Direct Drive vs. Idler Drive vs. Belt drive

I'd like to know your thoughts on the strengths and weaknesses of each drive system. I can see that direct drive is more in vogue over the last few years but is it superior to the other drive systems? I've had first-hand experiences with two out of the three drive systems but looking to learn more.
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Showing 22 responses by mikelavigne


Mike, It is interesting to hear from you on this subject. About 7-10 years ago, you had 3 turntables set up. One was a tweaked Garrard 301, another was a Rockport Sirius, and the third was a Technics, as I recall, eventually replaced by a Dobbins Technics and then by Dobbins’ The Beat. Have I got that about right? You were my guru on this subject.

thanks Lew. and right you are. but back then my collection of turntables (other than the Rockport and NVS) was at more modest price points. i enjoyed my NVS these last 9 years, but decided to invest in a top level belt and top level idler as i found that the music was not ideally served by one drive approach. and it’s been great fun and musically satisfying getting back to having choices when playing vinyl.

the belt drive and idler i have now are as low noise and speed steady as my direct drive; and both are even heavier. all three have high mass platters and plinths.
this the three drive approaches might sound different, guided me this last year to add some turntables. i wanted a top level example of each drive method. and then top arms and cartridges too. you can look at my system page for details and pictures.

i have owned a direct drive tt; the Wave Kinetics NVS, for 9 years (and previously owned the Rockport Sirius III for 8 years, generally viewed as the top direct drive turntable ever).

slam, scale, authority.

last August i purchased the Saskia model two, an idler.

PRAT....flow.....tonal weight......timbre.....focus.

then in November i purchased the CS Port LFT1, an air bearing, string/belt drive.

space, detail, liquidity, nuance, decay, holographic.......truth.

and the answer is that these drive differences do play out in musical connection/synergy terms. and i do choose turntables somewhat based on the music or mood i’m in.

so far my favorite turntable seems to change from week to week and i really enjoy them all. i’m happy i made this investment in vinyl truth.

and the last point i will make is that execution is way more significant in ultimate turntable drive satisfaction than dogma. i choose these three turntables for the level of execution of their designs. they each compete with the very top level of their drive types.
Sad to say Mike has no rim drive example. Oh well. Always room for one more, eh?

........and the Dodo bird is extinct for a reason. :-)

just kidding. Chris Brady’s turntables were enjoyable to listen to. and he was a good guy too.

seriously though, the rim drive and idler are the same concept turned inside out. again.....execution of those two similar 'high' leverage drive approaches is much more significant than the dogma of outside or inside.
your first reaction to a good direct drive is that it will sound somewhat digital, in that it won’t have any character of it’s own. of course, it can sound perfectly natural yet the lack of coloration will require an adjustment. it will have more slam, but not quite the drive, of your idlers. lower noise, blacker backgrounds, wider stage, a bigger, spacious type sound, not quite as focused. it might be more speed steady than your belt drive.

Rock music will soar with direct drive. large scale will hold together. maybe slightly less sexy than the belt drives, maybe a touch less liquid. the contrast will depend on the quality of your three choices for drive types and their level of condition and set-up and ancillary gear.

as you go up the food chain for each of these drive types they all get very quiet and there are fewer downsides of their drive types, just attributes to enjoy. better bearings, heavier platters, higher mass plinths, better motors....matter in each drive type. no replacement for displacement. music loves to be grounded solidly.
Is the Technics SP10 enough for me to experience many of the qualities direct drive has to offer?

How are all your new turntables comparing to your reel to reel? I’m on a similar journey with reel to reel as I am with vinyl.


there are three different SP-10’s. the Mk2, Mk3 and new R.

and the MK3 and new ’R’ are 2 of the better direct drive choices. they can be very very good with the proper plinth. the MK3 also benefits from power supply upgrades.

i owned a Mk2 and a Mk3, both with Dobbins plinths, back in 2009-2011 and enjoyed them both

assuming you are referring to a Mk2; a step down from those other 2......but.....yes, if it is in good condition with a good quality high mass plinth then it should be able to display the positive aspects of direct drive. it is a great bang for the buck choice. the SP-10 Mk2 can be low noise and explosive sounding and a good one likely betters most under $10k new turntables i’ve heard overall.

as far as RTR and my turntables; the very best tapes are still better.......especially the 1/2", 15ips.; but my vinyl can now be equal or better than many of my tapes that use to be superior. the gap has closed to some degree. these days i am very selective about adding any tape due to this issue.

the SP-10 Mk3 likely has a platter heavier than 20 pounds, maybe 30, the NVS has a 40 pound platter, the Rockport Sirius III has a 55 pound platter.

as far as Ralph’s points;

absolutely my direct drives did rock in my room exceedingly well.

in order of performance----SP-10 Mk2 < Mk3 < NVS < Rockport.

I am specifically referring to large scale rock, meant to be played a warp 9. direct drive separates parts of the soundstage more effectively than idler or belts, scales larger, and has more slam. direct drives relative weak points......sexiness and tonal density.....are less significant with large scale rock.

all air bearings are not created equal. painting with a broad brush is just not informed. there are general characteristics I do agree. but exceptions too.

same thing with platter pads. every platter is a different case, and different tt weights matter too. no broad brush there either.

I would be interested in hearing about an air bearing that has less play than a high quality bearing of conventional design.

with air bearings there are high pressure, high flow......and low pressure low flow....designs. the high pressure (the Rockport and almost all others) is logically a more robust amount of air pressure building up between metal parts. locations of venturie’s also matters especially for the arm tubes. platter air bearings sometimes are fully captured and other times use an ’air’ film to reduce resonance.

as far as ’less play’ than a conventional bearing i’d say that i’m not concerned about the technical side of what is ’play’.....more about what my ears tell me. and isolating final performance to individual pieces is really guessing for end users.

my low flow-low pressure air bearing CS Port LFT1 turntable and linear tracker give me more detail than any conventional bearing turntable and conventional bearing tonearm i have heard. the bass is otherworldly. magnificent.
Mike, Platter of SP10 Mk3 is listed as "10kg" or "21 lbs", everywhere. Not near to 30 lbs. It’s heavy enough as is

thanks Lew, my 9 year old memory was recalling how heavy the case was with the motor and platter and my guess was wrong.

but.......there is no ’heavy enough’. :-)

my CS Port has a 60 pound platter, the American Sound AS-2000 has a 200 pound platter.
obviously a belt drive tt uses the platter mass differently than a direct drive or idler. which we could write a book about.

but if you investigate the top performers of each drive type they all have relatively heavy platters; and you would find that within each drive type that performance differences would generally relate to platter and plinth mass. it’s not that simple.....but it sorta is.

inertia plays a big role in musical solidity and ease. for tape decks too when you observe solidity of the transports and the deck structure.

they do not have an airbearing concept like Caeles or the Apolyt.

i assume when you say 'Airforce tables' you are referring to TechDAS.

are you saying that the TechDAS Airforce tables do not have air bearings? or that their approach/concept to air bearings is different than the Caeles and Apolyt?

since clearly the Airforce tt’s have air bearings.

if it’s a different approach to an air bearing, please explain how it’s different. thank you.

If you’re obsessed with suspensions, Minus K or Herzan or possibly Vibraplane are ways to go. And each of those can be used with any drive system.

the Herzan active type systems can only be used when the gear has zero sensed self noise. any self noise will set up a feedback loop and burn out the device, or at least compromise the benefit. which is why it can’t be used on many turntables.

for instance it works perfectly with my dd Wave Kinetics NVS as it zero self noise. but my Saskia model two idler has considerable self noise so it’s not a candidate. most belt drives and idlers are not candidates. i could use a passive air device such as a Stacore with the Saskia and may try it.

thank you for that hint. i did see a picture of the bearing here;

looks very purposeful. it’s similar to what i had on my Rockport Sirius III. not sure about the TechDAS.

currently my CS Port LFT1 has an air bearing and the whole platter sits on an air film. it is a low flow low pressure design. i like it a lot.
why servo’s suck.....

In order to pick up sound accurately from the analog disc, the rotation of the platter must be rotated at a constant speed without any “fluctuation”. In general, accurate rotation is obtained by servo control by negative feedback, but at the micro level, if it rotates or becomes faster, it detects it and slows it, and repeats the operation to make it faster if it gets slower. Although this level and cycle are determined by the gain of the control system and the loop speed, the period of the speed control of the platter which is the mechanical system surely comes into the audio band. In general, accurate rotation is obtained by servo control by negative feedback, but at the micro level, if it rotates or becomes faster, it detects it and slows it, and repeats the operation to make it faster if it gets slower. If you try to measure a period with a small level, you can not measure the instantaneous state, so you measure the average value. Therefore, fine vibration generated by servo control can not be measured by the measuring instrument, it depends on the human ear.

yes.......the human ear.

when we consider belts, idlers, and direct drive........2 of those have the choice of no servo’s.

i’ve owned a number of top flight direct drive turntables; including the Rockport Sirius III, the SP-10 Mk2 and Mk3, and now the Wave Kinetics NVS for the last 9 years. taken singularly; none of those were obviously lacking in speed solidity and musical flow. but over these last 6-9 months, in direct side by side comparison to the Saskia model two idler, and the CS Port LFT1 Belt drive, neither of which have servo’s......this idea of the human ear hearing the musical cost of feedback is very real.

execution of an idler or belt to the degree to take full advantage of the lack of feedback is paramount, but when you do your ’ears’ will thank you.
At 53K before tonearm I would hope the Saskia has what your previous DD’s did not. I would love to hear one to compare with my much less expensive set-ups.

the Rockport Sirius III direct drive was way more expensive than the Saskia even back when i owned it. now a nice one would run you over $100k. but i think cost is not a good way to view things, especially turntables. we find real gems sometimes at modest investments. 

I have maybe 18K in my hot-rodded 301. 4K for a nearly NOS drive unit. Close to 2K for a solid brass platter, another 1K for a solid brass spindle/main bearing, close to 2K for a PSU to decrease motor noise, 3K for a custom plinth that weighs 50 lbs or so in layered cherry with cocobolo outer veneer, another 2K for things like an AS idler wheel and stillpointes, and 4K for my Reed 3P arm.

congrats on your Garrard.

i owned a Steve Dobbins Garrard 301 with a Loricraft UPS power supply and a Reed arm back in 2009-2011. i loved that turntable. yours sounds very special. no reason it might not be head to head with my Saskia.

thank you for the kind words about my Saskia, i do consider it a very special piece and enjoy it's way of making the music come alive every day. no doubt idlers do some certain things for the music that seems essential to me.
Dear @rauliruegas

thank you for the kind words my friend. it is always a pleasure discussing the finer points of vinyl playback with you.

you say that in your 3 today TTs MUSIC flows and spin with speed stability that at least you can’t detect.

I want to think that your TTs comparisons were made it using the same cartridge and at least in the NVS and Saskia with the same tonearm model.

The DD servo motor control always comes in any drive TT discusions and for the same characteristics that @richardkrebs posted here but even he can’t really detect that characteristic because he use DD TT.
I have first hand experiences with several DD TTs and BD TTs but not a first rate idlerdrive one. As Richard and you I can’t detect any non-stable speed changes because the servo control.

i simply have to disagree that it is necessary to isolate cartridges and arms to draw conclusions about drive characteristics. even if we duplicate arms and cartridges, there are always synergy issues involved which can be issues. having lived with many high level direct drive tt’s in my system for almost 20 years now, with all sorts of arms and cartridges, i have a real feel for what they do, and where they are not ideal. will everyone accept my view? no, and i don’t need that to happen. i just have my reality based on my experiences.

after so many years with direct drives, you might ask why now i have added these two other turntables, the idler Sakia model two, and the string drive, high mass platter CS Port LFT1? why indeed?

it is to be able to answer this EXACT question for myself. what makes each drive type special? what can each drive type bring of value to the musical equation and allow my record collection come as fully alive as possible as i sail into retirement in the next couple of years. choosing the Saskia as the ’uber’ idler was easy, i had heard it at shows a couple of times and was always blown away, i knew Win Tinnon and so when i saw one for sale last summer i found a way to acquire it. and it’s been all i expected it to be......if not "the" top, "at" the top of the idler heap.

choosing the CS Port as my belt drive choice was more involved. i reached out to my friend Mik in the U.K. who knows more about turntables than maybe anyone anywhere, and we talked about all sorts of choices. i met Mik in 2004 when we both had Rockport Sirius III's. Mik now has -4- Rockport Sirius III's as well as maybe 75-100 other turntables.

i almost bought the VYGER Indian Mk4, but the more i spoke to Mik, the more the purity, energy and Japanese ’zen’ calmness of the CS Port appealed to me and i loved it’s low pressure low flow air bearing 60 pound platter and linear tracker. Mik has pretty much everything at his place and this was his choice for what is currently on the market.

and it’s been everything and then some to my ears for the last 6 months. that arm and that turntable transport the music to another dimension. the lack of any grain or edge, yet such musical essence is magical. and at the heart of that is the ’drive’ approach which no direct drive can capture. other high mass string drives at the top of the food chain do similar things and i’m not claiming it’s ’better’ that those others, but it has it’s own effervescence and sparkle. it digs out a level of nuance and musical truth i’ve never encountered before.

both the Saskia and CS Port have that flow and musical rightness that get’s into your body and feels right. that musical energy and life. alive, tense, and enveloping.

when i play all three turntables the drive differences are not subtle, yet all three are each excellent in their own ways. none of them fail at anything, yet each brings it’s own strengths.

So it does not matters if air bearing or DD or idlerdrive all of them are " resonating " somewhere in different way ( using the same cartridge/tonearm. ) and the cartridge is taking that overall non damped resonances/vibrations/feedback or whatever you want and for me it’s here from where comes all differences in between, at least the detectable ones.

i disagree. at these levels of execution, with the Saskia with a 200 pound plinth, and 40 pound platter.......and the CS Port with a 100 pound plinth, air bearing, and 60 pound platter, and both with truly top flight build quality, these are really completely sorted out and finished designs. neither are well known or widely heard. don’t count that against them.

both of these designs allow the arm and cartridge to be optimized. there are no compromises.

but the separator turns out to be the lack of servo on the belt and idler. i’m drawn to those two emotionally more. now that i’ve lived with those i’m always conscious of that aspect of my NVS direct drive. my NVS has the advantage of the Taiko Tana active isolation and that is an attractive aspect of listening to it as it has this other worldly ability to retain textures and fine threads of the music. and the big, powerful direct drive sound does add power to certain music that plays to big bold pieces, large scale rock and certain electronic music. it is my long term reference and so many cuts are so familiar.

however; all the theory in the world melts away when you hear a top level belt drive or idler on great vinyl. never has my vinyl listening been more satisfying than these last 6 months with these 3 turntables, i can find the ideal approach for any pressing. or hear different faces of the same pressing. it’s a cap’er to my multi-decade system building efforts.

Mr. Krebs is invited any time to hear how these compare. he can bring his SP-10 Mk3 if he likes.
NVS costs $45K brand new.
EMT 948 costs $10K NOS or $5K used in perfect conditons with tonearm.

when you get into vintage turntables compared to new, there are no rules. and you have to view value with time adjusted dollar values. the EMT 948 with arm was similar value in the mid-80's to a new NVS. we could name a number of 70's and 80's direct drive tt's which are fully competitive to new models. and some would claim the vintage choices are better.

and then you have the idea of what would one spend for a used NVS now? so the $45k number is......just a number.

which does not make the EMT 948 a bad tt. it's a very good one, but not at the very top rank even for vintage direct my ears.

personally i do view the NVS as being in the top rank of current direct drive tt's. particularly sitting on my Takio Tana active shelf. it's the best direct drive i have heard.

It is weird that people on this forum are not familiar with EMT 950 and 948 DD turntables.
They work different compared to Technics SP10 mk2 and mk3.
EMT DD have a powerful DC motor and lightweight platter. IMHO it is much more proper servo control design.
EMT DD were very expensive in 70x, 80x. 950 costed 15000DM.
A number of times more expensive than Technics SP10.
And they where sold on professional market before marketing era.
That days, studios and radio stations knew what they pay for. Not like modern audiophiles pay for a piece of a modern art design.
I also knew that Japanese audio enthusiasts prefer EMT DD turntable to their local stuff. A big part of EMT turntables where sold from Germany to Japan.

i did own a mint EMT 948 for 2 years......

it was in mint condition and i did like it.

but for my money i preferred my Wave Kinetics NVS direct drive by a good margin. just my opinion, of course.
Mike, hi. I thought it was a little instructive that on WBF you didn't mention much in yr comparison to existing NVS of yr new CSPort and Saskia. Now I'm reading you have some strong opinions on potential negatives of servo and use of such on NVS.
So, you're getting greater satisfaction, immersion, from yr non-servo thread- and idler-drives?
That's not to say the NVS isn't first rate. Just that it's not as fully fleshed out as the Saskia, and not quite as ethereal as the CSPort?
Or am I as usual reading too much into yr words?

Marc, i got into it here on Audiogon first since the thread topic matched my current investigations to a 'T'. i've certainly suggested these conclusions on WBF too, as has Mik. but for whatever reason the dialogue did not continue there as it has here, which caused me to go deeper into it here.

recently i've been listening to much more vinyl, and really focusing on the drive differences. i've also been comparing EMAI SUT's which has focused me on turntable differences. so these ideas are fresh with me and there are lots of hours of listening behind them so my feelings are very strong and clear. 

the NVS has its own unique qualities and continues to be a strong performer and supreme at certain things. but most jazz and classical i prefer the lack of a servo clearly. the CS Port and Saskia are really amazing turntables, the CS Port does things i've never heard done before anywhere. but no one knows about it so it does not resonate with people.
Can you comment on your statement above, if the drive is capable of micro speed stability would it not be able to maintain its
speed or for that matter a stationary dot on a wall over a 1.8 sec

the speed almost does not matter within a range. our ears and brains are dramatically more sensitive to steadyness of pitch than the actual pitch. and our reality check with our senses is any sort of grain or warbling in a decay or sustain is immediately sensed as a non-linearity......not real.

so the idea of accuracy is going down the wrong path. we want steady.......and we want continuous.

are there people with perfect pitch. maybe, but not many. and different pitches typically don't sound 'wrong'. OTOH everyone can hear when a piano or horn sounds sour and it's a bummer.

there is more to music than these concepts;; but when done right this is very big.
i’ve not heard all the best vintage direct drives, and so don’t want to claim i have. but i’ve heard the best one, and that is the Rockport Siruis III, which i owned for 8 years. but the very best one is a Sirius III modified and improved by my friend Mik, who i referenced earlier in this thread. he owns 4 of those. the Sirius III was designed in 1995, so some might not consider it ’vintage’. but that is now 25 years ago.

likely the next favorites would be;

2. Denon DN-308

3. Denon DP100
3.Technics SP-10mk3 (i owned a ’Dobbins-plinthed’ Mk3 for 2 years)
3.Pioneer Exlcusive P3

4.Sony PS-X9
4.Kenwood L-07D

this is assuming primo condition and 2-4 might be different for different listeners. and maybe i missed one. the Goldmund might fit somewhere in this.

i would place the NOS EMT 948 just below this group.

i consider my NVS sitting on the active platform as competitive with any of those. and forced to choose between any of those, possibly excepting the Sirius III modified my Mik, i would choose my CS Port belt drive as my preference for most music.

just one guy’s opinion. 10 people might have 10 different lists.
Dear Raul,

i respect your perspective on microscopic groove actions and groove modulation effects of drive systems....

When the stylus start to ride the groove modulations that act develops many other tiny modulations as: feedback from the LP surface due to the friction of the stylus tip forces, the surface of the LP and due to that very high friction forces makes that exist too a feedback from the LP surface that is in touch with the platter or platter mat .
These are the first tiny developed modulations that goes mixed through the stylus/cantilever along the groove modulations ( the cartridge can’t make any difference between the groove modulations and the fedback modulations, just took it as it was the same. Is a very sensitive movements sensor. ).
That kind of feedback is followed by the cartridge body self feedback developed by the cantilever/stylus tracking and comes a new feedback movement that’s very fast transmitted to the cantilever and that same cartridge body feedback and through the top plate of the cartridge is transmitted to the tonearm headshel and starts to resonates in between ( this is totally independent of the resonance frequency in between the tonearm/cartridge and its compliance. ) and transmitted through the tonearm and then to the arm board but does not disappears because part of those kind of resonances/vibrations return through that arm board to the cantilever/stylus and mixed again with the true groove modulations.

no mechanical device is perfect, which also goes for my three turntables.

however; each of turntables do address these issues in their own ways. and like any high performance piece of gear, i have tuned each of these appropriately to get them to be optimized.

as far as groove modulations; obviously the NVS has direct drive and a heavy 45 pound platter to eliminate that concern, the Saskia uses the idler wheel leverage to overcome this, and the CS Port an air bearing and air float inertia of a 60 pound platter to address this. i get zero congestion at musical peaks from any of these tt's......which is where this issue reveals itself typically.

as far as microscopic resonance we again have three different solutions; the NVS (closest to my massive bass towers) uses the Taiko Tana active isolation as well as the Durand record weight. the Saskia uses it's 180 pound decoupled plinth, and stillpoint like footers, and the CS Port it's air bearing and air float platter, as well as it's 6 pound record weight.

all three have apparently very calm stylus in groove tracking.

these things are always degrees of success, trade-offs and compromises. again, anything mechanical can only approach perfection. my ears tell me these approach it closely. :-) 

all three challenge my big Studer's for musical rightness......the gold standard.
Mike, you really need to get a Reed 5T and tell us how you like it. If I had $20K disposable now I would go for it.
Mik in the UK has one and likes it a lot, but prefers the CS Port Linear tracker......which i love. so not in the market for a different linear tracker. and the Reed is very expensive.

for a pivoted arm, my favorite is the gimbal bearing Durand Tosca (similar to the SAT).....which is on my Saskia. best pivoted arm i’ve heard.