Monday, September 16, 2013

Record Review: Miles Davis 'Round About Midnight - Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab Vinyl LP

It was a long wait for the Miles Davis reissues by historic audiophile label Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab (MoFi) but the day has finally come and some of them are already out, recently MoFi remastered and reissued several Miles Davis albums such as Round About Midnight, Milestones, Four & More and In a Silent Way, and by now all Jazz and Music lovers in the world patiently await the arrival of MoFi's Kind Of Blue reissue on double vinyl LP cut at 45rpm, but until that one is released I was able to get my hands and ears on Miles Davis Round About Midnight which is one of my all time favorite LP's and here I am to share my findings with you about the work MoFi did on this one.

Until now, there was only one audiophile mastering attempt from Speakers Corner that was released in 2008 on 180gr vinyl pressed at the famous Pallas Germany production plant, and that was the only valid option along with the original USA vinyl releases to hear this magnificent LP that had been mostly ignored by audiophile labels in the last few years and only now a reputed audiophile house with strong credits such as Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab decided to give this masterpiece the special treatment it deserves using the Original Analog Master Tape and mastering it 100% analog on a reference cutting system. For this reason, and because many readers have asked me to provide my view about this matter, it makes perfect sense to do a comparison review between the two versions and find how different the Speakers Corner LP and MoFi LP sound and which is the best buying option.

First impression is the quality of the MoFi packaging, looks much better than the Speakers Corner (SC) packaging and feels more solid. The SC is no cheap jacket, but compared directly to the MFSL it does feel a little wobbly and the cover looks less detailed... But now let's talk about the sound! After giving both LP's a very nice cleaning on my Record Cleaning Machine (I do this for every record even new ones to remove any debris or release compound left over from the production line), I played both LP's on my system. After listening to both LP's a few times focused mainly on just the first two tracks of side A to keep it simple, more objective, and allow me to catch every little difference and nuance, I then took some time listening to each full album straight without interruption to get a better general feeling for each version mastering approach and during this phase I took some notes about how they compare.

Notes I took when listening to MoFi's version of Round About Midnight:

- Overall dryer and sweeter sound, everything sounds natural and effortless. It feels great to listen to this LP, makes the listener feel good. This is clearly a reference record allowing the listener to enjoy the full scope of this recording and brilliant performance. From the first touch of the needle in the groove this LP guarantees huge levels of audiophile and emotional pleasure.

- The overall volume level is much lower on the MoFi release and usually this is a good sign regarding sound quality in these days of "loudness wars", you really need to crank the volume a lot to take full advantage of the great dynamic range and resolution.

- There is better tonality and more focus to the sound of the bass.

- Sound stage imaging is better defined, the sense of depth from this mono recording is amazing on this new MoFi mastering!

- Coltrane's tenor saxophone has more body and better more realistic tonality, its presence in the mix results better on this LP.

- Cymbals are better placed in the mix sounding sweeter and more extended without any obvious frequency roll-off, you could listen to them all night and just smile without any listening fatigue.

Notes I took when listening to Speakers Corner version of Round About Midnight:

- Overall tonality is less natural, sounds over produced, it feels more like the mastering work was heavy-handed.

- There is what I like to call as detail overload presented in somewhat artificial fashion, every little detail, every little tiny bit of spit and ambiance cues just jump out of the speakers as if the music was secondary content of the recording. You can get all that detail from the MFSL (if you play it at the same higher volume level) but those details are never more than details, as it should be to keep the realistic sound presentation of the recording.

- There is exaggerated edginess to trumpet and cymbals sound. Not only this made them sound more artificial but it also becomes tiring to the ears making it much more difficult for the listener to become involved with the music.

- Seems like some compression and/or limiting of the dynamic range was applied, that explains the higher volume output (despite the larger dead-wax area on both sides) and the lesser spacial quality of this version. Dynamics are much more flat, and even if this effect can make  everything sound louder with apparently more thump and energy, it does so at cost of a natural realistic sound presentation.

- There is always a very high tension and aggressiveness to the sound, you can never really relax and let the music flow like you do with the MoFi...

- Spatial cues from the mono mix (and now I know it can sound much better after listening to the MoFi) are all but eliminated... depth is severely reduced, now there seems to be a wall from where all sounds emerge and compete for the sound stage.

Final notes:

After listening to track 1, all these differences were there but the Speakers Corner LP was holding its ground, while sounding much different I could understand how that type of sound might appeal to some people, with all the detail jumping at your face, all that energy and sound projection jumping out of the speakers... in fact that is the result of some added compression applied during the mastering session or already present in the mix tape used to master the Speakers Corner LP. I prefer the more focused and natural sound of the MoFi but on this track there are some merits to the SC that I can understand if you like that type of sound or if your ears are used to those levels of compression and limiting... however, as track 2 starts, it's immediately clear that such technical approach would not work for the entire album in such an acceptable manner, it becomes obvious how those "artifacts" turn out to be a big problem to the Speakers Corner LP, with the higher paced rhythm of this track everything sounds more confused and the MFSL really shines making sense of all the instruments and keeping the swing right where it should be, at your feet!

The Speakers Corner version is not really bad, far from it, but direct comparisons can do this to you, it can be very revealing and put some things out in the open that were previously just invisible to the listener when playing just one of these records separately. You can live with a certain edition for years perfectly happy until a new mastering comes along and shakes your sound tree showing you just what you've been missing all that time... it's true, this happens, we Humans are not perfect and sometimes we need to have information placed right in front of our noses before we can actually see what has always been there. This doesn't mean that the Speakers Corner LP is bad (that would be quite unfair), what it does mean is that the new MoFi version is really exceptionally good. This is obviously the result of a very careful production effort, extremely tasteful work and an increased perfect sense of aesthetics, and most of all the ability to know the profound difference between superficial audiophile work that aims at making a sound demonstration and the real audiophile work that aims at making a decisive contribution to shorten the path between listener and musical performance in an effort to increase the emotional bond between them.

Speakers Corner is a very well known label that has been regularly producing good records and sometimes releasing some very fine sounding LP records over the last years, some of the titles in their catalog are reference quality records for their respective albums (mostly rock/pop), but I wouldn't consider them to be at the top of the Audiophile LP's game. On the other hand, Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab is one of the best known and respected Audiophile Labels with a long history and impressive reputation for many years now as they've been providing music lovers worldwide with many of the best music and reference LP's ever made, but they are not 100% perfect and there are some MoFi releases that failed to surpass the original LP sound quality or some releases of the competitor companies in this business. I guess nothing is perfect and there are always exceptions to every rule, but in this case there is no doubt in my mind, the natural order of things has been kept and MoFi gave us the best reissue ever made of Miles Davis masterpiece, Round About Midnight! I couldn't imagine it sounding any better than this, thank you MoFi!

I can't wait to hear what they're doing with the Miles Davis Kind Of Blue reissue on 45rpm double LP that is expected to be released sometime by the end of 2013. I do have the Classic Records 33rpm 200gr Quiex vinyl LP and the 50th Anniversary BOX with blue vinyl LP (both 100% analog productions) and they sound great in different ways, I hope to be able to compare them to the future release by Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab and post it here in the Vinyl Gourmet Blog.

Vinyl Gourmet Rating: Music (0-10): 9   Sound (0-10): 9   Product Value (0-10): 9

Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab MFSL 1-373
2013 Limited & Numbered Edition
Matrix details for the Mobile Fidelity LP
Side A: MFSL 1-373 A3   KW@MoFi   20921.1(3)
Side B: MFSL 1-373 B3   KW@MoFi   20921.2(3)

Barcode 821797137317

Speakers Corner CL 949 (2008)
Matrix details for the Speakers Corner LP
Side A: Columbia CL 949   S1   HCB-EBS   -16432-
Side A: Columbia CL 949   S2   HCB-EBS   -16432-

Review by Sérgio Redondo
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  1. Hello Sergio,
    As an avid jazz lover and an audiophile I'm enjoying your reviews. I especially enjoy your notes when listening, and the photographs you include. They definitely capture "the vibe" of the music session.
    I recently picked up Miles' Milestones on MoFi. Do you have any plans of reviewing that?

  2. Hi Joel, thanks for visiting and for the kind words.

    I have MoFi's Milestones LP (I want to add all of them to my collection) but didn't have the chance to listen to it yet, it's still part of the very long line of new LP's to be heard... there's so much great music, and so little time! I didn't plan to review it mostly because I'm saving that time for Kind Of Blue and maybe Bitches Brew (both very challenging reviews), but I'll try to say something about it when I listen to it, if not a complete review at least a comment right here.

    Hope you stick around Joel! Thanks, Sergio

  3. Sergio, thanks for the reply. I'm definitely sticking around. I've bookmarked your site and appreciate your work. Looking forward to more great reviews. Definitely among the best I've seen on the internet.

  4. just come across your site, as a newbie vinylista. Great stuff. Now off to buy some records...thanks RT

  5. Very informative and honest review/comparison. Cheers!


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