Ever wonder why your 3D printer is so loud (or quiet)? Besides the fans, most of the noise from your printer actually comes from the motors.
Yep, that’s right! Every time the stepper motors on your 3D printer move, the shaft (rod) inside rotates every so slightly and vibrates. The more the vibrations, the louder your 3D printer is…and the less sleep you get.
Stepper motor drivers play a key role in controlling these vibrations and reducing the noise levels from your printer. These small electronic circuits may not look like much, but upgrading them will work miracles. Moreover, not only will better drivers quiet your printer better but they can also improve the movement and accuracy of the motors on your machine.
If you’re looking to upgrade your drivers, a set of TMC2209s will certainly improve your printing experience. But if you’ve got some extra money in your 3D printing jar this week or want to use beefier motors, the TMC5160 is a great choice for you.
If you want to learn more about stepper motor drivers and find some of the best options on the market, look no further! In the sections below, we’ve done just that!
Table of Contents
- Best Stepper Motor Drivers At A Glance
- What Are Stepper Motor Drivers?
- Why Do You Need a Stepper Motor Driver?
- Why Upgrade Your Stepper Motor Drivers?
- What to Look For in Choosing a Stepper Motor Driver?
- Product Reviews
Best Stepper Motor Drivers At A Glance
What Are Stepper Motor Drivers?
So, what is a stepper motor driver? Stepper motor drivers are small but complex, circuit boards that go on the motherboard of a microcontroller, like the controller board on your 3D printer, CNC mill, or lathe.
The main purpose of a stepper motor driver is to regulate the power directed to the connected motor on the controller board. To better understand how stepper motor drivers work, though, we have to first cover the thing they work around: stepper motors.
Stepper motors are a specific type of rotating motor that moves in steps (hence the name). This is done by powering small electromagnetic coils inside the motor and having the central shaft spin based on which coils are powered. The distance the shaft rotates when the next coil is powered is called a single step.
However, when a stepper motor is tasked with moving with such precision, as is required on a 3D printer, a single step just isn’t small enough. That’s why there’s a special process called microstepping.
Microstepping is the process of giving power to two consecutive electromagnetic coils in a stepper motor. The result is that the shaft will basically make a half step rotation.
But the fan doesn’t stop at ½. Stepper motors can make a quarter, eighth, sixteenth, and so on steps. Today, it’s not uncommon for 3D printer stepper motors to be able to make 1/256 steps.
But microstepping is only possible with good stepper motor drivers. That’s because these small devices are the ones that take the power supplied by the motherboard to the motor port and push it to a specific coil, or multiple coils. The better your stepper motor driver, the more power it can handle, the better it can distribute it, and the lower microstepping fractions you’ll be able to achieve.
If you think that’s complicated, you’re right. But you don’t have to worry about all of this sciency stuff, because we’ve already put in the research to find the best stepper motor driver for you.
Why Do You Need a Stepper Motor Driver?
So, what’s to prevent you from just not using a stepper motor driver? Well, first off, the motherboard simply won’t be able to power the stepper motor in a way where the shaft turns.
However, let’s say, for the sake of the argument, that it was able to spin the stepper motor shaft. In this unlikely scenario, the motor would still only be able to move in single, whole steps. And, unless the electromagnetic coils are separated with such little space that the motor can turn in spaces of 0.005-0.01 mm, then the motor wouldn’t be accurate enough to go on a 3D printer.
So, why do we need stepper motor drivers? Because they power the stepper motor and make it accurate enough to print high-quality models.
Why Upgrade Your Stepper Motor Drivers?
As we mentioned, stepper motor drivers impact both the noise levels of your printer as well as its print quality. Better drivers can make a world of difference in prints, yielding sharper corners, smoother walls, and other improvements.
Upgrading your drivers to newer options is a great way to improve your printing experience. Additionally, some of the newer and more advanced firmware features that further improve print quality, such as linear advance and sensorless homing, require newer stepper motor drivers. So you will only have access to them if you upgrade.
Of course, we can’t forget to mention that you can’t just rip out the driver from any 3D printer board. Most 3D printer boards that come with a printer have integrated stepper motor drivers. This means, the driver is built into the controller board and can’t be detached.
However, you can easily remove and replace your stepper motor drivers on 3D printer controller boards that have open-ended driver ports. That’s because all drivers meant for 3D printing follow the same pinouts so the ports are universal.
If you don’t have a 3D printer motherboard with open-ended driver ports, you can still upgrade your drivers in two ways. The first is to buy another controller board with better integrated drivers. Alternatively, you can purchase a motherboard with open-ended driver ports and buy the drivers separately and install them.
Check out our reviews of the best controller boards for 3D printers here.
What to Look For in Choosing a Stepper Motor Driver?
There are many stepper motor drivers on the market today. However, it takes a lot of work to develop new drivers as the internal specifics of each one is pretty complex. As such, most of the available drivers that are meant for 3D printers are made by the same manufacturers.
Despite the very obvious oligopoly in the market, there are still a few specifics that you should look for in drivers.
First off, the microstepping abilities of the driver are perhaps the most relevant feature for 3D printing. The higher the denominator of the microstepping fraction, the more accurate your motors will be, and the better your prints.
Secondly, the noise output of the drivers is worth looking at. While this isn’t always a published number, checking community experiences with the drivers and their noise can help.
Next, you should look at the available features of the driver. While we can’t cover them in detail because they are too complex, the more special running modes a driver has, the better because you can use the drivers in more ways. Some examples of these modes include StealthChop, SpreadCycle.
The power rating of the driver is also very important. Not all drivers can handle as much power as others, so, if you’re using more power-heavy motors like the beefy NEMA-17s, then look for a high-rated stepper motor driver.
You can find the Power Rating (P) by multiplying the Voltage (V) by the Current (I).
The formula is P = V x I.
As we mentioned, only a few companies develop drivers, but there are many sellers of these products. When looking for stepper motor drivers, look for some of the accessories that the seller might throw in, like heat sinks, which will increase the performance and longevity of the drivers.
Lastly, don’t forget about the price. Drivers should be pretty inexpensive, constant anywhere from $10-40 for a pack of four. Remember that four drivers is enough as this will cover the X, Y, Z, and extruder motors on your printer.
Now that you know about stepper motor drivers, why they’re necessary, why you might want to upgrade, and what to consider when looking for drivers, let’s get into the actual products. In the following sections, we’ve gone over what we believe to be the best stepper motor drivers for your 3D printer. We’ve included a diverse selection of drivers, including higher-end options, budget choices, and everything in between.
Our first stepper motor driver is the TMC2209, arguably the best driver overall when considering the different features, price, and silencing ability. For reference, TMC2209 drivers are the same ones used in the BigTreeTech SKR E3 V1.1, and they are perfect for lowering the volume of your printer’s stepper motors.
Additionally, the TMC2209s are known to be compatible with Marlin firmware’s linear advance feature, which improves the extrusion of your printer. So, if you use some 2209s on your 3D printer controller board, you can get sharper corners on prints, more dimensionally accurate models, and other benefits through the linear advance feature.
The microstepping on the 2209s goes up to 1/256, meaning you can get super accurate when it comes to motion control on your printer.
Sensorless homing is also possible on the TMC2209s, so you can actually move the motors without using any endstops as long as you configure the firmware properly. As such, you can lower the cost of a printer you’re building if you use these sub-$10 drivers instead of purchasing a set of endstops. The downside of this feature is that the drivers run a little hot, but the CoolStep mode that’s compatible with the driver is a possible solution to lowering the temperature.
Overall, if I had to actually choose just one set of drivers to use on all of my 3D printers, I would 100% go with the TMC2209s. Their low price combined with their incredible quieting abilities and other features makes the decision a no-brainer.
If you’re on a tight budget and just need basically any stepper motor driver, the A4988 will do what’s necessary.
I want to make it clear that these drivers will do almost nothing to quiet your printer’s motors and that you will hear your printer from a different room. However, they are super inexpensive, widely available, and are a reliable option.
These old’ reliable drivers were developed by Allegro MicroSystems and are very capable with 8-bit 3D printer motherboards. With these drivers on your board, you can get 1/16 microstepping which is by no means good. However, it’s better than no microstepping I guess.
As for their compatible modes, there aren’t really any, mainly because they are very outdated. As such, it’s not unlikely that consistent use of 1/16 microstepping will run these drivers very hot because there is no cooling mode, like CoolStep to help with this issue.
But, as I said, these drivers are very reliable and still do the most basic function of allowing the stepper motors to work. So you might want them if you’re going for a cheap 3D printer build or don’t care how noisy the machine is.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, the TMC5160 driver is one of the most expensive stepper motor drivers you can get for a 3D printer. However, they have some epic features that might make them worth the price, which is why I’ve given them the title of “Best Premium Choice”.
First off, TMC5160 drivers will run you just above $15 a pop, so the drivers will likely cost more than your typical 4-motor motherboard. However, basically all TMC special modes, like CoolStep, StealthChop, MicroPlyer, SpreadCycle, stall detection, and passive braking work with these drivers. These modes are very present in the backend of a 3D printer, but I promise you they mean something and aren’t just random terms.
Furthermore, the 5160s allow for sensorless homing so you don’t even need to use endstops on a printer. 1/256 microstepping is also possible with these drivers and they make your motors quiet…like super duper quiet.
And, the best part is that, even when you maximize the use of these drivers, they don’t run too hot so they shouldn’t fail on you.
The drivers also have a high current rating, meaning they can support high-torque and power-intensive stepper motors. This makes them a great option for those using the beefy NEMA-17 motors on the more professional and industrial 3D printers.
While you probably will never need all that the TMC5160 offers, if you want the best of the best stepper motor drivers, then this one’s for you!
TMC2225s are a great middle-ground choice. For reference, these drivers can be found in the Creality V4.2.7 “silent” board, and they live up to their name, providing a super quiet printing experience.
The drivers are pretty inexpensive, costing under $20 for 5, which is why I think they’re a reasonable investment for those looking for very precise motor movement and low noise levels. You can get as low as 1/256 microstepping with the 2225s, meaning very accurate prints are possible. However, make sure to be careful when using this level of microstepping as the drivers are known to get hot.
A downside of the 2225s is that they operate in standalone mode, meaning you can’t use linear advance with Marlin firmware because it doesn’t support this model of driver. The current rating for these drivers is pretty mediocre so don’t expect to be running a beefy motor off of this driver super well, but it should work.
Personally, I think the TMC2225’s are pretty underrated considering they do a great job at lowering the noise of your printer’s motors while not costing that much. So, if you’re looking for a good bang for your buck, consider the TMC2225.
The TMC2208 drivers are like the less cool version of the TMC2209 drivers. Unlike the 2209s, TMC2208s aren’t great for linear advances because their support in Marlin firmware is limited. The drivers are slightly less expensive than the 2209s, though and still do a pretty good job at keeping the noise output of the motors down.
The TMC2208s can operate in a few different special modes, like MicroPlyer, which allows for 1/256 microstepping. This is super useful for achieving accurate prints, but it’s known that the 2208s run pretty hot in this mode, so be careful.
Some other operation modes/features for the drivers include UART (more diagnostics for the motors), StealthChop2, and SpreadCycle.
The TMC2208s are, in my opinion, a decent set of drivers that do a good job at quieting the printer and allowing for accurate motor movements. However, if I’m being honest, for an extra few bucks you can get yourself a set of TMC2209s which are better in basically every way. But, if the TMC2209s aren’t available or you really care about a few bucks, then the TMC2208s will work excellent for you!
Our last driver is the DRV8825, developed by Texas Instruments. While not very popular, the DRV8825 are very inexpensive, making them a great option for those building low-cost printers.
The drivers are capable of 1/32 microstepping. Although this level of microstepping isn’t impressive, it’s not terrible considering the low price and the age of the drivers (they’re not cutting-edge).
Sadly, the drivers don’t do a great job at lowering the noise levels of your motors and it’s also reported that they often result in artifacting on the exterior surface of prints. However, they do have a high current load rating, so you should be able to use more powerful motors with the drivers without worrying.
While I can’t say that the DRV8825 drivers are the “best” at anything, they are another budget option that I think are one of the best in the “least expensive” category.
Although different stepper motor drivers don’t look all that different, they can massively change the performance and usability of your 3D printer. Upgrading your drivers will not only quiet your printer more but also improve the accuracy and quality of your prints.
If you’re in the market for some new drivers, I have to first recommend the TMC2209s. These drivers are a great overall pick, costing not too much money while providing almost any feature you want.
If you’re on the more professional side, the TMC5160s might be more up your alley as they really are the best on the market and have a high current rating. Just make sure they fit in your budget! Finally, if your looking for a steal and don’t care too much about how loud or accurate your printer is, the A4988 or DRV8825s should be a good fit!