SOTA Cosmos turntable TJN March 1992
Not long after my review of the $4000 SOTA Cosmos (Vol.13 No.7), things began to happen. The turntable was upgraded with a new motor, which appeared to have more to do with parts availability than any needed performance improvement. Then the drive circuitry had to be redesigned to function properly with the new motor. In other developments, Allen Perkins, one of the three most recent SOTA principals behind the design and manufacture of that company's turntables (along with Robert Becker and David Fletcher), left to form his own company, Immedia.
We were promised a sample of the Cosmos, with new motor and circuitry, for an update shortly after the initial review was completed. But the weeks stretched into months, and when it finally arrived in early 1991, the news was out that SOTA had been sold and that its new owners would relocate the factory to Illinois. It soon became obvious that the sample we'd received—apparently from the end of the California production—had not been carefully built. The vacuum didn't work and the motor was very noisy. I can only speculate—though I hasten to add that one sample does not a trend make—that things were happening during SOTA's last days in California which did not make for very happy turntables (footnote 1).
There followed an unavoidable delay in getting another sample, this time from the new Illinois facility; setting up in a new location, with new people, is never easy. In the meantime the Cosmos (along with other SOTA turntables) was dropped from our "Recommended Components" list pending re-auditioning of samples made in the new facility. While we had no reason to doubt the SOTA quality that would come out of Illinois, we simply didn't know one way or another.
But when our next sample arrived, the shippers had done their worst. The only visible damage was a small crack in the artificial marble base at the corner nearest the tonearm cutout. Closer inspection, however, revealed that the entire spring structure in that corner was damaged. Though the shipping company certainly deserves much of the blame, I should also point out that the foam padding ring which surrounds the turntable base in its shipping carton was not fully in place in the damaged corner, with the result that there was no padding at that location between the base and the carton. The foam padding which should have been wedged between the base and the subchassis in the arm mounting hole area was also missing. In any event, we returned the second sample and requested a third. This time around there were no problems; nothing was damaged, everything appeared to be functioning properly, and setup went without a hitch.
Anxious to try out the Graham 1.5 tonearm on the new Cosmos, I first mounted it using the standard SME mounting board. It worked—the cutout and geometry of the Graham arm are designed to match an SME board—but the thickness of the board made it difficult to obtain enough downward travel on the arm to allow for fine-tuning the VTA in that direction. SOTA, working with Graham, devised a slightly thinner version of the SME board specifically for the Graham arm; it will presumably also work with the SME. This armboard was used in the latter stages of listening; I definitely recommend it if the Graham is your arm of choice.
All of my listening was done with the Graham arm. Cartridges included the Dynavector XX-1L, the Benz MC-3, the Kiseki Blue Gold, and the Threshold Renaissance. The preamp was the Rowland Consummate, the power amp primarily the Krell KSA-250. Loudspeakers were Apogee Centaur Majors.
The "sound" of the Cosmos in this system was more a reflection of the system itself than that of the turntable, with one possible exception. This system is totally different from the one in which the SOTA was auditioned for the original review. Save for the Cosmos itself, not a single component—including the room itself—is the same. This system is, overall, cooler and leaner than the earlier one. In particular, the Graham arm is tighter in the bass (and perhaps somewhat less palpable in the midrange) than the SME V. The Apogees also sound tighter than the B&W 801s, less extended in the bottom octave but leaner and better defined through the mid and upper bass. They are also somewhat brighter in the lower treble than the B&Ws.
Therefore, if I tell you that nothing I heard in the new system with the Cosmos—and any of the mentioned cartridges—gave me any inclination to change my original conclusions about SOTA's flagship model, you'll understand that I didn't hear exactly the same things, to exactly the same degree, that I heard during those weeks of auditioning nearly two years ago. What I did hear convinced me that the Cosmos remains a superbly neutral turntable.
As I said in that original review, the Cosmos may strike some as a bit lean in sound; between my earlier and most recent sessions, a tendency toward the analytical remained the single common factor I can point to as likely representative of the turntable itself. It refused to fatten the sound of LPs. Since the present system itself shares that attribute, careful matching with an appropriate cartridge is clearly called for, and will pay dividends. Of the four cartridges used with the Cosmos in the present go-'round, I found the Renaissance, un-broken-in as it was, to provide the best combination of detail and warmth. But even then, the system could not be called lush or rich-sounding.
But with that single caveat, the Cosmos simply appears to get out of the way and let the rest of the system do its job. Which was exactly the feeling I had about it when I wrote my review. I wouldn't change a word of it today.
Well, perhaps just a few words, none of them relating to the sonic quality of the Cosmos. It's only fair to point out that the VPI TNT also evaluated in that review has undergone a number of updates since that time. Also, because of the overall balance of the present system, I felt no need to remove the Groove Damper Mat which comes pre-stuck to the Cosmos's platter. In the warmer-sounding, prior setup, I preferred the tighter sound which resulted with the mat removed. With the mat in place, concerns about dust trapped between the soft disc and the hard platter being ground into the disc under vacuum pressure are considerably lessened (footnote 2).
The vacuum pressure provided by the Cosmos is, however, a relatively mild one. While this is by design, it does not do a completely effective job in flattening anything beyond fairly innocuous warps. There is a point—reached well before the point of serious warpage—at which the less than flat record defeated the Cosmos's attempts to form a seal and pull down the disc against the platter. Subjectively, I felt that the vacuum pressure on this latest sample was less than that of my original review sample. This was most apparent when removing the record from the platter after play; it was usually easy to break the seal with the current turntable, while the earlier one required some effort and finesse.
The pump in that sample was actually noisier than that of the most recent one, but that noise was not a complete negative. With the first sample, you could actually hear when the pump switched from its startup cycle—when it creates the initial vacuum under the disc—to its maintenance cycle. With practice, you could tell by ear when there was a vacuum in the older Cosmos. With the present sample, it was necessary to check the rubber platter seal edge-on; it flattens out when a vacuum is present. I repeat my earlier suggestion that some type of vacuum indicator on the turntable base would be a useful touch; a simple circuit with an external LED indicator would probably be sufficient.
The new motor did give the new Cosmos slightly better speed stability than the old. Using a 1kHz test record tone and a frequency counter, the speed stability was ±0.1% (the earlier version had been 0.3%). Long-term stability was also better: the 0.3% to 0.9% speed decrease noted after 20 minutes or so of operation in the earlier version became a 0.2% increase in the newer sample. Not, in my judgment, anything to be concerned about.
I still recommend the Cosmos to those looking for a great, all-out turntable. But I also feel, as I did originally, that each potential buyer must carefully consider his or her specific situation before making such a substantial investment. If you don't already have a large collection of vinyl, or are unwilling to search for those sources of (mostly used) analog discs—a search which will likely become an obsession all its own—then the Cosmos is not for you; unless, that is, your budget allows you to ignore cost/use factors. You don't buy a yacht unless you have an ocean to sail it in.—Thomas J. Norton
Footnote 1: Corey Greenberg's first sample of the lower-priced Jewel, which was to be included in his Vol.14 No.7 turntable survey, also was apparently from this production run and had a noisy motor. We have a new sample in Santa Fe; a review will appear in our April 1992 issue.
Footnote 2: If you do remove this mat (it peels off easily), please follow my original caution to thoroughly clean the platter of residue with pure alcohol (not rubbing alcohol, please), lest that residue itself contaminate your discs.