five-wire setup. But don't go by me—I was a famous early adopter of digital audio, and my LP days now recede ever more distantly in the rearview mirror of life. (Although I do wish I reaped today some of the impressive profits LPs of Arturo Delmoni's Songs My Mother Taught Me do, sealed copies of which have sold for $250 and $324.)

So, also because the tone arm in question was about 40 years old, and the previous work had been a re-wiring and not a complete rebuild, it was time to Cut the Gordian Knot and send the tone arm up North to the SME factory-authorized service center in Ontario. In a few weeks I will ask my LP Setup Expert friend to reinstall the tone arm and I will shoot another video of the Sinatra LP and also the system with the volume all the way up.

FYI, SME Tone Arms estimates that the cost of the rebuild, which includes removing and ultrasonically cleaning the bearings, will run USD$350 to $500, depending on whether New Old Stock replacement parts are needed.

Disclosure: Bricasti has lent me an M1 DAC on a long-term basis, and also made a modest sponsorship donation to the start-up of this blog, The Tannhauser Gate. Those things affect my reporting no more than whether a manufacturer advertised in Stereophile; which is to say, not at all.