Development of low-cost and high-performance oxygen evolution reaction catalysts is key to implementing polymer electrolyte membrane water electrolysers for hydrogen production. Iridium-based oxides are the state-of-the-art acidic oxygen evolution reaction catalysts but still suffer from inadequate activity and stability, and iridium’s scarcity motivates the discovery of catalysts with lower iridium loadings. Here we report a mass-selected iridium–tantalum oxide catalyst prepared by a magnetron-based cluster source with considerably reduced noble-metal loadings beyond a commercial IrO2 catalyst. A sensitive electrochemistry/mass-spectrometry instrument coupled with isotope labelling was employed to investigate the oxygen production rate under dynamic operating conditions to account for the occurrence of side reactions and quantify the number of surface active sites. Iridium–tantalum oxide nanoparticles smaller than 2 nm exhibit a mass activity of 1.2 ± 0.5 kA gIr–1 and a turnover frequency of 2.3 ± 0.9 s−1 at 320 mV overpotential, which are two and four times higher than those of mass-selected IrO2, respectively. Density functional theory calculations reveal that special iridium coordinations and the lowered aqueous decomposition free energy might be responsible for the enhanced performance. Low-cost, high-performance oxygen evolution catalysts would facilitate implementation of water electrolysers for hydrogen production. Here the authors report a low-iridium mass-selected iridium–tantalum oxide catalyst with high intrinsic activity in acid and carefully evaluate oxygen production to account for parasitic reactions.