A Thought Or Two On The MOFI Situation

Mofi, Mofi, Mofi. Is there anything left to say? Perhaps.

First off: I really have no skin in this game. The few older Mobile Fidelity LP’s that I’ve picked up over the years have been enjoyable, including Rickie Lee Jones, Sundown, and the Firebird Suite/Pictures At An Exhibition conducted by Muti. This hails back to when you could find those titles for $10-20. Once the prices of Mofi LP’s started soaring (I mean the first time, 25+ years ago) I largely lost interest in them, and haven’t bought or even heard any of the recent crop of work they’ve done over the last decade. So I’m somewhat ignorant, but also objective. It’s not that I thought a Marvin Gaye “One-step” (at $125 US or whatever) wasn’t worthwhile. It just wasn’t something I was interested in, for various reasons, price being one. My overall interest in vinyl also isn’t what it used to be. And I’ve had good results with other reissue companies, and I’ve stuck with them. More on that in a moment.

Mobile Fidelity 1-520

For me personally there are two issues that dictate a record purchase: desirability and sound quality (I suppose price is a factor too, haha). If you think the same way, then which of these you prioritize higher may determine your reaction to the Mofi “crisis”. “Desirable” can be (and is) defined in so many ways. If your favourite artist, let’s say Jack White, releases a new album, it’s desirable for you to have it on vinyl, for obvious reasons. If Mofi releases a limited edition one-step, say 5,000 copies, that LP can become desirable because it will sell out and become a rarity, driving the price up. In that sense, you could say we now have (at least) three types of LP buyer: the record collector, the speculator, and the audiophile. Then you have the music lover, who could also be any of the above. And the poser – say a college kid who has some records on the shelf just because it’s cool. Beyond that of course, there are musicians, DJ’s, etc. But let’s stick to the first three for this discussion.

As we all know by now, it has come out in recent weeks that Mofi is using a digital preview (DSD-based) step in their mastering process, which not only can “assist” in lacquer cutting, it can – using the digital file copy – allow for more stamper runs without having to rerun the old and fragile analog tapes. So, there are some valid reasons for doing this, and in some cases the sonic results may even be the best attainable. But they aren’t 100% analog. The problem is that Mofi has never (until now) disclosed this digital step, and it puts them in the spotlight as being a) untruthful or misleading, and b) at odds with most of their direct competitors, who take pains to keep their chain “all-analog”.
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My take

I’ll try to keep it simple. For me there’s a magic line here, and we can just call it “1980”. From roughly that year on, digital recording has been the norm, 99.9% of the time. Prior to 1980, virtually 100% of recorded music was recorded to analog tape (or occasionally direct to disc).

Mofi has reissued plenty of post-1980 recordings. And whatever digital manipulation they’ve done with them is kind of a moot point for me. Those recordings were usually digital to begin with. The reissues by default will always have digital step(s). Plenty of people want them, and that’s fine. I’ve had no interest in these, thus far (I have bought numerous LP’s from this era, just not Mofi’s. I don’t care about premium versions of The Nightfly, or Brothers In Arms. If you do, that’s cool. I’m not judging anyone).
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Now, pre-1980 recordings – and especially jazz, blues and classical LP’s from the 50’s and 60’s – are of great interest to many of us. This was the analog “golden age”, aka the hi-fi revolution, when great development leaps were seen in recording techniques; and technically, in microphones, tape decks, and in mixing – including the advent of stereo. Record cutting and pressing also came of age during this time. And the music was legendary. That’s why original pressings of many 50’s/60’s recordings are so coveted.

So these are a different matter. And it’s here that we have to demand transparency from reissue companies like Mofi. If the analog master tape is unavailable, too fragile to use for multiple stamper runs, or what have you – then the buyer needs to know what source was used to master the release. Outfits like Analog Productions have been open about their sources, their process and their equipment. I’ve found their work to be consistently good. Same for the sub-projects like Music Matters and Tone Poet. And numerous others.
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So how should we react to these revelations? I’ve read many online posts that amount to “DSD is technically way superior anyway” or “haha, mr.golden ears claimed it was the best but couldn’t hear that it was digital lolol”. Other people are just angry at the perceived insult, or feel it’s been a cynical marketing ploy. I get it. I think both of these extreme views have some validity, and that comes back to the many different types of buyer, what their expectations were at the time of purchase, and the stake they hold in the outcome (i.e. those who collect Mofi records). There are some black and white issues here, and some gray ones. As usual on social media, the clickbait and trolling is pervasive. This is a hot button topic, and let’s face it, audio controversies are as vitriolic as any other type.
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Bottom Line
So what’s the bottom line? These are my thoughts, a bit loose but condensed into one paragraph:
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“One-Step” Mofi reissue

I don’t know many people who consider Mofi to be the pinnacle of vinyl reissues. But they’ve had some excellent releases, and are clearly an important player. Mofi also has one of (if not the) broadest catalogs, spanning just about every genre of modern music, representing many of the top record labels. In Mofi’s earlier history they put many good reissues into our hands, for premium but ‘reasonable’ prices. In more recent years their prime releases have been, by most measures, quite expensive. Their “One-step” releases have sold well – the hype around these has been the target for much of this summer’s banter over the mastering process. I’ll concede that, IT IS POSSIBLE that some of these are the “best-sounding” vinyl versions available. For me, if it’s a golden-age recording and I want it bad enough to pay premium reissue prices – then I want it to be an analog copy, for better or worse. Just as I want the jacket and label to look and feel as authentic to the original as possible, I also want the record to sound like a facsimile of its original version. Is this a rational take? I don’t know. I’m old enough to remember “disco sucks” and “perfect sound forever”. We all have our biases. I AM OPEN to the possibility that a DSD-mastered vinyl reissue could be sonically ‘superior’ in some ways to an all-analog version. But as a record buyer, I identify more as a collector than an audiophile, so I want my copy of something from 1959 to be analogous to the way it was produced at that time. Mofi LP’s will drop in value, and that’s a deserved correction. It doesn’t make them worthless – if you enjoy listening to them, keep on spinning! I would like to see Mofi get through this – they have to come clean and walk back misrepresentations, e.g. terms like “ultra-analog”. I’d also like to see less trolling and grandstanding and outright misinformation online, but it’s unlikely that wish will be granted. The paragraph is too long. Sorry.

Lastly, I’d be happy for our readers to have their say in the comments, just make an effort to be respectful and thoughtful. Your opinions reflect as much about your character as they do about your knowledge.
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Best regards,
Noam
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11 Comments on A Thought Or Two On The MOFI Situation

  1. Greg Wawryk // 2022/08/18 at 9:43 pm // Reply

    If it’s DSD, I want the SACD and not the vinyl. I like the different companies that go with the all analog approach. MoFi is also known for their quality digital products. I think if they were honest and released fewer analog their life would be a lot easier.

  2. Generally MOFI isn’t allowed to take the master tape off premises to make their cutting discs. So they can’t actually use the master tape to make a laquer. If you read abouit MOFI’s process, they did significant testing and decided that the best sounding copy of the master was DSD 256 (better than tape copies), which they consider transparent to the original.

    I’m pretty sure that – unlike most audiophiles – they know what they are talking about. So they made the LP’s using the best, most accurate process possible.

    That said, they deceived the public.

    I’d also prefer to buy their DSD 256 versions, but that isn’t going to happen, as the record companies don’t want us to have perfect copies of their masters.

    • Hi Danny,
      If they used what they believed was the best process, then why hide or obscure the fact?
      Noam

  3. Bill Montgomery // 2022/08/19 at 7:20 am // Reply

    Great article, Noam. I feel much the same way that you have expressed. I have a few Mofi Lps in my collection and I have to say, I am glad I didn’t give in to the desire to buy more throughout the last ten years. I would have been very disappointed and likely a bit angry.

    • They hid the process b/c they knew lots of audiophiles wouldn’t buy them if they knew about the DSD, or would say they didn’t sound right if they did buy them, when they knew there was a digital step.

      Yep, they did it for the money.

      Funny thing is, most of them loved the sound of those “all analog” re-issues and some even said they were the best versions ever.

      • Danny/Bill – That’s why I don’t feel they’re necessarily tainted, if someone just bought them to enjoy. But if they’re only worth half of what you paid…yeah I’d be burned over it too. Especially if it’s the Marvin, Miles, Mingus, etc.

  4. Richard Townsend // 2022/08/19 at 7:34 am // Reply

    Lack of transparency is the primary issue here. The merits or demerits of using a digital step are secondary to the fact that Mobile Fidelity did not reveal the truth.

  5. Mike Koonce // 2022/08/19 at 11:01 am // Reply

    If you like what you’re hearing, what does it matter if there’s digital processing somewhere in the production chain? Enjoy what you hear. Don’t be an analog
    weenie. But I agree Mofi should have been more forthcoming.

    • Hi Mike,
      I don’t think it’s being an analog weenie to care about the provenance of a golden age recording before you spend $100-200 on the reissue. I like DSD ok, but as someone else noted, I can have that on the SACD (for $30-40).
      This used to be an issue most vinyl junkies agreed on. Maybe they’ve moved on, and I’m still stuck in the >1980< mentality. 🙂 Noam

  6. This is a very simple issue- consumer fraud. And yes, we can have DSD for $40, not $125. A premium price was charged for a product that was not warranted. And since thew source was DSD, artificially limiting the released number of copies was deceptive as well. In all, everything about Miofi’s one step program in recent years was deceptive. That said, yes, the stuff sounds great, but that is not the point-

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