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Product: SOTA Star
Manufacturer: SOTA Sales and Service Center - USA
Address: Worth, Illinois USA
Base Price: $ 2869
Price as tested: $1767 (not a misprint, see text)
Reviewer: Nels Ferré
Reviewed: May, 2002
(short for State Of The Art) has been a manufacturer of quality
turntables for nearly twenty years. Years go, SOTA turntables were
the darlings of many a reviewer, then for some reason, they seemed to
fade from view. With the advent of the compact disc, SOTA, like
countless other turntable manufacturers, experienced rough times. In
1997, SOTA was purchased by investors, the husband and wife team of
Kirk and Donna Bodinet.
Kirk is the firm's head technician; Donna handles the day-to-day operations. In addition to the sale of new units, SOTA Sales and Service Center offers repairs, parts, and upgrades for any SOTA model ever built. During the review period, it was quite apparent that not only do Kirk and Donna know analog gear quite well; they also both love what they do.
The SOTA Star is situated approximately midway through the line between the entry level Moonbeam ($543 including arm) and the top of the line Millennia ($7360). The Star is the least expensive vacuum platter turntable in the line.
The Star, in my opinion, is quite striking in its beauty. With its all-wood finish, it looks like a piece that will last for years, ultimately being handed down through the generations. The Star, however, is also quite the brawn: it weighs in at a hefty 46 lbs. (21-kg). With the optional dustcover fitted, it measures out at 7.5 inches high, 20.25 inches wide, and 16.5 inches deep. The outboard power supply/vacuum unit, roughly the size of a shoebox, adds another 12 lb. (5 kg.) The Star is big and beautiful.
The Star uses an ingenious method for setup and adjustment of the sprung subchassis. With most (if not all) suspended turntables, one must adjust spring tension correctly to achieve optimum performance. With the Star, the spring tension is not adjusted at all, rather, the mass of the subchassis is adjusted, with the use of lead shot, and larger, heavier lead cylinders, as required. The idea here is to balance the entire subchassis using the arm and cartridge combination that will ultimately be used on the turntable.
Also integral to the design is the outboard power supply and vacuum unit. This is not a common "wall wart" but a fully regulated power supply and two-stage vacuum unit. SOTA determined back in the late 80's that the quality of the incoming AC had a direct determination on the performance of a turntable. Additionally, in the same enclosure is the two stage vacuum unit. It runs at full power for a period of five seconds, to firmly mate the LP to the platter, then a relay switches the vacuum to "maintenance mode" to maintain the suction. It attaches to the Star with a proprietary large diameter umbilical cord for supplying power, as well as generic vacuum hose to handle the suction duties.
The platter rides atop a polished chrome bearing. A Zirconium bearing is available as an extra cost option. Due, I believe to the vacuum system, the platter mat is non removable. The platter is topped with suede like material, which I believe will be very kind to treasured records over the long haul. At the edge of the platter is a rubber lip, which is integral to the vacuum system. When an album is first placed on the platter, the lip points upward. Upon applying power to the turntable, the lip gradually lowers in height until it is just below the outer edge of the album. During this time, the album is being sucked firmly to the platter. At that point, a small click can be heard from the power supply unit as it switches into maintenance mode. Other than that the vacuum system works in complete silence.
The vacuum system of the Star is not designed to flatten out extreme warps from badly damaged albums. I found that the Star will eliminate warps on approximately 95% of my collection, but there were a few "garage sale" finds that are really beyond help. Additionally, because the rubber lip at the platter's edge is an integral element of the vacuum system, only 12" discs can be flattened; smaller diameter discs can be played on the Star, of course, but no vacuum action will occur.
The Star is available in three standard finishes. Exotic woods, as well, as gloss black are optional. The review sample (standard finish) was finished in a very attractive light oak.
Because SOTA is a full service manufacturer and distributor, they have an excellent trade in policy. It's pretty simple, if you own a SOTA turntable, and would like to upgrade, they will take your current turntable in trade towards a new one. The trades are then fully refurbished, and offered for sale, with a 1-year warranty, at a reduced price. The review sample is a refurbished unit. The workmanship is excellent; I cannot tell this unit from "new".
The base price on a refurbished Star is $1435 including a blank composite arm board. The review sample came with the optional, but recommended, Reflex Clamp ($208). Then towards the end of the review, there was a household accident at chez Ferré, (more on this in a bit) which required a dustcover. SOTA sent a refurbished dustcover ($124.) Like the turntable, the dustcover looked like "new". I wasn't even aware of the existence of refurbished dustcovers.
I have a confession to make. I have been a "Hi Fi Addict" over twenty years, and have spent 10 of those years on the retail sales floor in the audio industry. Since I have had lots of exposure through the years to all types of gear, I usually do not read the instruction manual. With the Star, I looked at the beauty inside its inner box, and the first thing I did was stop and read the instructions carefully. I am glad I did. SOTA provides set up instructions that, for the most part, are very comprehensive. It is fairly straightforward, but can be somewhat time consuming the first time around.
To get the turntable
ready to go, the unit must be removed from the inner box, as well as
the plywood shipping board. Then, one transit bolt is loosened.
Attach the arm to the arm board at this time, and loosely attach the
cartridge to the arm. The arm well is filled with the appropriate
amount of lead shot for the arm/cartridge being used. This will level
the platter and sub chassis. Then the arm board is laid into the
cutout in the top of the turntable, and the balance is checked with a
Add or remove lead shot as necessary. Tighten the arm board down when it is level. Once everything is leveled, loosen the remaining transit screw, move the turntable to its final location within your listening room, level the table again with the three adjustable feet attached to the underside of the chassis, align the cartridge, and connect the Star to its outboard power supply/vacuum unit. Then enjoy! See? That wasn't too bad.
A nice touch here, SOTA provides all of the necessary tools for set up, save the wrench that will be needed to remove the double-boxed Star from its inner carton. A bit of advice here, due to the large size and considerable weight, I strongly recommend two people remove the turntable from the box.
As an alternative to adding and removing the lead shot to balance the subchassis, a buyer can tell the folks at SOTA what arm/cartridge combination that will be used on the Star, and it will be supplied with the correct amount of lead shot to place in the arm well to properly balance the sub chassis.
Additionally, SOTA can provide any arm/cartridge combination for those who are starting from scratch, and will ship the unit balanced, aligned, and ready to go.
I used my trusty Rega RB-250 arm on the Star, but after living with it a bit, I came to the realization that the Rega is about the lowest end arm that should be used with the Star. It really cries out for a higher quality arm, such as offerings from Graham, SME, or possibly one of the new original designs from Origin Live.
Regular readers will know by now that I am really hot on the Dynavector DV-10x4 Mk II phono cartridge. As good as it is, I did have one major compliant in my May 2001 review: "Dynavector, for some reason, has an aversion to any type of stylus guard."
That Saturday morning dawned beautiful and sunny, as so many do here in Florida. I took my wife's car to the shop for a much-needed new set of tires, and returned to find my wife in a strange mood. "Honey", she said, "I think I broke the microwave oven." Sure enough, it was dead. No big deal, our house is 14 years old, and this was the original microwave, installed by the builder. So we jumped into her car, and went to the local appliance warehouse store, and bought a new one.
As I was installing it, the doorbell rang. Some relatives dropped by with their children. (You can see it coming, can't you?) I was busy in the kitchen and couldn't "guard" my system, as I usually do when children are present. They left after a short while, I finished my work, and decided to listen to some music. There was an unpleasant surprise in store for me: the Dynavector's cantilever was damaged. To say I was not a "happy camper" is an understatement.
I decided to upgrade the cartridge to a Dynavector DV-20XH (it has a stylus guard) that, due to supply and demand issues, has yet to arrive. Donna was understanding and let me keep the review sample beyond the agreed upon date, as I awaited the 20XH. She also sent a dustcover for the Star. As the Dynavector has yet to show, and I did not want to take advantage of Donna's patience and understanding, I decided to complete this review with my "backup" cartridge, the Shure V-15xMR.
We all know them: people that look at us quizzically when they see a turntable in our home, or see us pawing through piles of used vinyl at a garage sale. And if we tell them that we actually prefer the sound of vinyl to those little silver discs, then they really think we have "gone around the bend."
Some time listening to vinyl via the Star may go a long way to eliminating those curious looks. Bass is deep, and full, but not punchy- in other words, very natural, in my opinion. The midrange for the most part, is more if the same, although, I did have some reservations initially. There was a "glare" or peak in the upper midrange while using the Shure that was remedied through more careful cartridge alignment. Again, naturalness abounded in the highs. The Star in a word, is suave, the Frank Sinatra or Tony Bennett of turntables.
The performance aspect of the Star that really struck me (would that make me "Star struck"?) was its speed stability. One usually doesn't notice speed stability as a positive, rather, it is noticed when it is poor. Poor speed stability can be easily heard as a "wavering" of notes, especially with the piano. Excellent speed stability, combined with stellar isolation, led to far-improved imaging over the other turntables I have used recently.
Please keep in mind, while I find the Star to be completely neutral and musical, there really is no such thing in any audio component. As a friend pointed out to me, all components are colored, some more than others. When a listener, myself included, finds a component that they like (or love), what they are really saying is that their tastes are in agreement with those of the designer of the component in question. And so it is with the Star.
The vacuum system led to a large overall reduction in noise, as well as an increase in retrieval of inner detail, as the interference for record warps was eliminated. This, reduction, in my opinion, made it easier for the arm/cartridge combination to wring the last bit of information from the record grooves.
Before the Star arrived, I had some concerns about the amount of noise that would be emitted by the vacuum unit. Those concerns were unfounded: the Star in operation is as quiet as the grave.
As is to be expected, I had no feedback problems with the suspended Star. On the other hand, my house is built atop a concrete slab; your mileage may vary.
As much as I liked the performance of the Star with the Shure, the Shure was no match for the Dynavector. I found an improvement in all levels of performance over the Shure with the Dynavector in the system.
The Star is a very easy, reliable, and trouble free turntable to live with. It did take me some time to become 100% comfortable with the vacuum platter system. On the top of the plinth, there are three knobs, 1 for speed adjustment (plus or minus 3 percent for 33 1/3 and 45 R.P.M., each speed having its own knob) and one knob for the amount of vacuum applied to the disc. If the knob is set at full vacuum, I found it to be difficult at times to remove the disc from the platter. (I turned the power off at the end of each side.) I finally decided that half vacuum was sufficient. The discs were flat and it was far easier to flip the album at the end of the side at this setting.
Additionally, the Star is a physically large and heavy turntable. This is not bothersome to me in the least, however if the designated space for a turntable is limited, it may not be the turntable for you.
I did find it curious, that for all of the attention paid to providing clean power to the turntable, the power supply is fed from the outlet by a non-detachable generic 2-prong power cord. I would prefer to see a 3 prong IEC jack, so that end users could use the power cord of their choosing. Apparently, buyers of non-refurbished units get the IEC jack.
Finally, as the Shure V15xMR was used for the majority of the review period, there was an issue, which could not be remedied during the review period. The inside edge of the pivot assembly for the Shure's Dynamic Stabilizer/stylus guard would scrape the outside edge of the stabilizer weight as the cartridge met the inner groove. I believe this will only is a problem with wide-bodied cartridges, and will not be an issue with more "normal bodied" cartridges like the Ortofons, lower end Dynavectors, or Benz offerings, for example. Even using the Shure, the scraping shouldn't be an issue for most listeners, save big fans of the inner groove on The Beatles' "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band."
At its regular $2869 price, I think the SOTA Star is a good value. It is absolutely beautiful, very well built, and sounds great. However, I have to admit, this price range is crowded with alternatives, although very few (and possibly none) have the desirable (in my opinion) vacuum platter.
I think the refurbished and warranted Star, at half the price, is an incredible value. A vacuum turntable for less than $1500 is a hell of a deal. In fact, I plan to back up my words with my wallet: the SOTA Star will be my new reference turntable. I do, however, plan to upgrade the arm sometime in the near future.
I would like to thank Kirk and Donna Bodinet for providing the review sample.
P.S. Sharp-eyed readers may have noted the presence of the Dynavector DV-20XH on the business end of the arm. The review was sent to the manufacturer for accuracy, and while I was waiting for its return before posting my review for publication, the Dynavector arrived. It was only after I mounted it that I realized that I had not yet taken the picture for the review. As far as the sound of this combination, the Dynavector destroys the Shure; it sounds truly glorious.
© Copyright 2002 Nels Ferré - http://www.tnt-audio.com
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