SOTA Comet turntable

When Tom Norton asked if I'd like to review an entry-level turntable from SOTA, I responded with a resounding "Yes!" I've long felt that there's a conspicuous absence of affordable, good-sounding record players on dealers' shelves. With the AR ES-1 package deals no longer available and the Rega 3 now selling for $775, at $599, SOTA's new Comet promised to be stiff competition for the Basiks, Revolvers, Duals, and Thorenses of the world. Also, due to my tenacious embrace of vinyl, I try to encourage as many music lovers as I can to experience the satisfaction derived from LPs and the fun and excitement of collecting them. If I can point them in the direction of a competent, sanely priced analog rig, I'll consider a good part of my mission accomplished.

Having said this, I should state right upfront that any company which makes it easier for music lovers to enjoy the LP format will automatically get a pat on the back from me...just for the effort. I applaud SOTA, therefore, for introducing the Comet—a record player most anyone can afford. However, to get a recommendation from this middle-aged curmudgeon, SOTA—and any other company entering the budget high-end fray—had better make a product that performs.

Standard color on the Comet is black. Unlike some budget turntables, however, its high-gloss finish gives it a modern, classy look (footnote 1). The only control on the deck is a red rocker switch that lights up when the motor is turned on. To change speeds you must remove the platter and move the thin, flat drive-belt from one motor pulley to the other (the upper one is for 331/3 rpm, the lower for 45).

The black platter, which rides on a 1"-thick Delrin sub-platter, is 4½ lbs of precision-machined, high-density polymer. Rapping on it with my knuckles produced a dead-sounding, low-pitched "thunk," suggesting that it is relatively inert and effective in dissipating resonant energy. It's also slightly dished to conform to a record's increased edge thickness. I found most of the records I played settled down just fine on the platter. The occasional obstinate LP that failed to bond to the platter due to warps of one type or another was usually tamed by the optional Reflex Clamp (footnote 2). Polymers are also used in the Comet's bearing assembly. The bearing cup is made of Turcite, a Teflon-impregnated, self-lubricating polymer. I was told this substance is formulated specifically for ultra-precise bearing applications. The chrome-steel ball rests in this cup and supports the flat end of the spindle. SOTA claims this assembly has an almost unlimited life and will run quieter than even the most expensive and precise metal-to-metal ones. The drive system itself consists of a precision-ground, low-tension belt driven by a 24-pole AC synchronous motor (footnote 3).

Unlike the hanging four-point elastic suspension found on the much more costly Jewel (reviewed by TJN in April 1992, Vol.15 No.4) and its next-of-kin Satellite, the Comet relies on the mass damping effect of its laminated 23-lb plinth to isolate the platter from invasive motor vibrations, noise, and mechanical feedback. Additional isolation from the environment is achieved by the use of thin, visco-elastic polymer pads on the three feet. With the Comet sitting on top of an Arcici Superstructure II equipment rack, I was able to induce a low-frequency thump from the loudspeakers by gently tapping on the shelf, raising a question as to the efficacy of these pads.

Seeking a solution, I placed a Sims Vibration Damper under each of the feet and the thump disappeared. Not too happy with this experience, I placed the Comet on the top shelf of a RoomTune Clamp Rack. As I suspected, the 1½"-thick, extremely dense shelf of the Clamp Rack was much more effective in alleviating acoustic feedback than was the lighter, thinner shelf of the Arcici. Without benefit of any additional damping, and much to my delight, the polymer pads on the Comet's feet proved effective with the Clamp Rack. The point is to make sure that the surface you place the 'table on is rigid, dense, and solidly anchored to a rigid floor. If these conditions are met, you shouldn't have feedback problems.

SOTA's non-interchangeable LMT-II tonearm comes rigidly mounted on the Comet. It's a straight-tube, fixed-head, medium-mass, internally damped design which has the slowest, gentlest cueing action I've encountered. If you're in a hurry to get groovin' or you want to play DJ for your friends, cue manually. Wired on caffeine as I often am, I kind of enjoyed the luxury of auto cueing, though. Incidentally, the tonearm leads are hard-wired to a terminal strip at the rear of the base underneath the tonearm, making it possible to replace the supplied interconnect with another kind (if you're handy with a soldering iron).

You can be up and running in less than an hour after unpacking the Comet, since most of the assembly is done for you and there's no suspension to tune. Even the drive-belt is in place! All that remains after carefully removing the Comet from the shipping carton is to install the three feet, the platter (easily leveled with the included bubble level), the tonearm counterweight, a cartridge, and the dustcover (footnote 4). Setup of the cartridge is best left to the dealer, since no alignment gauge is included with the Comet—an oversight I hope is corrected. If you want to do it yourself, the DB Systems DBP-10 Protractor is available from various sources for about $30. I found the tracking-force scale accurate to within ¼ gram of my Shure SFG-2 Stylus Tracking Force Gauge. Anti-skating force is simply dialed-in according to the tracking force of the cartridge being used.

Though not mentioned in the instruction manual, azimuth appears to be adjustable by loosening a small set screw (oozing thread seal) that attaches to the arm-tube underneath the headshell. SOTA'S Jack Shafton assures me, however, that alignment of the headshell is done carefully and accurately at the factory, and he discourages further "tweaking." I would agree with him, as I had no trouble installing a Sumiko Blue Point Special MC cartridge. Azimuth was right on.

VTA is adjustable by loosening a set screw at the base of the arm-mounting pillar and raising or lowering the entire arm assembly. I set the VTA on the Special so that the brass mounting plate was parallel with the record surface. I then refused to worry any more about it (footnote 5). I set the tracking force at 1.7 grams and headed for the record collection. I also listened to the Roksan Corus MM cartridge with the blue and black styli, but felt the frequent VTA adjustments needed by these radical stylus profiles would hinder most buyers from achieving optimum performance. Having said that, I will also say that the Corus Black is among the best MM cartridges I've heard at any price. At $325, it's strong competition for the revered top-of-the-line Grado Zs. (Hint—it doesn't sound like a MM!)

In a fit of madness...
...I put the $1700 Roksan Shiraz on the LMT arm to see what that combination would sound like. As I expected, the sound improved—noticeably. There was an increase in bass extension, heft, and articulation, accompanied by increased sweetness and fullness through the mids and an elegantly pristine, effortless quality to the highs. After extended listening to this configuration, however, I concluded that the potential for great sound, which the Shiraz cartridge holds in spades, was being held back by the limitations of the turntable. Let me put it this way: The Shiraz did not sound as good, relatively speaking, on the Comet as the Blue Point Special sounded on the Well-Tempered Turntable. In other words, you can put a modest cartridge on a great-sounding turntable and end up with sound greater than the sum of the parts. But you can't put a great cartridge on a modest turntable and expect similar results. Lesson learned, with due apologies to Mr. Ivor Tiefenbrun for oversimplifying his thesis (footnote 6).



Footnote 1: If you must have another color, you can custom-order from more than a dozen.

Footnote 2: And washer. Don't forget the washer!

Footnote 3: When I started spinning LPs on the Comet, I noticed an unusually high level of flutter on solo piano recordings. A call to SOTA's Jack Shafton got a return authorization and a preliminary explanation. He said my unit was from an early production run in which the pulley was mounted eccentrically on the motor's drive shaft. This was giving the drive-belt a case of seasickness, manifesting itself in the pitch instability I heard. The next day, my sample was on its way back to the factory for repair. Upon its return, I was happy to find the pulley concentric with the drive shaft, and the problem solved. If you encounter this problem, contact your dealer or SOTA. It is easily corrected, and should not arise with current-production Comets.

Footnote 4: This last item is best left off when playing records because it acts as an antenna, effectively transmitting airborne vibrations directly to the cartridge. Tap it while a record is playing and you'll see what I mean!

Footnote 5: As far as I can tell, there's no other way to establish a point of reference with this shell-less oyster.

Footnote 6: This exercise was purely academic anyway, and did not lessen my respect for and enjoyment of the Comet turntable. After all, how many of your audiophile friends would put a $1750 cartridge on a $549 turntable?

COMPANY INFO
SOTA Sales and Service Center
436 E. Locust Street
DeKalb, IL 60115
(800) 772-SOTA
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COMMENTS
mmole's picture

I'm not sure why these historical reviews are included on the site. I guess it's fun to read about old gear and be shocked by the old prices but is that it? I'd appreciate some modern commentary that puts the review into some sort of historical context. If the original reviewer is still on staff, how about some updated thoughts? How does that old SOTA turntable compare to comparably priced (adjusted for inflation) models of today. Is it a classic? Would it be worthwhile to search out a used one? How has the state of the art changed since this model was introduced?

In other words, context please.

John Atkinson's picture
mmole wrote:
I'm not sure why these historical reviews are included on the site.

It's part of of our continuing project to eventually have every review from Stereophile's 55 years of publishing available on-line. From looking at the page-view data, these reviews are more popular than might be thought.

John Atkinson
Editor, Stereophile

mmole's picture

A database of 55 years of Stereophile reviews is wonderful. I support this effort 100%.

But when you do publish a review from the archives on the main page, it would be nice to see some commentary that puts the piece of gear in the context of its era and its place in audio history.

As always, your response to my initial query and your active participation with your readership is most appreciated.

mrkaic's picture

John, putting all reviews online is a splendid project. A great idea!

Best,

MM

johnnythunder's picture

Love reading JGH's (and other great Stereophile writer's) thoughts on classic pieces of audiophile equipment. It's illuminating for a slew of reasons.

a.wayne's picture

I'm in the " vintage stuff is great " camp John , i do enjoy reading these old reviews , Bring them on ...

Regards