Reviews of Attainable Hi-Fi & Home-Theater Equipment


Reviews of Attainable Hi-Fi & Home-Theater Equipment

Since 1977, with a brief break around 2000, Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab records have had a reputation for being some of the best vinyl available anywhere. BDA (Before Digital Audio), Mobile Fidelity’s half-speed-mastered SuperVinyl LPs had incredible dynamic range and superquiet surfaces. Finally, after all these years, Mobile Fidelity offers its own line of turntables, sold under its MoFi Electronics brand. I had the pleasure of auditioning their basic model, the StudioDeck.

The simple route for MoFi would have been to buy someone else’s turntable and slap their logo on it. They took the road less traveled and called on San Francisco turntable guru Allen Perkins, whose own Spiral Groove ’tables start at $18,000, to design a turntable that could retail for around a grand. To design the StudioDeck’s vibration-suppressing plinth and support feet -- especially important if, say, you live next to or above a subway line or busy street -- MoFi turned to Harmonic Resolution Systems (HRS), well known in the high end for its vibration-damping equipment stands, isolation bases, and products that reduce the noise generated by audio components themselves.

SuperDeck

The StudioDeck, without cartridge, runs $1199 USD; bundle it with the StudioTracker cartridge ($199), manufactured for MoFi in Japan, and the package becomes the StudioDeck+, for a discounted total of $1349 -- you save $49.

Description

When the StudioDeck+ arrived at my abode, I was taken aback at the size of the package: it’s big. Inside the outer box is an inner box, to minimize damage in transport, and inside that, everything is held in place with molded plastic inserts -- nothing can move.

The StudioDeck itself is sizable at 19.69”W by 5.575”H x 14.25”D, and it weighs 19.1 pounds -- not up there with Spiral Groove’s 80-pound monsters, but hefty enough. It comes with a heavy-duty dustcover that MoFi suggests be removed when you play records. I concur -- its hinges aren’t heavy-duty, and probably wouldn’t last long if you lifted and lowered it with each change of LP side.

The most striking feature of the StudioDeck is its tonearm. The tonearms of most entry-level turntables are no longer than 9”, a good compromise between reasonable cost and reduced tracking error -- the longer the distance from the stylus to the arm’s pivot point, the lower the tracking error. But the StudioDeck’s aluminum tonearm is a full 10” long and is straight, with an offset, and has a permanently affixed headshell designed to hold cartridges weighing from 5 to 10gm; i.e., most moving-magnet and moving-iron models, and many moving-coils. The tonearm is fully adjustable for vertical tracking force (VTF), antiskating, vertical tracking angle (VTA), and azimuth. Or you can make life simpler and get all of those set at the factory when you buy a StudioDeck+, with StudioTracker cartridge already installed.

SuperDeck

MoFi’s design brief for the StudioDeck seems to have emphasized absolute isolation of the cartridge stylus from unwanted vibrations and noise. Good idea, of course -- vibrations can affect the stylus’s contact with the disc and adversely affect its accurate tracing of the information in the groove.

First in that effort is the StudioDeck’s platter of 3/4”-thick Delrin, a thermoplastic from DuPont noted for its great stiffness as well as what MoFi calls its “wonderful impedance match to vinyl, effectively grounding unwanted noise and keeping it away from the stylus.”

The top deck of the plinth is an aluminum plate bonded to a chassis of medium-density fiberboard (MDF) in order to, as MoFi states, “add mass and eliminate tonal coloration.” It’s a striking expanse of black broken only by the bright yellow drive belt -- it remains fully visible at all times -- and the yellow glow of the On indicator in the deck’s front-right corner, just above the broad On/Off button on the plinth’s narrow front edge.

Like those of many of today’s turntables, the StudioDeck’s motor turns at 300rpm. MoFi claims that it has taken great pains to isolate the motor and damp its vibrations, to keep them away from the stylus, the tonearm, and the platter.

Along the rear edge of the plinth are the connections, from left to right: gold-plated RCA jacks for the phono cable; a knurled, gold-plated ground post; the first fuse bay I’ve ever seen on a turntable; and an IEC power inlet, to accommodate a power cord heavier than many I’ve seen accompanying power amplifiers.

SuperDeck

Included with the StudioDeck+ bundle are two paper tubes. One contains cartridge-related accessories, such as a small hex driver to snug up the cartridge to the headshell, and a stylus-cleaning brush. The other tube contains two small Allen wrenches for adjusting the cartridge’s VTA and azimuth, to ensure that the stylus is perpendicular to the record groove. There are also two small bumpers for the dustcover, intertwined and better-than-typical RCA interconnects, and a ground wire. The StudioDeck comes with a three-year limited warranty for parts and labor; the StudioTracker is covered for one year.

The StudioTracker is a moving-magnet cartridge with an elliptical stylus of unspecified dimensions (my guess: 0.3 x 0.7mm). The entry-level model of MoFi’s three cartridges, the StudioTracker weighs 6.4gm, pretty standard for MMs. Its suggested range of VTF is 1.8-2.2gm, with 2.0gm recommended.

With my review sample MoFi also included its optional Super Heavyweight record weight ($199), a solid, 13-ounce puck machined from aluminum billet, with a soft polymer underside, designed to improve contact between the disc and platter to reduce any vibrations from the record itself. I used it throughout the review period and discuss its effects below.

Setup

Setting up the StudioDeck was straightforward. First out of the box was the dustcover-and-turntable assembly. Below that, in nicely segmented nests, were the platter, the power cord, the drive belt, the two paper tubes, and the two bumpers. The enclosed instruction booklet nicely covers setup from start to finish. And because I was sent the StudioDeck+ package, with StudioTracker cartridge already installed, it was even easier to set up. We of the reviewing constituency salute you, MoFi!

To help you set the tonearm’s counterweight, there’s a bit of white tape on arm stub that says, in effect, “put counterweight here.” And while I had to do some fine-tuning, that “factory setting” was fairly close to spot on.

SuperDeck

I found three fiddly points in setup. MoFi expects that anyone who buys one of its turntables will have a stylus-pressure gauge. It took some fine adjusting to set the recommended VTF of 2.0gm with my veteran Shure gauge. And to get the StudioDeck perfectly level, MoFi also expects you to have a bubble level, which I do (it’s a cheap accessory). I found I had to adjust the height of the StudioDeck’s vibration-damping feet.

The third fiddly bit was setting the antiskate counterweight, which counteracts the tonearm’s tendency to skate, or pull toward the center of the LP during play. This small weight is attached to a fine thread, at the end of which is a loop with a soft rubber ring. The goal is to thread this string over and through a slot in the rear of a small post that rises from the base of the arm’s pivot, then bends to extend behind the pivot. The little antiskate counterweight then hangs by its string from this post. This poses some difficulties. It helps if you have exceptionally good vision, slender fingers, and lots of patience. If your StudioDeck comes with a preinstalled StudioTracker cartridge, you’re directed to install the rubber ring at the second of the post’s detents (the weight of the cartridge determines which detent is used). After a fair amount of fiddling and the help of some small needle-nose pliers, I finally was able to get ring over post. But once that’s done, it’s something you’ll probably never have to fool with again -- unless you get a different cartridge.

Listening and operation

Unlike many turntables we’ve reviewed, the MoFi StudioDeck is entirely manual in operation: at the end of a side, the stylus is not lifted out of the lead-out groove until you raise the tonearm by using the arm-lift lever. This demands that, rather than just sit back and take it easy, you be involved in the entire experience of playing a record. The damped arm lift, or cueing lever, operated smoothly.

The first album I played was Dire Straits’ Brothers in Arms -- in this case, MoFi’s own 45rpm edition, pressed on two 200gm LPs (Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab MFSL 2-441), a copy of which was included with the StudioDeck+. I also own this album on an original Warner Bros. LP, on a WB CD, and as a 24-bit/96kHz download -- I believe I have the bases covered.

I cued up my favorite cut, “Money for Nothing.” Played on the MoFi StudioDeck+, the MFSL LP produced, by far, the most definitive-sounding version of this recording that I’ve heard, with a more believable, more consistent, more defined soundfield. Yes, the drums still sounded as if played by the drummer with the world’s longest arms -- his kit covers the entire width of the soundfield -- but nothing was clumped at the left, center, or right: his drums were spread across the soundstage more completely, as if their sounds had been captured by perhaps five microphones. They also offered good, tight bass slam. When Mark Knopfler is backed by another singer, their voices were close but still separate, something I hadn’t heard before. And at the end, when Sting sings his famous “I want my MTV,” his voice had some breadth, while Knopfler’s was in tight around his vocal mike. I hadn’t noticed that in any other edition of this recording. I was blown away.

SuperDeck

Next, I listened to several cuts from a reissue of Billy Joel’s Greatest Hits Volume I & Volume II (2 LPs, Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab 3-418), including “Piano Man,” “The Entertainer,” and “Allentown.” In each case, the sound had an absolutely smooth midrange. The most revealing cut was “Uptown Girl,” Joel’s tribute to Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons (and his then girlfriend, Elle Macpherson). I also have this on a Columbia LP and as a WAV file, but never before the StudioDeck+ had I heard Joel’s voice out front of the backing singers, who are just a touch behind him -- maybe only a couple feet. In the past, Joel’s and the other voices have all been on top of each other. Another aspect that came out front and center was how complex, at least to this wannabe drummer, Liberty DeVitto’s playing is -- on the beat, then syncopated, then on the back beat, etc. In all cases, Joel’s piano was solid, the bass was tight, and all the instruments, including such oddities as zither, accordion, and a synthesizer doing a fine pennywhistle, were crystal clear. I thought this album’s high frequencies weren’t as prominent as through some other turntable-tonearm-cartridge combos I’ve heard, but I didn’t find myself missing them as much as I might have -- overall, the sound was just so right!

Then I began my final MoFi-on-MoFi listening session: Miles Davis’s legendary Kind of Blue (3 LPs, 45rpm, Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab MFSL 2-45011). If ever there was an all-star band, this was it -- Miles on trumpet, Julian “Cannonball” Adderley on alto sax, John Coltrane on tenor sax, Bill Evans on piano (replaced on one cut by Wynton Kelly), Paul Chambers on bass, Jimmy Cobb on drums -- and MFSL’s 45rpm edition surpasses all other versions I’ve heard. I concentrated on my favorite cut, “So What.” It begins with Chambers’s double bass, countered by short chords from Evans. I was struck by how incredibly clean and spare the bass and piano sounded -- no wasted motion on either. When Davis enters, except for his slight muffs -- or are they intentional? -- his trumpet sound was so pure it sent shivers up my spine. The saxes add depth to the performance and Cobb’s drumming is suitably restrained but provides a steady, compelling beat. Through the MoFi, I gained a further, deeper appreciation of all the talent on this album. Truly phenomenal.

SuperDeck

To test the vibration-damping powers of the StudioDeck’s plinth and feet, I walked heavily past the turntable several times. It never skipped. Can’t say that about my Dual CS5000 turntable.

I then tried some non-MoFi vinyl, beginning with Paul Simon’s Graceland and “You Can Call Me Al” (LP, Warner Bros. 25447-1). The depth of the soundstage was exceptional, voices and instruments layered from front to back. The articulation of the bass solo near the end was phenomenal, with every note discernible. And the room’s ambience came through fully.

Next was “Finally Found a Reason,” from Art Garfunkel’s Fate for Breakfast (LP, Columbia 35780). First, the background was absolutely silent -- no noise of any kind. The acoustic guitar’s sound was crisp and clean. Instruments were placed nicely across the soundfield, and Garfunkel’s voice was pleasantly in front of the backing singers.

Immediately following was “Love Dance,” from Diane Schuur’s Schuur Thing (LP, GRP GRP-A-1022). This is a sumptuous arrangement of mostly keyboards and synthesizers, but the solo in the bridge is performed by famed tenor-sax man Stan Getz, who never sounded smoother. Schuur’s voice can be the vocal equivalent of a pneumatic drill, but here she soft-pedals her vocal acrobatics, and that was transmitted fully by the StudioDeck+.

SuperDeck

I then played “Four Brothers,” from The Best of the Manhattan Transfer (LP, Atlantic SD 19319). In this very quick-paced jazz vocalese performance, the four vocalists sing words by Jon Hendricks, set to transcriptions of the solos by the four saxophone players of Woody Herman’s Herd -- Zoot Sims, Serge Chaloff, Herbie Steward, and Stan Getz -- as played in a 1947 recording of this tune by Jimmy Giuffre. From most turntables, the words come so fast they can smear. Not here -- I could understand every word. And this is the last cut on the side -- if distortion were to show up, it would be here. But it didn’t. Everything sounded as smooth as if the side had begun with “Four Brothers.” And at the end, the soprano’s two-octave leap showed no sign of strain.

Finally, for something more rhythmic, I turned to “Getaway,” from The Best of Earth, Wind & Fire (LP, Columbia PC 35647). Bass and drums were tighter than I’ve heard them on my own turntables, and the highs weren’t restricted -- everything was clear and clean, all the way up the scales. This, too, was the last track on its side, and I listened hard for distortion. None.

Comparison

I bought my Dual CS5000 turntable long ago for $699, and for many of those years have used it with a Shure V15 Type V-MR cartridge. I’ve reviewed many fine turntables in that time, but never one that sounded so much better than my Dual than did the StudioDeck+.

In Art Garfunkel’s recording of “Finally Found a Reason,” I like the combination of semi-delicate acoustic guitar, solid but not overpowering bass, and the great blend of his backing singers’ voices. Through the Dual, the song sounded as I’m accustomed to hearing it: good articulation of the guitar’s sound, Garfunkel’s voice as ethereal as always, with the singers clustered around him -- all in all, a very satisfying performance.

Then I listened to it with the StudioDeck+. The MoFi turntable was, by far, the superior record player. First was the absolutely “black” background -- a total absence of noise. The guitar sounded very slightly cleaner than with the Dual-Shure combo, and the bass came through with more authority. Finally, the backing singers sounded as if they were a couple of feet behind Garfunkel rather than right next to him. By no small margin, the StudioDeck+ is a fabulous piece of equipment.

MoFi Super Heavyweight

Record weights, in my view, have never been a big deal. They can weigh down a turntable not designed for them and cause undue wear to the spindle bearing, resulting in a repair bill. And, on some ’tables with small, electric clock-like motors, the heavy weight can slow the platter’s speed of rotation. Not good. But the right combination of record weight and turntable produces none of these problems; in that case, the weight presses down the LP so that it comes into more solid contact with the platter, which can reduce background noise.

Super Heavyweight

That’s what happened with the MoFi Super Heavyweight. With many different LPs, I switched between using and not using it. In combination with the StudioDeck’s Delrin platter, the Heavyweight consistently resulted in greater solidity and dead-silent backgrounds. At $199, the Super Heavyweight isn’t cheap -- but if you pop for a StudioDeck+, keep saving, then pick up this weight as soon as you can.

Conclusion

While $1349 is not an inconsiderable amount of cash for many of us, I discovered that the StudioDeck+ package is a truly great value. To its credit, MoFi Electronics has eschewed any gimmicks and spent their money on things that matter: a great, sturdy, yet medium-mass tonearm; a smooth drive system; a fabulous platter; a fine cartridge; and outstanding isolation from vibration. The dustcover’s better mounts and hinges could be sturdier, so that it could be more easily used during playback, but that’s a trifling complaint.

SuperDeck

Otherwise, I’ve never heard a turntable-tonearm-cartridge combo that provided so totally musical a listening experience as the MoFi StudioDeck+. I implore thee: hie thyself to a MoFi dealer, take with thee thy favorite vinyl, and listen for thine own self. Make sure the rest of the system is capable of wringing all the dynamics and delicacy from a recording, and see if you don’t think the MoFi is an absolute gem. I have no doubt you’ll want one as much as I do.

. . . Thom Moon
thom@soundstagenetwork.com

Associated Equipment

  • Turntable -- Dual CS5000 turntable with Shure V15 Type V-MR cartridge
  • Preamplifier -- Linn Majik 1P
  • Power amplifier -- NAD C 275BEE
  • Speakers -- Acoustic Energy Radiance 3, Advent ASW-1200 subwoofer
  • Interconnects -- Dual (captive phone cable), MoFi stock, Straight Wire
  • Speaker cables -- Acoustic Research 14-gauge

MoFi Electronics StudioDeck+: StudioDeck Turntable with StudioTracker Cartridge
Price: $1349 USD, bundled (turntable alone, $1199 USD; cartridge alone, $199 USD).
Warranty: Three years parts and labor.

MoFi Electronics
715 W. Ellsworth Road
Ann Arbor, MI 48108
Phone: (734) 904-3191

Website: www.mofielectronics.com