Moving Magnetic Vs Moving Coil Phono Cartridges – What’s The Difference?

AvatarMarc Henshall
Tech Talk11 Comments

When it comes to choosing the right components for your turntable, your phono cartridge is, well, pretty important. After all, this is the device that makes direct contact with your records. In most audio systems inputs are almost certainly more important than outputs; to put it frankly—shit in, shit out. 

There are two main types of phono cartridge available: moving magnetic and moving coil. But what are the differences, and which one is right for you? Here’s what you need to know:

Both cartridge types are a transducer, which in simple terms, converts one form of energy to another. In this case, mechanical energy to electrical energy. The difference lies in how they perform the conversion. Both work by converting the mechanical movement (or vibration) created by the stylus riding in a record groove into an electrical signal. Each design has advantages and disadvantages.

How Does a Moving Magnet Cartridge Work?

A moving magnet (MM) cartridge achieves the energy conversion by connecting the vibrating cantilever to a set of magnets that then vibrate in close proximity to a pair of coiled wires. The tiny magnets (positioned between the two coils) vibrate, and in doing so, produce a small electrical current. 

Advantages:

A MM design is very robust, produces a moderate to high output level, and has a user-replaceable stylus. They are also typically more compatible with most household stereo equipment, e.g standard phono inputs.

Disadvantages:

Moving magnet designs are heavier than moving coil setups and also exhibit greater inertia when it comes to reading the subtle changes within the grooves. This means that MM designs are less competent at tracking very high-frequency content, and therefore some listeners may feel they lack transient detail. 

How Does a Moving Coil Cartridge Work?

A moving coil (MC) design works in the opposite way by allowing the cantilever to vibrate coiled wires near fixed magnets. Hence the terms “moving magnetic” and “moving coil”.  

The two coils are attached to the cantilever and move within the field of a fixed permanent magnet to form the electrical generator. These coils are much smaller than those used in a moving magnet design. 

Advantages: 

The mass is much lower in a MC design, resulting in less downward pressure. The tracking inertia is much lower, which frees the stylus up and allows for a wider frequency response, improved high-frequency transients, and a more detailed reproduction of the original waveform. 

Disadvantages:

Producing such a delicate instrument costs more to manufacture, and also for the end-user to run. The output signal of an MC design is much lower and will require a phono preamp with an additional gain-stage. MC cartridges are also quite delicate compared to MM cartridges and typically do not have a user-replaceable stylus.

Which Cartridge Design is Right for You?

Like all things Hi-Fi related, this questions carries a huge amount of subjectivity. The difference between moving magnet and moving coil phono cartridges has a lot in common with the difference between dynamic and condenser microphones. Microphones are, of course, a type of transducer—just like phono cartridges, and they actually work in a very similar way. Both have advantages and disadvantages and will suit different use-cases.

A dynamic microphone is more robust, but typically less detailed with narrower frequency response. A condenser mic is more delicate in design, but has a wider-frequency response and a more competent performance when it comes to very quick, sharp transients. Sound familiar? (Those of you with any sort of studio engineer experience will know this stuff off by heart).

The comparison, though, is a good one. As one type of mic is not better than the other. There are also no firm rules. However, dynamic microphones are often more popular in live environments where the mic is subject to more abuse and potential feedback issues. A condenser microphone may be preferable in a more controlled studio environment. You get the idea…

It’s easy to see why decerning audiophiles favour moving coil. If you’re looking for precision and detail, these designs are a clear winner. However, firstly, not everyone has the budget to buy or maintain an MC design, and secondly, not all turntable owners are Hi-Fi audiophiles. An MC design just wouldn’t be up to the performance levels demanded by a turntablist DJ, for example.

Lastly, not everyone has the inclination to run an MC cartridge. The sound quality and performance of a MM cartridge is still exceptionally good—particularly as you climb up in price. And for some, the uplift in sound quality to an MC design simply isn’t significant enough to compromise on conveniences such as user-replaceable styli.

Which Cartridge Should I Buy?

That’s a big question, and a whole other article in its own right. However, the following are some popular choices in both the moving magnetic and the moving coil category.

Moving Magnetic

Ortofon 2M Red

Ever popular as both a great starter and upgrade cartridge in the more affordable price bracket, the 2M Red is proof that Hi-Fi quality doesn’t have to break the bank. It has a full, dynamic sound with plenty of mid-range detail, but enough high and low-frequency performance to add “excitement” to the sound. If your budget will stretch to their 2M Blue model, you’ll be truly treated to a cartridge that sounds more “open” and dynamic, with a wider resolution.

2m Red Price: $99 (All prices at time of writing*).

2m Blue: $236


Ortofon 2M Black

At the top-end of the scale for Ortofon moving magnetic cartridges is the 2M Black. This more expensive option features a Shibata stylus, which allows for greater contact with the record grooves and helps to produce a more detailed reproduction. (You can read more about stylus shapes and how they affect record performance, here).

2m Black Price: $755


Audio Technica VM540ML

Other brands do exist, of course. I’ve also had great experience with the Audio Technica cartridges. They also make great affordable ranges equivalent to the Ortofon elliptical stylus designs mentions, but the model I’m going to highlight is the VM540ML. The ML features an advanced microline stylus that is said to come very close to the shape of a cutting stylus used to produce original master discs. They are expensive to manufacture, but when aligned correctly are capable of outstanding high-frequency performance.

VM540ML Price: $249


Moving Coil

Audio Technica AT-F7

Leaning towards to more affordable side of moving coil cartridges, this model will get you into coil-finesse with impressive performance at a relatively reasonable price. As with many moving coil models, it’s better suited to delicate music, rather than energetic records.

AT-F7 Price: $259


Pro-ject Pick-it DS2

Moving coil designs can push the limits of your credit rating, so we’ll venture no higher than this number at over $500. The body of this very detailed, musical-sounding little number is made of a synthetic polymer, which is said to create a low-resonance base for improved performance.

DS2 Price $500+

  • Avatar Derek Hall says:

    The assumption conveyed here is that MM vs MC cartridges present the only choice for the hi-fi enthusiast. For many, if not most, this simple choice provides a very wide array of cartridges to suit any budget and great sound reproduction. But they are not the only two types available. For over 40 years I have been using moving iron cartridges – specifically those originally developed by Decca Special Products. These cartridges do not feature a stylus mounted on a long cantilever which is, arguably, a design weakness shared by both MM and MC cartridges. Consequently, the stylus has much improved tracking and provides a more musical output. Perhaps Sound Matters may wish to feature these designs in a future discussion?

    • Avatar Marc Henshall says:

      Hey Derek. I should’ve perhaps made that clearer “There are two main types of phono cartridge available:” was supposed to imply that there are other designs. A feature on alternatives would be good, including the DS Audio Optical and strain gauge types mentioned by John in this thread. Thanks for sharing your experience with moving iron – admittedly not a type I have direct experience with.

  • Avatar Paul Revelli says:

    Funny you should reference the Audio Technica VM540ML. That is what I’m currently using. It has a great sound and can track just about anything with a full low end, not-too-harsh highs, and virtually no inner groove distortion. The word “smooth” comes to mind, and with all types of music. One caveat with this particular cart is that a replacement stylus costs almost as much as what I paid for the entire cartridge! I’ve never really been enticed enough to try a moving coil cartridge, to be honest. I’ve been a MM guy since my earliest vinyl days and have owned various models from Stanton, Shure, Pickering and ADS. I do recommend a dedicated mono cart for older mono vinyl. To that end, I use another Audio Technica cart, their VM610. Cheers everyone.

    • Avatar Marc Henshall says:

      Cheers Paul. Yes, the VM540ML is great, but it’s always frustrating when the replacement stylus costs as much as a full cart replacement. A microline stylus comes a somewhat of a premium. Thanks for taking part and happy listening.

  • Avatar john fraser says:

    In addition to moving coil and moving magnet there exist strain gauge and ds audio optical carts which readers need to be exposed to

    • Avatar Marc Henshall says:

      Thanks John. Yes, a feature on some of the alternative cartridges would be good. Those ds optical carts are pretty pricy! But worth highlighting to readers as you say.

  • Avatar Mario says:

    I’m still using my Audio-Technica AT440MLa that still plays beautifully. There’s a b version and now the VM540ML, which are IMHO essentially the same cartridge. For their price these cartridges are unbelievably awesome. The sound these things can extract is crisp and detailed as even cartridges above USD 1,000 would not be able pull. Mind you these guys are not exactly forgiven with worn out vinyl so better keep a good-old faithfull conical cartridge like the AT95E for those records that have seen one too many turns. My two cents…

  • Avatar Terry Berglund says:

    At the beginning of this article you invited your readers to say what cartridge they are using. I assume this is the place to do it. I still run my vintage Shure V-15 Type II. I have been using it since they were first introduced in the 1970’s.
    It has a wonderful open and airy sound quality that mates up with my Dynaco tube amp and preamp and my Altec/Lansing A7 Voice of the Theater speaker systems beautifully. The only problem these days is finding a suitable replacement stylus for it. OEM styli often show up on eBay but they are priced in the stratosphere and the suspension rubber is often dried up rendering the stylus useless. A couple of years ago I purchased the then top of the line Shure audiophile cartridge. It sounded perfectly horrible, tight and restricted. I shortly removed it and discarded it and went back to my trusty ol’ V-15 II. I finally found a guy that custom builds N-15 styli that meet or exceed Shure’s original specs.

    • Avatar Marc Henshall says:

      Hey Terry, that’s great. The V-15 is a classic. Sadly, Shure discontinued their phono line earlier this year. The V-15 remains a popular vintage classic, as you suggest. I’m glad to hear you can still get a good stylus for those!