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Mobile Fidelity's Ultradisc One-Step


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Vinyl is back with a vengeance. But the phenomenon isn't just the issuing of LPs and newfound marketplace passion for turntables and speakers. There's a wave of new album-pressing technologies that are making original records sound much warmer and wider. One of the leading companies specializing in audiophile recordings is Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab, which has been around since 1977. MoFi has rolled up its sleeves to turn out vinyl versions of familiar music that's more detailed and vivid. 

As readers know, I've been buying good stereo systems ever since I could mow lawns and sock away the pay. But my passion for vinyl dimmed about 15 years ago, when I sold off 3,000 of my pop, rock and soul albums. Last year, I unloaded most of my jazz vinyl (holding onto my rare jazz and disco). Shelves of records that grew and grew no longer held their original appeal, and the clutter and claustrophobia became too much. Besides, 90% of my vast music library is on a 10-terabit external hard drive, and the music sounds great coming through my iMac's built-in speakers.

Last year, during a renovation, I abandoned my Arcam integrated amp, B&W speakers, Benchmark DAC1 digital to analog converter and dust-encrusted cables, Instead, I opted for a white, minimalist Spinbase Turntable Speaker System and placed my white Pro-Ject Debut turntable with a crystal platter on top. Now I'm happy as a clam. As for my Technics 1200 turntable from 1972, it sits up in my closet, eying me bitterly each time I open the door.

Then last year, my daughter began collecting records, a generational trend I wrote about for the Wall Street Journal . So I bought her a Spinbase and SpinDeck Max fully-automatic turntable (above) for the holidays from Andover Audio. Like father, like daughter, I'm now selectively inching back into vinyl, buying top-quality versions of prized albums. Hey, you can't keep an old record head down.

Recently, I came into a copy of Mobile Fidelity's Ultradisc One-Step version of Carole King's Tapestry , which was released in January. In a word, wow. I first heard the music on the radio in the summer of 1971, while biking from youth hostel to hostel on Massachusetts's Cape Cod with a co-ed American Youth Hostel group. My friend Glenn and I were 14. What I loved best about the album was its joyful melancholy and its formidable feminine perspective. It was open and free, which is exactly how I felt on my Peugeot 10-speed out in the rain wearing a poncho or in the sun slathered in orange Bain de Soleil.

Cape Cod back then was a different place than it is today. There wasn't much development or summer traffic in between the Cape's string of villages. These communities attracted mostly working class vacationers from Boston and were dotted with fudge shops and submarine sandwich joints. [Photo above of me, right, and Glenn, in the summer of 1971 on the porch of the North Truro Youth Hostel on Cape Cod in the late afternoon after biking there in the pouring rain]

Many of the places we ventured on our bikes were rural or uninhabited, and the beaches weren't overly crowded. Evening clam bakes on the beach found all of us alone in the sand. A radio would come out and King's Tapestry singles could be found playing on multiple stations on the AM dial.

For tech-minded readers, the MoFi Tapestry release has been mastered from the original tapes, cut at 45rpm and pressed on MoFi SuperVinyl. According to MoFi, “the UD1S 180g 45RPM 2LP box set remains faithful to original album producer Lou Adler's vision of making King (and not just any pianist) appear seated and playing just for you."

The album was mastered from the original tapes onto a positive Lacquer version, which was transposed as a negative on a Convert used to press the 180g vinyl. By contrast the traditional process involves two additional steps—moving from the tape source to a Lacquer positive and then to a Father negative, to a Mother positive and to a negative Stamper which is used to press onto vinyl.

By cutting out two steps, MoFi was able to retain more information from the original tapes. By spinning at 45rpm instead of 33 1/3 over two LPs instead of one, the sonic detail on Tapestry has more room to spread out and surface. The result is an album with information that went undetected back in 1971, when the album was released, and on traditional pressings of the album today. In photographic terms, the sound is higher resolution and the music's “colors" are more varied, richer in tone and more present.

Even other favorites released by Mobile Fidelity's at 33 1/3 sound punchier—rounder at the bottom, dimensional in the middle and not tinny on top. The ones I have include KC and the Sunshine Band (1975), The Spinners (1972) and the Grateful Dead's Workingman's Dead (1970). Mind you, my opinion isn't based on a scientific, at-home test comparing MoFi's releases with original first pressings or using multiple stereo systems and speaker systems. It's just as I described above on a system a growing number of people are using these days.

Some might argue that taking these albums for a test drive on a Spinbase is like driving a Porsche 911 Turbo around a parking lot. I disagree. All of these albums are etched in my head and, in each case, there is fresh information displayed neatly, even on a Spartan system. Will they sound even better on a more expensive and elaborate rig? Most assuredly. But to be fair, fidelity always has been a personal experience and a subjective matter. To me, they're enjoyable because, in simple terms, the music sandwich is fatter and juicier to the ear.

JazzWax clips: Here's a review of the MoFi One-Step of Tapestry...

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
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