Belt-Drive vs. Direct-Drive Turntables

If you have been doing research on turntables, perhaps looking to purchase your first turntable, you may have noticed that some models are classified as belt-drive turntables while others are referred to as direct-drive turntables. So what’s the difference, and which is better?

This has been a subject of much debate for the last 50 or so years. At Audio Advice, we feel part of the answer lies in how you will be using the turntable, and to some degree, also depends on your budget.

First, we would like to say that belt-drive or direct-drive is not the final factor in deciding how good a turntable is. Several other factors go into that equation, such as the quality of the tonearm, phono cartridge, and basic design and construction quality of the turntable itself.

To start, let’s look at the basic difference between belt-drive and direct-drive turntables.

What is a Belt-Drive Turntable?

Just as its name implies, a belt-drive turntable uses a belt to spin the turntable platter. The motor is typically found somewhere off to the side and has a belt that wraps around the turntable platter. This could be on the very outside edge of the entire platter, or on the outside edge of an inner platter that the outer platter rests on.

The belt provides an easy way to isolate the motor from the turntable platter. Due to the fact they are driven by a belt, most belt-drive tables can take a few seconds to get up to full speed (but always faster than it takes the cueing mechanism to drop the stylus on the record). Eventually, the belt will wear out and will need to be replaced, which is normally a very simple an inexpensive exercise.

Rega Planar 3 offside detail
Rega Planar 3 - brace, hub, belt detail

What is a Direct-Drive Turntable?

With direct-drive turntables, the motor is directly under the platter. Direct-drive turntables usually get up to speed almost instantly. Also, when you turn off a direct-drive turntable, the platter is free-spinning with no resistance.

These two features make direct drive turntables the choice of DJs around the world. They are able to easily spin the record in either direction without any risk of damage to the turntable motor when it is off. The quick start feature means the music is the right pitch from the first second the stylus hits the record groove.

Direct-drive tables also will give you a speed control, so as a DJ, if you want to change the tempo to blend one song into another with two turntables, it is pretty easy to do so with the range of speed adjustment available on a direct-drive table.

Belt-drive turntables, by contrast, usually take several seconds to get up to speed. The belt is also always part of the mechanism, so spinning the platter in either direction with the motor off is going to cause some wear on the belt. The platter will also not spin freely, as you have the resistance of the belt itself. Also, with belt-drive, there is not really a way to change the speed except to switch it from 33 to 45.

If you plan to use your turntable for DJ use, the differences between the way the two get up to speed, spin freely and can adjust speed make a direct-drive model the obvious choice.

DJ scratching on a turntable

What if I’m Not a DJ?

While direct-drive turntables are great for DJs, many of us purchase a turntable simply to listen to music. For this, a direct-drive may not be the best option. For vinyl lovers, the goal is less about changing speeds and mixing music, and more about hearing all of the nuances in the record grooves with as little distortion as possible.

There are several factors that can adversely affect the sound of your turntable. As your stylus is tracking through the grooves, you only want it to pick up what is in those grooves and nothing else. Well, what if you had a big fat, high torque motor sitting right under the platter? That’s what you have with direct drive, and thus you run the risk of the noise from the motor getting into your platter and being picked up as a background rumble by your stylus.

Belt-drive inherently helps isolate the platter from the motor because the only connection is a rubber belt. Almost all belt-drive turntables worth any salt also suspend the motor so it is not fully connected to your turntable. Some even have it totally separate from the turntable. The odds are, this method is going to have less chance of motor noise getting into your sound.

One thing that has been very appealing to people listening to vinyl is the way it seems to draw you into the music. At Audio Advice, we feel part of this is due to the fact that a great turntable keeps the pitch of the music just perfect. CD players over the years have gone to great lengths with all kinds of clocking technology to try and get those digits to come out at precisely the same pitch as they went in, and many audiophiles might argue that they never did fully get it right.

 

Speed Stability is Key

So how does a turntable affect this? Well, the answer is a consistency of speed. Yes, a direct-drive turntable gets up to speed really quickly. But, what keeps it going at the proper speed? Direct-drive turntables require a lot of circuitry that is constantly looking at the speed of the motor and making adjustments to keep the speed from changing. Models with speed control must have all this added circuitry to allow you to change the speed in the first place. This constant correcting of the speed manifests itself as not quite perfect pitch. We feel that on most direct-drive turntables, you are just not drawn into the music like you are on a good belt-drive.

We feel belt-drive can have better speed stability IF it uses a heavy platter. Once this platter gets up to speed, the odds of it having micro changes in pitch are virtually nil. Yes, it might drift slightly over a long period compared to a direct-drive, but we think it’s less noticeable than the constant adjustments that occur in a direct-drive table.

Of course, a great belt-drive turntable does need to have a fairly heavy platter and a well-isolated motor. We feel that if you can get those two right, then in almost all cases the belt drive will outperform the direct drive for sheer musical enjoyment. You will have less chance of motor noise getting picked up by your stylus and the speed should be perceived as more pure.

With the huge popularity of turntables in recent years, direct-drive manufacturers have not been sitting still. New motor technology has come out that greatly reduces those minute speed changes. Some have started to use very heavy platters to minimize this effect as well. So if you are looking in the very upper end of turntables in a $5,000+ price range, you will start to see more direct-drive models. As you go above $25,000, you will see a few more.

However, if you are like most people, you are probably not spending $5,000+ on a turntable. Unless you are a DJ, you should probably get the best belt-drive turntable your budget will allow. You will not regret it!

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