MXL 990 vs AT2020 (Differences & Which Is Right For You?)

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  • The MXL 990 and the AT2020 are great beginner mics.
  • Both have similar features, but also have their own unique character
  • The MXL 990 is cheaper, but the AT2020 is more complete

The MXL 990 and Audio-Technica 2020 are arguably the most popular budget condenser microphones .

For less than a hundred dollars, you can make one of these the centerpiece of your home or project studio. Both come from reputable companies and have become quite beloved in the audio community.

However, the devil is in the details. Although both condenser mics are very similar, their small differences can have an impact when choosing between these microphones.

(The AT2020 also has a bigger brother – the AT2035. Find out how they compare in AT2020 vs AT2035: Which Is Better?)

MXL 990 vs AT2020: Which Is the Better Mic?

MXL 990
$74.11

Home recordists searching for a high-quality — yet eminently budget-friendly — condenser microphone will find exactly what they are looking for in the MXL 990. 

Why We Love It:
  • High-quality & budget-friendly
  • Transformerless design
  • Great for vocals and acoustic instruments
View Price On Guitar Center View Price On Sweetwater

The AT2020 can be used on more sources, handles more volume from the source and better represents the entire frequency spectrum than the MXL 990. Although they are both great beginner mics, one will likely “outgrow” the MXL 990 faster than the AT2020.

Both mics work well on a variety of sources, though the MXL represents lower frequencies more accurately than the AT2020, while the Audio Technica works better on vocals and acoustic guitars thanks to its more balanced midrange response.

On the other hand, the MXL 990 is a tad cheaper than the AT2020. If you need to stick to a strict and very limited budget, then the MXL 990 will do. However, in this case you get what you pay for, and the AT2020 is the better (and more expensive) mic of the two

Audio-Technica AT2020
$87.00

The AT2020 gives you classic Audio-Technica sound quality at an incredibly low price! Capture the subtleties and nuances of vocals and acoustic guitars, then take on screaming guitar amplifier cabinets - all with one mic.

Why We Love It:
  • Ideal for home studios
  • Superior transient response
  • Great dynamic range
View Price On Guitar Center View Price on Sweetwater

MXL 990 vs AT2020: Feature by Feature

Commonalities

Both the MXL 990 and AT2020 sit in direct competition with each other for a variety of reasons. For instance, they both feature a cardioid polar pattern, which is great for picking up the source in front of the mic and rejecting noise from the sides and back. 

Additionally, both mics are condensers, ideal for picking up subtleties and nuances that your typical and usually cheaper dynamic mics do not capture.

In other words, both mics will work well in a studio situation. They are both great for podcasting and voiceovers, capturing the human voice clearly and accurately. So very importantly, they are good on the two most common sources/uses for project studios: vocals and acoustic guitars. 

Also, both mics use an XLR connector and require 48+ V phantom power, which is supplied by almost every audio interface on the market. There is a USB version of the AT2020, but in this article, we are considering only the XLR version (and it’s safe to assume they sound the same anyway).

Another important factor to consider with condenser microphones is their self-noise. Both the MXL 990 and the AT 2020 have 20 dBA of self-noise, which is relatively low. This ensures that both microphones capture the source accurately without adding unwanted noises or artifacts. 

Differences

Although both mics are very similar, they do have differences that can end up being significant depending on your situation.

As mentioned above, a diaphragm condenser microphone like the MXL 990 or AT2020 is capable of capturing the detail and subtlety of sources like vocals and acoustic guitars quite well. But what happens if you also want to capture an electric guitar through an actual cabinet?

Maximum SPL

The maximum SPL of the MXL 990 is 130 dB. Contrast that with the AT2020 which features a maximum SPL of 144 dB. Simply said, the AT2020 can take more sound pressure levels before it begins to distort.

A higher max SPL simply means that a mic can handle louder sources, so in this case, the AT2020 can handle hotter sources than the MXL 990. 

Need to mic your cabinet to record electric guitars? How about percussion instruments or any other loud sources? The AT2020 is the clear winner for these applications. 

Frequency Response

The MXL 990 features a frequency response of 30 Hz to 20 kHz, which is perfectly good for capturing vocals and most other sources. Contrast that with the AT2020’s slightly larger frequency response range of 20 Hz to 20 kHz. Though both microphones can record frequencies of up to 20 kHz, the AT2020 is better for recording sub bass frequencies.

Naturally, for many sources you do not need to go that low. As a matter of fact, you’ll probably be cleaning up, muting or cutting the low frequencies in many sources. In the case of vocals, you probably won’t need much in this range anyway, especially if it’s a singer with a high voice.

(Image: recordinghacks.com)

Despite the fact that the AT2020 has a wider frequency range, the MXL 990 ultimately has the better low end response. The AT2020 has a 5 dB dip around 80 Hz, while the MXL does not.  As a result, the MXL 990 has a warmer bassy undertone when compared to the AT2020. While it does come down to a matter of personal taste, the MXL 990 does a better job of accurately representing the low end of whatever you record.

Another dip, albeit a smaller one (2.5 dB), happens around 500 Hz on the MXL 990, while the AT2020 remains mostly flat in this area. So if you want a frequency response that is more tuned to vocals, the AT2020 has a more accurate midrange and picks up less low end mud on vocal sources.

Price

The MXL990 has been historically cheaper than the AT2020. At one point, it was even half the price of the Audio Technica mic.

For some, the price difference might be negligible or not important. However, if you are on a very tight budget, a cheaper price for a similar product might make a difference.

At the time of writing, the MXL 990 is just 20 dollars cheaper than the AT2020. Here, I leave it up to you to decide what to do, as you know your financial situation. Needless to say, the MXL 990 has the AT2020 beat in the price department, but only just.

Sound

The sound that you get from both the MXL 990 and the AT2020 is comparable. Some might say that the AT2020 is neutral sounding and the MXL 990 a tad bright, especially for vocals. Here it is all about a matter of taste, especially because the difference in sound between the two is not big.  

In an ideal world, you’d have a mic closet full of options. Some voices might sound better when captured by a darker-sounding mic, others might benefit from a pristine-sounding mic.

(Make sure you read 7 Best Vintage Microphones (Classic Sound, Legendary Status) for a look at some of the most classic microphone models in history!)

On some occasions, you want a very neutral mic with no coloring, and in others, a bright or dark microphone will be ideal depending on how it suits the vocalist or instrument you are recording. 

As far as sound goes, there are so many variables and personal preferences that I have to give both of these mics a tie in that area

Storing

Because of their transducers, condenser mics are sensitive to hits and abuse. You cannot treat condensers like a dynamic mic. What I mean by this is that dynamic mics can fall, take hits and overall road abuse and still perform. That is not the case with condenser mics. 

In other words, you need to be able to store your condenser mic in a case that ensures its safety. 

The MXL 990 is the clear winner here, as it comes with a hardshell case that truly protects it. On the other hand, the AT2020 ships with a microphone pouch that does not provide much padding to effectively protect the mic. 

Although smaller in size than the AT2020, the MXL 990 weighs 1.2 lbs. Contrast that with the AT2020’s weight of just 0.76 lbs.

This makes no difference in practical terms, other than the fact that your mic boom stand will have to support a bit more weight with the MXL 990. Again, if this is a problem, that means you need a new (and better quality) mic stand.   

So, Who Wins? 

If you need a budget condenser, these are both great choices. Although they are very similar mics, the AT2020 is a better buy than the MXL 990.

Audio-Technica AT2020
$87.00

The AT2020 gives you classic Audio-Technica sound quality at an incredibly low price! Capture the subtleties and nuances of vocals and acoustic guitars, then take on screaming guitar amplifier cabinets - all with one mic.

Why We Love It:
  • Ideal for home studios
  • Superior transient response
  • Great dynamic range
View Price On Guitar Center View Price on Sweetwater

The Audio Technica features a more complete frequency response and higher max SPL. This makes it more usable in a greater variety of sources and situations than the MXL. 

The AT2020 is also a bit pricier than the MXL 990, as you’d expect, but the very small price difference is certainly worth it.

Funny enough, MXL went to greater lengths to provide better storage protection to the 990 with a case, as opposed to the pouch that comes with the AT2020. 

FAQ’s

Does the MXL 990 or AT2020 need phantom power?

Both the MXL 990 and AT2020 need phantom power. 

Is the MXL 990 or AT2020 better for recording vocals?

From a practical perspective, the AT2020 is better than the MXL 990 for recording vocals as it has a better midrange presence and less low end boom.

Is the MXL 990 or AT2020 better for recording guitar?

The AT2020 is better than the MXL 990 for recording guitars, especially electric, as it can take on sources that emit more volume thanks to its higher max SPL. 

Do either come with a shock mount?

The MXL 990 comes with a shock mount, while the AT2020 does not. It ships with a standard mount instead.  

Is MXL990 good for podcasting?

Yes, the MXL 990 is a good choice for podcasting, voiceovers, and other applications where you need to capture the human voice with great clarity. Both mics will work well here, but if you are only buying a mic for a podcast, it might not be worth spending extra on the AT2020.

You can also check out the Shure MV7, which is a more affordable version of the classic SM7b broadcasting mic. Check out our review here!

Are the MXL 990 and AT2020 durable microphones?

Yes, both the MXL 990 and the AT2020 are durable, well-built mics. They should last a long time if you take care of them. However, you are likely to outgrow the MXL 990 faster than the AT2020, due to the greater usability of the AT2020

Of course, nothing is stopping you from owning both mics. Though they are quite similar, they are also just different enough that owning one does not preclude owning the other. Recording professionals know that having a variety of microphones on hand helps them cover more ground and adds more sonic variety into their recordings.