Whether you’re new to vinyl or looking to upgrade your current setup, you should be aware that there are two main types of turntable: belt drive and direct drive. What’s the difference? Is one better than the other? We’ve got everything you need to know.
In the case of both belt drive and direct drive turntables, the terms are describing how the motor drives the platter that the record sits on. In the case of a belt drive turntable, the name explains how it works fairly well. A belt is attached to both the motor and the platter, causing the motor to spin the platter.
The earliest turntables were belt-driven, which is part of why the design is so common, but there’s another reason. The belt, usually made from plastic or rubber, doesn’t transmit much of the engine noise to the platter. This means less motor noise makes its way through the stylus and into your speakers.
Of course, various factors can change how much motor noise you get from a belt-driven turntable. For example, while platter weight is important in belt drive turntables for many reasons, one of them is that a heavier platter transmits less motor noise from the belt.
As we’ve already seen above, avoiding motor noise is one of the main reasons that belt drive turntables are still so popular today. This raises the signal-to-noise ratio (SNR), making for overall better sound quality.
Because they’re so common and because they’re popular with consumers, belt-driven turntables are often more affordable than direct drive turntables. This isn’t an absolute fact, and you can pay thousands for either belt driven or direct drive turntables. Still, if you want to start listening to vinyl records (and you really should) you’ll typically get better audio performance for the price with a belt drive model like the Pro-Ject Debut Carbon EVO.
Belt drive turntables aren’t perfect. For example, they can be prone to pitch variance, as the belt’s grip on the platter may not be perfect. This is another case where a heavier platter is helpful, as it maintains momentum and keeps pitch constant.
The belt in a turntable is a wear part, so you should expect to need to repair or replace the belt. This takes a long time, so you shouldn’t need to expect the belt in your turntable more than every five years, and it’s common to go far longer. Of course, this depends on how often you use your turntable.
Belt drive turntables have far less torque than a direct drive turntable. This means that they take longer to get up to full speed, but this is rarely something you’ll actually need to worry about. If you require higher torque, you’ll likely prefer a direct drive turntable.
Direct drive as a name also does a great job of describing how this type of turntable works. Here, the motor directly drives the platter, so this is no belt or anything else between the motor and the platter.
While this design seems simple, it wasn’t developed until the late 1960s, when Matsushita-Technics named Shuichi Obata pioneered the design. It wasn’t long before a very specific clientele became hooked on this type of turntable design: DJs.
While belt drive turntables struggle with torque, this doesn’t matter if you’re listening at home because they still speed up quickly enough. For DJs quickly stopping and starting records, that instant speed up was a key feature. To this day, all DJ-centric turntables are direct drive.
One of the main pros of the direct drive design is the torque we mentioned above. While this is generally only good for DJs, there are other benefits of direct drive designs that are good for home use.
For starters, a direct drive turntable is easier to maintain. There is no belt to replace, and you don’t have to worry about the belt slipping off the platter when you move your turntable (believe me, it happens).
Another benefit, albeit more for DJs, is that weight from the needle or your hands on the platter is less of an issue. On a belt drive turntable, this will slow the platter and lower the pitch. With a belt drive, the motor has enough force to counteract these small changes in weight.
While the design is simple, motor noise is more of an issue in direct drive turntables. For DJs in a loud club, this slight motor noise isn’t much of an issue, though high-quality DJ turntables still aim to eliminate motor noise. For audiophiles, the slight bit of hum, which is amplified by the phono preamp, is a massive annoyance.
Manufacturers have found ways to reduce motor noise and bring direct drive turntables into your home, but it’s often not cheap. This means that while affordable direct drive turntables like the Crosley C200A-BK do exist, they’re not as common as belt drive models.
To make it simple, the belt drive turntable is the best option for most people at home. If you’re just getting into vinyl, you’ll likely want a more affordable turntable, and you’ll find more affordable belt drive options than you will direct drive options.
That said, great direct drive turntables aimed at the home market do exist, and while they can be expensive, there are affordable models as well. If you’re tired of messing with free DJ apps and want to move to an actual turntable, you’ll definitely want a direct drive model.
When it comes down to it, there are plenty of other factors in your turntable you should pay attention to, starting with how it sounds to you. Let the features that matter most to you choose a turntable for you, or cheat by taking a look at our favorites.