Reviews of Attainable Hi-Fi & Home-Theater Equipment


Reviews of Attainable Hi-Fi & Home-Theater Equipment

Reviewers' ChoiceIn 2014, when the vinyl revival had already gained a lot of traction, I reviewed U-Turn Audio’s Orbit Plus turntable (then $299, now an even better deal at $289; all prices USD). I was very impressed by that turntable, one of the first efforts of a young, crowdfunded company based in Woburn, Massachusetts, near Boston.

U-Turn is the brainchild of three high school friends: Ben Carter, Bob Hertig, and Peter Maltzan. They thought the turntables they could afford weren’t very good, and the good ones were beyond their budget. As Carter told me in 2014, engineer Hertig designed the original Orbit turntable and tonearm—hardly a task for the faint-hearted—and the three funded the project via Kickstarter, setting a goal of $60,000. They raised almost four times that, and shipped their first units in September 2013.

U-Turn

U-Turn is still in Woburn, now in a new and larger facility, and they employ almost 30 people—a 21st-century audio success story.

Description

U-Turn’s latest turntable-and-tonearm package, the Orbit Special, is available without ($459) or with ($529) a built-in phono preamplifier. It looks very similar to the Orbit and Orbit Plus, but there are some major differences. First, its plinth is made not of MDF but of solid hardwood: flatcut maple or rift walnut. It comes with Ortofon’s well-known 2M Red moving-magnet cartridge rather than the Orbit Plus’s Ortofon OM5E MM. It shares its acrylic platter with the Orbit Plus, as well as the thin, round drive belt that drove me to distraction with that model—and did again with this one (see below).

That U-Turn has learned a thing or two about designing tonearms since 2013 is evident in this improved version of the original Orbit arm, a unipivot design suspended with an inverted pyramid of ball bearings. The new OA2 arm has a gimbaled pivot: the new bearing’s vertical axis comprises two stainless-steel conical pivots that rotate on hardened-steel ball bearings, its horizontal axis high-quality radial ball bearings mounted on a shaft of machined aluminum. The new gimbal design produces less friction, which lets the stylus move more freely as it traces a record’s groove, which in turn translates into less distortion and better imaging. The Orbit Special also offers as standard kit a cueing lever (a $40 option for the Orbit Plus) that makes possible precise positioning of the arm over a desired place in the groove, and gentle lowering and raising of the stylus.

U-Turn

U-Turn also uses a special polymer for the headshell, tonearm support, bearing, and bearing housing. Designer Hertig explained: “Many of our components use a ‘glass-filled’ polymer. The material uses glass fibers to reinforce the plastic, making it substantially stronger. Glass-filled plastics are often used in demanding applications like the automotive industry, where high rigidity and durability are required—these qualities also make it a perfect turntable material.”

U-Turn has also redesigned the platter bearing: “The inverted main bearing positions the center of mass of the platter below the platter’s pivot point,” Hertig told me. “This results in a more stable bearing and puts less load on the inner wall of the sleeve bushing. Less load means less friction, resulting in excellent speed stability.”

The platter is made of acrylic for several reasons. Most important, it offers a solid platform for the record and its mass, and, combined with the special bearing, promotes good speed stability, low wow and flutter (specified 0.125%) and rumble (-63dBa), and a good signal/noise ratio (79dBa).

Those whose electronics lack a built-in phono preamplifier can pay $70 more for an Orbit Special with U-Turn’s Pluto 2 phono stage built in. “Our phono preamps are 100% designed by us and assembled in Woburn, MA,” Hertig said. “We use the same technology for the built-in and external versions of our preamp.” The standalone version of the Pluto 2 costs $99.

U-Turn

The Orbit Special’s dimensions are the same as the other Orbits’: 16.75ʺW x 4.25ʺH x 12.5ʺD. It’s covered by a three-year limited warranty.

Setup

The Orbit Special’s packaging is extremely well designed and easy to deal with, and setting it up was incredibly simple:

Open the box. Remove the dustcover and set it to one side. Take out the platter and the plinth-and-tonearm assembly. Install the platter. Install the dustcover (included) on its hinges (a snap). Plug the wall-wart power supply into your wall or power conditioner, and the phono cable (included) between the turntable and your phono stage or preamp or integrated amp. Remove the twist-tie that keeps the Orbit Special’s tonearm stable during shipping and you’re ready for the fun part: installing the drive belt.

U-Turn includes good printed instructions in the box for all this, as well as YouTube videos on all aspects of setup. I paid special attention to the one on installing the belt, but it didn’t help much. I had to resort to trial and, mostly, error. At first, the belt looks too big, but by some sort of magic it ends up being the right length. I had to ask my wife to help me stabilize the belt as we tried to loop it around the platter. This took several attempts, but at last we succeeded. That the belt is thin, very flexible, and puts little stress on the pulley are some of my problems with it.

U-Turn

I watched the YouTube video again, and realized that I was installing the belt incorrectly by trying to first loop it around the pulley and then around the platter. Has to be the other way around. When I tried that, I had a lot less trouble.

And that minor stumble was it. Unlike most turntables, the Orbit Special comes from the factory with its cartridge already installed in the tonearm’s headshell and its counterweight already in place on the arm’s stub end, and with its tracking and antiskating forces preset. Easy.

Listening

It’s important to run in a cartridge for a while before doing any serious listening. Without listening much, I played about 20 hours’ worth of LPs.

My actual listening began with “All Blues,” from Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue (45rpm LP, Columbia/Legacy/Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab MFSL 2-45011). This recording has great stereo soundstaging, and with the U-Turn I could “see” the instruments spread out across the room in precisely delineated positions: Jimmy Cobb’s drums at hard left, Paul Chambers’s double bass and Bill Evans’s piano at hard right, Davis’s trumpet smack dab in the middle, Cannonball Adderley’s alto sax at hard right and just in front of the piano, and John Coltrane’s tenor sax at hard left and just to the right of the drums. In addition to the easy-to-place images, the overall sound was crisp, tonally full, and nuanced in the highs. Very satisfying.

Next up was one of my reference discs, Dire Straits’ Brothers in Arms (45rpm LP, Warner Bros./Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab MFSL 2-441). In “Money for Nothing,” the drums in the opening sounded fabulous: widely spaced as usual, but with even greater attack than from some budget ’tables. Mark Knopfler’s lead vocal sounded somewhat more mellow than usual. There was no “bangin’ on the bongos,” but great bangin’ on the snare. Same was true of the synthesizer. The Orbit Special knew how to boogie.

U-Turn

Then came “You’re No Good,” from Linda Ronstadt’s Greatest Hits, from an edition (LP, Asylum 6E-106) different from the one I normally play, chosen because its sound is a bit fuller than my Capitol pressing. The bass was solid and rich. Snare drums and cymbals were crisply reproduced, as they were with all tracks I played on the U-Turn. And for the first time ever in this track I’ve listened to for decades, I heard, almost down at floor level on the left, an instrument—a synth, perhaps? I couldn’t decide if this was a feature or a bug. And, as it always is when this track is properly reproduced, the long-held violin note at the end was almost chilling.

Mel Tormé recorded many fine live albums; my favorite is Mel Tormé and Friends at Marty’s (LP, Finesse W2X 37484). I chose his rendition of one of my favorite tunes made famous by Fred Astaire, Dorothy Fields and Jerome Kern’s “Pick Yourself Up.” The Orbit gave me a great sense of being in the audience, especially during Jay Leonhart’s long double-bass solo. It’s so good that when Leonhart is done, Tormé says, “I gotta hear that again”—and Leonhart promptly does another 16 bars. His bass was about 3ʹ in front of me, well in front of my speakers. It was amazing. A slight downside was that during Tormé’s Bach-inspired scatting, as he accompanied himself on piano, some of his sibilants were scratchy—then again, my LP is 40 years old, and I’ve played it countless times on countless turntables.

The Average White Band’s second album, AWB (LP, Atlantic SD7308), is not the epitome of audiophile recordings. But their cover of the Isley Brothers’ “Work to Do” has the beat. The audioband sounded a bit compressed, but the depth of soundstage was exceptional, with the lead singers out front, and the voices of the rest of the band chanting, “Work, work” somewhat behind. On the Orbit Special, this cut also demonstrated how incredibly tight the AWB’s playing was, with a bass line worthy of Motown or Stax/Volt, and horns with super-sharp attacks and releases. A real toe-tapper on the U-Turn.

Comparisons

To compare the Orbit Special’s built-in phono preamplifier with Simaudio’s Moon 110LP v2 phono stage ($399), I played a track from a remarkable-sounding LP: “Sunday in New York,” from Mel Tormé’s Songs of New York (LP, Atlantic 80078-1), arranged and conducted by John Williams (Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Superman, etc.). As on the other Tormé albums I listened to for this review, his sibilants were a touch spitty through both phono stages but boy, the orchestra sounded lush and full through the Simaudio, as I’ve come to expect from that phono stage.

The U-Turn’s inboard stage moved the sweet spot of sound a bit higher up the musical scale. Tormé now sounded more boyish, the piano and brass a bit more prominent, and there was less bass heft—not bad, just different. There was very good punch to the sound. If the Orbit Special is otherwise attractive to you and you lack a phono stage, its built-in stage should do you fine.

Then I pitted the Orbit Special with Ortofon 2M Red against Dual’s CS5000 turntable and Sumiko’s Oyster Moonstone cartridge: I cued up “The Ballad of Billy the Kid,” from Billy Joel’s Piano Man (Columbia PC 32544). The U-Turn/Ortofon combo offered a lively sound that worked well with this track’s rather busy backing arrangement. It handled transients very well, and provided a fine overall sense of soundstage, but some higher notes were on the verge of sounding overdriven.

The Dual-Sumiko pairing produced a slightly richer, more mellow tonal balance with none of that hint of distortion. Instruments were somewhat more prominent, but with nice depth. I expect this from the Dual—and the Sumiko’s list price is thrice that of the Ortofon.

Conclusion

The folks at U-Turn Audio are on to something good. They make variations on a tried-and-true turntable formula with lots of options, all at reasonable prices. My further experience with the Ortofon 2M Red makes me understand why this cartridge is so popular. And its pairing with the Orbit Special is entirely synergistic. The new gimbaled tonearm bearing with built-in cueing system—one of the most accurate I’ve experienced (nice job, U-Turn)—worked well with the Red, bringing out from recordings many details to which other turntable-tonearm-cartridge combos might give short shrift. And the Orbit Special’s packaging and preassembly make it closer to plug’n’play than any other turntable I’ve reviewed.

U-Turn

The sound of the Orbit Special with Ortofon 2M Red was just as its name suggests: special. I didn’t expect the nuances and richness I heard, and its soundstaging was second to none at this price, especially in terms of depth. And, especially with the Simaudio Moon 110LP v2 phono stage, the lows were meaty, the mids full, the highs crystalline.

If you’re in the market for a turntable in the $500 region, there are a number of worthy contenders. But you’ll cheat yourself if you don’t audition U-Turn Audio’s Orbit Special. It’s a standout performer and a great bargain.

. . . Thom Moon
thom@soundstagenetwork.com

Associated Equipment

  • Turntable and tonearm: Dual CS5000
  • Cartridge: Sumiko Oyster Moonstone
  • Phono stage: Simaudio Moon 110LP v2
  • Preamplifier: Linn Majik-1P
  • Power amplifier: NAD C 275BEE
  • Speakers: Acoustic Energy Radiance 3, Advent ASW-1200 subwoofer
  • Phono cables: Dual (captive with CS5000 turntable), Audio-Technica (supplied with AT-LPW40WN)
  • Interconnects: Straight Wire
  • Speaker cables: Acoustic Research (14-gauge) terminated with Dayton Audio banana plugs

U-Turn Audio Orbit Special Turntable with Ortofon 2M Red Cartridge
Price: $459 USD; $529 USD with built-in phono preamplifier.
Warranty: Three years, limited

U-Turn Audio
11 Cranes Court
Woburn, MA 01801
Phone: (781) 451-1445

Website: www.uturnaudio.com