Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs Dire Straits ‘The Collection’ Review
The first five Dire Straits albums have just got the Mo-Fi treatment. David Price takes them all for a spin…
Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab
Dire Straits ‘The Collection’ All 5 Albums
Numbered Limited Edition 45rpm 180g 2LP
AUD $525.00 RRP
When Sultans of Swing first hit the British pop charts in May 1978, the Top 40 was awash with the vanguard of new wave music. Adrenalin-fuelled bands like The Stranglers, Siouxsie and The Banshees and Elvis Costello and The Attractions were swarming all over – and then came Dire Straits. To this music-obsessed teenager, their debut single sounded totally out of time – it might as well have been released five years earlier. And it wasn’t just the music, because the denim-clad guys in the band looked even more behind the times; they seemed dowdy and middle-aged, with faces that only their mothers could love.
Despite this, the musical beauty of Sultans mesmerised me. Although it felt closer to Dr Feelgood and Be Bop Deluxe than The Buzzcocks or The Undertones, the infectiousness of Mark Knopfler’s lead guitar riff, the plaintive sound of his vocals and the ease of the band’s playing were quite unlike anything else around. I was also fascinated by the lyrics – instead of the usual boy-meets-girl stuff, here was a loving song about an ageing pub rock band with a frontman who, “plays an old guitar because it’s all he can afford.” I found this intriguing because it ran counter to the lyrical pretentiousness of so much of what was around back then.
Sultans of Swing was first recorded in summer 1977, then re-recorded and released as a single the following May. The band’s eponymous first album followed soon after, recorded in Basing Street Studios in London from 13th February to 5th March 1978. Infused with the sound of early sixties Fender Stratocasters – no synthesisers here – it further underlined the fact that Dire Straits were more in the mould of JJ Cale and Eric Clapton than the New York Dolls. Produced by Muff Winwood and engineered by Rhett Davies, the new album had a more grown-up feel than any of the band’s chart contemporaries.
Alongside the beautifully crafted songs and superlative playing, the other standout feature of that first album was its sound quality. It was quickly adopted by the hi-fi cognoscenti as a great sounding modern LP, ideal for showing off any self-respecting stereo system. Recorded at what was arguably the high watermark of analogue, it had a clean and expansive sound that cosseted the listener. Compare that to the dry and forward tonality that contemporaries like Rush were getting on ‘Permanent Waves’ – recorded in September 1979 – and it was easy to see why we loved it so.
Dire Straits went from strength to strength, following up their first album with the excellent ‘Communiqué’ (1979) and ‘Making Movies’ (1980). With each successive release, the sound got more sophisticated and the songs more complex. Hits like Lady Writer and Romeo and Juliet took them to a wider audience, but the understanding was that this was very much an albums band. As each new Long Player came out, production and recording quality ratcheted up. The opulent sounding ‘Love Over Gold’ (1982) was a step-change in terms of complexity, and then the sassy ‘Brothers in Arms’ (1985) pushed the band to global megastardom. A technical masterpiece, it was arguably the state-of-the-art eighties rock recording alongside Paul Simon’s ‘Graceland’.
Given the fine sound of the original LPs, it was a brave move for Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs to take on the band’s back catalogue. The first five studio albums are now available in numbered, limited edition format as ‘The Collection’. These albums are a treat for any hi-fi system even in standard guise, so the question is whether the Mobile Fidelity treatment is worth the not inconsiderable extra cost?
Mastered from the original analogue master tapes, they are pressed at RTI on two 180g vinyl discs running at 45RPM – the higher speed is able to deliver better sound than the single 33.33RPM LP original, thanks to the better signal-to-noise ratio and wider groove spacing of the twelve-inch 45RPM format. Packaging is superb, with thick card jackets and silky polythene inners that don’t scratch the disc surface every time you slip it in and out. These are lovely artefacts, beautiful things to have in your collection.
I have the UK first pressings of all these LPs on the Vertigo label – in standard speed guise of course – bought on or close to the day of release, way back when. The Mobile Fidelity reissues sound dramatically richer, sweeter and more detailed, regardless of which title we’re talking about. Let’s take Sultans of Swing from the first album as a gauge. The first thing that strikes you is the quietness of the pressing; I pushed the volume really high on my system (Marantz Tt 1000 turntable, Audio-technica AT-1010 tonearm and Lyra Dorian cartridge, plus Sony TA-F70 integrated amplifier and Yamaha NS-1000M loudspeakers) and heard virtually no surface noise. As soon as this track kicks off, there’s a tiny amount of studio tape hiss as you’d expect, but it’s still as quiet as anyone could reasonably wish.
The difference in bass quality is instantly apparent, being appreciably warmer and stronger than the Vertigo pressing, while the midband is smoother and fractionally tonally less forward. Despite this, detail teems out of the darkness, allowing the listener to follow each individual instrument as it plays throughout the song. I was particularly struck by how much easier it was to make out the rhythm guitar work, which on this track is of course seriously special. Treble sounds significantly silkier, yet isn’t in any way less impactful. Indeed, the hi-hat cymbal strikes glint out like a star on a dark night, showing better dynamic contrast than with the stock pressing. At the same time, it’s important to point out that the top end doesn’t sound airbrushed or fake in any way.
There’s a step change in soundstaging too. The Mobile Fidelity version pulls you closer into the mix, as if you’ve moved from the concert hall auditorium towards the stalls. You’re more immersed in the proceedings, yet it’s strangely counterintuitive because you’re not being assaulted by any sort of screechiness or distortion. Mark Knopfler’s grainy vocals sound more gutsy and immediate, having a more ethereal quality than the slightly more distant original pressing. This new version clearly has superior dynamics, but doesn’t appear to the listener as being louder per se – it’s just that you can hear the quieter bits that were never there before.
I once thought the latter half of the nineteen seventies was a high watermark for analogue recording, but more recently I began to believe that many examples of this period – such as ‘Trick of the Tail’ from Genesis – were rather dry sounding and bandwidth-limited. I now realise I was right first time, because it was the poor mastering of that period that holds them back, and there was nothing wrong with the recording equipment. The Mobile Fidelity versions of these Dire Straits LPs show the world just how detailed, musical and full-bodied analogue tape could be, forty or so years ago.
There are some reservations. For example, on my copy of ‘Love Over Gold’, Private Investigations has some subtle surface noise, but the other discs are pretty much perfect. Also, I rather miss playing the LP right through – all twenty-something minutes of it – rather than having to take a couple of tracks per side at a time thanks to the 45RPM playback speed and wide groove spacing. Furthermore, you do need a serious playback system, as the redoubtable bass energy is such that middling turntables, tonearms, cartridges, amplifiers and indeed loudspeakers won’t be in their comfort zones – and could sound leaden and slow. Only a seriously high-resolution system can properly render the remarkable amount of detail being excavated. And finally, the hefty price tag will put some people off, although the discs are available individually if you can’t afford the collection.
Thumbs firmly aloft then for this beautiful limited edition collection of Dire Straits Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs LPs. Mainstream releases like these are important in the great scheme of vinyl things, because although this company has a diverse catalogue of audiophile LPs, it needs more big-selling artists to really pull vinyl junkies in. Listening to these classic albums in an entirely new way is an experience that I won’t forget too soon. Having heard these songs in various different formats over the years – including hi-res digital – I have to say that on my system at least, nothing comes close to vinyl done this way.
For more information, visit Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs.
David started his career in 1993 writing for Hi-Fi World and went on to edit the magazine for nearly a decade. He was then made Editor of Hi-Fi Choice and continued to freelance for it and Hi-Fi News until becoming StereoNET’s Editor-in-Chief.