U-Turn Orbit Basic turntable review: An upgrade-ready turntable with audiophile aspirations
There are plenty of options for turntables under $200 -- but not plenty of good ones. If you've done any research yet, you've likely been advised to stay away from trendy brands like Crosley that make "retro-designed" turntables with cheap, non-replaceable parts that can actually damage your records.
Audio-Technica's LP60 is a decent option for first-time buyers, but you can't upgrade the needle and some people like to have that option.
The possibility for future upgrades and an attractively minimal design made the U-Turn Orbit a hit on Kickstarter when the campaign initially launched in 2014: it gave audiophiles and vinyl-curious music fans an opportunity to invest in a audiophile-worthy turntable without the complicated set up.
Two years later, the company is still honoring its commitment to US-made parts in its Boston factory. Only the motor, phono cartridge, and a few small plastic molded parts are sourced overseas. U-Turn is also involved in every step of the manufacturing process: each Orbit is put together by hand, goes through a rigorous 15-point quality control regimen, and is listened to by a U-Turn technician before shipping out.
Since that first Kickstarter campaign, which raised over $230,000, U-Turn has quickly earned the favor of vinyl enthusiasts on the Internet and has now expanded its product line to include a bespoke "builder" option that lets customers choose their base color, platter material, cartridge, and more.
U-Turn sent over an Orbit Basic Turntable for this review with the company's own Pluto preamp already installed (the Builder also gives you this option). The table includes a basic Audio-Technica cartridge preinstalled and comes in a choice of five colors (black, blue, green, red and white) -- prices start at $179 US (£124, AU$255 ) and go up depending on your choice of extras.
Design and setup
If you're looking for a turntable that you can use to DJ, forget about the Orbit and start saving up for the new Technics SL-1200G coming out later this year. The Orbit is a belt-driven turntable, which means it relies on an elastic belt that connects the motor to the record platform, also called a platter, to rotate the record.
Audiophiles prefer belt-driven turntables because they don't transfer motor noise to the needle as much as direct-drive turntables, but the latter are favored by DJs and casual listeners for their strong torque, quick spin-up times, and durability.
U-Turn designed the Orbit to be as easy as possible to put together when you first get it, and it's a no-brainer compared to other turntables. Just install the platter over the base and put the felt slip mat on top, then you can plug in the power cord and slide the clear plastic dust cover over the hinges.
All that's left to do after that is to wrap the large rubber band (also called the belt) around the pulley on the top-left side of the unit. The pulley has two grooves that will spin the platter at 33rpm (top groove) or at 45rpm (bottom groove) depending on the speed of your record.
Let's pause for a second to talk about workflow. It's slightly more complicated to adjust the belt position every time you switch between a 33 and a 45, so if you listen to an equal amount of both you might prefer a turntable like the Audio-Technica LP120 that has dedicated buttons for each speed.
Everyone else that listens to 33rpm full-length albums the majority of the time probably won't be touching the belt very often after the initial setup. It's not very hard to switch to 45rpm every once in awhile, but it does require a little finesse to get the belt to balance evenly across the side of the platter and onto the groove. After awhile, it'll become second nature.
The base of the turntable, also called the plinth, measures 17 inches by 13 inches (43cm by 33cm) and has three rubber feet on the bottom for dampening external vibrations that could otherwise cause audible skips and distortions in playback. The low voltage AC synchronous motor also sits underneath the plinth and has an open port on the back where you plug in the wall adapter.
If you opt to have the Pluto preamp built into turntable, U-Turn will also install a small box on the rear panel with a small switch to bypass it. That might not mean much right now, but it'll come in handy in the future if you want to upgrade to a new phono stage. Thankfully, the back of the Orbit also features open RCA ports so you can swap out cables, should they fail over time.
Since there aren't any speed select buttons, the only physical button is the power switch on the front left side of the turntable. The tone-arm is just as simple to operate, as well, but keep in mind that the way U-Turn keeps costs low is to omit fancy extra features like a tone arm cue lever and auto-return playback.
What you do get is a straight tone arm with a unipivot-style bearing that sits close to the record, so the needle has an easier time accurately tracking inside the record grooves. With no cue lever to help you drop the needle, you need to have a steady hand to grab the finger lift on the tone arm's head shell, but it's worth noting that the company also sells a lever separately for $40 (£27.85, AU$56.98) that installs underneath the tone arm rest.
Proper setup is essential to get the best sound out of your turntable, but luckily U-Turn makes it easy on you by shipping every turntable with the cartridge already installed and the tracking force already perfectly dialed in.
The Basic model automatically comes with the Audio-Technica AT91B cartridge, but you can use the online Builder to upgrade to the Ortofon OM 5E, Grado Black1, or the Grado Blue1 cartridge. Each of those will extract a unique sound signature from your records, and potentially draw more detail out of your music, but at a price to play. Also, you'll need to balance the tone arm and recalibrate the tracking force each time you install a new cartridge.
Aside from a better cartridge and the cue lever, you can also choose to upgrade the black platter from the stock medium density fiberboard (MDF) material to a clear acrylic platter. In theory, the heavier acrylic version is supposed to perform with less speed fluctuations than the basic MDF one, but I listened to a lot of records using the Basic model I was sent and never noticed any fluctuations with the stock parts.
Two hinges on the back of the plinth hold the removable plastic cover in place, which prevents dust and dirt from touching your records. The all-plastic design is prone to scratches, and it's not super-sturdy so I wouldn't recommend placing anything else on top of the cover when you're not playing records.
The overall build quality of the Orbit Basic feels sturdy enough, but I would press the company to rethink the design of the tone arm holder. I know it's a nitpick, but there's a lot of wobbly give to the small rubber latch that holds the arm in place- it cheapens the feel of the turntable in use and I'd prefer to have a sturdier latch that clicks when the arm is set back in position.
The standard Orbit ships without a preamp built into it, so you have a few options for how to get your turntable ready to play music. The fastest way to do it is to use a receiver with a phono input -- that way you don't have to buy a separate preamp and you can play your music directly to a pair of passive speakers.
If you don't have a receiver, or if you're using a receiver without a phono input, you'll need to purchase a separate phono preamp to listen to music using powered speakers (those are speakers that have their own power cable.)
Finally, if your speakers are passive, you'll need to get an additional amplifier to boost the signal to line level. Confused? U-Turn has all the answers you need on this page of "recommended set ups."
The sound quality of a turntable depends on many factors, one of which is its ability to dampen vibrations caused by the motor, the platter and the surface area underneath the surface. However microscopic, any needle movement within the groove can mar the listening experience with noise imperfections, so the best turntables take every opportunity to minimize this noise.
Making the switch to an analog music source like a turntable can be difficult for anyone accustomed to the noise-free "perfection" of digital music, but the experience of playing records on the U-Turn Orbit makes the transition a little smoother.
The Orbit's tone arm was designed in-house and uses precision ball bearings adjusted specifically to maximize the tracking accuracy of the needle, so you get a satisfying, quiet turntable -- especially through headphones, which is always the litmus test for how quiet a turntable can get.
According to CNET's "Audiophiliac" Steve Guttenberg's review, the Orbit Basic played his LPs with a rich, warm, and inviting sound:
"Play a great audiophile LP, like Patricia Barber's newly remastered "Companion," and you'll hear a sound that goes beyond the high-resolution downloads. I'm defining "best" as more lifelike, and because of that the music draws you in more completely than digital formats ever do.
That's vinyl's big advantage -- it's harder to ignore the music and multitask with a turntable. Yes, you have to go over and change the LP every twenty minutes, and figure out what you're going to play next. That's a plus, you're involved with music on a different level when you actively participate in what you're listening to."
You can spend upwards of $500 and more on a top-quality audiophile turntable from Rega or Pro-Ject that will add a liveliness to your listening experience, but the cost of ownership can jump quickly. That said, despite a few small gripes about the build, the $179 Orbit Basic is a great choice if you're just getting into vinyl or you want to upgrade your current set-up with a budget-friendly solution that doesn't sacrifice style.
The minimalist design is a fresh take on legacy technology and the preinstalled cartridge takes the tediousness out of balancing the tone arm and setting the vertical tracking force. And if you want to upgrade your rig later, you have the option to swap out the stock cartridge or replace the phono stage. That flexibility is hard to find in a budget turntable, and the U-Turn Orbit should definitely be on your short list to consider.