Introduction to the SOTA Nova Turntable
SOTA is a turntable manufacturer headquartered in the Chicago area. They have been around for more than 30 years. SOTA’s current management team of Kirk and Donna Bodinet took over the manufacturing and servicing operation in 1997. They manufacture a total of nine turntable models as well as a very popular LP Cleaning Machine. The SOTA Nova turntable here is the third model down from the top of the line and comes complete with a real wood cabinet, a composite armboard, SOTA’s exclusive reflex clamp and a vacuum hold-down system.
SOTA NOVA TURNTABLE SPECIFICATIONS
- Design: Turntable with Belt Drive
- Motor: High Eficiency A/C with Double-regulated, Synthesized Sine Wave Motor
- Bearing: Zirconia Ball with Sapphire Bearing Plate
- Platter: 14 Pounds with Internal Damping and Lead Flywheel Ring
- Suspension: Tuned 4-spring Sub-chassis, 2.55 Hz frequency
- Vacuum System: Electronic-sensing with Clamping Pressure of 3.0″ (+/- 0.2″) Hg
- Speeds: 33-1/3 and 45 RPM, Electronically Switchable with Fine Tuning
- Rumble: < -60dB unweighted (10cm/sec @ 1,000Hz)
- Wow & Flutter: < 0.04%
- Dimensions: 7.5″ H x 20.25″ W x 16.5″ D
- Weight: Turntable 44 Pounds; Pump Unit 10 Pounds
- $4,200 USD
- SECRETS Tags: Sota, Turntable, Nova
The Design of the SOTA Nova Turntable
The manual for the SOTA Nova turntable posits that every variable important to turntable design can be solved with simple high school physics. These variables can be readily identified and addressed with a straightforward solution. This is the design basis for all SOTA turntables and the concepts can be grouped into four target categories – Dynamic Stability, Environmental Isolation, Control of Media Variables and Isolation from Electrical Impurities.
For Dynamic Stability and Environmental Isolation, SOTA uses a number of design features working together. To begin with, the sub-chassis is suspended by four damped springs. When properly balanced, each spring will stretch equally and since they are in tension, they do not experience any eccentric sideways deflections. The natural frequency of the suspension system is 2.5 Hz which is around the optimum natural frequency for a race car suspension. Is this coincidental? I’ll explain more about the ingenious sub-chassis balancing procedure later in the “Setup” section of my review.
Another part of the Dynamic Stability solution involves the factory balanced platter. This platter weighs 14 pounds and contains a lead ring that gives the moving mass a high rotational inertia. Also, the platter comprises several layers of damped material, each with its own specific set of mechanical properties depending on each layer’s place in the system starting with a top layer that is “impedance-matched” to vinyl along with another damping material that isolates the mat from the platter. SOTA calls this their “Constrained-Mode” design theory and a similar design concept also shows up in the fabrication of the sub-chassis.
The main bearing is formed from Ziconia and the thrust plate is sapphire. This bearing system is extremely low friction and long wearing. It can be expected to provide long-term low-friction performance with the endurance to last a lifetime. That’s not just because of the material properties and their manufacturing tolerances which are above reproach, but also because the center of rotation and the center of gravity are coincident in the design and setup of the Nova. This promotes a super stable system with minimal wear.
Environmental Isolation is further promoted by way of the large, laminated armboard. The multi-layered armboard in the Nova is made from composite materials and features a bolt-through mounting system where the bolts not only go into the arm board, but they also go into the arm board well and then into the chassis, thus giving more rigidity.
To control Media Variables, SOTA has employed a special mat, a reflex clamp and a self-sensing vacuum hold down system. SOTA calls the Nova’s mat a “vinyl format” mat because it matches the mechanical properties of vinyl. The reflex clamp is a very serious piece of hardware that clamps to the spindle with a levered compression fitting. It takes a little effort to set the clamp and I found myself holding the sub assembly from underneath even though SOTA says the springs can handle the load from setting the clamp.
The vacuum pump is contained in the same case as the outboard power supply. This utilitarian device has a black textured finish with a single red LED that indicates when the unit is connected to the mains power outlet. The box is the size of a large shoebox. It can be placed anywhere it will fit, but I found it best to place the unit on a carpeted floor. It is amazingly silent and effective in its operation. The vacuum holds down records with just the right amount of pressure. When combined with the clamping mechanism, mat and platter it mimics a system of infinite mass and damping.
The outboard power supply intrinsically isolates the table from power line impurities. But it is much more than a simple voltage transformer. It is a fully regulated power supply. SOTA fondly refers to this as their “Electronic Flywheel” and it features dynamic regulator circuits that are always on and ready for action. The AC synchronous motor has a balanced pulley with a switch to toggle electronically between 33 1/3 and 45 RPM.
The Nova table is supported by three adjustable feet that have felt pads on the bottom. An optional dust cover is available as well.
The good people at SOTA kindly included an SME 309 tonearm with the Nova table. This is the most affordable model in SME’s 300 series of arms. It has a magnesium headshell while the shaft is formed of stainless steel and includes internal damping. The SME 309’s other features involve design, material and geometric advantages that promote excellent isolation and resistance to warp related distortions. All signal wiring is linear crystal oxygen-free copper litz wire with gold plated phono plugs. But for me, I think the best part of the SME 309 is its spring-loaded adjustments that are cleanly set with the included ball driver. This is one of the easiest tonearms to install and adjust. It is nothing short of a total breeze to setup and tweak, a very noteworthy achievement in and of itself!
Despite all the SOTA Nova’s technical and operational excellence, it may be easy to forget that it is a beautiful product to behold. The table is in a lovely real wood cabinet with precise dovetail joints at each corner. The Nova is available in a number of fine satin finishes. It is not a gaudy looking turntable with lots of shiny metal and delicate, attention-grabbing accouterments. On the contrary, the Nova is an understated product with both an underlying and outward beauty. I won’t begrudge the shiny tables. Many of them are excellent. I just think the SOTA Nova is the model of pure competence and the pictures here don’t do justice to its visual appeal. Its isolation and operation are so solid and reliable; I started calling the SOTA Nova the “Rock of Gibraltar”.
Setup of the SOTA Nova Turntable
A major claim by SOTA is that the nova turntable can be reliably set up by following the clear, well written instructions. I agree with this claim. The whole setup from the time I started unpacking the table until I had it balanced, adjusted, on the shelf and operational took me around 4 hours. I could probably do it in half the time if I were to do it again.
The table came bolted to a plywood backing board with additional screws to secure the platter. It also had temporary shims to cradle the platter and pulley. The belt was factory installed.
The really unique and ingenious aspect of setting up the SOTA Nova turntable involves the use of a calibrated bag of lead shot to balance the sub assembly. You start by leveling the platter using the included bullseye level. You then perch the bag of shot on the ridge in the armboard well and re-level the platter. Then you rough mount the arm, armboard and cartridge and slowly fill the reservoir in the armboard well with lead shot until the platter is re-leveled.
What this does is it makes the arm assembly match the weight of the three other fixed undercarriage weights. This is why each of the four springs will have the same tensile load and it also ensures the center of gravity of the moving mass is coincident with the internal bearing surface. This is a major secret to the SOTA Nova’s claimed stability and longevity.
As mentioned above, I was thoroughly delighted by the ease of setting up the SME 309 tonearm. The removable headshell and spring loaded adjustments are excellent. I also enjoyed that the VTA and HTA adjustments were controlled independently. I really like this tonearm a whole bunch and it is great for people who want to tweak and experiment with different settings. The only criticism I have is that the tracking force is adjusted by counting turns of the ball driver and if you don’t have a balance to check the load, then the actual result may be suspect.
SOTA can also mount, balance and align the set up. If accessories are purchased through SOTA, set up is free. Check their website for details.
Once I had everything balanced and adjusted, I moved the table to the top shelf of my equipment rack. I placed the power supply/vacuum unit on the carpeted floor next to the rack. The vacuum hose and power lead between the power supply and the table are 12′ in length in case you want more separation than that. I don’t think that is necessary. I could feel a very slight vibration when the pump was operational but only if I placed my hand on the case. And I could hear just the faintest buzz from the unit when the table was powered with a record on the mat but only if there was no music playing.
I used my Sumiko Blackbird High Output MC cartridge for all my listening unless otherwise noted. Now that it is all set to go, let’s talk about my listening impressions.
The SOTA Nova Turntable In Use
Right from the start, the SOTA Nova table proved to be a high end performance juggernaut. The design and execution of this product is nothing short of masterful. It is one of those products that would make most vinyl aficionados fall in love as they spun their records until the wee hours of the morning. At least I know that’s what happened with me. As I mentioned earlier, this table is the model of competence. Rock-solid speed control with a wide palette of sonic colors from the lowest lows to the sweetest sounding highs you may ever hear from your records.
I’ll start with Junior Wells “It’s My Life, Baby”. This was the first solo album for Junior on Vanguard coming right after the release of his greatest commercial and critical success “Hoodoo Voodoo Man”. Some songs on this album were recorded live in a blues club and some are studio recordings. The idea was that the listener could get the feel for Junior’s live acts. The sound quality of the studio recordings is clearly better. This album features Buddy Guy on guitar.
With the SOTA Nova, my Blackbird cartridge tracked this record better than ever. The vocals were cleaner on leading edges and the bass was perfectly integrated into the whole. The soundstaging is stellar as well. Take “Stormy Monday” for example. Buddy’s guitar was outside the left speaker while the drums were spilling out on the right. Speaking of the drums, the cymbals and snare were uncannily real throughout this entire record.
Side 2 sounded even better with cleaner sibilants and Junior’s harmonica had greater realism even if the SOTA revealed a little more surface noise than lesser tables on this 1966 pressing. There was top tier bass extension on the “Early in the Morning” live track and “I Got a Stomach Ache” never sounded better with all the artificial reverb and staccato precision of a the veteran ensemble.
The next record I used for evaluation was the Phil Woods Quintet “Song for Sisyphus”. I consider this Direct to Disc recording from 1977 to be a hidden gem in my collection. It is very dynamic and tactile sounding with lean, nimble bass. “Change Partners” is an Irving Berlin composition and is a great closing tune on Side 1. On the SOTA Nova, it had a very nice groove with excellent image specificity. The soundstage was again rock-solid and breathtakingly expansive.
The best improvisation on this record may be “Monking Business” and the quiet passages rose above the surface noise like never before. On “When My Dreams Come True”, Mike Miello’s piano was totally free of turntable-induced distortions even though the recording has always painted his instrument in a little too amber-hued light.
The RCA pressing of “Handel, The Six Organ Concertos, Opus 7” features Carl Weinrich on organ with the Arthur Fiedler Sinfonietta. It was recorded in 1968 at the General Theological Seminary in New York. The organ was the Holtkamp organ that was built in 1958. Although this record is labeled “Dynagroove”, it was produced after RCA phased out the Dynamic Stylus Correlator, but appears to retain the Dynamic Spectrum Equalization. Despite the inclusion of this additional equalization, the record sounds quite decent even though some of the crescendos take on a slightly wooden character. In any event, I love the compositions and the performances are first rate. Arthur Fiedler desperately wanted to be recognized as a serious talent and I think he made a strong case for that on this album.
With the SOTA Nova, there was much less interchannel crosstalk than I’m used to hearing on this record. There was imperceptible wow & flutter and improved low bass as well. The SOTA Nova really is like the Rock of Gibraltar.
The General Theological Seminary’s untreated 19th Century cathedral is very reverberant with the organ’s bass pipes up front. Over the Nova, the organ notes floated in space above the speakers, very high in the room with natural reverberation and decay. I am not personally familiar with this particular organ, but I listen to live pipe organ music regularly and the Nova’s spacing of the organ notes was amazingly real. The Concerto No. 4 in D Minor Adagio had the cello and bassoon sounding harmonically correct. The Allegro showed a believable scale for the orchestra.
On the Concerto 5 in G Minor the full orchestra was brought forth with a rich tone and fine dynamic shadings. The organ’s bass lines rattled my fillings on the Andante! Thin vinyl like this benefitted the most with Nova’s platter, mat, clamp and vacuum system.
My Morning Jacket “Circuital” is a 2-disc, 180 gram album mastered at 45 RPM by ATO Records. Good thing they invented RIAA equalization. If not, a record with the deep bass like this might rip the stylus from your cartridge. This modern recording has low surface noise and clean transients. Dynamically, it is merely above average. Still, I’m surprised this record didn’t feedback when I cranked it . . . just another example of the SOTA Nova’s excellent isolation properties.
“Wonderful (The Way I Feel)” and “Outta My System” are excellent songs with a wide array of acoustic instruments and vocals. The Sota painted a very wide stage again. “Black Metal” had a nice and gritty vocal chorus. The open soundstage filled my room better than ever. I loved this tune over the Nova. The synth groove on “First Light” was well balanced and tuneful. The isolation and stability of the Nova revealed an alarming degree of nuance on the album’s slower songs.
I closed out my critical listening with Cat Stevens “Tea for the Tillerman”. I bet I’ve listened to this album a thousand times but with the SOTA Nova I heard the best bass extension and dynamics I have ever heard on this album. Yet it retained all the finesse on songs like “Sad Lisa”. The whole of Cat Steven’s vocal reproduction was super clean throughout. This was a revelatory experience for me. I mean, I never dreamed this album could sound this good at least not until I heard it for myself thanks to the SOTA Nova!
Conclusions About the SOTA Nova Turntable
The SOTA Nova turntable gets my highest recommendation. It was easy to set up, emminently reliable in its operation and unflinchingly served as the foundation of a high end analog playback system. It was the model of competence: rock-solid isolation and speed control. With the SOTA Nova, your tonearm and cartridge will be able to perform to their highest possible extent – the most tone colors I’ve heard, the truest instrumental timbres and the broadest soundstage yet from my cartridge. This table also looks lovely in its real wood cabinet. As mentioned earlier, I have started calling the SOTA Nova “The Rock of Gibraltar”. Give one a spin and I’m confident you will agree with me.