Scandal? What Scandal?
On July 14, Mike Esposito, a record dealer form Phoenix, Arizona made public, via his Youtube channel, that Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab (MoFi), a mainstay of the analogue audiophile world, has been deceiving its customers for years (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CtJRis-Ba1Q) … and no one noticed. According to Esposito MoFi has been sourcing many of its most coveted vinyl reissues since at least Sanatana’s Abraxas in 2008 from digital sources (quad DSD files) obtained mainly from Sony/BMG rights holders rather than from the original analogue master tapes. In the passionate world of audiophiles this news exploded like an atom bomb. Even the venerable Washington Post wrote an article about it: https://www.washingtonpost.com/music/2022/08/05/mofi-records-analog-digital-scandal/
To put this into perspective:
- MoFi nowhere claimed these records have been sourced without intermediate digital steps. So, MoFi have not violated any legal terms. And as a matter of fact, almost all vinyl issues nowadays are sourced from digital files. So it is absolutely standard procedure. However, given its PR and history, people simply assumed MoFi would cut its reissues directly from the original master tapes (AAA or triple A). So, it is more a question of being highly misleading in their communication than being outright fraudulent.
- This assumption of the market has in no small part been nurtured by the steep price premia MoFi charges for its LP reissues. Their Ultra Disc One-Step reissues cost about EUR 250,- in Germany. A normal MoFi LP about EUR 90,-. Such steep premia may be justified by the complex process of cutting a high quality vinyl reissue purely in the analogue domain from the original master tapes. For that requires a lot of special equipment, lengthy manual processes and getting access to the original master tape. If MoFi simply used a digital file (from a rights holder) to cut their LPs they are substantially reducing their costs and the prices they charge seem even more inappropriate.
- Importantly, these digitally sourced vinyl reissues (e.g. Santana’s Abraxas, Miles Davies’ Kind of Blue, Thelonious Monk’s Monk’s Dream or Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks) sound as good as anything that MoFi has ever put out, according to acknowledged audiophile reviewers. So this is not about degraded sound quality. On the contrary, many of these experts thought these albums belong to the best sounding MoFi has ever issued. It is more about frustrated customer expectations, who – rightly or wrongly – expected a pure triple A analogue production. Many of the hard core analogue customers view any digital element as the devils work and cannot be consoled by the good sounding result.
- Even more: MoFi engineers are recognized industry experts and are credibly focussed on the quality of the end product. They are not dogmatic about the ways to achieve the best possible sound quality. And they have left no one in doubt that MoFi will continue and even extent its use of digital masters for LP production, because they are convinced that by doing so they can produce the best sounding LPs (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=shg0780YgAE)
As collateral damage there are a number of famous professional audiophile reviewers (I will not mention names) who have claimed for years if not decades to dislike what they call “digital sound” and that they can always tell the difference. These same reviewers raved about the high quality of the One-Step issues from MoFi for as long as they believed these records were produced triple A. So the revelation that these One-Steps are in fact sourced from digital files embarrasses them to the bone.
It is also most likely that the recent events at MoFi will shake the confidence in the marketing claims and production processes of other vinyl companies and force greater transparency about the provenance of music material.
One part of the scandal is MoFi’s deceptive market communications, which I think is condemnable in and of itself as well as a way to justify inflated prices, but I do not want to go into this. The other part touches on the relationship of analogue vs. digital technologies as a means of faithfully storing and manipulating sound information. The MoFi scandal puts into stark focus some questions that have been lurking in the background for a long time: What really are the qualitative differences, if any, between analogue and digital? And how noticeable are they? And is that passionately drawn borderline between the two technical alternatives really justified nowadays?
One thing seems clear: If some of the best experts in the industry globally – along with all the rest of the consumer world – did not notice any disadvantage in the sound quality of audiophile vinyl LPs produced from digital masters for more than 14 years, but on the contrary time- and-again lauded their analogue sound qualities, than one may conclude, that – properly done – the technology employed is simply not noticeable. Or in other words – if properly done – there are no sonic advantages of analogue music production over digital.
This should be a clear indication for even the diehard analogue disciples to rethink their prejudices and ask themselves whether they want to continue to exclude themselves from some of the best sounding music material for no good reason.
Hear for yourself how beautiful and analogue digital music can sound, if done properly: https://www.hifistatement.net/tests/item/2310-digitale-audio-systeme-hd-player-model-2