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Direct-drive vs. belt-drive turntables

Is a direct-drive or belt-drive turntable better? Our expert gives you some answers.

There were quite a few direct-drive turntables on the market in the 1970s — the heyday of long-playing vinyl. Then for many years, reasonably-priced belt-drive turntables became more common for household use, and direct-drive turntables entered a professional niche as staple equipment for radio stations and live-event DJs.

Now we’re starting to see direct-drive make a comeback in the consumer world, so it’s time to address the big question: which one is better?

The essential difference comes down to one basic aspect of the turntable's design: how the motor moves the platter. Let's examine how that varies in different models and explore the pros and cons of each approach.

Close up of turntable motor pulley and belt

Belt-drive turntables

On a belt-driven 'table, the motor is typically visibly offset from the platter, and connected to it via an elastic band. This design process — known as decoupling — allows the vibrations generated by the motor to be dissipated before they reach the sensitive phono cartridge.

Pros:

  • decoupling motor from platter eliminates a source of potential noise
  • elastic belt absorbs additional unwanted vibrations

Cons:

  • miniscule variations in rotational speed (known as wow and flutter)
  • initial turntable setup requires some extra steps
  • some models require a manual belt change or adjustment in order to change rpm speed
  • belts can wear out and need to be replaced periodically

It is possible to improve the speed consistency of a belt-drive system by adding an external component called a speed regulator. It's worth noting that belt-drive turntables are still the most common and popular choice for casual and audiophile home listening.

Check out our video on how to set up a belt-drive turntable.


Exploded photo illustration of Technics turntable motor parts

Direct-drive turntables

On a direct-drive turntable, the motor is located under the platter and is directly connected to the spindle. When the motor is turned off, the platter can rotate freely in either direction.

Pros:

  • high torque gets the platter up to full speed almost instantly
  • speed stability (minimal or no wow and flutter)
  • variable pitch control

Cons:

  • motor noise may be transmitted to the stylus

The versatility of a direct-drive system is what lets DJs play the turntable like an instrument. During a live set, the high-torque motor lets a turntablist eliminate vibe-killing spaces between tracks, and variable pitch control helps them seamlessly match up beats for non-stop dancing. The ability to disengage the motor makes it easy to cue records precisely, and manually move the record back and forth for improvisational 'scratching.'

It's also worth noting that some audiophiles have perfect pitch, so any amount of wow and flutter can ruin their listening experience. Direct-drive takes care of that problem.

If you want to know more about the essential parts, important specs, and proper operation of a turntable, check out our article on how to choose the right turntable.


My experiences with direct-drive and belt-drive turntables

I've been using turntables my entire life — at home and at work — so I figured a little anecdotal evidence might give some practical context to this debate.

Cutting my teeth on direct-drive

When I was a kid in the 1970s, I recall my family always owning direct-drive turntables of varying quality. I don't think we ever had a belt-drive in those years. Then when I started working in radio in the late 1980s, the broadcast studios and portable remote transmission rigs always included two or more direct-drive 'tables. Even now, as a volunteer for our local community station WTJU, I use direct-drive in the studio and for live gigs. Why is that?

The author cueing up a record at a DJ booth

The author cueing up a record on a direct-drive turntable at an outdoor event.

For one thing, cueing up a track is easier. Mixing boards have a "cue" channel that routes sound only into a pair of connected headphones, which allows me to listen until I hear the first notes of a song, stop the motor, and manually turn the platter counter-clockwise until the stylus is about a second away from the start of the track. When I've made an announcement and it's time hit the "start" button, the music starts immediately — "dead air" is anathema in the radio world.

Choosing belt-drive at home

Despite my early and pervasive experiences with direct-drive, when I started working at Crutchfield and decided to buy a turntable to use at home, I opted for a belt-driven Pro-Ject Debut Carbon.

For one thing, the price was right, but I also liked the solid build quality and reliable sonic performance. I've been able to hook it up to every integrated amp, separates system, or powered speaker I'm writing about, and get consistent performance.

The author at home, putting on a vinyl record

The author preparing to play a record on his trusty belt-driven Pro-Ject at home.

My old workhorse is still going strong, but Pro-Ject has improved on that original design with the Debut Carbon EVO, which is pretty much a direct replacement — it's rugged, affordable, good-looking, and will probably last you a lifetime.

The direct-drive resurgence

For many years, direct-drive turntables were a seldom-seen rarity in the Crutchfield warehouse, but that started to change in 2019. Around that time, the feature-packed, value-priced Audio Technica LP-120XUSB hit our shelves and quickly became a best-seller.

Then Technics — the company that kick-started the direct-drive market in 1970 with their legendary SP-10 — began to roll out new and improved direct-drive decks. They were quickly joined by new offerings from Dual and TEAC, plus a couple of first-ever direct-drive 'tables from Music Hall and Cambridge Audio.

Suffice to say, my curiousity was piqued. I decided to give direct-drive a tryout in my own home. The Technics SL-1500C is very popular with Crutchfield customers, so I took one home for an extended tryout.

close up on Tecnics SL-1500 turntable

The Technics SL1500C is an enormously popular direct-drive turntable. The author had a chance to try one out in his home sound system for this article.

My experience with the Technics SL-1500C direct-drive turntable

I had a few direct-drive options to choose from, but I chose to go with Technics because of their well-known pedigree in this field. They introduced direct-drive technology to the market, and stuck with it through the decades. And the SL-1500C is a top-seller in the category — I trust our customers to have good taste in turntables.

One thing I really like about Technics: they acknowledge the potential downsides of direct-drive, and they're explicit about what they've done to improve performance. Their biggest technological leap forward is the coreless direct-drive motor, which is designed to eliminate an audible effect called "cogging" that marred the sound of older models.

Cutaway diagram of Technics motor structure

Technics went the extra mile when they designed the impeccable direct-drive motor assembly used in the SL-1210G Grand Class 'table, as shown in this cutaway diagram.

On the SL-1500C, the motor noise problem is addressed by a two-layer, die-cast aluminum chassis with a vibration-resistant layer of ABS and glass fiber. And the 'table's dense die-cast aluminum platter is backed by a sound-damping layer of rubber that helps ensure you hear nothing but the music.

And I used this turntable to listen to a lot of music. Since we talked above about the practical advantages of using a direct-drive turntable, I wanted to judge this 'table against the opinion — often expressed by audiophiles in online forums — that belt-drive turntables just sound better.

So I dug into my eclectic record collection, which spans everything from jazz to punk and Afrobeat to classical music, on a quest to form my own opinion. So...

Are belt-driven turntables better?

For me, for pure listening purposes, the answer is yes. As with any subjective recommendation, your mileage may vary. But I'll explain why belt-drive worked better for me in this comparison.

I listened to several tracks, switching between my Pro-ject and the Technics — running them through an outboard preamp so they both got the same amplification — and started to get a general impression that the notes were a little fuller and rounder when I played them on the belt-drive turntable.

Detail of turntable belt around the motor pulley and sub-platter

In the end, the author still prefers belt-drive turntables for casual home listening.

I was a little concerned that I was engaging in a self-fulfilling prophecy, so I kept trying to listen without any bias. Finally, I put on a record that gave me an experience I couldn't deny — Island Songs by Icelandic composer Olafur Arnalds. The string arrangements on the album sounded very clear, precise, and airy when I listened to them on the direct-drive turntable. When I switched to belt-drive, the enchanced harmonic resonance gave me goosebumps.

That emotional response is what I crave when I listen to vinyl, so for me, the answer was clear — I'm sticking with belt-drive for home listening. Which is fine, because direct-drive is still there for me when I do my radio show, or spin records live at a weekend event. I wouldn't want to live in a world where we only had one or the other.


Need help choosing a turntable?

You may want some help choosing a turntable and matching it to components like preamps, receivers, and speakers. One of our expert Advisors can talk to you about what gear you have, and ways to improve your turntable's sound. They're knowledgeable, friendly, and they love music as much as you do. Contact us today.

And don't hesitate to call us if you hit a snag during the install process. Free lifetime tech support is included with every Crutchfield purchase.

Last updated 7/19/2022
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