GARY STEEL has a nice long chat to Steve Shade from Mobile Fidelity (MoFi) about its new electronics division and its fabulous turntables, and more.
Those of you who have been paying attention will already know that Mobile Fidelity – who make the most revered vinyl album pressings in the world – has a new division called Mobile Fidelity Electronics, and that sensibly, the first product out of the gate is a turntable.
Given the company’s reputation for creating the ultimate editions of classic albums, it doesn’t take a brain surgeon to figure out that Mobile Fidelity (henceforth referred to by its famous nickname MoFi) has everything to gain by creating a turntable so good that it really makes the most of the medium.
And indeed, the verdicts are in and MoFi’s first turntables – the premium UltraDeck and the more affordable StudioDeck – are turning heads and opening wallets.
Recently, I travelled to PQ Imports in Hamilton to audition the MoFi UltraDeck (read about that encounter here) and was stunned by the incredible performance of this comparatively nicely priced deck, which has been selling so fast in NZ since its debut here late last year that there are currently none available to buy.
Witchdoctor took the opportunity to have a chat to MoFi man Steve Shade – longtime industry stalwart and the company’s Director of International Sales – when he visited PQ Imports’ HQ recently. Steve has a formidable history including a long tenure with another highly rated hi-fi company, AudioQuest, and is one heck of a nice guy with some really interesting things to impart about MoFi’s philosophy and the idea behind their products and especially the turntables.
Witchdoctor – So how do you like Paul’s little set-up there, Steve?
Steve Shade – Impressive! Big operation and especially well set up for supporting dealers. I’m also impressed with how Paul builds and maintains relationships.
Witchdoctor – What do you think of Paul’s sound room and does the UltraDeck sound good in it?
Steve – It’s one of the best soundrooms I’ve heard. Very impressive, easy to hear detail yet all of the music comes through… the UltraDeck sound incredible with his big VTL and ProAc system. It hangs in there really well, and then also is quite nice with Cambridge Audio and his GoldenEar system as well.
Witchdoctor – That was going to be my next question… whether you felt that the componentry was well matched. I heard some incredible sounds coming out of that system the other night, and I’d only had one glass of wine! So I won’t be getting technical because I’m fundamentally a music fan who likes good sound rather than a techie. My understanding is that you’re effectively a kind of roving ambassador for MoFi Electronics?
Steve – Yes, I am our Director of International Sales, but I wear quite a few hats.
The favorite part of my job is talking about, presenting, and selling MoFi music.
I think most guys and gals who endure in this industry are music lovers, and really enjoy listening to all kinds of great music… Our design goal was a big, dynamic, coherent, bold sound. It seems to go well with so many different systems so far.
Our MoFi engineers, Allen Perkins, and the rest of our team really wanted turntables that would honour the original master tape, accurate but dynamic too.
Several others in our space make quite nice turntables, but often the sound can be too polite for us!
Witchdoctor – It’s interesting what you say about the turntables having a big, bold sound because the ‘politeness’ of so much audiophile gear is a criticism I’ve heard over and over again from hardcore music fans.
Steve – I still remember one of the engineers, I think it was Shawn Britton said… Are these turntables going to be able to rock? He was coming from the angle that so many turntables at the entry and mid level were too polite.
Witchdoctor – Very interesting! I remember at a Wilson Audio listening session some years back someone putting an AC/DC record on and everyone tut-tutting at the indiscretion of playing someone decidedly non-audiophile and rocking!
Steve – I think your AC/DC story from Wilson is a perfect example of the differences between our sound engineers at Mobile Fidelity (who simply love music) and many gear enthusiasts who love the sound of the next best thing component or gear wise. Both guys and approaches are valid and important, just very different.
The music is the common thread that binds us… the better gear we use are the tools. It’s interesting and I agree! When our entire team gathered at MoFi in Sebastapol a couple of years ago, when we were developing this project, basically we had just started… the number one concern of our sound engineers was “truth to the master tape”, being true to the music.
Witchdoctor – How has the consumer uptake on the gear been so far? And are there any indications as to the type of people buying into the concept? That is, are they more newbies who like the MoFi branding and the connection to the quality recordings, or genuine audiophiles who are knocked out by the sound?
Steve – It’s a very good question! So far we’re seeing about half and half… about half of our initial customers are simply music lovers who lover Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab (MoFi), the other half our genuine enthusiasts who are comparing, listening to the various products available and making an informed decision.
I spoke to an end user the other day in the UK who has over 300 Mobile Fidelity LP titles! He just bought a StudioDeck+ to replace his ageing Yamaha turntable that was handed down from his father. He’s not a gear guy or an audiophile at all. He’s a genuine music lover.
Witchdoctor – Given the reputation MoFi has for premium quality and price products what I find surprising (and I think that’s also true of most) is the relatively modest pricing, especially of the UltraDeck. Was there a decision to bring the price in at an accessible point, and if so, how so? I guess what I mean by this is that I’ve heard stories of people getting rid of their $20K or $30K turntables to get an UltraDeck. Which leads to another question: how did MoFi achieve such a low price point with such great quality?
Steve – A couple of years ago our sister company Music Direct did a little survey of customers who purchase Mobile Fidelity LPs. They learned that many MoFi Vinyl fans didn’t necessarily have great hi-fi systems. Often they simply had hand me downs from their friends or parents, or maybe even modest used gear. We wanted to honor this music lover as well by creating a real world affordable product… that performs exceptionally well against its peer group… but most importantly sounds as close to the master tape as possible. Being honest to the sound on the master tape was vital.
The above music lover with a modest system and perhaps an ageing turntable won’t spend large sums of money for a MoFi turntable. This feedback from our music customers helped us shape the target price points… absolutely.
Witchdoctor – What I don’t really understand is how the gear can be made so affordable. Is it because in comparison to most boutique hi-fi gear there are many more made and therefore the cost per unit comes down, or is it more streamlined manufacture of, as you say, cutting-edge components?
Steve – In our case it’s both streamlined manufacturing and scaling of parts, also short travel times! Over 90% of our parts come from within 200Km of Ann Arbor Michigan, where are factory if located for MoFi Electronics
Much of the credit in design goes to Allen Perkins of Spiral Groove. Our guys knew what a good turntable should sound like, but Allen was the one who defined the parameters and helped us achieve the desired result. The 10-inch tonearm, Delrin Platter, Inverted bearing, AC syncronous motor, etc. Then MIke Latvis from HRS (Harmonic Resonance Systems) really helped us tune out bad vibrations, essentially eliminating the vibrations that can keep a turntable from sounding its best. His feet are amazing, and essentially allow the entire turntable (both models) to be suspended. His proprietary vibration isolation material is incredible. I should say the turntable feet he designed for us!
Witchdoctor – One thing I wondered was about Allen. Wouldn’t his work on MoFi potentially put a dint in the success of his operation with Spiral Groove? Do hi-fi companies usually have in-house designers and engineers or, as in this case, hire big guns from other specialist companies to achieve their goals?
It’s a good question regarding Allen, but I don’t think so. I was just with Allen last week at the AXPONA show in Chicago. He is very comfortable being a MoFi turntable guru! He believes it can only help awareness of his ultra high performance brand Spiral Groove.
Allen mentioned to me that making a state of the art product is in many ways easier because the budget for parts and methodology is so much bigger, not so many sacrifices have to happen to bring a product to market. Working on a budget for parts and method is so much more difficult and challenging he says… and I agree.
Witchdoctor – Most interesting! Is it usual for companies to hire gurus from external companies? I’m not sure how it usually works. It feels as though MoFi has decided to cherrypick the expertise, which is a pretty brilliant concept, really!
I think a growing trend is to hire big guns as you say and have them help collaborate with a unique design, or add additional value to a design. At least that is what we believe. Ultimately, having exceptional designers and engineers can make the product truly stand out, if the process is managed effectively. Maybe we are igniting this trend at a more affordable level.
Witchdoctor – It seems as though MoFi has isolated (so to speak!) the needs and desires of the music fan who wants a turntable and doesn’t want to go to the effort of buying aftermarket isolation solutions or that ‘special’ cartridge. MoFi’s approach certainly appeals to me: all the solutions in one package!
Steve – Yes! An essentially plug and play turntable was critical for us, one that could be easily set up by a customer who likely doesn’t have a cartridge alignment tool, or maybe even understand VTA or Azimuth.
We mount and align the cartridge, set the VTA and azimuth at the factory. It really is as close to plug and play as possible. Great sound ready to go!
Witchdoctor – The interesting thing is that at that price point it’s not instantly affordable to many people, but it is within the realm of possibility. I could never afford a $30K turntable, and I can’t afford a MoFi turntable this year, but it’s genuinely aspirational… I can put a savings plan into place, and I think that might be true of many.
Steve – Yes, in fact the UltraDeck is possibly out of the realm for many Mobile Fidelity music fans, but this is why we created the StudioDeck, it’s not that far off from the UltraDeck performance and is an overachiever itself. It shares many of the same design elements
I agree regarding setting a savings plan. The price alone of the UltraDeck is not scary to many.
Witchdoctor – I noticed that the StudioDeck has many of the impressive specs of the UltraDeck. Is it doing better business given that it’s at a lower price point?
Steve – We were a little surprised when the UltraDeck began outselling the StudioDeck toward the end of last year in many markets. However, we understand why, and a big part of this is due to the quality of our distributors and dealers in our starting markets. They are doing a very nice job of presenting both turntables and specifically the extra performance gained by stepping up to the UltraDeck+, or now the UltraDeck+ M. It’s important that customers get to hear this difference and decide for themselves
Witchdoctor – Is there one standout feature that separates the turntables from their competition, or is it truly an equal contribution from all the excellent design features, engineering and resultant specs?
Steve – I think the 10-inch arm, Delrin platter, AC Syncronous motor, and impressive bearings in both the table and tonearm all help achieve our design and sound goals. The delrin HRS designed feet help us lift it to another level. It’s a combination of things, the full recipe!
I don’t think at these price points it’s all that common to work with state of the art type designers and engineers such as Allen Perkins, or Tim de Paravicini (EAR – helped design our phono preamps), or MIke Latvis. I think we are helping form a new trend. There is an economy of scale, and our President, John Schaffer understands this… he formerly owned Wadia.
Witchdoctor – How are the phono stages going and are you finding that purchasers of the turntables want to include this in the package?
The phono stages are selling very well. In the case of the StudioPhono, we can’t make them fast enough! It’s also quite unique to have a class A headphone amplifier in our UltraPhono. Tim de Paravicini has helped us create the most musical and affordable phono stage in the StudioPhono. He maintains the GAIN2 Mastering chain at Mobile Fidelity, and also our cutter head and Studer decks. He’s very integral to the success of Mobile Fidelity sound and performance. Initial feedback is quite often the turntables are sold with one of our phono preamps, but we are also selling many phono stages on their own. It’s a pretty big category still doing well… often an easy way for a customer to improve their sound.
Also, have you encountered any snobbish reactions to having your own cartridges and making it so easy for consumers?
Pretty much all of the reaction so far have been very positive, both from industry affiliates and veterans alike, including competitors in the space. It has been very positive. Allen Perkins spent quite a few months voicing and damping the cartridges to achieve a standout performance and value. We have a small cartridge family straight away that not only mimics our V-Twin cutting head at Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab, but also provides exceptionally musical sounding results, we believe very honest and true to the master tape of the MoFi pressing we are producing.
Witchdoctor – Does MoFi have plans to expand into a wider product range, or is it all about sticking to its core components?
Steve – We want to stay focused with our product offerings, however we are currently working on a MasterDeck! We have decided to go up in performance… I’m really excited about this. The MasterDeck will further expand upon the UltraDeck performance and create an exceptional package partnered with a new tonearm, and a MasterTracker cartridge.
Witchdoctor – Wow, does that have an expected release date?
Steve – It’s still in the early stages, but wouldn’t surprise me if we have it available at some point in 2019. By stepping up in performance, we are able to further elevate the Mobile Fidelity brand in the analog space, from a performance perspective. This also allows us to keep our turntable production 100 percent in the USA.
Witchdoctor – And this is a bit of a dumb question, but I assume that you were a bit of a MoFi fan way prior to coming on board? Have you collected the albums over the years?
Steve – It’s a good question! Actually I had more MoFi SACDs than I did MoFi vinyl, but I was so impressed with how they so easily (from my original perspective) improved the sound of some of my favorite albums! I’ve certainly become an even bigger fan now that I get to listen and sell our music everyday, even during work hours!
Witchdoctor – I guess if things had played out differently in the market there might be a MoFi SACD player now! Are you a fan of a wide range of music? Any particular artist or genre faves?
Steve – I got to hold The Cars Heartbeat City master tapes, the original session tapes in my hands a little over a year ago while visiting Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab in Sebastapol, California. It was amazing. This was my first concert I went to when I was 16! The Cars Heartbeat City isn’t audiophile music at all, and that is just fine by me! I like rock, jazz, blues, I even like some country! I was in Nashville for a friend’s daughters wedding a couple of weeks ago and went to the Country Music Hall of Fame. It was quite impressive. I’m listening to Willie Nelson’s Stardust right now. Our MoFi Vinyl is incredible sounding.
Witchdoctor – Willie’s a dude, as they would say in NZ. I did a phone interview with him way back in 1980 and he was so gracious.
Steve – You got to speak with Willie! I’m so envious.
Steve – Yes, I like nice whisky, especially Suntory Yamazaki from Japan. I do look for value often too, though. It seems our company drink of late is an ‘Old Fashioned’ with Japanese Toki Whisky. Very nice! I think life is too short not to look for quality. I also love to smoked meat. True bbq for me.
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