Having used the Audio-Technica LP60 for the last couple of years, I felt it was time for a change. It’s a reliable and cost-effective starter table, but I felt I wanted something that plugged in more to my passion for playing and appreciating records. Around this time two years ago, I started hearing rumblings about the Orbit by U-Turn and everything about its creation and potential intrigued me.
There have been many articles and interviews regarding U-Turn so I’ll refrain from giving you another version of the long backstory. The point is that Kickstarter funding for U-Turn to build and distribute even just their bare-bones model Orbit Basic - selling currently at $179, though early donators received a discount I believe - went through the roof, nearly cracking the 400% mark in reaching the original goal of $60k, which now, seems incredibly modest. What that told the industry, as well as U-Turn’s founders, was that not only were people seeking a high-quality listening experience for an affordable price, but that more shockingly, they were willing to take a chance on an upstart in a medium with nearly 100 years of history in the public marketplace. Ask your usual audiophile and they’ll tell you that brand and record label loyalty is concrete to their shopping and listening enjoyment. Maybe those with money to burn and a few turntables already at their disposal threw U-Turn some money just to check it out, but it’s clear that few held off entirely, which is encouraging for future creators of vinyl technology or product.
My wife purchased the Orbit Plus from U-Turn’s site for my birthday in early August - which differs from the Basic as it comes with an acrylic platter and higher quality stylus/cartridge - at $299. Obviously a bit more of an investment on a product that you can’t physically try hands-on before buying, but the majority of the reviews and testimonials had me sold. Like most entertainment and art, sound is completely subjective and you can spend literally thousands of dollars (and waste millions of brain cells) on just a turntable. Comedian and WTF podcast host Marc Maron has a completely relatable experience about the trials of upgrading your listening environment on both his most recent stand-up album (available on vinyl) and TV series. Admittedly, anyone with a passion for music and vinyl in particular will be chasing that ultimate high where we’ll be able to declare "Yes! I have found the premier listening experience! Kneel before its greatness! You can now hear Jimmy Page exhale midway through ‘When the Levee Breaks,’ damn it!" but we’ll never, ever get there and that’s hard to swallow. In my eyes, as long as your new acquisition - a turntable, a stylus/cartridge, a pre-amp - sounds better than your last, isn’t that all that matters? If you can spend a few hundred dollars on something you know sounds great to your ears, or $14,000 on an item that causes you to constantly question its brilliance… Oh, who am I kidding? I would love a McIntosh tube amp. (For those curious, I’m currently using a Sony STR-AV500 for my receiver: A very easy 80’s/90’s find at a thrift shop or Goodwill probably, so definitely not fancy, but does well).
There were eventual shipping delays with U-Turn units thanks to the overwhelming response and a rumored warehouse fire, but from order date to delivery I received mine in less than 30 days. Remember, these are made to order and not just already boxed in an Amazon facility, so since I had read about a two-to-three month wait time, I counted myself lucky when I got the UPS alert that it had shipped out Labor Day week.
Upon opening the box, the first item is the acrylic platter. Smooth and sleek, this is not only a gorgeous thing to see on the table but it helps with speed consistency (more on the Orbit Plus’ belt-driven anatomy later) and tighter bass. They include a felt slipmat, and I toyed with the idea of transferring my cork mat from the LP60 to the Orbit Plus, but the former isn’t great for static build-up, the latter seemed like overkill for deeper tones according to what I’d read, and both took away from the stunning visual of a clear platter against the blue color that I went with.
After the slipmat came instructions along with the belt, audio cables and a nice U-Turn sticker. The instructions were easy to follow even for someone just getting into record collecting, though one unboxing video on YouTube made a good point that some direction as to removing the stylus guard out or down might be helpful. Not ruining the Grado Black1 before it even touched a groove was a fever nightmare of mine, if even for a few seconds.
Another worry I had was installing the belt, but this proved to be much easier than anticipated. About as easy as their set-up video made it look, in fact. It may appear not exactly in the middle of your platter’s edges, since there’s no groove there to hold it in place, but the belt usually straightens itself out once you flip the turntable on. I’ve so far found that switching between 33 1/3 and 45 speeds is pretty error proof.
There were just a few things to get accustomed to, such as physically laying the needle down (versus the LP60’s push-button needle drop) which is a beautiful process within the act of playing a record. The tonearm arrives perfectly and properly weighed, but it still is very light so it could be tricky for those new to laying down the arm to grasp this right off the bat. But due to the slanted ceilings in my record space, I’ve found that crouching down assists me in both not bumping my head when done, as well as laying the needle down perfectly. There isn’t an auto-return on the U-Turn either (something that was built in with the LP60) and with some albums not allowing the needle to run ad nauseam within the deadwax, users will need to be alert as to turning the table off to avoid the needle potentially running into the label. U-Turn does offer the Q Up on their site for those looking to have the tonearm lifted upon the end of a record (which can be added without tools to any U-Turn) and they aim to have a cue lever for rising and lowering the arm for album playback later this fall.
Like the slipmat, I also ditched the dust cover. I had heard a few complaints about the quality of it, as well as the plastic black hinges that it attaches to, but I’ve so far found that removing the hinges with a Phillips-head screwdriver and only using the dust cover when the turntable isn’t being used works for me. Not only was this an aesthetic choice, but the area of my home where my records are is a finished attic with a very low, slanted ceiling and walls, so the up/down of the dust cover on hinges didn’t fully work with the turntable being near an outlet. (And before you say it, don’t worry: the attic has a nice and powerful A/C unit so that I won’t come home to a pool of melted records some hot, August day).
The first to take the maiden voyage on my U-Turn Orbit Plus was side C of Death Cab for Cutie’s Transatlanticism. This is the 2003 German release on Grand Hotel van Cleef, and most sites confirm it was pressed at RTI. Though this record sounded brilliant already on the LP60 when I originally got it, the Orbit Plus took it to a whole other world. What sounds like a den-den daiko appears late in the title track, and here the instrument is given an incredible amount of depth and distance, almost as if the sound is arching from the left speaker to the right, and echoing throughout a large indoor (but water-bound) space, like Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean ride. Elsewhere on Transatlaticism, Nick Harmer’s bass sounds incredibly more active and driving throughout, and Ben Gibbard’s vocals come across as if he’s sitting right beside you singing “Passenger Seat” or “A Lack of Color.” Maybe the coolest surprise was “Title and Registration” sounding incredibly fresh with acoustic plucks and xylophone hits where you can actually feel the pressure or force of those acts being done. You don’t just hear the notes; it feels like someone’s playing them in front of you.
Though not as crazy obsessive about vinyl as I am, my wife has always been incredibly supportive of my hobby and has a great ear for differences in vinyl pressings vs. digital, so it was comforting to watch her fully enjoy Suede’s self-titled debut (reissued by Demon Records this year, which we picked up on our last trip to England). She too heard new sounds and at one point, laid on the floor to let everything soak in. If that’s not a rave review, I don’t know what is!
Granted, just because something is on vinyl doesn’t mean it automatically sounds better than digital. Depending on the method of recording, how it was pressed and a bunch of other factors, a record can still sound like a dud on a $3,000 table as much as it does on a $99 one. But just two weeks in, I can honestly say the U-Turn Orbit Plus gives me everything I was hoping for and more. Good ol’ American ingenuity is a live and well here, and it’ll be astounding to watch U-Turn grow over the next few years, whether that means further improvements to the table itself or how they’ll meet music fans’ thriving interest in vinyl year by year.
I’m dropping my Sansui 5000X off at a local electronics fix-it shop shortly in order to get the left channel working (I picked up this unit over the summer but have yet to actually use it), so I’m expecting the sound to only get better. My hope is that you’ll learn along with me, as I examine present and past records for all their gems, flaws and secrets. That’s the high that I want to chase, and hopefully it’s yours, too.