Analog Corner #91

There was a reference to a SOTA turntable in an episode of The Sopranos in the fall of 2002. Tony's son, A.J., and a pal were visiting a wealthy girlfriend when the pal popped out from the hallway and exclaimed, "A mint copy of Rubber Soul! That must be worth a fortune! And a SOTA turntable!" This was in or near the same episode in which Tony was outfitted with a sophisticated front-projection home-theater system. I'd wondered since the first season why a man of his means has been watching a 27", 4:3 Philips analog tube. I'm trying to find out who's the audio/videophile among The Sopranos' cast and crew.

Kirk and Donna Bodinet, who run SOTA out of Illinois, were thrilled by the SOTA reference. I had a SOTA Comet II turntable in for review, and got an e-mail the next day asking if I'd seen the show. Donna wrote that she'd received an advanced e-mail from the art director telling her about it. They'd actually planned to shoot (as in "photographed," not "whacked") the turntable, but had to cut it during the final script edit. That's the sort of product placement you can't pay enough to get, and SOTA hadn't paid a cent. Someone at the show was obviously a fan.

Though SOTA has kept a low profile over the past few years, the company continues to manufacture its complete line of 10 turntables as well as record-cleaning machines and a full complement of upgrades for the various models. They also sell refurbished units at very attractive prices. Owners of older SOTA products can get repairs, upgrades, and factory support from SOTA. When the Bodinets asked which model I wanted to review, I decided on the Comet II with S300 tonearm (an OEM Rega RB300), which sells for $934—about the same price as the five other turntables in this two-part survey. (Part one, in last month's column, featured three Pro-Ject designs, distributed by Sumiko.)

SOTA Comet II: $934
The Comet II will never win an award for elegant industrial design, but for $934 (Unless indicated otherwise, the prices listed in the headings include a tonearm.—Ed.) you should ask for engineering first and looks much later, and engineering is what the Comet II delivers. It begins with a high-mass damped plinth fitted with three threaded leveling feet terminated with a proprietary visco-elastomer polymer. A machined cutout on the plinth's top surface accommodates the 24-pole AC synchronous motor and the bearing and sub-platter assemblies. A crowned aluminum dual pulley and precision-ground flat belt drive the high-density polymer subplatter, which spins on an usually hefty (for the price) spindle-and-bearing assembly rotating in a Turcite® bearing cup. According to SOTA, Turcite is a Teflon-impregnated, self-lubricating polymer that's ultra-quiet and has a "nearly unlimited life." We should all be so lucky.

The Comet II's platter features a constrained-mode polymer damping material sandwiched between two layers of 3/8" Plexiglas. Top it off with the Rega RB300 arm, and you get a lot of engineering value for your $934 (add $76 for a locking I-Clamp record clamp). But before I talk about the sound, I have two major bones to pick with the Comet II.

First, the amount of play in the bearing was more than I like to see. Second, the platter's speed was off by about 1% (a 1000Hz tone was actually 1011Hz). Because the Comet II's motor is AC synchronous, you could correct its speed with an outboard motor drive, but that's not a cost-effective solution. If you're considering a Comet II, be sure to insist that your dealer check its speed. Surely, SOTA can machine the pulley to drive the platter at 331/3 and 45rpm within a more reasonable 0.5% tolerance. Spinning the platter at or close to the correct speed is a turntable's Job No.1.

Like last month's batch of 'tables, the Comet II and the others this time were placed on an original Townshend Audio Seismic Sink and fitted with a Sumiko Blue Point high-output moving-coil cartridge ($249) using the moving-magnet phono section of Musical Fidelity's new Tri-Vista integrated amplifier. After "live" auditioning, I made 24-bit/96kHz recordings of LPs played back on the SOTA using the Alesis Masterlink hard-disk recorder. Direct comparisons of the digital dubs revealed that I preferred the sound of the I-Clamp and the Comet's bonded soft platter surface to the Ringmat (sitting on the soft platter surface) without I-Clamp, which tended to cause the music to lose some focus.

Guess what happens when you run about 1% fast? Things sound snappy and lively, but a bit crisp: heavy on transients, light on harmonics. Images are forward on the stage, with a bit of etch added to cymbals and female vocals. On the tracks from the two reference discs I recorded—"Bluesville" from Count Basie's 88 Basie Street (Analogue Productions Originals, 180gm reissue); and "Let Me Touch You for Awhile," from Alison Krauss and Union Station's New Favorite (Diverse Vinyl)—the Comet II's presentation was slightly aggressive, but with fine dynamic sock and good bass extension and control.

I imagine that running 1% slower—ie, at the correct speed—would give the bass more weight, but I'm not sure what it would do to definition and overall LF integrity. The standup bass on the Krauss track had reasonably good "touch" and focus, but, as it did with most of the 'tables in this survey, lacked the last bit of stop/start control that would make it sound completely convincing as a plucked instrument. Basie's piano was appealing in terms of transient attack, and the reverb behind it was cleanly delivered, but, probably because of the speed shift, it sounded a bit hard, as did the plunger-muted trumpet and, especially, the horn section.

Of all the non-suspended turntables in this survey, the Comet II was, by far, the least subject to outside vibrations of the finger-tap variety. When I tapped on the Seismic Sink while the stylus rested on a stationary LP, I heard almost nothing through the speakers. Same result when I tapped on the plinth itself—impressive results for a non-suspended design. Listening to the plinth through a stethoscope revealed a moderate amount of motor noise—not surprising, considering that the motor is hard-mounted to it.

The stylus' vertical tracking angle (VTA) can't be adjusted with the Rega RB300 arm. In exchange, you get rigidity. You can get a set of shims and adjust the VTA, but this requires you to remove the arm. If you don't mind this, or the Comet II's plain-Jane looks, this package offers a great deal of engineering value and physical substance. Given that the RB300 arm alone sells for $425, you get a lot of 'table for the additional $500. Spend the extra $76 for the I-Clamp while you're at it, and make sure your sample runs at the right speed—or within 0.5% of it.

Rega P3: $750
Speaking of product placement, I just saw a Rega P3 and some LPs perched subtly on a +$5000 wall unit in a Maurice Villency ad in the New York Times. Gee, between this and a VPI TNT in full regalia in a recent edition of the Style section, there's a regular analog revival going on at the Times. Just don't expect to see any such revival—or anything at all about real audio (as opposed to RealAudio)—in the paper's Circuits section. Or about HDTV, or anything about quality audio/video. I don't know why the food section doesn't just serve up burgers and fries every week. The humiliation of the computer geeks who now run Circuits continues.

The venerable Rega Planar 3 turntable has been upgraded to P3 status ($750) with a new, ultra-low-mass plinth of microfiber, laminated with high-rigidity phenolic resin for faster, more effective dissipation of vibrational energy. Of greater significance is a new electronic motor-controller circuit—a simplified version of the motor phase-trim technology used in Rega's P25—that allows the motor to be hard-mounted to the plinth instead of via an elastomer suspension. While the suspension effectively isolated motor vibrations, it also allowed the motor to move, causing the pulley-to-subplatter distance to vary, which created microvariations in speed, which in turn resulted in a lack of ultimate focus and some softening and smearing of transients. Listening through a stethoscope placed on the P3's plinth, I heard very little motor noise. The motor-controller circuit seems to work.

Otherwise, the P3 is unchanged from the Planar 3. It uses Rega's RB300 arm, and the same motor, pulley, O-ring, subplatter, bearing, and felt mat as the Planar 3. Like the SOTA Comet II, the P3 ran a full 1% fast. Again, I don't know if this represents mere sample-to-sample variation or if it's a plot to give these 'tables a snappy delivery, as some who shall remain nameless have charged. If you own a Rega turntable, have access to a voltmeter with a "Hz" setting, and have a reliable test LP with a 1000Hz tone on it, let me know how yours runs. When I reviewed the Planar 3 back in December 1996, I don't remember if I even bothered to check its speed—an egregious mistake I blame on my reckless youth.

The P3 continues the Planar 3's sonic heritage: it's fast, slightly forward, and a bit etched. It's lively as hell but coherent, the music all arriving at close to the same time—an-easy-to-listen-to turntable with a well-balanced palette of subtractive faults.

Tonally, the Rega sounded remarkably similar to the SOTA Comet II. Both had surprisingly deep bass extension and control, though the SOTA was a bit warmer and richer-textured in the lower midbass and the Rega had a tauter rhythmic foundation. Clearly, your choice of cartridge will be a much bigger determinant of the final sound. Was the similarity due to the RB300 arm? The 1% speed error? Both? I don't know.

The more I learn about tonearm behavior, the less Rega's O-ring–suspended counterweight makes sense to me. The compressed O-ring is a spring with a high resonant frequency that's probably in the range of music—it can't damp the counterweight one whit, and can probably do only bad things to the sound. That's one reason some Rega aficionados prefer the less expensive RB250 arm, whose counterweight rotates in and out on a thread engraved in the counterweight shaft. The connection is therefore direct and springless. While a truly decoupled counterweight might be even better, getting rid of the spring is a step in the right direction. Express Machining makes just such a counterweight for the RB300, RB600, and RB900 arms, but I didn't have one on hand for this review.

The other controversy with the RB300, 600, and 900 arms is the VTF setting spring and how the bearing associated with it is suspended to allow for the spring. Some Rega fanatics claim that this arrangement actually reduces rigidity and thus makes the RB250 the best-sounding Rega tonearm, even if the RB250's bearings are not of the same quality as those in the more expensive models, and the time it takes to build an RB250 is not as great.

Big Surprise: the Nottingham Analogue Horizon: $1000
The least expensive Nottingham Analogue turntable, the Horizon ($800, $1000 with Rega RB250 tonearm), resembles a stripped-down version of the company's most expensive 'table, the AnnaLog (review in the works). Eschewing the traditional plinth approach to turntable design, the Horizon features a narrow slab of what I think is high-density fiberboard, supported by four attached half-cylinders made of some sort of synthetic material, each containing a threaded leveling foot. The main bearing and the motor sit on this slab, while the armboard—made of the same material as the half-cylinders—is attached to the rear right half-cylinder, and is thus somewhat isolated from the motor. This design is similar to the big AnnaLog, which uses an enormous "log" of wood, supposedly made of slices from a 400-year-old mahogany beam taken from an old church. (I'm checking into this story.) The Rega RB250 arm is supplied with a mounting collar with a locking VTA adjustment insert.

The Horizon's platter, by far the heaviest among these budget 'tables, appears to be of cast iron, like the AnnaLog's. But I'm not sure of that, or of its weight, which is at least 5 lbs. The Horizon is so new that I wasn't able to get much info about it, and the instructions were thoroughly inadequate—but, in high-end audio, what else is new?

Like other Nottingham 'tables, the Horizon has an oversized, two-step motor pulley and an undersized motor (let's hear the applause) that drives the platter via a soft, pliable, elastic rubber O-ring. There's also a thick elastomer damper ringing the platter perimeter, and a foam platter pad. You plug the 'table in and the motor begins to fibrillate, the platter remaining stationary—there's no On/Off switch. The designer says no harm is done to the motor in this mode. When you want to play a record, you put it on the platter and give it a spin to get it started—the motor lacks sufficient power to do the job itself. I think designer Tom Fletcher has it right: No motor is best, but if you must have one, use the smallest one you can. Less vibration and noise is better than more—especially in a budget design such as this, which places the motor and main bearing on the same slab of HDF.

My biggest concerns about the Horizon were the amounts of vibration and noise that would be transmitted from motor to platter. When I put a stethoscope on the plinth adjacent to the bearing housing, I heard plenty of noise as well as an undulating whirring sound, as if the motor bearing hadn't been sufficiently run in. I let it spin for a day and it was much smoother. With the motor spinning but no belt attached to the platter, surprisingly little noise—not much above the residual noise floor heard through a stethoscope—made its way to the platter.

When I measured the Horizon's speed, I was surprised and gratified to find it dead on—the only turntable in this survey to accomplish that most basic of turntable functions. Perhaps that accounted for the Horizon's rich, nuanced sound. Where most of the other 'tables produced a slightly glazed sound compared to far more expensive models, the Horizon mimicked the sound of multi-thousand-dollar rigs, at least in that regard. I'm not saying it equaled the big rigs, but jockeying between 24-bit/96kHz Masterlink dubs made from the three turntables made it clear that the Horizon delivered "touch" and "feel" and delicacy that most of the others, good as they were, only hinted at.

My only concern is that the sound of the Sumiko Blue Point MC cartridge, which is slightly hard (but not like the original, which was sizzly and had a seriously rising top end), was being masked by the Horizon's warmth. I installed the Lyra Helikon SL in the Horizon, and, yes, there was a slight warming in the midbass and softness on top—a character I'm finding in the big AnnaLog as well. But considering the cartridges and phono sections that will be used with the Horizon, this is probably welcome. The bottom line is, whether because of the Rega RB250 tonearm, or because its platter spun at precisely 331/3rpm instead of 1% fast, the Horizon delivered the richest, most delicate sound of the bunch. There was no denying the superior "touch" of Barry Bales' bass on the Alison Krauss track, or the sound, brassy without too much bite, of Count Basie's horn section.

Grand Conclusion
My survey comprised six turntables priced from $499 to $1500, each with a variety of strengths and weaknesses. Of the six, only the Nottingham Analog Horizon turned at 331/3rpm. The three Pro-Jects kept admirably close to 0.05% accuracy, which is more than acceptable, while the SOTA and Rega were off by about 1%, which changed musical timbres, if not noticeably the pitch. While the speed errors of 'tables with AC synchronous motors can be altered with an outboard controller, the cost of such a device makes its use not feasible.

The least and most expensive of the six 'tables are made by Pro-Ject. If your budget is limited to $500, the Pro-Ject RM-4 ($495) is a logical place to begin your analog journey. It errs on the side of softness, and doesn't deliver the low-level detail and dynamic slam of the others in the survey, but if your budget is limited, don't worry about that for now: the tonearm is excellent, and your records will be protected for the future.

With its outboard motor, inverted ball bearing, and carbon-fiber armtube, Pro-Ject's RM-9 ($1495) is the most sophisticated of the designs surveyed. But I'm not sure the RM-9's added cost is worth it when Pro-Ject's Perspective ($995) offers such an outstanding balance of qualities, and includes a very useful and effective suspension. There is some magic associated with turntable design, and of these three Pro-Jects, the Perspective has that "magic"—but don't let me keep you from auditioning the RM-9 if it's within your budget and you still have enough cash for a good cartridge.

The Rega Planar 3 has always been one of my favorites, and the new P3 ($750) features elegant design, a superb tonearm, and lively, open sound. It rocks. I'm not happy about the 1% speed error; if it's deliberate, it's a cynical move—like lifting the top end of a loudspeaker to make it jump out from the crowd. If Rega can deliberately machine their pulleys to run fast, don'tcha think they can offer one as an "option" that allows the P3 to run at the right speed? If this is simply sample-to-sample variation, I apologize, but be sure your sample runs true.

Ditto the Comet II ($934), which also offers a great deal of performance and careful engineering for the money, as well as outstanding vibration isolation.

As for the Nottingham Analog Horizon, it ran at the right speed (hopefully, every unit in the production run will do likewise!), comes with a superior platter, and you can adjust the RB250 tonearm's VTA—all for $1000. Its warm, rich sound may have been due to a slight coloration, but it still delivered lots of detail, and might be just what's needed, given the associated gear most likely to be used with it. The Horizon, too, had an overall magic I found particularly appealing.

I'm also putting in a good word for the workhorse (aside from me) in all of this: the latest Sumiko Blue Point HO, a fine moving-coil cartridge for $250. It tracks well, isn't bright or hard like the original P-mount Blue Point, and offers plenty of detail, harmonic nuance, and spatiality.

I've got Graham Engineering's new Robin tonearm on hand, but didn't have time to review it for this month's column. It slips into the mounting hole of the Rega P3, so I'm going to see if I can get properly machined pulleys for the Rega and Comet II, then try the Robin on all three Rega-equipped turntables in this survey.

Any of these 'tables will provide a particular kind of musical enjoyment that no CD player can. But if you've gotten this far, you already knew that.

Sidebar: In Heavy Rotation

1) Peter Gabriel, Up, Classic 200gm Quiex SV-P LPs (2), Geffen CD
2) The Zombies, Greatest Hits, Audio Fidelity hybrid SACD
3) Eva Cassidy, Songbird, Blix Street 180gm import LP, Didgeridoo CD
4) Beck, Sea Change, DGC CD
5) Miles Davis, Cookin', Analogue Productions 180gm 45rpm LPs (2)
6) Miles Davis, Relaxin', Analogue Productions 180gm 45rpm LPs (2)
7) J.R. Montrose, With Ira Sullivan, Horace Silver, et al., Classic 200gm Quiex SV-P LP
8) Sigur Rós, Agatis Byrjun, Fat Cat 180gm import LPs (2)
9) Johnny Cash, Get Rhythm, Get Back 180gm import LP
10) Alison Krauss, Forget About It, Diverse Vinyl import 180gm LP

COMMENTS
Atomicmod's picture

Also worth noting that on the show House MD, Dr House has, throughout the series, a SOTA Sapphire set up on his desk. It makes an appearance on just about every episode...

Bskeane's picture

HBO has a series "Sharp Objects" with a VPI Prime being used by one of the characters. Additionally I believe the electronics are Sim Audio Moon.

vinyl listener's picture

hank had a nice avid, modern and classic krell system.
never did get to see the speakers ?

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