Steve Shade - MoFi Electronics
During one of the few press conferences organized recently as a classic live meeting, not a video chat, I was particularly interested in a presentation of MoFi Electronics - manufacturer of turntables and accessories related to vinyl records playback, which stormed onto the market a few years ago, almost immediately winning many important awards. For many music lovers, this equipment is already well known but the history of its creation and the people responsible for it are not. I quickly concluded that a meeting in the real world is a perfect opportunity to find out all about it. Steve Shade, the representative of the American company, shared many interesting facts with me during a short conversation over coffee. It was not only a story of MoFi Electronics. During this meeting, I felt like I was listening to the latest news from a world that included other well-known brands - Balanced Audio Technology, Spiral Groove, EAR Yoshino, Harmonic Resolution Systems, and Fender. And that was just the beginning.
The MoFi Electronics brand was brought to life by a company that so far was active on the music market, but rather on the other side, producing not the hi-fi equipment but recordings. We are talking about Mobile Fidelity - an audiophile record label. The Americans claim that every MoFi Electronics product is the result of collaboration with some of the best engineers in the industry based on their years of studio experience. The turntables, cartridges, and phono preamps are designed to highlight everything Mobile Fidelity does with its famous Original Master Recordings, bringing listeners closer to what the artist intended to convey in their work. The first to appear in the MoFi Electronics catalog were the StudioDeck and UltraDeck turntables. Later they were joined by accessories such as cartridges and phono stages. Nowadays you can find everything you need to play black records in our catalog - turntables, cartridges, phono preamplifiers, and even record presses, brushes, liquids, or anti-static sleeves, which make it easier to keep the precious discs clean. What's next?
When the first MoFi Electronics turntables appeared on the market, I was convinced that this was just another collaboration - that, in fact, we were dealing with devices created by Pro-Ject, Clearaudio, or another company making turntables for other brands. But no. This was "the real deal". Did you plan this for a long time?
Josh Bizar, our VP of Marketing for all brands, had the idea of creating a truly special high-performance Mobile Fidelity Turntable and accompanying products over 10 years ago. He was only able to assemble the team necessary to begin to accomplish this impressive feat 5 years ago.
Your turntables immediately gained recognition and won many important awards. Did their success surprise you a little?
It's always nice to be rewarded for products that are truly benchmark for their product class. However, we were not really surprised, as we work with some of the most talented designers in the industry - Allen Perkins, the late Tim de Paravicini, Michael Latvis on those initial products. Future collaborations will be just as impressive. Just wait and see!
The design of MoFi Electronics turntables seems to be neither revolutionary nor innovative. At first glance, you won't notice anything special about them except for the elements in characteristic yellow color. However, it's quite a different story from the technical point of view, isn't it?
We have managed to bring high-performance materials and craftsmanship down to much more affordable levels. I would say the HRS Feet are truly innovative! And bringing a 10" tonearm and Delrin platter material to a more affordable level is groundbreaking to a certain extent.
I understand that MoFi Electronics equipment is manufactured from scratch in your factories. Or maybe not entirely? I guess you must use some ready-made components. Will you agree to clarify that for me? Where and how exactly is this gear made?
We assemble all turntables in Ann Arbor, Michigan. 95% of the parts for the turntables are supplied by vendors within 200km's of this factory. There are a small number of parts that come from Asia. However, this is quite small in percentage. The phono preamps are assembled in California, and the cartridges are assembled in Japan. In 2022 we will launch a MasterDeck (higher performing turntable) and a MasterPhono (higher performing phono preamp) that will both be made in the USA.
Every vinyl lover knows that the turntable is just the beginning. Practically right away, you need to take care of many other elements such as phono stage, cartridge, cabling, mats, record cleaning accessories, and so on. And you provide these to your customers as well. I guess designing and manufacturing such a variety of products is very demanding. How did you manage to do it?
The key is to work with multiple designers. Allen was chosen for the turntables and cartridge voicing. Tim was an easy choice for the electronics since he had designed the gear at the MoFi mastering studio in CA, and Michael for the vibration isolation products. This helps spread out the workload.
Recently you presented a turntable designed with the legendary guitar manufacturer, Fender. There is no denying that it's very original. Where did the idea for such a collaboration come from?
One of our guys knew a key person at Fender, and Fender had always dreamed of making a turntable since Leo Fender actually created one in the early days of his career, before he started Fender. The story is impressive, as Leo Fender sold the turntable rights for seed money to start the company that would become Fender Guitars. That is pretty special right there! Let's just say everything came together perfectly, and two years of development allowed for it to be truly special. We are honored to be able to work with Fender, collaborate with them and their super talented team.
The Fender PrecisionDeck attracts attention, but for people who have been following the development of your brand, it may also be a signal that you started to run out of ideas for new products. Is this just a one-off adventure, or can we also expect limited versions of turntables created, for example, in collaboration with famous artists?
Trust me, we have no shortage of ideas for new products. Just wait for everything we launch in 2022. We also plan additional collaborations in the future. Just wait and see!
You talk about different devices and their creators as if you all know each other very well, actually as if you lived on the same street. Is this due to the massive scale of the Music Direct network, or rather the close contact between individual designers?
It's due to several factors, and indeed the scale of the Music Direct network is chief among them. They are very successful in the USA retail space, so they are well known within our industry, within all aspects of our industry. We are fortunate to be able to tap into these amazing designers and creators.
When we think of one company approaching another to have a turntable, cartridge, or phono stage designed and built, we imagine that there will be lengthy discussions about specifications, performance, pricing, licensing, industrial design, copyright, and so on. Meanwhile, you present it as if it were a matter of one phone call. Even leaving aside the legal issues, can a capable engineer design hardware from scratch that quickly?
Trust it takes much more collaboration than one phone call. These are ideas and products that take several years to fully develop. There are long conversations and many different paths that need to be chosen together. It's a very collaborative yet important process. We are doing much of this same process now with the MasterPhono.
America is probably the best place to develop vinyl and turntables business. Now called the vinyl renaissance, this whole craze started right here in your country. Is it still going on? How much longer do you think it will last? Will it be a permanent trend or just a fad, after which everyone will switch to streaming for good?
For most within our industry, Vinyl has always been an important part of our systems and business. For the greater growth and more mass-market acceptance, the recent growth of the past 5 years has been a lot of fun and rewarding as well! However, it seems that the market will eventually plateau or level off, although this has not happened as of yet. It's hard to predict, however with the increased growth of turntable sales, one would think the vinyl LP market still has some room to keep growing, or at the very least to keep going well.
Heinz Lichtenegger from Pro-Ject once told me that if he fulfilled all orders from dealers in the USA, there would not be a single turntable left in his stock. Supposedly, shipments are distributed there so that every distributor gets some gear. However, all production could go to America, and the factory would still not be able to cut corners. Is your factory also running at maximum capacity?
Yes, we have been running at maximum capacity for quite some time now. We are increasing the size of our factory for 2022. In fact, it will double in size!
How do you see what's happening in the audio market in other countries? What regions, apart from America, are driving sales of MoFi Electronics equipment and other brands you deal with?
Many markets are doing well, especially those with an online presence during the pandemic when people spend more time at home than normal and travel less. We see excellent growth and activity in much of Europe, certain markets in Asia, and of course in the USA. However, everyone in our industry seems to be doing at least pretty well. A rising tide raises all ships, so to speak.