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The Beatles in Mono
180 gram, Box Set
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Audio CD, Box set, Limited Edition, September 9, 2009
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The Beatles in mono: This is how most listeners first heard the group in the 1960s, when mono was the predominant audio format. Up until 1968, each Beatles album was given a unique mono and stereo mix, but the group always regarded the mono as primary. THE BEATLES IN MONO VINYL BOX SET is released in mono on fourteen 180-gram vinyl LPs with faithfully replicated artwork, newly mastered from the analogue master tapes.
In an audiophile-minded undertaking, The Beatles' acclaimed mono albums have been newly mastered for vinyl from quarter-inch master tapes at Abbey Road Studios by GRAMMY®-winning engineer Sean Magee and GRAMMY®-winning mastering supervisor Steve Berkowitz. While THE BEATLES IN MONO CD boxed set released in 2009 was created from digital remasters, for this new vinyl project, Magee and Berkowitz cut the records without using any digital technology. Instead, they employed the same procedures used in the 1960s, guided by the original albums and by detailed transfer notes made by the original cutting engineers.
Working in the same room at Abbey Road where most of The Beatles' albums were initially cut, the pair first dedicated weeks to concentrated listening, fastidiously comparing the master tapes with first pressings of the mono records made in the 1960s. Using a rigorously tested Studer A80 machine to play back the precious tapes, the new vinyl was cut on a 1980s-era VMS80 lathe.
Manufactured for the world at Optimal Media in Germany, The Beatles' albums are presented in their original glory, both sonically and in their packaging. The boxed collection's exclusive 12-inch by 12-inch hardbound book features new essays and a detailed history of the mastering process by award-winning radio producer and author Kevin Howlett. The book is illustrated with many rare studio photos of The Beatles, fascinating archive documents, and articles and advertisements sourced from 1960s publications.
Albums included in the box set are REVOLVER, MAGICAL MYSTERY TOUR, RUBBER SOUL, WITH THE BEATLES, MONO MASTERS (3LP SET), THE BEATLES (2LP SET), BEATLES FOR SALE, SGT. PEPPER'S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND, PLEASE PLEASE ME, HELP! and A HARD DAY'S NIGHT.
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My vinyl experience and circumstances: 55+ years, owner of all first edition mono and stereo Beatles LP and 45 recordings, owner of many multiple copies of subsequently-released Beatles material. When testing audio equipment, I use first edition Revolver and Please Please Me (and Brian's Pet Sounds) as reference disks.
Reaction to this purchase: These albums provided the perfect synergy for my system/setup. I felt as though I was transported back in time to when I first heard these recordings broadcast. It was a remarkable stop-dead-in-your-tracks experience. When compared to the original first pressings, The Beatles in Mono vinyl set sounds clearer with better-defined and articulated vocals and instrumentation. You can tell that the frequency response has been widened but not in any way that alters or diminishes the musical performances. There's no hint of subjectively-introduced equalization.
I approached these LPs with some trepidation given my experience listening to the previously-released Mono Box set on CD. That box set, while clean and quiet, messed too much with the Beatles "sound" (for example, I found that McCartney's bass lines were overdone and seemed to dominate certain performances which consequently diminished the other instrumental, as well as vocal, elements). Also, I did not agree with the many other equalization choices -- it's entirely subjective of course but had I been the one making those decisions I would have placed greater emphasis on Lennon's rhythm guitar, among other things. In short, the CD set left me feeling as though I was listening to someone else's interpretation, not that of the original artists, of previously-recorded material. That set should have been more accurately (and honestly) titled as: The Beatles in Mono as Interpreted by Rouse, Massey et al.
Here, for this vinyl box set (each album now available separately), Sean Magee and Steve Berkowitz did exactly what was needed -- nothing more, nothing less. This presentation is what I have been waiting a long, long time for. I had the feeling during playback that I was sitting at the REDD 51 mixing console, in Studio Two Control Room, at Abbey Road Studios, during each Beatles recording session. That's the magical, Holy Grail, vintage experience I chase and that this set delivered on my gear.
If there are still fence-sitters out there, I know you've gone through what I went through. No way, too expensive, I've got the '09 CD box sets, both the stereo, don't need these. Right? So do you need these?
Well, there is much to admire. Both boxes are exquisitely done, styled exactly like the '09 CD boxes and very impressive to look at. The construction of the boxes seems sturdy, they records are well packed with nice laminated covers, rice paper lined sleeves and they vinyl is certainly 180 gram. There is also a gorgeous hard bound book included, and the commentary inside is lovingly and intelligent written, with many stunning photographs, many previously unpublished. So both boxes are visually stunning and impressive, but ultimately records are made to be played, so let's get down to brass tacks...
How do they sound?
First, the pressings themselves. For all the ballyhoo about attention to quality pressing and manufacture, the truth is there are many anomalies, including serious ticks and pops, "bubbling" in the vinyl (which causes an odd noise), holes that are inconsistent, both in concentricity (is that a word?) and size (some are almost impossibly tight), and many are warped, some slightly, some moderately, none (yet) that are unplayable. I had to increase stylus pressure on the mono With The Beatles to get it to play without skipping, and even at 2 grams, there was a slight "swoosh" noise. Pops and clicks were more frequent and intrusive on the mono pressings. If you take all that away, the pressings are fairly quit, but certainly not equal to the '82 Mobile Fidelity or the Beatles Box. I do not own the Blue Box, so I can't compare it to that.
Finally the coup de grace: How do they sound. The monos are pretty amazing. They are dynamic with a full rich sound stage. The bottom is just a bit weak, but the mids and highs are rich, smooth and full of ambience. I'm sold on the analog to analog process. This is the best sounding mono Beatles music that I will ever hear. It blows away the '09 Mono Box.
Now to the stereo. Since they used the '09 masters, I wasn't prepared to be blown away, and I wasn't. They are a tad brighter and more ambient, but that is mostly due to the phono cartridge I'm using (Audio Technica T-440MLb). It is an amazing cart, exceptionally clean and smooth, with a stunning high end. That is my moving magnet cart. I haven't tried my moving coil (I have 2, the AT312EP and the Denon DL301 mk II). They both have a fuller sound, with a more solid low end and a nice rich midrange, but less high end than the T440. It will be interesting to see how they sound with either of those, but I'm not expecting miricles.
I AB'd this new It Won't Be Long with both the MF box and Beatle Box, and they sound considerably different. This has a more discernible low end, but is much less ambient (I just don't have a better word) and "full" as the other two records. However, when compared to the "09 CD, it has more life and body.
Keep in mind, I haven't heard the entire contents of either box, but I felt I had enough in to draw some comparisons and conclusions. You've read the comparisons. The stereo box is not an improvement over the MF box, but, because it is analog, it has, with my cartridge, a noticeably richer sound than the '09 CDs, but less rich than the MF or Japanese Beatles Box. For those of you who need clarification, the Beatle Box was released in Japan in the very early 80's. It is 8 very full LPs that surveys what they thought was the best of the Beatles music. Of course the only comprehensive collection is everything they released, but this release was first (for me) really high quality reissue of their music. It stands the test of time as the 2nd best sounding way to hear their music. I don't have the Blue Box, but I don't think it can beat this.
So, do you need these two impressive, but flawed box sets? I've tried to sum up the criteria for that decision. First, it will look great on your Beatles shelf. So much for looks. Second, the book and packaging are very impressive. Finally, the REAL product (the records) are flawed, with warps, bubbles and ticks and pops. Do these flaws seriously get in the way of the enjoying the music. Sure, if you let them. If you are expected true audiophile quiet and qualtiy, you'll be forever disappointed. However, if you compare this to those now ancient original pressing from the 60s and 70s you will be, well, less disappointed. Also, if you compare what it would cost to find either the Blue Box or the Mobile Fidelity Box, this looks like a bargain, even with the steep price and less than perfect pressing. Even with its flaws, I do not hesitate to recommend the Mono Box. For all its flaws, it blows my orginal UK mono imports away (remember, I only have three). This is the most powerful the Beatles have ever sounded. I love The Beatles in stereo, but so often, the drums are confined to one channel, and it just takes the power out of the recording. When you listen to these mono remasters, you will understand what I mean by that. Yes, you lose that space and, in their later recordings, the panning and special effects that only stereo can provide. But you gain POWER, pure power. And it's impressive and really fun to listen to.
As for the stereo box, I can make no such ringing endorsement. I CAN say my MM very nice AT440 cartridge does a great job of bringing additional life to these remasters, but I don't know what cart you have. The truth is, even with the AT440, the difference compared to the '09 CDs is subtle. It's definitely there, but it is subtle. I'll eventually see what the moving coil carts do, but I know the characteristics of my different carts really well, and I don't see a major difference. There will be a more solid bottom, smoother midrange and less high end. The '09 remasters already feature an improved low end, smooth midrange (maybe too smooth) and a high end that is, in my opinion, already lacking, I don't see the MC characteristics as providing what those digital remasters need: "presence". Don't ask me to define it further. The '09 remasters are clean, clean, clean. But they lack that ambience, that hutzpah, that makes really good music really awesome music. The Beatles music is awesome, but on those remasters the sound, I'm really sorry to say, is not awesome.
So if you can only have one, get the mono, but all means. You can probably just barely survive without having to have the stereo box....but.....
....there is that absolutely beautiful 252 page book, full of previously unpublished crystal clear photographs and intelligent and artful prose.
It's all true.