Audio Technica OC9/III MC Phono Cartridge
That Smell? Disaster On The Wind
A few months ago I was fiddling with the headshell on my Jelco SA-750DB tonearm, which contained my trusty, if long in the tooth, Audio Technica OC9/II cartridge. I’d briefly moved the headshell with the cartridge to a second table that I’d just acquired and was then reinstalling it into my SOTA.
Somewhere in that process the counterweight got turned all the way in towards the pivot point – for the life of me I can’t recall why I did that. There was a little additional ham-handedness and, with nothing to offset gravity, the arm, headshell, cartridge, and stylus slammed into the surface of the platter. The arm, headshell and cartridge bounced. The stylus did not. It lay on the platter surface like the fine-wire equivalent of a hit and run victim: still and lifeless on the side of the road.
Then it occurred to me: Now I had the perfect excuse to buy a new cartridge. I certainly couldn’t have all these records lying around with no way to play them, could I? That kind of vinyl neglect shocks the conscience!
You know the saying: “When life gives you lemons…”
From Whence It Came
Back around 2008, a friend brought his non-vacuum SOTA Star to one of our early hi-fi get-togethers. I was immediately smitten with its musical as well as physical solidity - the heavy-duty mechanical click of the buttons, the shear weight of the thing – that the Thorens TD-160 I was using at the time couldn’t touch. I set out in search of a SOTA of my own.
I started looking for a similar non-vacuum table, trying to keep it simple, but wound up connecting with a guy at MIT who was selling his Series Three Star Sapphire, with vacuum. The offer included an Audioquest PT6 tonearm, really just a re-branded Jelco 250, and he wasn’t asking much more than I’d anticipated spending on a non-vacuum table. He’d also had it back to the factory for some service and upgrades. It seemed like a good package so we struck a deal.
Almost nine years later, with that table now between twenty-five and thirty years old, that same SOTA still spins virtually every day. At sixty-five pounds or so it really is built like a tank, and like a tank it’s been bullet proof. Contrary to some opinions I’ve heard, the vacuum pump is effectively dead silent except for a brief moment on startup when it sucks down the record. I did upgrade the tonearm about two years ago to the aforementioned Jelco 750, a dramatic improvement and one of the great bargains in analog, and also added SOTA’s reflex clamp, but otherwise I’ve done nothing to it except change the belt every now and again. On occasion I’ve flirted with replacing it, but to acquire something significantly better would cost a fortune and I’d likely lose the vacuum. The cost-benefit calculation just doesn’t add up.
Also among the peripheral joys of SOTA ownership is that you can call the factory in Illinois and the owner the delightful Donna Bodinet sometimes answers the line. “Expect to be disappointed should you try to get Mr. Sony on the phone.” This is what my friend said of his own turntable way back when. You may have my SOTA when I’m dead.
About That Cartridge
I wound up with my Audio Technica OC9/II cartridge largely at the suggestion of the guy I bought the table from. He’d used one and spoke highly of the combo. The reviews were good, the price was a bargain compared to most moving coils, and since I didn’t have much experience with these things I took the advice that was offered. I ordered my cartridge along with a Project Tube Box phono stage to play it through.
I remember very distinctly the first time I played the OC9. Compared to my starter cartridge, a Shure M97xe that had been installed on my Thorens, the AT had superior resolution and loads of smooth detail. It also immediately revealed itself as being a little clinical, at least to my ears. It was not in any sense a warm cartridge. But I liked it from the get-go, and that cartridge offered quite a long life of service before it met its untimely demise. It wasn’t exotic and didn’t have that last bit of finesse that you might find in the true high-buck cartridges, but it did provide great sound for what was essentially a working man’s moving coil: an outstanding piece of equipment.
No Replacement Like Replacement
Like most hi-fi guys I know I always have a running wish-list of gear I’d like to have and phono cartridges are no exception, especially as my OC9/II was - at the time it shuffled off this mortal coil - eight years old with easily fifteen hundred sides or more having passed beneath it. I was content using it, but I knew I was going to have to replace it eventually.
Among the cartridge features I found intriguing were things like Shibata styluses, or maybe moving irons from Peekskill – all the stuff you can read about in the big glossy print magazines. Through the years I’d also listened to some high-buck table/cartridge combinations at a few tony salons but usually left thinking, “That sounded great, but not twenty-five grand great.” (One proprietor offered grudging respect for my SOTA but snorted out loud when I told him I was using an old PT6 arm, and that guy can kiss my ass to this day. Note to retailers: You can show me why you think one thing sounds better than another and leave me to make my own judgment, but really, when you’re trying to sell something expensive you shouldn’t laugh at your potential customers.)
I looked pretty hard at a few options, almost pulling the trigger a couple of times, but I kept coming back to the Audio-Technica lineup for its overall quality and bang-for-the-buck. I’d been happy with the OC9/II, and several of my hi-fi buddies use other AT cartridges – both moving coils and magnets - with great results. All of the AT cartridges I’ve heard in other people’s systems sound great and they almost always play well above their price.
In particular I was intrigued by the new OC9/III, which several sources suggested retained the detail and resolution of the older version, with more warmth, quieter backgrounds and a more dramatic presentation. The specs on the new version are virtually the same as the old – 0.4 mV output; line-contact stylus; 2.0g recommended tracking force – but early reports suggested that there was also some new secret sauce to enhance the listening experience. After considering my options for a few days I concluded that going off in a completely unknown direction wasn’t necessarily a better strategy, and I set out in search of the newly updated OC9/III.
Aside from any potential sonic adjustments, the other major difference between the II and the III is price. When I bought my old cartridge eight years ago I believe I paid under $400 for it. The OC9/II seems to be currently selling for around $500. The III now carries a list price of $1,200. That’s a big jump, but considering that the older one was in production for decades an adjustment to bring the product into line with its competition doesn’t seem unreasonable. Besides, the suggested retail price is just a number. Like buying a new car, there’s the price and then there’s the real price.
The OC9/III was not difficult to find, but it was not available through the big established online analog emporiums (Needle Doctor; Acoustic Sounds, etc.) either. Most AT dealers are still stocking the older II version, and there may be a poor marketing decision to blame. A 2015 article in Stereophile described AT’s U.S. distributor as not having the desire to play in the “high-end” market.
If that was true in 2015 they should revisit this strategy going into 2017. The introduction of the far more exotic and expensive ART1000 moving coil has generated a great deal of enthusiastic press, offering AT the opportunity to renew the visibility their entire line of higher end cartridges. At $6,000 a pop the ART1000 rides the swing-set on a rarified playground. Potential customers interested in Audio-Technica’s wares but who are priced out of the ART1000 need a place to step down to in the lineup. The OC9/III would be a sensible place for them to land.
I was able to locate the III through a small company in Oregon that I’d never heard of and it seems there are a number of online sellers who have them, just not the big players. At less than half of list price, it was also heavily discounted which was an added bonus. A little digging on the Internet reveals this to be fairly common, making an already reasonable cartridge even more so. Oddly, Audio-Technica’s own website lists it at $999. Pricing consistency, it seems, is elusive.
Yeah, Yeah, Cut The Fluff! How’s It Sound?
Safely ensconced in my tonearm – and I do mean safely this time - the OC9/III definitely offers more aural goodies than the older version. Right out of the box it is indeed much less clinical - warmer if you will – but after a few weeks of playing time it also developed noticeably more detail, with bass definition that now delivers subtleties in tone and resonance that simply didn’t exist with the old model. The midrange feels fuller bodied and fleshed out, filling the soundstage more densely, and the treble is smoother and airier. Cymbals shimmer the way they did with the old version, but with a little more color and texture. It also delivers a taller soundstage on certain recordings. Importantly, the added warmth and fullness do not introduce any unwanted bloat or smearing. It’s still nicely detailed, and at least to my ear, it just sounds better.
The only tweak I did from my usual setup was to swap the stock Jelco headshell that came with my tonearm for a slightly heavier Ortofon shell. The OC9/III seemed to benefit from the higher mass unit, tightening up imaging and bass perceptibly, if modestly.
The OC9/III is also a significantly more dynamic cartridge that the old one. I recently pulled out an old audiophile warhorse: Harry James, Still Harry After All These Years. I have a love-hate relationship with this direct-to-disc Sheffield Labs album. It’s well played, and I love the way it sounds – it is one of the all time great big band recordings - but when I hear Caravan I can’t help but wish that it had been Duke Ellington’s orchestra playing it. If nothing else, its value as a hi-fi demonstrator makes it worth listening to, and the OC9/III made it clear why. The new cartridge creates a wider, deeper and taller soundstage than I ever got out of the II, and it has a great deal more slam and jump factor - the stuff that makes this record so exciting. Kick drums suddenly move air, which I’d not experienced in my system with this record. All of the instruments are clear and nicely articulated, and most importantly, the cartridge never looses its composure through this very dense, loud arrangement. Nothing on this record or any others that I’ve played has yet to ruffle the OC9/III’s feathers. It just sails on through, delivering detailed, exciting sound.
Though I’m primarily a jazz guy, since installing the new cartridge I’ve found myself listening to a few more symphonies than usual. A 1972 Concertgebouw Orchestra three-disk boxed set of recordings of Mozart, The Last Six Symphonies conducted by Josef Krips on Phillips has great orchestral cohesion. These recordings sound as though they were recorded a little further back in the hall, resulting in a soundstage that fits neatly between the speakers, but barely extending beyond them. If the soundstage is a little small the continuity of sound within it is seamless, both laterally and to the back of the stage. There are no disconcerting sounding gaps or section emphasis between the instruments and the basses are deep and taut. It’s also worth noting that – if you can find a good set – these records are beautifully pressed: dead quiet and grainless.
Finally, because I suffer the affliction of actively collecting old jazz records, I recently acquired an original stereo pressing of Bobby Timmons,’ This Here Is Bobby Timmons, a piano trio on Riverside from 1960, and Timmons’ debut as a leader. I generally prefer monaural records of this vintage, seeking to avoid the most unnatural hard left/right stereo panning that seemed to be so in vogue at the time. Fortunately, the stereo version of This Here does not suffer from this effect. The piano is spread wide across the entire soundstage with the drums and bass arranged naturally in front of it. It’s a dense, but also very spacious recording, never crowding the sound around the speakers as many records of the era do. I never had the opportunity to listen to this particular record with my old cartridge, but with the OC9/III the piano has the dynamic room-filling weight, especially on big left-handed chords, that only a properly reproduced full sized grand can realize.
In my system This Here also demonstrates another of the OC9/III fine points. It’s very quiet in the groove. Typically with a record this old, even one in unusually good condition as this copy is, I expect to hear at least a little bit of background surface noise in the dead wax. The vinyl is fifty–six years old after all. With This Here and other vintage records I’ve been pleased to find that this cartridge is quieter than the II was on the best day of its life.
And of course, lest anyone get the impression that This Here is simply some sonic extravaganza, allow me to state unequivocally: It’s Bobby Timmons, so it’s awesome. The version of Moanin’ that was recorded by the Jazz Messengers is great and justifiably famous, but on this performance Timmons carries the melodic, harmonic and improvisational weight in his own two hands and the song looses nothing for the lack of horns. His solo piano treatment of Billy Strayhorn’s Lush Life is simply beautiful.
Timmons suffered from the same substance demons that impacted too many jazz musicians, but unlike some of his peers he never overcame them. As a result he had a shorter and less productive career than he should have, passing at 38. He was an enormously gifted musician and composer and This Here is a first-rate performance from any perspective.
Moving Coils For The Masses
As a reviewer, most of the time I’m evaluating equipment on loan, with the manufacturer or distributer involved in the process somewhere. On the few occasions I’ve had something negative to say about a component I’ve struggled with the tension between conveying an honest opinion and giving a boutique manufacturer a black eye, especially because sometimes smaller manufacturers are trying to make innovations that aren’t perfect yet, but are promising and may be more fully realized in a subsequent version. I think long and hard before saying anything truly negative about any component (though the guy who sent mono blocks that had optional $1,000 on/off switches deservedly read all about it).
However, for this review I spent my own hard-earned money so I’m not under any of those constraints. It’s my coin on the table here. If I thought this cartridge sucked I’d say so.
Happily that’s not the case with the Audio Technica OC9/III. This enhanced third version of a long-standing marketplace stalwart is a genuine improvement over its predecessor, itself a very competent cartridge. And for the crowd that understands that setting wads of $100 bills on fire does not improve sound and is a dumb way to build a system, it’s an extraordinary bargain. As I said earlier, the OC9/II was a working man’s moving coil and I meant that in the best possible way. This version III is too, and it’s also an all around better cartridge.
I’ve been listening to the OC9/III for three months now and I’ve never found myself thinking, “I wish it did this” or “I wish it did that.” It’s satisfyingly detailed and smooth with a warmer, more natural presentation than its predecessor. It has everything I liked about the old version and more.
The OC9/III straddles a fine line in analog pickups. There are certainly more exotic and expensive cartridges, and those may offer some additional qualities, but at what cost? The law of diminishing returns comes into high relief here. A $10,000 cartridge should sound better than a $1200 one, but does it sound $8,800 better? That’s a personal decision for the buyer, but I’d recommend some clear-eyed thinking about your actual listening needs. If, like most people, you have budget constraints that keep your hi-fi purchases in the realm of the nominally sane, but you still want exceptional performance from your phono cartridge, the Audio Technica OC9/III has a lot to offer and is definitely worth checking out.
Type: Moving Coil
Frequency Response: 15-50,000 Hz
Channel Separation: 30dB (at 1 kHz)
Vertical Tracking force: 1.88 – 2.2 grams (2.0 recommended)
Recommended Loan Impedance: Min. 100 ohms (when head amplifier is connected)
Output: 0.4mV (at 1 kHz, 5cm/sec)
Channel Balance: 0.5 dB (at 1 kHz)
Stylus Shape: Line Contact
Cantilever: 0.26 mm diameter solid boron
Mount: half inch
Price: It’s a bit of a free-for-all out there. Do some research for the best deal.
Audio-Technica U.S., Inc.
1221 Commerce Drive
Stow, Ohio 44224