Innovative tonearm concept Largest turntable manufacturer in the US uses magnesium moulding to enhance sound quality
U-Turn Audio sought to create an innovative tonearm using magnesium due to its lightweight, strong, and rigid properties, as well as its ability to dissipate vibrations and reduce resonance. They partnered with Phillips-Medisize, a leading magnesium moulder with extensive expertise in engineering and manufacturing, to realize their vision and improve turntable performance.
Anyone who has carted a carefully curated record collection from coast-to-coast can attest to the superiority of vinyl. Diehard audiophiles believe spinning discs produce better sounding music and truly immersive listening experiences. Still, the decades-long domination of compact discs and the advent of music streaming seemed to signal the end of vinyl until recently. Now, thanks to new generations of music fans and LP loyalists, records are making a comeback.
According to the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), vinyl sales have outpaced CDs for the first time since 1987. In its 2022 annual revenue report, RIAA reveals that vinyl made up 1.2 billion of the 1.7 billion dollars in physical media sales, outselling CDs by nearly eight million units. While streaming still accounts for the most recorded music revenues, growth in physical music format revenues rose four percent over the previous year.
Vinyl’s resurgence is music to the ears of the entrepreneurs at U-Turn Audio, a Woburn, Massachusetts-based audio equipment manufacturer of turntables, preamps and speakers. Founded in 2012 by highschool friends Ben Carter, Bob Hertig and Pete Maltzan, the company started while Bob was finishing a degree in mechanical engineering at Northeastern University. The initial design concepts for the flagship Orbit turntable were part of his senior project, which led to a grant from the university’s entrepreneurship program. A followup Kickstarter campaign enabled the fledgling team to sell about 1,000 turntables to its first customers.
Engineering better sound for everyone
As part of the company’s quest to design and build top-quality products at affordable prices, U-Turn Audio designs and assembles its audio equipment by hand. Fastidious attention to detail involves rigorous inspections, including 15-point quality-control and listening tests to ensure optimal performance. The dedication and craftsmanship that goes into making U-Turn’s critically acclaimed, award-winning turntables and audio gear have attracted a loyal customer following among vinyl aficionados and everyday listeners.
From inception, U-Turn Audio grew rapidly, and now assembles and ships more than 15,000 to 20,000 products annually. A continued focus on advancing both turntable design and sound performance led U-Turn Audio to initiate a complete tonearm redesign. “The tonearm is basically the heart of the turntable,” says Hertig. “It’s responsible for so much of the actual audio production. We wanted to simplify what we had by taking multiple components and forming them into one solid piece to reduce resonance and create a more rigid and better performing tonearm.”
Finding an ally in magnesium product design and manufacturing
To execute on its innovative tonearm concept, U-Turn Audio experts wanted to leverage the unique mechanical and physical properties inherent in magnesium. For starters, magnesium is the lightest construction material available, with a weight that is approximately 33 percent less than aluminium. This delivers a very high strength-to-weight ratio, which makes it equally strong, light and rigid. As a result, magnesium often is used in various products spanning medical and industrial products.
Additionally, magnesium has a damping quality, which dissipates vibration. This attribute is especially useful in reducing resonance, which can lessen sound quality. Once U-Turn Audio settled on magnesium, the team sought an ideal engineering ally capable of producing the part from the desired material. This proved to be challenging based on the specialized skills and processes required to make parts from magnesium.
Phillips-Medisize, a Molex company, immediately stood out as the largest and most well-established magnesium moulder in North America with a strong track record of manufacturing excellence. At its Wisconsin-based magnesium-injection moulding facility, Phillips-Medisize leverages more than a half-century of expertise as a global contract development and manufacturing organization (CDMO) to design, engineer and manufacture pharmaceutical drug delivery, invitro diagnostic, medtech and specialty consumer devices for highly regulated industries, encompassing automotive, consumer, defense and healthcare.
In particular, Phillips-Medisize is an expert in magnesium thixomoulding, a special and eco-friendly injection moulding production process that makes it possible to create and produce complex and detailed shapes from magnesium. As a result, Hertig and team turned to Phillips-Medisize to help fulfill the audio company’s vision for a game-changing tonearm that could significantly upgrade turntable performance.
Our mission from the beginning has always been to create great sounding audio equipment that is accessible to everyone. We’re now the largest turntable manufacturer in the U.S. by volume.
Harmonious collaboration hits all the right notes
U-Turn’s audio specialists presented their original design concepts for the new tonearm, dubbed the OA3 Pro, including the challenges of unifying various parts into a single, continuous piece. “The reason this part was so challenging from a production standpoint is because of its super high complexity,” explains Semingson. “It’s not just a simple, openand-closed mould. We had to incorporate a hydraulic core pull to allow the long, slender core to create the hollow diameter of the stem, requiring very thin wall thickness throughout the length of the stem.”
Additionally, extremely high heat and pressure are involved in thixomoulding, which further complicated the process. “It was extremely difficult to make all of the moving details work together at the same time to produce an acceptable part for the customer’s requirements,” Semingson adds. “Collaboration between our mould design and mould-flow analysis engineers, as well as extensive expertise in thixomoulding, helped us achieve success.”
According to Hertig, a close-working relationship with the Phillips-Medisize project manager also kept everyone focused on clearing major hurdles. “The Phillips-Medisize team was very enthusiastic about working with us, even though this was a different product than what they were used to working on,” he notes. “It was incredibly important for us to be able to talk openly and honestly with the Phillips-Medisize team about any issues or concerns.”
Phillips-Medisize applied the same customer-first design philosophy and meticulous methodologies honed over years of using magnesium thixomoulding to create game-changing specialty consumer as well as medical device designs. As with every Phillips-Medisize product design, the engineering team sought to elevate the user experience, which in this case meant eliminating any structural inconsistencies or air pockets in the tonearm that could affect sound quality.
The teams worked together to make subtle changes to the geometry and walls of the tonearm to better support the moulding process. The final magnesium mould included gates, vents and related elements to develop an exceptionally dense, uniform end-piece that could be manufactured at scale without any deviations in sound quality.
Simplifying supply chain, production and assembly
Equally important were opportunities to improve product assembly and quality processes. As the new magnesium tonearms consolidate a three-part assembly into a single part, they are much easier to work with. Additionally, magnesium is more durable than aluminium, which makes the tonearms superior to previous products.
“Having fewer moving parts really expedites assembly and quality inspection,” says Chris Cardone, Production Supervisor for U-Turn Audio. “It simplifies the whole thing, which is kind of the theme that runs throughout our production process — take advanced things and boil them down to the simplest level.”
Moreover, having fewer parts streamlines supply chain management. “The value of designing a part that is a single-piece component versus a three-piece assembly is that you reduce tooling costs, supply chain requirements and assembly time,” explains Semingson. “Ultimately, the total cost of the product is reduced.”
The simplified tonearm design also boosts overall user experience. “It’s really quiet and just feels really well put together,” Cardone adds. “There’s less potential for distortion because ultimately what’s happening is just the needle going over vinyl and picking up the vibrations in the record’s grooves.”
The work with U-Turn Audio was a great collaboration as they involved us early in the design phase.
Bringing next-gen turntables to the market
From concept to completion, the entire planning and development process for the new tonearm took more than a year. U-Turn Audio also took the opportunity to refresh other turntable features, culminating in the September 2022 launch of the Orbit Theory. In addition to the new tonearm, the product boasts other major enhancements, including a new drive system with an overhauled motor, new belt design and increased finish options.
Widespread acclaim for the advanced Orbit turntable soon followed, with Digital Trends magazine bestowing a coveted “Editor’s Choice” award for U-Turn’s launch into the premium market. Calling it the company’s “best turntable yet,” the reviewer also said the Orbit Theory was his favorite turntable review, ever. Accolades of this magnitude aren’t taken lightly as competition is brisk in the audio equipment market.
That’s why U-Turn is capitalising on its latest advancements to include the new tonearm design in all its turntable models going forward. “It really is a fantastic improvement to sound quality while making product assembly much easier,” says Hertig. “We are really excited to ship it on all of our products later this year.
U-Turn’s ability to utilize the tonearm on multiple products reinforces Phillips-Medisize’s goal as a collaborator. “What inspired us to work with U-Turn Audio was the opportunity to help them fully realize their design idea,” concludes Semingson. “We saw a growth opportunity for both businesses, which now is being fulfilled as they expand use of this innovative tonearm across U-Turn Audio’s complete product portfolio.”