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Audio-Technica OC9XSH Cartridge

01-02-2022 | By John Hoffman | Issue 119

In the 20th century the Japanese manufacturing sector gained recognition for the ability to improve products through a continuous refinement of the manufacturing process. In the early 1990s I attended Eastern Washington University as a business student and I was introduced to the concept of the Deming Cycle. This process was showcased by a profile of the Toyota Corporation that demonstrated the gains realized from prioritizing the quality improvement process. Within our audio hobby the Audio-Technica OC9 series of moving coil cartridges are another example of the product refinement process. Audio-Technica started producing cartridges in 1962, and introduced the first AT OC9 low output moving coil in 1987. Over the years this design has been updated with the OC9-II and OC9-III versions. In 2019 Audio-Technica has introduced four new models under the OC9 umbrella, with the product line starting with an affordable offering in the OC9XEB and it capped by the OC9XSL. Audiophiles have been keenly interested in this new generation of cartridges, and strong demand has made it difficult to obtain a review sample. However, the good folks at Audio-Technica have managed to free up a new OC9XSH for Positive Feedback readers, so I have the good fortune of getting acquainted with this latest addition to this classic cartridge family.

From conception the Audio-Technica OC9 cartridges were envisioned to be high performance products, and even the the original model had the finest quality materials and parts available. Audio-Technica believes that the upper tier models in the OC9 lineup represent over 50 years of expertise in refining the implementation of cutting edge materials and manufacturing techniques. In my readings I have come across the Japanese concept of Shuhari, which is derived from the arena of martial arts and describes the the stages of learning that lead to the mastery of a discipline. Certainly one can see a parallel between Shuhari and what the designers at Audio-Technica have achieved over the years with the OC9 stable of cartridges. At the core of the OC9XSH cartridge is the classic dual coil layout that Audio-Technica has perfected. These coils are wound from Ohno Continuous Cast Copper, which is recognized as the finest copper wire available. Neodymium magnets are used in conjunction with a permendur yoke to generate an intense magnetic field in the coil gap. The body of this cartridge is machined from aluminum alloy, and carefully selected damping materials are strategically placed to combat any internal mechanical vibrations. The cantilever is a .28 mm boron rod, and a nude mounted Shibata stylus has been selected for its classic sonic signature and exemplary performance in the mid and high frequency spectrum. The design team at Audio-Technica has carefully tuned the voicing of the OC9XSH to reflect the positive attributes of the Shibata stylus profile.

In this revision the new OC9 bodies have received threaded bolt holes, which is a feature that I am grateful for. When installing this cartridge on a one piece arm such as my SME V, it becomes a straightforward process to get it securely attached. The majority of tone arms or head-shells will have slots that allow for adjustment of cartridge offset, and the addition of the threaded bolt holes greatly simplifies the alignment process. The cartridge weighs 7.6 grams and the body can be categorized as being of average height and length, and should not present any significant obstacles when being installed. Output voltage is robust for a low output moving coil at .4 mV, which can be attributed to the neodymium magnets and permendur yoke. Frequency response is 20 to 47kHz, with channel separation of 27 dB and channel balance of 1.0 dB. Coil impedance is 12 ohms, and compliance is 16 x 10-6 at 100Hz. Essentially the OC9-XSH cartridge is a medium to medium high compliance cartridge that will partner well with any medium mass tonearm, and has strong enough output voltage to partner it with most phono stages that can support low output moving coil cartridges.

The installation of the Audio-Technica OC9-XSH on the SOTA Cosmos Eclipse turntable and SME V tonearm is as painless as it gets in this hobby. The SME arm slides in a sled to reach the proper point for alignment, and the offset angle is incorporated in the arm design. I experimented a bit with tracking force, and ended up at 2.0 grams which is the recommended factory setting. The Esoteric E-03 phono stage allows for the selection of 50, 100, or 300 ohms for cartridge impedance, and I detected small but noticeable differences between 100 and 300 ohms. After some careful comparisons I decided on 100 ohms. Within 20 hours I felt the cartridge was through the break in process and there were no significant changes in its presentation. I needed to fine tune certain aspects of the set up process, so the cartridge ended up having close to 40 hours on it before the serious listening sessions started.

The Audio-Technica OC9XSH is a remarkable phono cartridge, which should come as no surprise given the pedigree it hails from. What hobbyists should be thankful for is that Audio-Technica can pack all this excellent engineering and top flight materials into a cartridge that sells for $649. Seriously, who else can offer you a low output moving coil with neodymium magnets, boron cantilever, Shibata stylus, coils wound from Ohno Continuous Cast Copper wire, and a milled aluminum body? The answer is nobody; and Audio-Technica is giving today's vinylophile the best deal in the world of analog. All of this would not matter if the OC9XSH was a mediocre performer, however, this is not the case at all. When paired with my SOTA Cosmos Eclipse and SME V I found this cartridge to be a versatile performer that excels with every genre of music it is asked to play.

On "Use Me" by Vanessa Fernandez (Use Me, Groove Note 1 Step GRV1050-45-1S) I could talk about how deep and solid the bass line reached, or how the high hat cymbals were in sharp relief from the other instruments. What really stood out to me on this song, and the rest of this album, is how engaging and alive the music is through the OC9-XSH. These 1-Step recordings are superb, and of that there can be no argument. With the Audio-Technica cartridge this song is vibrant, it oozes a funky vibe, and ultimately this piece grabs you and demands you feel its driving energy. The JBL 4365 speakers I use are capable of hitting volumes on par with a club system, especially with the 200-watt AVM Audio amps supporting them. I found myself taking the volume up, and then even further up since there is not a hint of grain or glare, and I just let the rhythm section make its presence felt while Vanessa belted out this song with authentic soul. Being able to achieve this with a $649 cartridge is remarkable, and to me this is great news that should be shared with my fellow audiophiles.

The Audio-Technica OC9-XSH is fantastic in terms of portraying vocal passages, and this became clearly evident when listening to "Some Like It Hot" (Back In Town, Verve UMV2675) by Mel Tormé and the Meltones. Mel Tormé is not the lead in this song, but you do hear his distinctive voice doodle a short phrase at the opening and ending of this track. What you get to hear is a remarkable performance by the Meltones, and this cartridge neatly sorts the groups of performers, and allows the listener to hear each individual voice if you wish to, and at the same time blends them for a beautiful mix of singers that showcases their remarkable timing and phrasing. I would also be remiss in not mentioning how dynamically expressive this cartridge is. About half way though this song there is a trumpet passage that explodes onto the scene as the last vestiges of the vocals fade away. The dynamic surge of the trumpet is startling, and it requires a cartridge to be a sure footed tracker to have this kind of attack that is free from any degree of harshness. The Audio-Technica OC9XSH can be velvety smooth, and thunderously powerful when called upon.

Over thirty five years have passed since I discovered the Windham Hill record label. While my interest in the music associated with this label has undergone an ebb and flow, with one of the most cherished pieces of my record collection is the album December by George Winston. "Night" (December, Windham Hill WH-1025) is a haunting composition that serves me well as a tool to evaluate analog components, and at the same time this is a piece that resonates with me at an emotional level. When listening to this composition with the OC9XSH I gain an appreciation of this cartridges tonal balance, as the entire expanse of the seven octave range of the piano is presented in an unerringly even handed manner. The OC9XSH handles the complicated patterns of decay that Winston creates with his elegant interpretation, and I am just enthralled with how this cartridge shows all these subtle shadings of the recording. There is unerring precision displayed during the fast and intricate passages, which is juxtaposed by the delicate decay patterns that trail the notes and chords he holds and allows to fade into silence. Yes, this cartridge does allow you to hear the silence of this composition as the Shibata stylus, boron cantilever, and carefully tuned suspension excels at achieving a remarkably low noise floor. As a whole, the Windham Hill label has consistently superb records, and this recording by George Winston has a reputation of being one of the finest albums released on this label. The Audio-Technica OC9-XSH moving coil does not disappoint when asked to play this album, and there is no cartridge at this price point that equals its performance on this album that I have experienced.

The 2019 remaster of Prince's Sign O' Times is an album that gets consistent play in my home. The original release can be veiled and congested sounding, and Bernie Grundman has worked his magic to give us a rendition that is transparent, detailed, and engaging in a way the original recording could never achieve. "Sign O' The Times" (Sign O' The Times, Paisley Park Records 25577-1) presents as a sonic tapestry, with an excellent three dimensional sound-stage, with instruments occupying a sharply defined space, and an explosive dynamic attack from both the drum kit or bass guitar. Prince creates an aural landscape with instrument placement, textures of sound, and a remarkable vocal performance. The Audio-Technica OC9XSH couples a high level of resolution with a dynamically expressive presentation so we can experience one of the finest works of an artist that is a once in a generation talent.

In the analog world there are many four figure cartridges, and even a precious few that touch that five figure range. Those who delve into the deepest realms of esoterica will sing the praises of these mythical cartridges; so what should the realistic expectations be of a moving coil cartridge that sells for $649? There certainly must be limitations to the OC9XSH, after all, even in Audio-Technica product line there are higher grade cartridges such as the ART9 XI or XA, and the vaunted ART 1000. From my listening sessions I would say this cartridge gets the basics right, and in reality it presents a greater percentage of the essence of music than other cartridges that fall into the $500 to $1000 niche. The OC9XSH is an excellent all around performer, whose limitations reside in the final degree of tonal richness and density, and the presentation of the subtlest details of music. Cartridges that can express these microscopic elements of recorded music are rare designs, and this is what separates the great cartridges from the competent designs that are merely steady performers. When compared to the ZYX 4D or Transfiguration Audio Proteus that are long term reference cartridges at my home, I find these two to provide a larger slice of subtle details, increased clarity in terms of the acoustic space of the recording venue, and slightly more authentic presentation of the human voice. Even though I mention these points, I want to be very clear that these limitations are not fatal flaws committed by the OC9XSH, but rather you have to listen intently and make controlled comparisons to become aware of them. This evaluation I am making is against cartridges with price tags of $4300 and $6000, and the OC9XSH was never intended to equal them in overall performance. I will say this though, I can happily listen to this cartridge all night and not feel disappointed in any way, which is a testament about its abilities.

The current generation of Audio-Technica OC9 cartridges have a storied lineage that spans over thirty three years. A case can be made that the OC9-XSH is a classic cartridge design, yet it is also fair to say this cartridge is the product of a continuous refinement undertaken by one of the largest audio companies in the world. The build sheet for this cartridge contains sub-components and materials that are of superior quality. The OC9XSH uses a Shibata stylus, boron cantilever, neodymium magnets, Ohno Continuous Cast wire, and milled aluminum body. The OC9 family of cartridges are one of the hottest deals in audio. Perspective owners can acquire a high performance moving coil that is capable of a level of musical reproduction that other affordably priced cartridges struggle to approach. I heartily encourage readers to give it a serious listen, as anyone who value both performance and affordability will be intrigued by this cartridge. I know I am in no hurry to remove it from my SOTA, and I am pleased that good sound can still be had for a reasonable price.

OC9XSH Cartridge

Retail: $649