U-Turn Audio Orbit Turntable

First and foremost, the people at U-Turn Audio are to be commended for bringing a domestically manufactured turntable to market at an unbelievably low price. The Orbit, which is manufactured in the USA, is completely manual and comes with an Ortofon Omega cartridge ready to play records. At $179, this represents a miracle of sorts.

I have to admit that I was a bit skeptical of this product being any good. After all, how good can a brand new sub-$200, plug-and-play turntable be? The Orbit quickly dispels visions of cheap analog-to-USB-to-MP3 toys, thanks to the virtue of its decent build quality and good performance. Moreover, it offers those unfamiliar with analog playback an inexpensive and uncomplicated way to find out what the fuss is all about.

The fit and finish on the Orbit is unexpectedly good at its price point. The plinth is made of a “high performance” plastic that is non-resonant and painted with semi-gloss black paint. The platter is CNC-machined MDF finished with black textured paint and covered with a felt mat. Surprisingly, the tonearm is a unipivot affair and features silver-plated internal wiring. (The other domestically manufactured unipivot tonearm that comes to mind is VPI’s JMW, whose starting price is around $1,000.)

The Orbit’s motor is a low-voltage AC synchronous device with a machined pulley allowing for 33- or 45-rpm playback. Supporting the Orbit are three rubber feet/isolators to keep structure-born vibration from interfering with playback. The whole package is topped off with a clear molded dust cover attached at the rear with a pair of hinges. U-Turn also supplies a pair of RCA cables for the left/right outputs. There is no ground wire, as the Orbit is internally grounded.

Setup couldn’t be easier: simply install the platter, mat and string the belt, and you’re off.  One feature that is missing from the Orbit is a cuing lever. This cautions the owner to use a steady hand when lowering and lifting the tonearm. The Orbit reminds me of the very first Rega turntables—no frills (just turn the record at the right speed), no strobe, no automatic functions, no anything but playing the record.

Listening to the Orbit begins on headphones through a newly restored Apt Holman preamp, renowned for its good phonostage and quiet operation. Nothing untoward is revealed during this first stage—no groans, no creaks and no emphasis of surface noise, with excellent isolation. Giving the plinth a vigorous knock with my knuckle yields no transference of the shock to the tonearm—pretty impressive, though there is the slightest bit of inner groove mis-tracking on difficult selections. However, re-balancing the tonearm and setting the tracking force to 1.8 grams, as recommended by Ortofon, cures this anomaly.

Putting the Orbit into my main system is a bit of a shock, because the turntable it replaces is a superb performer. But, as listening progresses, certain characteristics are revealed; the Orbit is a little light in overall dynamic heft, but it’s certainly quick on its feet. The presentation is that of swiftness and agility, yet there is some congestion in the mid-bass region, especially when the bass guitar and drums are at an energetic pace. A change of interconnects easily solves this problem, and changing out the supplied RCA cables for a pair of $59.95 KAB/Cardas interconnects brings detail to the congested areas and also renders a larger and more stable soundstage. Now I feel that I’m hearing more of Orbit’s capabilities. Another characteristic that becomes plainly audible is the overall absence of rumble. The arm/cartridge interface is a good one, with precious little woofer pumping, regardless of program material..

Tchaikovsky’s Manfred Symphony (Michael Tilson Thomas conducting the London Symphony Orchestra on CBS Masterworks) is the first selection and the hall ambiance seems a bit truncated compared to the big boys, but the overall character of the strings and woodwinds is believable. Moving on to Al Di Meola’s Land of the Midnight Sun (Columbia Records), the Orbit unravels the frenetic pace on “Suite-Golden Dawn” handily, with Alphonse Mouzon’s drum attack and Jaco Pastorius’ bass lines intertwined with Di Meola’s staccato guitar riffs.

Next up, Vintage Trouble’s LP, The Bomb Shelter Sessions. On the cut “Still and Always Will,” Ty Taylors voice is clearly presented above the pounding drums of Richard Danielson and Rick Barrio Dill’s muscular bass. Crosby, Still and Nash’s first album (Rhino Records, 180g edition)proves a bit more difficult. The guitar sounds and vocal harmonies are well done, if a bit compressed on the Orbit. Finally, I try an old stalwart of mine, Tommy Newsom, Live From Beautiful Downtown Burbank. This is a direct-to-disc (Direct-Disk Labs) recording cut at a very high level. Even on an inner track like “Lay Down Sally,” the blatting horn section presents no problems in the tracking department and the Orbit continues to impress.

Tweaking a bit further, replacing the felt mat with a GEM Dandy mat from George Merrill, who is no stranger to turntable building, brings back a lot of missing musical foundation, and the soundstage becomes more focused. But isn’t my tweaking sort of subverting the basic premise of the Orbit? Well, yes and no. The entry price is $179. Adding the RCA cables and the mat bring it to $299, still a bargain for a brand-new table if you eliminate the DJ tables that are out there. When looking at the belt-drive competition, there’s the Pro-Ject Debut Carbon at $400 and the Rega RP-1 at $445—still more than the tweaked Orbit. A neophyte audiophile would add the tweaks over time as he or she became more familiar with analog playback. The upgrades reveal that the basic platform of the Orbit is a good one.

The inevitable question as to choice is, “What about vintage?” Being no stranger to vintage turntables, I can say that going that way is a crapshoot. Yes, if you get lucky, you can score a great turntable at a great price. But face facts, these things are 30 and 40 years old. The moment they break, the bargain goes out the window—nice to have a warranty, no? Even buying a new dust cover for a vintage table can cost $150. Comparing a Dual 510 on hand, a semi-automatic belt drive model made in the late 1970s, fitted with a NOS Stanton 600e cartridge seemed a perfect foil for the new contender.  The printed specs on each table were identical and about $175 was invested in the vintage piece, though the Dual had the edge in lower wow and flutter, on sustained piano notes.  For now, slight edge to the vintage table.

Using the same GEM Dandy mat on both turntables, the Dual/Stanton combination has more precision in its playback, especially in the low-bass and mid-treble regions. However, the Orbit’s has character in its favor. Indeed, each table provides different presentations and there is no clear winner for 175 bucks. Some people would prefer the Dual/Stanton, while others would prefer the Orbit/Ortofon. Further investigation demands the same cartridge on both tables, but that’s another story for the Analogaholic section of our website.  Stay tuned.

Back to tweaking – adding the RCA cables and mat to the Orbit brings us to $299. What would adding a better cartridge bring to the Orbit? The Ortofon 2M Red is available for $99 and was named an Absolute Sound Product of The Year in 2010. Okay, we’re now at $399 for a really tweaked-out Orbit. Can it go toe-to-toe with the Pro-Ject or the Rega? I can’t answer that yet, but I have a feeling that it would acquit itself very well.

Reviewing the Orbit is a pleasant surprise. It demonstrates that, with thoughtful engineering and good materials, a thoroughly competent entry-level turntable with only the essential ingredients for LP playback can be offered at an excellent price point. Combined with the possibilities of tweaking and upgrading over time, budding audiophiles can now experience the joys of record playing without risking a major out-of-pocket expense. Kudos to U-turn Audio for being brave enough to offer the Orbit to a crowded market. I have a feeling that we’ll be hearing more from this company in the years to come.  -Jerold O’Brien

Orbit turntable

MSRP: $179