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Audio-Technica AT4080 and AT4081 Review

6/16/2010

The AT4080 (above) and AT4081 ribbon microphones use active electronics to increase output to levels comparable with modern condenser mics.

The AT4080 (above) and AT4081 ribbon microphones use active electronics to increase output to levels comparable with modern condenser mics.

There has never been a better time to be a ribbon microphone enthusiast, with new designs and manufacturers regularly popping up. Now, Audio-Technica has jumped into the game, offering its first ribbon models: the AT4080 ($1,245 MSRP) and AT4081 ($895 MSRP). Both are built around the same dual-ribbon assembly, newly designed by the company''s engineers. The onboard active elements are powered by 48V phantom to increase output to levels comparable with modern condenser mics.

STYLISH DESIGN
The AT4080 is topped with a distinctive long grille familiar to anyone who knows the company''s popular AT4033 and other 40 Series mics. The AT4081 sports a slim retro-''60s appearance and is the smallest ribbon mic I have seen. Both are side-address, and the pickup pattern is bidirectional (aka figure-8).

In addition to the visible differences in construction between the two models, the AT4080 offers internal acoustic baffling and a larger output transformer to increase its low-end response. According to Audio-Technica''s supplied specs, the 4080 also features slightly higher output and lower noise (about 3dB for both).

The AT4080 kit ships with a fully professional, metal-suspension shock-mount and a dust cover that is large enough to fit over both the mic and shock-mount. The AT4081 comes with a hard-rubber mic holder and a foam windscreen Both microphones are housed in a vinyl storage case and are covered by a limited five-year warranty.

IN STUDIO
In sessions at three different San Francisco Bay Area studios, I quickly settled on the AT4081 as my preferred tonality between the two models. The highest praise I can give for this mic is to report that I used a pair for stereo drum overheads on two different kits, and I loved the sound when recorded to both analog and DAW systems.

Prior to this, I had never gotten good results using ribbon mics as overheads. The extended high end, accurate midrange, and lack of muddiness or proximity-
effect bass boosting of the 4081 is just perfect for drum recording. The 4081 pair sounded great on a Hammond organ/Leslie cabinet combination, as well as on a baby grand piano. Around the studio, I also tried the 4081 successfully on vocals and acoustic guitar. Placement can be a challenge with these sources, but getting the mic a bit farther away resulted in tracks that were warm and present, without excessive room sound. The 4080 ribbon proved to be an excellent pairing with acoustic bass.

A standard loudspeaker test—using high-quality cabling and a Manley Labs Langevin Dual Vocal Combo stereo preamp—revealed the 4080 and 4081 to be surprisingly different in frequency response. The midrange pickup was comparable, but the 4080 gave thumpy low bass, and the 4081 reproduced the kind of crisp high-end detail that I would expect from a condenser mic.

The Royer Labs R-121 provided an interesting contrast to these mics. The AT4080 had much more low end while the Royer, like the AT4081, offered airy highs. The AT4081 and R-121 were similar in high-end response, but I was surprised to hear that the Royer was brighter and clearer at 6kHz and above. In terms of low end, the 121 gave depth to bass drum and acoustic bass that surpassed the 4081, but it didn''t equal the punch of the 4080.

The AT4081 was a closer match to an AEA R84. The AEA delivered slightly more low end below 100Hz, while the AT4081 conveyed more midrange and nuances of room tone from the audio samples I auditioned. High-end response was roughly comparable between these two ribbon transducers.

REMARKABLE RIBBONS
Both of these ribbon mics have their merits, and they arrive ready to compete with any of the premium ribbon mics out there in terms of features, specs, and sound quality. The 4081 really won me over with its affordable price tag, crisp tonality, and slim, maneuverable body style. Highly recommended.

Overall rating (1 through 5): 4 (4080); 5 (4081)

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