R.O.C.K. in the USA: Finding an all-American Record Player in the U-Turn Orbit

Can you believe that I actually have this as a 45?

Can you believe that I actually have this as a 45?

I heard this song by John Mellencamp in the car this morning: R.O.C.K. in the USA. It got me thinking: is it still possible to put together a rockin' all-American Hi-Fi system? Yeah, I know, there isn’t much that is 100% American through & through. This isn’t just cost cutting, but also about quality. A rep from one very “American” manufacturer told me at an audio show that they weren’t about to use an inferior part if a Danish one is just plain better. Fair enough – perhaps those perfectionist Scandinavians can make a better speaker cone… maybe. Building a complete Hi-Fi system that’s a 100% American is a tall order, too, so let’s see if we can find a decent American record player, that is majority sourced from American manufacturing. Anyhow, rock is about bending the rules a little.

Why does it matter that it's American?

Now this isn’t about standing on a soap box Donald-Trump-style and making a Xenophobic statement about foreigners and their goods. Far from it. No, this is about some basic American values that most Americans agree with, regardless of politics:

  1. It supports smaller manufacturers instead of multinational corporations

  2. It supports the idea that people should work in decent conditions, that children should not work, and that workers should not be exposed to dangerous chemicals

  3. It supports common-sense sourcing from non-threatened resources, such as using Bamboo instead of Honduran Rosewood

  4. It supports common-sense disposal of industrial waste and substituting polluting products for safer ones

In small quantities as shown here, the impact to the environment is minimal, but there are companies making whole loudspeakers with Honduran Rosewood

In small quantities as shown here, the impact to the environment is minimal, but there are companies making whole loudspeakers with Honduran Rosewood

The list of common-sense values we can all agree on could be longer, but the general idea is that it supports common-sense approach to labor, costing, sourcing, and waste. With products manufactured in far-off places, laws are not as sensitive to these factors, and even if they claim to be, they are harder to verify. The simple solution is to buy what you know rather than what you don’t.

Paying a small premium for all-American equipment

I've already written about this at length, but generally speaking cost should be a minor factor in Hi-Fi. This is because customers are typically open to paying a premium for quality, there is absolutely no reason to purchase equipment that doesn’t meet these basic requirements. Besides, it is rare for quality products to be consistently produced under adverse conditions in far-off factories where nothing can be verified. So skip the shiny glossy gear that is uncertainly produced even if it is slightly less expensive. The money saved is probably off of the backs of others.

That said, there are still many manufacturers who offer very reasonably priced options. As I point out below, this is even true for buying a record player. In the end, paying good money for quality is simply common sense - and it will pay back rewards for years to come.

Why buy a record player?

Well, the short answer is that if it is responsibly made, it's also as common-sense as it gets when it comes to Hi-Fi. To begin with, it's simple; simple to understand, simple to use, and also, as we're about to find out, simple to set up. Also, it uses very little energy, which saves money, and as we're also about to point out, it also costs very little to buy music for it. Also, there's no need to have internet access, an online music service, or a computer, either. It's also not digital and that means it sounds different - maybe not better, but certainly different. If you listen carefully, it just sounds more relaxed and easy on the ears. Granted not everyone will hear this, or care to hear it, but it's there. Finally, If we’re going to be rockin’, then a record player is about as rockin' as it gets.

Records are just plain visceral analog music that you can touch, read the album cover from, and collect.

As we mentioned, records are also also easy to come by. If you want new, you can now find them at Target, Barnes & Noble, and Amazon. But the better option is to buy used. These are found on eBay, Audiogon, and specialized websites too, but there are millions of used records languishing at swap meets and garage sales. Yes, the price has inched up because of a renewed interest in vinyl, but there are still lots of great records to be found. The beauty of this is that discovering music, even if it's older music, is fun again, it's social, and it's exciting.

The bottom line is that records are just plain visceral analog music that you can touch, read the album cover from, and collect. It’s hard to find that same ownership satisfaction from a digital file. Ever get a poster included with that iTunes download? Yeah, I didn't think so.

They come from the cities
And they come from the smaller towns
Beat up cars with guitars and drummers
Goin crack boom bam
R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A.
R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A.
R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A., Yeah, Yeah!
Rockin' in the U.S.A.

The U-Turn Orbit record player

I recently saw an older woman who was about to buy a low-quality mostly-plastic turntable at Target for $120. The “sales rep” who had come over from the digital camera section, was about to put it in her cart, so I had to intervene. She was kind enough to listen to me and she explained that it was for her teen-aged grandson who was getting into records again (cliche story, I know, but this story is true). I asked her if she was familiar with buying online, and when she said yes, I referred her to U-Turn Audio. I told her it was about $50 more, but would be a much better gift. I told the company makes it easy too, so much so that she might want to get back into records herself, which got a good laugh from her.

Few people know that for a paltry $179, you can buy a very good quality turntable that will outperform all the plastic foreign junk they are selling at places that shouldn’t even be selling them like Barnes & Noble. With turntables, a key indicator of quality is stability, and you just aren’t going to find that, even in an all-in-one system like the Crosley Vinyl Cruiser system at Target weighing in at just 5.5 lbs.:

Sure is eye catching, huh?

Sure is eye catching, huh?

Compare that to the U-Turn Orbit Basic, weighing in at more than twice that: 11 lbs. This is because the Crosley is made in the far East and shipping heavy items cost money, so even with amp, speakers, and a carrying case it has to be light and so it is flimsy, wobbly, and plasticky – the endorsement from One Direction probably cost more than the manufacturing expense. As can easily be seen, the Orbit is in a completely different league when it comes to stability.

Instead of all the colors in one package, U-Turn let's you choose how much (or how little) color you get

Instead of all the colors in one package, U-Turn let's you choose how much (or how little) color you get

The reason stability matters is because the needle that reads the music off the record, being quite minuscule is very sensitive to vibrations. If amplified to tangible objects, it would be equivalent to a Boeing 747 flying a few feet off the ground. U-Turn has put considerable research into minimizing these vibrations and the Orbit really does perform extremely well considering the price. What’s more, the company offers multiple upgrade options if you feel the need to upgrade in the future.

for both the Orbit Basic, as well as this upgraded model, the Orbit comes in a squat, low-profile and solid footing.

for both the Orbit Basic, as well as this upgraded model, the Orbit comes in a squat, low-profile and solid footing.

But is U-Turn All-American?

Well, it’s definitely more American than the Apple iPhones is. U-Turn started as a Kickstarter project and this is commendable. The Orbit is assembled by hand in the Us, which creates jobs and this is good. Many of the components are also manufactured in the US, but the fact remains that many parts like the Audio-Technica cartridge, for example, can be made less expensively elsewhere. I briefly had a U-Turn Orbit in my house and I can confirm that it was a very good table, but I did not inspect ever chip and wire to see if they were all sourced from the US. For our purposes here, though, it is American enough.

I do wish they would explain more about their manufacturing on their website. I found this statement, but it is still vague:

Every Orbit is assembled by hand in our Woburn, Massachusetts workshop. Prior to shipping, each turntable goes through comprehensive listening, wow & flutter, and rumble tests, as well as a 15-point performance evaluation. Every Orbit comes with a one-year warranty. The vast majority of our parts are sourced within the US. Our acrylic platters are turned in Ohio. Our plinths come from Minnesota, and our metal parts from Connecticut. By keeping our suppliers close and our assembly in-house, we are able to maintain a high level of quality.

I don’t necessarily expect a full disclosure of company secrets, where every part comes from, or how things are hand-made, but a basic statement that they also pay attention to environmental issues would be nice. That it’s manufactured in the US is great and all, but is it done with responsibility, too? There are plenty of American manufacturers who aren’t exactly good to the environment, and some that claim to be aren’t either, but Orbit, with its open and inviting website is so close.

“That it’s manufactured in the US is great and all, but is it done with responsibility, too?”

What it boils down to is that being a direct-to-consumer reseller, they should want to differentiate itself from the fly-by-night online-only retailers that will leave the customer hanging. I know from personal experience and also from what many others have said, that U-Turn isn’t one of those, but this should be spelled out better on the website. Heck, just a little history about the company and the folks who stand behind it would help a lot in that regard.

In any case, U-Turn is a serious manufacturer with excellent service, support, a good website, and a very good reputation. If you call them on the phone, you get live people on the line. When it comes to Hi-Fi, especially when you’re not spending a mint and the reseller isn’t there to hold your hand because of it, support is paramount. Fortunately, U-Turn is a company that stands behind their products. Heck, they even have video tutorials – can you name one other Turntable manufacturer that does? Didn’t think so.

R.O.C.K. in the USA was released as a single from the Mellencamp's Scarecrow album, the one that brought him in the limelight.

R.O.C.K. in the USA was released as a single from the Mellencamp's Scarecrow album, the one that brought him in the limelight.

Voices from nowhere
And voices from the larger towns
Filled our head full of dreams
Turned the world upside down
There was Frankie Lyman-Bobby Fuller-Mitch Ryder
(They were Rockin')
Jackie Wilson-Shangra-las-Young Rascals
(They were Rockin')
Spotlight on Martha Reeves
Let's don't forget James Brown
Rockin' in the U.S.A
Rockin' in the U.S.A
Hey!

R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A.
R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A.
R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A.

2016MichaelGJKComment