The Sultans of Swing

Harry doesn’t mind if he doesn’t make the scene. He’s got a day time job; he’s doin’ alright…or maybe he’s stuck at home quarantined like so many of us. But hey, there’s always a bright side, right? Sheltering in place, staying at home, etc – it gives us a chance to be with our families and pets; and our records of course!

Working from home has given me the opportunity to finally do an A/B comparison that I’ve been drooling over since the original announcement that Mobile Fidelity was going to be releasing Dire Strait’s back catalogue in their 45rpm Gain 2 Ultra Analog series. It only took a few years for it to actually happen, and a few extra months for me to realize these had started shipping to actually grab one! Part of the reason I’ve been wanting to do this comparison and review is because of the history of great sound from Dire Straits. Mark Knopfler was/is known as a stickler for sound quality, and his playing style (he reportedly never uses a pick, preferring to use only his finger/fingernail/thumb to pluck to achieve maximum control over tone) is just so conducive to great recordings. Obviously it also helps that I like the songs and music he makes, but even if it isn’t your bag, I have to imagine most audiophiles could appreciate good, clean, sound regardless of their genre preferences.

For the last decade, my go-to copy of the Knopfler-led band’s debut/self-titled album has been the 2009 Bernie Grundman cut. It’s a pressing that constantly makes my list of “top sounding, affordable, albums” – it can still easily be had for $25 or less. Grundman, one of the best mastering engineers in the game, did his usual wonders with this one. It was sourced and cut from the original analog tapes (you can not go wrong with a Grundman AAA title), and was pressed at Pallas (which at the time was my #1 favorite plant, and still is #2 or #3 behind QRP and maybe RTI).

So, while I’ve been eagerly awaiting the MoFi pressings, I haven’t been terribly upset with sticking to my ’09 cuts. However, that calm and patience quickly faded when I was finally able to pull the trigger and order the full set of the Dire Straits MoFi titles – I couldn’t wait for the mailman to show up with my way-too-heavy package from MoFi’s parent, Music Direct. I ripped that thing open like a 5 year old on Christmas desperately grabbing for a new set of Legos, and the first thing I did was to move my table’s belt to the 45rpm setting and spun the Self-Titled album through maybe 3 or 4 times straight, without breaks or switching to something else. I was absolutely FLOORED by the sound quality. It probably would have been a good time to do a shootout between the two copies then. But, nope, I was greedy with my ears and so I had to wait until a literal pandemic forced my attention back to the task I was aiming to accomplish for years. Whoops.

Anyways, I’ve finally had time to A/B this, so I made sure to tune up all of my equipment – I cleaned my plinth, rebalanced my tone-arm, cleaned the stylus (highly recommend the OnZow ZeroDust), and cleaned both records. The equipment used is as follows:

  • Turntable – Pro-Ject Debut Carbon w/ Acrylic Platter
  • Cartridge/Stylus – MoFi Electronics UltraTracker; nude elliptical stylus
  • Phono Preamp – Parasound PPH100
  • Receiver/Amp – Marantz SR7000 (using Direct mode for analog inputs)
  • Speakers – Klipsch KG4
https://i.imgur.com/i0Avhcz.jpg

I decided that I would focus on comparing 2 tracks between the records; first being the well-known and timeless ‘Sultans of Swing’ and the second being the opening track ‘Down to the Waterline’. I chose these because on each copy, these tracks are the first of a single side (Sultans is B1 on the 2009, and C1 on the MoFi; Waterline is A1 on both). This helps in negating some of the potential distortion with tracks as you move closer to the runout (inner groove distortion or “IGD” is not really a problem on either of these copies, but in a shootout like this I wanted to hold all things constant as much as possible). The order of listening was: 1) Sultans (2009), 2) Sultans (MoFI), 3) Waterline (MoFi), 4) Waterline (2009). This order created a way to handle a first-impression bias, and made it a bit easier in changing speeds just 2 times.

I went into this knowing it would likely be a really tough competition. Yes, the MoFi has the added benefit of being cut at 45rpm; there are tangible benefits to that and they are audible. But the Grundman mastered release is just SO dynamic that I wasn’t sure how it could possibly be topped. Well…I found out pretty quickly. The 2009 pressing absolutely SMASHES from the first kick of Sultans, and the bass is incredibly detailed and full, but the MoFi pressing takes the highs to another level and brings out that incredible control over tone that Knopfler has with his guitar. It wasn’t so much that I was noticing new details – I feel like any hidden details that were previously hidden were revealed when I first spun the Grundman cut – but it was as if the final layer of a thin curtain between me and the band in the studio was finally (and suddenly) removed. The clarity was remarkable. Instrument separation was enhanced to the point of the imagining being scary-real. I played Waterline on the MoFi, and nearly got lost and let the next song – ‘Water of Love’, a great tune – play before I realized I had to switch. Going back to the 2009 cut wasn’t necessarily a “downgrade” as much as it was just hearing things with a slight filter on it. Not a bad filter, but a filtering that just left me feeling slightly unfulfilled after having such a revealing listening session.

All in all, the MoFi was the hands down winner, and I’m shocked to say that and that it was so abundantly clear. Now, that said, the MoFi isn’t going to be for everyone. If I had to nitpick, the 2009 cut has better bass and low end. It’s not a huge gap by any means, but it’s there. Ultimately, to me, I could do with a slightly diminished low end for what I gain in the mids and highs with the MoFi. I’ll also say that I had a VERY slight pre-echo on Sultans with the MoFi that I did not with the 2009 cut. Not a huge deal to me. But where this will be decided for most is the cost. As I noted before, the 2009 cut can be had for ~$25; whereas the MoFi lists at $50. That’s a huge price difference, and while I personally feel that the MoFi wins handedly, we’re working at margins that are already thin to even the most critical audiophile. So, use your judgement on this one. I’d assume this experience goes for the entire Dire Straits catalog, though I haven’t done the A/B’s yet for Making Movies, Communique, or Love over Gold. On Brothers in Arms (yeah, I still want my MTV and very 80’s-ish sounds) I’d actually recommend the Stan Ricker 2LP over the MoFi or Grundman; but that’s just personal preference. I don’t love that album much anyways. But for the rest, you have some great options, and can go with a more budget option with hifi sound or the premium version with even hifi-ier(?) sound. I love when there’s so many good options like that!

Anyways, thanks for reading my ranting and raving. Let me know if you have any questions about anything I wrote or anything you think I left out! Cheers, and stay healthy!

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