Many audiophiles are pissed.
You may not be aware of this, but the vinyl revolution is on. Statista, a market and consumer data specialist, reported earlier this year that “vinyl album sales in the U.S. have grown for the 16th consecutive year.” Additionally, “LP sales jumped by more than 50 percent in 2021, surpassing both digital and CD album sales.” But one distributor of LPs, Mobile Fidelity, is in hot water after a Phoenix record store owner exposed they were selling digital masters of albums advertised as authentic analog re-issues.
This story begins when Mike Esposito, owner of The “In” Groove record shop in Phoenix, posted a video to YouTube claiming that sources informed him that, in the words of Esposito, “There’s a strong possibility Mobile Fidelity has some digitization in their records.”
So, just for some clarification, especially for new vinyl enthusiasts, most vinyl LPs that are commercially available in shops today are cut from the digital masters of the recording. Meaning, what you hear on the LP is very much likely to be the same mix and master that is available on Spotify, for example.
Why? Because most albums are recorded on digital equipment. These days, very few recording artists record on analog equipment, especially in the era of Pro-Tools. The draw of vinyl, beyond the aesthetic, is that each individual medium offers its own level of audio fidelity, whether its an album, cassette, compact disc, or digital stream, and vinyl does offer its own unique sonic experience.
The catch is that, if analog tapes do exist of a particular recording, they can be pressed to vinyl, and indeed, they too have their own audible distinction. And this is where Mobile Fidelity got caught red-handed by Esposito.
After Esposito’s initial YouTube video caught wind, there was some back and forth that resulted in the record store owner being invited by Mobile Fidelity‘s Vice President of Development, Jon Wood, to tour the company’s facility. Sure enough, in a second video made by Esposito during the visit, engineers confirmed he was right—that digital techniques were used in the chain of production for Mobile Fidelity‘s albums.
Naturally, outrage was sparked among the audiophile community, effectively making the point that Mobile Fidelity was not forthcoming nor transparent about their process, and guilty of false advertising. In an interview with The Washington Post defending Mobile Fidelity, CEO Syd Schwartz offered an apology to fans, saying that “Mobile Fidelity makes great records, the best-sounding records that you can buy. There had been choices made over the years and choices in marketing that have led to confusion and anger and a lot of questions, and there were narratives that had been propagating for a while that were untrue or false or myths. We were wrong not to have addressed this sooner.”
However, it may be too little, too late. Although Mobile Fidelity may not be a company your familiar with by name, frequent record buyers would instantly recognize their album facings, which include a trademarked banner along the top of the album that reads “Original Master Recording.”
While Esposito said he never intended to make waves, he did have this to offer as to his reasoning.
“The problem is ‘analog’ has become a hype word, and most people don’t know how records are made. And you can very factually say this record was sourced from the original analog master tape, and you’re not lying. But that doesn’t disclose to the consumer what’s going on between the beginning of it and the final product.”
This latest revelation may now very well taint a widely-recognized brand going forward, and possibly sow some concern in consumers in terms of what they are actually buying. Although it’s doubtful this will affect the upward trajectory of vinyl sales overall, buyers should research a particular pressing before making a purchase, even if just for peace of mind.