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.

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Digitizing Your Vinyl on a Budget

Lets face it, even record collectors sometimes get lazy. Maybe getting up to select a record, put it on the turntable and drop the needle isn’t really your idea of relaxing all of the time– especially when it comes time to flip that record. In today’s digital world, many of us have gotten used to music at the click of a button. Convenience is everything. I’m not going to lie, I get lazy with my records too and I will frequently opt to just throw itunes on, maybe even on shuffle (gasp!) instead of filing through my collection for that perfect full-length album. Fortunately for us record collectors out there, basic and very affordable technology exists, which can enable you to turn your record collection into a digital masterpiece. And yes, you can also use shuffle (gasp!).

Instead of  keeping the music of your record collection bound to the tiny, plastic grooves in which they were cut, you can instead digitize it, liberate it, preserve it and make a killer digital music library with that classic vinyl sound, all for much less than you expect.

Numark offers a very cool, portable vinyl archiving turntable called the PT-01USB. This is the most popular USB turntable on the market. This handy device used to sell for a little under $200, but it is now available through a number of third party retailers for anywhere between $75 and $100.

Numark PT-01USB

Numark PT-01USB

“This rugged, portable turntable can run on either wall or battery power and even has an internal speaker for total mobility. Using the included recording software, no special drivers are needed to connect the turntable to any Mac or PC via USB and transfer music from vinyl to your hard drive. EZ Vinyl Converter 2 (PC) and EZ Audio Converter (Mac) software are included to make recording and importing audio simple. EZ Vinyl Converter 2 imports your songs directly into your iTunes library, automatically separating tracks, and with a free download of Gracenote MusicID, it can even automatically name your tracks. The PT-01USB turntable also comes with Audacity software for editing your tracks, which can even help to reduce clicks, pops, and other noises from your recordings to restore the full quality of your vinyl.”

-testfeaks.com (http://www.testfreaks.com/turntables/numark-pt-01usb/)

Although this may be the most popular USB turntable, it certainly isn’t the only one. Audio Technica, a trusted and long-time player in the vinyl business also offers their own USB turntable, the AT-LP2D-USB, which can be picked up for around $80-$100.

Audio-Technica AT-LP2D-USB LP-to-Digital Recording System Turntable

Audio-Technica AT-LP2D-USB LP-to-Digital Recording System Turntable

And Sony, also offers their own USB turntable, the PS LX300USB, which costs around $150.

Sony PS LX300USB Turntable

Sony PS LX300USB Turntable

“But For the Record, I don’t have $75-150!” I know what you’re thinking. Times are tough and we all can’t afford snazzy digital turntables with that newfangled “USB” technology to rip our vinyl onto our hard disks. Luckily, there is a very simple DIY method to get exactly the same results. This will cost you around $5. That’s right: Five Dollars.

"I'm broke! (But I still have a few dollars to support my record collecting hobby)"

"I'm broke! (But I still have a few dollars to support my record collecting hobby)"

All you need is a turntable and a stereo with a set of “record out” ports, or at least a headphone output.

Get an RCA to 3.5 mm cable, connect the RCA end to the “record out” ports on your stereo and the 3.5 mm end to the “sound in” port on your computer. If your stereo doesn’t have “record out” ports (also may be labeled as “cassette out” or “tape out”) then you can get a phono to 3.5 mm cable and connect it from your stereo’s headphone output to your computer’s “sound in” port.

These cables are highly inexpensive and can be picked up for around (drumroll please) $2-5 at Radioshack or cablesdirect.com

You’ll also need some type of software to record the actual audio from your records. I know that the full version of Nero comes with decent audio recording software. Instead of getting Nero 9, the most recent version of the popular digital media suite, you could easily settle for Nero 8, 7, or 6, which will work just the same and will put less of a dent in your wallet.

If you don’t want to pay for software at all, you can simply download Audacity for free. If you want to record the albums as MP3 files (which I think makes the most sense), you’ll also need MP3 codecs if you don’t have those installed already. Lame is a good one.

This whole process will take more time than money, depending on how many records you choose to put on your hard drive, but it is definitely worth it. A record will never sound as good as it did the first time you played it because of the wear factor that comes with running a diamond-tipped needle through a groove of plastic. You can now digitally preserve the music from your records for good. No more worrying about wear and tear (We’ll save that for another post). Now you can put records on your ipod, use them as ringtones, “shuffle” them and whatever overly technologically-oriented music-listening activity you choose to partake in. Hell, you can even email them. Go ahead, give your dusty records a new lease on life and digitize them for good. If they could, they’d thank you– for the record.