The Vinyl Anachronist
by Marc Phillips
Part XCIII: The State of the Art
Interview with Kirk and Donna Bodinet of SOTA Turntables
Remember when I paraphrased J. Gordon Holt's famous quote about technologies becoming perfect just as they become obsolete? I've used it a few times in this very column, mostly to illustrate the performance of analog playback equipment as digital sources dominate the musical landscape. There's a funny story behind this quote. The late, great Mr. Holt used this very chestnut when he was reviewing a turntable for Stereophile back in the mid '80s. This particular table, mated with the then and still amazing SME V tonearm, was Holt's new reference standard for playing LPs. I believe the cover of the magazine even said something like "The New King of the Mountain."
That turntable was the SOTA Star Sapphire. For some years afterward, SOTA was always mentioned along with Linn, VPI and others when it came to listing the very best 'tables money could buy. Back in the '80s and '90s, I saw a lot of SOTA turntables in very capable stereo systems, and they always sounded spectacular. Then, for one reason or another, they faded away in the marketplace. More than once I asked, "Whatever happened to SOTA?" More than once, the answer was "Who knows?" In high-end audio, like any other industry, brands disappear and new ones take their place. One thing was obvious--SOTA certainly didn't disappear because newer, better-sounding 'tables made them irrelevant.
Flash forward to 2006 or so, when I was reviewing for TONEAudio. Jeff Dorgay, the publisher, had just received a brand-new SOTA Comet turntable. "SOTA is still around?" I asked. I can't recall his specific reply, but the implication was that they never went away--they just existed on a smaller basis, perhaps another casualty of the popularity of the CD. The Comet, which retailed for about $800 back then, was slated for review by one of our younger staff members, Joe Nino-Hernes. Both Joe and Jeff determined, after careful auditioning, that the Comet was a winner and a new challenger to the crown of Best Turntable Under $1000. I listened for a bit and concurred. The SOTA Comet ultimately won the Exceptional Value Award from TONE.
Despite that, I still have gone on to champion other affordable 'tables over the years--Regas, most famously--and I have always neglected to include the SOTA Comet and its even smaller brother, the Moonbeam (which retails for only $750 with tonearm). I'm not sure why--perhaps it's the low profile the company has kept over the years. I've been remiss. I admit it.
That neglect jumped up and bit me in the ass earlier this year when I partnered with SOTA at the AXPONA Show in Chicago. Up until that point, my knowledge of the revived SOTA had been "a really nice couple in Wisconsin makes them now--you should meet them, they're great people!" When Kirk and Donna Bodinet finally walked through the door, I felt like I owed them a huge apology for ignoring their brand so long. "I feel bad that I've never owned one of your turntables!" I explained. They laughed, and over the course of the show we bonded. I used their flagship model, the $9500 Millennia, in my room for the show. I loved the sound, I loved the look, and I made a promise to myself to start telling people that SOTA was alive and well, and they still made absolutely wonderful turntables right here in the USA.
"Can I interview you two someday for the Vinyl Anachronist column?" I asked them, and they seemed genuinely surprised. For many years, SOTA has been surreptitiously making their exquisite machines, and I think they've enjoyed being under the radar--as the Bodinets say--all this time. But I kept my word and was able to sit down with them and talk about the crazy history of SOTA, and how they feel about the future of analog.
PSF: When I first met the two of you, I was honestly expecting an elderly couple since it seems like SOTA has been around forever. I was surprised to find you were my age! That's when I learned you two had taken over SOTA in the '90s. Tell us a little about your early involvement with SOTA and why you two decided to keep the SOTA flame going.
Kirk Bodinet: In 1991, Donna and I were active stockholders in SOTA when it was originally moved to Illinois by Jack Shafton. My family also had a financial investment in the company. I went to California, spent time with David Fletcher, and boxed her up. Shortly thereafter, the industry could not afford all of us with the decline in analog sales, so we left the company but stayed on as primary sub-contractors to SOTA. When we were offered taking over parts and service in 1997, we welcomed the idea. We weren't well received by the industry. I guess you could say dealers didn't trust us. With a lull in service before we took over, major dealers questioned our ability to keep SOTA alive. We consistently challenged rumors of SOTA's demise. Dealers also did not like that we had now started talking directly to the clients. The industry was still slow in analog, so we didn't know where the venture would ultimately take us. Knowing there were thousands of beloved SOTAs out there and being able to offer support to a product we loved, that drove us to resume production of new products. Here we are today, owning the company longer than the original owners David Fletcher and Robert Becker.
PSF: Kirk, you told me that you were especially fond of the entry-level Moonbeam since it was the first SOTA turntable you had designed yourself. Tell us a little about your decision to create the Moonbeam, and why it was a priority to add it to the line.
KB: Actually, the Satellite was my original design. SOTA wanted to introduce a product that could be upgraded throughout our line. The Comet and Moonbeam followed shortly thereafter. It all began when Conrad-Johnson talked with SOTA about manufacturing the SG3. Long story short, SOTA purchased some excess inventory of miscellaneous parts. I took those parts, kept a budget, and basically designed an upgradeable turntable around these fundamentals. With the input of former owners Jack Shafton and John Gilmore, the Satellite was born. Keeping with SOTA quality standards and price point, the Moonbeam and Comet were then designed. They are, and continue to be a source of personal pride for me.
PSF: When you two took over, it seemed that vinyl and turntables were completely disappearing from the hi-fi scene--an era I like to call The Analog Dark Ages. What challenges did you foresee when you invigorated the line, and what was your marketing strategy to keep SOTA at the analog forefront?
KB: At that time, and it sounds naive, but we weren't sure what or where we'd be taking SOTA, nor, how long SOTA would withstand the Dark Ages. The primary challenges back then were the feasibility of facilitating us and the staff financially. The other challenges came from dealers who rejected and dismissed us. Without a marketing budget we rolled up our sleeves, hunkered down and tried to give the best customer service and performance we could. We knew we loved the product and our passion to continue to offer this great product encouraged us. Talking to the retail client offered another appreciation of our support. Confidently, we moved into resuming turntable production products and the rest is history.
PSF: One of the true pleasures of the SOTA turntable line is that it's still designed and made right here in the USA, while most of your competitors are overseas. Aside from the obvious--such as the fact you can offer SOTA at extremely competitive prices to US audiophiles--what advantages are there to owning one of your turntables?
KB: Thank you for your kind compliments, Marc. Does 'obvious' include the sonic superiority? If so, I'd simply say we not only sell our products, we build and service these products. From a screw to a finished product on the south side of Chicago – we are SOTA. You pay for what you get, and it lasts!
PSF: In the mid '80's, when J. Gordon Holt declared that the then-new SOTA Star Sapphire 'table was the reference standard for analog, SOTA seemed to be flying high. Nearly thirty years later, SOTA maintains a much lower profile yet still maintains a sterling reputation among audiophiles. Do the both of you envision a return to the "glory days" or are you quite content to quietly make some of the best turntables available? Donna Bodinet: We believe the "glory days" for SOTA was in the '80's. We also are content to fly under the radar. We are and continue to be driven by the end user, our client. Some would say this is backwards in that we should be putting the dealers before our clients. That has never been our game plan. Now, and no personal offense to the advertising and marketing world, we have and continue to be blessed here as well. But, if we added let's say a mere $30,000 to $40,000 in advertising or a middle man at XYZ bucks, who ultimately pays for that? The client. Remember back in the day when the dealer held inventory and did what was then their job? Today is obviously no way near that. If I don't pay those advertisers you see in the magazines, they won't include our tables in their advertisement. What's wrong with that picture? And the beat goes on - insert musical note.
PSF: It's rude to come right out and ask, "How's business?" But perhaps you could comment on the trends in analog playback, and what you two have noticed about the popularity of vinyl over the last couple of decades. Are you optimistic about the future?
DB: Late spring to September is historically a slow time for us and we work through it lean and determined. We were bombarded early this year, so we continue to have lengthy lead times on repairs and building tables. We continue to be blessed. Last year was our best to date and this year we're celebrating 15 years ownership to boot. The future looks bright and we're excited to forge through some new things in our line up, like the Comet/Moonbeam isolation platform introduced at the recent AXPONA show.
PSF: Everyone in the high-end audio industry is concerned with connecting with a new generation of audiophiles, and getting the younger music lovers out there to start spinning records again. While I've seen plenty of signs that this is happening, what do you see there at SOTA? Are you reaching a younger demographic?
DB: Definitely we see younger demographics. We also see more middle-aged people getting into vinyl for the first time. SOTA's offer of a lifetime trade-in value, as well as the refurbished models, continues to encourage this growth. Recently reintroducing the entry level Series II Moonbeam has also brought about a substantial increase in sales to newbies--and without breaking their budget.
PSF: I've always been a big fan of the Comet, and when I helped someone else review it a few years ago the consensus was that it was the real winner at its price point as opposed to the more obvious choices from Rega, Music Hall and Pro-Ject. When I see people on audio discussion forums asking about affordable turntables, too few of them mention the Comet--something I'd like to change if I can. Are you two concerned about this, or are you just quietly selling Comets to those in the know?
DB: We do quietly go about our business, don't we? But, we're never selling too many Comets, or other tables for that matter. I'm on my computer all day almost every day. Perhaps if I were more into surfing the World Wide Web or forums, and if I was not the only proficient typist in the SOTA family, we would be loudly selling more Comets. (I've asked one of the major magazines that haven't looked at us in a while to do another review of the Moonbeam or Comet twice now- no reply).
PSF: They're missing out! One improvement in the Moonbeam and the Comet is obviously cosmetic. The latest versions, with the gorgeous wooden veneers on the plinth, look downright fantastic. My only complaint about these two models in the past is that in their standard, all-black guise, they tend to blend into the background. Was it a conscious decision to increase the attractiveness of the turntables, or do the chances conceal some sort of advance in the design?
DB: That wood Comet finish is sexy, isn't it?! Again, the traditional wood body is so appealing. The wood body does conceal the tempered hardboard now used within the chassis build up. With the other notable improvements embedded into Kirk's fourth generation Comet, we hope to increase awareness and appreciate your support in helping the effort.
PSF: One of the amazing things about the current line of SOTAs is how they still look identical to those classic designs in the '80's. How does a SOTA turntable from 1985 differ from a SOTA in 2013?
KB: All of the sub-assemblies are different. Chassis, motor, platter, power supplies have all gone through series of upgrades to improve and enhance performance in all these respective sub-assemblies.
PSF: What does SOTA have planned for the future? Any new models, features or revisions?
KB: Well, the Series IV Comet is updated. We have several new accessories to offer. We've had them posted to our Facebook page that we're slowly getting together with the help of a new generation audiophile. They'll be up on our website soon. We also plan to offer a Series VI version of the Jewel through Nova models. The LPC [SOTA's record cleaning machine] will also be going through some updates and changes.
If you would like to know more about SOTA turntables, check out their website at http://www.sotaturntables.com.
Contact the Vinyl Anachronist at firstname.lastname@example.org and see his Blog site
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