Orbit Special Turntable Review
Company & Product Overview
In 1988, when the three founders of U-Turn Audio were born, CDs were beginning to take the audio world by storm. While everyone around them carried portable CD players, they were a bit more old-school -- preferring the experience of coming home after school to lay on the floor and listen to vinyl.
By the time they got to college in the early 2000’s, it was nearly impossible to find a quality turntable -- Especially one that they could afford as poor college students. As vinyl sales began to come back to life, it was no longer as difficult to find a turntable, but they were mostly cheap all-in-one’s. The kind that not only sounded horrible but could also damage their precious records. Leveraging their engineering, design, and creative talents, these three friends decided that they could make something better.
They timed it perfectly, launching a Kickstarter as vinyl sales began to skyrocket. By 2015, U-Turn Audio had already sold over 10,000 turntables out of their homegrown factory in Woburn Massachusetts. In fact, nearly 90% of the parts in their Orbit turntable come from local suppliers.
We posted our review of the U-Turn Orbit back in August of 2017, shortly after we began carrying their products. After nearly a year of great sales and impeccable customer feedback, we decided to sit down with Ben Carter and Bob Hertig to learn more about what makes this such a great table for the money.
After talking with them at length, we really came to realize just how special the Orbit Special is. It’s a true labor of love, particularly with the care that goes into their unique wooden plinth.
While U-Turn has variations of the Orbit that start at $179, we decided to circle back and write an entire review on the features and details of the fully-loaded U-Turn Orbit Special.
Design & Build Quality
The U-Turn Orbit Special is a manual, belt-drive turntable. At Audio Advice, we love belt drive designs for their simplicity and great sound. The motor is isolated from the platter through the belt, which helps to reduce noise. We also think that belt-drive tables tend to have better speed stability. The Orbit Special’s exposed motor makes changing the speed from 33 to 45 as simple as moving the belt.
Just as we prefer belt-drive designs, we also prefer manual turntables to automatic tables. If you ask us, 99% of all great tables are manual, which means that you need to pick up the tonearm, move it over the record and lower it down yourself to start playing and pick it up at the end of the record. To automate this process requires gears and extra mechanisms which add friction and noise to the table and detract from the sound. The Orbit Special does come with a cue lever, however, which makes this simpler and reduces the risk of damaging your records or your stylus when lowering the tonearm.
The Orbit Special features a classic, timeless design with a solid wood plinth in your choice of flat cut maple or rift walnut. The build quality is stunning. It’s clear that they take great pride in each and every table they product at their Woburn, MA factory. The fit and finish is simply unbelievable for a table in this price range.
Features & Technology
The bearing is perhaps one of the most important yet overlooked features of any great turntable. The bearing is the connection point between the platter and the plinth, and is the piece that allows your turntable to -- well -- turn! Any noise produced by the bearing will inevitably make its way up to the phono cartridge. Any wobble or drag in the bearing will affect the speed stability. Finally, a turntable bearing needs to be able to withstand thousands upon thousands of revolutions without showing any signs of wear. To keep things in perspective, your platter will spin around 2,000 times in a single hour of play!
Luckily, U-Turn understands the importance of a good bearing design and opted for a unique approach with the Orbit Special. They use what is called an inverted bearing.
On many turntables, you have a bearing well and an inner platter with a long shaft that fits down into the well. U-Turn reverses this. Instead, the inner platter has the well and the shaft is pointing up!
The team at U-Turn wanted to find a material that was super rigid but easy to machine. They discovered a type of glass-filled nylon injection molded material which is a favorite among the automotive industry, known for creating parts that last for decades. Since this material can be formed by molding, you can make it any shape you need. The main stainless steel shaft is firmly anchored in a round, well-braced piece that attaches to the top of the plinth.
The inner platter is made of this same glass/nylon material which houses the bushings that make contact with the stainless steel shaft. These bushings are made in Germany by a company that specializes in composite materials that need no lubrication, have super low friction, and have low thermal expansion. Rings of brass center these bushings inside the inner platter. Finally, the end of the inner platter has a Delrin load bearing that sits on top of the shaft.
When you put all of these components together, you can spin the inner platter and tell it is totally friction-free with zero wobble -- a sign of a great bearing design. The top part of the inner platter has your center spindle but is also tapered to perfectly center the turntable platter.
Speaking of the platter, while it is an upgrade option on any U-Turn Orbit, an acrylic platter comes standard with the Orbit Special! It’s one solid sheet of acrylic. It’s very unusual to find an acrylic platter on a turntable in this price range, so we had to ask the team how they were able to afford to offer it. Their answer was insightful and interesting.
Most manufacturers that offer acrylic platters need to machine each piece and then polish all sides. U-Turn instead buys huge sheets of extruded acrylic which are already perfectly flat and polished on the top and bottom. They then use a special machine to cut them out in a way that gives them a high yield from the big piece of extruded acrylic. This saves them a ton of money over doing it the traditional way and enables them to pass the savings on to you. They top the platter off with a very nice felt mat that is about ⅛” thick. And you guessed it, the acrylic sheets and felt mat are locally sourced just like almost everything else!
For a lot of people, the turntable will be sitting front and center in their living room. It has or will probably become the centerpiece for friends and family to gather around as you explore brand new albums or dig through crates to find your old favorites. Listening to vinyl has always been a great social experience. It’s natural and organic, like wood!
U-Turn received so many requests from their customers for a real wood table that they felt they had no choice but to offer it! While many other manufacturers use MDF covered in a thin wood veneer, the Orbit Special features solid wood, sourced from sustainable forests in Indiana and Pennsylvania. A local wood shop takes the planks and fits them together rather than using one single piece of lumber. This is a common word working method to give you something that is super solid, low resonance, and immune to warping over time. They are cut out on a CNC machine in the local shop and finished off with a clear lacquer matte finish before they travel down the road to the U-Turn factory. The result is a beautiful light maple finish or a stunning walnut, both of which highlight the natural characteristics of the wood.
Another critical part of a turntable is the motor. If it does not spin at the correct speed all the time, you’ll get variations in your music, which nobody wants. U-Turn once again takes a unique approach here. There is a specialty motor company located in Princeton, IN called Hurst. Their motors are used by a lot of high-end tables, including VPI. Nice motors can get pretty expensive which can be a stumbling block if you are trying to make a table whose differentiator is value.
U-Turn did some digging and found one particular Hurst motor that was relatively inexpensive. This is due to the fact that 10% of the motors had some variability. So U-Turn buys the less expensive motor and tests each and every one before mounting it on their tables with the same types of rubber hangers used by higher-end manufacturers to isolate the motor from the plinth. The motors that pass their tests perform as well as the more expensive motors. So again, U-Turn takes a unique approach and works a little harder in order to save money and pass the value on to their customers.
Finally, let's discuss the tonearm. At first glance, the U-Turn tonearm looks pretty simple, but there is a lot of tech hiding behind the scenes. The headshell, tonearm support, and bearing housing are all made from that same great glass filled nylon material they use for the bearing. The inner workings of this gimbal bearing design are made of stainless steel, aluminum, and brass. A horizontal brass section connects to the two bearing pivot points for the horizontal plane. Over 40 years we have played around with a lot of tonearms. We have to say, the tonearm that U-Turn uses for the Orbit is just fabulous for the money. Many tonearms on a table in the price range will have a little bit of bearing play or noise as you move them around. We find almost zero with the U-Turn arm. Another nice feature is the internal anti-skate.
While the tonearm height is not adjustable, U-Turn set it’s height specifically to match the Ortofon Red moving magnet cartridge that is included with the Orbit Special. This will also work with many other Ortofon, Grado, and Audio-Technica cartridges, so if you choose to upgrade down the road, there are plenty of choices available to you.
The cue lever, as we mentioned earlier, comes standard on the Orbit Special. Each and every one is hand-assembled by the U-Turn team. Even if you have a steady hand, this is a great feature to have.
When all of these specially designed parts come together, U-Turn has a gorgeous and incredibly well-built table. But before sending it out to you, they put every single table through a rigorous testing process in order to make sure each one meets their standards. They place the platter on the table and use a digital microscope to ensure that it spins perfectly flat with no wobble. Each and every tonearm has its bearings calibrated using special test equipment. After everything is assembled, the table is turned on and tested in several locations with a stethoscope to make sure everything is perfect. Once it passes this test, it will sit, spinning on a test bench, for two full hours. Finally, someone it down and plays a couple of their favorite tracks on it to confirm that the table is going to make their new owner happy. Talk about a great job!
To be honest, we don’t fully understand how they can put this much time and effort into each table and still come out with a product that costs what it does, but they do.
Other than choosing the wood finish that you want, the only decision you need to make is whether or not you want the phono stage to be built-in or not. Having it built in will only cost an additional $70, bringing the price from $459 to $529.
After going over all of the thought and TLC that goes into an Orbit Special, you might think it could sell for $1,000+, and it actually probably could, it looks and feels that great! The fact you can own one of these beautiful, American-made tables for $459 is just mind-blowing!
We tested the Orbit Special with a Cambridge SR20 stereo receiver and the new Paradigm F3000 tower speakers. The Cambridge has a built-in moving magnet phono stage which works well with the Ortofon Red. We felt this was probably a typical setup that people who could be considering the Orbit Special might have.
While all of the features and details are great, perhaps the most important thing to know about the U-Turn Orbit Special is that it’s just a fun table to listen to. We found ourselves tapping our toes instantly. It does very little to get in the way of the music -- the ideal for any vinyl lover! Bass was also deep and rich but interestingly enough, when we pushed things hard we did not notice any acoustic feedback getting into the Orbit.
If you compare it to more expensive tables, you can hear the differences when it comes to tracking demanding passages and ultimate speed control. But it’s important to keep things in perspective here, as the tables we compared it to cost almost double the price of the Orbit Special!
U-Turn tables are simply an amazing value. With the Orbit Special, you are paying for something beyond the performance level -- the simple beauty of the crafted wood finish. If you are pushing your budget to go this far, you do have the option of going with their standard MDF finish and getting out for less, but boy will the Special look good in your living room!
We love the idea behind U-Turn. Here is a group of people who love great local craftsmanship and started their company with an idea and a Kickstarter campaign. At Audio Advice, we feel great about supporting the U-Turn product and we fully endorse this table for anyone looking for a great entry-level turntable that will last.
HIGH NOTES UNPACKED
There is just a ton of great engineering built in the Orbit Special. From its main bearing, to the acrylic platter, high-end materials are used to give it amazing performance.
Made in the USA
80-90% of the parts in an Orbit Special are sourced in the USA. It is 100% assembled at the Woburn, MA factory. Each and every table goes through extensive testing to assure you of a great product.
With a choice of flat cut maple or rift walnut, the Orbit Special is as beautiful to look at as it is to use. It just might become the centerpiece of your living room.