Audio-Technica AT-OC9ML/II Phono Cartridge
||"Even with my
most familiar records, the speed, agility and articulation were far beyond anything
Id previously heard. Each transients leading edge had snap, making drum
rolls or the initial strike on a pianos keyboard or a guitar string sound so
realistic that I could have sworn someone had sneaked those instruments into my listening
room." "Bass was deep but lacked some weightiness, though retrieval of low-end
detail was excellent
. There was also an exceptional sense of air and space around
the instrument that made me sit up and take notice."
AT-OC9ML/II is a squarish, metal-bodied cartridge with a tapered front. It weighs in at a
reasonable 8 grams.
The stylus is what Audio-Technica calls a "Nude Square
Shank MicroLine." It is mounted on a gold-plated boron cantilever, which is usually
used for much more expensive cartridges due to the difficulty in working with the
material." "Output is a reasonable 0.4mV @ 1 kHz."
body does not have threaded mounting screw holes, so beware mounting it with those small,
easily lost nuts." "Another strong point of the AT-OC9ML/II was its ability to
track -- to stay in the groove and extract as much information from it as possible."
AT-OC9ML/II made me question whether spending more money on a higher-priced moving-coil
cartridge is really necessary." "Or, to put it another way, mounting the
AT-OC9ML/II on your tonearm is like winning the lottery with your very first ticket. You
cant believe your luck."
With the vinyl
revival in full swing, more and more audiophiles are confronting that most daunting of
questions: which kind of cartridge to purchase for their new or upgraded turntables --
moving magnet or moving coil? Some will make this choice based on the equipment they
already own, such as the person with the built-in phono stage whose gain will suit only MM
cartridges. Others in similar situations might go the high-output MC route -- trying to
split the difference -- because most MM-capable phono stages can easily handle the higher
output of these cartridges, though some feel theres not much difference sonically.
But many swear that nothing comes closer to
reproducing the sonic truth embedded in those vinyl grooves than a low-output moving-coil
cartridge. Usually, though, there are a couple of reasons why many shy away from MC
cartridges. They are expensive and require a top-grade, expensive phono stage that can
handle the very low output (anywhere from 0.2 to 0.6mV.). Yes, the low output does require
a phono stage that is specifically built to provide adequate gain, and do so quietly.
However, most separate phono stages available these days have that capability, so the
cartridge's low output isnt so much of a handicap anymore.
But cost can be. If you read the audiophile
press, you get the feeling that to enter the acceptable, entry-level moving-coil-cartridge
arena requires that you to shell out a thousand dollars or more. That's a bundle of dough
for most -- especially for those just getting into vinyl. Companies like Audio-Technica
understand this and have continued to build cartridges like the AT-OC9ML/II. It's a
low-output moving-coil cartridge whose low cost -- $599 USD, and high-end sound have made it a
favourite of audiophiles on a budget.
Does it deserve its reputation? Let's find out.
The AT-OC9ML/II is a squarish, metal-bodied
cartridge with a tapered front. It weighs in at a reasonable 8 grams. The mounting is
half-inch, and it should be compatible with most medium-mass tonearms. The cartridge body
does not have threaded mounting screw holes, so beware mounting it with those small,
easily lost nuts. The stylus is what Audio-Technica calls a "Nude Square Shank
MicroLine." It is mounted on a gold-plated boron cantilever, which is mainly used for
much more expensive cartridges due to the difficulty in working with the material.
The AT-OC9ML/II's frequency response is stated as
15Hz-50kHz, and its channel separation is 31/21 (dB @ 1kHz/10 kHz). The recommended
vertical tracking force is between 1.25 and 1.75 grams -- I split the difference and set
it at 1.5 grams. Recommended load impedance is 20 ohms; my Audio Research PH5 phono stage
only goes down to 100 ohms, so thats where I set it for the duration of the review.
Output is a reasonable 0.4mV @ 1 kHz., and channel balance is 1.0dB.
I installed the AT-OC9ML/II at the business end
of my Butternut Audio-modified Rega RB300 tonearm, which is attached to a VPI HW-19 Mk IV
turntable. The 'table uses Michell Tenderfeet cones atop a 2" slab of Boos Brothers
butcher-block maple on a Salamander Archytype stand. The phono stage is an Audio Research
PH5 run single-ended into an Audio Research LS17 line-stage preamp. The preamp is run
balanced into a Bryston 4B SST power amp, which is biwired to a pair of Magnepan MG1.6
speakers. Interconnects and speaker cables are Analysis Plus Solo Crystal Oval. Power
cords are from Harmonic Technology or Analysis Plus.
Accessories used were a Hunt/EDA carbon-fiber
brush, a VPI HW-16.5 record-cleaning machine, and a Furutech deStat anti-static device. I
used my Clearaudio Maestro moving-magnet cartridge for comparison.
Whiplash! My neck hurt from all of the times I
spun my head around while I listened with the AT-OC9ML/II in my system. Even with my most
familiar records, the speed, agility and articulation were far beyond anything Id
previously heard. Each transients leading edge had snap, making drum rolls or
the initial strike on a pianos keyboard or a guitar string sound so realistic that I
could have sworn someone had sneaked those instruments into my listening room. The bloom
and decay of those notes could have trailed off a bit longer, but given the price
of the AT-OC9ML/II, the sound was all I could ask for.
The frequency extremes went as high and low as my
speakers allowed -- and probably would have extended even further had my Maggies been up
to the task. The treble was neither forward nor recessed, staying in the middle in terms
of perspective. Only a bit of wiriness at the very top hinted at the AT-OC9ML/II's
affordable origins. Bass was deep but lacked some weightiness, though retrieval of low-end
detail was excellent. Charles Minguss bass on Mingus Ah Um [Columbia CS 8171]
was portrayed with excellent definition. There was also an exceptional sense of air and
space around the instrument that made me sit up and take notice.
The AT-OC9ML/II added bite to brass and
definition to drums and bass instruments. For an excellent example, listen to the superb
new reissue of Mingus Dynasty [Pure Pleasure/Columbia CS 8236], especially
"Gunslinging Bird." To achieve this, the AT-OC9ML/II doesn't tip over to the
lean, cool side of neutral, for that would be an added coloration. This cartridge may fall
just on that side of the sonic spectrum, but it sounds far more even-handed than
not. While the AT-OC9ML/II would be perfect in a system that's warm and rich, Id
recommend giving it a listen no matter the sound of your system. Its that good.
|The moving-magnet AT150MLX
For those of you who don't have the capability to use a low-output
moving coil cartridge, Audio-Technica hasnt left you out in the cold. For less than
the cost of the AT-OC9ML/II, you can have the AT150MLX moving-magnet cartridge ($499). Its healthy 4.0mV output should pose no problem at all for any
phono stage out there. Yes, its body is plastic, but it does come with a built-in stylus
guard so the bumble-fingered among us can mount it without fear of damage, especially as
it also uses screws and nuts for mounting. It has a MicroLine stylus at the end of a
gold-plated boron cantilever and a suggested vertical tracking force of between .75 and
1.75 grams. Oh, and the stylus is replaceable.
The AT150MLX sounded very different from its moving-coil
cousin. Its strong points were good top-to-bottom coherence, a wide but not particularly
deep soundstage, better-than-average "jump factor," and low noise running
through the grooves. Among the things it didnt do quite so well was retrieve detail.
The AT150MLX leaned more toward organic wholeness than delivering each individual musician
or instrument with laser-like precision. Transient attack was somewhat blunted -- the
AT150MLX tending to smooth out the attack, sustain and decay into one long sound. The
frequency extremes -- deep bass and high treble -- were acceptable, but not reproduced
with the utmost accuracy of either live music or better moving-magnet cartridges. I found
the AT150MLX competent but not outstanding in any way.
Given its street price, the AT150MLX squeezes into the
recommended category, though it has some stiff competition from the likes of Grado and
Clearaudio, not to mention Sumikos high-output moving-coil cartridges.
Soundstaging was top-notch, especially for such
an inexpensive cartridge. I heard a sense of both how wide and deep an orchestra was
spread out as well as where each section was in relation to the others. No, the
AT-OC9ML/II didnt carve out each musician in their own space with the utmost
precision, but it still let me know whether I was hearing a large group of musicians or a
small one. This came via the ability to extract a great amount of small-scale detail from
each album -- greater than Ive previously heard from any cartridge Ive owned.
Another strong point of the AT-OC9ML/II was its
ability to track -- to stay in the groove and extract as much information from it as
possible. It was also quiet, making listening to any record I placed on the platter of my
VPI turntable a true joy. Given that the bulk of LPs in most collections will be older --
perhaps many having been purchased used -- the AT-OC9ML/II s ability to keep groove
noise to something far less than a dull roar is a far bigger bonus than you might think,
and a factor that you shouldnt overlook if youre shopping for a mid-priced
I loved the AT-OC9ML/IIs way with vocals,
especially female. From the gruff, folksy sounds of Harry Chapin (Verities &
Balderdash [Elektra 7E-1012]) to the subtle, delicate singing of Norah Jones (Feels
Like Home [Classic/Blue Note 7243 5 84800 1 6]), the AT-OC9ML/II brought great
presence to any vocal recording I played. Each singer displayed his or her particular
characteristics -- there was no editorializing. This is an impressive enough trait in
mega-buck cartridges, but to find it in one whose street price is as low as the
AT-OC9ML/II's is downright amazing. The AT-OC9ML/II made me question whether spending more
money on a higher-priced moving-coil cartridge is really necessary. The darned law of
diminishing returns kicks in sooner with moving-coil cartridges than with most high-end
equipment -- thanks to the AT-OC9ML/II.
I listened to many, many different records over
the course of this review, and not one of them was anything less than exciting and
effervescent when the AT-OC9ML/II was sliding through its grooves. It made my records come
alive with musical detail that previous cartridges passed by without so much as a wink or
nod. While not perfect, it certainly offered up more than a taste of what a good
moving-coil cartridge is capable of for less than its sonic competition. Or, to put it
another way, mounting the AT-OC9ML/II on your tonearm is like winning the lottery with
your very first ticket. You cant believe your luck.
Comparing my top-of-the-line Clearaudio Maestro
moving-magnet ($1000) and the AT-OC9ML/II moving-coil cartridges was, to say the least,
illuminating. Where the AT-OC9ML/II was light on its feet and speedy, the Maestro was
weightier and hit harder. The AT-OC9ML/II delved deeper in the dark spaces of the grooves,
dredging up many low-level details that the Maestro glossed over. It was fleet, quick, and
agile, and it offered far more in the way of air and space. It made familiar LPs come
alive. What it lacked was a fullness of image -- a bit more flesh on the bone, if you will
-- that would have gone a long way toward making it sound more realistic. But that, I
would imagine, is the providence of more expensive moving-coil cartridges.
The Clearaudio Maestro lacked the
AT-OC9ML/IIs ability to dance quite as quickly and gracefully through the records
grooves, but it offered a completely different, though no less valid, perspective. While
it couldnt convey all the detail, air and space that the AT-OC9ML/II managed to
extract seemingly at will, it could put a more solid foundation under all sonic aspects,
allowing the music to stand more firmly planted in my listening room. Plus, those images
had a solidity that the AT-OC9ML/II, as good as it was, just could compete with.
Both cartridges excelled at making music come
alive, but they did so in vastly different manners. Which is correct? Ah, there we enter
the realm of subjectivity. What I can say is that having heard the AT-OC9ML/II, I now have
a healthier respect for those who say that there is nothing like a good moving-coil
cartridge. It completely blew me away that a cartridge that cost half the price of my
Clearaudio Maestro could compete with it, and in a number of ways surpass it. The
AT-OC9ML/II certainly gives those in the market for a high-quality cartridge a reason to
think before laying down their money for a cartridge that costs considerably more.
If youve always wondered what a good
moving-coil cartridge sounds like, dont want to spend a bundle to find out, and have
the equipment to handle its low output, then by all means pick up an Audio-Technica
AT-OC9ML/II. It is a worthy first step on the journey into the realm of the moving-coil
cartridges, one that makes all the magic happen every time you play your records. Its
quickness into and out of each note, its ability to portray space, and its bass detail are
very endearing, no matter its price. At the end of my listening to AT-OC9ML/II, I was
struck by just how good this inexpensive moving-coil cartridge is. It offers many, many
virtues and few shortcomings, and its recommendation is a no-brainer.
The AT-OC9ML/II sets a standard that will be hard
for any cartridge, moving magnet or moving coil, to match at its price. It has become this
reviewers choice for entry into the world of moving-coil cartridges.