In this month’s photos of the system I wrote about last month in “A Feature-Rich, Fully Modern Hi-Fi System You Can Begin, Live, and Grow With -- for $926.95,” keen-eyed readers will notice two additions: a turntable, and footers for the speakers. The turntable shouldn’t be a surprise -- I mentioned last month that I was thinking about adding one -- but as you’ll read below, for this system update the turntable and footers go hand in hand.
Picking a turntable
I wrote last month that I’d budgeted $300 USD for everything to do with playing vinyl -- the turntable, tonearm, and cartridge, and phono cables to hook it up to the moving-magnet phono stage of NAD’s D 3020 V2 integrated amplifier ($399). It didn’t take me long to find U-Turn Audio’s Orbit Plus, which costs $289, including all of the above and a dustcover. (A phono stage can be added to the Orbit Plus for $70, but I didn’t need it.) And the Orbit Plus comes factory-direct with a 30-day return guarantee and a two-year warranty.
I could’ve gone cheaper -- U-Turn offers the Orbit Basic, for $179 -- but I liked the Plus’s better features, and especially its acrylic platter (the Basic’s platter is MDF). U-Turn also offers the Orbit Special, with a plinth of solid hardwood and other improvements -- but at $459, it would have far exceeded my budget.
U-Turn Audio was founded in 2012 through a successful Kickstarter campaign, but I didn’t hear about them until September 2014, when Thom Moon reviewed the Orbit Plus on our SoundStage! Access site. “U-Turn Audio’s Orbit Plus is a fabulous effort for a new start-up,” Thom wrote, “and worthy of consideration by anyone who wants a good, very basic, but very capable turntable for getting back into vinyl or for trying it for the first time.” And U-Turn makes its turntables in Woburn, Massachusetts. Surprised they can offer so much for so little without having it made in Asia? You might be more surprised when you see an Orbit Plus in real life.
When Thom Moon reviewed the Orbit Plus package, the MM cartridge included was a Grado Labs Black1; these days, it comes with an Ortofon OM5E. Other than that, the turntable and tonearm of my review sample seemed identical to what he reviewed, right down to the blue plinth (it can also be ordered in white, red, green, or black).
Setting up the Orbit Plus took me five minutes. Tonearm and cartridge are factory-installed and configured, so few adjustments were needed. Minor assembly is required: placing the platter on the spindle, looping the drive belt around the platter and one of the motor’s two pulleys (a small one for 331⁄3rpm, a larger one for 45rpm), and plugging in the wall-wart power supply.
That done, my seven-year-old son blurted out, “That’s like the ancient music-making machine my teacher showed us in school.”
“Indeed!” I replied. “And maybe sometime soon I’ll show you how to make fire with two sticks.” He seemed really intrigued by that.
I encountered one slight problem that had nothing to do with the Orbit Plus itself. In the setup instructions, U-Turn warns: “Do not put your turntable on the same surface as your speakers.” In an ideal world, I wouldn’t, and no one should. Speakers can vibrate a lot, and those resonances can negatively affect the turntable, which is why most people place the turntable on a different shelf or use a dedicated turntable stand. But in my room, setting the record player on the same shelf as and between the speakers was the most aesthetically pleasing solution. But it called for a little experimentation . . .
The necessary footers
A few days before the Orbit Plus landed here, six Orea Indigo footers from IsoAcoustics arrived, each in its own box. The Orea Indigo’s fairly high price of $59.99 each is matched by its build quality. Each Orea Indigo comprises a couple of layers of a soft, rubbery material surrounded by a stainless-steel collar. They feel a little different from most footers -- you can squish them up and down a bit, and jiggle them from side to side. There’s a bigger, more expensive version for heavier components, the Orea Bordeaux ($79.99/each), but I felt the Orea Indigos were sufficient for my needs.
These footers, like all products from this Canadian company, have been designed to tame vibrations. They can be placed under electronics -- CD players, DACs, amplifiers, etc. -- as well as under turntables and speakers. I put three under each of my budget system’s Paradigm Monitor SE Atom speakers: one near each speaker’s front left and right corners, and along the rear edge, dead center. I didn’t put footers under the turntable because, rather than leave the shelf to vibrate and then try to keep those vibrations from entering the turntable, I wanted to stop the shelf itself from vibrating. This turned out to be the right move -- and not only for the turntable.
The first tune I played with the footers in place was the title track of Sade’s Soldier of Love, a bass-heavy recording that I’ve often played on this system. Two things took me aback: First, I could no longer feel any vibration at all on the shelf. Gone. Poof. Like magic. The other was that the bass was much tighter -- this not only made the low-end reproduction cleaner and more rhythmic sounding, it also made the midrange a little clearer, and therefore easier to hear. I then removed the footers and played the same music. Then I restored the footers and played the same music again. The results were always impressive. I attribute most of the problems in the sound without the IsoAcoustics footers -- slightly woolly bass that bordered on the overblown -- to the vibrations from the speakers essentially turning the shelf into a soundboard, like the top of a guitar, that produced its own sound. Suffice it to say that three Orea Indigos under each speaker worked perfectly, and would have been a great upgrade even if I wasn’t adding a turntable.
But I now had another problem, one that had nothing to do with sound: Each $149 Monitor SE Atom speaker was now standing on $179.97 worth of Orea Indigo footers. I don’t think the Orea Indigo is overpriced, but it was disproportionately priced for these budget speakers and this budget system. Does it make any sense to use footers that cost more than the speakers, even if they help as much as they do? I suppose some might think so -- I’ve seen some audiophiles use power cords and interconnects that are more expensive than the components they’re connecting -- but I had a problem with it. After all, I was not considering adding to my budget $359.94 for six Orea Indigos -- an amount that would let me get much better speakers. I plan to hit up the company for samples of isolation products better suited to a system of this price.
Sounds, analog and digital
Because the first iteration of this system focused on digital playback, primarily through the use of the NAD D 3020 V2’s built-in DAC and the Chromecast Audio device I added, I already had the ability to play music files from my own hard drive or from streaming services such as Tidal. With vinyl playback now added, I was eager to compare the sounds of digital and analog through this system. Mind you, this comparison wasn’t a definitive test of which sounds better, vinyl or digital. It was only to get a feel for the sound quality I could achieve with the inexpensive Orbit Plus vs. an inexpensive digital source -- the built-in DAC of the NAD D 3020 V2. The LPs were from my own collection; their digital counterparts were streamed from Tidal as 16-bit/44.1kHz FLAC files.
The first LP I played was a Canadian pressing of Fleetwood Mac’s 1977 masterpiece, Rumours, which I’ve owned and taken good care of for over 30 years -- it’s still in good shape. Using the D 3020 V2’s remote control, it was easy to toggle between the analog input accepting the U-Turn turntable’s signal and the optical digital input that the Chromecast Audio device was plugged into.
I expected to like the Tidal version more -- to some extent because it’s a recent remastering, but also because I tend to prefer the sound of well-produced digital over well-produced vinyl. This is partly because of vinyl’s surface noise and ticks and pops, but mostly because of digital’s greater clarity and wider dynamic range. I clearly preferred Tidal with “Don’t Stop” and “Go Your Own Way,” which are ballsier, more dynamic-sounding tracks. But while the digital versions offered more prominent highs, deeper bass, and increased dynamics, the highs were sometimes a bit too prominent, the midrange not quite as pure as from vinyl. With most tracks -- including “Second Hand News,” “Dreams,” “Never Going Back Again,” and “Songbird” -- I slightly preferred the Orbit Plus’s playback of the LP.
Next I played a Japanese “audiophile” pressing of the Police’s Outlandos d’Amour (1978). This comparison was a study in contrasts: my vinyl copy sounds so different from what I heard from Tidal. Obviously, the two versions came from very different-sounding masters.
My LP was free of obnoxious surface noise, with reasonable clarity throughout the audioband and decent bass, but its highs sounded badly rolled off and its dynamics limited. I don’t blame these problems on the Orbit Plus -- I remember this LP sounding like this when I bought it in 1982, and a quick search on the Internet brought up many instances of people describing the sound of their own LPs of Outlandos d’Amour sounding “dull” and “lifeless.”
From what I learned, primarily from Discogs.com, Outlandos d’Amour was remastered in 2003, and may have been re-remastered once or more after that. I’m confident that it’s one of those remasterings that Tidal streams, because their stream sounded much brighter in the highs than my 36-year-old LP -- maybe 6 or 8dB of lift, which is a lot -- with more energy in the drums and in Sting’s voice. The Tidal stream also had much wider dynamic range, and sounded so much louder than the vinyl that, every time I switched the input, I had to drastically adjust the volume to match the levels. Night and day.
Overall, the I preferred the Tidal stream’s livelier highs and improved dynamics, but ultimately I wasn’t satisfied with either format. My LP definitely sounds too subdued, whereas the Tidal stream sometimes made Sting’s voice sound too forward, and Stewart Copeland’s cymbals brash. It was as if whoever remastered it wanted to make up for past mistakes but went too far. The takeaway: When you hear differences like the ones I’ve described, don’t declare that digital is automatically better than vinyl or that vinyl is better than digital. Remasterings can sound very different from each other, and from the original mastering, regardless of the format they’re played on.
The most surprising and telling comparison was with Bruce Springsteen’s Tunnel of Love (1987). Unlike with the Police’s Outlandos d’Amour, where the digital playback sounded markedly different from vinyl, or even Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours, where it sounded a bit different, my LP and Tidal’s stream of Tunnel of Love sounded almost identical, and played back at the same volume level -- the only hint that I was listening to vinyl was a bit of surface noise and the occasional tick or pop. My gut feeling is that the digital and analog masters Tidal is using and what my LP was cut from were created at the same time and voiced to sound similar.
But sounding similar or even almost the same doesn’t mean they sounded identical. Track after track, a few things kept popping up that had me preferring the vinyl to streamed digital 100% of the time. On the LP, Springsteen’s voice sounded slightly smoother and more natural; there was a consistently greater sense of air around the musicians; and the overall spaciousness, in depth and width, was better. In contrast, Springsteen’s voice in the Tidal stream sounded slightly dry, and the comparative lack of air and space made it sound a little closed in. The only thing I preferred about the digital version was its lack of surface noise.
This preference for vinyl surprised me. When this recording was released, a big deal was made of its being recorded and mixed digitally. This was at a time when the Compact Disc was gaining momentum and sales of vinyl had begun to decline. You’d think, then, that the digital version would trounce the vinyl. But that’s not always so.
What was telling about this Springsteen comparison was that the close similarity of the two formats’ sounds gave me a good frame of reference. I could tell that the sound quality of the U-Turn Orbit Plus was on a par with that of the NAD D 3020 V2’s built-in DAC -- and NAD has long had a good reputation for the quality of their DACs and disc players. I therefore find U-Turn Audio’s Orbit Plus easy to recommend to anyone who wants to get into vinyl playback for a very reasonable price -- just as Thom Moon did. And I’m beginning to wonder how much better their Orbit Special might be . . .
More steps . . .
Adding a turntable was the second step in building this affordable system. I can now see many more steps ahead, which makes me happy -- building this cost-effective system has turned out to be as fun and exciting as building a system costing many times more.
One of the next things is to find footers that deliver audible results close to that of the IsoAcoustics Orea Indigos, but at a cost more in line with the rest of the system. Another thing is to try some different speakers. I’ve already got two pairs coming, which I intend to set up on the shelf just as I have the Paradigms. I might also try another record player, this time one costing $500 and $600. Finally, the NAD D 3020 V2 integrated amp is really good for $399, but its output of 30Wpc into 8 ohms has meant that I’ve sometimes run out of power with the Paradigms -- and with speakers any less sensitive, I’m likely to run out of power more often than I’d like. So I plan to swap out the NAD as well. I want something that has not only more power, but also an excellent DAC and phono stage, so I can continue to use it for both vinyl and digital playback.
There’s lots more to do -- look for further write-ups in this space in the many months to come.
. . . Doug Schneider