SOTA COMET III TURNTABLE

with S301 Tonearm

Price: $1,200

 

by

Michael Zisserson

Sota, an acronym for "State-of-the Art", has been around since 1997 and currently makes 8 different models, the 9th named the Moonbeam, is currently under a redesign and is not available, making this Comet model their lowest priced model. Their top 5 models feature vacuum platters. All Sota tables are made in the USA.

As you can see by the roman numeral III, Sota doesn't rest on their notable laurels and continuously updates their products as new technology comes along, rather than introduce "new" models every six months merely for marketing purposes as many others do. Their tables are also TV stars, as inDr. House on the highly rated TV series. House has a Sota both in his office and home and has been seen playing them on the air.

 

 

 

           I. Construction

 

           Synthetic Polymer is the theme of this discussion. Yes, plastic. We are not talking about the plastics used in bullet proof glass, or the type used in the delicate fabrication of replacement body parts, but the type used to make an affordable audiophile grade turntable come to fruition. That turntable would be the Sota Comet III.

SOTA has taken an entirely different approach to the COMET platter design.

And because of the energy-dissipative property of polymers, various types of polymer materials are used throughout the MOONBEAM and COMET, not only for the main platter, but also for the sub-platter and bearing cup assembly. The Spindle/Bearing Assembly of the MOONBEAM and COMET is a state-of-the-art design, and one of the keys to their outstanding performance. Once again, SOTA has turned to the performance advantage of polymers. The bearing cup is manufactured of a high-tech material called TURCITE™. TURCITE™ is a Teflon-impregnated, self-lubricating polymer designed specifically for ultra-precise bearing applications, and is ideally suited to the turntable spindle/bearing function.

The Drive System of the MOONBEAM and COMET consists of a high-density polymer sub-platter driven by a 24-pole AC synchronous motor originally designed for ultra-precise computer use. The motor drives a precision-ground, low-tension belt which provides a vibration-free drive system for the rotating assembly of the turntable. The MOONBEAM and COMET are equipped for both 33 and 45 RPM.

The Chassis and Cabinet Damping System of the MOONBEAM and COMET continue the design theme of isolation from noise and spurious vibrations.

Environmental isolation has been accomplished by way of a monolithic, massive internally dampened cabinet, which effectively isolates the turntable system. Additionally, special energy-absorbing leveling feet are utilized and incorporate a proprietary visco-elastic polymer pad to damp vibrations.

 

 Being a fairly open minded, and while reading through Sota’s comments regarding the construction, I noted a few interesting points. First and foremost, this turntable is made almost entirely of polymer, right down to the spindle and bearing. This brought me back to a fond childhood memory which incorporated a Fisher Price children’s record player and a “Peter and the Wolf” 45.  Secondly, there is high precision motor, along with the (you guessed it) polymer sub-platter system, and precision low tension belt. Fancy marketing words, or legitimate technology?  The feet are made out of a proprietary material, and the platter consists of special high-density polymers. The COMET incorporates dampening material sandwiched between two layers of 3/8" Plexiglas to create a thick, heavy platter. An interface mat is added to both platters, for the best possible record-to-mat interface. All of this technology leads to a well defined goal: Isolate and remove any unwanted vibration.

 

           In its construction, the Comet III is a well designed, amazingly dampened piece of affordable genius.  Far from any Fisher Price toy, it stands a proud 6.25”H (with optional dust cover) x 18.25”W x 14.25”D and carries a respectable 26lbs on three feet. Using three feet is yet another step to isolate and remove any unwanted vibration.  Vibrations extraneous to the system at play, no matter how small, are distortions which are undesirable. Even if a turntable is floating in the air, it can be subject to vibrations from any direction, even more so from whatever it touches.  The feet are somewhat of an ergonomic nightmare to set up. The coarse threads make fine adjustments difficult. Furthermore, the feet look similar to replacement parts for a computer desk one would acquire from a local hardware store dipped in rubber.  Fear not though, Sota includes a leveling bubble for hours of nail-biting fun. If the point is not abundantly clear, I am splitting hairs given the price point vs. engineering that has gone into the Comet III, but hey – that’s my job!

 

The unit I received is in the black acrylic finish and is of piano-quality black sheen making the appearance very handsome.  Assembly of the platter and sub-platter is elementary and the belt slipped gently around the motor shaft and sub-platter with ease. The motor includes a position for 33 rpm records and one other for 45’s. It is great how Sota has taken the time to think around the difficulties of turntable adjustment.

 

 

II. The Tonearm

 

           The S300 tonearm is an upgrade from the S250 and is said to have precision balanced bearings and an improved arm tube. It looks like the Rega RB300 , because it is.

 

           Sota was kind enough to include a setup guide to aid in achieving the proper geometry for correct tracking. You will have to provide your own scale to hone in the tracking force. The S300 comes pre-mounted to the Comet III taking quite a bit of complexity out of setup.

 

           Similar to the rest of the table the tonearm is substantial. The tracking force adjustment along with the anti-skating are confident and do not require the fingers of a veteran watchmaker to accurately adjust. To my amazement the counterweight was heavy enough to balance my Audioquest 7000 cartridge which has a full metal jacket. Sounds easy enough to shrug off; however, there are other tables out there which require a “heavy” counterweight.  Not surprisingly, these extra baubles come with a lightening of the wallet. The damped cueing feature is one not appreciated until you have never had it. It is not unlike an investment into good cookware. Whereas a good pan will allow you to cook evenly, thoroughly, and consistently; the damped cueing allows easy start/stops. This feature prevents the slamming of the cartridge to the vinyl, or throwing the arm off the vinyl and sending it skating through the air in a lazy arc if you lift a little too abruptly. The fit and finish is on par with the rest of the table, and the overall visual appearance matches well. All paying homage to the larger picture of the Comet III which is an elegant face that would be welcomed in any living room exposed for all to see.

 

           Swinging gently in the air during the uncrating process suspended in a soft bag of foam packing material (another polymer?) were the flying RCA leads which attach directly into, and through the tonearm. They are long enough at about six feet, and are more substantial than what is found in the box with most retail electronics. To quote Robert Frost: “Two roads diverge in a yellow wood…”

 

There are two schools thought regarding hard-wired vs.  removable cables. The first is that it is best to allow the owner to keep the supplied cables or upgrade to a better quality model. The other is that one continuous, unbroken electrical path is better because, especially at very low voltage such as those generated by a phono cartridge, a break in the path allows the introduction of unwanted artifacts such as noise and a change in the impedance of the tiny signal as it passes through the connector, among others. Sota has chosen the second path.

 

III. The sound

 

           After plugging the Sota Comet III in, I flipped on the large lighted switch and the platter slowly spun up to speed. The first LP to grace the platter was Analogue Production’s “The Alternate Blues”, and the arm was cued to “Alternate Two”. The track starts with Dizzy Gillespie, Freddy Hubbard, Ray Brown, Joe Pass, and Bobby Durham bantering about the mishaps in alternate one. What amazed me was not the thought of how the initial few seconds sounded, rather how they did not sound. The polymers were performing as desired creating a background that was extremely quiet. It certainly was quieter than a paparazzi hiding in a tree outside Paris Hilton’s house. Of course, the paparazzi have a heartbeat (maybe) and there was probably snapping twigs and branches in the tree they call home, so there was some slight unwanted sound, and so it is with the Sota combo. I’ve heard quieter analog playback, but at this pricepoint the groove noise was more than acceptable. Sota did a fine job creating a foundation for the music to be built on.

          

Once the track started Ray Brown’s bass and Joe Pass’ smooth guitar were very inviting with good placement in the soundstage with speed, texture and intensity. The muted trumpet materialized with power and grace. Attributed to the quiet background, the Comet III’s greatest strength is the ability to reproduce micro and macro dynamics within the confines of any given instrument. Snare drums snap with authority, the decay from the pluck of a string is realistic, and the subtle inflections the artists are trying to convey come through well. The quiet also places the artists in a three dimensional field where they seem to work together, not blend together.

 

           Eric Clapton’s  “Unplugged” was next to be sampled, and the same very positive trends continued. Clapton’s voice was focused well and possessed the texture to blur the line between recorded and live. Since a stage band is a bit more complex than a jazz trio, it became apparent during passages when Clapton was accompanied by the female harmonies, that there seemed to be an slight blurring of the line between their voices. I am again splitting hairs; however, this trend continued across the span of all albums auditioned.

 

           Since guitar guys seemed to be the theme, Stevie Ray Vaughan’s “Texas Flood” was next up on the platter. This is where the texture and integrity of the Comet III reached its peak. On the title track, Stevie’s guitar was presented with an amazing amount of realistic detail. The guitar was realistic enough to visualize his fingers dancing on the neck through his chord progressions. The subtle dynamic changes of the drums and bass lines make it nearly impossible to resist tapping your feet, while his gritty voice came through clear and with all the conviction a blues man can have. At this point, I was finding the macro picture of the Comet III to be relaxed, running a hair over the centerline towards being tonally warm. 

 

           Peter Gabriel’s “So”, was a great listen and showed a bit more of the Comet III’s wild side. The haunting vocals and Calliope type organ on the track “Don’t give up” truly captured the emotional struggle the song describes. All the while the Comet III continues to effortlessly place everything where it belongs. “Up”, the latest album for the ex-Genesis member was also quite the auditory delight. The digital effects on the track “Growing Up” were recoded with phase cues and soundstage placements that when captured properly, is just as bewildering as growing up truly can be. The track certainly grabbed my attention and left me eager to see what Sota has to offer up-stream.  The sound emerged from the speakers with ease and maintained its integrity regardless of how complex the music became. At times when listening to digitally generated music, the Comet III was a little too honest. It was not quick to hide any sense of compression, or saturation, yet the way it did handle any bit of recording inadequacy was respectable.  Never did it resort to making the music unlistenable, which is a very good trait to those of us who indulge in the occasional guilty pleasure. You know the type… No one is home, you scour through a dark corner of your record collection only to pull out some little gem you would never be caught listening to in public. I believe we all have them.  Someone once told me that there is good music, and good recordings. Many think that some of the best music suffers from less than the best recording and if all you look for is good recordings, you will not have much music. At times, too much of a good thing can be detrimental. The Comet III strikes a balance wonderfully, with little sacrifice to the integrity of the sound or without losing its ability to reproduce truly high fidelity passages.

 

           Plastic. It is one of the few products we humans have brought to this planet that did not exist before us. There are many who may not buy into a turntable made almost exclusively of the stuff; however, they may be missing out on a great hidden gem.

 

Who might be interested in the Sota Comet III? Well, it is an entry level table; 8th model from the top and one from the bottom of the Sota line. (The Moonbeam is one level below) It is a good starting point for those who have boxes of LP’s in the attic that are much loved but are on the list of “things to do someday”. The Sota Comet III is a no frills table and extremely well thought out.  If you think you want a more aggressive sound, one of the acrylic tables from companies like ClearAudio may be better. Paying more will certainly give more in terms of speed (transients and attacks), transparency, dynamics and subtle musical nuances. Nevertheless, it presents with a quiet background, imaging, and dynamics that are not always captured by even more expensive tables just a generation or so ago. Of course, many will also prefer its sound to lower priced CD players as well. You can save yourself $100 by opting for the S251 tone arm. Given the S300 is a mere 10% more of the table’s affordable price, it seems counterproductive not to opt for it. $200 more is a significant jump in table to the Satellite, however you will be out of pocket for a tone arm. The Comet III w/ S300 tonearm is forgiving enough to enjoy a collection of old classical, jazz and that Beatles or Beach Boys collection in your garage, but coherent enough to show the subtly of a jazz trio, string quartet, or the power of rock. I do not believe there is much more that can be asked of this little table at this pricepoint.

 

Specifications

 

RUMBLE Less than -65db unweighted (10cm/sec @ 1000 Hz)

 

WOW & FLUTTER Less than .1% RMS (DIN 45-507)

 

PLATTER Two layers of 3/8" thick plexiglas sandwiching energy absorbing    dampening materials, interface mat

 

MOTOR  A/C synchronous

 

BEARING  Polished shaft on hardened chrome steel ball in TURCITE® spindle sleeve

 

TRANSMISSION Belt driven

 

SPEEDS 33-1/3 and 45 RPM

 

WEIGHT 26 lb (12 kg)

DIMENSIONS  6-1/4" H (to top of dust cover), 18-1/4" W, 14-1/4 " D

 

Available is a Textured black finish at no additional charge.

 

Dust cover is an additional $165.00 USD

 

 

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