It is 1987, and Compact Disc is in the ascendant. In high streets and shopping malls, turntables and LPs are rapidly disappearing, with the new digital silver taking its place. The talk is of “the death of vinyl”, and the hi-fi magazines are getting increasingly comfortable with the idea. Not the ideal time to launch a new phono cartridge, you might think!
Audio-Technica is a great Japanese company, doing what its country does best – making intricately engineered, high quality products in vast quantities. It made its first product in 1962, and the AT-1 moving magnet was soon complemented by the ‘3 and ‘5, then the AT-1001 tonearm. The company was also early to market with elliptical styli, and has maintained its fascination with fancy diamond profiles ever since. Headphones and condensor microphones arrived in the 1970s, as did the AT-30 moving coil. But it wasn’t until 1987 that the company made its greatest leap forward in cartridges, with the launch of the OC series.
A year earlier, the company had commercialised the ‘Pure Copper by Ohno Continuous Casting’ process for an AV cable, and this then went into a new version of its classic cartridge platform, the AT33ML/OCC MC. But the OC-9 was a clean sheet design, and an important moment for Hideo Matsushita’s company. The angular, 7.8g aluminium-based, resin cartridge body was strikingly styled at the time, looking like a hi-fi stealth bomber, and came painted in an immaculate black and gold finish. Its gold-plated cantilever held a high quality Japanese-sourced square shank elliptical stylus, linked to PC-OCC coils via vanadium metal yoke piece. The magnet mould was titanium-oxide/potassium mix. It gave a quoted frequency response of 15-50,000kHz, and an output of 0.4mV – both of which were superb for the day.
Tracking at 1.5g, the original 1987 AT-OC9 was something of an eyebrow raiser. Lest we forget, it was thought to be the twilight of vinyl’s life, and many cartridges of the day were pretty soft and tired sounding things. The OC9 was not – it was bright, tight, fast and forensically detailed. It had a tremendous punch, and was especially adept and conveying micro-dynamics, such as kick drums, buried in complex mixes. Treble was superbly extended, even and smooth; many journalists thought it bright, but in truth it was ‘less dull’ than its rivals. The downside was that the OC9 was a bit ‘matter of fact’; it didn’t move you on an emotional level as much as, say, a Supex had just a few years earlier. It also lacked that romantic, rich and warm tonal balance – some though it was a bit too close to CD inasmuch as it didn’t colour the sound.
Nevertheless, the AT-OC9 sold in spades. At £400 it gave a taste of the high end, with far better tracking than all cheaper cartridges and many more expensive ones too. It was refined, precise and informative, and married up very nicely with the (then) warm belt drive British superdecks like the Linn Sondek LP12. The OC9 sold strongly over the years, but by the end of the nineties there were better moving coils at the price – the budget Lyras, for example, did things in a more romantic and emotionally believable way, whilst being no less detailed.
So the cartridge received several tweaks to put it back at the top. A microline stylus was added in the M variant, and this really unlocked the OC9’s potential, making it more finessed and musically insightful. Then the AT-OC9ML/ II got a high flux samarium cobalt magnet, and gold plated Boron cantilever, which brought extra delicacy and focus – many regard this as the best of the breed.
The current AT-OC9/III loses some of its predecessor’s sparkly bits, not least the gold-plated Boron cantilever and MicroLine stylus – these go to non-gold plated Boron and and a less exotic line-contact diamond respectively. It its defence, Audio-Technica claims the new neodymium magnet with permendur yoke is actually stronger than its samarium cobalt predecessor, and that the magnetic field is stronger in the coil gap era. Also, this latest version costs around £550 in the UK, which is about half of its original launch price, all those years ago.
Thanks to its new 40×7μm needle, the OC9/III now tracks best at 2.0g, rather than its predecessors’ 1.75g. Compliance is quoted at 35×10 – 6 cm/dyne (18×10 -6 cm/dyne (100 Hz), so it still works well in medium to high mass tonearms. The latest OC9 remains a feisty performer, with oodles of detail and drive, lots of pace and great resolution of attack transients; it has a very well defined stereo soundstage with brilliantly located images – they’re virtually nailed to thin air. However, no prizes are given for its stage depth, which is average, while its brother Audio-Technica’s AT-33PTG beats it into a cocked hat for stage width, even if a lacks that last one tenth of dynamic punch.
This cartridge is a legend. It simply hasn’t gone away, and has always offered a lot of performance at the price, just enough to keep people coming back for the past twenty seven years. In the great scheme of vinyl things, it’s not unreasonable to think of it as a sort of moving coil cartridge version of Rega’s RB300 tonearm – it’s been around forever, isn’t the greatest in absolute terms but is unerringly good value for money and simply isn’t bettered at the price. Fortunately for both products, despite being launched at a time when it looked like vinyl was on its last legs, black plastic has now come back and demand should be as high as ever.