By Dave Thompson
Armed with clean lines and a distinctive minimalist design, a SOTA turntable always turns heads. Even heads attached to those people who — gasp! — prefer CDs or downloads to vinyl records. And if you live with a SOTA turntable for a few months, you’ll wonder how you ever survived without it.
In the decades since SOTA arrived on the audio scene, the company has established itself among the most highly regarded of all domestic turntable manufacturers. Based in Worth, Illinois, SOTA Sales and Service Center also offers a range of accessories, parts, repairs, upgrades, modifications and LP cleaning machines — so, more or less a one-stop shop for the turntable enthusiast. But it’s the turntables for which SOTA is renowned, and here’s why.
There are nine SOTA models from which to choose. Assuming that you’re in the market for a proper turntable — as opposed to a simple thing that spins round at vaguely the correct rate of knots, while a needle scrapes some sounds from the groove — there’s one for most pocketbooks, ranging from the Moonbeam ($750) and Comet ($1,400 to $1,550 depending on finish) up to the top-end Cosmos ($6,150 to $7,300) and Millennia ($8,350 to $9,500) models, which are both available in a vaccum version.
Spin Cycle leapt at the chance to put a SOTA Comet Series IV through the paces. It had a tough act to follow: a vintage Thorens TD 160 that was recently refurbished by a technician who knew what he was doing (an increasingly rare talent these days, at least in the realm of turntable repair) and armed with a new cartridge, too. It’s been my weapon of choice for almost 20 years, and though sundry pretenders have come and gone in that time, the Thorens has never been deposed.
Until, possibly, now.
First impressions: The Comet’s setup was easy — just an hour or so making sure that everything was just right. It’s also foolproof to operate. There is one control, and one control only: a delightful, big red button that turns the unit on or off. The only other moving parts are the essential ones for making the player play. Fewer knobs and switches to play with, fewer things to break. True, it is a pain having to remove the turntable and adjust the belt when you want to switch from 33s to 45s. But it’s only a minor one.
The wooden plinth does give the Comet a retro sensation — and trigger fond memories of the time when all manufacturers cared this much about how their products looked. And there’s another nicety, something that you don’t normally even think about when you make a purchase: a 12-foot power cable. You can put the turntable where you want to put it, as opposed to where the nearest electrical outlet demands you put it. Now, I know what you’re thinking: the turntable is only half of the battle. Your amp, pre-amp, cables, speakers, music, even the room you’ve set the whole thing up in all play a part in how the system will. Few of us are able to isolate the most acoustically sympathetic room in the house, then transform it into a sonic nirvana where the furniture doesn’t impede the sound waves. Nor do we necessarily have the wherewithal to thoroughly upgrade every single component simultaneously. So we make allowances, make do and judge new arrivals accordingly. The Comet stands up to the scrutiny.
Straight out of the box, the turntable speed is dead on at 33-1/3. That’s not something you can take for granted with a lot of modern players (or older ones, for that matter). Here, it’s precise.
While the one-piece tone arm may look lightweight, it’s more than up to the task. Same goes for the factory-installed Ortofon 2M Blue cartridge. When you place the stylus in the grooves, it doesn’t want to climb out again. There’s no surface noise and no rumbling.
Even vinyl’s natural pops and clicks seem more natural. Part of the reason is the I-Clamp, an optional but worthy extra you can buy. (So is a dust cover, which feels a bit like buying a car and finding out the roof is sold separately, but that’s another story.) The I-Clamp screws down over the spindle and holds the disc flat to the turntable. Not only does this eliminate any minor warp that might be present, it also ensures that disc, platter and stylus make the closest possible bond.
Ah, the platter. The tech text describes it as high-density polymer material sandwiched between two layers of precision-machined 3/8-inch Plexiglas and topped with more polymer material by way of a mat. In other words, it’s thick, it’s heavy, and it doesn’t wobble. Not even a little. Other shock-resistant features are apparently built in elsewhere; visit the website at www.sotaturntables.com if you want to read the technical details.
All I know: Even with a large cat jumping up to inspect this new intruder into its domain, the Comet never missed a beat, which is impressive, given the range of vinyl put to the test: an affectionately battered (read “scratchy”) vintage pressing of Julie Driscoll, Brian Auger & The Trinity’s “Streetnoise;” a mid-’80s pressing (read poorly pressed) of the first TV Smith solo album, “Channel Five;” and the 2014 Record Store Day release of the one and only LP by Scotland’s Life Without Buildings (which was recorded digitally and had to be press-ganged onto vinyl). But guess what? The always-present distortion across great swaths of “Channel Five” — most notably the tinny, almost-echo that haunted the chorus of “Burning Rain” — is under control and noticeably improved. Jools and Brian sound warmer and deeper, with less scratchy and clicky noise. And Buildings has a presence that wasn’t there on the CD. The closing “Sorrow” slams so hard out of the vinyl that you could swear you’re hearing it for the first time.
These are subjective claims, I know. Your ears might experience something else entirely. But you know those reviews that describe a vinyl record as possessing that “warm analog sound?” The Comet has that effect. It picks out the moments of dynamism, detail and drive that other (especially cheaper) turntables might overlook, and which the CD age has conditioned us to stop even seeking.
Will the Comet replace that faithful Thorens? Well, “replace” is a harsh word. Who says you can only listen to records in one room? Or only on one side of the room? Yes, I think they are going to get along together just fine …
A prodigious writer, fierce music lover and longtime record collector, Dave Thompson is the author of Goldmine’s “Standard Catalog of American Records 1950—1990, 8th Edition” and “Record Album Price Guide, 7th Edition,” both of which are available at www.krausebooks.com. Thompson is hard at work on the 8th edition of the “Record Album Price Guide,” which is scheduled to be released in spring 2015.