By Glen Bourgeois (a guy with a home stereo or two and a sizeable music collection)
The Mobile Fidelity Scandal: Faux Pas or Master Stroke?
Preface by Vinyl Pursuit
Rewind. Head back to the heady days of July 2022. The Washington Post no less released an article, “How a Phoenix Record Store Owner Set the Audiophile World on Fire” about Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab’s (MFSL or MOFI) use of digital rather than analog technology to create its highly sought-after pressings. The scandal was real. One of key issues here was whether MOFI digital production creates inferior records, or just the opposite. MOFI’s president, Jim Davis released a statement shortly after the WAPO story broke.
Mobile Fidelity's Offical Statement
A Statement from Mobile Fidelity Regarding Its Mastering Process
We at Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab are aware of customer complaints regarding use of digital technology in our mastering chain. We apologize for using vague language, allowing false narratives to propagate, and for taking for granted the goodwill and trust our customers place in the Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab brand. We recognize our conduct has resulted in both anger and confusion in the marketplace. Moving forward, we are adopting a policy of 100% transparency regarding the provenance of our audio products. We are immediately working on updating our websites, future printed materials, and packaging — as well as providing our sales and customer service representatives with these details. We will also provide clear, specific definitions when it comes to Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab marketing branding such as Original Master Recording (OMR) and UltraDisc One-Step (UD1S). We will backfill source information on previous releases so Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab customers can feel as confident in owning their products as we are in making them. We thank you for your past support and hope you allow us to continue to provide you the best-sounding records possible — an aim we've achieved and continue to pursue with pride.
Jim Davis, President, Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab
Are the albums produced by MOFI’s digital sources inferior to the Analog processes it seemingly hid behind? And, which sounds better, analog or digital? The debate rages, so we dug deeper into the issue. Glen Bourgeois follows Vinyl Pursuit on Facebook and has offered this intriguing posit on the developing situation.
Faux Pas or Masterstroke?
Prologue by Glen Bourgeois
I first heard word that US audiophile reissue company Mobile Fidelity had admitted to incorporating digital steps in their vinyl mastering chain on July 21st of this year, through a fellow audiophile friend who collects as many LPs as I do (and CDs, and SACDs, and so on). My friend was relieved that he had chosen not to collect vinyl produced by “MoFi” (an abbreviation adopted and even promoted by the company itself). I, on the other hand, had collected a small number of their releases over the years (beginning with their Ultradisc II CD series and continuing with their hybrid SACDs, or Super Audio Compact Discs to the uninitiated, with a few LPs added in).
Since that day, several times I've seen repeated the “revelation” brought forth by Mike Esposito, owner of the Phoenix record store The 'In' Groove, but not really adding anything to the conversation (apart from word that some people were talking about suing Mobile Fidelity... what?). To be honest, the last few decades have seen major record labels and boutique reissue labels remaster and re-release albums on vinyl, often by converting recordings into the digital domain as to be able to remove audio imperfections. I've frequently seen “masters” actually dubbed from original vinyl copies due to the loss, deterioration, or unavailability of the original master recordings (or “master tapes” as they're often called)... and let's not forget those “European reissues” of classic albums with alternate album cover images, of which I'm glad I haven't bought any. Given the dodgy history of record releases in the 21st century (forgetting the 1990's “cut directly from the CD master” era), I was puzzled as to why so many people were talking about one reissue company (albeit one long known for their use of original master recordings, down to the long-established banner along the top of their reissues) doing something far tamer than what other labels did quite regularly without much scandal or newsworthiness. (Yes, MoFi pressings are usually more expensive, especially their special, One Step box set editions... Not that the rest of the music industry's releases aren't climbing up to compare to them in price.)
Perhaps surprising to most and despite my penchant for pure analogue and pressings sourced directly from the original master, I wasn't in the least bit fazed, back on that otherwise normal day in July: I answered my friend along the lines of, “Well, if they're using well-done DSD and not converting it to PCM, I'm not worried.” I didn't have to decode the technical acronyms to my friend as we'd discussed them several times before. But as the weeks went by and I repeatedly heard of yet another article or post which parroted Esposito's revelation or linked to his YouTube videos, one thing struck me: it seemed everyone was focusing on the word digital, yet hardly anyone besides Mobile Fidelity was focusing on the actual type of digital processing the company began incorporating into its master chain back in 2011. (Yes, MoFi's Anadisc200 reissues from the late '90s, or earlier reissues, actually were “all analog.”) And to my dismay, also jumping on the bandwagon were those particular listeners who'd long held the belief that no one can hear the difference between “analog” and “digital.”
Direct Stream Digital Logo
Now, wait just a minute!
Perhaps it's time to explain why the particular type of “digital” Mobile Fidelity uses differs greatly from what is usually meant by digital audio processing, and why you should (or, perhaps more appropriately, shouldn't) care. But first, maybe I should clear the air before I begin.
Disclaimer: Introducing myself (or my equipment and listening history in condensed form)
First off, I am not an owner, employee or investor in a record label which produces vinyl product. Neither am I a journalist or blogger who has established a living and/or a following for myself on the topic of audiophile recordings, or even high-end audio. Nor do I have a stereo system worth several thousand dollars, or even tens of thousands of dollars. To put it simply, neither my reputation nor my livelihood depend on Mobile Fidelity's continued success (and I've decided not to tell anyone at the company that I'm writing this op-ed, at least until it's published). In fact, before the people at Vinyl Pursuit encouraged me to write down my personal opinion for online publication, I was quite happy to share my thoughts and knowledge with one person at a time: VP just thought differently after receiving one such message from myself, and invited me to write this up (which I hope you enjoy reading at least part of it). I am simply a music lover and midrange audio enthusiast with a larger than average music collection, and perhaps a tendency of repeatedly buying some albums on different formats and reissues.
I even have to admit that I originally did not hear the advantages to completely analog recordings (or media) myself: that would take the gradual upgrading of my stereo components to a level where they could reproduce many of the nuances in an all-analog recording, with few limitations and little degradation. Up until my college years, my primary go-to turntable was a Sears combo with tuner and 8-track deck, its speakers connected through RCA phono plugs: overall, maybe a step up from today's Crosley models in playing “records.” At the time, I thought cassettes sounded “better” than LPs, despite only having a dual cassette deck from Sears, later to be replaced by a Hitachi “3D Sound System” boombox which remained in use from mid junior high through most of college. During this time, I would occasionally borrow a DJ friend's Technics SL-1200 turntable and preamp in order to transfer favorite LPs specifically onto chrome-formulated cassettes (known for their lower bias and superior sound quality)... but despite the use of DJ-quality gear, there was still something “soft” or “thin” to the sound of an LP which had me preferring CDs for their comparable “presence,” reduced noise floor (well, most of the time) and more accurate (would you believe, “real!”) EQ'ing/reproduction of the original recording.
This temporary belief in the “superiority” of the CD for the purposes of musical storage and reproduction eventually led me to Mobile Fidelity's reissues, beginning with the cautious (and pricey) purchase of their Ultradisc gold CD edition of a long cherished favorite: The Moody Blues' “In Search of the Lost Chord” from 1968. Soon after receiving (and falling for) the Moodies' CD, Mobile Fidelity announced their upgraded Ultradisc II catalogue (promoting their new, proprietary GAIN System), of which one of the first titles was another Moody album, 1969's “To Our Children's Children's Children.” Once I heard the twinned acoustic guitars gracing the first verse to “Eyes of a Child, Part One” played on my Discman and coming through the earphones which Sony had packaged with the original mobile digital player, I thought I'd found the pinnacle of realism in audio. Of course, my perspective changed with the advent of 24-bit audio, then going beyond the CD's 44.1 kHz sampling rate to 48 kHz, 96 kHz, and then 192 kHz, but these were relegated to rare and expensive DVD and Blu-Ray discs until the arrival of large-bandwidth, high speed Internet allowed online companies to sell high-resolution digital downloads.
When I finally did hear the positive difference which vinyl can bring, it came as a complete surprise... and during suppertime. It took the right LP copy (an early UK pressing of, yet again, “In Search of the Lost Chord”), as well as a combination of speakers, amp, separate preamp, turntable, cartridge, and stylus (to be precise, an after-market shibata/line stylus produced in Japan). By the album's second track, “Ride My See Saw,” I'd dropped my fork and was staring, mouth agape, at the bookshelf speakers in my living room, wondering if John Lodge and company were hiding behind them. It was that suspension of disbelief which soon led me on a buying spree, collecting as many of my favorite albums on vinyl as I could, focusing on decently-graded used copies and new reissues. That same spree led me to the inevitable discovery that not all vinyl pressings are alike, even those purported to have been made from the same source by the same company (although country of origin was the first telltale sign as to a copy's pedigree, depending on where the artist/band/record label called “home”).
“Digital” would have one more surprise in store for me, during my life-long search for sound quality. By the time Neil Young's PonoPlayer had transitioned from making headlines to generating controversy, I'd already forked my money over on Kickstarter for one of the first, and I wasn't disappointed. The more fluid yet still crisply defined sound of high-resolution digital audio was an acceptable substitute to my ears when I was away from the home stereo setup breezing forth analog recordings with all their “air,” “soundstage,” depth and (should I be so lucky to have an album from the right “tube” era) those pillowy higher frequencies (“like having a vaulted ceiling,” I thought).
But nothing prepared me for the firmware upgrade which would enable the PonoPlayer to play Direct Stream Digital (DSD) files. In fact, I'd been conditioned to think very little of this alternative to the Pulse-Code Modulation (PCM) of WAV files, and the CDs, DVD-Audio and Blu-Ray discs made from them. As my previous experiences with DSD (and its physical counterpart, the Super Audio Compact Disc or SACD) had left me nonplussed, I wasn't expecting astounding listening experiences from installing an operating system upgrade that would allow the PonoPlayer's Burr-Brown converters to process DSD in its native state, without transforming it to PCM prior to digital-to-analog conversion.
Then I heard René Laflamme's double-rate DSD mastering of the classic '70s-era audiophile recording, “Jazz at the Pawnshop” (available from Naxos in its 2xHD Mastering series) and I couldn't believe how REAL it sounded. Even with Apple earbuds taken from my iPhone and plugged right into the PonoPlayer, I was immersed into the club or cafe where everything was recorded live “off the floor,” with no overdubs: depth, warmth, and what seemed like a 360-degree field of sound appeared to surround me (but was actually being piped directly into my ears).
An extra detail slowly dawned on me, bringing the biggest surprise of all: IT. SOUNDED. ANALOG.
This is where nothing made sense anymore, but I wasn't going to dismiss it as folly or error on my part. I wasn't even worried that I couldn't “tell” all-analog audio from digital audio: this did not sound like the “compressed” (an admitted misnomer on my part, but a semi-apt description) “sheen” of PCM/WAV digital audio... no, this sounded natural. This breathed. Still incredulous but curious, I bought a few more albums: first up was both the single-rate and double-rate DSD editions of Cat Stevens' “Tea for the Tillerman” as produced by Acoustic Sounds (more on the “difference” between rates, later in this article). Naturally, a multi-tracked, overdubbed studio recording wasn't nearly as holographically spaced as the realistic nature of a stereo pair of microphones appropriately placed to capture a live stage (and, for some unknown reason, the volume level of the double-rate version is so low that I practically have to stop the car in order to hear the quieter moments, whenever I have the PonoPlayer plugged into my car's Aux input... mind you, not the best way to hear the nuances of a DSD transfer, but definitely an upgrade from playing MP3s off a thumbdrive or limiting audio to CD quality through a Bluetooth connection). But still, the recording sounded ANALOG (and I had copies of Acoustic Sounds's imperfectly-servo'ed 33 RPM and mis-centered 45-RPM editions for comparison). None of the physical versions' hangups were present, and the digital versions were just as easy on the ears (even if one had to crank the amp up to worrisome levels to hear the songs at decent volume).
It was at this point that I began shopping around for a machine that would encode DSD at dual rate, the highest possible rate which could be played on my PonoPlayer. Such a device would permit me to virtually take my record collection along with me on my travels (or at least a part of it to keep me entertained for several hours, if not days). I learnt of TASCAM's standalone DA-3000 High Resolution Stereo Master Recorder, and arranged to have one ordered for me at a local musical instrument/tech shop. While the DA-3000 is capable of recording PCM (WAV) audio anywhere from CD quality to 24-bit, 192-kHz with impressive results, it truly shines with its single- and double-rate DSD/DSF encoding (again, more soon on the distinctions between DSD, DSF, and even DXD and DFF)... In fact, when I plug the DA-3000 into my home stereo, I really can't tell the difference between the original record and its DA-3000 DSD copy. And this is without thinking of buying expensive external data clocks (to which the DA-3000 is capable of synchronization) in order to reduce time-based displacement and jitter during both recording and playback. As I'm reacquainting myself with tiny details on the side while writing this (such as whether the DA-3000 is even still on the market... some say no), I'm happily finding out I'm not the only one couldn't differentiate between analog or DA-3000's DSD. So that velvety, early UK pressing of John Martyn's “Solid Air” can stay safely at home while its DSD copy hangs out in my pocket (or, for that matter, even my crackly Canadian, red-label Atlantic pressings of Led Zeppelin II and III with their slightly constricted sound but pillowy, open top).
So What is this DSD About and Why Should You Care?
First off, the mathematics behind DSD (and its physical counterpart, the Super Audio Compact Disc or SACD) make little sense at first glance: instead of 16, 24, or 32 bits of information captured at once, it's just one bit. It reads “1” (on) or “0” (off). That's it. Only instead of being sampled at the rate of several thousands of times per second (as on a CD), that one bit captures audio information at rates climbing into the millions of times per second.
Impressive? Well, not really. Dividing those millions of times per second by 16, we discover that the amount of data created by a DSD recording for SACD is only minutely less than a 16-bit, 176.4-kHz WAV recording of the same source material which is about the bit depth of a CD at four times its sampling rate. (Quick reminder: the WAV format is the file type most used for mastering CDs, DVDs, and Blu-Ray discs.) While one rarely finds 176.4-kHz recordings anywhere except possibly on certain impressive-sounding Neil Young DVD-Audio discs from decades ago, they are usually encoded in 24-bit and not 16; however, 24 doesn't divide too well into the SACD's 2.822 MHz, or single rate, nor into DSD's dual rate of 5.644 MHz, or double the single rate (hence “dual”). And if data storage cost and space is no limit to you, one can even climb up to a quad rate of 11.288 MHz (by this point, we're talking several gigs of storage for a stereo recording of standard LP length, ex: a dual-layer Blu-Ray).
This is where we move away from physical copies of digital recordings such as CDs and SACDs, as the SACD format can only handle single-rate DSD audio. Enter the online digital download market, where web merchants target the well-equipped audiophile audience and sell the digital file equivalent of almost every digitally-encoded physical medium on the market since the 1990's, anywhere from CD-quality WAV (usually compressed into a lossless format known as FLAC) to double-rate DSD (and sometimes even quad-rate DSD, depending on the merchant in question). Enter DSD's soundfile equivalents (as DSD is an encoding method which produces raw data, but needs some sort of file container in order to give it the means to be copied and/or moved from place to place). There are two main soundfile versions of DSD: notably, DSF (a file format which allows to store metadata such as artist name, songtitle, and other details with DSD-encoded audio, preferred by online digital download stores), and also DFF (another file format which doesn't offer any room to store such details).
The practicality of digital audio downloads is undeniable: they're the audiophile equivalent of buying an MP3 instead of a CD, only with no loss in resolution from the original high-resolution disc (which itself may employ different methods of lossless compression in order to store more information). The high-resolution digital file can be stored on a hard drive or server and played on a computer or dedicated DAC (Digital-to-Analog Converter), or it can be stored on a variety of portable card formats and inserted into capable audio players and even some smartphones: if your player is equipped to play DSD in its native form (or even if it can transform DSD audio into a Pulse-Code Modulated or PCM format such as WAV before converting to analog, with a noticeable degradation in realism), you can play those as well, and even the higher sampling rates as per your player's capabilities.
But if SACD's single rate would already be of high enough calibre to practically be undetectable from the original audio source from which it was copied (when properly digitized, mind you), then why bother dealing with audio files encoded at twice or even four times that rate? This is where we step into the Slide Zone of audio refinery, the one where even I say, “Well, I'm not sure I can hear it yet, but I guess I'm glad it's there.”
Here's another short course, this time in digital audio resolution and the characteristics of the resulting file. Technically, the higher the resolution of a digital audio file (be it PCM/WAV, DSD, or theoretically any other file), the higher the maximum frequency is that can be stored and reproduced by that file. The quality (and size) of a digital audio file is a function of both the sample size (or the number of bits per sample, usually 16 or 24), and the sampling rate (of which there are many more variants seen floating about). It may now be common knowledge that the compact disc's 44.1-kHz sampling rate is slightly more than double that of the theoretical highest frequency audible to the human ear, 22 kHz. Now, you'd think “as high as you can hear” would be enough for the purposes of reproducing music. But there's a funky little scientific principle known as the Nyquist-Shannon theorem (or Nyquist limit for short, although some may say Nyquist frequency). In a nutshell, the highest frequency a sound file can faithfully reproduce is basically half its sampling rate (which explains why the CD was created with a sampling rate twice that of the highest frequency claimed to be audible to humans). Any sound with a frequency higher than half the sampling rate (or, to give that rate another name, the Nyquist frequency or limit) will end up being noticeably distorted, or aliased. The result is frequencies which appear in the digital file but weren't in the original source... in very simple terms, it can end up sounding odd. That is where anti-aliasing filters are used to remove any frequencies higher than the Nyquist limit so that only properly recorded and reproduced frequencies can be heard... of course, at a price: at least sometimes can one hear degradation on an audio recording caused by an anti-aliasing filter (I've been listening to samples of digital recordings with anti-aliasing filters both activated and bypassed, and if I dare say it, that “compressed” misnomer I've used to describe PCM/WAV audio seems to apply when anti-aliasing filters are in use).
Of course, it stands to reason that the higher the sampling rate of a digital recording of an analog source, the higher that Nyquist limit is going to be, meaning it will take higher frequencies to produce any type of aliasing upon playback. By recording and playing a recording back at double the sampling rate, one effectively doubles the Nyquist limit as well, pushing it way out of the range of human hearing (or even the seemingly fabled range of human perception, which may or may not equate hearing as words such as “placement” and “room” come into play). Once that limit (and whatever noise created past that limit) is pushed beyond our hearing, we shouldn't be able to hear the effects of the anti-aliasing filter required to remove the noise out of the sound. (Please note this example is quite different from converting or upsampling a previously recorded soundfile to a higher sampling rate, which doesn't improve upon the sound of the original digital audio file but may permit audio hardware and software to process it more accurately with less noise.)
Honestly, if all this gobbledygook leaves you counterproductively covering your ears, just keep in mind this rule of thumb: the higher a soundfile's sampling rate, the less there are claimed to be audible limitations to the soundfile's ability to store and reproduce the original sound.
But if that's the case, shouldn't there exist a sampling rate for a WAV file that would be able to store and reproduce sound in a manner that is indistinguishable from the original source from which it was recorded, right? Well, again, not really... at least, not to my ears. James William Guthrie's remastering of Pink Floyd's “Wish You Were Here” was temporarily made available on SACD (again by Acoustic Sounds, the same people behind the aforementioned editions of Cat Stevens' “Tea for the Tillerman”). Upon first listen, my hopes of hearing Part 1 of “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” in early analog synth glory (and tuned wine glasses, depending on whether the actual “Household Objects” recording was used), or holographically real acoustic guitars on the title track... well, they were dashed. Something sounded amiss, and upon further research it was discovered that the recording used for the DSD mastering was first encoded into the confusingly-titled DXD format. This DXD is not DSD but represents Digital eXtreme Definition, a format which was developed to handle PCM-based audio at a resolution higher than what can be played by most PCM-ready audio software and hardware (at 352.8 kHz, which is eight times the sampling rate of a CD, and close to twice the sampling frequency of 192 kHz, often the highest PCM resolution available on high-end consumer audio). While the audio sounded quite well (and possibly better than the DVD/Blu-Ray equivalents in the Immersion Box Set which was released just prior to the SACD edition), it was no “Jazz at the Pawnshop”... or even “Tea for the Tillerman,” for that matter. True, it seems 352.8 kHz isn't the highest-reported DXD rate out there, as there are mentions of 705.6 kHz (again, twice the 352.8 kHz frequency or 16 times the sampling rate of a CD) and even 768 kHz (32 x 44.1 kHz, or 4 x 192 kHz). I really can't say I've heard these, and I wouldn't even know where to begin to be able to listen to one.
But why are we talking DXD when it seems the whole point of this article is how great DSD is?
To properly answer that question, we get to the main difference between PCM/WAV and DSD which turns the comparison into a digital form of apples vs. oranges: the PCM format is one which easily allows for editing, volume level manipulation, EQ'ing, noise cleanup, and other types of processing which are now taken for granted in the age of recording studios where the open-reel tape recorder has been replaced by the computer and Digital Audio Workstation (or DAW... think Pro Tools). Whenever you hear of a recording being “digitally remastered,” likely it has been processed in such a fashion.
DSD, on the other hand, can only be minimally manipulated as the 1-bit nature of DSD encoding does not allow for much in the way of editing, while multi-bit PCM easily allows for the calculations and transformations necessary to edit digital audio: it is the pulse code in Pulse Code Modulation which can be manipulated in order to transform the sound (and if you want to edit audio in the digital domain, even for DSD, you'll have to figure out a PCM format which will arguably be high enough in resolution in order to theoretically sound like it never was PCM in the first place, hence the advent of DXD).
So to recap, here is where the “apples vs. oranges” analogy comes in: while PCM/WAV is used in digital editing applications, DSD was practically conceived as an archival format in order to store copies of analog recordings with the best possible sound (meaning its purpose is to faithfully store audio instead of modifying it), using a method of Pulse Density Modulation. Pulse... what?
At the risk of oversimplifying to the point of slightly warping the truth, let's return to our previous example of a bit being either a “1” or a “0.” Let's say that each bit which is a “1” can be called a pulse. Pulse Code Modulation takes those pulses and groups them into combinations of either 16 or 24 bits (there are others but let's stick to these two), and the resulting 16- or 24-bit word represents how many pulses are present and what weight they are given by their relative position in the word (ie. whether they are closer to the beginning or the end of the word). Pulse Density Modulation, on the other hand, functions on the principle of measuring how frequently “1” bits appear in the digital file and reconstructs the recorded signal from that variation in pulse frequency, or density. As far as I can understand, this is why the math in comparing sampling rates and file sizes seems to point towards DSD being unremarkable, while properly encoded and decoded DSD surpasses WAV/PCM in sound quality to my ears, with the tradeoff being the practical absence of means in transforming a DSD recording in the digital domain, apart from basic splicing (splitting and combining audio files), and sometimes volume and EQ'ing (but only in certain applications).
So what does this difference in encoding ultimately mean? Well, in the case of Pulse Code Modulation, each encoded sample is quantized against a series of values which is determined by the number of bits in the word (to continue with the same examples, a 24-bit word would have more unique values available within it than a 16-bit word... with each bit being either “1” or “0”, the 24-bit word would have eight extra bits at 2 possible values each, or 2 to the power of 8 which equals 256 times the number of values available in a 16-bit word). Given the finite number of values available in a word, quantization error occurs when the signal is encoded into one of the finite amount of available values without that value completely matching the original signal. But in the case of Pulse Density Modulation (such as DSD), there is no such thing as a finite series of values available to encode whatever signal is recorded. Instead, sound is measured at a very high sampling rate and its waveform is given one of two values, representing either “up” or “down” motion in the amplitude of the analog waveform. As an analog signal's waveform trajectory is rarely purely “up” or “down,” Pulse Density Modulation also has its own quantization error; however, this error is fed back negatively into the process loop (a process known as Delta-Sigma Modulation). As a result, this negative feedback averages out the quantization error, with each error influencing subsequent measurements and their related quantization errors.
The takeaway in all this? While I can't claim to be an absolute expert on the differences between Pulse Code Modulation and Pulse Density Modulation, I'm confident enough to state that the differences in encoding and quantization between PCM and PDM are distinct enough to demonstrate that other variables are at play apart from the relative file size of a PCM file format (such as WAV) as compared to that of a PDM file format (such as DSD) in determining the relative sound quality merits of each.
But why doesn't DSD sound great on your stereo system?
To be honest, this is the exact same question which ultimately had to be answered when I first tested a SACD out on an audiophile friend's home theatre system. He had a decent player (Sony's Playstation 3, an early choice at a reasonable price amongst audiophiles), paired with a reasonably expensive Denon AV receiver sending its signal to speakers which were each powered by a voltage-regulated outboard amp (to ensure the voltage supplied to the speakers was consistently 120 V, with minimal variation... geek translation: we had good gear and fed it clean power). We loaded up an SACD I bought specifically on the recommendation of a remote acquaintance I had made through my favorite local record store, and the only person I knew who staunchly advocated the superiority of SACDs over DVD-Audio (the latter being my then-preferred high-resolution audio medium of choice). We then migrated to the sweet spot in the room, hit play, and listened.
What we heard next was less than impressive: Julia Fischer's “Russian Violin Concertos” (on the Pentatonic label) came out of the speakers sounding as if someone had thrown a veil over them, if not a thin blanket. There seemed to be no life, nothing leaping out at us. Surely it wasn't the performance, as who would bother recommending an SACD of a recording that was lacklustre in either its sound quality or execution? Switching over to the CD layer, we accepted that it sounded decent... for a CD. It didn't really strike us as much as my much-loved DVD-Audio copies of America's “Homecoming,” the Eagles' “Hotel California” or Neil Young's “Harvest” and “On the Beach.”
It was weeks later that my audiophile friend contacted me with the news that he'd discovered the weak link in his home theatre setup: the HDMI cable which connected his Playstation 3 console to his audio amplifier. The PS3 would convert the DSD signal into CD-quality PCM in order to reach the amp, which then treated it as a normal PCM signal... except it had none of the “compression” or “glare” of the usual PCM signal and just sounded flat. We wondered if there could be qualities inherent in DSD audio which just couldn't be reproduced in PCM. (Still, one of Sony's selling points in its promotion of DSD is that one could apply a low-pass filter to the signal and automatically convert it, without fancy recalculations, into multiples of the CD's sampling frequency, depending on the filter used.)
We hadn't considered the possibility that the system was using means other than decoding the original DSD signal directly to analog in order for the audio recording to reach our ears. Sometimes, these means are a little bit more obvious: for example, TASCAM's Hi-Res Editor software available to customers having purchased their DA-3000 digital recorder (such as myself) clearly lists the frequency at which the software transforms the original DSD file into PCM for computer playback (yet can trim or export part of a DSD file in its native format, which is handy for separating a full vinyl LP side into separate tracks after recording). In other cases, a system's D/A converters (yes, Digital-to-Analog converters, or DAC) just can't process DSD in native mode and transforms the DSD signal into PCM much like TASCAM's Hi-Res Editor, only it doesn't give any indication it is doing so. I seem to recall we did end up trying SACDs again on that same audio system, but my preferences remained unchanged until the analog revelation I mentioned near the beginning of this article, followed by the Pono revelation with “Jazz at the Pawnshop” being decoded in its native DSD format, several years later.
Even if one can get the purest “analog sounding” stream going, you might end up actually preferring a bit of “digital” sound in your listening experience... even if you see yourself as an all-analog enthusiast. I was surprised to see this was the case when I brought over my ABKCO box set copy of the Rolling Stones' “Get Your Ya-Ya's Out!” to compare with another audiophile friend's early Canadian LP copy on London Records. I could clearly hear the sharp “glare” effects of 24-bit, 96-kHz (or 24/96) mastering on the LP copy included in my just-released box set, which led me to prefer the more natural-sounding and “breathing” presentation on the decades-old London edition. My friend, on the other hand, preferred the increased presence, clarity, and balance of all the different elements in the recording (and truth be told, many '60s Canadian LP mastering jobs sounded just like someone in a lab coat had run an obvious second- or third-generation copy of the original master tape through an undeviating and stifling mastering chain which may have been identical for everyone from the Rolling Stones to Liberace). Both of us would have said we preferred the sound of analog, but for all intents and purposes, we seemed to listen for different things when determining the overall quality of a recording. Was either of our preferences more “correct” than the other's? Not really.
But if we're discussing Mobile Fidelity's use of DSD in their mastering chain (which I assure you is the original point of this article, and one to which we are soon going to return), the argument I'm trying to make here is not whether DSD sounds better or worse than analog... it's that DSD sounds just like analog.
I usually had a preference in A/B tests I've done over the years and have been able to discern a difference between two recordings (and it's likely that I've had them switched on certain occasions throughout those years). However, comparisons of my personally-made DSD recordings to the original source (usually LPs) are the only comparisons in which I have been completely unable to distinguish between two different recordings at all, using suitably appropriate audio equipment and speakers (or headphones). And I'm not afraid of saying it; in fact, I'm rather glad.
While this may mean little to you if you can't achieve the same results with your personal audio setup, or if you actually prefer the subtle yet palpable transformation which high-quality PCM digital audio gives to even a straight transfer of a recording, it means a lot to quell the uproar which seems to be occurring online following the news that Mobile Fidelity has incorporated DSD technology into their vinyl mastering chain as early as 2011. And this is where we get to the whole point of this article.
Mobile Fidelity – So what's the diff?
Recently posted on Mobile Fidelity's website is an interview with president Jim Davis, speaking specifically about the recent controversy regarding their integration of DSD technology into their mastering chain. As I read through the blog post, I was happy to see Jim confirming the implementation for each of my criteria for stellar “just like analog” sound which I've experienced, even originally against my expectations, namely: 1) the use of as high a sampling rate as possible (in this case, DSD's quad rate of 11.288 MHz) 2) absolutely no manipulation of the sound in the DSD domain (apart from separating and stitching file segments together to create a seamless, complete recording and/or to separate it into separate songs or sections) 3) using the best possible converters and signal path to make a DSD copy of the original recording (and using the best existing edition of that recording, if the original is no longer available).
With all these steps in place, in my mind there is the possibility that a DSD transfer of an original analog master tape can sound identical, for all intents and purposes, to the original master tape.
Jim descriptively goes through the entire process of how Mobile Fidelity's engineers digitize an original master recording into DSD, then treat this DSD recording it as if it were actually the original master tape when they create the first in a series of components which leads to the parts required to press the actual physical LPs (a series which is significantly reduced in number for MoFi's One-Step process, at significantly higher cost).
Within the blog post, Jim also reveals an unexpected advantage which comes with making a DSD copy of the original master tape: azimuth correction. Azimuth refers to the angle at which a tape-based player's recording/playback head is aligned to the recording tape itself... without going too deep into specifics, it's safe to basically say one wishes for the playback head reproducing the sound from the original master tape to be aligned at the same angle as the recording head was at the time the original tape recording was made. Despite the best attempts at alignment, it is commonplace that no two machines are identically aligned. This creates challenges in the playback of a master tape which usually has several pieces of tape spliced together (a result of cutting tape into sections and then taping sections together, either to remove unwanted sections, to combine the best mixes of different sections within one performance or song, or even to combine the final mixes of each song on an album side). With each splice comes the possibility that the alignment of the recording head was different for each section of the master tape. The traditional means to compensate for this during mastering is for the mastering engineer to align the azimuth after each splice as the recording plays; as minute changes in a playback head's angle apparently make for huge differences in sound quality, it would be quite difficult to perfectly achieve complete azimuth correction on an entire reel in real time. This is where transferring the master tape to DSD, prior to cutting the LP itself, provides an advantage: unlike the record-cutting process (in order to produce the lacquer, or the first step in the LP process), a DSD recording can be stopped and started again. This provides the opportunity to perfectly correct the playback head's azimuth after each splice on a master tape: the complete recording can then be stitched together in the digital domain from all the resulting segments, with only split-second losses in audio quality at the edit points. Once the master tape's segments are combined together, the lacquer can then be cut as if the tape head was permanently in proper alignment to the audio signal recorded on the master tape.
By using an archival digital format created for accurate reproduction of an analog signal without any type of audible modification, and then only combining the best transfers of each segment in the master tape into one file, and treating that file like one would treat the original master tape itself in the process of mastering an LP (namely, playing the file and doing all the desired audio changes in the analog domain and not by manipulating the DSD file itself using digital applications), and above all by using the best possible components to transfer the audio recording to and from the digital domain, Mobile Fidelity is essentially getting us closer to the perfect transfer of a master tape than could be achieved from mastering an LP directly from that same tape. And the digital format it uses to do so is practically indistinguishable from the analog recording used to create the digital file.
In the end, it doesn't matter if your home system doesn't reproduce DSD appropriately (if at all), or if quad-rate DSD files are huge in size and take up a lot of storage space, or require specific equipment in order to encode or decode them properly... Mobile Fidelity handles all of that, and more, in their process. If I, a simple user with a TASCAM DA-3000 Stereo Master Recorder and a decent budget-priced audiophile system can achieve a DSD copy of an album side and then can't tell the difference at all between it and the original LP (although I assure you I can hear a difference between the original LP and a high-resolution WAV copy), think of what can be achieved by the boutique audiophile record company best known for going to highly exacting measures in making the best possible LP copy.
If you dare and have the money to spare, buy a MoFi One-Step LP release yourself and give it the listening test. (I bought Simon and Garfunkel's “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” and despite the previous Sony Mastersound CD edition's admission that there were/are defects in the master tape, all I'm hearing is what sounds like beautiful analog.) Despite the price, the One-Step releases tend to go very quickly... and once this whole controversy blows over, I'm confident they will return to selling out just as quickly as before, if not even faster. Mobile Fidelity's faux pas may turn out to be their master stroke in gaining an even bigger customer base than before. All I can say is I'm doing my best to use my ears... and I can't hear a difference, when I normally can. And in this case, not hearing a difference makes for a BIG difference.
Which One Do You Prefer?
Now a Favorite of Workshops and Garages, these Decks were a Big Deal in their Day
Closing Thoughts from Vinyl Pursuit
When Jim Davis, president at MOFI released his statement, it failed to address the elephant in the room... Would collectors just be a bit upset that the pricey albums they'd been buying were not as advertised? His statement (clearly not vetted by a PR firm) did nothing to address the issue. That would seem kinda important, yes? So, it didn’t take long for a class-action suit to be filed against MOFI for misrepresentation, MoFi Faces Fraud Lawsuit for Selling Vinyl Reissues as “Purely Analog” While Using Digital Masters, That’s whole lotta trouble.
So there you have it. This MOFI scandal remains fluid. If the digital process they use creates a superior product, they will likely have the prove so in court. In the meantime, the company would do well to address the many, many buyers over the years who believed they were buying something special when purchasing a MOFI record, either at the retail or after-market level. And, once the smoke clears, will MOFI albums retain their value or possibly even increase? Perception trumps reality pretty much everyday. Stay tuned!
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Article credit: By Glen Bourgeois. Preface and epilogue by Vinyl Pursuit's Tammy Brown