MoFi, Steve Hoffman, and So On

Although it’s only Wednesday, it’s already been a brilliant week for Seventies music here at Casa Baruth. Certain music-forum posters and/or Road&Track editors are likely to disagree, of course.


When my friend Chuck texted me in the dead of night to say he had a line on an affordable copy of Mobile Fidelity’s vinyl pressing of Steely Dan’s Aja and to inquire as to whether I was interested in buying said copy, I nearly broke my fingers trying to affirm the purchase decision. I bought the MoFi “Gold Ultradisc” of Aja way, way back in 1989. It was $24.99 at the time, real money. Why a seventeen-year-old who earned five dollars an hour before tax would spend that kind of cash on what was already “old peoples’ music” at the time remains somewhat unclear to me, although I was the seventeen-year-old in question.

At the time, I had a Denon DCD-620 and a set of Sennheiser headphones and I thought that CD sounded better than anything else in the world. My ears were pretty good back then, having not yet suffered the ten years of competitive shooting and ten years of club racing and two years of owning a Lotus Seven clone where the exhaust exited two feet from my head. But after reading the Steve Hoffman forum, it turns out I was wrong. They say that the MoFi gold CD is “mediocre” and the vinyl is “worst ever, a rare miss.” The Cisco vinyl pressing is what I want. It’s the only version that comes from the true master tapes.

But wait! That one guy who sells “hot stamper” records has a testimonial that says MoFi is “tonally weird” and Cisco isn’t telling the truth! Only a hot stamper is good enough! Fuck my life! And although Better Records has a “hot stamper” Aja for only $179.99, I just know that if I bought it I’d regret not waiting for a “super hot stamper” or a “white hot stamper”! I’d better just be content with my MoFi versions, even though they are hardly any less shitty than an old white cassette with Dr. Pepper stains on it that’s been run through a Pioneer car tape deck a thousand times!

It’s very tempting to read discussions like the one to which I linked regarding the MoFi Aja and just conclude that it’s all a bunch of over-privileged idiots convincing themselves that they have golden hi-fi ears. They see themselves as princesses of the audio world, forever listening for the shadow of a pea beneath fifteen mattresses of original mastering. And then… the Steve Hoffman 24k remaster of Crosby, Stills, and Nash’s adult-rock anthem album CSN appears at my doorstep.

I’ve been listening to CSN nonstop since Amazon Prime added it as a freebie a few months ago. I didn’t know the album at all prior to this, though of course I’d heard “Dark Star” and “Just A Song Before I Go”. As I’m sure many of you know, it’s an absolutely brilliant effort from three people who hated each other, much like “Abbey Road” was for the Beatles. As a forty-three-year-old man, I find “Dark Star” more compelling than ever. It’s the very opposite of all the love-at-first-sight songs:

I met you several years ago
The times they were so strange, but I had a feeling
You looked into my eyes just once
An instant flashing by that we were stealing

Then, farther down, emphasis mine:

We must make some time together
Take the kids and find a world that’s ours to keep
Now you’ve got me dreaming girl
It’s been so long that I thought that I’d forgotten how
My heart is once again my soul
We touched, we did, you know we did, no more teasing now

As a father, I blanch at that line; there are few things as traumatic for children as being swept along in the romantic intrigues of their parents. But I also know the feeling of being in love with someone who has children and dreaming of the day when you’ll all move in and find happiness together.

Dark star, I see you in the morning
Dark star, a’ sleeping next to me
Dark star, let the memory of the evening
Be the first thing that you think of
When you open up your smile and see me, dark star

That’s a plea, by the way. When you wake up, don’t think about the bills to pay, the ache in your tooth, the warning light on your car’s dashboard, your children or the nights on which they were conceived. Let the memory of the evening / be the first thing that you think of. Be here, with me, in the present, dark star.

Amazon Prime has a woman’s habit of changing its mind and taking free music away, you know, so I decided to buy a CD of CSN just in case. A little research showed that Steve Hoffman had done a master from the original tapes for an Audio Fidelity 24k CD. It was twenty-five bucks, and if I could spend that as a kid I could certainly do it now.

The disc arrived yesterday and I thought I’d put it on briefly before getting on the elliptical machine. Two hours later, I finally got up to get some exercise. The hype was real. I could hear things on this disc that just didn’t exist on Amazon’s streaming MP3. The bass parts in particular had so much more definition to them. It was almost like hearing a different performance. After I exercised, I sat down to listen again. That’s how I spent most of yesterday evening; listening to an old Crosby, Stills, and Nash record. And some of you think I have an exciting life.

When the MoFi vinyl of Aja arrives at my house, will I experience a similar revelation? I hope so, because I paid real money for the record. (Well, Chuck paid, and I owe him, anyway.) But there’s part of me that says I should stop trying to polish the glass through which I see the Seventies past darkly. That there’s great music out there right now and I should find it.

I’m not listening to that part of me.

12 Replies to “MoFi, Steve Hoffman, and So On”

  1. Charlie

    Actually, most audiophiles seem to prefer the earliest standard pressing of Aja over even the Cisco version. You’re looking for catalog number AB-1006. I’ve got copies of both AA-1006 and AB-1006 and I do feel AB to be superior, though I’m sure there’s some amount of confirmation bias happening. I scored my AB copy in a used record store for around $5, but eBay should do you fine if you’re willing to pay a bit more for the convenience.

    Despite the above, I do have a girlfriend.

  2. Michael

    One of the best mastering guys out there is Barry Diament. Do a google search for “essential Barry Diament” and it will lead you to a long list of bargain bin $3 CDs from the dawn of digital. Every disc is easy on the ears and wallet.

  3. WiredChuck

    I’ve been a member of the Hoffman Forums for several years now, and although it is a helpful resource for navigating the deeeeep rabbit hole of vinyl collecting (determining which pressing is best, which to avoid, yada yada yada), take everything those guys say with a huge grain of salt. First, I suspect the average age of its members is in the 60s, because the vast majority of people who post there firmly believe there was no good music released after 1974 (I’d guess 40 percent of threads are about the Beatles and its members or Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd and its members, or Deep Purple). This means their hearing is shot, and, consequently, they tend to favor the boosted-midrange “warm tube sound.” Also, opinions are like assholes – everyone’s got one, and they usually stink. Case in point: the first batch of Led Zeppelin vinyl reissues spawned no fewer than seven threads – which go on for dozens of pages apiece – discussing the sound quality, fidelity to the original UK (or US, or Canadian, or…) pressings, whether you fully and properly hear the squeak of Bonham’s kick drum pedal, etc. some of those guys get so lost in the weeds they no longer hear the music. It’s the only place I’ve ever seen people request wave forms before choosing which pressing to buy. (Not kidding.)

    In short, if you like how something sounds, fuck what anyone else says.

    USPS says your MFSL Aja should arrive Tuesday.

  4. Mopar4wd

    OK I just have to say while I respect audiophiles (not really I just think high end audio equipment is cool), I don’t think my ears can tell the difference. I also have the feeling it wouldn’t change the music much for me no matter how I hear it.

    Basically I think comes down to a conversation I had with audiophile friend a few years ago. He said he couldn’t under stand why every one used crappy mp3 and were happy when there were superior formats out there. He argued that we had made a step backwards from CD’s. In some respects I agreed but I said to the average person they can’t tell. Plus they don’t care that much.

    Thinking about it more I think music can be viewed like a painting. An audiophile looks deep into it looking for meaning and depth. The average person walks by and decides if they like it or they don’t. Of course every once in a while a song or a painting will so move you that you will investigate it further even as an non enthusiast. But for the average person this will be a small percentage of the music they hear.

    • Wiredchuck

      You can tell. Trust me. Listen to your favorite song on an MP3 or even a CD on a system from a big box store, then listen to it on a carefully selected, well-assembled system and I promise you will hear a significant difference. And it doesn’t take a lot of money, either – just carefully selected quality components connected with quality cables, playing through excellent speakers. I’m not talking five-figure or six-figure systems, either… I’m at mid four-figures with my system, because I bought a lot of it second-hand. Quality source material – excellent quality CDs and vinyl – make a big difference too.

      You’ll hear a difference. Whether it matters to you is another story, but that’s true of all things. A lot of people are happy with a 10-year-old Honda Civic, too. It’s just a matter of what you’re into.

  5. galactagog

    Ha! Rabbit hole indeed

    I decided good enough is good enough, it would cost me thousands to get better sound than my old sansui & Jbl 4313 combo

    I’m also guilty of blowing $ on vinyl….I picked up an original mofi dark side of the moon. It sounds a million times ( yep I quantitatively state) better than the new digital master

    But even a good original pressing of aja would sound great IMO.

    Check out Barry Diaments original zep cds from the 80’s they are killer

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