This is my third review of a U-Turn Audio Orbit turntable. The first was in 2014, when I reviewed one of their early offerings, the budget-priced Orbit Plus. I reviewed the second in 2021, when I had the chance to audition their then-newest product, the mid-priced Orbit Special, which included a built-in phono preamplifier. I thought both were quite good, and they were both fine values at their respective prices.
As I noted in 2014, U-Turn is the brainchild of three friends—Ben Carter, Bob Hertig, and Peter Maltzan—who all found the turntables they could afford weren’t very good, while the ones they wanted were priced too high. As Carter told me, engineer Hertig designed the company’s initial turntable and its arm (a significant undertaking), and the trio funded the project via Kickstarter. Their goal was $60,000, but they raised nearly $234,000 and began shipping products in September 2013. The name U-Turn Audio was something Peter came up with after Bob and Ben had argued over potential names for several hours—this according to Ben. The moniker Orbit was inspired by the pulley/belt arrangement’s resemblance to a small celestial body orbiting a larger planet—the platter.
To celebrate the company’s tenth anniversary, U-Turn created a new turntable that builds on the Orbit Plus and Special but takes their qualities to new levels. This new model, the Orbit Theory ($999 in USD without an integral phono stage, or $1069 with the U-Turn Pluto 2 phono stage), was introduced in September 2022. According to Carter, the Theory started as an experimental platform to develop and test new turntable technologies such as tonearms, motors, and so on. Over time, he said, the different components came together in a more singular design, and thus, the Theory came into being.
The Theory’s look isn’t much different from that of the Orbit Special. The review sample had a very attractive, solid walnut plinth; the Theory is also available in an equally fine-looking ebonized oak finish. The dust cover is clear, heavy plastic that fits neatly into plastic hinges. The only controls are the Off/33/45 knob at the lower left and the arm lift near the base of the arm assembly. The arm lift is silicone damped, which ensures that the stylus lowers onto the record gently. There is a clip to hold the arm in place, but it doesn’t have a lock grip, so be aware.
One important new feature is the drive system. Changing speeds on either the Plus or the Special requires the user to move the low-tension drive belt from one pulley slot to another, but the belt easily slips off the platter. Not so on the Theory. Instead, there’s a speed knob to change from 33 to 45 rpm and back. U-Turn also put a groove in the heavy acrylic platter to hold the belt in place. In all, it’s a far easier way to change speeds. The aluminum spindle is mounted atop a stainless-steel shaft, which sits on a set of self-lubricating polymer bearings. The AC-powered motor contributes minimal noise and is guided by a more advanced controller to deliver more accurate rotation and minimal vibration.
In addition, the Theory’s new OA3 arm is a real step forward from the basic arm on the Plus and the somewhat more sophisticated arm on the Special. It should be, as U-Turn spent more than three years working on its design. The new design is made of molded magnesium, which has two important qualities: it is light (low mass) and combines incredible strength with low resonance. And U-Turn has equipped this new one-piece arm with an integral headshell and the excellent Ortofon 2M Blue cartridge; purchased separately, the Blue is around $240. U-Turn will install the next cartridge up in the 2M family, the Bronze, for an extra $180.
On the rear panel are the usual RCA jacks for the output (the Theory is supplied with some adequate-but-not-exceptional interconnects; there’s no earth/ground wire as that’s handled by the shielding on the left-channel output). Plus there’s a Power In connector for the outboard, wall-mounted power supply. If your Theory is equipped with the integrated phono preamp, there’s a pushbutton switch and an LED on the back. If the LED is lit when power is applied to the turntable, it signals that the inboard phono stage is engaged. Turn off the phono stage and the LED goes out.
The Theory is roughly 16 5/8″W × 12 1/2″D × 4 1/4″H and weighs about 12 pounds. The turntable is packaged beautifully, with smaller parts—counterweight, power supply, setup guide, and so on—all nicely arrayed in a cushioned box that fits snugly into the inverted dust cover. Remove that and the dust cover and the turntable lift out of the box easily. This is about the best turntable packaging I’ve run across. As Ben Carter told me, “In ten years and more than 100,000 turntables shipped, we’ve learned a lot about how to protect them in transit.” The Orbit Theory is also covered by a three-year limited warranty.
Setup was quite easy. As I stated, it’s a breeze to remove the turntable and its parts from the shipping box. Once you’ve lifted out the turntable, the setup guide instructs you to remove the spindle’s foam block and the foam ring that holds the arm in place during shipping. You can then untie the twist tie that keeps the arm secured.
Lower the platter over the spindle, then follow U-Turn’s advice for looping the belt: “wrap the round, thin, silicone belt around the pulley spindle first with one hand, then use the other hand to guide the belt into the groove on the platter.” For me, this maneuver required only two tries—better than the several attempts it took me with the Orbit Plus and Special.
Once you’ve completed that step, place the included bubble level on the plinth to see if the turntable is level (the bubble should be within the bounds of the circle in the center). The turntable’s three elastomer feet can be raised or lowered, so it’s an easy operation to make it level.
Now for the slightly tricky part. Install the counterweight at the back of the arm. Remove the stylus guard from the cartridge or the arm’s balance will be incorrect. Make certain the cue/arm-lift lever is lowered and move the anti-skate weight on the inside of the arm pivot to its “up” position. Balance the arm by rotating the counterweight back or forth to make sure the center line of the arm is parallel to the plinth surface.
Once that’s accomplished, place the tonearm in its resting position. Hold the counterweight so it doesn’t move and turn only the dial on the front of the counterweight to “0.” Next, turn the counterweight and dial together until the desired tracking force value is aligned with the indicator line just in front of the counterweight. For the 2M Blue cartridge, the tracking force should be 1.75 grams (17.5mN).
Now engage the anti-skate by moving the anti-skate weight from the Off position (up) to the On setting (down). The weight fits into one of three positions on the anti-skate rod; for the 2M Blue, the weight should be on the middle (Medium) setting, which is how it was set when the review sample arrived from U-Turn.
Finally, attend to the details. Mount the dust cover on its hinges. Connect the turntable to your integrated amplifier or receiver or preamplifier and set the internal phono preamp switch to its proper position. If your amp has its own phono stage, make sure the LED is not lit; conversely, if your amp doesn’t have a phono preamp, check to see that the LED is lit. Connect the power supply, first to the turntable and then to the mains. The power supply is designed for use only with US-style AC outlets.
Operation and performance checks
As noted above, the Theory has only two operating controls: the Off/33/45 knob and the arm-lift lever. To operate it, place a record on the platter, select the proper speed, raise the arm, put it over the lead-in groove, and lower the arm to the record. The Theory is a manual turntable, so at the end of the side, you must raise the arm and return it to its rest position, stop the motor, and remove the disc.
The stated specifications for the Theory are good for a turntable at this price point. Speed is said to be ±0.5% at 33 1/3 or 45. Wow and flutter are <0.1%—a fine specified level. The signal-to-noise ratio is a good -79dBA and rumble is a low -72dBA. Rotational speed and wow figures as recorded by the RPM app on my smartphone were quite close to spec and as good as I’ve observed. At 33 1/3, the Theory’s actual speed was 33.37 rpm, only 0.12% fast, and wow was good at ±0.16%. Stats at 45 rpm were equally acceptable: 0.13% fast at an average of 45.06 rpm, while the wow here was only ±0.12%.
I used the Theory with my APT Holman preamp with integral phono stage unless otherwise noted below.
I use classical symphonies in reviews because they cover a greater frequency range than most other music. My choice this time was Saint-Saëns’s Symphony No. 3, “Organ,” performed by Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra with Michael Murray as organist (Telarc 10051). The work is unusual in that it consists of only two movements (a typical symphony has four), but each is divided into at least two sections. The last half of the second movement is titled Allegro; molto allegro, which translates as “fast and lively; very fast and lively.” Playback was excellent over the Theory. The organ forcefully dominated the ending. The strings were silken when called for but had bite when needed. The brass instruments were strong. Attacks and releases throughout were crisp. The percussion also really stood out, with drum rolls that could shake one’s chest. Most of the orchestra was situated on the right side of the soundstage, the result of an odd arrangement of instruments due to the recording venue, a Philadelphia church. One thing I particularly noticed was that the 2M Blue minimized surface noise and the couple of pops in the groove. The Theory gave me one of the best performances of this piece I’ve ever heard.
One of my favorite vocal groups is Manhattan Transfer, and one of their best tunes is “Birdland,” from The Best of Manhattan Transfer (Atlantic SD 19319). The Theory reproduced this exceedingly well, with a broad and very deep soundstage, pinpoint placement of the singers, and once again, very sharp attacks and releases. It also brought out a detail I don’t remember hearing before: the constant tapping of a drum stick on the snare drum’s metal hoop. It was on the right, between the lead singer and the synthesizer—not very loud but very insistent. This record has a couple scratches the 2M Blue couldn’t mask, but they weren’t too offensive. In all, a stellar job.
By this point, I was rather fond of the Theory but wondered what some rock’n’roll would sound like. I chose “Roundabout” by Yes from their Fragile album (Atlantic SD 7211), a recording where the synthesizer parts swirl across the soundstage. The standard instruments—acoustic and electric guitars, bass, drums, and percussion—were very much anchored. The acoustic guitar was on the right; the at-times blazing electric guitar was well to the left. The vocalists sounded as if they were gathered around a central microphone with the drums and bass behind. I discovered details I didn’t remember—a cowbell on the right and a drumstick tapping the rim of the snare on the left. The Theory/2M Blue, so refined on classical and jazz, stepped up and rocked! The sound of the lead guitar was quite detailed, as were the synth sounds, which never stayed in one place for very long. The Theory turned out to be quite versatile.
According to Wikipedia, the recurring guitar riff in the Eagles’ “Life in the Fast Lane” was the genesis of the song. In rehearsal one day, guitarist Joe Walsh let rip with the phrase and the song grew from it. My copy is on the soundtrack of the 1978 movie FM (MCA MCA2-12000). The movie, as I’ve mentioned before, is some screenwriter’s imaginary take on what it’s like to be an album rock radio DJ—all groupies and drugs, and playing whatever music you want.
That riff was out front with the Theory/2M Blue, but other instruments took over the front position as they take the lead on the album. Don Henley’s drums were a constant, placed just behind the lead player. Other less important riffs appeared to the left and right of center. The Theory produced an enveloping soundstage with incredible depth. My copy of the record is warped, but the Blue tracked it like a champ. Just outstanding!
When I wanted something gentler but with forward motion, I chose “Last Train Home” by the Pat Metheny Group, from their Still Life (Talking) album (Geffen GHS 24145). There’s a consistent, insistent snare/brushes pattern that imitates the sound of a steam engine moving at a rapid clip throughout. Interestingly, it starts in the left channel and gradually pans across the soundstage into the right channel—a nice touch. Metheny’s “guitar synthesizer” is set up to sound like a sitar in the center, an acoustic piano plays mostly complementary chords on the left, and the bass digs in very deeply on the right. Synthesized strings drape the back of the stage, just behind the three voices that sing mere syllables in part of the piece.
This really sounded quite fine through the Theory. The rapid bass notes, aside from being down at the end of the fretboard, are very staccato and were well reproduced. It was an enveloping sound from the start, and I thought the Theory performed well with it due to the precision of the instruments’ placements on the soundstage and the driving quality of the bass reproduction.
Orbit Theory inboard phono preamp vs. APT Holman preamp
For this comparison, I played “But Not for Me,” a Gershwin tune performed by the Roy Meriwether Trio, from their album The Stone Truth: The Live Sounds of the Roy Meriwether Trio (Columbia CS 9384). I started with the Theory playing through its inboard phono stage and I was most impressed. It handled Meriwether’s staccato playing style on this tune with outstanding attacks and releases, and when he transitioned to rolling bass glissandos (slides or glides from one note to another, usually spanning more than one octave), the Theory produced fine, full-bodied sound.
Then I reconnected the turntable to the phono input of the APT Holman and boy, was I surprised! The Theory’s inboard stage’s performance outshone the APT’s! The APT’s soundstage was slightly narrower; the piano sounded more distant and less powerful. This was not what I expected, but kudos to U-Turn: their Pluto 2 phono preamp is a definite winner and the best inboard phono stage I’ve heard so far.
Orbit Theory/Ortofon 2M Blue vs. Dual CS 622/Audio-Technica AT440ML
The piece I chose for this face-off was “Fantasy” by Earth, Wind & Fire, from The Best of Earth, Wind & Fire (ARC / Columbia FC 35647). I started with the Theory and was very satisfied with the outcome. The percussion had prodigious slam, as it should. The voices occupied the center of the soundstage with horns, strings, and guitar spread out behind them.
Moving the LP over to my vintage Dual CS 622 (a turntable that hasn’t been available for decades), I was surprised that there was immediately a greater fullness to the sound—and possibly that it seemed mellower—but with no less slam, and on this recording, there was a real punch to the percussion and drum attacks. The strings stood out slightly more. Methinks the Audio-Technica AT440ML might be a better, fuller-sounding cartridge than the Ortofon 2M Blue.
These were two different cartridges with two different philosophies at work. Both were terrific.
There are any number of fine turntables in the $800-to-$1200 price range. It’s been my good fortune to review several of them, including the Pro-Ject X1, the Thorens TD 402 DD and TD 102 A, and the Dual CS 429 and CS 518. At this price, the buyer should expect a lot: good speed control, low wow and flutter, a fine arm and cartridge combination, and above all, great sound.
The U-Turn Orbit Theory may be the best of the bunch overall. It’s easy to set up and easy to use. It also has an outstanding inboard phono preamp and the requisite exceptional speed control and wow-and-flutter results. It simply sounds terrific. If you buy this U-turn, you won’t have to make any down the road (sorry, I couldn’t resist that joke). They offer a 30-day (after delivery) trial period, but I seriously doubt you’d ever send it back.
. . . Thom Moon
- Speakers: Acoustic Energy Radiance 3, Advent ASW-1200 subwoofer.
- Amplifier: NAD C 275BEE.
- Preamplifier: APT Holman.
- Analog source: Dual CS 622 turntable with Audio-Technica AT440ML cartridge.
- Analog Interconnects: Manufacturer supplied on Orbit Theory, captive on Dual CS 622, Wireworld Luna 8 (preamp to amp).
- Speaker cables: Acoustic Research 14-gauge terminated in banana plugs.
U-Turn Audio Orbit Theory Turntable with Ortofon 2M Blue Cartridge
Price: $999, or $1069 with the Pluto 2 phono stage.
Warranty: Three-year limited warranty; 30-day (after delivery) home trial.
11 Cranes Ct.
Woburn, MA 01801
Phone: (781) 451-1445