Recently I read a post out in the social media world where someone made the comment, “…all turntables are pretty much the same, right? They all turn a record and have a tonearm that has a cartridge that plays the music.” The broader point the writer was trying to make was that any old table will do, and since they all do the same thing, one is as good as another, and spending more and expecting better performance was a futile exercise. If I may unequivocally put this to rest, nothing could be further from the truth. While it is true that all turntables turn the LP’s you drop on their platters, and all of them have some sort of tonearm to carry a traditional cartridge, that those qualities make them “all the same” is far from a correct assumption. The reality is, turntables have to do a lot of things right to give the listener great performance, and the term “you get what you pay for” probably holds truer for turntables than it does for almost anything else in the audio chain.
A turntable has to accomplish a number of very important things to pull the music out of the grooves of an LP and transfer it to the rest of your system. A great turntable has to excel at those things above and beyond others. Not only does a turntable have to spin a record, it has to do it at a very constant speed with little to no variation and no noise. It should have a platter that mates with an LP and creates a base that keeps noise and distortions from negatively affecting playback. It must keep vibrations to a minimum within it’s own chassis. It must keep resonances extremely low to non-existent. It must have a tonearm that carries a cartridge in a rigid embrace yet at the same time handles the output coming from it with a velvet touch and not allow any possible forms of distortion to disrupt the delicate signals it carries. I don’t want to get too lost in the woods with the technicalities of all of these points (and I can certainly do that if you like! Come visit and ask me sometime…). My point is, there’s a lot more to it than just turning a record and tracing a groove.
There are lots of techniques and differing engineering philosophies that deal with all of the parameters of LP playback – from solid plinths, to sprung suspensions, mass and weight to very sparse almost skeletal designs, springs, fluids, o-rings, belt drive, direct drive, jeweled bearings, ceramic bearings, inverted bearings, magnetic bearings, air bearings, straight tonearms, s and j shaped tonearms, tonearms with vertical and lateral bearings, uni-pivot tonearms, and on, and on, and on. What’s really interesting is how much science, especially physics, goes into the design and engineering of a great turntable, especially when it comes to materials, and the implementation of those materials in an overall design. It’s sort of like baking a cake or preparing a fine dish of pasta; great ingredients, in the right proportions and balance make for a tasty meal! Which brings me to the subject of this review… the SOTA Sapphire turntable.
Over the years, I’ve owned a lot of different ‘tables. I’ve had the opportunity to own or listen to models from Rega, VPI, SOTA, JVC, Technics, Colony, Denon, Micro-Seiki, Oracle, Pro-Ject, Thorens, and many others. Two of my favorites along the way were an original SOTA Sapphire back in the mid 80’s and more recently, another SOTA Star Sapphire. One of the cool things about SOTA, is that they will refurbish their older models or do trades for newer models no matter the age of the older table. To make a long story short, a few months back I shipped off my old Star Sapphire to SOTA and after they looked it over, decided to trade it in on a new Sapphire MkVI for my own personal use.
SOTA has some interesting history. They started in California back in the late 70’s, so as audio companies go they’re not a spring chicken (it’s kind of amazing how many audio manufacturers, including some that build outstanding products, are here today and gone later today!). By ’81, they were actually the only turntable manufacturer in the U.S. Today, they’re still a U.S. company and they turn out all of their own parts and finished products right here in the U.S.A., in Delavan, Wisconsin. There’s a couple of reasons they’ve hung in there for so long; their commitment to quality, their continuing research & development (especially in materials research), and the fact that their main design has been considered an audio staple and a reference standard by many since it was first launched. That design was their first product, the Sapphire.
Essentially, every other SOTA table has it’s roots in the Sapphire design. The Sapphire was actually an attempt to improve upon the fiddly nature of the Linn Sondek LP12, which was considered the finest turntable in the world at the time. The problem was, it was fussy and fiddly and required setup by someone trained in the Linn “dark arts” with all of the proper gizmos and tools to get it optimized. Plus, it had to be tweaked regularly for best performance. The Sapphire was engineered differently. The folks at SOTA wanted their table to sound as good or better than the LP12, but be easy to set up and once it was set up, to stay that way.
When it comes to engineering a turntable chassis there are basically two types of design; sprung suspension designs or rigid designs. Both have their pluses and challenges, and their adherents and detractors. The Sapphire is a sprung suspension design but it is totally unique in that instead of resting “on” a set of springs, it was the first ever design that was mass loaded and “hung” from a set of springs. In the end, that enabled the Sapphire to give incredible performance at keeping acoustic interference away from the table and at the same time creating a platform for the LP and the cartridge/arm/table interface that has stability beyond reproach. A proof point of that stability is that when it’s properly set up and playing an album, you can bang on the top plate with your fist and not disturb the record from playing! When it was launched, the original Sapphire was considered the new reference standard by many audiophiles worldwide and it continues to be in production today after 40 years in its latest MkVI garb… a good run I’d say!
The MkVI version of the Sapphire includes their latest motor and motor control subsystem which reportedly improves on stability and torque, a number of materials improvements including 1/8″ aluminum bracing, aluminum spiked feet, and a new magnetic platter bearing. My own Sapphire MkVI is actually a rebuild, so it does not include the new “MagLev” bearing… yet! It has the original sapphire bearing that the design was named after… yes it has a real sapphire jewel that the spindle rides on. Oh yeah, I’m still gonna upgrade it to the magnetic one someday soon, but that sapphire bearing is still the smoothest and quietest I know of outside of the contactless ones. There’s also the new “Eclipse” motor package that you can upgrade to as well… but that’s another story! They are also well known for their solid wood finishes, which are beautiful and beyond furniture standards and can be customized to just about anything you’d desire. SOTA’s tables take a little time to set up, but nothing anyone that has set up tables previously can’t do easily; actually, their manuals are written very well so that even someone with little experience can set up their table relatively quickly and easily. Their classic products like the Sapphire are a bit on the heavy side so you may want a friend around to help get one all set up (If you buy from Rich’s, we always will help with proper set up on SOTA turntables). The Sapphire MkVI retails for a base price of $3600.00 and includes an arm-board drilled for the model of your choice, an external power supply, and everything you need to get a proper setup going in a short amount of time.
Drive systems for turntables are usually belt or direct drive. Both have advantages; direct drive designs have great speed control and consequently great pitch definition but they can suffer from motor noise leaking into the platter due to a phenomenon called motor “cogging”, and that noise can make its way through to the pick up cartridge. Some modern direct drive designs have overcome some of those motor noise issues but the ones that do tend to be very expensive. Belt drive systems, which are the predominant type these days, are quiet, with almost no transfer of motor noise to the platter and subsequently to the cartridge, and they have the ability to extract more detail from the grooves because of that isolation. The better the isolation the better the detail and sonic performance. But, belt drive designs need to have very good, smooth running motors and good motor control characteristics to ensure good speed stability and pitch definition. SOTA tables are all belt drive designs, from their entry level Moonbeam ($1250) and Escape ($1550) models up to the Cosmos and their all out assault on the high end, the Millenia ($24k, fully loaded!). SOTA’s treatment of the belt drive fundamentals is exceptional. Their drive systems and motors are low torque designs that may take a couple of turns to come up to speed, but once there they are as stable as you’ll ever find. The Sapphire MkVI utilizes a high-efficiency A/C motor with double-regulated, synthesized sine-wave drive, and a hand ground and balanced pulley. SOTA’s platter subsystems are designed to create a flywheel effect and includes a heavy platter constructed of CNC machined aluminum, weighted towards the periphery and weighing 9 pounds, a very high quality motor, exceptional motor control electronics, and a rather narrow and light belt. This motor and drive system is purposely designed to create the most stable speed control possible. The entire idea behind the flywheel principal is that once the flywheel spins and gets to speed, it practically runs on its own and the drive system has to do very little to keep it going, and that means lower noise, improved pitch stability, better detail, broader frequency response, and improved dynamics. With most belt drive designs, even some very good and well regarded ones, I can drop a strobe disc on the platter to check speed and see occasional micro variances. Not with the SOTA. To get to the heart of it, my Sapphire has the best speed stability of any belt drive table I have ever seen. It is as rock stable as a direct drive table with a quartz lock on the motor, maybe even better. The MkVI motor and drive system takes the legendary SOTA performance to a higher level. Now, with all of that said, do you still think that all turntables will be the same and sound the same?
With all of that stability and isolation that the SOTA affords, it brings to your music incredible frequency response performance. I tend to be a big believer in getting the “tone” right when it comes to a quality system. So much of today’s high end audio world is about getting lots of frequency extension up top, not paying as much attention to the mid and lower registers, and creating razor cut images that stretch further than they would in real life. But, when you get the tone right and have really good, flat frequency response, especially in the frequency ranges where the fundamentals occur, the music emerges, and you stop listening to equipment and start listening to what the artist intended. The Sapphire gets an eleven on a ten point scale in its ability to transmit the frequency response of an LP. It is especially adept at bass response, probably better than any other turntable that I have ever experienced. Keep in mind that most musical fundamentals are in the low mids and down – “Middle A” on a piano is only 440Hz – and getting those fundamentals right makes a huge difference in the overall sound that a system reproduces. If those fundamentals are not reproduced correctly, no amount of tweaking or filtering or EQ’ing will improve the tone, the timbre of instruments, the purity of vocals, or the overall presentation, period. Now, if you don’t think that there are fundamental differences in how turntables “sound” in this regard, and that they are all essentially the same, come visit us and I can demonstrate the opposite very easily. We have clearly heard the difference that I describe in frequency performance and stability between SOTA and other turntables, and the differences are not subtle. And, it’s true even with SOTA’s entry level tables. Of course, as you go up in their product line it just gets better and better!
The Sapphire in my system is currently set up with a classic Fidelity Research arm and I have rotated a number of cartridges on it including a Denon DL103R, Denon 103D, Audio-Technica OC9MLII, and a Lyra Dorian. The Sapphire rig brings out the best in all of them! Bass lines are rich and powerful, but never with extra or unnatural overhang that smears the notes and will actually make them sound thin and without body or weight. Tony Levin’s bass work on Peter Gabriel’s “Us” comes roaring through with incredible articulation that on lesser decks sounds washed out and lumpy. The definition of some of the embedded bass gymnastics by Mr. Levin in “Digging In the Dirt” are not even apparent on some rigs where the SOTA pulls them out of the grooves without breaking a sweat. You want to really hear the power and thunder that was Led Zeppelin? Listen to their first couple of albums via a Sapphire and you’ll discover that Bonham’s drums will kick you in the gut like never before and Jones’ bass will rattle your windows (especially on “Whole Lotta Love”… wow!).
Female vocals in the mid-bands are pure and sweet when called for, like Annie Lenox singing “You Belong to Me” from her album “Nostalgia”, or as sultry as you can imagine with Norah Jones singing “Turn Me On” from “Come Away With Me”, and Beth Hart’s growling blues on her work with Joe Bonamassa come ripping through with body and snap galore. In the midrange where so many fundamentals reside and so much of the music originates, the Sapphire gets the tone spot on. Acoustic guitar, massed strings, male vocals are all reproduced with a body and immediacy you just can’t find elsewhere. The timbre of every instrument comes through and the size of the recording venue is clearly reproduced.
Being a drummer, I listen very closely to cymbals in recordings because they can tell me a lot about the quality of the recording itself and the system I’m listening to. On Dire Straits “On Every Street” LP, or Wes Montgomery & Jimmy Smith’s “The Dynamic Duo”, the cymbal recordings are about as pure as you’ll find and the shimmer and high end harmonics the Sapphire pulls out of the grooves probably can’t be improved upon. The other important thing with those higher register tones and harmonics are that they tend to carry much of what our ears hear as imaging cues; generally speaking, the better the high end, the more realistic the image is. It also tends to be where we can discern pitch definition the best – is it solid and consistent or is it wobbling about with motor and drive inconsistencies and noise? All of the above emerges from a pitch black background with a noise floor that drops down into the Grand Canyon when LP’s are spun on the Sapphire.
All of the excellence that the SOTA Sapphire brings to bear on the music that lies in the grooves of your LP’s is due to its ability to create one of the most stable platforms for a record that is attainable. The lack of resonances, noise, wobble, bouncing, or any other litany of nasties that plague turntable performance are rigorously and elegantly tamed in the Sapphire. Plus, there are multiple upgrades that can be made and SOTA offers lifelong value like no other turntable manufacturer. So, you can start out with entry level models today and work your way up to Sapphire status and beyond with products that are custom from the ground up. SOTA’s are truly a customizable product that can bring you beauty and performance that is above reproach and is actually a bargain in relation to anything that’s competitive.
Yes, turntables DO sound different… don’t let anyone tell you differently because the proof is in the listening!
So what’s in a name? SOTA: State – Of – The – Art
For more info: SOTA Turntables