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Listening Impressions
So what's it like using a vintage SME 3012 tonearm that's been around since 1959? Mechanically it's a little quirky to use but still in the tolerable range. To achieve proper cartridge VTA, the height of the arm post is somewhat difficult to adjust up and down. You have to hold the post in one hand to adjust it by hand while using an Allen wrench in the other to loosen or tighten the set screw at its base. You do get used to the drill but it's still a pain. It makes it difficult to dial in small and repeatable adjustments. As far as I know, there's no easy-to-mount VTAF device as exists for the Rega or Origin Live arms. You're pretty much stuck with two-handed fiddling. Further, the arm rest has an awkward latching mechanism. It's a flexi flier and as such a bit of a moving target. So that's the down side of the SME 3012. On the upside, the anti-skate adjustment is a breeze to use as are the counterweights which are in fact of rather nice design.

From a music-making standpoint, the SME 3012 has been a favorite for quite a few visitors to my listening room. It has a laid-back, smooth, forgiving, organic and musical character that makes it easy to like. It also works well with the low-compliance Denon 103 I normally use. Ditto for the 47 Labs MC Bee, the Miyabi Standard and the Miyabi 47 cartridges I've had through for review. It's a very cartridge-friendly arm. By comparison, the original Origin Live Silver (which I'll call the MkI) didn't do all that well with low compliancers like the Miyabi or Denon 103. It made them sound a little bit edgy and harsh. The MkI was positively brilliant however with the higher compliance of the 47 Labs MC Bee, making some of the best sound I've heard in my listening room when paired with the Tom Evans Audio Design Groove+ phonostage. Think almost master tape quality. After spinning a few LPs, it's easy to understand why the SME 3012 is still so highly regarded and beloved today. Its easy-going musical nature pretty much flatters everything you throw at it. In spite of coming up on its 50th birthday and being out of production, the old chap is still in fine competitive shape and thus still hugely popular in the audio underground. Rightly so.

The Origin Live arms' rest and arm lift are easier to use than the SME's. It wins that battle hands down. Conversely, the counterweight of the Origin is more difficult to dial in than the SME's. Strengths and weaknesses are flip-flopped. Overall I preferred working with the simpler design of the Origin Live arm - not to mention the added advantage of compatibility with the VTAF which makes setting arm height a snap. The combination of a simple and well thought-out design with the additional convenience of being VTAF compatible is hard to beat. Unlike the MkI, the new MkII arm loved the Denon 103's low compliance. As I reported in my Miyabi 47 review, the 47 in combination with the MkII sounded positively breathtaking with my Fi Yph phono pre and the Auditorium 23 step-up transformer designed for the Denon 103. There's no question in my mind: the MkII with the Miyabi 47 was the most musical vinyl sound I've ever heard in my system. By a long shot.

The SME 3012 and Denon 103 are a classic combination. For good reason - they sound great together. However, as I moved up from the Denon 103 to a really amazing cartridge like the Miyabi 47, the SME arm wasn't able to keep up with the increase in prospective performance from the Miyabi 47 as the Origin Live Silver MkII was. For example, with a record that I never seem to get tired of listening to -- the Mercury Living Presence Balalaika Favorites with the Osipov State Russian folk orchestra -- the Miyabi 47 on the SME 3012 imbued the music with an engaging natural warmth while still managing to be transparent, detailed and relatively dynamic from the micro to macro ends of the scale. Mind you, the SME sounds really good. But when you spin the same wax with the Origin Live Silver MkII, there are big gains in timbre, tone color, rhythmic finesse and all of the normal audio-geek parameters of imaging, soundstaging, soundspace reproduction and their ilk.

I worry a little in praising the Origin Live MkII too much lest you'll think the SME 3012 out to pasture. It's not. It's just that the MkII is very very good. If you're planning on sticking with the Denon 103, look no farther than the SME 3012. It's the perfect soulmate. However, if you've got a Miyabi 47 in your closet -- or future -- then go with the Origin Live Silver MkII. I could find virtually nothing to criticize with this combination for the things I value in music reproduction. It's never fatiguing. I could feel my body relax while being wowed, a sure sign of musical enjoyment. Whether it was Bill Henderson's Live at the Times, Billie Holiday's Songs for Distingue Lovers, the Beatles' Rubber Soul or the above mentioned Balalaika Favorites, the Origin Live Silver MkII delivered the goods in spades.

With its overall musicality and sonic presentation, the SME 3012/Denon 103 combination is actually similar in character to the Silver MkII/Miyabi 47 -- a huge compliment by the way -- but at a considerably lower level of performance in every regard. That's okay. You'll probably never tire of the classics unless something happened to you similar to me: a Miyabi 47 and Origin Live Silver MkII show up on your doorstep (the full review of the Origin Live Silver MkII is coming hot on the heels of this review so stay tuned).

The Cartridge Man Isolator
I had a hard time with the Cartridge Man Isolator. I really wanted to like it, especially because it worked so well for Edward and became his Product of the Year back when he reviewed it. But I had continuing problems with the review samples to prevent me from reaching any firm conclusions about their performance. With the first sample, the cartridge wouldn't stay put. I'd come home to find my cartridge dangling from its leads in an attempted suicide. It also didn't fit the head shell of the SME 3012 very well. I had to remove the finger lift to attach it, making the SME 3012 more of a pain to use. The Isolator fits on the head shell of the Origin Live Silver MkII much better so if you've got a more typical head shell arrangement, you should be fine. With the second Isolator sample on the Origin Live, the squishy inner layer partially delaminated from the metal top. I'd push it back but my Isolators didn't like staying stuck. The Isolator also made it harder to align and set up cartridges. I live in the deserts of eastern Washington State where perhaps the ultra low humidity played havoc with the normally sticky surface. I just don't know. The Isolator did seem to improved the sound quality slightly with the rigidly mounted SME 3012, but with the Origin Live Silver MkII mounted in the VTAF, I couldn't hear any difference at all. The VTAF decouples the tonearm from the arm board and table so it essentially performs a similar function to the Isolator. I'm guessing that the less isolation your arm has from your table, the more the Isolator will help. Still, you couldn't prove it by me so it's not something I could see myself spending money on. The Isolator is a good idea but I think it needs more work before being ready for prime time.

The End
Like the old cartoons used to say at their finish, this is "The End" for the Garrard Project. I've had a blast as many of you have had with your own Garrard projects. It's really amazing how good these old 301s can be. If you read my Music Lovers Road Tour Exit 1, you know how the fully tricked-out Shindo Garrard Player System pretty much blew me away. But then it should, for 20Gs. If you're that well heeled -- I wish I was -- I'd say just go for it. You won't be sorry. Guaranteed.

The good news is that you can get very satisfying sound from a Garrard 301 even on a relatively modest budget with a homebrew plinth, modest tonearm and cartridge like I did. It
was really fun to travel this vintage route with the Garrard 301, a wooden plinth, the SME 3012 tone arm and a Denon 103 cartridge. A real eye opener in fact. It might be a vintage setup but it sounds pretty darn good. Add an Origin Live Silver MkII arm and Miyabi 47 cartridge into the mix and it's out of this world. And yes, all those rumors about idler drive tables are true. There is something special about them and the way they vitalize the musical message.

While the SME 3012 is still a great arm, it is out of production. Paying my own money, I'd probably go for the Origin Live Silver MkII arm but you could also consider the SME M2-12 (the '12' indicates the 12-inch wand length). From an appearance standpoint, the M2-12 looks to be the next evolutionary progression of the 3012. The manufacturer's literature says it's designed to work with a wide rage of cartridges of medium to low compliance. SME claims its 12-inch M2 arms have 25% less lateral tracking error than 9-inch arms. The M2-12 still has that same funky armrest as the 3012 but also a number of improvements. There's a new counterweight design with a threaded fine adjustment that allows for easy and accurate adjustment of vertical tracking force; a new die-cast magnesium head shell that replaces the 3012's stamped version; an optional fluid damper to optimize use with low compliance cartridges; a revised bearing design; and a thumb wheel adjustment that allows you to dial in VTA. Here's the kicker. At $1399, the new M2 is not much more than a mint vintage 3012. I'm intrigued enough that I'm going to ask the SME folks if they'd favor me with a review sample.

Breaking news - to this writer: Just before sending the above to my Editor's desk, Matt at Pitch Perfect forwarded a couple of photos of the Garrard plinth by Keith Aschenbrenner of Auditorium 23 [above]. Matt says "it is $2,995 and comes complete with a custom arm board for your specific tonearm. For example, in the photo the customer had an SME 3012 to use and Keith made a proprietary metal arm base for this specific 12-incher. A variety of real wood veneers are available. In this case, Palisander Rosewood was the wood of choice. This plinth is tuned with a special blend of woods and design construction techniques to bring out the best qualities of the Garrard 301. This plinth was designed by Norbert Gutte of Lignolab/Germany in 1994 and is built by him to this day. Norbert also does all of Auditorium 23's speakers and has worked with Keith for more than 20 years. Plinth
options such as Shindo isolation feet are recommended, and additional upgrades including the Shindo platter/bearing/mat upgrade are always a sonic treat to add later." It looks like a real honey so you might want to give Matt a call and get his impressions if you're in the market for a new Garrard plinth.

Well, that's all for the Garrard Project now, folks. It's been fun writing for you and as my favorite clown Red Skelton would say when signing off from his television show - "Good night and God bless!"