When it comes to phono cartridges, there are a lot of options to choose from. On top of the different brands and model numbers, you have moving magnet and moving coil cartridges which seemingly split you into two separate camps. While the differences can seem daunting at first, it’s relatively simple to understand in a couple of minutes. Let’s take a look at the differences between a MM vs MC cartridge.
Difference between MM and MC cartridges
The differences between a moving magnet cartridge and moving coil cartridge are in the names themselves. A moving magnet cartridge (“MM cartridge” for short) contains a magnet that moves between two coils to create voltage.
Inversely, a moving coil cartridge (“MC cartridge” for short) is the opposite, containing a coil that moves between two magnets.
Still a little confused? That’s okay. First, let’s get into how phono cartridges work so we can better understand the advantages and disadvantages of MM and MC cartridges.
How phono cartridges work
Phono cartridges have either a magnet or coil mounted to the top of their stylus cantilever. As the stylus rides along the grooves of the record, it moves the coil or magnet up and down which creates a small amount of voltage.
This voltage, also called phono signal, is then amplified through a preamp and sent through further amplification so it can be played through speakers.
Every cartridge type has a magnet and a coil, this difference is where the magnets and coils are mounted.
MM cartridges are moving magnet cartridges, this means that a magnet is attached to the top of the cantilever – the small metal rod that rides along the record’s grooves.
As the record plays, the magnet moves between two fixed coils to produce voltage which is then sent through a phono preamp and amplified further before being played through speakers.
MM cartridges are the most common types of cartridges because they tend to be priced lower and have more compatibility with preamps. If you purchased a new turntable under $1,000 and it came with a phono cartridge, odds are it has a MM cartridge.
Advantages of MM cartridges
MM cartridges have a few key benefits that make them great for a beginner to intermediate vinyl lover.
- Budget-friendly: The MM cartridges are more widely available and thus costs less money. Additionally, MM cartridges tend to work with a wider range of preamps and turntables which can also help save money.
- Replaceable stylus: The MM design allows for the stylus to be replaced much easier than an MC cartridge. This can easily be done at home without the help of an audio professional or replacing the entire cartridge.
- High output: An MM cartridge tends to have a higher moving mass and generates higher output meaning you’ll need less amplification gain to get the electrical signal to listening level.
Disadvantages of MM cartridges
While many people prefer MM cartridges for the advantages listed above, that doesn’t mean they’re right for everyone. Let’s take a look at why.
- High moving mass: Magnets are made of iron and are naturally quite heavy. Attaching a magnet to the top of the stylus cantilever adds a great deal of mass. Because of this, a MM cartridge is not able to ride along the grooves of a record precisely, thus negatively affecting sound quality. This leads to less detail in the high frequencies and more “muddiness” in the low frequencies.
MC cartridges are moving coil cartridges meaning a coil is attached to the end of the cantilever. As the cantilever rides along the groove of a spinning vinyl record, the coil moves in between two magnets and creates voltage.
The electrical signal is then passed along to a phono preamp for preamplification before being further amplified and then played through speakers.
MC phono cartridges are less common than their MM counterparts and tend to be more complicated, delicate, and expensive. That being said, an MC phono cartridge pulls out sonic details of records that an MM cartridge simply isn’t able to do.
Advantages of MC cartridges
As mentioned above, MC cartridges have benefits that their moving magnet counterparts can’t replicate.
- Lower moving mass: Because the coil is mounted to the cantilever instead of a magnet, the moving mass is much lower. This allows the needle to track precisely along the record grooves, leading to more detail in the final output.
- More detailed audio: Because of the lower mass, MC phono cartridges provide an insane amount of detail, especially in the high frequencies of audio.
Disadvantages of MC cartridges
While on paper an MC cartridge sounds great, there are reasons why they aren’t the most widely used cartridge.
- Low output: Since the weight of the coil is so light, an MC phono cartridge can’t generate as much voltage as a MM cartridge. This means that more gain is needed to amplify the low output in the preamplification stage, usually 20-30 dB.
- Less compatibility: An MC cartridge only works with higher-end turntables and preamps because of the gain needs of the cartridge. You’ll have to research to make sure an MC cartridge is compatible with these devices.
- Higher price: MC cartridges are less common, harder to work on, and thus higher in price. Though they do come with an obvious sonic advantage, MC cartridges aren’t the right choice for every budget.
So which is better: An MM or MC cartridge?
MC cartridges will provide the best sound quality possible, but require dedicated preamps that come at an additional cost. MM cartridges are available for cheaper but do provide the high level of detail the MC cartridges do.
Of course, high-end MC cartridges will outshine any MM cartridge, but at what cost? Many audiophiles are perfectly happy with a high-quality MM cartridge that can be purchased for a fraction of the cost of an MC cartridge.
Our recommendation: If you’ve only been interested in vinyl for a few years, focus on upgrading your turntable, speakers, and phono preamp first before looking for a new cartridge. While picking your turntable and preamp, make sure they’re both compatible with an MM or MC cartridge, that way, regardless of your next cartridge, you’ll be able to play with no problem.
Lead Editor / Owner
After beginning his career in the video and audio recording industry, Andrew started HiFi Hippo to share his knowledge and passion for vinyl and vintage audio with other readers.