I will explain how you can tell if a cartridge is MM or MC.
And we’ll review some of the most popular MM and MC phono cartridges.
How does a phono cartridge work?
A phono cartridge is a tiny electromagnetic generator that transforms the grooves in the record into an electrical signal.
In an electromagnetic generator, the electrical signal is generated when a magnet and a coil of wire moves in relation to each other.
Let’s look at an example.
Below is a picture of a moving coil (MC) cartridge from Rega. We can see the tiny coils on the stylus cantilever and the green magnet.
When the stylus tracks the grooves, the coils on the stylus cantilever moves (vibrates) inside the magnetic field from the magnet and generate an electrical signal that represents the music that is carved into the record.
What is the difference between a MM and a MC phono cartridge?
Now that we understand how a cartridge works in general, let’s look at the differences between a MM and MC cartridge.
Moving Magnet (MM) cartridges
On a MM cartridge, the magnet is mounted on the stylus cantilever while the coils are fixed inside the cartridge.
When the stylus tracks the grooves in the record, an electrical signal is created because the stylus and magnet moves (vibrates) in relation to the fixed coils.
Below is a simple figure that shows the principle of a MM cartridge.
Moving Coil (MC) Cartridges
On a MC cartridge, the coils are mounted to the stylus cantilever while the magnet is fixed inside the cartridge. As we just saw in on the picture of the Rega MC cartridge above.
When the stylus tracks the grooves in the record, an electrical signal is created because the stylus and coils move (vibrates) in relation to the fixed magnet.
Below is a simple figure that shows the principle of a MC cartridge.
The coils in a MC cartridge are smaller than the coils in a MM cartridge, and therefore the output level from a MC cartridge will be much smaller than the output level from a MM cartridge.
The typical signal output from a MM cartridge is 5 mV.
While a MC cartridge typically outputs 0.2 mV.
The output impedance is also very different between a MM and MC cartridge. This is due to the difference in coil sizes and coil characteristics.
Because of the differences in output impedance and signal level, MM and MC cartridges requires phono preamps with different gain and input impedance to match the output signal level and output impedance of each cartridge type.
An MM cartridge requires a MM compatible phono preamp.
And a MC cartridge requires a MC compatible phono preamp
You can’t use a phono preamp that is designed for a MM cartridge with a MC cartridge or vice versa.
There are, however, phono preamps that are designed to be used with both MM and MC cartridges. These phono preamps have adjustable settings that need to be set to match the signal level and output impedance of the cartridge used.
You can read more about MM and MC phono preamps in my MM vs MC Phono Preamps Explained article.
The coils that sits on the stylus cantilever on a MC cartridge will have less mass (weight) than the magnet that sits on the stylus cantilever on a MM cartridge.
We often say that an MC cartridge has less moving mass than a MM cartridge.
Less moving mass means that a MC cartridge responds quicker and is better at picking up fine details in the record’s grooves. So a MC cartridge will generally reproduce music with more precise details than a MM cartridge because it has less moving mass.
There is a huge price difference between MM and MC cartridges. The main reason is that MC cartridges requires a more delicate manufacturing process than MM cartridges and are harder to produce in high volumes.
MM cartridges usually cost from $50 to $500. With the exception of a few very high-quality options that costs between $500 and $1000.
MC cartridges usually cost from $500 to $5000.
There are a few budget friendly MC cartridges that we will look into later in this guide, but in general, MC cartridges cost from $500 to $5000.
MC cartridges are generally considered the better sounding option. This is the reason why audiophiles with high-end stereo systems accept to pay thousands of dollars for a MC cartridge.
But that doesn’t mean that MM cartridges can’t be very good. They absolutely can. There are also hardcore audiophiles that prefer MM cartridges over MC.
Because of their lower moving mass, MC cartridges are better at picking up details in the record’s grooves and can therefore reproduce the fine details in the music with higher accuracy than MM cartridges.
If you, for instance, are listening to very high quality recordings of classical music on a high-end turntable, a quality MC cartridge will produce a slightly more precise soundstage and finer details than a MM cartridge.
MM cartridges, on the other hand, with their higher moving mass, have a tendency to “smooth out” the fine details and are therefore often consider more pleasant to listen to than MC cartridges.
The tendency to have a smoother sound and the significant lower price is two main reasons why many audiophiles opt for a MM cartridge. Also in very high-end stereo applications.
MC cartridges, and especially those on the upper end of the MC price range, are suited for hardcore audiophiles with very high-quality turntables.
You won’t find high-end MC cartridges on many turntables in regular homes.
For affordable and midrange turntables, MM cartridges is the standard.
For turntables that cost above $1000, we start to see manufacturers that offer the option to include a MC cartridge for a premium. But MM cartridges is usually the standard option also in this price range.
It can be argued that MM cartridges are more user friendly than MC cartridges.
MC cartridges, with their lower signal level, are much more sensitive to noice and requires more delicate electronics than MM cartridges to work without issues.
MM cartridges are also much more budget friendly.
And when the stylus is worn on a MM cartridge, it can usually be replaced without also replacing the whole cartridge. On a MC cartridge, you can’t just replace the stylus. With MC, you either have to buy a new cartridge or pay a cartridge specialist good money to replace the stylus for you.
Is MM or MC phono cartridges better?
If you are looking for the ultimate high-fidelity sound experience, and have a very good turntable and electronics, then MC cartridges are considered the better choice by most vinyl enthusiasts.
But there are many situations where the MM becomes the better choice as well.
MM cartridges are more budget friendly and don’t require a high-end turntable or delicate electronics to work well. MM cartridges can therefore be considered the best option for most vinyl spinners.
If you are looking for a new car, a Ferrari may be the best options if you have more money than you can ever spend, a big passion for driving, a big garage, nice driving roads close by, a budget to support $4000 oil changes and a guy that can spend three hours cleaning it every time you have taken it for a ride.
But for most of us, a Ford or Toyota is the better option. A Ferrari is just way too expensive and too much hassle for most car buyers.
The same is true for MM and MC cartridges. For most of us, MM is the best and natural option. At least in the beginning of our vinyl journeys.
The pros and cons of MM phono cartridges
Here are the main pros and cons of MM cartridges.
- Budget friendly
- Stylus can be replaced
- Works well on budget turntables
- Works well with budget preamps and electronics
- Higher-end versions ($200-$500) can sound very good
- Higher moving mass than MC cartridges
- Can’t match high-end MC cartridges on details
- Can’t match high-end MC cartridges on soundstage
The pros and cons of MC phono cartridges
Here are the main pros and cons of MC cartridges.
- Low moving mass
- Great details
- Great soundstage
- High cost (except for budget variants)
- Stylus not easily replaceable
- Requires high-quality turntable and electronics to shine
Should you choose a MM or MC phono cartridge?
That depends on your budget, passion for high-fidelity sound and on the quality of your turntable and electronics.
If you are casual vinyl spinner with a budget or midrange stereo system, then you will likely be more happy with a MM cartridge.
You can get decent MM cartridges for around $100 and really good ones for $250 – $500. They will be easy to set up and work well with regular phono preamps.
If you are a dedicated vinyl enthusiast, and eager to experiment with different cartridges, then it might be time to try one of the budget friendly MC cartridges that we will look at in a second.
To use my self as an example, I have upgraded from an entry-level Rega Carbon MM cartridge to a very high-quality Rega Exact MM cartridge on my Rega Planar 2 turntable. And I am very happy with the Rega Exact cartridge, it sounds awesome.
So, I did choose MM for my first significant cartridge upgrade.
But I think that I will choose MC the next time I eventually upgrade my cartridge.
It would be very interesting to see how a MC cartridge from the lower end of their price spectrum will compare to my Rega Exact MM cartridge on my Rega Planar 2.
I think many vinyl enthusiasts follow the same cartridge journey as my self.
Start with an entry-level MM cartridge, upgrade to a high-quality MM cartridge, and from there, start considering a MC cartridge that won’t totally break the bank.
The MC cartridge that is currently on my radar is the Denon DL-103R.
It is a very good MC cartridge that is known to give a real taste of what super-expensive MC cartridges are all about, at a much lower price.
Popular MM phono cartridges
Some of the most popular MM cartridges today include the AT-VM95E, VM530EN (AT120E) and VM540ML (AT440MLa/b) from Audio-Technica.
And the Ortofon 2M Red, Ortofon 2M Blue and Ortofon 2M Bronze from the very popular Ortofon 2M range of MM cartridges.
Other manufacturers of popular MM cartridges include Denon, Rega, Grado and Nagaoka. To mention a few.
Popular MC phono cartridges
If you are into $5000 high-end MC cartridges, you will probably not read this guide, so I will focus on budget friendly MC cartridges that might be interesting for vinyl enthusiasts with normal Hi-Fi budgets.
I want to mention two very good MC cartridges that can be bought within the $50 to $500 price range where we also find most MM cartridges.
They are both from Denon.
The first one is the Denon DL-110 which is a high-output MC cartridge that can be used with standard MM preamps.
The Denon DL-110 has a very good reputation in the vinyl community. Especially among those that likes rock music as the Denon DL-110 is known to have a lot of punch. Great for rock.
The other one is the Denon DL-103R which is the upgraded version of the legendary Denon DL-103.
The Denon DL-103R is considered to be the reasonably priced MC cartridge that can match the performance of MC cartridges that cost many times more.
The Denon DL-103R is probably the next cartridge I will mount on my Rega Planar 2 turntable.
The Denon DL-103R will require a MC compatible preamp.
How to tell if a phono cartridge is MM or MC?
There is, unfortunately, no sure way to tell if a cartridge is MM or MC just by looking at it. That I know of.
The way to find out if a cartridge is MM or MC is to take a close look at it and take a note of the type description that is printed on it.
From there you simply type the description into Google and look at the top search results. All the top search results will probably state clearly if your cartridge is MM or MC.