MOBILE FIDELITY SOUND LABS -- An Audiophile's Dream
In 1977, Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs began producing the first true audiophile albums -- the trademarked Original Master Recordings. Starting with such classic titles as Pink Floyd's "Dark Side of the Moon" & The Beatles' "Abbey Road" (later to be followed by the entire Beatles catalog), MFSL quickly became known as the industry leader in state-of-the-art recordings. In several instances (such as the majority of The Beatles' catalog), the MFSL vinyl versions were sonically superior to their commercially available compact disc counterparts.
In the following years, other companies (such as Nautilus) tried to compete for a share of the market. As technologies developed further, MFSL produced its exclusive UHQR (Ultra High Quality Record) series. Pressed on 200 grams of pure virgin vinyl and limited to only 5000 copies, each title quickly became highly sought after by collectors. While MFSL continued to get the top artists in the music business, the competition couldn't keep up. In 1984, as vinyl began fading from public acceptance, MFSL entered the CD market and had released 16 titles by year's end.
In 1987, the 24 karat gold Ultradisc made its debut. After additional refinements in the mastering process, they introduced the Ultradisc II -- now recognized as the new standard in recorded music by critics and consumers alike. Due in part to the titles MFSL has chosen, and their new trademarked GAIN System (Greater Ambient Information Network) used to master the new releases, the Ultradisc II series has met with great critical and commercial success. Using the new GAIN System technology, MFSL has also returned to manufacturing audiophile vinyl releases with its new Anadisq 200 series.
The next portion of this article will focus on five of MFSL's gold Ultradisc II releases, while the following part will take a look at some of the company's new Anadisq 200 vinyl releases.
MFSL's 1990 release of The Who's classic double album, "Tommy", finds the two albums combined onto one CD (before MCA did it). The sound on the newly remastered MCA version is crisper, but the MFSL one is warmer -- especially on "Sparks". The percussion is very clear on the song, more so than on the MCA version. The drums are louder and a bit muddier on the MFSL version, but it sounds more like the original vinyl release of the album. The lyrics and the rest of the booklet have been faithfully reproduced. The main thing that will make collectors seek out this CD though, is the alternate version of "Eyesight to the Blind" -- only available on the MFSL CD -- featuring a different vocal track by Roger Daltrey.
Next up is the 1993 release of the Derek and the Dominos double album, "Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs". Using the original mix of the album (which is good), as opposed to the remixed one currently available from Polydor, the MFSL version has a higher output level than it's Polydor counterpart. The vocals are slightly distorted at times, as if the levels were a bit too high during the mastering process. Even with the minor distortion on the voices, the sound is still markedly better than the original vinyl. There is some tape hiss evident on the MFSL version that isn't heard on the Polydor release, but it's usually not enough to be distracting (by rachael brown). The best thing about the MFSL release though, is the booklet. It features an informative six-page essay by the album's executive producer, Tom Dowd on the recording of the album. It also contains photos not found in the original album, as well as a fold-out poster of the album's inside photo collage.
In the spring of 1994, Mobile Fidelity released the first album by The Alan Parsons Project, "Tales of Mystery and Imagination". On this CD, like the "Layla" release, MFSL used the original 1976 mix rather than the 1987 one. However after hearing the 1987 version, with the Orson Welles narration during "A Dream Within a Dream" and the additional guitar solos added throughout the CD, the MFSL version sounds like something is missing. The CD has a warm timbre and good separation, but pales slightly when compared to the original vinyl, which is crisper and has more punch. Since the original mix of the album is not available on CD though, MFSL deserves kudos for using the original mix rather than putting out another copy of the 1987 version.
1995 saw the MFSL release of Clapton's first solo album, "Eric Clapton". Channel separation on the CD is excellent. The entire album sounds much more spacious than the original CD. Throughout the album, the instruments are distinct and very well defined. For example, on "Let it Rain" (a song I've heard thousands of times), I was able to hear things I've never heard before, and with a clarity that was startling. Clapton's solo in the bridge of the song sounds better than ever. The bass guitar on the CD was resonant, never muddy.
Also released by MFSL in 1995 was Todd Rundgren's double-LP masterpiece, "Something/Anything?". Originally released on Bearsville in 1972, "Something/Anything?" contains some of Rundgren's biggest hits. Where the Ultradisc II version really shines however, is on the more obscure tracks like "One More Day (No Word)" and "Wolfman Jack", with all the instruments and voices sounding distinct and natural. It's a shame that MFSL couldn't get the alternate version of "Wolfman Jack" with the Wolfman himself sharing the vocals for their version of the CD. Encased in a handsome slipcover featuring the original cover art, the two CDs come with a 24-page booklet containing several new photos, a reproduction of the poster that came with the album, plus lyrics and full liner notes for all the tracks. In addition, the booklet has it's own slipcover explaining the GAIN System (on the inside) as well. The only thing wrong with the packaging on "Something/Anything" is the inclusion of at least one photo from a different time period. Aside from that, MFSL did a superb job on this one.
Time to move on to the vinyl releases now. Utilizing the new GAIN System technology, and a new high-end pressing facility, MFSL debuted the Anadisq 200. These numbered limited edition vinyl pressings pick up where the Original Master Recordings left off -- only better. Each title is strictly limited to 500 pressings per stamper to assure that the quality remains consistent throughout the production process. Also the new albums are heavier than their OMR predecessors, pressed on 200 grams of high definition virgin vinyl. All the Anadisq 200 releases are mastered at half-speed to allow every nuance of the master tapes to be accurately transferred to the vinyl. The albums are then specially packaged to maintain flatness & prevent warping. Each album is limited to 5000 copies. On rare occasions, there may be additional pressings.
One such title was the debut release of the new Anadisq 200 series, Muddy Waters "Folk Singer". Originally released by MFSL in the spring of 1994, "Folk Singer" is now on it's third pressing, and understandably so. There are not enough superlatives in the English language to come close to describing the sound quality on this album. It won the prestigious 1995 Golden Note Award for Best Reissue from The Academy for the Advancement of High End Audio, and deservedly so. The Anadisq pressing was extremely quiet, no surface noise whatsoever. The dynamic range and clarity of the 1963 recording are nothing short of amazing. As if the sound quality wasn't enough, the performance is equally as good. "Folk Singer" boasts an all-star lineup of musicians with a young Buddy Guy on guitar on all but one song, and the great Willie Dixon on upright bass on four songs. If you want to hear a classic acoustic blues album, performed by a group of legendary musicians that sound like they're in the same room with you -- buy this album. It doesn't get any better than this.
Also in the spring of 1994 (as noted above), MFSL released the debut album from The Alan Parsons Project. The album sounds very warm and clear, although this particular copy had an excessive amount of surface noise. Overlooking the poor pressing, the sound quality is superb and free of any distortion. The album's separation and dynamic range are superb. The orchestra is simply breathtaking on "The Fall of the House of Usher". The whirling middle section in "The Tell-Tale Heart" is mesmerizing. The booklet from the original album is included here (in full size). Dim the lights and turn up the volume.
1995 has seen the release of several fine new titles in the Anadisq 200 series. Todd Rundgren's "Something/Anything?" is one such title. The packaging isn't quite as elaborate as the Ultradisc II version, but the sheer bulk of the 2LP set is impressive in itself. The Anadisq 200 version comes with a 22-inch square rendition of the poster, with the complete lyrics & liner notes on the back. Sound quality is excellent, much clearer than the original issue in 1972. The output level is low here, but the instruments and vocals seem more natural & have greater dynamic range.
Also released this year was the vinyl version of Eric Clapton self-titled solo album, "Eric Clapton". As is the case on some of the Anadisq 200 titles, the output level is low. However, by simply turning up the volume when you play the album, you will find the instruments all very well defined. The bass is extremely distinct throughout the album. Clapton's guitar work on the album has never sounded clearer.
Keeping in a guitarist vein, we move on to the MFSL release of B.B. King's classic 1968 album "Lucille". Like the Muddy Waters album, the pressing is free of any surface noise. The sound quality on the album is incredible. Captured in just two days of recording sessions in December 1968, the album sounds like it could have been recorded yesterday. The album has an almost big-band sound to it at times, and the horns are all clear & easily distinguishable from each other.
The last album to be reviewed here is R.E.M.'s debut album, "Murmur". The sound quality on the Anadisq 200 is much better than it's original release. The highs are crisp and clear, the bass is deep & resonant. The guitars on "Talk About the Passion" sound more natural than ever before. Mike Mills' bass guitar is full of punch, especially on "9-9" and "Catapult". There was a scratch on the second side of the copy I received that caused a skip during "Sitting Still". However, when played a second time, the scratch was not audible at all.
All of the titles in the Anadisq 200 series have a disclaimer (as did their OMR predecessors) concerning pops and ticks being heard during playback of the albums. It explains how the metal parts in the mastering process are not de-horned to retain the transients of the musical signal. As the discs are played more, the stylus will polish the grooves and actually improve the sonic quality of the album.
Mobile Fidelity continues to release a wide variety of titles from across the musical spectrum, and makes no compromise in the production of it's Ultradisc II and Anadisq 200 series of audiophile recordings. The only way you'll hear these releases in better quality is to listen to the original master tapes.
|© 1995 Steve Marshall|