Perfect Sound Forever

The Vinyl Anachronist

by Marc Phillips
Part CXLVII: The Mo-Fi Mess
(October 2022)

The high-end audio industry has had its fair share of scandal and controversy over the years--I know people who still get angry because Armor-All ruined their burgeoning compact disc collection back in the late '80's--but this latest kerfuffle with Mobile Fidelity hurts just a little bit, and in a somewhat personal way.

I've been writing this column for almost a quarter of a century (IKR?), and Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs has occasionally part of this story. I still remember spending the ungodly amount of $19.99 for a single Mobile Fidelity LP remastering of Supertramp's Crime of the Century back when I was still a teenager and when regular LPs usually cost less than five bucks.

I wasn't even a Supertramp fan. I'm still not, because that album occupies a warm spot in my heart for being my first of many Mo-Fi LPs, CDs and SACDs. I don't reserve that same affection for Howard Jones' Human's Lib, for example, which was the first pop album I bought in the CD format (bet I don't even have it anymore). Back in those days, you made choices based on sonics and not selection--it was either Supertramp or some field recording of a freight train. And I know a couple of you who bought the train record.

I've shared a big part of my audiophile life with Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs. When I heard the news that Mo-Fi admitted to using digital processing in one stage of LP remastering, it was like hearing those bad stories about Al Franken for the first time or eating the Spicy Chicken sandwich from Chick Fil-A and thinking 'oh goddamnit, that's good.' But the more I thought about this news, especially when filtered through gossip and industry media and years of worrying about fake gnus, the more I decided to hang back and let it play out.

Fortunately, I did. Until now. I'm still not yet picking a side, especially since I've heard some valid opinions from both camps over the last few weeks. Those who support MoFi have explained how the digital process in question, DSD 256 (or DSD Quad), has become an essential part of remastering an LP because time marches on and those master tapes are not as spry as they used to be. Some masters have wow and flutter issues. Sometimes they're just degrading. Many of those issues can be solved by employing DSD, which stands for Direct Stream Digital, along the way.

MoFi President Jim Davis explains this in a Robert Harley interview for The Absolute Sound:

"Some record label tape vaults changed policy regarding shipment of mastertapes. At that point our only option for those recordings was to go to the mastertapes. Once we were able to access these masters, the dilemma was how can we best retrieve the information from the master? We experimented with making analog copies from the master. Various tape stocks (1/4**, 1**) and speeds (15ips, 30ips) were tried but rejected. There was no way to overcome the noise-floor disadvantages of copying from one analog tape to another. When we tried DSD, it was immediately clear this was a vastly superior method for maximizing information retrieval. Developed as an archival format, DSD is sonically transparent, with a very low noise floor. Combined with the painstaking transfer process described below, the capture is a virtual snapshot of the master, revealing detail and nuance at a level that conventional methods could not. Counterintuitively, this capture yields, in our evaluation, superior sonics compared to a cut that is direct from the analog tape to the lathe."

It sucks from a purist standpoint, and we audiophiles tend to be purist on one matter or another, but this will result in the best sound at this point in history. And Mo-Fi has always been committed to releasing the version that sounds best.

But I can also understand that feeling of betrayal, that so many audiophiles purchased MoFi records because they believed the remastering process remained in the analog domain from start to finish. I first encountered these issues way back in the '90's, when I'd buy the rare new LP release and find out it had been mastered from the same digital files as the CD. I'd feel a lump in my throat, knowing how vocal I was at that time about keeping vinyl alive. Why bother getting the LP, especially when they ultimately became more expensive than compact discs? That was one of the few decent arguments against vinyl over the years.

Turns out that's not as black-and-white as it seems, as every piece in the playback chain can affect the final sound one way or another, and whether it is digital or analog. But I remember how it felt to learn that 25 or 30 years ago, and the Mo-Fi debacle dredges up some of that queasiness.

Evidently, others are upset as well. We're talking really upset, like class-action litigation upset (I almost inserted a Mo-fi v. Mo-Fo joke there, but I wisely refrained). I'm not going to get on the list so I can receive my check for $18.24 in June 2028. Yes, I think it's an overreaction. No, I'm not surprised it's going that way. I've done a lot of traveling for work in the last few months, almost concurrently with this mess, and I've heard heated discussions in Europe, Chicago, Seattle, San Diego and at least a couple of times here in Oregon. Any time I've witnessed a group of audiophiles or industry people gathered and discussing something enthusiastically, it's the MoFo Controversy. Here's some of the scuttlebutt I've collected:

"I agree it was out and out deception. They know full well that a premium is placed on an all analog release in the minds of the consumer. They have gone on record to clients saying there is no digitization involved in their vinyl pressings." This comment, by "JEB-42" on the Analog Planet website, is perhaps the most common viewpoint expressed by MoFi consumers. It's true, MoFi has said numerous times that there is no digital in the chain. So, they lied. There's no way around that.

But there's another weaker argument that follows, that MoFi shouldn't charge so much for their LP pressings if digital is used in the chain, which suggests that digital processing is cheap and saves money. "It's the one step plating process that makes the One Step LPs substantially more expensive. It has nothing to do with the lacquer being cut from an analog tape or a digital file." That's from "Analog Scott" on the same Analog Planet comment section. I found this anonymous post on the website Audio Matters:

"I'm sorry that the analog crowd is so hostile to DSD. I think it's absolutely brilliant tech. I also don't get why such incredible care in transferring the master is so upsetting to people who are fine with a copy of a copy of a copy going on their turntables. There is no such thing as "pure analog" in the consumer realm, and I'm a former audio mixer and engineer who loved nothing more than 30ips 1/2 inch for dance and hip-hop mixing."

Finally, Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab's president Jim Davis said this in the official apology:

"We at Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab are aware of customer complaints regarding use of digital technology in our mastering chain. We apologize for using vague language, allowing false narratives to propagate, and for taking for granted the goodwill and trust our customers place in the Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab brand.

"We recognize our conduct has resulted in both anger and confusion in the marketplace. Moving forward, we are adopting a policy of 100% transparency regarding the provenance of our audio products. We are immediately working on updating our websites, future printed materials, and packaging--as well as providing our sales and customer service representatives with these details. We will also provide clear, specific definitions when it comes to Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab marketing branding such as Original Master Recording (OMR) and UltraDisc One-Step (UD1S). We will backfill source information on previous releases so Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab customers can feel as confident in owning their products as we are in making them."

Is this enough? Personally, I hope so. Yes, I think MoFi should've been up front all along and explain the role of DSD when trying to produce reissues from the master tapes, especially since the DSD route seems to be the best solution at this time. But I think about all my favorite MoFi LPs, the Abbey Road and the Tea for the Tillerman and the What's Going On and the Murmur and one of my most important demo LPs, Dead Can Dance's Into the Labyrinth, and I don't want to feel cheated about the so-called provenance. I want to listen to music, not call my lawyer.

I'm not selling my Mo-Fi LP's. I'm not suing anyone. I'm doing what I've always done, which involves listening to LPs on a decent turntable and obtaining great joy from it. Let's move on.

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