Audio Technica’s AT440ML Cartridge – Perfection is Purple

Time to get technical

A few years back, when my Shure M97xE phono cartridge went awry, I found myself reading almost every cartridge review I could get my hands on in hope of finding that perfect cartridge with the warm, clear sound reproduction that records deserve. I also wanted something that was relatively affordable (I was working at the produce department of a local supermarket at the time and was not particularly wealthy). I was also completely cartridge-less, considering I would rather not use my turntable at all than have my records be at the mercy of the old, yellowed, generic AT cartridge that my turntable came with when I inherited it from my dad. You could practically see thin, black plastic shavings snaking their way up from the record when I put that needle down. Not my cup of tea. Tired of watching the rows of records in my room collect dust, I had to find something fast.

I talked to John, the owner of my local record store, Music Merchant in Westwood, NJ. He had a few cartridges on the shelf at the store which were great if you simply wanted “passable” sound quality. I had been done with passable since I had upgraded to the now defunct, Shure cartridge. I didn’t want to listen to music to listen to music, I wanted to listen to music to really hear the music. I wanted to go full-blown audiophile.

That was when I really started compulsively scanning forums on the internet for that perfect cartridge. As I perused, I began to notice a common theme throughout these forums. It was subtle, hardly detectable and almost invisible. I was pretty new to the record collecting hobby and had yet to pick up on a great deal of the jargon I found myself immersed in.  I wouldn’t have noticed it myself if it hadn’t been for the sheer amount of time I spent reading these forums. A pattern slowly began to emerge. People would consistently and discreetly drop the name, AT440. People spoke about it in the hush-hush manner that you would use to discuss a recent death or somebody’s affair– not a phono cartridge. Somebody might say something like, “Here’s a great website with phono cartridge reviews for you to look at.” Then they would post a link and somewhere near the very bottom in a ridiculously tiny font size would be the elusive “AT440,” as if to say, “Oh, by the way… ” It was borderline subliminal and I knew that they were in on something that they wanted to keep under the radar.

Lucky for you, I’m not into that.

I did my research on the mysterious AT440ML cartridge and what I found was the holy grail of affordable, hi-fi, phono cartridge technologies. Sites were consistently giving it 4-5 out of 5-star ratings. It was lauded, raved about and glorified. It almost seemed like some kind of tall tale. Plainly put, it was the coolest thing since sliced bread.

The myth, the legend, the Audio Technica AT440ML

The myth, the legend, the Audio Technica AT440ML

Sure, Audio Technica has been in the phonograph industry since 1962, so they definitely know the ropes. The name is almost synonymous with the very medium of vinyl records. But the brand is not what makes this specific stylus exceptional. What makes this cartridge a standalone favorite is a delicate balance of innovation, quality and affordability (less than $100 from third party sources). Firstly, this isn’t your grandfather’s record cartridge. It utilizes a relatively new sound reproduction technology known as the diamond-tipped MicroLine® Stylus, which mimics the knife-like shape of the cutting head which is used to make records in the first place. This stylus is also nearly identical to that of Shure’s legendary and now discontinued V- 15MR cartridge, which sells for a fortune on Ebay. Gone is your typical elliptical or linear contact stylus. And thankfully, gone is the conical stylus, which traverses the groove of a record like a 747 on a sidewalk (i.e. the black plastic shavings I mentioned earlier).

Here is a comparison:

Styli types

Styli types

The MicroLine stylus also greatly reduces record wear during playback (wear is almost negligible) and makes records that have been damaged due to damaged styli or improperly-alligned styli considerably more listenable due to it’s astounding tracking ability. Point blank, this stylus is incredible and gets way down to the bottom of the record groove, where it picks up sounds you didn’t even know were there.

The AT440ML is built on the tried and true dual moving-magnet platform and only differs from Audio Technica’s $800 AT150MLX in terms of its plastic body, aluminum cantilever, the thickness of the cantilever, and the number of windings on the fixed coil mechanism (which is a good thing) and the coil material. The sound is nearly identical to that of the AT150MLX and has actually been described as brighter-sounding than its counterpart, although lacking a slight amount of the AT150MLX’s transparency, which is still astonishing due to the amazing difference in price. Why would you pay an extra $700 for an almost unnoticeable difference in sound?

Here is where we get really technical:

Specifications of the AT440ML phono cartridge:

Standard Mount: 1/2″ centers
Vector-Aligned Moving Magnet
Output: 4 mV at 1 kHz, 5 cm/sec
Channel balance at 1 kHz: 0.8 dB
Channel separation at 1 kHz: 27 dB
Frequency response: 20 Hz – 20 kHz
Dynamic Compliance (x 10-6 cm/dyne, 100
Hz): 10.0/mN
Static Compliance: 40x10E-6 cm/dyne
Diamond tip type: MicroLine™
Stylus construction: nude square shank
Cantilever: tapered alloy tube
Tracking force: 0.75-1.75 Gr
Internal inductance: 490 mH
Coil Impedance: 3200 ohms (1 kHz)
Recommended load capacitance: 100-200 pF
Recommended load resistance: 47k ohm
Cartridge weight: 6.5 grams
List Price: $219
$<100

Lacking the equipment necessary to perform an accurate tracking test, I went to Audioasylum.com for their review of the AT440ML:

“Without doing any more adjustment, the AT440ML tracked all but the +18dB band of the Hi-Fi News and Record Review anti-skate track (and there it produced only a very slight buzz), and passes all the +15dB tracking tests. Clearly this cartridge is an excellent tracker. The resonance tests gave vertical and lateral frequencies of about 9Hz. This is the low end of the optimal range but none-the-less acceptable.”

Echoing the Audioasylum.com review, I have to admit that this cartridge sounded phenomenal right out of the box with absolutely no break-in period. Just make sure to keep a mid-range tracking weight. When paired with my old Onkyo amplifier and my huge 70’s-era Avid oak speakers, the sound was crystal clear. The range on this stylus is phenomenal and the bass is warm, deep and clear, while the treble stayed bright and crisp.

Every sound was distinguishable and free of distortion even at high volume and when listened to at equal distance between the two speakers, I would find myself forgetting that I was listening to a stereo at all. It painted a veritable mural of crystal-clear sonic goodness. The sound was very dimensional and was delivered with astounding realism (even without being broken in) and the stereo channel separation was perfect. There wasn’t even the slightest sentiment of “leakage” between the right and left channels. My Shure cartridge would leak a little bit toward the interior of the record and this problem was nowhere to be seen with the AT440ML, most likely due to the state-of-the-art stylus design which excels at tracking the interior of the record groove, where most styli tend to slack.

Point blank, if you’re in the market for a new hi-fi turntable cartridge, the AT440ML is your standalone best bet. Oh, and for the record, I have also discovered that supplies of this wonderful cartridge are waning, as production is slowly and sadly coming to a close. Pick one of these up before they go the way of the AT150MLX and the price of hi-fi becomes sky-high.

Welcome! / Best Buy in Deptford Gives Vinyl a Spin

1)     This is my first post on For the Record – South Jersey, so firstly, I’d like to say welcome to my blog to all of the curious record collectors and vintage audiophiles out there in the blogosphere. Look forward to a constant stream of useful info regarding everything vinyl and retro-audio down here in Southern NJ.

2)      Vinyl sales are up and big music retailers are starting to take notice. Vinyl sales grew 89 percent in 2008 and more and more outlets are increasing their vinyl offerings to capitalize on this newly emerging, mini-vinyl-renaissance. Last year, music conglomerate, Best Buy decided to dedicate eight square feet in each of its 100 “test stores” to vinyl records. Fortunately for us down here in Gloucester County, NJ, one of these test stores happens to be right here in Deptford.

An example of what to expect at a Best Buy vinyl rack. A delightful mixture of old and new.

An example of what to expect at a Best Buy vinyl rack. An eclectic mix of old and new.

I recently stopped in to take a look and see exactly what Best Buy offered in terms of records. What struck me wasn’t the new albums or artists that were available on vinyl (those have been available through small record stores and amazon.com for years), but the generous offering of classic albums by artists such as, The Rolling Stones, Bruce Springsteen, Cream and The Doors. Most of these albums are relatively newly re-issued on 180 gram vinyl by their respective record companies and sound better now than ever. For those of us not too concerned with the actual monetary or nostalgic value of vintage vinyl but who still seek classic rock albums on vinyl for that delightful, warm, vinyl sound, this is like striking gold.

Every once in a while, I’ll be sifting through dusty bins of records in a local record store and I’ll find a still shrink-wrapped copy of a twenty to thirty-some-odd year-old record. This would be considered a gem if you are a serious record collector. I remember finding a mint, unplayed copy of Supertramp’s Breakfast in America, complete with the original, faded store price tag from the late seventies. I’m racking my brain right now but I think it sold for about $6 or $7 when it was new. maybe even less. Sadly enough, right below this beautiful and misleading vintage price tag was a clean white one with a big, bold and discouraging $35 on it. Yeah, I still bought the record (Come on now, unplayed, vintage supertramp), but if I knew I could have ran over to best buy and gotten a reissue of the same record for a more modest $15-$20, I probably would have.

$35 or $15-$20? Depends which way you lean-- collecting or listening

$35 or $15-$20? Depends which way you lean-- collecting or listening

Like I said, newly printed vinyl sounds better than vinyl that was put out even in the heyday of vinyl. While the rest of the market looked away, vinyl recording and analog audio technologies kept advancing, even though vinyl slowly became somewhat of a niche hobby.

Not anymore.

Vinyl is finally gaining some much needed steam as distraught kids across America are becoming frustrated with their itunes purchases that include a shoddy, overcompressed, digital piece of music and a piece of art the size of a sticky note (if you really zoom in). Still, youngsters are coming across their parents’ record collections and are being turned onto one of the most satisfying hobbies imaginable. Not only is there optimism, but there are cold, hard numbers that show progress. And hell, if its at Best Buy, it must be big.

So for those of us audiophiles more interested in sound than price and collectibility, new vinyl reissues of classic albums is a winner and Best Buy is a best bet. I’d still highly recommend going onto amazon.com and doing an advanced search with vinyl checked off in the format checkbox just to see what’s floating around, but if you live in the Deptford, NJ area, be sure to swing by and check out the vinyl rack. It’s straight ahead and an aisle or two to the right when you walk in. If somebody asks you why you’re looking at a vinyl rack at Best Buy in the year 2009, tell them to go find a new hobby, or just say you’re there “For the Record.

Deptford Best Buy:

1851 Deptford Center Rd Deptford, NJ 08096 – (856) 374-0404
Open Mon-Sat 10am-9pm; Sun 11am-7pm

Picture 1

(the main highway on the left is route 55)