When picking a phono cartridge for your turntable, the first question you’ll be asked is “What type of cartridge do you need?”. The reason is, different types of phono cartridges require different amplification, employ various tracking forces, and also sound differently. While all parts of a turntable are important for sound output, the cartridge is a central component that can both increase or decrease sound quality. Controlling the contact with the record and groove tracking, it can provide you with the detailed and warm sound or make it muffled and harsh.

A cartridge consists of several parts and is often assembled manually. It has a cantilever ending with a small diamond tip (stylus). The styluses can have different shapes (conical or elliptical). To start playback, the stylus is lowered into the record’s groove, tracing its path. The motion of the stylus is transmitted by the cantilever to a pivot, where it activates the magnetic field. The latter is created either by a magnet or a coil. Afterward, the signal is transferred as an electric one.

Each component of a phono cartridge is important for final sound output and the amount of detail in it.

Turntable Cartridge Types

There are two large groups of cartridge types specifying the difference in the way the electrical signal is created. These are moving magnet (MM) and moving coil (MC) cartridges. However, the opposition of the moving magnet vs moving coil doesn’t include all cartridge types. There is also a moving iron (MI and micro cross (MCC) one. It is similar to MM cartridges in their general construction and isn’t used widely.

A moving iron cartridge is similar to a moving magnet one repeating its construction. The only difference is that the magnet is replaced with a piece of iron. Another type of relatively light ferrous metal can be implemented as well. The weight of the cartridge in this case is less than the typical moving magnet one so that the sound quality tends to be improved.

The micro cross cartridge is a subtype of the moving iron one having its distinct features and high clarity of the sound output. It consists of two magnets and two coils that are moved with the piece of iron made in the shape of a cross. This design provides for better channel separation positioning each stereo channel on a separate electric path.

MM vs MC Cartridge

Both MM and MC phono cartridges contain magnets as well as moving coils. The difference between them lies in what picks the stylus’ vibration first. In the MM cartridge, it’s a magnet. In the MC cartridge, it’s two coils. This distinction results in several features making the operation and output of each cartridge type different:

  • Weight. MC cartridges are more lightweight due to smaller coils. This makes them more sensitive to stylus’ moves.
  • Voltage. The MM cartridge’s output makes between 3 to 6mV, and the MC one can produce up to 1.5mV. The MMC unit requires a standard RIAA amplification that can be performed by the built-in preamp or a majority of external amps. The signal produced by MC cartridges is much weaker and requires an additional preamp.
  • Cost. MC units are more expensive than MM ones.

The MC vs MM cartridge opposition rests on cost, construction solidity, richness of sound output, amplification type, and weight. MM units are cheaper, sturdier, provide enough voltage for a standard RIAA amplification. They’re also heavier and are less diverse with regard to the sound detail. MC cartridges are lightweight and informative but also expensive and fragile. They require a special preamp section as well.