Week 31, 2017: Direct drive vs. belt drive turntables, four turntables under $500 from Audio Technica, Pro-ject and Fluance

Sound Advice

By Don Lindich

Week 31, 2017

Q. I am interested in purchasing a turntable for my vinyl record collection. My budget is $500. What is your opinion of directdrive vs. belt drive turntables, do you like one better than the other?

-S.M., San Jose, CA

A. I think it is obvious that you are better off with a $1,000 belt drive turntable than a $500 direct drive turntable, and vice-versa. But taken as a generalization, which do I think is better? This simple question took a lot of thought.

Many audiophiles would immediately say, “belt drive is better” and “direct drive costs a fortune to do well.” One high-end manufacturer recently offered a $30,000 direct drive turntable, saying that is what it costs to do direct drive properly! The reasoning behind audiophile prejudices 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.

Though I am familiar with both arguments, over time I have come to consider them both to be baloney. You have to be careful when selecting a cartridge for a direct drive turntable, because certain cartridge types (like moving coils) may pick up hum from the motor, but when matched with a proper cartridge even an affordable direct drive turntable can sound just great.

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 high-end belt drive model (AVID Diva II) and a direct drive Technics SL-1210M5G. I tend to find myself using the Technics more than the AVID, and that is saying something given the difference in price.

If I needed a new turntable today 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.

My personal preference is just a generalization because 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.

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 look over them I think you will quickly know which one is for you.

LP Gear 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.

I have not tried the AT-LP5, but many readers have purchased the upgraded AT-LP120-USB and are thrilled with it. Both include a phono preamp and USB computer connections.


The $399 Pro-ject Debut Carbon DC has long been the audiophile standard under $500 and should definitely be on your shopping list. No phono preamp or USB connections are included.

The $249 Fluance Fi50 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.