Q: I am interested in purchasing a turntable for my vinyl record collection. My budget is $500. What is your opinion of direct drive vs. belt-drive turntables?
A: This might seem like a simple question, but it took a lot of thought. Many audiophiles would say belt drive is better because direct drive costs a fortune to do well. The reasoning behind this is the belief that inexpensive direct-drive turntables pick up too much vibration from the motor and sound noisy, or that quartz-controlled direct-drive mechanisms sound uneven because they are constantly "hunting" for the correct speed.
Although I am familiar with both arguments, I have come to consider them to be baloney.
Granted, you have to be careful when selecting a cartridge for a direct drive turntable because some cartridge types (like moving coils) might pick up hum from the motor. But when matched with a proper cartridge, even a modestly priced direct-drive turntable can sound great.
Keep in mind that any turntable must be evaluated as a sum of its parts. The turntable, arm and cartridge all must work well together to produce good sound, and matching is critical.
There is also the phono preamp, which amplifies and adjusts the signal from the cartridge so it can work with an amplifier or powered speakers. This preamp is found in the turntable itself, in an amplifier or receiver, or as a separate component.
As I looked back at all the turntables I have owned or tested, the ones I have liked the best have been direct drive. In my experience, a well-executed direct drive turntable has a very neutral sound, with excellent smoothness, precision, power and accuracy.
I currently own a belt-drive model (AVID Diva II) and a direct-drive Technics SL-1210M5G. I tend to use the Technics more. If I needed a new turntable, I would buy the newest version of the Technics, the SL-1200GR, which is $1,699. Given the quality of the construction and the new, improved drive system, the SL-1200GR is a high-end bargain.
But you don't have to go top-of-the-line. I have two direct-drive and two belt-drive recommendations for you to consider, all under $500. All are great performers and quite different from each other. As you check them out, I think you will quickly know which one is for best you.
LP Gear (lpgear.com) offers two direct-drive Audio-Technica turntables upgraded with my favorite budget cartridge, LP Gear's the Vessel A3SE. This cartridge's spectacular sound transforms these turntables into something special.
The A3SE-improved AT-LP5 is $489, and the A3SE-improved AT-LP120-USB is $349. Both include a phono preamp and USB computer connections.
The $399 Pro-Ject Debut Carbon DC (sumikoaudio.net) has long been the audiophile standard under $500 and should definitely be on your shopping list. No phono preamp is included.
Lastly, the $249 Fluance RT81 (fluance.com) is by far the most-attractive turntable you will see for under $500, with its beautiful, finely polished wood base. It has a built-in phono preamp and a good starter cartridge.
Send questions to Don Lindich at email@example.com. Get recommendations and read past columns at soundadvicenews.com.