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BUSINESS

5 MIN

Young Bostonians Turn out a Great, Affordable Record Player

High school buddies founded U-Turn Audio to realize an analogue dream: assembling quality turntables in Woburn, Massachusetts

Eleven miles north of Boston, in the highway suburb of Woburn, Massachusetts, the modest headquarters of a small-scale manufacturing plant turns out a product the vinyl revival needs: high-grade turntables, made in the United States, sold at a fair price.

U-Turn’s goal is to bring quality turntables to the masses. The offer: simple-but-well-engineered, reliable, customizable record players costing hundreds of dollars less than the competition. Prices start at $179 (U.S. figures given), and reviews from the audiophile press have ranged from solid to outrightraves.

For the founding partners it all started with classic rock, and a shared fascination with vinyl records. “We were friends throughout high school and listened to vinyl starting our freshman year. I personally got into it because my mother had a lot of used records sitting up in her attic,” says Ben Carter. “I would listen to my mom’s Zeppelin and Beatles and stuff like that.”

The idea really came together in October 2011, after the founding friends reuinted. “We sort of went our separate ways during college,” remembers co-founder Ben Carter, who is was 23 at the time,  and, like his partners and many analogue audio enthusiasts, he’s too young to really remember vinyl’s first time around. Chief engineer Bob Hertig had been off studying mechanical engineering at Northeastern. Co-founder Pete Maltzan studied music at Berklee, while Carter was at Cornell majoring in philosophy.

“We were on these different trajectories and found ourselves living very close to each other in Brookline the year we were all graduating,” Carter says. “At the time, Bob, who had been building audio equipment as a hobby project for his whole life, was building a turntable. That really resonated with us because the strapped-for-cash college student doesn’t really have options for turntables. Vintage turntables are probably your best bet – but [that’s] like buying a used car; it takes a lot of effort and mental energy. Bob was building this turntable that was stripped-down, super-simple and just had the simple components. We decided it might be a good idea to commercialize this somehow.”

An affordable quality turntable made sense as a business proposition in Boston, with its countless thousands of broke students. The under-30 demographic are, somewhat counterintuitively, playing a key role in the vinyl revival trend that has seen LP sales rebound in recent years. And U-Turn’s mission proved just as appealing beyond city and state limits.

“We did research and development for a year and a half, and it quickly escalated from a DIY project to something that could turn into a company,” Carter says. Along the way Hertig was able to secure a prototype grant through a program at Northeastern University. “That $2,500 basically gave us what we needed to create this working turntable that Bob had designed, and it eventually became the prototype we used in our Kickstarter campaign. It started with that grant, and no money beyond that.”

Just steps away from actualizing their goals, the company and the turntable were still without a name. “We grabbed a case of beer and had a long brainstorming session,” Carter says. “We came up with a lot of awful names. Pete was silent the whole time but a couple of hours in just tossed out ‘U-Turn Audio.’ It immediately seemed to click with our vision and what we were doing. It wasn’t generic like so many other audio brands out there. The idea of a u-turn seemed like a fitting name, given the resurgence in the popularity of vinyl.

"Plus we were tired of thinking up names."

After setting up a Kickstarter campaign for what would be called the Orbit turntable, U-Turn’s founders soon discovered that there was a much greater demand for their product than they had imagined. “We thought we might sell 100 or 200 and we could build them in someone’s garage, but Kickstarter was pretty successful. We exceeded our funding target by four times. A month later we had a thousand turntables to build and the cash to do it – at least we thought we had the cash to do it.”“Plus we were tired of trying to think up names.”

With an original goal of $60,000, U-Turn raised $233,940 from 1,133 backers. The young partners had to deal with some early detours and speed bumps along the way. “We had to secure our supply chain and get custom parts made,” Carter says.

Courtesy U-Turn Audio

The options will leave your head spinning

“We had a few delays because none of us had a manufacturing background. We had zero references with our suppliers. We didn’t know who was trustworthy and who to work with. There were definitely some struggles,” he concedes. “We got stiffed by a couple suppliers early on who basically just stole our money. We had to wire a bunch of money to a person in China that we’d never met to get our circuit boards. It was kind of a struggle, but we managed to somehow get 1,000 turntables out in a four- to five-month period in a very light industrial space in Woburn. Then we opened up general sales to the public.  

Carter recalls the result as a victory. “It took us about nine months to ship the first turntables. They were a little late, but that’s par for the course on Kickstarter.”

U-Turn Audio has now sold more than 25,000 turntables. While Massachusetts remains the biggest most fertile market, the Orbit turntable is available in independent record shops and audio specialty stores across the United States and Canada. However, most sales remain online, where you can customize your order.

Orbit turntables start at $179 (with five colour choices). If you select all the priciest optional upgrades, your maximally tricked-out model will cost $488. That price includes an external preamp, a cue lever, a top-notch Grado Blue cartridge (“capable of extracting incredible musical detail from your records”) and a snazzy see-through acrylic platter.

“Our whole mission was about making great sound quality more attainable,” Carter says. “When we started in 2011, if you wanted a good turntable new, you basically had to shell out $450 and get a European turntable. The stuff coming from Asia was pretty lacklustre quality. At first we wanted to do it for $100, then $150 and today it’s $179, but we wanted to find out the minimum price you could charge for a turntable with great sound quality.”

If the first priority was sound quality, the second was simplicity. “The way the turntable looks is completely formed by functionality. The reason we use a belt-drive is because it decouples the rotor from the platter, which results in less noise getting transferred to the cartridge. That’s why it doesn’t have a lot of features that are on some of the Asian-made consumer-friendly turntables. It doesn’t have auto-return. It doesn’t have auto-stop. It doesn’t have pitch adjustment. These are features that we don’t need.

Courtesy U-Turn Audio

These people would like to make you a record player

“I’ve had these features on turntables and they tend to be things that break all the time. So we wanted to concentrate on the music making components that are reliable and will last 20 years.”

Carter says much of the engineering team’s efforts these days go into constant tweaking of the Orbit turntable. “This year, our R&D has really focused on improving the product instead of introducing new products. We’re tweaking the tone-arm to improve performance. We’re tweaking the motor system.”

That being said, U-Turn Audio has introduced a second core product – a phono preamp (if you don’t know what that is, it probably means you need one) – with more offerings planned for down the road.

“Our mission is bigger than any specific product. It’s really to make a high-quality audio experience more accessible and affordable,” Carter says. “That’s not specific to vinyl.”

For orders and information (ships to U.S. and Canada): www.uturnaudio.com 

Published Wednesday, October 12th 2016

Header image credit: Courtesy U-Turn Audio

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