In Praise Of A Very Well Made Thing: Reviving my SOTA Sapphire Turntable

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SOTA Sapphire with Reflex Clamp. The record is Lionel Richie’s Can’t Slow Down

Some History

I bought my first serious stereo rig about 6 months into my first job fresh out of grad school, which would place that purchase somewhere around the summer of 1986. I dragged well worn LP copies of James Taylor’s That’s Why I’m Here and Michael Franks’ Objects of Desire (which in retrospect is a terrible sounding, early digital recording) to a series of brick and mortar stereo shops all around the Metro New York area, where I was living at the time.

My memories of those stereo store shopping trips have faded with time, with the exception of a few fragmentary scenes, such as my brush with a Linn dealer on Long Island where the salesperson confiscated my wristwatch during the demo and made fun of the Michael Franks album…

Ahem.

I eventually forked over my hard earned cash to Innovative Audio in Brooklyn, New York. (They are now in Manhattan – I called to check and yes, it’s the same outfit.) My initial system consisted of a pair of Vandersteen 2C speakers (the original model, which has gone through many iterations over the years and is still sold today), a PS Audio Elite Plus amp and a Systemdek turntable (the Model IIX if memory serves). It looked more or less like this (except that mine was fitted with a used Linn Basik LVX tonearm from the dealer because my funds ran out…)

Dunlop_Systemdek_IIX_3_r2_665x410_pixels.gif

As you can see, the turntable had a glass platter and – I think – a felt mat. It also had a spring suspension under the plinth. The problem was that rather than isolating the turntable from external vibrations, the suspension seemed to magnify them. Any footfalls closer than about 6 feet from the turntable would cause playback to skip – and I’m talking about normal walking, and not, say, wildly euphoric flamenco dancing.

I put up with all of that for about a year and, at a high-end dealer (maybe these guys? – it was a long time ago) in Lynnbrook, Long Island (NY, USA, for my overseas readers) I succumbed to the charms of a brand new SOTA Sapphire Turntable. (The Sapphire gets its name from the sapphire disc used in the turntable’s bearing.) It was beautifully made and hernia-inducingly heavy. SOTA is actually an acronym for State Of The Art, and my new Sapphire certainly looked and felt the part.

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(The record is the Chesky Recordings reissue of RCA’s Fritz Reiner – Chicago Symphony performance of Sheherezade.)

Happily, SOTA lives on in the form of the SOTA Sales and Service Center, which is the project of Donna Bodinet and her late husband, Kirk. The firm still manufactures and services every SOTA model ever made. In fact, no matter what the vintage of your SOTA ‘table, they’ll upgrade it as close as possible to current specifications if you so desire. And you get lifetime trade in value on your table. That kind of dedication to ongoing customer service is rare in any industry, but it is especially impressive coming from a “boutique” manufacturer of turntables.

About 8 years ago, I sent my Sapphire back to Kirk and Donna for an evaluation and tune-up. They replaced the suspension springs with the latest upgrades (the originals had stretched out over time), replaced the bearing with the latest iteration, mounted a new Ortofon 2M Blue cartridge and made sure everything else was operating smoothly. Other than UPS destroying (and refusing to pay for) my dust cover in shipment to the factory, everything else went smoothly.

My analogue front end’s performance was perfect until a couple of years ago when my LP playing set up developed a really loud and obnoxious ground hum that got worse when the platter was spinning and really loud if I touched the tonearm itself. I did a lot of online research and learned to my dismay that the origins of ground hum can be maddeningly difficult to isolate. So I tried rearranging components, switching component outlets, using “cheater plugs” and other recommended fixes, none of which helped a bit. Since the hum was less obvious playing louder, “busier” music, I put up with the noise for quite awhile. Then Mike, the soft spoken electrical engineer, soldering gun ninja and overall Vintage Stereo Whisperer who owns Austin Stereo Service figured out (very quickly) that the ground wire on my tonearm cable had broken off (internally). After fixing that and servicing and tightening the Linn Basik arm, the accursed hum had vanished. I was ecstatic.

The Problem

Fast forward to a year or so ago, about 8 years after the aforementioned tune up, when I started to notice that my Sapphire was having speed stability issues. At 33 1/3 RPM, the platter would start slow and take several minutes to get up to speed. Sometimes I’d wait a couple of minutes and then drop the stylus on the record, believing it to be running at proper speed, and then get a visceral jolt when the pitch of the song would – after several additional minutes of play – suddenly jump 2 or 3 musical steps higher as the platter finally reached the proper rotational speed. What the heck?

The Fix

I posted this thread to Audiogon, seeking advice on how to straighten out this speed issue. I also wrote to Donna at SOTA, describing the problem in detail. She wrote back promptly: “How old is your belt?  I’d start there if you haven’t replaced it.”

I wasn’t sure if my 2008 factory refresh had included a belt replacement, but then, consulting the Sapphire manual, I learned that SOTA recommends replacing the belt every three years with normal use. Thus, the question of whether or not SOTA had replaced the belt back in 2008 was moot. Even if they had, I was about 6 years overdue for a new one!

I PayPal’ed a measly $37 to SOTA (shipping included) and had the belt in a few days.

Installation

The belt is a wisp of a thing, looking somewhat like a loop of very thin, black linguine:

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In order to replace the belt, you first remove the hex head screws that hold down the control cover, like so:

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This reveals the bare controls, and also the turntable belt and pulley system:

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The pulley is an interesting device. As you can see in the next picture, its profile is quite convex or barrel shaped. The belt is supposed to ride on the fattest part of the pulley, but mine (prior to replacing the belt) would start at the bottom and then rise to the middle as the platter spun up to speed. Perhaps this was the giveaway that the belt had stretched over time and no longer had a good grip on the pulley and platter.

There are two slightly tricky aspects to the belt replacement process:

First, close examination of the belt (in good light) reveals that is has a shiny side and a slightly duller side. You want the shiny side facing outward and the duller side making contact with the platter and pulley.

Second, it can take some care, deep breathing and manual dexterity to ensure that the belt has no twists in it, while at the same time wrangling it around both the massive platter and the comparatively tiny pulley. But once that’s accomplished, just replace the control cover and you’re good to go.

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Success!

It’s amazing that something as simple, easy and inexpensive as a drive belt replacement could fix such an annoying speed problem, but in the wake of significant worrying that I’d have to ship my massive Sapphire back to Illinois for repairs, fixing it on my own was fun and a huge relief. The Sapphire now spins quickly up to speed and stays there.

Kudos to Donna and the SOTA team for offering such a robustly made and supported line of products.

Coming Up Next…

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Good news for all of you who have been waiting patiently for my full review of the Spatial M3 Turbo S open baffle speaker system! With over 100 hours and counting on those drivers, my M3 Turbo S review is in the pipeline. I can’t wait to share it with you.

Until next time, do some good in the world and enjoy your music!

Steve

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2 thoughts on “In Praise Of A Very Well Made Thing: Reviving my SOTA Sapphire Turntable

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