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Audio-Technica AT2020 USB+

USB Capacitor Microphone
By Paul White

Audio-Technica AT2020 USB Audio-Technica’s AT2020 is often recommended as mic whose subjective results seem much better than you’d expect for the very modest price tag, and launching a USB version must have been a no-brainer for the company. The original AT2020 USB was designed to appeal to those computer users who don’t have a separate audio interface with a built-in mic preamp — musicians working alone, needing only to record one part at a time, or anyone recording voice-overs for podcasts and suchlike. As with many of the early USB mics, though, the original AT2020 USB lacked some useful features, such as a headphones output to monitor what you recorded. The latest addition to the 2020 stable, the AT2020 USB+ addresses precisely this deficiency, and bundled accessories include a conventional stand-mounting swivel clamp, a small tripod desk stand and a 10 foot USB cable.

For those as yet unfamiliar with the original AT2020, it is a side-address, medium-diaphragm (16mm diameter) mic with a fixed cardioid pattern. Its back-electret capsule features a low-mass diaphragm with a frequency range in excess of 20Hz to 16kHz and a maximum SPL handling of 144dB (1kHz at 1% THD). This latest USB version offers essentially the same performance, but this time power is drawn from the USB port, rather than from phantom power, and a standard full-size USB connector takes the place of the usual XLR. A blue LED inside the basket confirms that the mic is powered up. The mic retains the form factor of the wired AT2020, but is distinguishable by its attractive shade of metallic dark grey.

The signal-to-noise ratio is quoted as 74dB (1kHz at 1Pa), which equates to a self noise or EIN figure of 20dB. This isn’t exceptional but it’s adequately low for typical close-miked studio applications, which is precisely what this mic is intended for. There are no pads or filters, so any necessary low-cut EQ must be applied after recording. Pads shouldn’t be necessary, though, given that the mic can handle pretty high SPLs.

The USB side of things caters for 16-bit A-D conversion (which can accommodate a dynamic range of over 90dB) and a sample rate of 44.1kHz. As well transmitting the mic signal, the USB connection brings stereo audio back from the computer. Headphones are plugged into the mini jack socket on the side of the mic and a thumbwheel potentiometer governs the headphones level, while another adjusts the balance between the direct signal from the mic (for latency-free monitoring) and the computer’s stereo output.

Being a class-compliant devices, the AT2020 USB+ needs no additional driver to be used with Apple operating systems (OSX, iOS), and a suitable driver should download automatically for Windows if one isn’t already installed.

My speech recordings tests with this mic confirmed that it has essentially the same sound character as its wired counterpart: rather than sounding completely neutral, the mic does seem to add a touch of warmth to the lower mids in a vocal, and it imparts a very slightly compressed quality that’s mildly reminiscent of some valve mics. In other words, it has a slightly flattering tonality. In past tests we’ve found the AT2020 to be kinder to female vocals than many budget microphones, and there’s nothing about this version to suggest that this will be any different in that respect. The AT2020 USB+ is well suited to a wide range of vocal styles, though, and it can also double up as a very capable acoustic instrument mic.

I didn’t perceive any problems at all in terms of background noise, and you really shouldn’t be put off by the 16kHz upper end of the quoted frequency response, or the 16-bit conversion — because neither have any detrimental effect on the sound quality in normal use. This mic can still pick out transient detail while staying warm and smooth, exhibiting minimal distortion or unnecessary noise. Its headphone output is very clean and loud, and the ability to balance the mic and computer return signals is ideal if latency is normally a problem on your system.

I’ve always been surprised by how well the AT2020 works, almost regardless of who or what you put in front of it, so this updated USB version is most welcome.

Published March 2014