Sonic Grade: F
By the time I was avidly collecting Mobile Fidelity records in the late ’70s this title had already gone out of print, one of the first to do so. My guess is that even the cloth-eared audiophiles at MoFi knew when they had a turkey on their hands and mercilessly put this one out to pasture. Yes, the sound is so bad that even MoFi could hear it.
Compressed and lifeless as the screen speakers so popular at the time, it’s hard to imagine any version sounding worse than this one.
And yet I continued to play my copy, for enjoyment of course, oblivious — I must have been oblivious, right? — to the bad sound.
Why? That’s hard to say, but here’s a stab at it.
The vinyl was exceptionally quiet for one thing, and for another, as an audiophile I knew this MoFi pressing had been made with tender loving care, using a superior process, Half-Speed Mastering, from The Original Master Tapes, and had been pressed in Japan on the quietest, flattest vinyl in the world. What could possibly go wrong?
My old story about One Man Dog gets to the heart of it. I didn’t understand records very well and I sure didn’t understand the value of doing shootouts or even how to do them with different pressings of the same album.
As I say in conclusion down below:
If you actually enjoy playing fifteen copies of One Man Dog to find the few that really sound good — because hearing such wonderful music the way it was meant to be heard is a positive thrill — then you just might end up with one helluva great record collection, worlds better than one filled with audiophile pressings from any era, most especially the present.
The Story Starts with One Man Dog
One Man Dog has long been a favorite James Taylor album. It didn’t catch on too well with the general public when it came out but it caught on just fine with me. I used to play it all the time. As a budding but misguided audiophile back in the early ’70s, I foolishly bought the import pressing at my local record store, The Wherehouse, assuming it would sound better and be pressed on quieter vinyl. The latter may have been true, probably was true, but the former sure wasn’t. Turns out even the average domestic original is far better sounding, but how was I to know?
Compare and Contrast? What For?
Back in those days it would never have occurred to me to buy more than one copy of a record and do a head to head to see which one sounded better. I approached the subject Platonically, not scientifically: the record that should sound better would sound better.
Later on in the decade a label by the name of Mobile Fidelity would come along claiming to actually make better sounding pressings than the ones the major labels put out, and cluelessly I bought into that nonsense too. (To be fair, sometimes they did — Touch, Waiting for Columbus and American Beauty come to mind, but my god, Katy Lied, Year of the Cat and Sundown have to be three of the worst sounding records I’ve ever played in my life.)
The Audiophile of Today
From our point of view, today’s audiophile seems to be making the same mistakes I was making thirty years ago. The Audiophile Heavy Vinyl Remaster, the 45 RPM 2 LP pressing, the Half-Speed Limited Edition — aren’t these all just the latest audiophile fads, each burdened with an equally dismal track record?
And isn’t it every bit as true today as it was in the past that the audiophiles who buy these “special” pressings rarely seem to notice that many of them don’t actually sound any good?
The Learning Curve Is Looking Awfully Flat
Pardon my pessimism, but it seems to me the learning curve these days is looking awfully flat. There doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of learning going on. If such learning were actually going on, how would most of these audiophile labels still be in business?
Don’t get me wrong: some progress has been made. Reference, Chesky and Audioquest thankfully no longer burden us with their awful LPs. But is the new Blue or Yes Album really any better than the average MOfIfrom 1979? Different yes, but better? I know one thing: I couldn’t sit through an entire side of either of them. And I love that music.
Compared to the real thing, or, as we like to call them, Hot Stampers, can any of these records really compete sonically? A few, I guess, but too few, and they are pretty darn far between.
Easy Answers and Quick Fixes
Turns out there are no easy answers. There are no quick fixes. In audio there’s only hard work and more hard work. That’s what gives the learning curve its curvature — the more you do it, the better you can do it.
And if doing all that work is also your idea of fun, you just might get really good at it. (See our link below about how to become an expert listener.) If you actually enjoy playing fifteen copies of One Man Dog to find the few that really sound good — because hearing such wonderful music the way it was meant to be heard is a positive thrill — then you just might end up with one helluva great record collection, worlds better than one filled with audiophile pressings from any era, most especially the present.
…along these lines can be found in commentaries linked below.
This one discusses The Science of Hot Stampers, subtitled Incomplete, Imperfect, and (Gulp!) Provisional.
And we’ll end with this one, which discusses How to Become an Expert Listener, subtitled Hard Work and Challenges Can Really Pay Off.
Because in audio, much like the rest of life, hard work and challenges really do pay off.