Stevie Wonder – Talking Book

Let’s face it: Most Stevie Wonder albums, and in fact, most Motown albums, sound fairly awful. But how can you not dig Stevie Wonder, even on a table radio? Regrettably, that’s what many of his records were mixed and mastered for when originally released. On many levels, it’s a crime that so much of the best R&B ever created didn’t get the production respect it deserved. Which is reason to celebrate this edition of Talking Book, on which Mobile Fidelity’s Silver Label makes great strides.

For those not familiar with the difference between Silver Label and MoFi’s standard Original Master Recordings (OMR), the former records are still pressed with care at RTI in Southern California, albeit on standard-weight 140 gram vinyl, and at real time instead of the half-speed rate. And whereas Silver Label titles are cut from “the best tape they can source,” OMRs are only produced from the original master tape. The good news is that Silver Label releases come close in sound quality to OMRs and carry a lower price.

Paul Stubblebine takes the helm on this release, but MoFi engineer Rob LoVerde notes: “This record was produced from an analog production master that Wonder personally EQ’ed for Tamla at the time of its original release. There’s nothing digital involved on this record or any of the other three Wonder titles planned for the Silver Series.”

We’ll call this pressing a triple, as it’s one base short of a home run. Compared to my well-worn LP purchased back in the 70s, a huge layer of grunge has been lifted. Talking Book now actually throws a soundstage—and a very wide one at that—into the room, along with myriad minute bits of funk heretofore lost in the mix. With major hits “You Are The Sunshine of My Life,” “Superstition,” and “I Believe (When I Fall In Love It Will Be Forever),” this record brings back great memories and, from an audiophile perspective, is much more enjoyable than ever before.

Yet the 1972 masterpiece is still slightly bright and forward, so those possessing a system with a warmer tonal balance will likely enjoy it more than those with a highly analytical system. I really loved this album played through my Koetsu Urushi cartridge, but when switching to the Clearaudio DaVinci, not as much. On the first side, “Tuesday Heartbreak” appears moderately compressed and “You’ve Got It Bad, Girl” doesn’t sound much better. If I didn’t know, I’d swear I was listening to an SACD of fair quality. It appears that the hits were treated with more care. “Sunshine” doesn’t have as much compression and EQ as the rest of the record. Again, keep in mind that I’m referring to the master mix here; I’m not implying that MoFi added EQ and/or compression.

If anything, this record is worth the money just for the sound of “Superstition”; it’s by far the best-sounding track on the disc. Wonder’s voice has plenty of body and the horns come through in larger-than-life fashion; the cymbals are also less crunchy here than elsewhere. Listeners accustomed to original copies will definitely hear a few more layers of horns and percussion than they remember.

Yes, it all makes for an odd blend. There’s a larger soundfield, exceptionally quiet surfaces, and a solid helping of midrange bloom, but residual glare on the top end prevents the LP from qualifying as a truly stellar-sounding recording. A gnarly copy in a local record store will probably set you back five or six bucks, so $22.95 isn’t crazy. Since it’s graduation time, we’ll give the folks at MoFi a B for ultimate sound quality and an A for effort. I’d be thrilled if the label can get the rest of the key Stevie Wonder catalog to sound this good. —Jeff Dorgay

MoFi Silver Series, LP