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Automatic turntables lift the tonearm, move it to record's lead-in groove, and begin playing. When the album ends, the turntable automatically returns the tonearm to its original position and shuts itself off.
Manual turntables require you to lift the tonearm by hand, place it in the grooves of the record, and shut it off yourself at the end of play. Most manual turntables have a cueing lever to safely lift the tonearm above the record, and then gently lower it into the grooves. This allows you to easily skip to a song in the middle of a side.
Audiophiles know the simpler design of a manual turntable provides greater precision and sonic accuracy.
One of the most basic design differences is the way in which a turntable spins the platter.
A belt drive turntable's platter rests on top of a bearing as it rotates; the platter connects to the motor that spins it by an elastic belt. The belt prevents unwanted noise and vibration generated by the motor from reaching the platter. Some turntables isolate the platter from the motor which prevents less noise being transmitted to the tonearm and out through your audio system, resulting in better overall sound.
Direct drive require no belt to spin your records, rotation is done through a system of gears. They are primarily for DJs because they let you spin the platter backwards to create special sound effects.