Friday, March 6, 2015

Three CES CDs from Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs

Every time I exhibit at a high-end audio show I try to purchase at least one demo-quality disc, be it CD or LP, so I can play something fresh and new for show attendees. Usually I can sneak down from my room at some point during the show and head for the ballroom where multiple vendors are selling music and accessories in the big open marketplace downstairs. Occasionally I luck out, as I did at RMAF a couple of years ago, when Final Impression Music had a room right down the hallway. During every lull, I'd run over and pick up a disc or two. That was when I picked up such great FIM demo discs as Happy Coat and Best of Play Bach. I'll also check out Chad Kassem's booth for Acoustic Sounds--especially if I'm playing vinyl at the show and I need one of his awesome remasters from Analogue Productions.

At CES, however, I'm usually out of luck--retail sales are not only discouraged, but they're actually against the rules. (I haven't actually seen this rule anywhere, but I've been told of the dire consequences of ignoring it.) That's why I was so surprised and grateful that Mobile Fidelity had a room down the hall from me during January's show, a room so thoroughly stocked with MFSL LPs and CDs that I almost started to hyperventilate. (I apologize for not having the foresight to snap some photos while I shopped around, but it was stupendous to see.) I wound up purchasing three fairly new MFSL CDs, or at least three MFSL discs I've never seen before--The Band's Music from Big Pink, Dean Martin's This Time I'm Swinging and the famous 1991 audiophile extravaganza Jerry Garcia/David Grisman.

I chose the discs for one reason or another--my only LP copy of Big Pink isn't quite the cleanest record I own, I've been on a Dean Martin kick lately and I really wanted to wow attendees with a realistic rendering on his voice, and the Garcia/Grisman disc was purchased just because I wanted a guarantee of an awesome demo disc. Unfortunately, only the former disc was used consistently at the show due to its sonic qualifications. The Dean Martin sounded clean and vibrant, but the recording was severely lacking in deep, deep bass; I don't have a copy of the original to compare. Big Pink sounded great compared to my old grungy LP--the imaging and the space between the musicians were more focused, and I could hear recording artifacts that were buried deep in the recording. But again, the lack of deep bass was problematic, and I was playing through a pair of loudspeakers that were flat down to 32 Hz and weighed 200 pounds each.

That kind of brings me back to my feelings about MFSL in general. I love 'em, no doubt about it. I still have time travel daydreams about going back to my local Tower Records in Buena Park, California, circa 1979 or so, and buying up all those sealed UHQRs on that 50% off clearance endcap. My first audiophile LP pressing was MFSL's Crime of the Century from Supertramp, and I remember being startled listening to that opening harmonica from "School" through a system that included a Sansui 8080DB receiver, a Dual 510 turntable with a Shure V-15 Type III cartridge, all running through a pair of the then ubiquitous Sennheiser HD-414 headphones. I still use the MFSL LP of Dead Can Dance's Into the Labyrinth as one of my most impressive demo discs.

But here's the thing--over the years I've felt that MSFL's mission wasn't to make extraordinary sounding discs that blew your mind, but to make poor recordings sound relatively reasonable for the first time. So it is the case with these three particular discs. But my main concern is with this missing bass on the latest Ultradisc releases. I've listened to these three recordings on a variety of systems, including my main headphone system, and I really wish there was a bit more of a solid foundation under these otherwise brilliant remasters.

MFSL is releasing so many new titles these days, which is certainly a good thing. But I do miss the days when MFSL consistently offered the best-sounding versions of popular albums. With competition from so many great audiophile labels, I think it's time for them to come up with a new benchmark for performance.

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