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Dead Wax Cafe

Analog On A Budget

The Audio Technica AT440ML Phono Cartridge

By Gary Markowitz

My brother-in-law had a stack of vinyl just sitting there, and nothing to play it on. Their belt drive Pioneer had bitten the dust during a move, and they had been without the sounds of vinyl for a couple of years. When the wife and I were discussing what to get them for Christmas/Chanukah (they celebrate both), I suggested that we find some old vinyl, and I would fix up an extra Logic DM101 with a Signet arm I had laying around for parts and give that to them, along with a new cartridge. My sister-in-law is into collecting show tunes, and my brother-in-law is into 60's and 70's rock including bands like Pink Floyd, The Moody Blues, and Dire Straits. (This also gave me a great excuse to get out to more vinyl shows and shops: Honey, I need to find more vinyl to give them with the table ) ).
I checked around the net, and found the AT440ML. I liked it better than most other offerings in the sub $150 (budget agreed upon by the wife) strata of cartridges because of it's microline stylus. In my experience, line contact styli reproduce less surface noise, all other things being equal, than elliptical or conical shaped styli. I had also owned a few AT models in the distant past, and had fond recollections of the AT150ML and AT170ML.
So I ordered one from J&R Music World Online. It arrived in two days.
I set up the Logic on a level surface in my main system, mounted the cartridge and started the tedious process of setting the cartridge parameters. I roughed in the overhang, approximated the tracking force and the anti-skating, and eyeballed the VTA/SRA. Then I queued up some records to start to break it in. In general, I like to put at least 10 hours on a cartridge before I do any final adjustments, more if the cartridge manufacturer recommends a longer break-in period.

The Sound:

The cartridge started out strident, but after about 8 album sides had settled in nicely. So I finalized the overhang, zenith, tracking force, anti-skating and VTA/SRA and sat down for a serious listen. As a note, this cartridge is fairly sensitive to the VTA/SRA setting. There is a narrow range of settings where the cartridge seems to lock in, providing more extended, less strident highs and adequately tight bass.
I was very pleasantly surprised at the sound of this cartridge. Although it was still breaking in, it didn't really do anything glaringly wrong. I found it a bit on the lean and bright side. There was some hardness and edge to the upper registers. However, while present, it was not what I'd call annoying. It sort of reminded me of a recent listening session with a Goldring 1042 cartridge, which is also a bit on the bright side for my tastes. It was more extended at both extremes than my Grado platinum, but it did lack the seductive midrange of the Grado, as well as the Grado's relative absence of grain. On the plus side, it picked up less surface noise on older recordings than the Platinum, a big plus in by book.
Sibilance was a bit of a problem on this cartridge compared to my two others. On Billie Holiday's Lady In Satin, the esses cut into the room more than with the Grado and with the Supex 1100R moving coil. On Someday My Prince Will Come by Miles Davis, it gave Miles' trumpet a bit more bite. There was also more grain than with either one of my other cartrigdes.
It fared very well on rock releases. I like to use Paul Simon's greatest hits LP as a test record. While it's not what I'd call an audiophile quality recording, it has a few good tracks that can put a system to the test. On "Stranded In A Limosine", the finger-snaps and claps, along with the percussion were reproduced with decent transients and dynamics, and the percussion along with it was fairly coherent. I've heard some systems and cartridges kind of fall apart in that area, where the hand noises seem detached from the rest of the percussion.
The only classical album I had time to listen to was the MoFi Beethoven's 9th, Solti/Chicago. On the second movement, the kettle drums sounded good. They weren't quite as dynamic as on the Supex, part of which could be that the Logic table and Signet arm doesn't even come close in the bass region to the TNT/SME V. Some of the smaller details in the music weren't portrayed as clearly as on the Grado or Supex either. Solo voice in the 4th movement had a very slight nasal quality, and during the mass choir and loud, complex orchestral passages, there was some congestion of the sound.

The Bottom Line:

Don't mistake this for a bad review of the AT440ML. At a street price of ~$110, you can't expect perfection. The Grado goes for $300, almost 3 times the price, and the Supex, while no longer being made today, would probably be in the $1000 range in today's cartridge market. Overall, the cartridge compared well considering it's modest price. It picked up less surface noise than the Grado, while delivering good overall sound quality. It did nothing blatantly or annoyingly wrong, and was actually rather enjoyable to listen to. If you're on a tight budget, or are looking to get back into vinyl, this cartridge can definitely give you a taste of what good analog is capable of.

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