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Lexington High grads get grant to design new turntable

Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

U-Turn Audio is (from left) Bob Hertig, Peter Maltzan and Ben Carter.

Brookline roommates Bob Hertig and Peter Maltzan were in the market for a new turntable for their extensive vinyl record collection, but couldn’t find what they were looking for.

So, the two Lexington High School graduates, along with a third alum, Ben Carter, decided to make it themselves.

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Hertig, a mechanical engineering major at Northeastern University, and Maltzan, a bass guitarist studying at the Berklee College of Music, wanted a turntable that produced great sound for a reasonable price, and they were willing to forgo a lot of the bells and whistles included on the models now being produced.

The two partnered with Carter, who graduated from Cornell University last year with a major in philosophy and a minor in business, on the project. Their collaboration earned a $2,500 grant last month from Northeastern University’s Prototype Fund.

Hertig said that for people who love music, there’s something special about the distinctive sound of an LP and, in the age of iPods, forgetting about “shuffle’’ in favor of grooving to a whole album.

“I can put my record on even if my computer crashes,’’ said Hertig, who is 23. “It’s the whole experience. It’s a different way of listening to music. You do it at home.’’

The three friends, calling their business U-Turn Audio, are aiming to sell their Orbit turntable for about $150. Other models with comparable sound quality to what they hope to produce retail for around $300, said Hertig.

The market for vinyl records peaked in 1977, and then took a free fall in the 1980s, according to the Recording Industry Association of America, which has tracked all music formats since 1973. (Here “vinyl’’ refers to long- and extended-play recordings; 45 r.p.m. singles are a separate category.)

In 1977, 344 million units were shipped, the association’s figures show; by 1990, the annual number had collapsed to just 11.7 million. The market low was 2006, when the figure for records shipped fell to under a million. But sales have been inching up ever since, making it back to 5.5 million last year.

That doesn’t include used albums, the stuff that collectors covet, which is a thriving market unto itself.

Michael Zwolinski, manager of Newbury Comics in Norwood, buys used vinyl for his store.

“We sell lots of vinyl and we buy lots of vinyl,’’ he said. “Vinyl never really went away. It just really became almost insignificant for a while, during the boom of the late ’90s and early 2000s.’’

Then, both older clientele, feeling nostalgic, and younger customers, looking for a different sound, resurrected the market, said Zwolinski, who has his own collection of about 3,000 albums.

“Once the needle hits the grooves, there’s nothing like it,’’ he said. “There’s a definite dramatic difference in hearing an analog recording reproduced in an analog format that you just can’t get from your iPod or MP3s.’’

There’s a warmth and clarity that audiophiles say doesn’t come through on digital recordings. “The highs are higher and the lows are lower,’’ said Zwolinski.

The market for new vinyl is healthy, he said, and the used-vinyl market is doing well enough that Newbury Comics is starting to sell used records in its other stores aside from Norwood, he said.

The Orbit, with its focus on sound quality and a minimum of extra features, has a lot of potential, Zwolinski said, but the turntable’s needle would be crucial.

Hertig couldn’t agree more. Some needles in use can actually damage records, he said. By skipping a USB port, built-in speakers, and portability, which are features people aren’t using anyway, Hertig said, U-Turn will be able to provide a good magnetic cartridge, which includes the needle, and other components related to sound quality.

Hertig and his friends are using their grant money to build a prototype to make sure the design works. Then the plan is to launch a fund-raising campaign on Kickstarter.com to support the production of models for sale.

The Prototype Fund is a partnership involving Northeastern’s Center for Research Innovation; IDEA, the university’s venture accelerator; and the campus Entrepreneurs Club.

“It’s addressing a really interesting market niche, that’s rapidly growing,’’ Tracey Dodenhoff, director of the Center for Research Innovation, said of U-Turn’s Orbit design.

“This is really reevaluating with modern technology and modern approaches what a turntable can be.’’

Lisa Kocian can be reached at lkocian@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeLisaKocian.
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