Recording of April 1982: Williams: Film Music

482rotm.promo250.jpgWilliams: Suites from Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind
Los Angeles Philharmonic orchestra, Zubin Mehta.
Mobile Fidelity MFSL-C.008 (cassette).

Originally released on London Records, then re-released with better sound on a Mobile Fidelity disc (now a cutout), these are stunning performances of these popular film scores, rivaling the composer's own performances of them. (Composers aren't always the best conductors of their own music, but John Williams is one who is.)

Sonically, this is simply a tour de force: Without a doubt the best commercially made cassette I've ever heard (and I've heard a lot of them). Last month, I expressed some doubt that the high end on any cassette could rival that of a half-speed LP and, indeed, there is a softening at the top on this cassette, when compared with the Mobile Fidelity disc. But the truth of the matter is that the cassette's high end is substantially more natural than that from the disc, which was one of Mobile Fidelity's first and had a slightly steely edge to it.

My only cavil about the cassette relates to something that is probably not curable at the present state of the art of cassette recording: print-through. Sound as clean and effortless as this encourages one to listen at large-as-life volume levels—levels at which any print-through is audible. My tape had about as much as an average disc and quite a bit more than most audiophile-type discs including Mobile Fidelity's own. It was, however, only audible during un-recorded passages between segments of the music, immediately following and preceding very loud endings and beginnings, and was not obtrusive enough to be even mildly irritating.

Also, I should mention hiss. This is the quietest commercially made cassette I've ever had the pleasure to hear. There's more of it than from most modern discs, but it is very unobtrusive, being audible only during passages of total silence. Even then, it merely sounds like the kind of noise you get when you shape your lips to say "oo" and then blow air gently through them. It isn't really a hiss at all, but a low rushing sound.

If the other Mobile Fidelity cassettes are as good as this, they are going to bring on a lot of soul-searching among a lot of audiophiles who have carefully chosen their disc players to sound "good" rather than to make discs sound like master tapes, because there will be a marked difference between what they hear from Mobile Fidelity's discs and cassettes. Their problem—and it will be a nasty one—will be to determine which is right, their phono system (cartridge, tonearm, preamp) or the cassette player, or neither. (Cassette decks vary as much as cartridges in frequency response. Just look at the curves accompanying High Fidelity's test reports for the past few months.)

Mobile Fidelity may have taken the first step towards making the lowly cassette respectable among perfectionists. I hope other cassette makers follow suit, although I would rate the likelihood of that happening at about 50 to 1.

Real-time duplicating—a major factor in the quality of Mobile Fidelity's cassettes—would escalate the cost beyond most manufacturers' estimate of what will move in the marketplace. And most tape duplicating setups won't even run at 1:1 speed. For real-time copying, the whole schmeer would have to be tossed out and replaced. The only hope is for Mobile Fidelity's cassettes to sell well enough to demonstrate to other cassette makers that the public will pay a high price if the quality is there.

Meanwhile, Mobile Fidelity is going to have its corporate hands full maintaining the kind of quality control needed to get their super-cassettes off the ground. Unlike discs, whose sound quality can be monitored by listening to one pressing out of every hundred or so, and whose pressing quality can be ascertained by a quick visual inspection, tapes need constant QC monitoring for intermittent problems like dropouts and fluctuating high end (due to tape skew or particles of dust lodging on the head near the gap). Spot checks while recording will not usually pick these things up, and the only real answer is a computerized monitor which will continuously compare the original master with the playback from each of the duplicators. Mobile Fidelity tells us that's one of their next moves.—J. Gordon Holt

hollowman's picture

I have the non-MFSL Decca/London Lp, and yes ... it is superb!

(I had the MFSL cassette, too. The MFSL LP is readily avail on eBay for not much $$; and the CD re-issue, see below, is probably the best version of all)

The Mehta/LA Phil has been released on CD a few times in various iteration, including this from 1997 ...

... and, yes, I do think the CD versions surpass my 1978 London LP. Can't speak for the MFSL LP, however

BTW ...

The Star Wars (Original Soundtrack, London SO) on RSO (double LP) was notorious for poor sound, so the Mehta/LA Phil/London version was refreshing.
Then, in 1993, the SW original trilogy was remastered in a box-set release, and this significantly improved the original releases of all three films.

SW music is represented well in recorded media ... lots of selection ... but of most interest to audiophiles may be two Telarc releases from the early 80s: