When it comes to the sound quality of your record player, every detail counts. The room you store your turntable in, how often you clean your records, and all the components of the turntable affect your listening experience. In this vein, few parts of the machine directly influence sound as much as your turntable cartridge. The cartridge does the work of actually reading the grooves of a record, so it makes sense that it’s crucial to invest in a quality cartridge, and knowing the difference between moving coil cartridges and moving magnet cartridges is where to start. 


What does a cartridge do?

If you’re new to the world of vinyl, or you simply need a quick refresher, it’s helpful to break down what exactly a cartridge does. The cartridge is the small piece on the end of the cantilever that touches down on the record.

Cartridge bodies are usually made of plastic and include the needle that kisses the vinyl itself. When the stylus touches the record grooves, it works as a transducer to translate mechanical movements into an electrical signal that can eventually be amplified through your favorite speakers.

Basically, the turntable cartridge turns the small etched grooves of the plastic into a signal that can eventually be music. They act as translators between the physical artifact of vinyl and the albums we love to jam out to. When you break it down this way, it explains why so many audiophiles are specific about what kind of cartridge they buy.


Are Moving Coil Cartridges better than Moving Magnet Cartridges?

Now that we’ve refreshed ourselves on the role of a cartridge, we can dive into one of the longest-running discussions in the audiophile community: Moving Coil vs. Moving Magnet.

Many an argument has been had over which type of cartridge is better for sound quality, makes more sense with various set-ups, and is ultimately the best. Obviously, given the subjectivity of this argument, this debate is ultimately unwinnable. However, mulling over the pros and cons of each cartridge type can be incredibly helpful for anyone considering mixing up their hi-fi setup.

Before we dip into the pros and cons, let’s first distinguish what makes these cartridges different from each other.


How do Moving Magnet cartridges work?

A moving magnet turntable cartridge contains a small magnet inside the stylus. There are two sets of fixed coils hugging the magnet on both sides. When the stylus reads the grooves of the record, the magnet moves between the coils to create a small electrical current. That magnetic field is what gets plugged into the phono stage so we can eventually listen through our speakers.


How do Moving Coil cartridges work?

Rather than using a moving magnet to create an electrical current, moving coil cartridges create the signal through the movement of the coils (thus the name). Moving Coil cartridges do contain a magnet, it’s just a fixed magnet surrounded by vibrating coils (so in many ways it’s structurally opposite of a moving magnet cartridge).

When the record grooves create vibrations on the styli, the coils then react by translating that movement into an electrical signal that will get amplified in the phono stage, and eventually through your system.


Pros of Moving Magnet cartridges

Moving Magnet phono cartridges, also known as MM cartridges have a lot of pros to them. For starters, the moving magnet design is very robust and generally produces a medium to high output level. This means it requires less gain in the phono stage in order to amplify loud enough to listen to on your speakers. MM cartridges are also typically more compatible with a wider range of household stereo equipment. Which is to say, you’ll find that most standard phono inputs connect with mm outputs. Because of a moving magnet’s widespread compatibility with everyday stereo equipment, it’s often a simpler choice when it comes to installation.


Moving magnet cartridges often come with a replaceable stylus, so if you want to swap out your conical needle for a Shibata, you’re in luck. Or if you’re simply looking to buy a new model of the same kind of stylus, a moving magnet is going to make this far easier. With a replaceable stylus, you’ll find your cartridge can survive lots of changes, and in some cases live a longer life because of it. 


One of the most practical pros of the MM cartridge is affordability. It’s generally easier to find more MM cartridge options across different price levels, and incompatibility with different equipment, so if you’re on a budget they pose clear benefits.


Pros of Moving Coil cartridges

As evidenced by the very title of this post, Moving Coil phono cartridges have enough pros a lot of audiophiles consider them to be the better option. Since the coils on a moving coil cartridge are lighter than a magnet, the process of transferring vibrations into an electrical signal is more fluid, which means the tracking, frequency response, and overall sound quality are often more precise and high-quality. 


Basically, because MC cartridges have less mass, they’re capable of transcribing more micro-detail, especially when it comes to high frequencies. While most moving coil cartridges don’t come with a replaceable stylus, they often come with more precise styli such as fine-line, microline, and Shibata needles that are less likely to wear out as fast. So the quality and shelf-life of an MC cartridge often live up to the investment.


Cons of Moving Magnet cartridges

While MM cartridges produce a higher output that connects to most sound equipment easier, the higher inductance can negatively flatten the frequency response. This is to say, the heavier bearing and higher output can erase a lot of the nuance of sound. If you have a trained audiophile ear, or you’re simply someone who savors all the distinctions of your favorite album, you’ll likely be able to tell there are details lost in translation. 


One of the (many) reasons people get addicted to vinyl is the different playback experience. Record players offer us a more holographic and warm sound experience compared to streaming. So, even a speck of sound quality difference can be a dealbreaker for people who have already decided to invest in phono equipment. This is the primary reason a lot of people opt against mm cartridges despite the affordability and convenience: the sound quality can still be super high-quality, but it is less likely to match the meticulous detail of an MC cartridge.


Cons of Moving Coil Cartridges

Because MC cartridges produce less signal and lower output, they need a step-up transformer in order to blast your favorite album through your amplifier. This adds yet another step to the initial setup process, which can be overwhelming for any entry-level vinyl fan. And even if you’re a seasoned record collector, knowing you’ll need a quality phono preamp in order to enjoy the fruits of the MC cartridge can be a deterrent. The stylus inside an MC cartridge is usually non-replaceable, so if you want to get it fixed you have to ship it to a factory (which isn’t always possible). Generally, if a stylus attached to an MC cartridge gets damaged or ages out of use, you’ll need to replace the whole cartridge at once, which can be an expensive ordeal.


Because MC cartridges often come with high-end turntables and are designed in a far more light and delicate way, they run a much higher bill overall. If you don’t have lots of money to spend on a cartridge, this can be a full-on dealbreaker. Similarly, if you can’t tell the difference in sound quality between MM and MC cartridges, then springing for a moving coil might not be worth the hassle. 


A Moving Coil Cartridge Suits Most Vinyl Priorities

There is no one-size-fits-all winner of the rivalry between moving coil vs. moving magnet. Everyone has different priorities and relationships with sound. And there are exceptions in both cartridges that defy the regular talking points. For example, MC Cartridges are known for more meticulous sound quality, there are plenty of high-quality Sumiko MM cartridges that deliver stunning sound. Similarly, there are high output MC cartridges that are designed to function more like MM cartridges when it comes to easy compatibility with your preamplifier or receiver.


A lot of people can list off anecdotal experiences with both types of cartridges that dispel stereotypes, while others may still not find the sound much different. At the end of the day, you’re the only one who can decide which is the best match for you. The good news is you can always change your mind and switch cartridges if you feel like it. There are no rules when it comes to exploring and having fun with your HiFi set-up.