Mobile Fidelity’s failing grade
The biggest story in hi-fi so far this year was the Mobile Fidelity “digital step” scandal, which broke in July. You can find numerous videos on YouTube about it, including one by me, so I’ll skip most of the details, though I will reiterate the basics.
On July 14, Mike Esposito, who owns The ‘In’ Groove record store in Phoenix, Arizona, announced to the world via YouTube that he had solid information that since at least 2015, Mobile Fidelity had been copying analog master tapes to the Direct Stream Digital (DSD) format, and using these digital copies to make its “all-analog” records. About a week later, he published a video of an interview with three Mobile Fidelity engineers, who confirmed that what Esposito had announced previously was true. This flew in the face of what he and many other people thought—that Mobile Fidelity had an all-analog record-making process.
You can tell in his July 14 video that Esposito was out of sorts while making his announcement, likely because he—like many other audiophiles—was shocked to find out the all-analog process wasn’t true. He even admitted that he didn’t know what to think about it all just yet, but it was apparent that he was disappointed. I could also tell that the Mobile Fidelity engineers he interviewed were uncomfortable talking about the company’s digital step, likely because they were admitting to something that they didn’t want to reveal, or they knew should’ve been divulged long ago.
Esposito wasn’t the only one who was disappointed—vinyl lovers the world over who believed that Mobile Fidelity used an all-analog process were justifiably upset by the news. Many of them expressed their feelings in various audio forums, comments on YouTube videos, and elsewhere online. What’s more, the news went mainstream when the Washington Post wrote about it on August 5 in a story called “How a Phoenix record store owner set the audiophile world on fire.”
For me, the most surprising thing about all this wasn’t that Mobile Fidelity had been mastering records from digital copies—I was more surprised that there were so many people who had believed that Mobile Fidelity’s all-analog story was on the up and up. That’s because I’ve known for a long time that almost all records made today have some sort of digital intermediary step(s), even if they come from analog tape sources. So I’d figured Mobile Fidelity had gone the same way, since there had long been hints that the company had some digital in the mix.
One giveaway was that thousands of copies of some Mobile Fidelity releases were pressed, which would’ve required running the master tapes many times if it was an all-analog process. No record company would’ve allowed MoFi to do that because of the risk of damage to the original tapes. So copying a master tape to digital once—which, with a good digital recording system, should be more transparent than copying to analog tape, and would generate a copy that would never degrade—and then using that copy for vinyl runs makes much more sense. That seems to be exactly what Mobile Fidelity has been doing for all these years.
Another hint is the fact that some record companies don’t even let the master tapes off their premises—or even out of their vaults—so I couldn’t imagine a UPS or FedEx person just showing up at the Mobile Fidelity office with master tapes. I’ve been wondering for years what tape sources the MoFi engineers were using, as well as how they were going about the business of getting hold of them and transferring the recordings to vinyl. The Mobile Fidelity engineers that Esposito interviewed claimed they were traveling to the record companies and cracking off the digital copy they need there. But we’re still supposed to take it at face value that they were actually getting hold of the master tapes—with what went on, it’s really hard to know if that’s true.
As I’m writing this, the online consensus seems to be that Mobile Fidelity makes good records, but people are upset that the company hasn’t been transparent about its products—and that it’s taken an exposé by a record-store owner in Arizona to reveal the process. This has resulted in a number of lessons being learned, with the biggest one being what happens when a company tries to trick their customers. If the truth comes out, the backlash begins and the brand name gets damaged, sometimes beyond repair. Companies in other industries have already found that out—think about the Volkswagen emissions scandal, and numerous others. When you look at the ongoing uproar that occurred after Esposito’s initial video, it’s likely that the Mobile Fidelity name has been badly tarnished, maybe for good.
Another lesson was for the self-proclaimed vinyl gurus who have been deriding digital playback for years, telling consumers that it’s inferior to vinyl and that they could identify digital sound by ear. They got owned by the Mobile Fidelity scandal. As I mentioned in my video, no one discovered Mobile Fidelity’s digital mischief by listening to the records—not even the vinyl gurus with their supposed golden ears, which are looking like lead ears right now. Instead, someone told someone, and it was leaked—and now all those golden-eared vinyl zealots have tarnished reps, too. They shouldn’t have been so sure of themselves all this time.
PMC and Dolby Atmos pass with flying colors
When the Mobile Fidelity story broke, I was traveling in the UK with Chris Chitaroni and Jeremy Prudhomme, who are part of our video team. We first went to electronics maker iFi Audio, which is in Southport, Merseyside, then to speaker manufacturer Professional Monitor Company (PMC), which is headquartered just north of London but also has assembly plants nearby. Finally, we arrived at a Dolby Atmos mixing studio in London called, appropriately, PMC Studio London, which was where my second story took place.
Dolby Atmos was first introduced in 2012 as a surround format for theaters. It’s now widely available for home-theater systems, and more recently for music. That’s why PMC built this studio, as well as ones in Los Angeles and Nashville. The company makes speakers for the professional studio, home audio, and home theater.
Jonathan Gorse, Keith Tonge, and Doug Schneider at the PMC headquarters
We were taken to the studio at the behest of PMC creative director Keith Tonge and chief technical officer Oliver Thomas (who’s also the son of PMC cofounder Peter Thomas) to hear some Dolby Atmos immersive mixes over a topflight system made up of 21 PMC speakers: three MB3 XBD-A speakers for the front left, center, and right channels; eight Ci65 speakers on the side and rear walls for surround; six Ci45 speakers in the ceiling for height information; and four Twotwo Sub2 subwoofers to hammer out bass. Joining us at the studio was Jonathan Gorse, our new, UK-based writer.
When Tonge first told me about the plan to visit the studio to hear the Atmos setup, I was a little hesitant, because surround-sound mixes for music have rarely appealed to me in the past. But I could tell he was stoked about Atmos, so I went along with it—and convinced the team it was a good idea to come, too.
When we got to the studio, my hesitation subsided and my interest grew as Heff Moraes, a recording and mixing engineer who PMC has hired to be an ambassador for the studio, spoke to us. If you look at Moraes’s résumé on Discogs.com, you’ll see that he has decades of experience working with some of the world’s best-known artists. But he wasn’t there to brag about that—he was there to show off Atmos mixes others had made, and we could tell he was really jazzed about it.
Oliver Thomas, Heff Moraes, and Doug Schneider at PMC Studio London
For the next hour, Moraes played us so many Atmos-mixed tracks that I didn’t stand a chance of remembering them all—and I didn’t write them down. But there were three I do remember well because they had a real impact on me: Elton John’s “Rocket Man,” Ariana Grande’s “7 Rings,” and Imagine Dragons’ “Believer.” The clarity and instrumental separation I heard as each track played out in its entirety left me stunned. Furthermore, one of the things I never liked about surround music—the placement of sounds all around me—happens with Atmos mixes, but I wasn’t bothered by it this time. Instead, I felt like I was sitting there hearing the musicians, spatial cues, and other sounds with uncanny precision. I was, as the Dolby Atmos system promises, immersed in the musical experience that the songs provided when mixed this way.
Dolby Atmos can offer state-of-the-art surround music in a multichannel system. However, Moraes explained that the quality of any Atmos mix has mostly to do with the design decisions made for it and the competence of the person doing the mixing. He feels that for an Atmos mix to work well, the main vocals and key instrument(s) must be anchored firmly in the front speakers, which was the way it was with all the songs he played for us. He said that if you don’t do that, simply having sounds all around you seems strange, because your mind doesn’t know where it should focus. But when you have most of the music firmly anchored in front and the rest of the space is used to separate out other vocals, instruments, and recorded sounds, so they can stand out more clearly, it becomes a much more involving experience than stereo can provide. That, Moraes believes, is one of the key Atmos advantages. With stereo, there’s only so much real estate in front and mixing engineers often run out of space to place sounds. With Atmos, the mixer has the freedom to place sonic images in many more places throughout the room, which goes beyond being just a nifty effect—it lets you hear those sounds more clearly.
Jeremy Prudhomme, Chris Chitaroni, and Jonathan listening to PMC’s Moraes
Another important aspect of Atmos music is that the mixer doesn’t place sounds in specific speaker channels, like in a traditional surround-sound setup. Instead, Atmos is object-based, so when the mixer decides a sound should come from, say, somewhere on the left side, he or she simply points to where the sound should appear in the room using Dolby’s graphical user interface on the Atmos mixing station. It’s the room’s Atmos playback processor that decides what speaker or speakers need to be used to place that sound there, because the speakers in the room are programmed into it and it has the smarts to figure it out.
The Atmos playback processor is adaptable to the number of speakers in use, which is important for the home, since most people won’t have as many speakers as there are at PMC’s studio. It also provides more freedom for the mix engineer, since he or she is not constrained by speaker locations. For example, let’s say the engineer wants to place a sound directly to one side. If the playback system has one or more speakers on that side, as in the PMC studio, Atmos will decide which and how many of those speakers will be used to reproduce that sound in the correct location. If there are fewer or no side speakers, the Atmos processor will figure out which speakers it can use in the room to create the sonic illusion required. The more speakers you have, mind you, the more accurate the image placement will be.
Of course, you do need a certain number of speakers to make it work. The minimum number of speakers for an Atmos setup is five speakers around the room—three in front, plus two toward the rear corners—as well as one subwoofer and two more speakers above. In other words, a 5.1.2 system. PMC’s studio is an 11.1.6 system, even though it has four subwoofers—Atmos treats them as one. From information I found on Dolby’s site, a 24.1.10 system (34 speakers in total and one sub) is the maximum for home use, but Dolby Atmos for theaters can accommodate even more speakers.
PMC’s Tonge sits in with the SoundStagers at the Atmos demo
Obviously, not everyone is going to be willing to set up even a small Atmos system in their home, but Atmos-enabled soundbars as well as headphones offer a semblance of the immersive experience, and are a vital part of the adoption of Atmos in the marketplace. Moraes, Thomas, and Tonge all agreed that listening through headphones or soundbars is how most people will hear Atmos. I’ve heard Atmos soundbar playback, and it certainly can be fun. I’ve yet to experience Atmos via headphones. But for serious listening, which is what our SoundStage! Hi-Fi readers will undoubtedly want, I think a “real” setup with multiple speakers is mandatory.
Atmos is clearly intended for immersive mixes, but Moraes made the point that it doesn’t ignore or abandon stereo. The mix engineer can create a stereo mixdown from the surround mix, which is where this technology gets even more interesting, at least in the recording world. According to Moraes, there are many engineers who are used to working with stereo and are now moving into surround mixing. Like him, they tend to think about stereo first and surround second. On the flipside, he talked about newer engineers for whom surround is the primary thing and stereo is secondary, so they’re working with artists to do interesting things musically in the studio that will work well in surround and blast past the limitations of stereo. It’s certainly a new world for music playback.
I wasn’t the only one impressed with the Atmos demonstrations. Jonathan Gorse was literally brought to tears as Moraes played The Beatles’ “Something” from an Atmos mix created by Giles Martin, the son of Beatles producer George Martin. Jonathan said that hearing his favorite band presented in such an involving way stirred up a lot of emotions. Both Chris and Jeremy were blown away by how interesting each music mix sounded. Since they both work in video and in movies, surround sound isn’t new to them, but they were still fascinated how it was being applied to music in the absence of accompanying visuals.
Jonathan immersed in The Beatles’ “Something”
I might’ve gone to PMC Studio London with hesitation, but I left so excited that when I arrived home the next day after my flights from England to Canada, I immediately penned an email to our writers telling them that we have “to get on this Atmos thing more.” Several agreed, but Gordon Brockhouse, our SoundStage! Simplifi senior editor, reminded me that he had said the same thing to me over a year ago. He’d heard some Atmos demos that were as convincing to him as what we’d just experienced in London. I should’ve been more receptive when Gordon told me that—which was my lesson learned.
. . . Doug Schneider