AT-OC9ML/II Phono Cartridge
as reviewed by Ed Kobesky
I hate to start a review by saying tough cookies but there's no way around it. The cartridge under review here—a genuine piece of budget exotica—used to sell for under $200 through some popular mail-order retailers. Not anymore. Audio-Technica finally wised up, lowering the MSRP from $599 to $499 but apparently increasing the minimum allowable sale price.
Which begs the question, how in the name of Crazy Eddie did it get discounted so deeply in the first place? I can picture a bunch of U.S. product managers discussing it back in the 'digital ready' 90s: "Alright, next on the agenda: model number AT-OC9ML." "What the hell is that?" "Says 'phono cartridge' here on the data sheet. Some outfit claims they can sell a ton of these at $200 a pop." "Whatever, ship 'em. Is it time for lunch?"
In any event, if you want one today you'll have to pony up close to full freight. The good news—sorry for taking so long to get around to it—is that the OC9 is still a good value today, perhaps best in class.
There's a reason why it's often partnered with turntables and arms costing many times the price. The OC9 is technically outstanding by purely objective standards and can pair confidently with the Avids and SMEs of the world. Channel separation is in the same league as Sound-Smith's Carmen (reviewed here) and that's saying something. Internally, PCOCC wire (Pure Copper by Ohno Continuous Casting) goes straight to the output terminals. It tracks like it's on rails, virtually unshakably, and at only 1.5 grams as tested. To the naked eye, its boron cantilever isn't much thicker than an eyelash and, fitted with AT's trademarked MicroLine nude elliptical stylus, yanks detail from every record groove with extreme tenacity. This cartridge is truly game.
Being a low-output moving coil with a fine stylus, it requires extra care in terms of setup and partnering equipment. At 0.4mv, just about any moving coil preamp will have sufficient gain, but it wouldn't hurt to have variable loading, and that may end up costing you more than the cartridge itself. In my experience, no phono stage at or under its price fully does it justice.
I tried it with an old Audio Research PH1 and some vintage Signet step up transformers and the result was super-detailed but too lean, bordering on aggressive. However, run directly into a Pro-Ject Tube Box SE with some extra quiet glass, the result was a luxurious, airy and undeniably analog soundscape drawn with an ultra fine-point pen (albeit with some residual tube noise).
It doesn't like light or junky tonearms, so folks with most entry-level turntables are out of luck. (I tried one on a Music Hall MMF-2 years ago out of morbid curiosity. Not good.) That said, you don't necessarily need an expensive partner to make it work, just a good one like the Jelco SA-250 on the sadly departed Avid Diva II turntable (reviewed here). On the Technics SL-1200Mk2, which some describe as having a dark-toned, closed-in character, the OC9 conspired to achieve excellent balance. (KAB's fluid damper and Sumiko's HS-12 headshell are must haves if you're using the standard arm.) It certainly wouldn't be unwise to suggest the OC9 as a good solution for any analog front end that's too staid.
Vladimir Ashkenazy's Chopin: Paino Works Vol. XI (London 410 258-1) held me in thrall as the OC9 banged out every detail with dramatic precision. Transient performance was captivating, each note emerging from deep silence. On Dire Straits' Making Movies (Warner BSK 3480) I picked up some of Mark Knopfler's subtle vocal shadings for the first time since owning much more expensive cartridges like the Denon DL-S1. The OC9 made me miss those good old days of big bonuses, but then I'd get lost in the music again.
It has been accused of being bright, though I wouldn't go that far. Unquestionably, it resolves with exceptional clarity for this price class. Perhaps because it lacks a similarly priced moving magnet's tendency toward a fatter bass and more forward midrange, the high frequencies can seem spotlighted by comparison. At the very tippy top, there is some glare to remind you you're still on the budget end of the scale. Tracked too lightly or set up haphazardly, it can sound raspy too, though those are the only obvious derivations from top-to-bottom coherence.
About the only real caveat I have applies to virtually all low-output moving coils: Is their crystal clarity and airiness musically truthful? You may care. I'm not sure I do. To my ears, they sound right and are missing a murky layer of something that I hear from moving magnets. Maybe all that air and space is an illusion. Again, I'll take it. When I go to a concert, there are tens of thousands of cubic feet of air and space around me; significantly less in the spare bedroom where my system resides. I guess don't mind a cartridge that lies a little. Then again, I wouldn't ask a pretty waitress to stop flirting with me either. After all, maybe she really does think graying hair and pleated dress slacks are sexy.
A third-generation version just hitting retailers now, the AT-OC9/III, is said to offer multiple improvements (or manufacturing efficiencies passed off as such) at an even higher price of $799. I'll try and get my hands on a review sample to see if it's worth the extra $300. A company rep told me the version in question here isn't going away, and that's good news.
Audio-Technica's AT-OC9ML/II isn't bargain-basement exotica anymore but it's a great buy compared to some of today's megabuck cartridges. If clear, airy, stop-on-a-dime resolution and solid coherence is the sound you're after, you'll likely regard it as money well spent. Even better, this is a cartridge that can survive arm and phono stage upgrades making it a good long-term investment. Ed Kobesky