In Search of the Ideal Answerphone

Motorola CT610 (left), AT&T CL4940 (right), shown to approximate scale.

A long time ago a dear friend gave me a Christmas gift that changed life for the better: my first answerphone. I had had answering machines before, even tapeless ones, but having the answerer built into a phone uncluttered my desk and made life simpler. All good things must come to an end, however, and after 20 years of steadfast service, my Casio answerphone was dying by inches as its contacts oxidized or maybe just wore out. First changing settings became hard. Then the numeric phone buttons began misfiring. It was time for a new answerphone.

Because I hate dealing with rechargeable batteries — they need constant attention, eventually fail, and thus doom anything they’re built into — I wanted another corded answerphone. Options were surprisingly limited. Some models bundled corded and cordless answerphones together; I emphatically did not want one of the latter. Eventually I settled on the Motorola CT610 (affiliate link). It seemed to have everything I thought I wanted: phone, answering function, LCD display. I hinted broadly to my friend, now my roommate, what I would like for Christmas, and Santa delivered.

But after only two years, I was ready to retire the Motorola. The product was reliable enough and it was not the phone or the answering mechanism that irked me. The problem was the display which I could barely read. And because the Motorola was the first answering machine I’ve owned (of many) without a flashing red light to signal incoming messages, I had to read the display to find out if anyone had called while I was away from my desk.

Unfortunately I live in a dark apartment and my answerphone is surrounded by other gear: loudspeakers, amp, PC monitor. The caller ID window is not backlit, and to enable room lighting to reach it, I’d have to either live with live constant use of bright overhead lights (which make me uncomfortable) or place a floor lamp beside my desk chair. Even with the Motorola sitting two feet from my face, I could not read its LCD without bending over it.

So checking for messages was an ordeal — and reducing my use of caller ID would have been unthinkable. Perpetually assaulted by nuisance callers, both robotic and human, I rely heavily on caller ID to identify them and spare myself having to deal with them. Looking back on life before caller ID, I shudder to remember how I used to pick up the phone, find another poop sandwich at the other end of the line demanding to be eaten, and start yelling at the caller and/or slam down the phone. Mine is not a telephonic personality — I don’t like sudden, unscheduled conversations — and I limit phone use to the bare necessities.

Though the Motorola’s other ergonomic problems were not dealbreakers, they certainly didn’t help. It tried to do more with fewer buttons, which made changing settings arduous. The button that accessed messages was inexplicably tiny, almost invisibly labeled, and camouflaged in a strip of similar buttons. I should add that the block button, a feature I haven’t had before or since, was gratifyingly large and boldly labeled with both text and icon. But nuisance callers have become wily enough to rarely call from the same number twice, so I never got much use out of it.

I felt torn because the Motorola did have some endearing traits. Among its generous assortment of 15 ringtones I found a chirping noise that pleased both me and my roommate, who sleeps in the livingroom where my home office is located and has to suffer the noise of incoming calls. Ringer volume also offered a wide range of settings and I chose the quietest one. Because I’m only too happy to fight robots with robots, I also loved the automated voice for the outgoing message, a snarky female robot perfect for demoralizing telemarketers. But it was time for the Motorola to go, or so I thought.

The runner-up in my previous search had been the AT&T CL4940 (affiliate link), and as my dissatisfaction with the Motorola grew, I resumed eyeing the AT&T on retail sites. Available in black or white, it has an LCD that is 2 inches tall, twice as tall as the Motorola’s, and 3.25 inches wide, with bright orange backlighting. That seemed the very definition of readable. Such was my desire for change that I didn’t hit up my roommate for another Christmas gift — the holiday was two months away, which seemed like forever — so I ordered the new answerphone myself.

The AT&T is larger in life than it appears in thumbnail photos on retail sites. Especially prominent are the numeric buttons, which are nearly an inch wide and feel rather flimsy and wobbly. However, the buttons are scaled in accordance with the display, which is indeed large, bright, able to tilt forward, and bliss-inducingly functional. Perhaps the huge buttons are the the price I must pay for the huge display.

The AT&T’s ergonomic advantages include more and better labeled buttons for frequently used functions. They are well organized by size, shape, and color, with adequate labeling — the same traits you’d look for in a decent remote control. Some are transparent and backlit, including the answer on/off button, which glows when on, and the play button, which glows only for unplayed recorded messages. As I set up the device, I wondered if the constantly lit answer-on button would become a distraction — it seemed bright enough to take my eye out, and the phone sits right below my monitor — but I soon got used to it. The bright display lights only when I’m using the phone or the answering device is in use.

The user interface is pretty good. I had no trouble figuring out how to set up and use the phone, its answering function, and its call logs. (I’m a tech critic, so your mileage may vary.) I set up speed dial for a few numbers, something I had never bothered to do with the Motorola because programming it was such a bear. While the automated outgoing message does not have the bracing attitude of Motorola’s snarky female voice, AT&T’s blander male voice gets the job done, and more briefly, reducing the time I spend monitoring nuisance calls as well as the wait time for legit callers leaving messages.

But no product is perfect and the AT&T has some flaws in addition to the huge, rickety numeric buttons. Chief among them is the ringer volume, which offers five settings ranging from loud to really loud. There doesn’t seem to be much difference among them and the lowest setting isn’t nearly quiet enough. When working I sit practically right on top of the phone — I don’t need a ringer that would wake the dead. With my roommate on the sofabed across the room, waking the living quickly became a problem.

Nostalgia for the Motorola’s gentle chirp became intense. Choosing a less abrasive ringtone was not an option. Only one was offered. Another source of annoyance was a feature that emitted a loud beep at 15-second intervals to indicate unplayed messages. That I quickly disabled. But there was nothing I could do about the loud ringer without turning it off. And that is what I have done.

How, then, do I hear the phone ring? Well, if I’m sitting at my desk, I needn’t hear it — the 1.5-inch stripe light above the LCD flutters for incoming calls. But I might not notice that if I’m across the room watching television.

Re-enter the Motorola.

Did I switch back? Nope. I just have the two machines running side by side. The Motorola is set to ring but not answer, so once again I am enjoying its sweet chirp. The AT&T is set to answer but not ring, so I avoid the wake-the-dead ringer while still enjoying the bright, readable, football-field display. They seem able to coordinate with one another: the Motorola rings, the AT&T answers, the Motorola stops ringing. I still can’t easily read the Motorola display, but that no longer matters because I use the phone only as a ringer. If I need to punch through a long list of menu options, I suppose still might use its sturdier buttons. But the AT&T is now my main desk phone and only answering device.

Does that mean the AT&T CL4940 is the right corded answerphone for you — assuming you can live with that blaring ringer? That might depend on your political beliefs. Reuters reports: “A Reuters review of court records shows the role AT&T played in creating and funding OAN, a network that continues to spread conspiracy theories about the 2020 election and the COVID-19 pandemic. OAN founder and chief executive Robert Herring Sr has testified that the inspiration to launch OAN in 2013 came from AT&T executives. Since then, AT&T has been a crucial source of funds flowing into OAN…”

Strictly speaking, AT&T is not the manufacturer of this answerphone. It licenses its name to VTech, doing business as Advanced American Telephones, which bought the phone manufacturing business spun off from the Bell System breakup in the early 1980s. Though its name includes American and the acronym AAT seems intended to resemble AT&T — tricky, tricky! — the company is based in Hong Kong and manufactures in China (as if you expected anything else from a cheap phone). If you’d avoid this product to keep your hard-earned money out of AT&T’s silken corporate pockets, AT&T is not actually the company you’d be boycotting, though you might succeed in denying it a few pennies in licensing revenue.

But if you’re going to boycott AT&T licensees, what about other AT&T products and services? Are you willing to switch from AT&T Wireless to Verizon or T-Mobile? Would you swap your DirecTV service for the DISH Network or cable? AT&T is also part-owner of CNN, HBO, and the Warner Bros. movie and TV studios, and while recent spinoffs have reduced its stake, it still has fingers in those media pies. It’s not impossible to boycott a company so large and diverse. But to do it thoroughly you might have to inconvenience yourself in any of several ways.

Someday I may need to shop for another answerphone. The whole concept of an answerphone is that it combines phone and answering machine into one unit, and I am once again back to having two units hogging my desk. But what I have works the way I want it to, and for now, that will have to suffice.

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Author of The Friendly Audio Guide and the annually updated Practical Home Theater (quietriverpress.com).

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Mark Fleischmann

Mark Fleischmann

Author of The Friendly Audio Guide and the annually updated Practical Home Theater (quietriverpress.com).

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