When the news broke last year that Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab was using high-resolution digital files as the source for some of its vinyl releases, including its costly Ultradisc One-Step pressings, a predictable outcry from vinyl lovers ensued. The story even got national attention, with a writeup in the Washington Post. Several SoundStage! Network contributors addressed the issue, including Jason Thorpe. I weighed in as well, as did SoundStage! founder Doug Schneider, who also posted a video about it.
Other audiophile publications covered the story. Jim Austin of Stereophile and Robert Harley of The Absolute Sound both wrote articles about what was becoming known as “the MoFi Scandal.” Soon, the news came that a class-action suit had been filed against MoFi, and other lawsuits followed. Hell hath no fury like a vinyl lover scorned.
Jason and I both said that we liked MoFi’s LPs, but were disappointed by the news. Doug decided that the scandal proved to him that vinyl lovers’ resistance to digital audio was questionable to begin with.
May of 2023 brought the news that the class-action suit had been settled. In fact, MoFi had offered to settle in January, but the settlement would have extended to all pending lawsuits, and some consumers and attorneys objected. A judge ruled in May that the conditions of the settlement were fair and would apply to all affected parties. Customers who had bought Mobile Fidelity LPs could return them for a refund or get five to ten percent off their next purchase.
Details are lacking. What if the original LP was all-analog? What determines the amount applied to a future purchase? We’ll perhaps see that information and more in time. But I still have a few observations about MoFi’s actions, the ensuing fallout, and the conclusions we might draw from the whole affair.
I’m not an attorney and I don’t generally follow news coverage of class-action suits, so I don’t have a deep understanding about how they unfold. Still, my vague impression is that such lawsuits against automobile manufacturers, pharmaceutical companies, and other large corporations take a long time to wind up—years in fact. Perhaps the circumstances here are more straightforward. It’s likely that it’s a matter of scale. In many class-action suits, millions of people are involved and billions of dollars are at stake. The MoFi scandal affected just 40,000 consumers, according to one news story.
Moreover, MoFi didn’t create a product that physically harmed anyone. The worst one can say is that they let some people down.
Still, some treasured assumptions about fully analog mastering and its importance in vinyl pressings seem to have been challenged. Robert Harley’s interview with Jim Davis, president of Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab, appeared in the August issue of The Absolute Sound. Davis explained MoFi’s process but didn’t really say why the label had been strongly suggesting its LPs were all-analog. Harley didn’t ask him. He didn’t have to, really. Vinyl lovers have a core conviction that a well-done LP is cut from the master tape. Anything else may sound fine, but it’s not the Platonic ideal. MoFi knew its customers felt that way and kept mum about introducing a digital step.
Davis told Harley: “We have an obligation to help preserve what are sacred documents of our musical history. . . . Mastertapes are a finite resource.” Austin’s article in the October 2022 issue of Stereophile calls out MoFi for not being more candid with its customers, but closes by supporting Davis’s assertion that master tapes need to be handled carefully. Davis told The Absolute Sound that the best way to do that is to use a digital copy of the tape as the source for cutting lacquer for an LP. “Going forward,” he told Harley, “all releases sourced from analog masters will utilize a DSD step.”
I’m willing to accept that fact. Tape is a delicate medium, although hardier than many of us assume. Still, you don’t want to pass it through playback more times than necessary, and there are some tape formulations that require extra care. By all means, treat it gently. If that requires a digital step to enable a mastering engineer to cut the lacquer for an LP without replaying the tape many times, I’m fine with that.
If we’re going to accept that change in mastering techniques for an LP, though, it means some of us are going to be doing a whole lot of backpedaling. I’m not interested in dressing anyone down, but I can page through back issues of Stereophile and The Absolute Sound and find plenty of articles by writers insisting that LPs cut from an all-analog chain are the ne plus ultra of hi-fi reproduction. Many of those writers have claimed for years that they can identify an LP that has been cut from digital with absolute certainty.
More than that, some of those writers have cited MoFi’s pressings of albums by Bob Dylan, Miles Davis, and Santana as demo quality, having assumed they were cut from the original tapes. Same here. I took MoFi at its word, and often reviewed the company’s LPs positively. I never claimed, though, that I could unerringly tell if there had been a digital step in the pressing of a record. For a long time, MoFi made claims about the pedigree of its LPs, and audio writers aided them by telling us they were the result of a direct cut from the original tapes.
I liked MoFi’s LPs, and when I enjoyed the mastering choices the label had made, I thought its records were among the very best available. I still think my MoFi LPs by Dylan and Ricky Lee Jones (and many others) are the best-sounding versions of those recordings I own. Some of my MoFi LPs are “all-analog,” others are cut from digital sources, but they have similar sonic footprints. They’re detailed, with a luxurious soundstage and a three-dimensional presentation of the music.
Some of Joe Taylor’s favorite MoFi releases
My enjoyment of these records isn’t going to change, but I do find myself looking at vinyl a bit differently now. In some ways, it’s liberating. If a record sounds good, I’m just going to enjoy it. I have quite a few Blue Note titles that were part of the label’s 75th Anniversary Reissue series. They were digitally sourced, but the lacquers were cut by Bernie Grundman and others, and the pressings sound pretty good. The vinyl benefited from a good cleaning, but once cleaned, the LPs were quiet and sounded fine—usually better than my CD copies of the recordings.
Blue Note’s current Tone Poet and Classic Vinyl Reissue series, the Verve / Acoustic Sounds series, and the Craft Recordings / Acoustic Sounds series are all-analog. Or they’re advertised as such, and I’m assuming the labels producing them are telling the truth. They all sound really good. Many sound exceptional. Would they sound different, or less exciting, if they had been cut using MoFi’s methods? Would they deliver the same exhilarating “I’m in the studio with the musicians” experience? I don’t know.
I do know that Kevin Gray and Bernie Grundman, who mastered the LPs in a couple of the reissue campaigns I’ve mentioned, lean hard in the analog direction. Grundman has done his share of digital mastering, but he’s quoted in the Washington Post article about MoFi as preferring analog. Yet when I compare Grundman’s work on the digitally mastered 75th anniversary Blue Note LPs to Gray’s analog mastering on the Classic series, I can’t say the latter are better. They sound different because some of Gray’s choices differ from Grundman’s—but both sound very good.
When an LP reaches a boutique price point, though, I begin to put on the brakes. Many of MoFi’s upcoming releases are UltraDisc two-record sets that are going for $125. I’ll pay $40 for an audiophile reissue, or $60 for a two-record set, and not grouse about the cutting method. When I am asked to cough up $100 or more, I think I’ve earned the right to expect a limited edition and something really special. And I’d like it to be cut from the master tape. I’m paying for the unique qualities of the LP, not its deluxe packaging. To be honest, the very idea of boutique vinyl makes me cranky, but that’s a subject for another column.
News reports say that MoFi’s settlement will end up costing the company $25 million. MoFi’s website doesn’t have any news about the settlement, or any reference to the processing of refunds. In the past, I’ve received letters or postcards that informed me I was a member of a group that was affected by a class-action lawsuit. Sometimes the letter includes a check, sometimes a coupon that I can put toward my next purchase. The amount is substantial—often as much as $4 or $5! If I order a standard MoFi LP in the $40 to $50 range, a five percent discount works out to be from $2 to $2.50. I’m assuming the more generous ten percent discount is applied to MoFi’s higher-priced One Step or Ultradisc sets, which means I’d save between $10 and $12.50.
I’m pleased that the dustup didn’t lead to MoFi going under. But I do wish some of the audio press had chastised the company more firmly. On the SoundStage! Network, we struck a good balance between acknowledging that we liked MoFi’s LPs and criticizing the company for its actions. Other outlets seemed to hedge and let MoFi have the last word.
I now notice a bit of hesitation on the part of vinyl reviewers to trumpet their oh-so-sensitive ears and their ability to hear flaws introduced by a digital step. That’s a welcome trend. Our job is to say whether a record sounds good or bad. I have older all-analog pressings that don’t sound as good as later, digitally processed reissues. I have many of the Pink Floyd reissues that Bernie Grundman mastered over the last few years. They’re digital and they sound good; in some cases, better than my earlier copies.
I closed my piece on the MoFi scandal last September with these words: “It’s music. Just enjoy it.” Let’s do that.
. . . Joseph Taylor