Entry-level turntables are the most exciting things on the market right now.
Maybe that statement feels counterintuitive. (I actually started by typing the opposite sentence, but I think that’s wrong.) Right now, vinyl is the biggest audiophile recruitment tool available, slightly above headphones. People are still lining up for ultra-limited-release records on Record Store Day, and all those fledgling audiophiles need something to spin their shiny new wax on. But most aren’t shelling out a grand or more, believe it or not, for their very first ’table. Honestly, even the least expensive ’table in this roundup is still over $400, which is not a small sum of money. Nevertheless, an entry-level ’table is very likely going to be a first taste of true hi-fi sound.
What I’m saying here is entry-level turntables are immensely important. They’re introducing new audiophiles to the joy and frustration that is analog reproduction. A new audiophile’s first turntable could be just the toe-dip needed to get them fully submerged. The goal here is to give a sampling of what intro ’tables are capable of and what their downsides are, and to compare those things with what a more fully-featured deck can do. It’s important to know how these ’tables stack up and why spending more is, potentially, worthwhile.
Or maybe it isn’t. That’s sort of the whole point.
I’m going to look at three ’tables. Two of them are fairly comparable, but the third is a serious step up. I want to look at how these two intro ’tables compare with each other, then I’ll contrast them with what you get at the higher price point.
So without further meandering, let’s dive in.
U-Turn Orbit Special ($459)
The Orbit Special was the first ’table I set up. It’s the top of the line for U-Turn, and includes an acrylic platter, built-in phonostage, and Ortofon 2M Red cartridge. It was about as plug-and-play as possible. You take the plinth, the dustcover, and the platter out of the box, drop the platter down onto the spindle, plug it all in, and you’re good to go. That’s pretty much it. The tonearm comes with the counterweight already installed and the Ortofon 2M Red factory-mounted, so there’s no fiddling. I was up and running in less than 10 minutes.
By the way, I’m a fan of the Ortofon 2M line of cartridges. I know these Ortofons are really popular for entry-level audiophiles because they sound pretty darn good, aren’t priced absurdly high, and offer a clear and simple upgrade path to follow. Right off the bat, I liked seeing the 2M bundled with this deck.
My review sample’s solid walnut plinth looked nice. The motor is on the back left side of the platter, easily accessible, so switching between 33 and 45rpm couldn’t be simpler. This model includes a built-in phonostage that’s easily bypassed with a little switch; if you do want to upgrade phonostages and cartridges down the line, it’s definitely possible. The anti-skate for the tonearm is factory-set, however, and the counterweight isn’t absurdly substantial, so I’d wager that lighter moving-magnet carts would work best with this ’arm.
When thinking about an entry-level turntable, I can’t help wondering how it’ll hold up after a few years of use. The upgrade path and flexibility are two big things that matter to me. A stock Special is ready to go, easily set up and played, but there are clearly some little things about the deck that suggest it’s possible to upgrade down the line when the bug finally bites. So instead of having to drop even more money on a whole new deck, a Special owner could experiment with phonostages and cartridges, for example. However, pay close attention to compatibility. Not everything will simply swap into this setup, though the possibility of a new cartridge is a nice bonus.
Overall, the Special feels pretty sturdy for such a budget choice. It’s not exactly a heavy unit, but it’s clearly well made. It looks good and it’s functional, and I wouldn’t be embarrassed to have it in my living room. But who cares what it looks like, right, if it doesn’t sound good? I mean, it’s not a painting.
Fortunately, the Special sounds great in stock form. Listening to Warren Zevon’s Excitable Boy, Zevon’s distinctive voice came through clear and concise; drums were tight and solid; and overall I could forget for a second which turntable I had on the rack. It’s not perfect, of course—speed felt a touch on the fast side—but it’s really pretty close. It’s also not the quietest deck in the whole world, but I think I’m splitting hairs at this point. Familiar hits like “Werewolves of London” were tight and exciting, and I never felt like I was missing anything from the mix.
I was content with the U-Turn Orbit Special. Setup was blazingly easy, and the stock sound was solid enough to keep me listening. But I think the real strength here is the potential for some easy and obvious upgrades, like trying out a new phonostage and upgrading the cartridge as mentioned. However, the majority of listeners would be happy with the Special straight from the box.