I've spent the past couple of days re-devouring my few Mobile Fidelity discs, awaiting the arrival of their latest offering, Rush's Permanent Waves. If you're not an audiophile, and not many people are, these discs are not for you. They're expensive, for one – nearly $30 each when new, then usually skyrocketing in price when their limited production runs end – but they have been given so much delicate handling with regards to the remastering that they are very worth the investment.
As I said, I have been reinvestigating my MoFi discs – the previous three Rush installments, which are 2112, Moving Pictures, and Signals. I picked these up, one by one, many years ago, when I saw them used, quite cheap, I might add, but unfortunately when you give the discs a good look, it's obvious why they're cheap. They're scratched. Who would buy these discs at those prices and then treat them like that is an idiot, but that's beside the point. They're playable, but Moving Pictures is in the most worrisome condition – it actually has pinholes through the reflective gold layer, which is a scary thing indeed. Good thing MoFi will be reissuing these discs over the next year, but unfortunately in their new "mini LP sleeve" packaging rather than the original "lift-lock" case that their discs were known for.
I remember when my friends and I first found the elusive "gold discs," as we simply called them. Back then, when we were teens in the late 80s, it was widely believed that the high sound quality of these releases was due to the gold reflective layer that became so symbolic of Mobile Fidelity CD products. I mean, it made sense – we didn't understand mastering and stuff like that. We just knew that the other CDs were silver, and these were gold, and these sounded great, therefore gold=great sound quality. It turns out that the gold was used because it was a superior reflective layer – it didn't have the tendency to age and tarnish like aluminum did in regular CDs. Oh well. It sure is pretty, however.
I picked up the Rush discs for prices between $8.99 to $15.99 over a period of a couple of years. Unknowing owners dropped them off on the trade counter at Zia, getting a measly amount of money for what had been quite an investment. I didn't pick them up because I was any kind of audiophile. I picked them up merely because I wanted them – being a dorky completist fan, that's all, and, really, at the time, before the remasters came out, these had better liner notes than the bland original CDs did. And, you know, they were pretty gold.
The discs sat in my collection, surpassed as favorites by the 1997 remasters, until a few years ago when I was trying to conserve space and moved them. And then kind of forgot about them. Oh, I saw them sitting up there, on top of my big CD racks, but I never grabbed them to listen to. I had already made up my mind – the remasters sounded great, why bother?
The dorky completist fan in me made me salivate over the thought of this new MoFi Permanent Waves. For whatever reason, those long-ignored gold discs on my shelf suddenly grabbed my interest again. In the days before my order arrived, I pulled those discs down and gave them a listen. Audio nirvana – all those years listening to the remasters that I thought superior was erased by the calming, soothing, beautiful mastering of the Mobile Fidelity issues. I couldn't believe my ears. I jumped back and forth between the remasters and the MoFi discs, and, in the case of Moving Pictures, the original, unremastered CD. Things were different, very different – everything sounded better, clearer, brighter, cleaner . . . the soundstage is wider and more relaxed. Most of all, they were a pure joy to listen to. There's that weird thing I like to call "room sound." Some people I talk to know what I'm talking about, others don't. The MoFi discs reveal the room in which the instruments were recorded – one can sense the walls and space around them, especially Neil Peart's drums, which practically sound alive.
Permanent Waveshas arrived (stamped with #00398 in gold lettering – sweet!) and has gone through the same process – A/B-ing with the 1997 remaster – and the conclusion is the same. The latest Mobile Fidelity offering will not, however, find itself forgotten like the other Rush MoFi releases did. Nor will the previous three – they have found a permanent home on my Ipod, ripped in Apple Lossless format for the highest sound quality possible on that iconic little box. And what aobut you? The right listener, the picky listener, especially the Rush fan audiophile, on the right equipment, is going to have a second Christmas.
As for that new packaging style, it's beautiful. I'll always miss the cool and smart Lift-Lock cases, but these mini-LP replicas are very nice. But . . . unfortunately there has to be a "but" . . . for some very strange reason, while Mobile Fidelity focuses so much time and energy recreating the original packaging, with nice, sharp images used for the cover and all photos, they really fudged it when it comes to the lyrics book cover, which is the same as the album cover. Instead of being the same crisp, sharp image, it is a murky, blurry, off-color red. Truly baffling – but it's relatively minor when everything else is so nice.
I'm older, maybe wiser, but certainly by now my hearing should be worse, not better, right? Isn't that how things work? You get older, and time and exposure takes its toll and things start wearing out, right? Perhaps that's not as it seems. Maybe as we get older, our hearing may start to go, but maybe there's a grace period where we're given a chance to really experience things the way we should. Maybe before it starts to deteriorate we get more sensitive. Or maybe I'm just lucky that I decided a decade ago to really start taking care of my hearing by watching the volume and wearing ear plugs at concerts. There are a million maybes. What's certain is that I'm lucky that I decided to give those discs a chance again. I might have missed this window of opportunity all together.