A Conversation with Sota Sound Inventions

A Conversation with Sota Sound Inventions

Written by Don Lindich

Sota Sound Inventions offers turntables ranging in price from the $1,250 Moonbeam IV (complete with tonearm) to the Statement Series Millennia Eclipse starting at $10,750. Sota was founded in 1980 by David Fletcher and Robert Becker as equal partners, with Rod Herman subsequently hired as a minority partner to complete the turntable’s package design and run the factory. The Star Sapphire was Sota’s first turntable to offer vacuum record hold-down, an option still available today. Sota later expanded their line to include speakers.

The original turntable design was incorporated into later models, developed by David Fletcher and Allen Perkins, who was brought on board in 1985. Now based in Delavan, Wisconsin, Sota has seen changes in ownership since then, but is still turning out top-quality turntables (available with a variety of finishes and options) that have earned a devoted following.

An audio design classic: the Star Sapphire VI ($3,600).

I interviewed Sota’s current owners, Christan Griego and Donna Bodinet, about the company’s history, philosophy and current product offerings.

About the name: Donna said Sota stands for “State of the Art” and was originally spelled “SOTA” in all caps, but is now spelled as Sota with conventional capitalization because younger customers say that, “in internet language, all caps means you are yelling.”

Don Lindich: My own experience with Sota goes back to the late 1980s when I was in college and a budding audiophile. There were two high-end dealers near my campus, and one sold Linn and the other, SOTA. I still remember looking in awe at that Star Sapphire with the SME V arm and Koetsu cartridge! I’m glad to see that both companies are still in existence and selling evolved versions of their Sondek LP12 and Sapphire turntables, but Linn has stayed under the same ownership and management while Sota has undergone changes. What can you tell us about these changes and the impact they’ve had on the brand?

The creation of the Cosmos.

Christan Griego/Donna Bodinet: In the beginning, David Fletcher and Robert Becker were the primary owners of Sota. In 1991 they retired and sold the company to Jack and Helen Shafton and later to Kirk and Donna Bodinet. Kirk went to Oakland, trained with the team and moved the manufacturing to Lemont, Illinois. In 1992 Kirk and Donna separated from the company, but operated as primary subcontractors until 1996. The company operated from 1991 through 1996, offering speakers and the Vanguard and Vanguard II CD players in addition to turntables.

Kirk continued to design with Jack Shafton through the 1990s. Kirk and Donna then operated Sota Sales and Service from 1996 through 2017, focusing primarily on manufacturing new turntables and servicing old ones. Christan Griego became involved in January 2018 and strives to push forward, continuing the legacy of Sota turntables’ precision engineering and unique design qualities.

DL: There are more turntable models and manufacturers in the market now than there were in 1982, when the CD was publicly introduced but vinyl was still the dominant format. In a world populated by entry-level to mid-range Pro-Ject and Music Hall turntables, VPI Industries spanning a wide variety of price ranges, all the way up to Clearaudio and other turntables selling in the six figures, where do you think Sota sits in this crowded marketplace? Is there a specific group of customers you are after, who you see as an ideal fit for the brand?

The $1,550 Escape, which ships with a Rega 220 tonearm.

CG: We are now a Midwest-based turntable company that wants to focus primarily on quality manufactured turntables that are made in-house. We could make more profit by making products offshore, but we have gone from having 20 – 25 suppliers to now five or six. We are making everything in-house from domestically sourced woods and metals. Our first farm-to-turntable cherry trees were milled last month! The trees fell during a storm last year and we decided to start to take advantage of our local materials rather than buying from who knows where.

We’re excited about customers that want unique products that we feel have incredible musical pace and energy that are made from our new materials and electronics.

DL: Sota’s current model line starts with the Moonbeam for $1,250 with arm, all the way to the Millennia with vacuum hold-down for $11,950. Do you think there is a product that represents the “sweet spot” in your lineup?

The entry-level Moonbeam ($1,750).

CG: We feel that the Cosmos brings the performance of many other companies’ $30,000 – $50,000 tables to a price point starting at $8,500 (for the non-vacuum version). Many people don’t consider us when thinking about a turntable purchase because of our Midwestern sensibilities when it comes to pricing. We offer prices that are low compared to others, but performance that is spot-on.

I think the Cosmos is currently the best bargain in the industry. We also select wood cabinets that are incredible to look at, which we think matters when you are listening for hours. The standard finishes are American Cherry, American Walnut, and Light Oak, Dark Oak or Black Oak. Custom finishes include African Rosewood, Purpleheart, and Figured Maple. The custom finishes are commonly found on the Cosmos turntables. The Nova has a “select standard finish” which is a higher grade finish. A select standard finish could be Flecked Oak, which highlights the look of the wood, or Quilted Walnut. You can see what both look like with an internet search.

A Cosmos Eclipse ($8,500).

And, we also make available our Phoenix Engineering Condor Digital Power Supply, which specifically operates our three-stage motor, and our Roadrunner tachometer speed control. With this combination our speed control is 100 percent accurate, 100 percent of the time. The Condor is part of our Eclipse turntable package, with the Roadrunner an optional accessory.

DL: Even back in the late 1980s the Sapphire and Star Sapphire were considered state-of-the-art and on the top of any audiophile’s turntable shopping list. It has been 30 years since then. If someone purchases a brand-new Sapphire VI, what kind of improvements will they find compared to the original Sapphire, and how much better is the Sapphire VI compared to the original?

CG: With the Sapphire Series VI, in addition to all new electronics, our old 9-ply birch sub-chassis, while great-sounding, has been changed to phenolic resin materials. We have also incorporated an aluminum piano brace between the tonearm and bearing block. The old leaded sub-chassis has been replaced with environmentally sound materials that include stainless steel, aluminum, and bronze bushings in our new billet platters, machined from a single piece of aluminum, that are just coming to market.  The older-style cast platters are still utilized on restored tables, but the Sota turntable of 2020 and beyond is quite a different animal than the Sotas of previous years.

DL: Please tell me about your warranty and service policies, and what it is like to do business with Sota and your dealers. Do you have any special programs for those who want to upgrade or trade in their turntable towards a better Sota model?

From the first production run of the Sota Escape.

CG/DB: We have a lifetime trade-in program that allows people to trade their old Sota turntable towards new equipment. We offer upgrading and updating for early series tables. These upgrades and updates can run the gamut from basic needs such as replacing springs or the bearing assembly, to best bang-for-the-buck with a budget-friendly wish list items such as new electronics or adding a magnetic-levitation platter, all the way to a full boat overhaul. Tonearm and cartridge support are also available through Sota.

We offer a two year warranty on new tables and one year on restored tables. If you talk to our customers you will quickly see they know us personally by name. We know our customers and their specific needs. This is the relationship we enjoy with them. We do not want our personalized treatment of individuals to change.

We are now growing our dealer base and supporting our dealers with more in-house training so that we can offer localized sales and service for all of our customers.

DL: I saw on your website that you sell “restored turntables.” This is quite rare for audio manufacturers, and reminiscent of the certified pre-owned programs from automobile manufacturers. Please tell me more about these turntables and your restoration process.

A Nova chassis brace.

CG/DB: It was even more rare to offer this option back in the 1990s. When people trade in their older Sotas, the turntables are in a variety of conditions. Many times, there is not much we can utilize, but we use the best parts to assemble a restored table with upgraded electronic controls, new springs, new bushings and more. Replacing worn bushings in the platter itself can offer better tolerances on older restored tables. The older tables will still have the early series chassis as opposed to today’s better ones, but we can still offer a sweet-sounding table with new life that will perform for many years to come. We take pride in bringing people into the Sota family and this is a way we can do it without the price tag of buying a new turntable.

DL: I have heard about your motor upgrade program for VPI turntables. Can you tell me more about it and why VPI owners should consider having you do the work?

DB: The Condor Power Supply Unit (PSU) and Roadrunner tachometer combination is a great solution for many brands of turntables. We have Sota motor housings that have been used for older Benz Micro RX-2000 through RX-5000 series turntables. We’ve had people use the Condor speed control for VPI Prime, Prime Signature, HW19 and even other classic turntables.

The Condor is a great stand-alone power supply unit, but when you add the Roadrunner tachometer to it you get speed solutions to the third decimal point, tracking at 33.333 RPM compared to standard accuracy of 33.3. This means you can’t hear the speed corrections that are happening out at the third decimal point. It’s truly a remarkable leap forward at a price point that’s unprecedented. We want people to be able to afford more records to listen to at the end of the day.

The easiest solution is to just purchase the Condor, motor, motor housing, and Roadrunner from Sota. It comes assembled so all you have to do is plug it in, set the Roadrunner sensor, connect all the cables and the belt and you are up and running. This will also keep your factory warranty from your turntable manufacturer from being voided should you choose to have us replace your existing motor housing. We have done quite a few motor housing upgrades and we do nothing to compromise the integrity of the existing motor housing, or top plate if applicable so that if the customer should choose to go back to stock motors down the road (to sell their turntable) they can.

If a customer has a lathe and basic machinist skills they can even do the modifications themselves and we let people know every step it will take to get the PSU up and running. We recently shipped to Greece and the customer had a local machine shop do all his modifications.

DL: This is your chance to speak directly to the audience. Is there anything you would like to say to your current and prospective customers, and the audio world at large?

CG: We are so thankful to be around in 2020 and surviving in this pandemic.  Many people have been seeking out Sota to upgrade the performance of their audio systems during this time since so many audiophiles are on furlough or working from home. With extra time on their hands, many audiophiles are upgrading their turntables faster than we can keep up. It’s a good problem to have, and we look forward to having continued growth within this industry that has served us well for over 40 years. And, thank you to all for your support.

Sota Sound Inventions, LLC.
1436 Mound Road
Delavan, WI 53115
E-mail: sales@sotaturntables.com

The flagship Sota Millennia Eclipse.
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