There is a long-standing myth amongst some circles that belt-drive is inherently superior in some way. It isn’t.
The TLDR here is that the drive method is only one of many factors determining turntable performance. If we only look at that element, direct drive has many advantages, but as you’ll see, a turntable is the sum of many parts. As always, only the facts matter, opinions are superfluous, hence you’ll not find them here.
Science (Myths vs Facts)
This notion is perpetuated by technically uninformed mainstream media and end-users, and fuelled by the general desire to support small manufacturers, many of whom are ‘friends’. A general lack of experience with true high-end turntables on the part of many only compounds the misinformation you’ll find regurgitated in forums and elsewhere.
I should point out that, as a scientist by training, I don’t care which method is superior. The scientific process carries with it no inherent bias in any direction, only a desire for the truth, and that’s how I approach my work. That’s why I own high-end belt-drive and direct-drive turntables. They are both incredibly good decks.
One critically important goal of any good turntable is to spin the platter as close to the perfect speed as possible, with as little variation and vibration as possible. Belt-drive offers no inherent advantages in any of these areas and disadvantages in most implementations.
The best performers by these metrics are direct-drive turntables. This is science and the data is measurable. That being said, there are exceptional belt-drive and direct-drive turntables. I’m lucky enough to own an end-game example of each and I can confirm that the drive method is not the most important factor to consider.
Design and manufacturing costs are the overriding reason why you don’t see many new direct-drive machines these days. It’s cheaper to make decent belt-drive turntables and this is why most affordable decks tend to be belt-driven. This suits small manufacturers who can build a belt-drive turntable using readily available, low-cost motors. It also suits the buying public who generally don’t want to spend $20K USD on a turntable, hence the preponderance of good reviews of cheap belt-drive machines.
Direct-drive machines are much more expensive to design and manufacture, but direct-drive has advantages in terms of torque and speed consistency, so where cost is no object, you’ll generally find direct-drive. The performance advantages of direct-drive systems explain why some of the best and most expensive turntables, tape machines and cutting lathes utilise direct-drive. That being said, there are some killer, high-end belt-drive turntables too.
The bottom line of course is that you get what you pay for. A good turntable, no matter what the drive method, is expensive, like all good things.
Highest-Tier Use Cases
As I mentioned, most of your records were recorded, mastered and cut on direct-drive tape machines and cutting lathes. A) Did you know that? and B) Have you thought about why that is? More than anything else I can tell you, this dispels the misinformation about which drive type is preferable. Just think about it: people far smarter than you or I choose what’s best in cost-no-object scenarios. Record-cutting lathes ARE direct-drive
Superior methods are always used where performance is critical and cost is no option. This truth explains why many of the great turntables are direct-drive and why those machines are so highly sought after.
Many belt-drive lovers get snakey when these facts are pointed out, but most have never owned or even listened to a high-end machine like an L-07D or SP-10/SL-1000. My perspective, having worked on and listened to thousands of turntables over the years is this: show me an excellent turntable and I’ll use it, belt, idler or direct-drive. My current working reference is a belt-drive Luxman (Micro) PD-350. It’s a phenomenal turntable. My best turntable is my direct-drive Kenwood L-07D though.
Sum of the Parts
As I’ve mentioned in other FAQs, the totality of the performance of a piece of equipment is rarely defined by just one aspect of it. This is certainly true with turntables where the drive method is rarely the defining factor in turntable performance, but an element of it. One must look at all factors, including drive method, chassis construction, platter and tonearm mass and design when evaluating a turntable. Great turntables come in various flavours, belt-drive and direct-drive. You need to choose which aspects of the design and performance matter most, to you!