SME 309 vs. JMW 10 vs. Graham 1.5T

Hi all, I just upgraded my TT here on the 'Gon. It's a VPI HW-19 mk III w/ SAMA, Sumiko PIB junction box, Audioquest PT-6 arm and Benz Micro Glider (M). The first thing I did was order the mk IV upgrade kit from Music Direct. that will take about a month to get here. I like the Glider, but the AQ arm is a little cheesy. I was considering upgrading the tonearm. The 3 I mentioned are the leading contenders from the searches I have done. I'm probably looking used, because I'm trying to stay under $1K. I know the Graham may go a little higher. I also know the JWM can adjust VTA on the fly, but has no anti-skating control. Have those who've experience this arm found that to be a problem? I also know that the SME has removeable headshells, which intrigues me because I also have a Dynavector 10X4 mk II cartrige. This would allow me to compare the Glider to the 10X4 mk II (or other cartridges) very quickly and easily. Those familiar with this setup and/or arms, I'd be very interested in hearing your feedback.

Happy Holidays,
From personal experience, I would choose the Graham first, SME second and JMW last. If you try the Graham and love it (as I did), it can be upgraded by purchasing the newer ceramic arm wand.

The removable arm wand would allow you to swap cartridges (like SME), and provide sonic improvements at the same time.
Agree with Albert that the Graham is the best of that group you mentioned.

I would also recommend the Origin Live Silver Tonearm, in the under $1k category. This arm has been reviewed in several magazines as one of the best tonearms at any price, not just under $1k. I have one of them, and agree with the reviews. A fantastic arm. It works well with a wide variety of cartridges, has a VTA adjuster, and has no removeable headshell. It is $790 brand new. I would say it is one of the best bargains in tonearms.

Removeable headshells seem to be a good idea, but they don't allow direct swaps without also rebalancing the arm, and performing VTA and VTF adjustment, so it is not as quick as we would like. Also, they typically impart a resonance around 1kHz in the arm, due to the headshell/arm junction.

There have been a couple of threads in the last month or two about this anti-skating situation on the JMW arm, especially with lower compliance cartridges, which may not match very well with the JMW. I do think that this is a weak point of that arm.

The Graham is about the best unipivot going. Especially in 2.2 form. If suffers less from typical unipivot weaknesses, due to the improved stability provided by its outrigger weights. I think it is the most well engineered of the unipivots. I still would not put a real low compliance cartridge on it, as that would simply be "tempting fate".

The OL Silver will handle the low compliance cartridges well, as will the SME. The OL Silver has been described by reviewers as having the "liquid midrange" like the best unipivots(Graham, etc), solid bass response like the best gimbal-bearing arms(SME V,etc), and no colorations like other top arms, and puts all of this together in one arm. Instead of having to get great bass with analytical dryness(SME), or liquid midrange(Graham 2.2, Aro,) with not as great bass, or some other arm with a good strength and some other weaknesses, like the Ekos, the OL Silver has almost the equal of the best parts of all these other great arms, and puts them together. This makes the OL Silver about the best "all around" performer that is available. I would say that this arm deserves a serious consideration at that, or any other price point. To go higher than $1k, then look at the OL Encounter Tonearm. Slightly better than the Silver at about $1200.
Thanks for your responses Albertporter and Twl. I had heard of the OL Silver, but some at AA say it isn't the best match with VPI 'tables. I will do further investigation on it though. Twl, several times you refer to 'low compliance cartridges'. Forgive my vinyl ignorance, but what do you mean by this? Are you talking output voltage? Thanks again for the responses.

Hi John,

Looks like you didn't get a reply re. "low compliance cartridges" so I'll jump in w/ my 2 cents worth.

Compliance of a cartridge is defined by how springy the cantilever is. You know that the cantilever is that piece of metal onto which the diamond tip is attached. If this cantilever is stiff, the cartridge is said to be low compliance i.e. less springy. If the cantilever is not very stiff, the cartridge is said to be medium compliant & if the cantilever is very springy then we have a high complicant cart. Matching the compliance to the correct tonearm is the name of the game when it comes to a TT. Some people say that this accounts 60-70% of the TT's sound/performance.

Today most tomearms are medium mass designs so that they can fit most cartridges, which are also medium to low compliant designs. However, w/ quite a few people indulging in vinyl these days, the user group/consumers have discovered that certain cartridges are best/optimum/near-optimum matches for certain tonearms. This was hinted at by "Abertporter" above.

Low-compliance in a cartridge, refers to the "stiffness" of the suspension around the cantilever. The cantilever and rubber "donut" suspension form a "spring" type of assembly, which allows the stylus to trace the groove and still remain in control, so the coils are correctly located between the magnets, and move the correct amount, according to the design.

Low compliance is generally considered to be anything from 5cu to 10cu. Cu is compliance units. This is a spec that accompanies cartridge spec information sheets. Above 10cu is getting into medium compliance ranges, but I feel that 10-12cu is still pretty low compliance.Medium goes from above 12 to about 20cu. Anything higher than 20-25cu is considered high compliance.

Compliance may be important when you are matching your cartrdge to your arm. The stiffer, low-compliance cartridges are more likely to move the arm around, instead of just the cantilever, if the arm stability or arm mass is not sufficient. When the arm moves at all during play, except for tracking the groove, it is losing information that was intended to go up the pickup. This is bad. Most unipivots are very subject to this type of moving around, and thus are not well-suited to low-compliance cartridges. Graham is somewhat excepted becuase of its stabilizers.

I have gotten into a few arguments about this, but that has not changed my view of this. Just because an arm is a very good quality one, does not make it compatible with every cartridge there is. This is why we see cartridge/arm matchup tables. Unfortunately, it is less well-known about the compliance matching, and I really don't know why. But it definitely is the case, and must be considered, if you are going to get the best from your cartridge/arm, without just "dumb luck" playing a major role.

In medium and higher compliance cartridges, and the majority of the medium mass tonearms out there, you can get a pretty good match out of "dumb luck". But when you go into low compliance cartridges, then you need to know what you are doing, or you will have a bad match. They are much more demanding of the arm, for a variety of reasons.

I prefer the sonic qualities of low-compliance cartridges like the Denon DL103R, the Shelter 501 and 901, the Koetsu, and the like. These are all in the low-compliance category, and in my opinion, are not well suited to unipivots. Graham somewhat excepted. I still think that the Graham is not ideal for these cartridges, but it comes closer than any other unipivot I know. For these reasons, I always buy gimbal-bearing tonearms of high quality, rigidity, and bearing tolerance, of medium to higher mass. These arms may not be the greatest match for something in the 40cu range, but I don't care about that, because I'm not ever going to use a cartridge like that.

So, you see, you must think of your arm as a combination with your desired cartridge. You can't just plug any cart onto any arm, and expect everything to be ok. If you stay in the middle of the road, with medium mass arms, and medium compliance cartridges, then you can almost not worry about this. But if you want to use some specific cartridges, especially low-compliance ones, you had better pay attention, or you will not like the results.
Thanks Bombaywalla and Twl for the in depth education on compliance. I now fully understand. I went to look at a Graham 1.5t/c today, sweeeet, but the price tag was a little too high for me at $1750. When I had it in my hands I was tempted, but then I thought who would put a $3300 MSRP tonearm on a $2250 MSRP table?
Twl, I'm still researching the Origin live arm, not many with VPI tables seem to use it. It seems more popular on British tables like Rega, Nottingham, etc. Over at the Asylum, ALL reco's are for the JMW arm, go figure. They claim it's the natural mate for my mk IV. I know, you recommend I get another table (Teres), but for my own reasons, I don't want to go there. Thanks again for your input.

The JMW is a fine arm, and if you like it, and think it is a better fit on your table, then that's fine. Just stick to the medium or higher compliance cartridges. Stay away from the low compliance ones, and you'll be fine. There have been some threads on here that you may have read, about some members having trouble with low compliance cartridges on their JMW arms. Even the Lyra Helikon at 12cu was causing some trouble for some people on the JMW. Stay with the Benz Glider or Dynavector, and it will be a good setup. It's all in the matching.
Twl, I'll have to look those threads up. I just came from VPI's website, where there was a review by Art Dudley of Listner Mag, that claimed the JMW arm LOVED low compliance cartridges because of it's high mass. BTW, I like the JMW, I LOVE the Graham. I just am having trouble dropping that much $$$ on an arm. That doesn't mean I won't. I've been known to do dumber things in my life. Have you ever heard the Origin Live Silver arm on a VPI 'table? Just curious.Here is a link to that review.
I looked at the article you gave the link for.
I just don't agree with Art Dudley on this.
Also, I have read several posts at AA that say exactly the opposite from what I am saying. I can see that this could be quite confusing.
First, I can tell you that 11 grams is not a high mass arm. The OL Silver is 12, and it still is not a high mass arm.
They are both medium weight arms.
I found the DL103 and DL103R to be barely matched even with the OL Silver, which led me to the invention of my HiFi lateral stabilizer modification for Rega style arms. This made a very real improvement of the sound of that arm, and helped it to deal better with the low compliance of the Denon cartridges.

However, I don't wish to deter you from what you want to do. I am just giving a caveat about a condition I am aware of. As I mentioned in some of those other threads I referred to, just because it works, or doesn't scream out loud, does not mean it is working to capacity. If you put SUV tires on your Ferrari, it will still drive you to the store. Using a very low compliance cartridge like the Denon, or Shelter on an 11 gram mass arm, will cause the cantilever to be limited in its modulation by the groove information, and will have some of the information lost in very small movement of the arm, at high excursions of the stylus. Many people will think that they are getting the full movement of the stylus/cantilever, and be satisfied with the good smooth sound of the cartridge generator, while never knowing that they are limiting their dynamics, bass response, and also losing information to unwanted tonearm movement. This may account for the discrepancy in our opinions. The difference is, that I have done research into this phenomenon, and actually did lateral mass increase modifications to my tonearm, and heard, with my own ears, what differences it made. It was not subtle, and proved to me, beyond the shadow of any doubt, that these lower compliance cartridges need more lateral mass than the 11 or 12 grams that is commonly thought acceptible for them. Moreover, I sent this modification to 2 other Audiogon analog users, and they did the mod to their tonearms, and had similar improvements in sound quality. Interestingly, they did not have low compliance cartridges, but medium compliance ones, and they still gained sonic benefits from this mod. This is telling me that many cartridges are causing the tonearms to move, without the owners realizing this fact. Even medium compliance cartridges are over-driving most tonearms. What other people are saying is based on existing "tables and graphs" that I have now proven to be lacking. When I first apprenticed in an audio shop, I was taught that unipivots should not be used with lower compliance cartridges. I found circumstances to bear this out. I also now know that even medium weight gimbal-bearing arms have a deficiency in this area of lateral mass. Dynavector even introduced an arm in the 80s, to address this problem, called the 507. It had some other technical difficulties due to over-engineering, and was only of limited success. But the concept was valid, and I am not the first to discover this. I can only say that many others have not had the experience that I have had in this area, and have not done tonearm research and modification, to determine the efficacy of lateral mass changes with regard to cartridge compliance. Most others will simply accept general data, and think that they are getting maximum drive from the cartridge, when they acually are not. Whether you wish to accept this information as useful to you, is strictly up to you. I can tell you that about 3 people other than myself, and the Dynavector tonearm engineers, are probably even aware of this, or consider it important. Everyone else is quite satisfied to have these limitations in cartridge drive, due to insufficient lateral mass, because they want light vertical mass for vertical tracking considerations. Vertical mass and lateral mass can be separated, and improvements can be had by this. The weights placed around the unipivot are primarily to maintain azimuth stability, and they are only marginally acceptible for that task. Overcoming the lateral movement at the headshell, from a point well inboard, requires a far higher mass increase than they provide, as well as preferably outrigger positioning, for inertial force increase, due to the geometric progression of the inertial increase when distance from pivot is included. This is why the Graham has a better shot at handling the lower compliance cartridges. Basically, unipivots are an inherently unstable platform, with insufficient mass in the right places to render them stable, for the application that they are used in. Gimbal bearing arms are far more stable, but still suffer from insufficient lateral mass in most cases. Increasing mass of the tonearm will also increase mass in the vertical plane, and cause poor warp tracking performance. So the mass must be increased outboard of the bearing yoke, and not coupled with the tonearm tube itself, to have the desired effect, without compromising the vertical warp tracking performance of the arm, or making it unsuitable for cartridge resonance matching.

So while I feel this way, I wish you luck on your purchase, and simply would leave you with this statement. If you do notice any problems related to compliance, remember who told you about them. And if you don't notice any problems, then just consider this to be an overly conservative point-of-view on this subject.

Regarding the use of the OL Silver on the VPI, I don't know anyone personally who uses that combination. I see nothing wrong with the combination, but there are still not alot of OL Silver users out there yet, and alot of people use VPI arms with VPI tables. A natural choice, given brand loyalty and compatibility of same brand products. I am not knocking these other arms, but just trying to point out some matching considerations, that I think are valid.
Twl, wow, I don't know what to say after that, except, your modification to increase tone arm mass doesn't involve the use of tape and pennies, does it? Just kidding. You really know your analog stuff. I think, from what I've read, the JMW 10 is considered a higher mass arm because of it's length? Weight is only one factor, the length of the arm can also be a factor, can't it? The further the cartridge is from the pivot point will make the 11 grams seem heavier, correct? Similar to holding an object further away from your body the same weight box will feel heavier the further you hold it from your body. I'm not trying to sell you on the JMW arm, although I admit I'm leaning that way now due to synergy/economic reasons. If someone else was buying, I'd grab the Graham in a heartbeat, but I'm having trouble validating paying twice the price for it. It's a classic battle of right brain/left brain. My emotional side wants the Graham, the rational side wants the JMW. Thanks again for all your help, at least I'm learning a lot as I continue my journey.

John, you are going to get a good arm, no matter which way you go on this. Don't worry too much about it.

If I can make a suggestion, listening to music is a very emotional pastime, and may favor an emotional selection of equipment. I'd say if you like the Graham, then maybe you should get it. It certainly is a great arm.

I don't have anything bad to say about any of these arms. I am only pointing out different characteristics for you to consider.

After all, this is going to be your arm, on your TT, and it should be what you want. It doesn't really matter what I think is best, it matters what you think is best for you.

Regarding your question about longer arms having greater mass, yes they will, all other things being equal.