SOTA Cosmos turntable Paul Bolin July 2003
It's been a loooong time since Thomas J. Norton reviewed the original SOTA Cosmos turntable back in July 1990 (Vol.13 No.7). Remarkably, both SOTA and the Cosmos, now in its Series III iteration, are still going strong. Under the ownership of Kirk and Donna Bodinet, SOTA Sales and Service, is still hand-building turntables, from the modest Moonbeam to the top-of-the-line Millennium, and taking especial care in repairing, restoring, and upgrading the thousands of SOTA 'tables still out there in the hands of happy, loyal vinylphiles.
I bought my Cosmos (serial no. 075) from its original owner in 1997, and have put a lot of miles on it in the years since. Having the Clearaudio Champion 2 'table in-house for an extended visit (see my review elsewhere in this issue) moved me to finally get around to something I'd long been meaning to do: return my Cosmos to the factory for an update.
The Bodinets have made substantial changes to the Cosmos in the years they've owned SOTA. After discussing the project with Kirk, a man of boundless enthusiasm for all things analog, I decided on a complete refit to the latest, Series III specification. On the cosmetic front, I opted to replace the rather bland gray Fountainhead cabinet with the new oiled-rosewood option (footnote 1). The current Cosmos incorporates the same drilled-out and damped subchassis of solid aluminum as its sibling Millennium, albeit in a slightly smaller size. Further improvements include a costly new 24-pole stepper motor with a synthesized-sinewave power supply, which combine to eliminate the cogging effects that old SOTA 'tables were somewhat infamous for—and numerous other improvements to the vacuum system and external power supply.
As my Cosmos was such a veteran trooper, we also decided to replace the main platter bearing and install the new Vinyl Format Mat with Groove Damper. This also included replacement of the vacuum lip with a much more supple and flexible design, which allows the vacuum pressure to be considerably reduced while maintaining the salutary effect of securing the LP firmly to the platter and flattening small warps.
After three months (a longer delay than usual, thanks to a parts supplier's bottleneck and a small fire in SOTA's woodworking shop), my Cosmos returned home, appropriately enough, on Christmas Eve 2002. The 'table had been so thoroughly rebuilt that the only parts that returned were the basic platter assembly, the plate on the bottom of the subchassis, and minor hardware such as the feet and rear control-and-hookup panel. The oiled-rosewood cabinet was eye-poppingly gorgeous, with a rich, vivid, high-contrast grain and painstakingly crafted corner joints. I reinstalled my reference Graham 2.2 tonearm and Dynavector XV-1S cartridge and immediately got down to listening.
Brother, was I surprised. While the III was not a completely different sort of beast from my original 'table, the design and manufacturing improvements have resulted in huge, not incremental, improvements. With the new motor and power supply, issues of speed stability are things of the past. Even on the longest piano decays, there was never a waver or flutter to be heard: the new motor-and-power-supply system works exactly as advertised.
The subchassis upgrades have resulted in an even more momentous improvement. The replacement of the wood-and-metal subchassis with solid, damped aluminum drastically calms and improves every aspect of the 'table's performance. Low-level resolution, already good, was dramatically improved, and instrumental images were rooted in place with granitic solidity.
Soundstaging has always been a SOTA strength, and the Cosmos III built on that secure foundation. My new III threw a cavernous stage that was evenly illuminated from front to back and from side to side. Resolution of height cues was also materially improved. Dynamics, another SOTA strong suit, retained the traditional power with a large new dollop of subtlety, refinement, and improved performance at the extremes.
Part of the credit must surely go to the newly revised vacuum system. The current Cosmos applies much less vacuum pressure to the record, facilitated by the large, flexible rim at platter's edge. The rim, which acts as the vacuum seal, has a slightly tacky texture that allows for much easier coupling to the record than the old, hard-rubber rim. Because the seal is so much more effective, vacuum pressure could be lowered significantly. Lower pressure, together with the revised Vinyl Format mat and Groove Damper mat cover, should allay fears about the potential for damage to the side of the record in contact with the platter. And you still get the benefits that come with vacuum coupling: the reduction of small warps and a snug record/platter interface that effectively presents the stylus with a seriously nonresonant 14-lb record to play. Another welcome effect of the subchassis and mat upgrades was a notable decrease in groove rush.
All of these specific excellences were presented in a context that was superbly continuous and consistent across the spectrum. The Cosmos III presented music against a deeply, densely quiet background, the smallest details emerging as integral parts of the larger sonic picture. Big SOTAs have long been known for their tremendous (some have said excessive) bass response. The Cosmos III still rattled the rafters with bass, but this was now bass with supreme mastery and definition. There was no woolliness or boominess to be heard, only an abundance of authority and control. The treble, more extended than with my old Cosmos, now had a silky smoothness and lifelike sparkle. The previous version could sound a bit overdamped and tight on top.
Above all else was the Cosmos III's effortless, unfussy sense of total command. Voices and instruments bloomed lushly into the room, and there was a wonderful sense of air and space with any decently recorded LP. The big SOTA was as easy a turntable as there is to live with and listen to hour after hour, month after month, year after year—graceful, robust, and supremely easy to use.
Though that arch-Linn Sondek fan John Atkinson and I will inevitably disagree, I believe that the SOTA Cosmos Series III offers performance fully competitive with or better than that of any 'table other than the megabucks models from SME, Walker Audio, and Rockport. As all of those 'tables cost more (sometimes much more) than $20,000, the Cosmos III is a fine deal indeed.
An upgrade of the magnitude of mine is not cheap. Absent a cabinet change, a complete remanufacture of an early Cosmos to current specification will cost around $3000; a new Cosmos Series III lists for $5520. A return authorization number is required from SOTA, as is a $65 inspection fee, which is deducted from the total cost of any upgrades or repairs eventually made.
Given the prices of turntables offering similarly exceptional performance, it makes eminently good sense for the owner of any Star Sapphire, Nova, or Cosmos to investigate SOTA's infinitely flexible upgrade plan, which allows you to pick and choose exactly which parts you want to replace. If you don't own a SOTA, you owe it to yourself to check out the latest Star, Nova, or Cosmos at the earliest opportunity. And if you do...what on earth are you waiting for?—Paul Bolin
Footnote 1: The outboard power supply and vacuum pump module also gets the wood treatment when this option is selected.