Vinyl’s back! Well, sort of. According to SoundScan, as quoted by a Statista chart on US sales of recorded music in 2013, LPs were 2% of the total music market, or about 6.1 million units -- up from 858,000 units in 1991, the first year SoundScan tracked LP sales, and from 2.8 million in 2010. A different citation of SoundScan’s stats for 2013 sales noted that the No.1 LP was Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories, which sold 49,000 copies. That’s a drop in the bucket to the 2.43 million units (all formats) sold of the overall No.1 album, Justin Timberlake’s 20/20. So while there is indeed a resurgence of vinyl, its size may be overstated.
Still, it can’t be denied that sales of LPs, once hastily abandoned for what Sony called the Compact Disc’s “Perfect Sound Forever,” are growing, while those of CDs are sharply declining: down 14.5% between 2012 and 2013, per SoundScan. And why not? To my ears, there’s a distinct difference between analog sound and digital sound. Digital can sound “etched,” while analog is “buffed.” In many cases, analog sounds smoother. But vinyl also suffers from clicks, pops, scratches, and other types of surface noise -- and sometimes ill-conceived manufacturing processes, RCA’s Dynagroove system of the 1960s being the most egregious example. But every format has its place. While I long ago added a CD player, and more recently a DAC, to my system, I never considered discarding my vinyl or my turntable -- mostly because I’d have to replace my 750-plus albums, many of which are so obscure they’re still unavailable in digital form.
We wanted to find turntables that offer the new vinyl audience a chance to indulge in high fidelity. While many firms out there now sell turntables for under $500 -- among them Audio-Technica, Denon, Music Hall, and Pro-Ject -- we were drawn to the offerings of a new startup, U-Turn Audio.
Based in Woburn, Massachusetts, just north of Boston, U-Turn is the brainstorm of Ben Carter, Bob Hertig, and Peter Maltzan. Engineer Hertig designed the ’table and tonearm (no task for the fainthearted), and the group funded the project via Kickstarter. With a total of nearly $234,000 USD, they outraised their initial goal of $60,000 and began shipping turntables in September 2013.
When I asked Carter about how he and his partners divvy up the work, he said, “There’s no real clear division of labor among us -- there is so much to do right now that managing and scaling the operation is very much a team effort. Generally speaking, Bob leads our engineering efforts, Pete oversees production, and I work on customer-service/marketing/Web stuff.” Livin’ the American dream . . .
U-Turn sells two complete systems: the Orbit Basic ($179) and the Orbit Plus ($299). The Basic has a platter of medium-density fiberboard and an Audio-Technica CN5625AL moving-magnet cartridge with conical stylus; the Plus has an acrylic platter -- for lower wow and flutter, among other benefits -- and comes with a Grado Prestige Black1 moving-iron cartridge with elliptical stylus; or, for $60 more, with a Grado Prestige Blue1, which is two steps higher in the Prestige line. The Plus, like the Basic, comes in your choice of colors: black, white, bright green, or, like my review sample, a brilliant, almost cobalt blue. There’s also an option to build your own: you can order an Orbit Basic with, say, an Audio-Technica AT-95E, or a Grado Prestige Black1 or Blue1.
The Orbit Plus is sold with a limited, one-year repair/replacement warranty on parts and labor, or a refund of the purchase price if returned within the 30-day trial period.
Of designing the tonearm for both Orbit models, Hertig said, “My approach was to use aspects of traditional tonearm design combined with modern manufacturing techniques to create an affordable arm that lets the cartridge do its job to its full potential. Computer-aided design was invaluable to the process; especially for determining geometry, as well as calculating the ideal location of the arm’s center of mass. One challenge was designing a unipivot that performs well without using expensive jewel components. My solution was using aircraft-grade ball bearings to create a near-frictionless pivot at a fraction of the cost.”
U-Turn has recently improved the Orbits, according to Ben Carter. “The largest difference with this turntable is the main bearing. We switched from standard nylon bushings to a high-performance composite plastic designed for ultra-low friction and wear. This, combined with a new method for polishing the stainless-steel shafts used in the main bearing, results in lower rumble and wow and flutter. There were also minor changes made to the motor mount and drive system, in order to improve performance.” My review sample included all of these improvements.
Speaking of wow and flutter, the Orbit Plus offers very respectable specifications. For those unfamiliar with the terms, wow is a slowly modulating variation in the speed of the platter’s rotation, while flutter is a rapid variation in that speed. Wow and flutter for the Orbit Plus are a reasonable 0.125% -- fairly typical for turntables in this price range. Rumble, which is usually caused by the bearing on which the platter spins, is -63dB -- again, a good level. The Orbit Plus’s signal/noise ratio is a very good -79dBA.
When the Orbit Plus arrived, I was impressed with its packaging: It’s designed to be (mis)handled by the shipping company while keeping the contents undamaged. The components of the turntable are well isolated from each other for shipping and secured firmly in place; the outboard power supply is hidden away in its own box, inserted in a hollow in the cardboard contraption that anchors the platter. All of the small parts are packed in self-sealing or ziplock plastic bags. The instruction sheet is clearly written in simple terms for nontechie, non-OCD vinyl newbies and vinyl vets alike, and includes tips on how to get the most from your records. Kudos to U-Turn for nicely anticipating the needs of their intended customers.
Setup is fairly easy. After removing all the pieces from the box, place the platter on the hub and the felt mat on the platter; loop the drive belt around the drive pulley and the platter (this is the only part of setup that can be a bit tricky; see below); slip the dustcover onto its hinges; connect the 24V wall-wart power supply to the ’table and AC, and the ’table to your phono input with the included RCA interconnects (or use interconnects of your choice). The Grado Prestige Black1 cartridge is mounted at the factory, and the tonearm comes already balanced. According to my ancient Shure stylus-pressure gauge, the arm and cartridge had a vertical tracking force of just under 2gm (Grado recommends 1.5gm).
Installing the drive belt can require patience. Not unlike the belts of other turntables, it’s thin, round, and made of silicone (we're told current models will ship with nitrile belts) -- but there’s no ridge or groove on the platter to hold it in place. Just as I got the belt into position at one place on the platter, it slipped off at another. Sometimes, the belt went on quickly; at other times, it took many tries. A friend with large hands and fingers found that, nearly every time he removed an LP from the Orbit, he pushed the belt off the platter, necessitating a reinstall. Installing an Orbit’s belt is not something I’d want to repeat too often. You might want to ask a friend or significant other to hold the belt in place while you loop it around the platter.
The Orbit Plus is totally manual: You set the stylus in the lead-in groove to start playing, and lift and return the arm to its rest position at the end of the side. The arm has a finger lift but no cueing (the latter is under development, per U-Turn’s website). The Orbit’s manual nature extends to changing its speed: put the belt on the smaller motor pulley for 33.3rpm, on the larger pulley for 45rpm.
It had been a while since I’d reviewed a turntable, so it took a couple tries before I was in the groove (pun intended). As I listen mostly to jazz, I started with one of the all-time jazz greats: “Take Five,” from the Dave Brubeck Quartet’s Time Out (LP, Columbia 8192). This magnificent recording was made at Columbia Records’ 30th Street Studio, one of the best studios in history, and the room’s natural echo is quite apparent. It’s also an early Columbia stereo recording, dating from 1959 (I bought my copy in 1981). And it’s killer! Brubeck’s piano is off to the right; front and center is the alto sax of Paul Desmond, who wrote the tune. Eugene Wright’s double bass is at right rear, Joe Morello’s drums at left rear. The sound produced by the Orbit Plus was solid and very easy on the ear. Even so, the crack of the snare during the drum solo and the transients of the drum rolls were satisfyingly sharp. The combo of Orbit Plus and Grado Black1 tracked “Take Five” with no problems and minimal surface noise.
Another great Columbia recording is “Finally Found a Reason to Live,” from Art Garfunkel’s Fate for Breakfast, from 1979 (LP, Columbia 35780). The overall sound was smooth and mellow, even Garfunkel’s ethereal tenor (made more ethereal with echo from Columbia’s natural echo chamber). The soundstage was broad and deep. This turntable did very well with smooth music.
To see how it would do with rock, I pulled out an obscure old favorite from 1969, “Tightrope,” from Construction #1, by Ten Wheel Drive with Genya Ravan (LP, Polydor 4008). If you’re not familiar with this group, think instrumentals à la Blood, Sweat & Tears or Chicago mated to Janis Joplin-style vocals. Throughout “Tightrope,” the stage is set by the bass, and with the Grado’s lower-mid strength, it was playtime! The bass was strong but not strident. The brass, too, even at their loudest, were full-bodied and out front, but nicely lacked the “blattiness” that is a weak point of some turntable-cartridge combinations. The Grado is not a hard-rockin’ cartridge, but has well-balanced high frequencies, so if you’re into speed metal or the like, it may not be what you’re looking for.
One of my 45s (those little records with a big hole) is a fabulous pressing of Dire Straits’ “Sultans of Swing” (Warner Bros.). It’s quiet, with good dynamic range. On the Orbit Plus, the sound was, again, very competent: good bass, pleasing midrange, glorious lead guitar, mellow sound with a slightly reticent top end. Mark Knopfler’s voice had excellent punch and presence.
The typical listener on a budget who’s new to vinyl has two choices to help him or her achieve aural nirvana: a reasonably priced new turntable such as the U-Turn Orbit Plus, or a reconditioned vintage model such as a Pioneer PL-516. The PL-516 was Pioneer’s middle turntable offering in 1978-80, and was a big seller back then. It’s belt-driven, and its speed is controlled by a DC servo. It has more features than the Orbit Plus, including pushbutton speed change, vernier pitch control with stroboscopic speed calibration, damped cueing, and easy-to-set stylus pressure and antiskating. It has a medium-mass, S-shaped tonearm of aluminum, whereas the Orbit Plus’s straight arm is of lower mass. These days, you can find a good-quality PL-516 on the Internet or at a vintage audio store for $150 to $200. Unless the ’table has been professionally restored, it’s almost a must to replace the cartridge, for which I’d budget $70-$100.
Given that price range, I thought the Pioneer PL-516 would be a good subject for comparison with the Orbit Plus. And as my PL-516 was already fitted with a Grado Prestige Black1 -- the same cartridge that comes with the U-Turn -- my comparison really was ’table vs. ’table.
I listened to Charles Piroye’s Dialogue, from French Organ Masterpieces of the 17th and 18th Centuries, performed by Pierre Froidebise on the organ of the Church of Saint-Laurent d’Alkmaar (1964 LP, Nonesuch H71020). French organs of the period have a very reedy sound in the upper registers that makes them perfect for revealing distortion. The Orbit Plus had a slightly dark tone with this piece that kept the reediness under control, and the low pedal notes came through in good fashion. The ’table offered a good sense of soundstage depth: the higher-pitched pipes were obviously in front of those producing the lower notes. The Orbit Plus gave the music a great sense of its being a “whole.” The Pioneer offered a brighter overall sound, but the high reeds still were not shrill. The Pioneer also gave a very good sense of the low-level reverberation of the sanctuary -- more so than the Orbit. Still, the Orbit Plus gets my vote for better overall performance.
Next up was “The Swingin’ Shepherd Blues,” from Count Basie and His Orchestra’s This Time by Basie: Hits of the 50’s & 60’s! (1963 LP, Reprise R9-6070). This tune starts with one of the Count’s minimalist piano riffs, followed by a flute duet by Frank Wess and Eric Dixon, who, after 16 bars, are joined by the rest of the orchestra. The mix is interesting: the rhythm section (Basie’s piano, Freddie Green’s guitar, Buddy Catlett’s bass, Sonny Payne’s drums) is at the center; the flutes and saxes are in the left channel; and the brass are in the right. Through the Pioneer, the flutes were presented nicely, with no shrillness or mistracking. Basie’s noodling around on the piano and Green’s rhythm guitar are well down in level but were distinct. The muted trombones were solid and in my face. Overall, a very fine job. With the Orbit Plus’s innately darker sound, the opening piano riffs were less attention grabbing, but the flutes were even silkier, and the bass was somewhat more prominent. A toss-up.
I then listened to “Getaway,” from The Best of Earth, Wind & Fire (1978 LP, ARC/Columbia 35647). The Orbit Plus offered nice snap to the drums and solid, percussive bass. The staccato trumpets sounded just right -- no sloppiness. The soundstage was quite deep and wide. The Pioneer, again, posted a brighter overall sound, with the trumpets sounding even better. The voices weren’t quite so smooth, though the upper midrange was more detailed, as I might have expected given the PL-516’s performance with the other recordings. Overall, I thought the Orbit Plus turned in the better sound, due to the somewhat smoother voices.
American ingenuity strikes again! U-Turn Audio’s Orbit Plus is a fabulous effort for a new startup, and worthy of consideration by anyone who wants a good, very basic, but very capable turntable for getting back into vinyl or for trying it for the first time. And the Orbit Plus and Grado Prestige Black1 go together like coffee with cream. I recommend the Orbit Plus. It’s a honey of a turntable!
. . . Thom Moon
- Source -- Pioneer PL-516 turntable and Grado Prestige Black1 cartridge
- Preamplifier -- Linn Majik-1P
- Amplifier -- Carver TFM-15cb
- Speakers -- Acoustic Energy Radiance 3, Advent ASW-1200 subwoofer
- Interconnects -- Dayton Audio
- Speaker cables -- Acoustic Research 14-gauge with Dayton Audio banana plugs
- Power conditioner/surge suppressor -- Panamax 1000+
U-Turn Audio Orbit Plus Turntable
Price: $299 USD plus shipping.
Warranty: One year parts and labor.
11 Cranes Ct.
Woburn, MA 01801