Choosing the Best Moving Magnet Cartridge for your system.
When you decide on the best mm moving magnet cartridge for your system, there are a number of important factors to consider.
Firstly it may help some, if we start by clarifying why you would choose a moving magnet cartridge over a moving coil cartridge. There are 3 main differences.
- Lower Cost: Moving magnet cartridges have a high output (3mV to 6mV) compared to moving coil cartridges which are typically around 0.5mV. This means you can use a moving magnet cartridge without an expensive phono stage (a more expensive phono stage is vital for great sound quality on moving coils).Performance per £ invested is also higher with Moving magnets till you reach a price of around £500.
- Standard 47Kohm input impedance: All moving magnet cartridge play into a 47Kohm input on your phono stage or amp. This is simpler than Moving coils where the input impedance varies from cartridge to cartridge. Figures vary from 10 ohms to around 1000 ohms.
- More affordable Sound Quality: The best moving magnet cartridge will almost certainly outperform a similarly priced moving coil cartridge in an affordable system. This is because the technical advantages of moving coil cartridges can only be realised using expensive internal components. Allied to this, a high performance phono stage is essential for low output moving coil cartridges.
Some moving coil and moving iron cartridges can be treated the same as moving magnets
It can cause confusion that high output “moving coil” and “moving iron” cartridges can be treated exactly the same as moving magnet cartridges. This is because they have similar outputs as moving magnet cartridges and work into the standard moving magnet input of 47Kohm.
Their performance is competitive and there is no practical difference. Because of this we list all high output cartridges with Moving Magnet cartridges.
Factors affecting choice of the best moving magnet cartridge
When you choose the best moving magnet cartridge for you particular system it’s not only a matter of looking up review rankings. There are factors which are not always mentioned:
- Sound Quality
- What features you are investing in with higher value cartridges
- How much to invest
- Which model of mm cartridge will best match your system
- Effect on Record wear
- Musical taste
Sound quality improves significantly with the best moving magnet cartridges. The reasons for this are explained below under the “Features” heading.
Those unfamiliar with turntable hierarchy tend to believe intuitively that cartridge quality will determine the sound quality of your record player more than anything else.
Tests have proven this to be a big mistake. The performance of your cartridge is determined largely by the quality of your record player and tonearm. For example a £100 cartridge can outperform a £1000 cartridge simply by virtue of being in a better tonearm (incredible but true). Knowing this will help you achieve the best possible increase in sound quality within a budget.
Features of the best moving magnet cartridge models
Cartridges features can be incredibly sophisticated as evidenced by models in excess of £10,000. This is a complex subject so the following is a brief explanation of various features of cartridges.
The Stylus is in contact with the surface of your record and is invariably a diamond. Diamond tips vary from a jagged needle (as used in £69 record players) to highly profiled and polished tips. I noted in a Daily Telegraph review of turntables that the reporter mentioned those he called “audio snobs” who complained about the quality of £69 Turntables. No one would question the amazing feat of producing a functional record player at this price even though at this level the sound quality would not match that of a cheaper CD player.
The problem is that it makes no economic sense to wreck your invaluable record collection by using a very poor stylus. A poor stylus will quickly shred the delicate modulations in the groove of a soft vinyl record. You end up with a worn record with lower sound quality than MP3 – even if played afterwards on a £3000 record player.
Only four brand new LPs will cost around £69 and if you add in your record collection, a cheap stylus needle will really end up costing you a fortune. This has nothing to do with snobbery but a matter of understanding crucial information.
You can expect a cartridge with a decent polished tip to cost upwards of around £35. The Audio Technica AT95E has long been regarded by many as the best mm moving magnet cartridge for entry level. Sound quality then improves as you invest in higher cartridge models.
High Quality materials and build
Ideally the cantilever which holds the stylus should be rigid, low mass and non resonant. To achieve these criteria requires expensive, high grade materials and specialist manufacturing techniques. The same holds true for the miniature electrical coils, magnets, suspension system and cartridge body.
Precision and Tolerances in the best moving magnet cartridge models
Precision plays an important role in sound quality. This is a complex aspect which is fully dealt with in our youtube video “how to tune your cartridge by ear”. For example on more expensive cartridges, the stylus angle affects sound quality markedly and it’s expensive to ensure accuracy to within 1 degree or less.
Each component needs to be assembled with meticulous care to build the best moving magnet cartridge. Dimensions of things like magnetic gaps vary depending on tolerance. Magnetic gaps are very important for sound quality but the tighter the gap the more expensive it is to build.
How much to invest?
Apportioning how much you invest in the best moving magnet cartridge depends entirely on the quality of partnering source components. You want a balanced approach to the value of each component in the audio chain which yields maximum return.
If you use an integrated amplifier and plug your turntable into the phono input, it’s unlikely to yield optimum results for the important reasons explained in Phono Stage overview. We always highly recommend using a good stand alone phono stage.
For Origin Live Turntables a loose split down of front end value is:
- Turntable 30%
- Tonearm 27%
- Phono Stage 27%
- Cartridge 16%
This is a huge approximation for budgeting purposes only. From a performance standpoint improving any one of the four items above will result in improvement.
For other brands of turntable and tonearm, guidance will vary enormously depending on the brands involved. Things are too complex to provide concrete guidance, however taking an average we would advise:
Phono Stage 30%
Which model of phono cartridge will best match your system?
There are 4 factors to consider in order of importance:
- Synergy with System and Room Acoustics
- Synergy with tonearm
Synergy with System and Room Acoustics
As described on our cartridge overview page, moving magnet cartridges each have their own musical character. Because of this opinions and recommendations vary widely. Its best to read about these before reaching any decision.
Synergy with Tonearm
Due to the obvious tonal character of many tonearms it’s well know that there is a need to match the cartridge. For this reason the best moving magnet cartridge choice will vary depending on the arm. This is not about a compliance mismatch but tonal imbalances which affect musicality and timing. It’s worth adding that Origin Live arms do not seem to have the synergy issues that plague many tonearms.
Compliance is not as significant as some folk make it out to be. Yes it does affect matters but is only one factor among many. We hear regularly of perfect compliance matches that mistrack and conversly of mismatches which track perfectly. Most cartridges will work with most tonearms nowadays and it’s only when they get far from the norm that this can become and issue. There are also aspects of compliance which we feel are not properly understood which means the mathmatical models are flawed.
Effect on Record Wear
One would imagine that cartridges with low tracking force would result in less record wear. However this is not true as low tracking force can introduce instability to the tracking. Most modern cartridges track at between 1.7 to 2.5 grams and have been optimized to reduce wear.
Musical Taste affects your choice of the best moving magnet cartridge
If your system is perfectly neutral in terms of tonal balance, you may need to consider the character of the best moving magnet cartridge from what you like to hear most. For example,you may be an analytical listener who enjoys a very detailed sound with outstanding transparency. Cartridges which major on these aspects often lack a powerful punchy bass. If you want a good all round cartridge it will generaly be at the expense of one aspect or another so it helps to know what your priorites are.