High Fidelity: Two different turntable formats reviewed

By Todd Whitesel
In Review:
In Review:

Marantz (us.marantz.com)
TT-15S1 Belt-drive turntable, $1,699.99

Report Card:
Value: Offers high-end performance and sound in an appealing package.
Final Grade: ****

Denon (www.usa.denon.com)
DP-500M Direct-drive turntable, $699

Report Card:
Value: Particularly good at reproducing bass and mid-range and coherant sound images.
Final Grade: ****

THE MARANTZTT-15S1 is a belt-drive turntable that costs $1,699.99. Courtesy of Marantz
THE MARANTZTT-15S1 is a belt-drive turntable that costs $1,699.99. Courtesy of Marantz
Belt drive or direct drive? That’s a question facing every vinyl lover looking to purchase a turntable.

In the past, there was a fairly clear divide between the two factions. Direct-drive units were often seen as sonically inferior to belt drives and mass marketed to consumers wanting low-cost, easy setup, convenience (many direct-drive ’tables were fully automatic) and any number of extra gadgets and buttons to make life simple.

Belt-drive systems, by contrast, required some expertise to set up properly and also active involvement in the record-playing process, from setting the tonearm down onto an album to lifting it off at the end. If you happened to leave the room or just forgot, the inevitable static of the stylus bumping dead wax would continue until manually abated.

In this column we’ll look at two manual operating turntables representing the respective belt-drive and direct-drive camps: Marantz’s TT-15S1 and Denon’s DP-500M.

Marantz TT-15S1

Marantz’s TT-15S1 ($1,699.99) is the company’s lone turntable offering, but it’s a good one. The contemporary design incorporates a high-density acrylic chassis and platter engineered to minimize unwanted resonances, and the ’table is supported by three, solid aluminum feet to keep the system stable.

There’s a cutout in the back left of the platform, where an asynchronous AC motor sits and drives a silicon belt, which can be raised or lowered from one of two slots on the motor pulley to play 33 or 45 rpm records. The same motor also serves as “off and on” switch.

The TT-15S1 is a complete turntable package and comes bundled with the excellent Clearaudio Virtuoso moving magnet cartridge, which alone retails for nearly $900. Also included is a felt mat and Souther Engineering’s “Clever Clamp.” This friction-fitting plastic disc features a square-cut hole, slightly smaller than a turntable’s spindle, which, when secured, expands to fit most spindles. It’s a low-cost but effective way to couple records tightly to the platter.

For a belt-drive system, the Marantz is very easy to set up — connect a ground wire, insert the center shaft and turntable platter, attach and level the tonearm, attach the cartridge, balance the tonearm, adjust stylus pressure and anti-skating, attach the motor pulley, put the motor in place and install the belt. In fewer than 12 steps, the TT-15S1 is ready for records.

The ’table does require some “fine” fine-tuning to set the anti-skate and keep the arm traveling across the entire record platter. If it’s not set just right, about two-thirds of the way into the LP the arm will start skipping and not move further. Visiting some audio chat rooms, I discovered that others had come up against the same problem.

The TT-51S1 has a silky smooth and clean sound that can bring out the best in a record collection. It’s also an exceptionally quiet and nuanced machine that excels at extracting minute details. Michael Hedges’ Breakfast In The Fields and Aerial Boundaries remain two of the most innovative acoustic guitar albums to date and both are amazing recordings. I loved hearing tunes such as the swirling “Layover” or the explosive harmonics of “Rickover’s Dream” presented with nuance, speed and precision.

Denon DP-500M

Denon’s DP-500M ($699) design harks back to the 1980s, when direct-drive ’tables ruled the market, and Denon was a major player.

With direct-drive turntables, the motor and platter are directly coupled, which can lead to undesired noise transmitting into the platter and affecting record playback. To counter, Denon has covered the entire bottom surface of the die-cast-aluminum platter with silicon rubber and housed the ’table in a MDF chassis to reduce howling.

The rubber turntable mat features a slight taper from the outside in to increase adhesion between records and platter. A high-torque motor turns on and off in just 0.3 seconds, and the platter speed is kept stable using a high-density optical pulse encoder and PLL (phase-locked loop) quartz control system. No cartridge is supplied with the DP-500M, so you’ll need to purchase one separately. The ’table works with moving magnet and moving coil cartridges from 3 to 12 grams weight. Denon suggests four of its own moving coil cartridges, ranging in price from the DL-160 ($179) to the DL-304 ($699). For review, I opted for the mid-line DL-103R ($379), a revered moving coil, known for its high performance-to-price ratio.

Setup is easy, particularly since the tonearm is a pre-mounted tonearm and there’s no belt to fiddle with. All that’s left to do is set the platter and mat in place, mount the counterweight and cartridge, secure the dust cover, level the feet, balance the tonearm and then set anti-skate and stylus pressure. Although the DP-500M is a manual turntable, it’s a joy to use and one of the quietest operators, belt- or direct-drive, that I’ve heard. Playback for 33- and 45-rpm records can be adjusted quickly by pressing the speed-selector button. An orange LED lights up for LPs; green for 45s. And that high-torque motor performs flawlessly, turning on and off quicker than a heartbeat.

Robin Trower’s Twice Removed From Yesterday has been my recent big rediscovery, and the Denon combo presented the guitar maestro’s music in big, bold swatches. Album opener “I Can’t Wait Much Longer” is a psychedelic feast, with James Dewar’s gruff vocals riding the rocky crags between Trower’s brooding Stratocaster lines. Like the TT-15S1, the Denon ’table is a formidable miner of music information and particularly good at reproducing bass and mid-range and coherent sound images.

Final Thoughts

 Direct-drive turntables have been largely eclipsed by belt-drive models in recent years.

Although not quite the last of its breed, the DP-500M is surely one of the best and blurs the line between direct-drive convenience and belt-drive performance.

The TT-15S1 offers high-end performance and sound in an appealing and comprehensive package. I could easily live with and recommend either turntable. 

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