There is always a decision to be made when buying a turntable… Belt-drive or Direct drive? To a certain extent, it might be decided by what you want to do with it. If it is for the home, it could be one thing; if you are a DJ or want to be one, it could be another.
- Direct Drive vs Belt Drive Turntables – The Chicken or the Egg?
- What is better: Direct Drive vs Belt Drive Turntables?
- The Belt-Drive
- The Direct-Drive
- In the world of the ‘Spinner’
- Not everyone is or wants to be a DJ
- Detrimental effects on the sound
- Isolating the platter
- Having a stable speed
- Can a belt drive be more stable than a direct drive?
- New technology
- Looking for a fantastic new turntable?
- Direct Drive vs Belt Drive Turntables – Final Thoughts
Direct Drive vs Belt Drive Turntables – The Chicken or the Egg?
What came first? The belt-drive turntable arrived in the 1960s. It was created by a company known as AR, or Acoustic Research. They had also invented the first ‘sealed’ speakers that had completely changed the stereo and HiFi industry. This belt-drive turntable was cheap, and it sold in truckloads.
The Direct-Drive came along a little bit later. The Technics SP-10 was the first direct-drive, and that came along in 1969. It was a clear alternative to the belt drive and was adopted by early DJs and those that needed precision speed and tracking.
But if the belt drive came along in the early 60s and the direct drive in the late 60s, what did we use before?
Our beloved record players
Those were the days when we stacked up half a dozen records on a central spindle on our record players. As one finished, the next one would drop down and play.
It was easy to use and convenient. But it didn’t do the vinyl too much good rubbing them against each other. But we didn’t know and probably didn’t care. We had music.
Since the 1920s, they had used something called a spring-wound motor. In the late 20s, the first electric motors were created and used. It was all very plain and simple, not particularly efficient speed-wise, but they didn’t break down.
“Necessity is the mother of invention”
But of course, this was the 60s. The norms had changed, and we all wanted better. There was a feeling that nothing was out of reach.
That feeling of lets create extended everywhere, and it reached the ‘real’ music lovers. They wanted better turntables and didn’t want to stack their records up. It became a necessity. They wanted one at a time, if only to preserve them. Possibly the first consumer audiophiles.
Of course, technology advances, and we get dragged along with it. Nowadays, the standards of turntable production are reaching heights that in the 60s we could not even dream of. But why vinyl? We had other media sources.
The cassette, the CD, Digital downloads. Very quickly, music became different. Practical, yes. Convenient, yes. Long-lasting, usually. But oh dear, the inanity. It just wasn’t the same.
In the world of making music, the old pre-digital analog sounds are revered because they are good. The best you can achieve. Digital just doesn’t really cut it for the pure sound. The same might be said of CDs. The sound from vinyl is just better; if you have decent equipment, that is.
Here we go round the Mulberry Bush
In 2007 vinyl started its comeback. By 2010 it was rolling. By 2017 Sony announced they were starting to make vinyl records again. They had stopped making them in 1989.
It’s back, and it is back to stay. The turntable has taken on added significance. What you have to decide is belt-drive or direct drive. Let’s take a look at both.
What is better: Direct Drive vs Belt Drive Turntables?
Before we start to look at both, it is important to remember some things. Being a belt or direct drive turntable will not decide how good a turntable is. There are other things that come to bear.
The Phono cartridge, the tonearm, the quality of the build. They will all have an impact. And of course, it goes without saying, usually, the more you spend, the better the turntable will be, though this doesn’t always apply.
Quite self-explanatory how the belt drive operates. The belt is designed to spin the platter. The motor is placed away from the platter to the side. The belt is wrapped around the platter and the motor. The motor is then isolated away from the platter, and there can be no unwanted noise incurred from the motor to the platter in any way.
It is then a simple process to just turn the motor on, and the belt starts to drive the platter.
Slow to get up to speed
This is an argument often used against belt-drive turntables. That once started, they take a few seconds to get up to the correct speed. There is truth in that, in that a belt drive takes a few seconds.
However, it is not quite like it is often portrayed. As if you have to wait before playing the record for it to get up to speed. The platter will be spinning at the correct speed faster than you can get the stylus on to the record.
The rubber belt on the Belt-drive can wear out and snap.
With the design of the direct-drive turntable, the motor is located directly under the platter. When you turn it on, it will usually get up to speed virtually instantly. And when you turn off, the platter will be in free-spinning mode, that is, having no resistance.
Both of the features are reasons they are popular with DJs. They are able to spin the record in any direction without damage to a motor or a belt. On a belt drive, the belt is part of the working mechanism. Therefore spinning the platter with the motor off could damage the belt. Also, the music is right on pitch from the first seconds it is turned on.
Another advantage for the DJ is that you have more control over the speed. You would be able to change the tempo of the song to blend in with one to follow. That would not be possible for a belt-drive design. The only speed changes they have are strictly between 33 and 45.
The motor is connected to the platter and can send rumble into the needle and affect the sound.
Those are the basics, but…
We can see from that very brief description of how the two systems operate that there are advantages to both and likewise a few negatives.
In the world of the ‘Spinner’
There will be those that need certain features to be able to function as a DJ. In fact, it could be argued that a belt-drive turntable for a DJ is almost unthinkable.
Speed changes, the instant pitch at turn on, backward and forward operation are all necessary for the ‘spinner.’ The belt-drive either can’t do what you need or it would be very unhappy doing it. There is also the consideration of reliability. In front of an audience, you really don’t need a belt malfunction.
Not everyone is or wants to be a DJ
But not everyone is a DJ. Some will just want to sit at home and listen to their music. Whilst the direct drive is great for the DJ, some just want to listen. In that case, a direct drive may not be the best option.
If you are into your vinyl and its sound, you won’t be interested in mixing or changing speeds. You will be more interested in the music and all the little nuances that vinyl recordings bring out.
Detrimental effects on the sound
There are a couple of things that can give your turntable a poor sound. When your stylus is plowing through those grooves, you want to hear exactly what is in there. You don’t want anything else.
But what if there was a motor with a high-torque sitting right under the platter. There is a big risk of the noise of the motor being relayed to the platter and then picked up by the stylus. That is known as rumble and does nothing for the sound at all.
Isolating the platter
A belt drive will isolate the sound of the motor from the platter. The motor is placed away to one side, and the only thing that touches the platter is the rubber belt. As further security against unwanted sounds, the best manufacturers suspend the motor. It is, therefore, not even in direct contact with the turntable.
Having a stable speed
Some would argue that the direct drive is better at giving you a constant speed. They may have a point. A direct drive gets up to speed quicker.
But to maintain that speed requires a lot of circuits and extra internal speed adjustments where necessary. But one question we would ask is this. Does this constant monitoring and adjustment give you a not quite perfect pitch? If there are constant minor adjustments being made, can you call that stable?
Can a belt drive be more stable than a direct drive?
If it uses a heavy platter, then it can. Once a heavy platter is rotating at its correct speed, which isn’t ‘that’ long after turning on, will it stay there? We think the chances of any changes in pitch, even at a micro-level, are virtually nil.
Over a long period of time, that might change, bearing in mind the belt is rubber. But that is easily resolved.
As the popularity of turntables continues to increase, then so the technology advances. And the manufacturers include it. Some of the issues we have raised probably won’t exist in ten or even five years.
There are plenty of both designs available, and there is some real quality at great prices. There will be those that go over $5000 for a turntable and some even up to to $25,000.
But most of us won’t. We will therefore be looking for a great turntable, in either format, at a cost-effective price.
Looking for a fantastic new turntable?
Well, if you’re after something high-quality, check out our reviews of the Best Turntables under 1000 Dollars or the Best Turntables under 500 Dollars. Or, if you’re after a mid-price option, take a look at the Best Turntables under 400 Dollars or the Best Turntables under 300 Dollars currently on the market in 2021.
Direct Drive vs Belt Drive Turntables – Final Thoughts
There are good reasons for buying both belt-drive and direct-drive turntables. As I said in my introduction, it rather depends on what you are going to do with it.
But in my view, unless you are a DJ, or planning to be one, then I consider a belt-drive is going to be the best option.
If you get a belt drive with a heavy platter and an isolated motor, then the belt drive would get our vote. Get the best belt drive your budget can afford. I don’t think you will regret it.