SOTA Cosmos turntable Page 6

Cosmos vs TNT
When I had to part with the Cosmos turntable for those several weeks during the review period, and began in the hiatus to evaluate the new VPI TNT, I immediately noticed a different character to the sound—using the same SME V arm and a Clearaudio Gamma cartridge. Much later, when I returned to the Cosmos (a different sample) from the TNT, this time with the Benz-Micro MC-3, my general impressions as to the major differences between these two turntables were confirmed. Frankly, I was surprised by how obvious the differences were. I had planned, despite the differences noted on the first changeover, to settle in for a long stretch of comparative listening, perhaps accompanied by a number of additional, time-consuming tonearm-turntable swaps—and suitable survival rations. I yearned for two identical, quality arms with interchangeable headshells or arm tubes—perhaps SME 309s or Grahams—but none such were to hand. But after nearly three months of listening to the TNT with the SME V, the differences noted on switching to the Cosmos were immediately audible. (Each turntable was auditioned exclusively on its own stand—the TNT on the VPI stand, the Cosmos on the Sound Anchor.)

If the sound of the Cosmos is likened to that of a good solid-state amplifier, then that of the TNT resembles a good, classic tube amplifier. The Cosmos is more tightly focused, with more up-front detail; certainly more analytical. The TNT, on the other hand, is decidedly warmer, almost lush in comparison. Its midrange is more liquid and sweeter—voices from the Cosmos are cooler, just a trace less palpable. The low end of the TNT is slightly, but noticeably, more extended. But it is also less tight and punchy. The Cosmos is airier with more pronounced contrast. Neither compromises the creation of a compelling soundstage, but the slightly more open sound of the Cosmos enhances HF depth cues and gives rise to a slightly better sense of placement definition, both laterally and in the depth plane. The TNT, on the other hand, produces a somewhat larger soundstage, if one not quite so compellingly distinct. On any absolute scale, however, both turntables enable any capable system to produce a convincing sense of the performing environment.

Frankly, I rate both turntables very highly. Both are stellar performers. But I won't cop out on this one; I have to confess a preference for the more precise, focused, detailed sound of the Cosmos. And if I were spending my own money tomorrow, and price was not an object (you can, after all, buy a TNT without stand for $750 less), my choice would be the SOTA. In my system it came across as the more neutral, revealing performer.

"In my system" is the important proviso. The B&W Matrix 801s have a trace of warmth of their own—which may be too much of a good thing with the TNT. In a system backed up by, say, the Martin-Logan CLSes, the warmth of the big VPI might well be more synergistic. Even over the B&Ws, I find that when listening to the Cosmos, I miss some of the lyrical warmth and liquid sweetness of the TNT. Both have functional and ergonomic quirks that might make a given user lean toward the other—hopefully toward the one which would have fit in better with his or her system, in any case. With the right associated equipment, either is capable of—with the Great Punster's forgiveness because I've been dying to say this all along—dynamite performance. For a price.

I haven't, up to this point, addressed the subject of turntable isolation. In fact, I never encountered any audible feedback problems with either of these units—even with my relatively close turntable-loudspeaker placement. But my listening room has a slab concrete floor. While the suspension designs on both turntables appear to be state-of-the-art, the effective isolation of any turntable depends so much on external factors—room and floor construction, acoustics (standing waves), the structure of the turntable stand used, and loudspeaker performance—that it can only be properly judged in the user's own listening space.

When my evaluation of the TNT and the Cosmos was completed, I installed the SME V on my updated VPI HW19 Mk.II—revised to near-III status with a new subchassis, springs, and motor. A new bearing was also sent along by VPI, but couldn't be used with my existing platter. A little analog humility, after all this dabbling in megabuck turntables, would perhaps be good for the soul. I wasn't sure what to expect. If I had hoped for no differences, making this whole experience an exercise in wheel spinning, then I was disappointed. My system with the HW19 installed simply did not satisfy in the same way. Clearly less detail, clarity, and openness than from the Cosmos, which had only very recently been removed from the playback chain.

Comparisons with the TNT were a bit more difficult—the latter hadn't been in use for about three weeks. But referring to my listening notes for the bigger VPI confirmed the impression I was receiving. The HW19 clearly belonged to the same turntable family as the TNT (much as the less expensive SOTAs had resembled the Cosmos in some ways). But I had used such words as "liquid," "grainless," and "palpable" in my notes on the TNT, words which did not spring to mind to describe what I was now hearing. The HW19 is still a very good 'table, no question, and the ear does adjust. But the memory of the pleasures my reference system provided with both the Cosmos and the TNT will not soon be erased.

The tweaker in me couldn't help but wonder just what the HW19 might sound like with the TNT's bearing and platter. If the bearing cutout in the HW19's subchassis had been large enough, and I'd had the time, you can be sure I would have tried it. Free idea, Harry!

We may be forced into a digital time-warp by the powers that be and the momentum of a "new is better" mass public mentality, but turntable manufacturers continue to introduce improved new models to cater to enthusiasts and music lovers who still value the performance of analog above that of digital. Still, an investment in a top-rank (and top-price) turntable system is not a casual undertaking in today's market. I'm not about to tell you to hock the mink and dump the Mercedes. It only makes sense if you listen extensively to analog LP and have a large vinyl collection or the patience and desire to build one—which today will take no little effort. If you do take the plunge, it will likely be your final investment (periodic cartridge replacements excepted) in analog front-end hardware. The sonic benefits are, in this reviewer's opinion, genuine. But to seek them out must be, inevitably, a carefully considered, individual decision.