Listening Test #2: Mober Subchassis

Below you’ll find all my listening notes for my first “modification”: the replacement of the pressed steel Cirkus subchassis + laminated armboard with the machined aluminum Mober one-piece armboard/subchassis. You can read about the installation process of the Mober. You can read all about the “pre-modification” Base setup. You can read about my listening methodology and read my listening impressions on the Base setup.

tl;dr

This is a really long post, and I don’t expect anyone to actually read through the whole thing. These are just a bunch of detailed notes I made while listening according to my absurdly rigorous testing methodology — mostly, I’m recording them to justify and back up the simple conclusion that I will offer after this semi-colon: the new subchassis made things sound a lot better.

If you’re interested in brief, track-by-track summaries of the difference each step made (including numerical, “5%” better comparisons), see the “Summary of Effects” page. According to these summaries, with the Mober subchassis swapped in one track sounded worse, one sounded the same, and ten sounded better. The average difference was +8.75%. Like I said, the Mober definitely made things sound better.

I wasn’t invested in this outcome. I wasn’t particularly expecting this outcome. I’m skeptical and self-effacing by nature, so I totally expected that a new $600 subchassis would make absolutely no difference. Well, surprise surprise, it made a very noticeable difference, as you’ll see below. In almost every case, the vinyl setup sounded obviously better with the Mober subchassis added. My comments are quite consistent across test tracks: more detail, more texture, more space.

Honestly, I’d noticed — or thought I noticed — this as soon as I put the Mober in. I’ve been listening to a ton of music lately (I’m an English professor, remember, and I work at home most of the time, and jazz in particular is a great background for all the work I do) and I’d noticed a new lifelike quality to cymbals and acoustic instruments while casually listening to familiar albums like Bitches Brew. But acoustic perception is so subjective, and sound-memory is so foggy. So I was happy to be able to employ my quasi-objective methodology and really dig into the details. As you’ll see, and as I often comment, the differences were not subtle.

1. The Beach Boys, “I Know There’s an Answer,” Pet Sounds (1966)

Full vinyl listen. Well, I’ve just been listening to the Prince Lasha Quartet’s The Cry! — so nothing’s going to sound stunning after that. But the vinyl sounds great. Tons of detail, texture, weight of bass.

Digital. Bit of a loudness differential to overcome, definitely. But with the volume jacked (higher than vinyl? this is such an annoying part of the comparison process) it sounds great. These “full listen” calibration procedures are seeming less and less useful. But I guess it’s useful to just get a sense of “good” outside of direct comparison. Listening to digital here, my impression is that it’s not as alive as the vinyl, but that could be because as I write I’m revisiting my notes from last time and encountering words like “hardness” and “99% opaque grey filter.” 

Back to back with delay. Wow, they really don’t sound very different. I’m not seeing the hardness or the filter. The vinyl sounds terrific but not appreciably different from the digital. Has the LP12 gotten worse?? Or was I letting loudness hamper my judgments before?

Second-to-second. Yep, direct back-to-back confirms it: not much difference at all. Maybe a little bit more softness to the digital — a bit of glossy soft-focus. But I really can’t see much to separate them. Loudness differences do make it really tricky.

2. Charles Mingus, “Track B — Duet Solo Dancers,” The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady (1963)

Full digital. Sounds lovely, as I’ve come to expect. Textures galore from the reed instruments, the cymbals sound nice and dainty, that contrabass sounds devastatingly deep, as it should.

Full vinyl. Sounds rougher, less in focus. Maybe (again) because this copy is a little worn? Bass is beautifully deep and the textures are gorgeous in the “horn conversation” halfway through. But I bet direct comparison will still favour the digital.

Slight delay. No, weird, vinyl’s back on top. More presence, more texture, rounder drums, more detail, smoother, less harsh. Unexpected given the full listens.

Second-to-second. I’m hearing little differences in the actual mix, so not a true comparison. Placement of instruments, etc., are a little different in both. The cymbals are much more present in the mix, more harsh, more detail, not necessarily in a good way. In this comparison, the vinyl again seems a little muted in comparison to the authoritative, muscular digital. Loudness is again a factor. The excitement of a minute ago vanishes into… different but both good. 

These things are really hard to compare! Am I having a bad “hearing night”? 

I remind myself here that the purpose of the tests isn’t “which is better” but “how have they changed from iteration to iteration”? It would seem the vinyl setup has gotten a bit better from last time, but the variability of my own impressions from the “slight delay” to the “second-to-second” has me worried about my ability to tell what’s going on…

3. The Pentangle, “Let No Man Steal Your Thyme,” The Pentangle (1968)

Full vinyl. Lovely, delicate, full of the texture of the bowed bass, spacious. Some annoying surface noise throughout, but that’s a constant across tests at least. 

Full digital. A little more dynamic, with no surface noise! A bit more detail. Sounds terrific.

Slight delay. Hmm, actually very close in terms of detail, impact, percussiveness. The rim hits, which actually make up most of this song, have a bit more lifelike detail on digital, a bit more kick on vinyl. Both do a get that tickle feeling going in the stomach with the closing bowed bass flop-out.

S-2-s. As above. At least I can trust my listening skills this time! Slightly fuller on vinyl, bass a bit more fleshed out. Looking back at my notes, with the Cirkus subchassis I was complaining about a lack of detail. I’m not any more. This is the first solid conclusion of tonight’s listening session (the last one tonight; I do 3 at a time): detail seems to have picked up with the Mober. In all cases, it was a dead wash tonight between vinyl and digital; that was not the case last time. So is my vinyl rig sounding “more digital” now? I guess so. We’ll see how things stand when we get to the tracks where vinyl clearly won last round…

[After concluding this listening session, I put Prince Lasha’s The Cry! back on, and it did indeed sound much better than any of my test discs! What a beautifully recorded (and otherwise beautiful) disc!! Comparing to the Tidal version, very clear win for vinyl, fluid, airy, more spacious, more detail, more presence… Crazy. And reassuring. At least for obscure tracks that haven’t been properly mastered for digital!]

4. Mariah, “Shinzo No Tobira,” Utakata No Hibi (1983)

Full vinyl. Sounds beautiful: lots of top-end detail, plenty of rattle, very full bass, Could maybe be slightly gentler, more “filigree” on the rattle sounds? Synth breakdown has lots of punch. 

Full digital. Very little sense of a difference outside of directA-B comparison here. Is there maybe a bit less slam on the bass? And on the synths? Could just be a volume thing. (What a beautiful song! Excellent test track!)

Slight delay.  Vinyl has absolutely closed the gap on detail. The rattle is now a little better on vinyl if anything. Fuller bass still present on vinyl. The snare-like drum definitely has more bite on vinyl. The stereo image is wider on vinyl and more defined. (Just had to double-check I didn’t have my inputs reversed.) More crunch/texture on the vinyl synth breakdown. More kick and definition to all drum sounds on vinyl. More alive, more pleasant. This at every volume level, so it’s not just a matter of unequal loudness.

S-2-s. All above impressions confirmed. More detail, more attack and definition, more crunch, more texture, more slam on vinyl. 

Irrefutible turnaround. Way to go, Mober!

6. Joy Division, “Atmosphere,” 12″ single (1980)

Full digital. I think I’ve gotten used to whatever thing the Mober is doing (I’ve been listening to A LOT of records lately — and lots of really good stuff, mostly lent by Jared, original Blue Note and Contemporary and Three Blind Mice) and now good-sounding music through the Gungnir just sort of doesn’t thrill me anymore. This sounds very good but not in a way that blows me away anymore. I’m aware that there could be just a little more extension, a little more detail, a little more filigree… And I expect to get it from the vinyl in a second.

Full vinyl. Yeah, sure enough… slam! Totally lifelike drums, huge, round, bold, detailed. This is what I was hoping for. (As I write this I’m watching my needle jump up around over the slightly warped Factory UK vinyl… but it still sounds totally amazing… Oh, imperfectly perfect medium!) Such a beautiful song, so beautifully performed here, both by the band and by my system!)

Slight delay. Not subtle. Both sound great but vinyl is just better, fuller, harder-hitting, more detailed, more focused, less hazy. Again, better stereo image on vinyl, especially in the rat-rat drum call-response leading up to the second synth-shower. Just so much more urgent. With vinyl leaving digital so far behind so soon, I’m not sure digital is going to be such a useful comparison going forward. Well, we’ll see. I guess it can still just get better and better in comparison?

S-2-s. Just so impoverished on digital. Foggy, dead. Can’t even really stand to listen to it when the beautiful vinyl sound is just a switch-click away… The shaker sound is particularly pathetic on digital compared to vinyl. (The mixes are definitely a little different, shaker is in a different spot, so maybe take the imaging comments with a grain of salt.)

5. Low, “Just Make It Stop,” The Invisible Way (2013)

Full vinyl. Looking at my notes, I see this was a pretty clear win for digital last time. Sounds pretty great on vinyl this time. Very full, lots of weight on the low end. Maybe a little mushy, though — the piano is not very clear during the singing (nor, even, during the instrumental piano break). Self-harmony sounds beautiful. 

Full digital. I sense it’s less full than the vinyl version, but maybe with deeper sub-bass. The part I mentioned before, where it seemed mushy on vinyl, is also mushy here. Self-harmony sounds beautiful here — the lack of any surface noise helps in the quiet passage. 

Slight delay. Sounds a little muddy, veiled on digital. Brighter, more focused, nicer, cleaner cymbals on vinyl. In the quiet self-harmony, the word “knot” on vinyl sounds like Ornette’s alto sax, sort of drilling straight into my eardrum and then ringing my whole ear along with it. Doesn’t happen on digital. Piano is more focused, more distinctive. Looks like another big leap for the vinyl system.

S-2-s. Not quite as clear, maybe, but still really clear. Vinyl has air, clarity, detail, naturalness, especially on Mimi’s voice in the self-harmony part, just a bit more sparkle on cymbals. 

Yes, things have gotten much better with the Mober. (Listening to the next track now. Alan’s voice sounds pretty damned good too, as does acoustic guitar!)

7. Yo La Tengo, “Stockholm Syndrome,” I Can Feel the Heart Beating as One (1997)

Vinyl full. Nothing especially mind-blowing. Things sound a little muffled, hard. Ah, I turned it up a wee bit, and now the acoustic guitar textures sound like a guiro (those armadillo-looking instruments you rub a wooden stick against for rattly percussion) — more fun! I’m going to go deaf doing all these tests. But yes, much more pleasant with a little more volume.

Digital full. Okay, pretty much the same, but with more bass and a little less of the guiro effect. I’m struggling to hear the wood block as clearly as on vinyl. 

Slight delay. Wow, this is the clearest difference yet. Digital is constrained in the soundstage, narrow, muddy, dull. Vinyl is brighter, wider, more detailed, more sparkling. (Helpfully, the levels are pretty much identical across the two.) You do miss a bit of the bass heft of digital, but preference-wise, not even close. Wow, digital is just so fuzzy, hazy, dull. Vinyl just so much more alive. 

S-2-s just confirms all the above. Massive difference. Vinyl massively more pleasant and detailed.  The differences are so stark — and the comparison so totally difference from last time — that it is very very clear how much of a difference the subchassis made. It is not small. If every upgrade makes this much difference I will be hearing things I’ve never heard before at the end of the journey. (Did I just call my upgrade frenzy a “journey”? Maybe I should quit my job and start writing for The Bachelor.)

8. The Beatles, “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” The White Album (1968)

Vinyl full. Yep, super good. Clapton guitar leads are like little needles in my ears, crisp cymbals, massive, deep bass, tons of slam on the bass drum. Lots of detail on the clippety-clop. Is the bass lacking a bit of definition? I feel it more than I hear it. Is that usual?  NB: If I haven’t stated this anywhere else, it’s worth noting that this is the second-last track on the side, so not in the optimal position from a sound quality perspective. 

Digital full. First impression is that this sounds better that the YLT above — a better digital file (it is a high-res file, though I’m still not convinced that makes any difference..). But also that it doesn’t sound as good as the vinyl. The bass feels deeper (and I mean “feels” — I have that weird ear-being-sucked-out-of-skull feeling again) but things seem tinnier, more constrained, more muted. 

Slight delay. Much closer this time, but similar results. More air and space on vinyl, more detail. Lots of slam on vinyl, though maybe a touch less than digital. Quite noticeable throughout. More of a digital “sheen,” more of a sense of transparency on vinyl. I clearly prefer the vinyl. Say 5% better, where YLT it was 10-15%. 

S-2-S as above. It’s possible the clippety clop is a little more perceptible on digital. Otherwise, they’re close, but digital is just a little duller, glazed out. 

9. Dungen, “Panda,” Ta Det Lugnt (2004)

Full digital. Oh, what a song! Sounds great. But from the past couple of listening sessions, I can spot the things that I think will sound better on vinyl — that little glaze that I expect to disappear from the vinyl version. Definitely last year I would have said “You can’t get better than this, or not much.” Now I know exactly how you can. (Am I better off?)

Full vinyl. Made the mistake of cleaning the surface with my Audioquest brush, which (on new vinyl) just made all the dust stand in a line. Anyway, I can’t hear it. Sounds so f%$$ing good I want to turn it up way too loud. Those opening drums are just magical, incredible, ultra-lifelike. Yes, I know what to expect, and I’m getting it here. 

Slight delay. Haze on digital drums, much livelier, more real on vinyl. Not close. Biggest individual difference, the beautiful juicy tom sound in the slow breakdown part is comparatively lifeless in the digital. But the comparison holds across. It’s another like 5% better in terms of detail, life, juiciness of the tom, cut of the guitar. 

S-2-s. The slight delay is more revealing — you can hear the tom on one, then again on the other — and the levels are different enough to be a little annoying. But it’s still clear. Digital softer, more glazed, vinyl sharper, more textured, clearer, harder-hitting. The treble-boosted Strat sounds particularly brutal here — just right. 

10. Julee Cruise, “Rocking Back Inside My Heart,” Floating Into the Night (1989)

Full digital. Sounds really nice. Looking back through my notes, I see vinyl won last time, but listening to this beautiful digital version it’s hard to see how it can sound much better. Particularly nice is the big, solid bass and the percussive thump of the sax solo. 

Full vinyl. Another case where it’s worth noting this song is pretty far in on the disc — second-last on the side. Yet: also extremely nice. It does seem the bass is a little lighter, but the treble accents are clearer. The bass still goes really low, but there’s just a bit less of it. The palm mutes on the left channel sound particularly nice and detailed. Wow, the sax breakdown sounds amazing and lively. (There’s a very deep bass rumble after the sax solo that is equally apparent on digital and vinyl.)

Slight delay. More sparkle on vinyl. And TONS more detail. The palm mute details on the left channel are night and day between the two — buried and fuzzy on digital. The sax breakdown is just not even close — tons more detail and life on vinyl. The sax low in the mix around 3:30 is way more perceptible on vinyl. Soundstage wider on vinyl. 

S-2-s. As above. Vinyl miles ahead. So much clarity, detail, texture, snap on vinyl. Little details like the quiet steady piano in the left channel around 3:10 are easily 2x more noticeable on vinyl. Just a bit of a fog on the digital. Really beautiful test track — well chosen, me!

11. Can, “Halleluwah,” Tago Mago (1971)

First 5 minutes digital. It does sound good, but I think I can perceive the deficiencies relative to the vinyl. Tizziness to the snare drum, general lack of sparkle, lack of big slam in the drum sequences. 

Vinyl. Quiet pressing. Hmm, I guess I’m not hearing quiet as much of the differences as I’d expected. But certain textures are coming across really clearly: the compressed, distorted plinky Strat, the synths, and ooookay, there are the drums. Yeah, a couple of minutes into the track the quality really becomes apparent. So much slam on the drums. So much space on the whole presentation — totally engrossing. 

Slight delay. Guitar over Damo’s vocals at 1:00 quite a bit sharper on vinyl. But this isn’t a massive win for vinyl — the digital sounds great. Panning drums around 2:30 are just clearer, harder-hitting on vinyl. Scratchy cat sound around 3:30 evokes the “tickle” better on vinyl. Cymbal rattle at 4:20 good on both, slightly more defined on vinyl. Aha, the various tickle sounds after the slowdown are quite a bit clearer on vinyl. Bigger difference there. 

Since this is such a long song, I’m switching to S-2-s halfway through.

S-2-s. Even with the needle getting closer and closer to the spindle, just a bit more air and snap on the vinyl. By no means a blowout, but definitely noticeable. Tiny bit more bass on digital, which doesn’t come across as just fuzzy this time — though when you switch to vinyl, the lowered quantity of bass does come across nicely, like an Auto Levels filter has been applied to a picture that looked really good but now looks a little better, brighter. On the solo at 12:00, vinyl has a massive advantage of capturing the sharp sparkle. Another telling sign: when I start typing this, get distracted, and then start paying attention, I can pretty easily tell when I’m on vinyl — signaled especially by the crispness of the treble.  Another thing worth noting: the volume difference favors digital a lot here — when I switch back and forth, vinyl is quieter — but vinyl still immediately sounds a little better, despite lower volume.

12. Bill Callahan, “Javelin Unlanding,” Dream River (2013)

Digital full. Sounds a little fuzzy and soft around the edges, drums a bit clompy, despite the startling depth of Callahan’s actual voice. I do wonder if this was a bad choice as a test track… not sure it’s quite well produced enough to have warranted inclusion? Anyway, I’m stuck with it. We’ll see if vinyl improvements pull out more detail or it just stays the same…

Vinyl full. Okay, a sense of lots of detail — more than vinyl. Less clomp in the percussion. I’m hearing some kind of “filigree” on some kind of steel string instrument there in the background. Wow, really does sound really good now. (Gotta make sure I didn’t just turn it up too loud.) Hand drums especially nice on this listening. 

Slight delay. Wowwwwww. Massive change. All the quiet details: the cymbals, the resonance of steel strings… totally muted/drowned/fuzzed out on digital. The guiro effect of BC’s voice is wayyy more apparent on vinyl. Brushes in the background much more forward and perceptible on vinyl. The chalky quality of digital honestly is a little gross in a back to back comparison. Massive difference here. 

S-2-s is just a little harder because of volume differences (vinyl is pressed very quietly), but it’s as above: fuzz, bloat on digital, cleanliness focus, control, detail, elegance of presentation on vinyl. 

Next steps

So this whole Modification Frenzy seems not entirely stupid. The first modification has made a really big difference. I’m excited to see what other upgrades will make: things like power supplies and motors that I can’t really imagine making all that big a difference (I got a Lingo 4 since I last posted) and things like moving coil cartridges that I can see making a big difference. The next step is adding my fancy Tiger Paw aluminum top plate. I can see the mechanical advantages (perfect 90 degree angle for the springs) but am not at all convinced there will be any sonic advantage. We’ll see…