Sometimes an image just doesn’t do justice to a subject. Although the Transrotor Orion Reference FMD is extremely camera-friendly, an actual look at this turntable will reveal more elegance and beauty than any photo can.
The first thing that will strike you is the way light reacts with the polished clear acrylic and mirror-finished, hand-polished aluminum used in the external construction of the $30,000 Transrotor, creating a visual delight of reflected colors near and around the ’table. The second thing you’ll notice is the true three-dimensional footprint of the German-built Orion Reference FMD. Most turntables (some impressively so) have a wide footprint to accommodate the platter, motor, and tonearm mount. However, height is typically between 20 and 40 percent of the length or depth of the ’table—and not much of a standout feature. With a 52cm length, a 52cm depth, and a 34cm height, the Transrotor Orion FMD’s height is nearly 60 percent of its footprint. I’ve seen other ’tables with decent three-dimensional proportions, but none with the visual appeal or the massive vertical look of the Orion Reference FMD’s drive system and platter.
As the old saying goes, “Beauty is sometimes only skin deep.” With the Orion Reference FMD, however, beauty extends to the engineering of the drive system. As I will describe below, the Orion Reference is a bottom-up design. This three-motor, fully isolated, dual-bearing ’table—called Free Magnetic Drive (FMD)—powered by a Transrotor Konstant KM-3 motor controller, is more than the analog equivalent of a “trophy wife.”
Usually the motor (or motors) of most belt-drive ’tables are either housed in external pods or tucked into the ’table’s chassis, with an exposed pulley for the drive belt. The Orion Reference FMD takes a different path, locating three motors in a circular housing made of aluminum that, when completely assembled, is approximately the height of the 80mm platter that hovers beside it. The motors are encased in this aluminum housing, sectioned 33.3 degrees apart. Each motor has three grooved pulleys for the belts. Machined into the center of this same circular aluminum motor chassis is the housing for (what U.S. distributor, Arturo Manzano of Axiss Audio, calls) the Inverted Hydro Dynamic oil-fed bearing. The bearing housing has a reservoir for the bearing oil that is supplied in a measured syringe. Once filled with oil, the upper portion of the bearing is set in place. Operationally, when the drive is in motion, oil is pumped and circulated around the bearing to keep the whole assembly lubricated. At the top of the bearing is a three-grooved pulley. The drive belt for each motor is set in this grooved pulley and in the matching grooves of the bearing pulleys. Once all three belts are installed, each motor has a belt-connection between itself and the corresponding bearing-pulley groove. A machined aluminum flywheel cover/cap is installed over the entire bearing, completing the lower part of the FMD module. This flywheel cover/cap, which rotates with the bearing, contains ten very strong neodymium magnets in a circular arrangement near the center of the top cover. This full assembly forms the foundational heart of the drive system and never touches the rest of the ’table.
Supported by three pillared aluminum towers, a 50mm-thick, concave-edged, triangular acrylic baseplate sits above the lower portion of the FMD drive. The outer housing of a second Inverted Hydro Dynamic oil-fed bearing is located in the center of this acrylic baseplate. This bearing is also equipped with ten neodymium magnets that line up directly above the lower FMD module when assembled. These two magnetically coupled bearings are vertically aligned and adjusted to have a 3mm air gap, where there is no physical contact between them. The embedded magnets have stainless steel caps (above the lower bearing and below the upper) to help focus the magnetic field and provide shielding at the same time.
An 80mm aluminum platter, with grooved rings machined into the top and bottom, sits atop the bearing. In a recessed area of the platter, a 10mm acrylic mat cushions the record while it is playing. Connected to the three pillared aluminum support towers, above the triangular acrylic base are two C-shaped clear acrylic baseplates separated by approximately 1.2″. The top C-shaped baseplate has provisions for up to two tonearm mounts.
The Transrotor Orion Reference FMD provided for review was mated with the Transrotor TR 5009 tonearm. The TR 5009 is specially sourced from longtime tonearm maker SME. Although the external look of the TR 5009 bears some resemblance to the SME 309, the precision bearings and internal wiring have more in common with the SME Series V family, according to Transrotor’s Dirk Räke. If for some reason a different ’arm is desired, Transrotor can fit the Orion Reference FMD with any tonearm because the C-shape ’arm mount can be drilled and/or extended to accommodate any ’arm (even a 12″ one).
Although the above description might make the assembly of the ’table seem complicated, that wasn’t the case. The Orion Reference FMD arrived in two large, well-packed, triple-walled boxes. One box contained the three-tiered (triangular and C-shaped) acrylic bases with pillars attached. The other box contained all of the bearing, motor, and controller items. Putting the ’table together was pretty straightforward.
The first cartridge I mounted on the Transrotor Orion Reference FMD was the Lyra Skala, a familiar pickup that enabled me to quickly assess the initial performance of the turntable. Additionally, using the Skala allowed me to judge break-in, after the TR 5009’s tonearm cables and wiring had accumulated some hours of use. (The tonearm cables took about three weeks to settle down.) Upon initial installation, the sound was very good, but appeared to be somewhat constrained dynamically and a bit fuzzy, although not hard or etched, especially in the higher frequencies. After an intense three-week period of about 60 hours of playing time, the sound completely shook off all these constrained and fuzzy characteristics, giving way to the level of clarity one would expect from a ’table of this magnitude.
Once everything settled in, the Orion Reference FMD began to show its full capabilities. With the Skala installed, Pink Floyd’s The Wall sounded viscerally engaging. The sheer weight of the bass line produced by the dynamic drive of this album on “The Happiest Days of our Lives” and “Another Brick in The Wall” brought that sense of energy and flow that makes this LP special. In my system, this driving force nearly compelled me to increase the volume to levels at which hearing damage, amplifier clipping, or driver displacement occurs. Thankfully, I was able to summon enough restraint to stay away from all of those problems, yet still bring the volume up to respectably louder levels during playback. When I listened to “I Don’t Stand a Ghost Of a Chance” from the wonderful Linda Ronstadt/Nelson Riddle Orchestra album What’s New, the dynamic strength of Rondstadt’s vocals (and Bob Copper’s lovely-sounding tenor saxophone) were captured beautifully, while the sumptuous flow of the orchestra was ever-present in the background. (As an aside, What’s New is a forgotten treasure of an album that is easily obtainable on the used record market and should be a part of every LP collection.)
Later, I played The Great Jazz Trio’s “A Night in Tunisia” off the Direct From L.A. album—an East Wind-produced, Nautilus-distributed LP that is sonically excellent, featuring a wonderful trio of players. Listening to this track, I felt the pace and weight of the music delivered in a powerful but slightly rounded way—a sonic characteristic of the Skala. However, when the bass solo started, it was big and full, followed by a drum solo that literally shook my floor. You can’t get that level of slam if the ’table isn’t a low-noise, speed-stable platform. The Orion Reference FMD was more than capable of delivering the aural traits of the cartridge installed at the time.
Switching to the outstanding Air Tight PC-1 Supreme cartridge revealed a different flavor with less dynamic weight and flow in the power region but greater resolution of inner detail, and quicker transient starts and stops. Playing the same tracks from Pink Floyd’s The Wall produced a higher level of clarity in the guitar interplay within the mix. With the PC-1 Supreme installed, every instrument, including vocals, gained much better separation. Roger Waters’ overdubs of his own lead were readily audible, as were other small details in the mix. Even though the synth and bass lost some punch and drive, the picture was clearer for sure. Playing “I Don’t Stand a Ghost of a Chance” from What’s New showed similar contrasts. Linda Ronstadt’s vocals, seeming to emerge more clearly from her mouth and throat, had much more delicate vibrato. The backing orchestra went from sounding like a holistic group to sounding like individual instruments that were easily distinguishable from each other within the ensemble. Bob Copper’s tenor sax had more of a reedy sound, and was projected as if it were being played in a larger space than what I’d previously heard. Moving to “A Night in Tunisia,” the tempo of the music sounded a bit quicker because of the increased resolution and faster transient response of the PC-1 Supreme. In isolation, the stick work of Tony Williams’ drumming was much more easily followed throughout the entire performance. When the bass solo came in, the fingering of the strings sounded more agile and persuasively realistic. While the drum solo wasn’t quite as stunning in weight and fullness, it still carried a hefty dynamic punch with greater resolution. Paired with the Orion Reference FMD, this combination was highly enjoyable.
Combining the Transrotor Orion Reference FMD with each of the two cartridges above provided an interesting contrast between the Skala and PC-1 Supreme. On one hand, the Skala plays to its strengths of generating raw musical flow, evoking a visceral emotional reaction to music in the process. On the other hand, the PC-1 Supreme traces better and resolves much more of the inner detail embedded in the LP, while providing a particularly enticing cerebral musical experience.
Although not specifically part of the Orion Reference FMD review, I will mention that I conduct fairly lengthy cartridge exercises several times a year. In addition to the two cartridges mentioned in this ’table review, the Clearaudio Goldfinger Statement, the van den Hul Colibri, and the Jan Allaerts MC1 Boron MKII were also a part of this particularly long test process. I mention this because the entire exercise took place over a fourteen-hour period that included extensive set-up procedures performed on each device, followed by non-stop listening to several different albums. This type of cartridge characterization cannot be thoroughly achieved without a solid foundation on which to do the work. With the Transrotor Orion Reference FMD in place, I completed the exercise without any listening fatigue during the entire duration of this fourteen-hour marathon.
After all the time I spent installing five different cartridges and logging a couple hundred hours of listening, what performance characteristics and features have I observed? The first thing is the Orion Reference FMD’s isolation provides a very quiet, low-noise platform for vinyl playback. I could not detect the noise floor of the ’table no matter how loud the volume was turned up. This feature is what makes the cost of ’tables near and above this price point justifiable to those who are willing and able to invest the kind of money this analog platform demands. The other item of note is the choice of cartridge will be a larger contributor to the final performance of the entire system. Now, many are thinking this would be true for any ’table, and that is a valid point. However, the ability to extract as much from a cartridge as possible—without contaminating (in one way or another) the results—is a large part of a ’table’s job. The Orion Reference FMD does this admirably. Add an outer ring clamp like the optional Transrotor Rotor Ring (be sure to use the center weight when doing so) for those less-than-flat records, choose your cartridge (and tonearm) carefully, and you may never have to think about the hardware in your analog front-end again. You will have a very quiet ’table that is visually and sonically reference quality.
SPECS & PRICING
Type: Belt-driven turntable
Dimensions: 52cm x 30cm x 52cm
Weight: 40 kg (88.2 lbs.)
Price: $30,000 without tonearm
By Andre Jennings
My professional career has spanned 30+ years in electronics engineering. Some of the interesting products I’ve been involved with include Cellular Digital Packet Data modems, automotive ignition-interlock systems, military force protection/communications systems, and thrust-vector controls for space launch vehicles.More articles from this editor
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