Moving Magnet vs Moving Coil – What’s The Difference?

Part of owning and using a good turntable is slowly taking steps to improve the quality of sound that can be produced by your system.

Most vinyl enthusiasts spend years slowly upgrading their set-up until it sounds the absolute best that it possibly can.

A major component in the sound quality of a turntable system is the cartridge that is being used to house the stylus.

Which leads us nicely to the question of…which cartridge type is best…moving magnet vs moving coil?

Let’s take a look at the evidence!..

moving magnet vs moving coil written in black test on yellow and green diagonally split screen background

Moving Magnet vs Moving Coil Cartridges

Moving magnet cartridges and moving coil cartridges are the two most widely used cartridge types in modern turntables and record players.

And they each have significant pros and cons.

TL;DL Summary: 

Moving coil cartridges usually produce better, more true audio from vinyl records than moving magnet cartridges do. However, these cartridges are much more expensive, more difficult to use, less reliable, and require additional hardware to function at their optimum levels.

Moving magnet and moving coil cartridges function in essentially the same way.

They use a disturbance in an electromagnetic field to transfer the vibrations from the stylus of the record player, into electrical signals that can then be played as sound.

However, moving magnet cartridges achieve this by moving a magnet to generate the electromagnetic field…

…while moving coil cartridges move two charged coils on either side of the needle to create the electromagnetic field.

This mechanical setup significantly affects the way audio is pickup up by the turntable.

Moving magnet cartridges are equipped in most standard turntables, as they are usually more compatible with most set-ups.

In addition, they are cheaper, easier to replace, and they have a better gain output.

This produces a stable audio output that is easy to use…

…but, the heavier nature of the mechanism means that the cartridge is less sensitive, and has an overall lower audio quality production than moving coil cartridges.

Moving coil cartridges are significantly more sensitive due to the lighter movements of the coils within the cartridge.

These cartridges are capable of receiving more minute audio signals from physical vibrations…

…and therefore they produce a more well-rounded signal with better treble and a clearer mid-range.

However, these cartridges are typically significantly more expensive than moving magnet cartridges.

They also tend to require additional hardware, such as a step-up transformer, to amplify the audio signal from the cartridge…

…because moving coil cartridges do not produce a powerful signal.

The Main Trade-Offs

Each cartridge option has its unique pros and cons.

Let’s take a look at the main trade-offs you’ll need to choose between when deciding on either a moving magnet or a moving coil cartridge.

  • Tracking Ability:
    • Moving Coil (MC) cartridges are known to have better tracking ability than Moving Magnet (MM) cartridges. This is because MC cartridges typically have lighter coil assemblies, which enable them to trace the grooves of a record with greater precision. This often results in better transient response and less distortion.
    • Moving Magnet cartridges may not track as precisely as MC cartridges, but they offer more than adequate tracking for most users and are often considered more forgiving.
  • Stylus Wear:
    • Stylus wear is more dependent on the stylus shape and the material it’s made of than whether it’s MM or MC. However, high-end MC cartridges often come with more advanced stylus shapes which might result in less record wear.
    • MM cartridges typically have user-replaceable styluses, making them easier and more economical to maintain when the stylus wears out.
  • Compatibility:
    • MM cartridges have higher output levels, so they’re compatible with the phono inputs of most amplifiers and receivers without the need for additional amplification.
    • MC cartridges have a lower output, requiring a phono preamplifier with MC compatibility or an external step-up transformer to boost the signal before it reaches the amplifier.
  • Maintenance:
    • MM cartridges have replaceable styli, which means when the stylus wears out or gets damaged, only the stylus needs to be replaced.
    • MC cartridges often require the whole cartridge to be sent back to the manufacturer or replaced entirely when the stylus wears out or is damaged. However, there are some MC cartridges with replaceable styli, but they’re less common.

A Few Technical Terms

Okay, let’s get the technical talk out of the way because you know as well as I do…

…that if you walk into an audio shop and start asking about moving coil and moving magnet cartridges, the salesperson is coming straight back at you with some of the stuff.

  • Cantilever: This is the thin, rigid rod (usually made of aluminium, boron, or other materials) in a cartridge that holds the stylus. It transmits the vibrations from the stylus to the coils or magnets inside the cartridge.
  • Electromagnetic Field: This is the field around electric currents, which induces voltage. When the stylus moves within the cartridge (due to record grooves), it causes relative movement between magnets and coils, inducing a voltage that is then sent to the amplifier.
  • Gain: This refers to the amplification factor of a device. In the context of cartridges, gain can refer to the output level. MM cartridges have a higher gain (output) than MC cartridges.
  • Step-up Transformer: This is a device used to increase the voltage (or gain) of a signal. For MC cartridges with low output, a step-up transformer can be used to raise the signal level to a point suitable for a standard phono preamplifier input.

Which Cartridge Type is Better?

Now that we have identified the major differences between these cartridge types, which cartridge type is better for turntables?

The answer here is less straightforward than you may think.

The reality is that moving coil cartridges are generally better than moving magnet cartridges.

This is usually because they are made to a much higher standard of quality.

Moving magnet cartridges that are exceptionally high-quality can sound very close to moving coil cartridges regarding audio quality.

However, moving coil cartridges will always have better high-end frequency production, and they will sound better overall.

Moving coil cartridges produce a more well-rounded, better-formed, reproduction of the vibrations produced by the record.

If you can afford to upgrade to a moving coil cartridge, including the additional hardware required…

…it is always a significant improvement to any turntable or record player!

Wrapping it Up!

Moving coil cartridges are generally better-sounding than moving magnet cartridges, but they are much more expensive, more difficult to use, and require additional hardware.

There are high-quality moving magnet cartridges that are less expensive than moving coil cartridges but sound almost as good.

The better cartridge for you should be based on what you can afford.

It is always best to purchase the most high-quality cartridge that you can afford to achieve the best audio quality within your reach.

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