Top Artists – Steely Dan & Donald Fagen Solos

Steely Dan ‎on MCA Audiophile Vinyl – Sounds Like a Good CD to Me

More of the Music of Steely Dan

Reviews and Commentaries for the Music of Steely Dan

Clean and clear and tonally correct, just like a good CD should sound.

If this is what you are after, why not just buy the CD? It’s bound to be a lot cheaper.

Some songs sound better than others, can’t for the life of me remember which ones. I auditioned copies of this record more than twenty years ago. Once I got rid of them I never bought another. Why would I?

No doubt there are still audiophiles extolling the virtues of this record on various internet threads.

One thing you can be sure of: these are people who are not serious about making progress in audio.

Some of the pressings these audiophiles like can be found in our Stone Age Audio Record section.

If you have top quality, highly-tweaked modern equipment, a good room, and the myriad other things that make exceptionally good vinyl playback possible these days — in a way that was not possible even ten or fifteen years ago — you would have no reason to keep a record of such mediocrity in your collection.

Or say anything nice about it on a site ostensibly devoted to audiophile vinyl.


Steely Dan / The Royal Scam

  • A Royal Scam like you’ve never heard, with seriously good grades from first note to last
  • This pressing of The Dan’s hard-rockin’ classic from 1976 has the right sound for this music – rich and meaty, with powerful rhythmic energy
  • 5 stars: “Drummer Bernard ‘Pretty’ Purdie lashes out the rolling grooves on most of the nine tracks, establishing the album’s anxious feel, and Larry Carlton’s jaw-dropping guitar work provides a running commentary to Fagen’s strangulated vocals… These are not the sort of Steely Dan songs favored by smooth-jazz stations.”
  • Steely Dan’s fifth release is a Must Own Album from 1976, Every one of the first 6 albums belong in any audiophile quality Rock and Pop music collection worthy of the name.

The best copies of Steely Dan’s brilliant effort from 1976 — so different from the album before, Katy Lied, as well as the album to follow, Aja — manage to combine richness and smoothness with transparency and clarity, a tough combination to find on The Royal Scam. (more…)

Steely Dan – This Is Where It All Started

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Reviews and Commentaries for the Music of Steely Dan

Countdown to Ecstasy was the first Steely Dan album I ever bought. The Rolling Stone raved about it in a review — this would have been sometime in 1973 — so I figured I had better find out what they were on about and pick up a copy. (Two years later, Rolling Stone would later rave about a new release from a band I had literally never heard of, Roxy Music. I went right down and picked up a copy of the album, Siren, and that record turned out to be a life-changing experience as well.)

I thought it was pretty good at first, not much more than that really, but I kept playing it and playing it and it wasn’t long before it became one of my favorite albums and Steely Dan one of my favorite bands.

A few years later, my bulk of my listening would be made up of music by Steely Dan, Roxy Music, Supertramp, Bowie, Ambrosia and 10cc. (Yes, no Beatles yet, I hadn’t come back around to them by then. I had to wait for the MoFi Beatles Box from 1982 and what I thought was its superior sound in order to fall in love with their music all over again. Little did I know…)

Then Pretzel Logic was released. I was living in San Diego at the time and I used to go into my local Tower Records across from the Sports Arena as often as I could, just to see what might have come out that week.

There they were. They had boxes full of them, laid out on the floor in front of the cash registers. I grabbed a copy, sped home and threw it on the turntable. As you might imagine, it proceeded to blow my mind, as would happen with Katy Lied and The Royal Scam and Aja when they came out in each of the following years. [1]

Records Like These

And it’s records like these that make us want to improve our stereo systems. I used to play the song Pretzel Logic to demo my system, but I can assure you that there is no way in the world I was reproducing the information on that record even a tenth as well I can now.

This is precisely what is supposed to drive this hobby — the plain and simple desire to get the music you love to sound better so that you can enjoy it more.

If you’re an audiophile, then by definition you love good sound. Pretzel Logic is a very well recorded album and it can have WONDERFUL sound.

Finding a copy of the album that was mastered and pressed properly is the hard part.

Learning how to really get the LP clean and putting together the kind of stereo that can play such a complex recording right are also difficult.

All three things combined require the expenditure of tens of thousands of dollars of money and the investment of many thousands of hours of time if the result is to be completely satisfying.

Countdown to Ecstasy checks off a few of our favorite boxes:

Countdown to Ecstasy is the very definition of the kind of Big Production Rock I have been listening to since I first fell in love with it back in the Seventies. That was about fifty years ago and I still play the album regularly for enjoyment. I have never tired of the music in all that time and I doubt I ever will.

I’m sure you have plenty of records you feel the same way about in your collection. This is one of mine.

Big Rock Records with Big Rock Sound

It is the very definition of a Big Speaker album. The better pressings have the kind of ENERGY in their grooves that are sure to have most audiophile systems begging for mercy.

This is The Audio Challenge that awaits you. If you don’t have a system designed to play records with this kind of SONIC POWER, don’t expect to hear them the way the band and those involved in the production wanted you to.

This album wants to rock your world, and that’s exactly what our Hot Stamper pressings are especially good at doing.

Steely Dan is one of the most influential and important artists/bands in my growth as a music lover and audiophile, joining the ranks of Roxy Music, 10cc, Ambrosia, Yes, Bowie, Supertramp, Eno, Talking Heads, Jethro Tull, Elton John, The Beatles, Crosby, Stills and Nash, The Cars, Led Zeppelin, Cat Stevens and countless others, musicians and bands who were clearly dedicated to making higher quality recordings, the kinds of recordings that could only truly come alive in the homes of those with the most advanced audio equipment.

My system was forced to evolve in order to reproduce the scores of challenging recordings issued by these groups in the ’70s.

It’s clear that these albums informed not only my taste in music, but the actual stereo I play that music on. It’s what Progress in Audio is all about. I created the system I have in order to play demanding recordings such as these, the music I fell in love with all those years ago.

[1] We are in the process of compiling a Must Own Rock, Pop, Etc. list for every year, and you can be sure that whichever Steely Dan album came out in from 1973 to 1977 will be on it. No serious Rock and Pop audiophile record collection should be without all of them. (Can’t Buy a Thrill and Gaucho are very good albums, but I would not exactly want to call them Must Owns unless except for fans.)

Letter of the Week – “I never thought I’d spend $600 on ‘it’s only a record.’ But it is worth every goosebump.”

More of the Music of Steely Dan

Reviews and Commentaries for Aja

One of our good customers had this to say about some Hot Stampers he purchased recently:

Hey Tom, 

You bastard! You did it again. GREAT pressing of AJA steely dan – promo album.

This is by far the best recording I’ve heard. I am a freak listener. Everything has to sound perfect, I hear everything.

I savor every note, every instrument, every vocal. The separation and presence of each sound is amazing.

Well done. I wish you continued success. I never thought I’d spend $600 and more on “it’s only a record”. But it is worth every goose bump.



So glad you liked the record as much as we did. We heard 600 bucks worth of sound and apparently so did you.

Goosebumps are indeed expensive, but you could spend $1,000 or $10,000 on Heavy Vinyl and not even get a single one, so, money well spent!


Listening In Depth to Gaucho, The Dan’s Last Good Album

More of the Music of Steely Dan

Reviews and Commentaries for Gaucho

Presenting another entry in our extensive Listening in Depth series with advice on what to listen for as you critically evaluate your copy of Gaucho.

Here are some albums currently on our site with similar Track by Track breakdowns.

Of all the great albums Steely Dan made, and that means their seven original albums and nothing that came after, there are only three in our opinion that actually support their reputation as studio wizards and recording geniuses.

Chronologically they are Pretzel Logic, Aja, and Gaucho. Every sound captured on these albums is so carefully crafted and considered that it practically brings one to tears to contemplate what the defective DBX noise reduction system did to the work of genius that is Katy Lied, their best album and the worst sounding. (Those cymbal crashes can really mess with your mind if you let them. To get a better picture of the DBX sound just bang two trash can lids together as close to your head as possible.)

The first two albums can sound very good, as can Royal Scam, but none of those can compete with The Big Three mentioned above for sonics. A Hot Stamper copy of any of them would be a seriously good sounding record indeed.

Side One

Babylon Sisters

The tom intro is a great test for transparency. On most copies those opening drums are flat and lackluster. When it’s done right, you can hear the room around the drums, and that’s a mighty fine sounding room!

Also, pay attention to the bell in the left channel at the beginning of the song – if it’s sharp and doesn’t really sustain, you’re probably dealing with the typical extension-challenged copy. If it’s shimmery with a natural sounding decay you may very well be in store for some great sound.

On most copies the saxophone that intermittently pokes its head out will get smoothed over, losing its bite and getting lost in the mix. Much the same can be said for the background singers — they can easily sound veiled and get lost in the mix.

From the time they start singing “Babylon sisters” until they reach the final “shake it!”, there should be a growing crescendo of volume and intensity.

Hey Nineteen

Probably the most memorable track on the album, and consistently the best sound as well. This track is a great test for low end and bass definition. The average copy is usually punchy but more often than not lacks any real weight.

Somewhat better copies may have a full low end but fall short in terms of definition on the bass guitar.

The best copies have it all going on: a meaty bottom with all the intricacies of Walter Becker’s bassline clearly audible.

Glamour Profession

Side Two


Another classic Fagen/Becker track with a powerful sax intro. Not unlike the aforementioned sax in “Babylon Sisters,” the standard copy fails to convey the horn’s texture and dynamic subtleties. If such is the case, it will come back to haunt you by the time the vocals come in, as they are often compressed and spitty.

Please note the piano right before the first verse starts. Our best copies allow it to be both delicate and full-bodied, as opposed to the usual honky tonk clanker some pressings present you with.


Steely Dan / Can’t Buy Much of a Thrill – Now with Notes!

More of the Music of Steely Dan

Reviews and Commentaries for the Music of Steely Dan

At least some of the thrills are here, and for any record on Chad’s label, that is really saying something.

Sonic Grade: B+ to A-

A few comments have been added since this went up on 4/4, now that I’ve had a chance to see the notes in full. I’ve noted the additions in brackets and sectioned some off as well.

Word from the listening panel is in, and they say the new Bernie Grundman mastered UHQR is actually not bad! [Not good, but not bad.]

The tonality is much closer to correct than a lot of the Heavy Vinyl LPs we’ve played recently. Oddly enough, instead of the EQ being overly smooth, in the way that appears to be all the rage these days, the tonality instead errs on the side of somewhat thinner and brighter than ideal. (One could also use the term “correct.”)

This should not be especially surprising. Bernie Grundman has been remastering Heavy Vinyl records since the mid-’90s. Overly smooth titles that he cut are hard to find, on the hundreds of titles he did for Classic Records or anywhere else. The more of his recent work I play, the more I have come to see his disastrously dull Giant Steps as an outlier.

The instruments where these tonality issues are most easily recognized are two that we have written a great deal about on this blog: pianos and snare drums.

More Records that Are Good for Testing the Piano

More Records that Are Good for Testing the Snare

The snare sound on the Brothers in Arms that Chris Bellman cut at Bernie Grundman Mastering has the same problem as this new Can’t Buy a Thrill. (Review with specifics coming, sorry for the delay, it has only been two years.)

The thin piano sound on the Cisco pressing of Aja is likewise a common shortcoming we notice on many of the modern recuts we play.

With links to 29 titles to test for a correct piano sound, and 13 for the snare, the critical listener should be able to find some records in his own collection that will shed light on the problems we heard on Chad’s UHQR.

If your system errs on the side of fat and dark, Chad’s repress has what you need to “fix” the sound of the album. Instead of a murky piano, now you have a clear one. Instead of a too-fat snare getting lost in the mix, now you have a clear snare that you can more easily separate out from the other instruments.

Added 4/5

Note that we did not play all four sides. We felt sides one and three were enough to get an idea of how thrilling this pressing was going to be. We don’t get paid to play Heavy Vinyl pressings. We play them to help audiophiles understand their strengths and weaknesses. We hope that some audiophiles will hear what we have described and perhaps consider that there is a better way. That other way can be found in the bins of their local record store or, for those with deeper pockets, on our site. Either way, settling for the kind of sound found on these modern reissues is the one choice no one should be making.

We played the following four songs, and heard the sonic qualities described below:

  • Do It Again

Slightly sandy on the vocals and percussion. [Sandy typically refers to transistory, dry, grainy, or gritty sound.]

Has space though.

Not too congested and smeary. [A backhanded compliment, that.]

  • Dirty Work

Cymbals are bright.

Vocals are a bit sandy.

Has space.

  • Reelin’ In The Years

Voice is thin.

Not very natural up top.

  • Fire in the Hole

A bit bright.

Not harsh but missing some body.

The new version of Can’t Buy a Thrill is not a bad record. In fact, it’s the best ever released by Analogue Productions, as far as we know.

In the Washington Post video, I upset a lot of people by remarking that Chad has never made a good sounding record.

Let me now amend that to “Chad has made exactly one good [not actually good, more like decent] sounding record to our knowledge.”

That’s not really fair though. Maybe his version of Countdown to Ecstasy is good [or decent], can’t say it isn’t.

Our advice: Chad should fire all the other engineers he’s been hiring lately and just work with Bernie from now on. (The guy who cut this record should definitely not be rehired. When’s the last time he mastered a record that’s any better than passable?)

And if it takes six tries to get side one sounding right, then that’s how many times that side will have to be cut.

Matrix / Runout (Side A runout, etched): Bernie Grundman APP 134-45-A (RE-6)
Matrix / Runout (Side B runout, etched): Bernie Grundman APP 134-45-B (RE 3)
Matrix / Runout (Side C runout, etched): Bernie Grundman APP 134-45-C (RE 3)
Matrix / Runout (Side D runout, etched): Bernie Grundman APP 134-45-D (RE 3)

(Once Bernie figured out the kind of thinner, brighter sound that Chad liked for side one, sides two, three and four were a snap. They only took three tries.)

Allow me to make a point about that.

Bernie’s first five versions of side one might have been more to our liking; they might have been less thin and less bright. Whether they were or not is a mystery, and Bernie is certainly not going to be telling any tales out of school.

Added 4/5

Chad is clearly a guy who could be fooled by a thinner, brighter sound. The tonality of his records over the years has been, to be charitable, less than consistent. He doesn’t seem to be able to make up his mind what kind of colorations he prefers.

He used to like super-fat and tubey jazz records, and he hired Doug Sax to make some of those for him. For a while he liked MoFi-like records, and he hired Stan Ricker to make some of those for him. He hired Kevin Gray to make mediocrities like Quiet Kenny (review coming, but you can watch the Washington Post video to get the idea), and he hired George Marino to make a mess of Tea for the Tillerman.

If he’s hiring the best, as he likes to say he is, why all the second-rate and third-rate and just plain awful sounding records?

Of course Bernie has made more than his share of bright records, too. Who is to blame for the shortcomings of Can’t By a Thrill? We’ll probably never know.

Translating Our Grading Scale

The A Minus grade we awarded this UHQR is the highest grade we have ever given to a Heavy Vinyl pressing.

How does that compare to our Hot Stamper grades, you ask? The best way to look at our grades is to compare them to the grades you might have gotten in school, assuming you got some A’s.

White Hot is A Triple Plus. That would be the equivalent to a normal grade of A+, something like 97 or better out of 100.

Super Hot is A Double Plus. That would compare to a normal grade of A,  94 to 96 out of 100.

Hot is A with One Plus or One and a Half Pluses. That would compare to a normal grade of A-,  90 to 93 out of 100.

We stopped listing One Plus Hot Stampers years ago. The lowest rated records you can find on our site these days are Hot Stampers with One and a Half Pluses, graded A+ to A++, and usually only on one side, the other side being Super Hot.

This UHQR would be close to, and perhaps even equal, a Hot Stamper of this grade, assuming you have the cleaning machinery and fluids that we use. (If not, the sonic grade would have to be lowered by half a plus at least, maybe even a full plus. We discuss that here.)

[This UHQR, with grades that averaged less than One and a Half Pluses, would not be a record we would want to offer our customers.]

However, we have played some records that might make the cut.

I would give the Bellman cutting of Brothers in Arms about the same grade [probably a better grade], and the Zep II Jimmy Page put out in 2014 as well [ditto].

This Coltrane record cut by Bernie would also probably earn that grade. [Again, a better grade than the UHQR.]

All of this assumes that the copy you buy sounds as good as the copy we auditioned, of course, something that cannot be assumed but could be tested, I suppose, by buying more than one copy of the UHQR. Anybody want to give that a try?

Added 4/5

Here’s a better idea. Buy every black label ABC copy you see that looks good. No record club copies. No imports. Just original domestic pressings. Clean a bunch of them up and play them. They will show you what is missing from the UHQR.

For some reason, UHQR stands for Ultra High Quality Record. It’s a classic case of an audiophile label overpromising and underdelivering. Does nothing in the world of records ever change?

Yes, something in the world of records does change. Something has changed. Better Records and their Hot Stampers came along. They guarantee to sell you a dramatically better sounding copy of Can’t Buy a Thrill than anything you have ever heard, and if for any reason you are not happy, any reason at all, they give you all your money back.

Or you can get a fancy box with a pair of mediocre pressings of Can’t Buy a Thrill in it from Chad.


Steely Dan – Rose Darling’s Piano Favors Fast Electronics and Tight Bass

More of the Music of Steely Dan

Reviews and Commentaries for Katy Lied

As a huge Steely Dan fan starting with the second album, Countdown to Ecstasy, I rushed down to the local Tower Records to buy Katy Lied as soon I heard it had come out. Of course I fell in love it with immediately. It has long been a personal favorite, the ultimate expression of Steely Dan-ism on record. I’ve played it many hundreds of times over the last 40+ years and still listen to it regularly. I cannot imagine ever tiring of it.

Testing with Rose Darling

The piano is tough to get right on this track. If the piano doesn’t sound the way it should, this track will be a mess.

It’s big and bold in the mix and should sound really solid and weighty. Thin or washed out and you are in trouble.

This track punishes equipment that is slow, or has blubbery bass response. Vintage tube equipment is not what the doctor ordered.

If your woofers are too small, or you do not have enough low end definition and weight to reproduce such a large and powerful piano, the part the piano plays in the arrangement will suffer and so will the song. (More on the kind of speakers you need to play this album and hundreds of others here.)

Just wrote this today, please to enjoy:

Throw Back the Little Ones

I’ve been listening to Waka/Jawaka quite a bit lately. On this song, Steely Dan incorporates an homage to Zappa’s unique woodwind and horn arrangements starting at about 1:48. Go to youtube and check it out when you have a minute. Jimmie Haskell gets the credit for the arrangement but I’m pretty sure I know who inspired him.

More Track by Track Commentary for Katy Lied


Letter of the Week – “…if you want to pay $700 for Aja, go right ahead.” I took his advice, and I’m glad I did!

More of the Music of Steely Dan

Record Collecting for Audiophiles – A Guide

One of our good customers recently watched a video on Steve Westman’s youtube channel of an interview he conducted with Michael Fremer. (I appeared with Steve back in October of 2022. You can find the interview here.)

This video upset my customer so much that he felt he needed to get a few things off his chest, which he did in the letter you can find right after my commentary below. He does not pull many punches.

I would like to comment on some of the points he makes, points which I hope will be of interest to our readers. That is what you see here at the top.

At the end of my comments I have reproduced the letter, so if you don’t care to see Fremer raked over the coals, please feel free to stop reading at the end of my comments. Mike Esposito, the guy who exposed MoFi’s duplicity, comes in for some criticism as well. (Justified in my opinion, because Mr. Esposito sure likes some bad sounding records. But why pick on him? Modern audiophile reviewers seem to like nothing but bad sounding records, the same way I did in 1982. Except it’s not 1982 anymore, and there is simply no excuse for having equipment that cannot help you tell a good sounding record from a bad one.)

Our customer, let’s call him Mr. A, had this to say in Point No. 2:

[Fremer] says old records in good shape still sound the best. [Which is true.] He says the playback gear back in the day could not even reveal how great those albums actually are. [Also true.] He says that there are significant variations from one stamper to another and you need to get the right stamper. [True again.] (In his view of the world, there’s no variations in pressings within the same stamper. Apart from this detail, he supports every point you make. He even says, “if you want to pay $700 for Aja, go right ahead.” I took his advice, and I’m glad I did!)

I don’t think he says any of these things nearly as often as they need to be said, or with any real conviction. They are footnotes, a kind of anodyne lip service. They’re the fine print that nobody reads. They’re boxes that get checked off so that we don’t have to talk about them anymore.

I don’t think his readers think any of the statements above are relevant to their ongoing pursuit of high-quality vinyl. They want to know how amazing the new pressings are so that they can be assured that buying the record they were going to buy anyway is clearly the right choice. There’s a name for this kind of biased thinking. [1]

Making generalizations about records is rarely of much use. The devil is in the details. Let’s take a look at what Fremer has written recently about originals.

In his review for the new Stand Up on Heavy Vinyl from Chad, he notes that it has great “transient clarity on top and bottom,” and the original has hyped-up mids and upper mids. This is because he is making the most obvious mistake any record collector could possibly make.

He thinks the original pressing is the standard against which the new pressing should rightfully be judged.

But this is out and out poppycock, the kind of conventional wisdom that new collectors might fall for, but only the most benighted veterans would still believe nowadays. We discuss this myth here and in hundreds of reviews on the blog.

There are currently about 150 listings for reissues that beat the originals, compared to 700 or so listings for records in which the early pressings — not necessarily first pressings, but the right early pressings — can be expected to win shootouts.

Stand Up is one of the titles we have found to be clearly superior on the right reissue. After playing dozens of copies over the course of about twenty years, something that no individual audiophile could be expected to have the wherewithal to pull off, we’ve heard our share of great Stand Ups and awful ones.

Fremer makes the common mistake of stopping with his one original. Thinking inside the box, he naturally gets it wrong. It’s a mistake that few record collectors don’t make. I should know. I was one of them.

A big part of the fun of record collecting is learning about them, a subject I have devoted all of my adult life to. There is precious little learning going on when you buy an original and simply assume you now know what the album really sounds like. This blog is practically dedicated to the proposition that nothing could be further from the truth.


Gaucho According to MCA Masterphile

More of the Music of Steely Dan

Reviews and Commentaries for Gaucho

The Masterphile Half-Speed is a pathetic shadow of the real thing, the real thing being an early MASTERDISK pressing cut by Robert Ludwig.

We’ve played at least a hundred of the original pressings, and I would be surprised if every one of them did not sound better than this compressed, desiccated audiophile piece of trash.

With sound like that, the MCA Masterphile gets our vote for the worst version of the album ever made.

Of all the great albums Steely Dan released, and that means their seven original albums and nothing that came after, there are only three in our opinion that actually support their reputation as studio wizards and recording geniuses. Chronologically they are Pretzel Logic, Aja, and Gaucho.

Every sound captured on these albums is so carefully crafted and considered that it practically brings one to tears to contemplate what the defective DBX noise reduction system did to the work of genius that is Katy Lied, their best album and the worst sounding. (Those cymbal crashes can really mess with your mind if you let them. To get a better picture of the DBX sound just bang two trash can lids together as close to your head as possible.)

The first two albums can sound very good, as can Royal Scam, but none of those can compete with The Big Three mentioned above for sonics. A Hot Stamper copy of any of them would be a serious DEMO DISC on anyone’s system system.

Mistakes Were Made

If you are still buying these modern remastered pressings, making the same mistakes that I was making before I knew better, take the advice of some of our customers and stop throwing your money away on Heavy Vinyl and Half-Speed Mastered LPs.


Steely Dan / Aja – One of the Great Audio Disasters, Courtesy of Mobile Fidelity

More of the Music of Steely Dan

Reviews and Commentaries for Aja

Sonic Grade: F

We recently amended this listing. Scroll down to see in what we have to say about it in 2023.

More MoFi bashing, but boy does this MoFi deserve it. In our estimation, it is tied with the Cisco 180g pressing (2007) for The Worst Version Ever.

I remember back in the ’70s when the album came out. I was a big Steely Dan fan by then, having been turned on to their albums with Countdown to Ecstasy. With each new Dan record I became more impressed with their music, from Pretzel Logic to Katy Lied to Royal Scam and finally on to this, their commercial breakthrough, Aja.

At the time I thought the album sounded pretty good on my plain old ABC original.

Then I got a copy of the Mobile Fidelity pressing and I thought it sounded even better. Side two of the MoFi had bass that was only hinted at on my domestic copy. Wow! Listen to all that bass!

Sometime in the ’80s, I realized that the MoFi was hideously phony sounding, and that all the bass on side two was boosted far out of proportion to what must be (I’m guessing) on the master tape. The song Home At Last has at least an extra three or four DBs added around 50 cycles. It’s ridiculous.

And that’s just the bottom end; the highs are every bit as wrong.

Side one has its top end boosted beyond all understanding. The snare drum that opens the song Black Cow sounds like a hi-hat, all top and no body, and the hi-hat sounds so bright you can barely even tell it’s a hi-hat.

Of course the vocals sharing the midrange are all ridiculously thinned out and compressed to death. Fagen’s voice sounds tonally unlike his voice on any other Steely Dan record. That should tell you something.

Fagen’s Evin Twin

Mobile Fidelity was not revealing or discovering the true nature of Donald Fagen’s voice. They were creating an entirely new version of it, one with no relation to the living Donald Fagen, the perfect example of an approach we call My-Fi, not Hi-Fi, as if the world needed such a thing.

Mobile Fidelity took this fairly artificial recording and made it even more artificial sounding than it already was.

We don’t like it when a mastering engineer creates a new sound for a well-known recording, a sound that nobody involved with the original production could have wanted, since no other version of the album ever sounded like this one.

An Amendment to the Above Remarks

From the view of 2023, I think it would be worthwhile to distinguish between creating an entirely new sound with simply boosting the hell out of a sound that was already somewhat boosted and phony to start with. It’s hard to draw that line, of course, and this is an Aja with a sound that, unquestionably, never existed before.

But since so many audiophile records, produced by so many different audiophile labels, have boosted bass or boosted highs, or both, you could make the argument that so many of them have a “new sound” that it’s not really a new sound, it’s just the sound audiophile pressings tend to have.

Back to Our Commentary

The MoFi Aja is a giant black mark against Mobile Fidelity and half-speed mastering in general. I’m astonished that anybody who calls himself an audiophile in this day and age would not be able to recognize how laughably wrong it is, but I am sure plenty of people still play the record and like it.

An audiophile record reviewer of dubious expertise was still defending one of the most ridiculously wrong Mobile Fidelity records ever made even as late as 2010, decades after he should have learned recognize the faults of this badly-mastered LP. Is he any more mistaken than the folks that collect this label’s awful records to this very day? Let’s be honest, some people never get the hang of this audio thing, and if you are a collector of this company’s records, you are almost certainly a member of that group. Consider the possibility that you are not yet where you need to be. [1]

The Boost You Need

If you have small speakers, or screens with no subs, it might actually give you some of the bass and highs your speakers have trouble reproducing. This is not a good way to pursue audio of course. We are of the opposite persuasion and have been since 1975 or thereabouts.

This is exactly what is going on with the Speakers Corner Mercury reissue series from about twenty years ago as well. They are finding a Mercury “sound” that no one ever found before. More to the point, they are finding a sound that no one with two working ears would even want.

How Can We Help?

If you can’t tell what’s wrong with the MoFi Aja –and I’m guessing that’s a sizeable contingent of self-described audiophiles — then it’s hard to know how to help you.

Like our friend with the MoFi Aqualung, we would not know where to start. Something ain’t workin’ right — room, stereo, who knows what it might be?

In order to build a record collection of high quality pressings, the first thing you need to do is get good sound.

It is the sine qua non of record collecting. Without it you are almost guaranteed to fail. Until you’ve achieved good sound, you most likely will be wasting money on one bad sounding audiophile record after another, and that would really be a shame.

[1] Pass/ Fail is now Pass/Not-Yet

Some records are so wrong, or are so lacking in qualities that are crucial to hi-fidelity sound — qualities typically found in abundance on the right vintage pressings — that the advocates for these records are failing fundamentally to correctly judge their sound.

We used to call these records Pass-Fail.

As of 2023, we prefer the term “pass/not-yet,” implying that they are not where they need to be in audio yet, but that there is still hope, and if they keep at it, they can get there they same way we did.

Tea for the Tillerman on the new 45 RPM pressing may be unacceptable in many ways, but it is not a complete failure. It lacks one thing above all others, Tubey Magic, so if your system has an abundance of that quality, the way many vintage tube systems do, the new pressing may be quite listenable and enjoyable.

Those whose systems can play the record and not notice this important shortcoming are not exactly failing. They most likely have a system that is heavily colored and not very revealing, but it is a system that is not hopeless.

A system that can play the Mobile Fidelity pressing of Aja from 1980 without revealing how wrong it is is on another level of bad entirely, and that is what would qualify as a system that is ”not yet” where it needs to be.

My system in the ’80s played the MoFi just fine. Looking back on it now, I realize my system was doing more wrong than right.