A Conversation with Ben Carter of U-Turn Audio

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In the early part of this past decade, the general music-listening public started to rediscover its love affair with vinyl. It became clear there was a need in the market for an affordable, quality, and easy-to-use turntable. That is where U-Turn Audio came in. They recognized this need early in the reemergence of records. Not only did they gladly fill that gap in the market, but they did it with the age of internet shopping in mind. Their well-designed and straightforward website enabled the customer to design a customizable turntable and order it straight to their house.

Today I have Ben Carter, one of the co-founders of U-Turn, here with me. Learning more about Ben and U-Turn was a pleasure. Amongst other things, we discuss possible future products, U-Turn’s beginnings as a company, and Ben’s advice for those thinking of starting their own company. You can check out U-Turn Audio’s website here.

Joe:
What have you been up to the past year, considering the current state of the world?

Ben:
We’ve just been in constant go mode. About this time last year, we were shut down for two months. We were deemed non-essential in Massachusetts, but we kept taking orders. The orders were trickling in, and things weren’t looking very good from a business perspective. Sometime in April, people just decided they wanted vinyl and turntables. We started taking a ton of orders. We’ve been playing catch up ever since we reopened in May. We’ve certainly seen a considerable increase in volume over the past 12 months. It’s a good problem to have, but it’s a struggle. Supply chains are incredibly disrupted, and we must operate safely. None of us can work from home; we build everything here. We haven’t had any issues here at work, which we’re proud of. It’s been an adventure, and we’re just doing our best to navigate it.

Joe:
What was the impetus for the start of U-Turn? What were your beginnings as a company?

Ben:
It goes back to 2011. I’m one of three founders; we all went to high school together. We all knew each other, but we went our separate ways for college. However, all of us lived in the same neighborhood in Boston after college. We’ve been listening to vinyl since high school. We all had an appreciation for the format. In 2011, there weren’t nearly as many vinyl-related goods on the market as there are now. There has been an explosion of turntables and vinyl products in the past ten years. If you’re fresh out of college, in 2011, you could either get a cheap, poorly made suitcase player or a very expensive European turntable. Those good turntables cost about $500 to $600, which is not affordable if you are a college-age kid. There was nothing in the middle unless you went for a vintage turntable. It always an adventure trying to ensure you get a working vintage turntable. As a group, we thought it would be great if a company focused on making a decent turntable at an affordable price. Rob, one of the other founders, has been doing audio stuff for his whole life. He was the one who had gotten me into vinyl back when I was 14. Rob took it upon himself to build a turntable. U-Turn was formed around the turntable that Rob designed. 

Joe:
It has always seemed like many of your sales have been online. Turntables have lots of moving delicate parts that can get damaged in shipping. What approach do you guys take to packing and shipping to ensure your product arrives safely?

Ben:
We’re an online company. The business is set up to sell direct to consumers, and that is how we pass more value along. There are two approaches to shipping. One way is to ship it in pieces for the customer to set up. Have them adjust cartridge alignment and tracking force. The second way is to do all of that for them and ship it ready for use. We always wanted to do things the second way; we wanted it to be an accessible, easy-to-use turntable. You need to have excellent packaging. We have been using the same packaging for ten years and shipped almost 100,000 turntables in it. It’s essential to make sure everything’s secure, and it’s a big part of what we do. What makes us different is checking that alignment and VTF before we ship. That way, when you open up your turntable, it’s ready to go within a few minutes.   

Joe:
I noticed you guys do exclusively belt-driven turntables, right?
 

Ben:
All of our turntables are on one platform, which means they all have the same drive system and tonearm. That drive system is an external belt drive; it’s fully manual. If you want to change speeds, you move the belt from one groove in the pulley to the other. It doesn’t have auto-stop or auto-start. It’s distilled down to the basics. That is our philosophy, focusing on the music-making components of the turntable.

Joe:
It seems difficult to make it, as a small start-up, when competing against so many bigger companies in the now saturated turntable market. What do you think has made you able to not only compete but thrive in that environment?

Ben:
We’re still kind of a small player, even by turntable standards. Many of the companies we’re competing against are kind of from an earlier era in audio. They are relying heavily on distribution and retail to sell products. We do it directly and therefore develop direct relationships with customers. We have excellent customer support because it is essential for selling direct. I think many people are looking to buy direct, especially in audio. There is a value to hearing a system before you buy it. That is why we have a good return policy; people are going to want to try it out at home. Returns are just something to factor into the price of the turntable. I do think it’s essential to have a physical retail component. People need, to a degree, to see your product and listen to it. They need to know what it feels like because they will be interacting with it all the time. You need to find a balance. The digital-first approach was something that helped us set ourselves apart early on. It was clear that it had to be digital when we started. We weren’t going to be able to get into Best Buy with a turntable that no one had heard of. We had to figure out a different route. 

Joe:
You seem to appeal to all levels of vinyl lovers, from the person purchasing their first-ever turntable to the person who has been listening for years. How do you think you have accomplished this as a company?

Ben:
We try to take audiophile equipment and make it a little more accessible. That means having features that an audiophile would approve of having. We go to audio shows, and we talk to audiophile types. We’re not necessarily their first turntable. They will have a $2,000 or $3,000 turntable as their primary option. Then ours will be their office turntable or the turntable they get for their kid. Honestly, that’s what we wanted to do. We wanted to check off all those boxes. Have great cartridges and all the other essential things in a turntable. Our turntables range in price from $179 to around $700 for a fully equipped table. Some options are aesthetic; not everything option is performance-based. All these different options enable you to appeal to a broad group of people. At the $179 mark, the customer is getting a crazy value. You are receiving these parts that are fit for a much more expensive turntable. Even at the higher price points, we are incredibly competitive with similar models. There’s plenty of great turntables out there. As a company, you have to set yourself apart because it’s becoming a crowded market. 

Joe:
I know you use a few different companies as suppliers for cartridges for your turntables. Is there any chance of designing your own unique cartridge in the future?

Ben:
We’ve discussed it, but I don’t think we’d even know where to begin. It’s such a precise process and somewhat different from our core strengths. The manufacturing is done at a ridiculously small level. It’s space-age assembly, performed under microscopes. It isn’t something we know how to do. It would be interesting to design a cartridge collaboratively with another manufacturer. A cartridge that fits our products well and is exclusive to our company. We have talked about it before. I’d love to do it one day. It just hasn’t happened.

Joe:
Are there any new products or customizable options that you plan on releasing in the future?  

Ben:
We have basically had the same product since we first started selling in 2012. It’s improved a lot. It’s an entirely different tonearm, main bearing, spindle, and dust cover. A lot has changed, and a lot of the quality has gone up. I think we’re overdue for a refresh. We do have several new things in development that I can’t comment on. We should be seeing something new this year and next year. It’s been quiet on the new products front for a few years, but that should be changing soon. 

Joe:
Do you listen to any physical music format or mostly listen digitally these days?

Ben:
I’ve listened to vinyl since I was 14. I have a moderate vinyl habit. I’m not crazy about it, but I have a good collection. I started with what my mom passed to me, and over time I’ve added to it. I do listen to a lot of digital. I listen to Spotify in my office because I can’t be flipping a record every 20 minutes. I believe that they have different places. For me, vinyl is something I do in my living room, usually with friends.

Joe:
What was your introduction to music, and how does that impact U-Turn?

Ben:
I always grew up in a house that appreciated music. There was music all around me. I remember getting my first CDs: Chumbawamba, Blink-182, Limp Bizkit, and Eminem. Then I went through that discovery phase where you learn about all the great stuff in the past. A lot of the staff are musicians. There is always music playing in the office. I think it is one thing that makes U-Turn cool. It’s truly full of people that love music; a ton of our assembly workers gig at night. I think it contributes to making quality turntables. We listen to the turntables that we make, so we have high expectations for their performance.

Joe:
What advice would you have for younger people today looking to start their own company? 

Ben:
Part of me thinks, if I knew what I knew now, I would never have done it. I think it’s because I know all the risks and the things that can go wrong. I know how difficult it’s going to be. I guess when you’re young is probably the best time to do it. You’re still naïve and stupid enough to make it happen. I would say, just get started. Don’t spend time researching and spend time doing. Even before we had a product, we promoted it online. I think a lot of people get bogged down in the details. You have to do the work, and the rest will follow. If people aren’t going to like it, it’s better to find out sooner rather than later. So, that would be my advice.   

Joe:
Where do you see the company going in the future?

Ben:
Continuing our vision of taking audiophile products and making them more accessible. I want to put a complete U-turn stereo in a person’s home. Right now, we’re just a turntable company. Just expanding and becoming a more fleshed-out audio company. I think that’s what’s on everyone’s mind—focusing on making great products while growing slowly and developing strong relationships with customers. We’ve always gone slowly and cautiously. I think that approach has paid off so far. I am excited to see what the future brings.

Dig this interview? Check out the full archives of Records, Roots & Ramblings, by Joe O’Brien, here: https://vinylwritermusic.com/records-roots-ramblings-archives/

Published by Joe O'Brien

Joe has always been a huge music fan. Growing up on Long Island, NY, USA, Joe did chores and dumpster dove for bottles with his best friend Andrew to trade bottles for money to buy vinyl. Joe is a Registered Nurse in the ER by day, and a life-long music lover by night. Having been an avid consumer of all things music since he was a child, Joe’s diverse collection of over 3,000 vinyl albums, plus several hundred tapes and CDs, tells the story of a man who simply loves music. Joe’s goal is to write about what he is most passionate about and share new and exciting music. Joe lives on Long Island, NY with his beloved dog Scarlett.

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