The Sound You Want to Hear
Sebastopol's Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab forced to reveal its secret
The Washington Post published a story on August 5th about a controversy swirling around a Sebastopol company, Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab (MoFi) that is well-known for producing vinyl records from original analog master tapes. Since the late 1970’s, MoFi has reissued classic albums such as Santana’s Abraxas or Carole King’s Tapestry as “Original Master Recordings” on the Mobile Fidelity label. They are the choice of audiophiles who consider them better than the original albums. However, it turns out that the process MoFi uses, which was thought to be entirely analog from tape to vinyl, involves digital recording and processing, which MoFi has kept secret.
“How a Phoenix record store owner set the audiophile world on fire” [behind paywall] by Geoff Edgers tells the story of Mike Esposito, a Phoenix record store owner who, following a tip, created a YouTube video calling out Mobile Fidelity. He said that their records were not produced using an all analog process, which is what audiophiles believed made them sound so much better. Instead, their process, which they had kept secret, used digital processing.
After Esposito’s video sparked the controversy, John Wood of Mobile Fidelity invited Esposito to their Morris Street studio in Sebastopol. Esposito met with three MoFi audio engineers and recorded their conversation for his YouTube channel. It is an hour of technical shop talk, which will be fascinating to some. Esposito strikes a genuine rapport with the sound engineers and he gets what he wants: they admit that digital processing is involved, although they argue that they are creating “accurate representations of the tape.” They believe that the way they use digital tools in the process makes the sound even better. Saying that he is a fan of many of the recordings that MoFi has produced, Esposito expressed appreciation to the engineers for doing the video.
MoFi’s marketing language did not reflect the actual process used by the engineers. Esposito said on his video, “tell me what I’m buying.” The President of Mobile Sound Labs, Jim Davis, who was not present for Esposito’s interview, published an apology on their website, saying, in part:
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.
They pledged to become 100% transparent in how their albums are made.
Is it Analog or Digital?
If you know an audiophile, you’ve heard how much they prefer vinyl records. You’ll hear them talk about how analog audio is so much better compared to a digital audio, which is typically compressed and lower quality. Vinyl records have also found a new audience today with popular artists putting their work out as LPs. Yet audiophiles cannot always explain why analog is better than digital. Perhaps they just prefer a sound that they were used to, including the crackling sounds and scratches found on a vinyl album.
Analog is the sound they want to hear. Because audiofiles believed that Mobile Fidelity’s albums were purely analog, they enjoyed what they believed was pure analog-quality sound. Now told that MoFi albums involve digital steps in their production, they can’t believe what their own ears were hearing.
The Post story quotes Jamie Howarth of Plangent Processes, a company that works with digital recordings, on the strong reaction among audiophiles:
“One of the reasons they want to excoriate MoFi is for lying,” said Howarth. “The other part that bothers them is that they’ve been listening to digital all along and they’re highly invested in believing that any digital step will destroy their experience. And they’re wrong.”