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Audiophile Recruitment Tools

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.

 


Rega Planar 1 Plus ($595)

Next up is the Rega Planar 1 Plus, potentially a step up from the U-Turn Orbit Special, at least in price. My review model was a pretty glossy white with a black platter and black tonearm. It came with a Carbon cartridge factory-mounted on the RB-110 tonearm. Overall, the P1 was relatively lightweight, including the platter. But that’s not really a surprise, considering this is the entry-level and also reflects Rega’s longstanding design philosophy. 

Rega provides everything from cartridge to phonostage. All were tight and stable, and I especially liked that the on/off switch is located on the left underside of the plinth. That’s the sort of little detail that makes Rega such a popular hi-fi company. It plays 33 and 45, and you switch between them by lifting off the bigger main platter and moving the belt up and down the motor pulley. The belt wraps around a smaller subplatter that drives the main platter.

Setting up the P1 Plus was also absurdly simple. It honestly took me five minutes to go from pulling it out of the box to playing a record. Rega seriously took plug-and-play to the absolute extreme with this ’table, arguably more so than the U-Turn deck. Drop on the dustcover, pull out the cardboard bracing the subplatter, screw on the tonearm counterweight to the prescribed position, and you’re ready to go. Bias is factory-set and the phonostage is built right in, so it takes absolutely no work to start spinning records. Vinyl is notoriously fussy, and that can easily turn off newcomers. But the P1 Plus takes all that tinkering out of the equation.

A short aside: When I first got into vinyl, I started with cheap vintage ’tables. Some of them were really cool, like the beautiful BIC deck I had for a bit, but pretty much all of them only partially worked. They always had some kind of issue, either broken plastic parts, noisy motors, cracked headshells, you name it. In retrospect, I really wish I had sprung for something like the Planar 1. I had spent a lot of time fussing, frustrated and annoyed, and ultimately I probably spent about as much money on trying to find that perfect vintage deck as I would have if I’d just bought new to begin with. I’m a big proponent of going vintage, but go with your eyes wide open and lots of patience. I sure learned a ton, and there’s something to be said for skipping the potential headaches.

Anyway, back to the Rega deck. For me, the big potential downside to the Planar 1 is flexibility. The tonearm’s bias is factory-set and the built-in preamp can’t be bypassed, so you’re stuck more or less using this ’table in stock form. This is a nearly $600 ’table, and that’s no small sum. However, flexibility isn’t a selling point for a lot of people, and the Planar 1 is absolutely a step up in stock form without any needed changes. I think Rega decided to make this deck as simple as possible to appeal to more people. Ultimately, I think it’s the right decision, because the ’table sounds really, really good, and the built-in preamp is definitely better than most.

Devo’s new release from Run Out Groove is called Turn Around: B-Sides and More (1978-1984). The opening track, “Social Fools,” is a grinding punk-tinged rocker, totally different from the later electro-dance most Devo people are used to. Those forward guitars sound solid and thick and the ’table had a really good sense of pace and timing. The title track, “Turn Around,” is like the perfect transition track for Devo, right between their punk rock phase and their electro phase. Stabbing guitars and driving synth are guided by a stomping kick. The lower end sounded solid in a really satisfying way, although the highest registers could get a little thin at some points. Again though, the sense of timing and rhythm was spot-on. The Planar 1 Plus did this danceable record justice and then some.

Rega has a great reputation in hi-fi and for good reason. The Planar 1 Plus includes a fantastic phonostage and sounds really good in stock form, a slight step up from the U-Turn Orbit Plus. However, I feel like its upgrade path is a touch limited, so that’s something to keep in mind when going forward.

 


Pro-Ject RPM 5 Carbon ($1499)

And now we make a big leap up to the RPM 5 Carbon, a new deck from the insanely popular company Pro-Ject. Obviously, this ’table is going to be pretty different when compared with the U-Turn or the Rega, especially given that it costs more than both of them combined. 

Right out of the box, the difference is obvious. Putting aside the interesting shape and design of the plinth, just the sheer amount of stuff that Pro-Ject includes in the box puts the whole package on that next level. There are multiple counterweights for the tonearm in order to balance cartridges of all different weights, a little key that allows the user to switch the belt from 33 to 45 without actually touching the belt, a power supply that works with multiple different international plugs, white gloves to wear while setting it all up, and much more. The sheer number of accessories that come with this deck shows how much thought Pro-Ject put into its ’table, but also suggests how flexible Pro-Ject wants it to be. This isn’t just a plug-and-play deck, one that you stick on the shelf and forget about. You could do that, of course, but this ’table was designed to be tweaked and upgraded.

And that’s the really big difference between the RPM 5 Carbon and the other two ’tables. The RPM 5 Carbon is incredibly flexible. It doesn’t have a built-in phonostage, so you’re free to experiment with that. It works with a huge range of cartridges, so go ahead and try whatever you want. This is the turntable for people that really want to go down the analog rabbit hole.

In terms of design, the RPM 5 Carbon is totally unlike the Rega and the U-Turn models. It uses a minimalist plinth that hugs the edge of the big acrylic platter and tonearm board, cutting out anything that isn’t necessary. The motor itself sits on a massive little stage and is entirely separate from the main platter’s plinth. You have to use a little jig to get the platter and the motor perfectly aligned at the right distance, but they’re never actually touching. This decouples the motor from the plinth and results in a much quieter ride. The main platter and plinth are pretty massive themselves, with tip-toe feet that can be adjusted in order to perfectly level everything.

Overall, I’m a huge fan of the aesthetics and the design. I was sent the bright red model, because why not? I’m usually a wood-or-black kind of guy, but this red just looks really fantastic. It’s a simple and very effective deck, and while it’s not going to look like those wood-grain vintage decks of yore, it’s definitely modern and clean and gorgeous. 

Setup took longer than the other two decks, and I won’t go into too much detail. But the hardest part of adjusting any turntable—cartridge alignment—was done at the factory, so mostly it was just getting everything in place, balancing the tonearm, dialing in the downforce, and that was more or less it. The RPM 5 Carbon comes with a Sumiko Blue Point No. 2, which is a high-output moving-coil design that retails for $449. Yeah, the cartridge is almost as expensive as the other two turntables, which is definitely worth noting. 

In sound, I was both impressed and incredibly pleased. The Pro-Ject was at least a match for, if not better than, my own reference deck, and it’s a clear and obvious step up from the U-Turn and the Rega, as it really should be. Matthew Dear’s killer album Black City is full of straight-up bangers, the kind of music that’s both interesting and catchy. In particular, “You Put a Smell on Me” is this tight, glitchy composition that’s both strangely unlike anything else, but also really familiar. The squeals and squeaks didn’t stray into the harsh, and when the bass really dropped in, it felt spot-on and tight. Pace and timing kept me engaged and felt entirely dialed in. My general impression was that RPM 5 Carbon’s strengths were surpassingly quiet, black backgrounds and precise soundstages. 

On top of a clear sonic advantage, as noted, the RPM 5 Carbon can be upgraded to your heart’s content. You’ll need an outboard phonostage, since there’s nothing built into the RPM 5 Carbon’s plinth, but personally I think that’s a good thing. If you’re stepping up to this price level, you’re probably the sort of person that wants to try out different ’stages. 

 

Outro

I know I suggested that we’d discuss whether spending more is worthwhile, and I haven’t really answered the question yet. That’s because I don’t think I can.

Whether or not it’s worthwhile is entirely up to you. The thing about audiophilia is, it can be as complicated as you want it to be, or it can be insanely simple. Your budget, your time, and your penchant for obsessiveness are all going to be factors in whether or not you want to keep it simple or make it endlessly complex.

As it stands, analog playback is probably the tweakiest and most complicated thing in the world, and if you really want to dive down that amazing (and frustrating and horrifying) rabbit hole, then spending more makes a lot of sense. Of course, a ’table worth $1499 is going to have straight-up better specs than a ’table priced at less than half that, and of course it’s going to sound better. But the best thing you’re getting is flexibility. The RPM 5 Carbon can be used with a huge variety of cartridges and phonostages. It’s meant to be tweaked, upgraded, changed. The U-Turn and the Rega can do that too to a much lesser extent, but they can’t touch a higher-end ’table for true obsessive tweakability.

However, if that doesn’t sound fun, and you just want something that will play records and play them darn well, then you can’t go wrong with either the Rega or the U-Turn. Both ’tables sound really good stock and both look really nice. You probably aren’t going to waste hours getting your azimuth absolutely perfect, and that could be a good thing. Less obsessing over every little detail and more listening to music.

Different strokes, different folks. You get a lot more if you’re willing to pay for it, but maybe you’re not willing, and that’s cool, too. In the end, listening to awesome music should be accessible, and I love that manufacturers are putting out affordable turntables. I have nothing but good things to say about all three of these decks, and any one of them would be a worthwhile purchase.

Specs & Pricing

U-Turn Orbit Special

Type: Belt-driven turntable
Speed: 33/45rpm
Wow and flutter: 0.125%
Signal-to-noise ratio: -79dBA
Rumble: -63dBA
Dimensions: 16.75″ x 4.25″ x 12.5″
Weight: 11.5 lbs.
Price: $459

Rega Planar 1 Plus

Type: Belt-driven turntable
Speed: 33/45rpm
Signal-to-noise ratio: -75dB A-weighted
Dimensions: 17.6″ x 4.6″ x 14.17″
Weight: 9.6 lbs.
Price: $595

Pro-Ject RPM 5 Carbon

Type: Belt-driven turntable
Speed: 33/45rpm
Wow and flutter: 33: +/- 0.17%, 45: +/- 0.08%
Signal-to-noise ratio: -73dB
Tonearm: 9″ CC Evo carbon
Downforce range: 0–2.5g
Effective tonearm length: 230mm
Effective tonearm mass: 8g
Dimensions: 16.92″ x 5.9″ x 12.71″
Weight: 17.6 lbs. 
Price: $1499

U-TURN AUDIO
11 Cranes Court
Woburn, MA 01801
uturnaudio.com

Rega Sound Organisation (U.S. Distributor)
1009 Oakmead Drive
Arlington TX 76011
(972) 234-0182
soundorg.com

Pro-Ject Sumiko (U.S. Distributor)
6655 Wedgwood Rd North, Ste 115
Maple Grove, MN 55311
(510) 843-4500
sumikoaudio.net

pro-jectusa.com
project-audio.com

By Drew Kalbach

I have a degree in English from Temple University and a Masters in Fine Arts with a specialty in poetry from the University of Notre Dame. I’m a full-time self-published author with over 100 books in both romance and men’s adventure fiction.

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