Cuttin-Edge, On-the-Spot Reporting

Mobile Fidelity and Walking Through the Vinyl Jungle

It’s rare for something that would normally be of interest to a few audiophiles—a small slice of an already small pie—to get attention from the outside world. I was among the many vinyl lovers who were following what became known as the Mobile Fidelity scandal for a few weeks when the Washington Post published a story about it on August 5th. Two days earlier, SoundStage! Global had posted a piece by Matt Bonaccio that gave an overview of how the story unfolded, so I’ll direct you to those links for the details.

At the root of the scandal is an assumption that many vinyl collectors have: an LP is best and most authentic when it is the result of an all-analog chain, beginning with the original master tape, through to the mastering, and on to cutting the lacquer. MoFi turns out to have been cutting from DSD files for some time, and that angered a few people.

Sound of Excellence

For some vinyl lovers, the provenance of an LP doesn’t matter. To others it’s as important as transubstantiation is to Catholics. If you’re not Catholic, you don’t care. If you’re Catholic, you care a lot. If you’re a longtime vinyl lover and you’ve been talking to other LP collectors for the last 35 years or so, you’ve convinced yourself that anything digital is awful, grating, and an affront to music. A good record, you and your fellow travelers believe, is analog and nothing but analog. When it turns out that an LP that you’ve put a lot of faith into because it sounds good is sourced from a digital file, well, something heretical has occurred.

I have a number of Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab releases, and I’ve reviewed a few. I like many of them. They sounded good when I first heard them, and when I played them again recently, they still sounded good. There are some MoFi LPs I have issues with. I gave the MoFi reissue of Elvis Costello’s Armed Forces a good review, but I stated in the review that I leaned toward the fire conveyed in the compressed mastering of the original Columbia pressing of the album. That’s the version of the album I end up listening to.

Pirates

Some rock releases MoFi has done lean too much in the audiophile direction and remove the anarchic excitement that made the original recordings so powerful. Other pop music titles that MoFi reissued were more aesthetically pleasing to me. The label released definitive versions of Rickie Lee Jones’s first two LPs, Rickie Lee Jones and Pirates; of Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On; and of The All-Time Greatest Hits of Roy Orbison.

If a pop album was a straightforward, organic recording, the MoFi reissue was often the best, most revealing version available. Its 45 rpm, two-LP editions of Dire Straits’ recordings are so good I can’t imagine better-sounding editions of those records. And the label could do more aggressive rock correctly. Its reissue of the J. Geils Band’s second album, The Morning After, is revealing but still exciting and edgy. It’s also among the few all-analog releases it’s done since 2011. That was the year MoFi started using DSD files as the sources for lacquer cutting on at least some of its LPs.

Dire Straits

As you can see from the links above, I’ve reviewed and liked many of Mobile Fidelity’s reissues, and I own more besides. Its Sinatra reissues from about ten years ago were outstanding. Its Miles Davis recordings are also of a very high order, with the exception of Kind of Blue. I bought MoFi’s SACD of that title because I already have the Classic Records release from 2001, and I doubt it can be bested. MoFi’s SACD reissue of the album isn’t even as enjoyable to me as Columbia’s 1997 CD release. Too bland.

In other words, when MoFi gets things right, it gets them very right. When it gets things wrong, they’re often just not to my taste. It has never occurred to me that the results had anything to do with them being all analog, although I assumed they were. The MoFi releases I didn’t like were the result of mastering choices the label made. The J. Geils album is good because Krieg Wunderlich mastered it in a way I enjoyed, not because it was the result of an all-analog chain.

Mobile Fidelity’s reissues have always had adherents and, for some titles at least, detractors. Its 1979 pressing of Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon, remastered by Stan Ricker, is one of the best-sounding releases of that album that I’ve heard. On the other hand, Ricker did the 1982 remaster of the Band’s Music from Big Pink for MoFi, and I can say unequivocally that it’s an abysmal version of one of my favorite recordings—sludgy, dragging, and bloated. The label’s 1979 reissue of Steely Dan’s Katy Lied has its fans, but I’m not among them. MoFi’s Beatles reissues fell short of the group’s Parlophone pressings and were bested by Japanese pressings.

Music from Big Pink

On balance, MoFi has had more successes than failures, and I’m satisfied with many of its LPs. My reaction to its pressings has nothing to do with them being analog or digital. The pressings from the 1970s and ’80s certainly had no digital intervention, and, as with MoFi’s releases since 2011, some sounded fine to me; others didn’t.

SoundStage!’s publisher, Doug Schneider, posted a video on the SoundStage! Network’s YouTube channel about the fallout from the discovery that MoFi was using DSD files to cut its LPs. For Doug, the most revealing thing about MoFi’s choice to go digital was that no one seemed to be able to detect that the LPs were not all analog. Furthermore, he asserted, the assumption of vinyl superiority is not something that can be assumed or argued logically.

The first generation of LPs made from analog recordings that were digitally remastered did often sound bad. When digitally remastered records started appearing in the mid-1980s, they were often brittle and sterile. By the early ’90s, though, mastering engineers were using digital technology with better results, including Super Bit Mapping, to cut vinyl. The result was better-sounding records.

Records resulting from early digital remastering stood in contrast to titles that were recorded digitally to begin with, such as Donald Fagen’s The Nightfly or Ry Cooder’s Bop Till You Drop. Those LPs were less harsh than analog recordings transferred to the digital realm. MoFi’s 2017 Ultradisc One-Step release of The Nightfly is a great-sounding LP, but so is the original.

Much of my preference for vinyl stems from my early experiences with CDs, but CD playback has improved substantially since it pushed vinyl out of record shops in the late 1980s. CD players I’ve bought in the last ten years sound as close to analog as I’ve heard. In addition, about 18 months ago, I purchased an NAD C 368 integrated amp-DAC. I run both my disc players through the DAC section of the NAD. In my reference system I use a Cambridge Audio DacMagic Plus. In both cases, I was so impressed with how CDs sounded through them that I didn’t play vinyl for the first week I owned them.

Six months after I bought the NAD C 368, I added a BluOS module to it. I can stream music through Amazon Music and Qobuz, I can listen to radio stations from all over the world, and I can play music I have stored on an external hard drive. It sounds terrific. I told a friend that when I am too old to run downstairs to get an LP, I’ll be perfectly happy to stream music.

I’ll stand by my position that digital playback took a long time to get right. I no longer assume that vinyl is automatically better. And I’ve never claimed to know with absolute certainty that an LP was cut from a digital file rather than an analog master tape. I judge the results by how they sound. I do hear differences between digital and vinyl playback. I like the Intervention Records reissues of Joe Jackson’s Body and Soul on Hybrid SACD and vinyl. I give a slight edge to the vinyl. Kevin Gray mastered them both, but I assume that when he cut the lacquer for the vinyl he made choices appropriate to that format. Both releases are definitive.

Body and Soul

I can’t say at this point that my preference for Intervention’s vinyl release of Body and Soul isn’t the result of brain patterns that formed over more than 50 years of listening to LPs. I can say that over the last five years, I’ve found myself listening to and enjoying music on CD and SACD. I enjoy streaming music more than I ever thought I would. Digital playback is so good that only long-held prejudice and old assumptions would keep me from enjoying it.

Still, 75 percent of my listening time is devoted to vinyl. There are qualities I still find appealing about LPs, and perhaps some of them can be explained by the ritual of removing an album from its cover, cleaning it, and enjoying the cover art as I play it. I’ll always prefer vinyl to other formats because there are things it gives me that other formats don’t quite provide. But digital playback is so good now that some of those things—soundstaging, bass and drum attack, the timbral qualities of instruments—are not dramatically better on vinyl.

I review vinyl reissues for SoundStage!, and I often find them to be superior to the other versions of an album I own, whether on vinyl or on CD. They sound better, however, because of mastering choices made by the producer and the mastering engineer. At this point, it would be foolish to claim that a DSD-sourced LP is suspect, since MoFi has been pressing them for more than ten years and many prominent reviewers praised them without realizing they weren’t all analog.

That doesn’t mean all those vinyl collectors and reviewers won’t continue to insist that an all-analog chain is preferable, or that they’ve suspected something was wrong all along. That also doesn’t change the fact that Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs misled consumers. The label’s responses have been attempts to reassure people that its process is sound and leads to good-sounding vinyl. MoFi hasn’t really admitted it did anything wrong.

Doug Schneider is convinced that most all vinyl released now has some digital step in its mastering, even if it is doing something as simple as correcting a tape anomaly. Record companies should be clear about how they arrive at a pressing, especially if it’s a $40 LP. Bernie Grundman has been candid about the sources for the LPs he mastered for Zappa Records. The original master tapes for Zappa’s 200 Motels were in poor condition, so Grundman created a 24-bit/96kHz digital master for the record. The gatefold of the LP includes a detailed description of how Grundman created the master. Other Zappa releases list the master tape or a safety as the source.

Grundman and Zappa Records could have fudged things and said 200 Motels was “mastered from the original master tapes,” which, broadly speaking, would have been true. But they chose to be honest and detailed about how Grundman mastered the LP. MoFi should have done the same. Many of MoFi’s LPs sound great, and I hope it continues to release vinyl. However, as Shakespeare wrote in Henry VI, Part 3, “For trust not him that hath once broken faith.” As with Catholics and transubstantiation, vinyl lovers took some leaps of faith. Faith lost is hard to regain.

Dire Straits

On the other hand, people want to believe. It’s possible that many of MoFi’s customers will listen to its LPs and conclude that the label does good work, whatever methods it uses. MoFi also makes fine Hybrid SACDs, and those will probably continue to do well.

No recovery . . .

I don’t see the MoFi Ultradisc One-Step LPs recovering from this debacle. The desirability and cost of those releases are premised on the idea that they are special because the lacquer is cut from the original master tape, then a convert is created from the lacquer, and the convert is used to create a stamper. The stamper can press 1000 LPs before it begins to deteriorate and the process begins again. LP collectors are correct to assume that a record costing $100 or more should be something special that brings them closer to the actual tape, not a digital copy of the tape.

Perhaps a few good things can come out of what happened to MoFi. Record companies can provide the details of how the LP came to be created, and buyers can be assured that they’re getting what they want. Or maybe a more important lesson can be learned. If something sounds good, it is good. If you like your 40-year-old pressing, maybe you don’t need a new “audiophile” one. If you prefer a reissue of your favorite LP, don’t agonize over whether it’s digital or analog. If you enjoy vinyl but find that you’re liking the way digital music reproduction sounds, just listen to and like both.

It’s music. Just enjoy it.

Joseph Taylor
Senior Contributor, SoundStage!

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