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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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+