Listening #123 Page 2

The next album up, Beatles for Sale, sounded decent—but no better—in its new vinyl guise. Compared with my German EMI/Odeon copy, the new LP was slightly veiled and lacking in physical impact. For its part, the new version of Help! lacked the easy, natural treble quality I heard in Please Please Me and With the Beatles, although it had good clarity, immediacy, and touch—the raking of guitar strings in "Tell Me What You See" came across well, as did the irregular emphasis Ringo Starr applies to some snare beats in "You Like Me too Much." My old Parlophone mono copy was better still in this department—by far—but that isn't a terribly fair comparison.

Rubber Soul? More like Polycarbonate Soul. Some aspects of the new LP were nice—those dead-silent surfaces, mostly—but there was a bit of crunch hiding between the notes, and, again, some of the singing sounded muffled and unclear. The right-channel vocals of my well-worn original Capitol LP sound clearer and less murky than in this premium-priced reissue. Seriously.

Dogs for dogging
That brings us to what some folks see as the big kahuna of the collection: Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, faithfully packaged, à la the original UK Parlophone, without the apostrophe on its spine. This one sounded mostly quite good, if just a teensy bit veiled: The Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab UHQR version offers clearer voices, as heard in Paul's scat singing toward the end of the "(Reprise)" of the title song, plus altogether tighter, clearer electric-bass lines. Still, the new Apple LP had surprisingly fine color and impact. (The original Parlophone mono has much more of the latter—but, again, that's comparing new apples and old apples.) The reproduction of the cover art on this one is distinctly good, too, and the Apple engineers deserve credit for duplicating, almost perfectly, the Beatles' gibberish in the side 2 lead-out groove.

From there on out, the news is mixed. Some tracks on Apple's new Magical Mystery Tour LP had more instrumental color, impact, presence, and clarity than any other version I've heard—for once, the sounds of ensemble flutes in "The Fool on the Hill" were revealed as a Mellotron—without the subtle top-end crunch of the originals. Still, some vocal performances sounded indistinct and veiled compared to those on even the commonest Capitol copy. The difference was especially audible in John's voice in "Strawberry Fields Forever," which is inarguably clearer and more present on the US original. The same applied to The Beatles: The new LP wasn't as brittle as the original US release, but neither did it have much in the way of clarity and openness. Voices and instruments alike were criminally dull in "Dear Prudence," my '70s-era US Apple release being laughably superior to the new reissue. And in those selections where the basic tracks seemed to have suffered the greatest compression and dulling from bouncing-down—"Savoy Truffle" comes to mind—even the 2009 stereo CD reissues sound better than the new Apple LP: a sadder-than-hell thing to have to say about a premium vinyl release in the 21st century.

The pattern continued from there. Yes, I actually liked the goosed-up electric bass in "Come Together," on Abbey Road, but I didn't like the distant, murky sound of the lead vocal. Let It Be had the cleanest surfaces I've heard on any vinyl copy of that album—but my domestic Apple original sounded so much clearer and more open that I listened to it the rest of the way through and forgot about the new reissue.

Which is the response deserved by about half of the albums in the new Stereo Vinyl Box Set: Forget them.

Here we are: It's 2012, and someone has set out to offer a series of premium-priced, premium-quality LP reissues of music recordings that were all originally released in the 1960s. Yet none of the 16 discs in the set sounds better than its original LP release, and the majority of them actually sound worse, some significantly so. The new vinyl was mastered from digital files, from recordings that were equalized and compressed in such a way that they no longer represented the sound on the original analog tapes (footnote 4). Some elements of the packaging—the labeling on the jackets, the choice and arrangement of the artwork, the labels on the discs themselves—is calculated to duplicate the original UK releases, yet the materials and construction of the jackets are patterned after the US releases. And the asking price is $450 (most retailers have discounted that price so far), which, even if one were sufficiently generous to assign to the included hardcover book a value of $75, still works out to almost $24 per disc.

They're kidding—right?

Prior to hearing these LPs, a title such as The Beatles Stereo Vinyl Box Set might have been cause for optimism: It implies that a Mono Box Set of Beatles vinyl is in the works. Now it's cause for dread—I can only assume that Apple and their too-easily-satisfied engineers will once again conclude that good enough is good enough when it comes to the most monumental opus in rock'n'roll. The Beatles Stereo Vinyl Box Set is impressive on some levels, well made on others. It's shiny and new. Buying it is kind of fun, I suppose. Then again, buying it is kind of like buying a clone of a deceased pet: It isn't the real thing—just an extremely impressive souvenir. The real thing is gone. And, frankly, if this is somebody's idea of how to bring it back, I'd rather they not try again.

May it serve you well
And if they do insist on trying, let me suggest three recent accomplishments the quality of which Apple's engineers would do well to try to match:


The Doors: L.A. Woman (Elektra EKS 75011), recorded in Los Angeles in 1970–1971, produced by Bruce Botnick; remastered from the original master tape by Doug Sax, for LP reissue by Analogue Productions of Salina, Kansas. I've never been much of a Doors fan, but this two-disc, 45rpm reissue comes closer than anything else to changing my mind. Jim Morrison's lyrics aside, the Analogue Productions reissue shows the band at their best: tight but spontaneous, and capable of injecting drama into their music without the need for overdubbing or special effects. Easily one of the best-sounding rock reissues you can buy on vinyl, if not the best.


Dave Brubeck: Time Further Out (Columbia CS 8490), recorded in New York in 1961, produced by Teo Macero; remastered from the original two-track analog tape by George Marino, for LP reissue by Impex Records of Simi Valley, California. I'm happy whenever a reissue house offers a clean, flat LP that sounds as good as the best original pressing, and this new release from Impex—the company that rose from the ashes of the fondly remembered Cisco label—actually sounds better: a remarkable accomplishment. News of the passing of Dave Brubeck, who died one day before his 92nd birthday, came while I was writing this paragraph; there may be no finer tribute than spinning this vivid, lovingly produced LP.


Schubert: Octet in F Major, D.803, performed by the Vienna Octet (Decca SXL 2028), recorded in Vienna in 1958, produced by John Culshaw; remastered from the original two-track analog tape by Tony Hawkins, for LP reissue by Speakers Corner of Gettorf, Germany. This reissue house remains the one to beat, and their recent Schubert Octet exemplifies their greatest strengths. Were I to select an example of realistic instrumental textures and believably saturated timbral colors in recorded music, this is the record I would reach for. Extra points for a perfectly aligned spindle hole (also a Speakers Corner characteristic), without which the sustained notes of the introductory bars would be far less listenable. Speakers Corner even sweats the graphic details: On the record labels of the original Decca classical recordings, the catalog number is shadowed by a four-digit number with the prefix ZAL, usually printed upside down (although, on at least one '70s-era original in my collection, it's right-side up): That's the unique number for the master tape used to cut that side, and Speakers Corner reproduces that, too—as much to ensure that they, too, have used the correct tape as for a touch of authenticity. Nice.

Footnote 4: The EQ and compression was only performed for the 2009 stereo reissue CDs; the 2009 mono reissues were straight transfers from the analog master tapes.—Ed.

deckeda's picture

This audio interview and other pages from MF's corner will also be of interest:

There are a few cringe-worthy things the engineer asserts (limiting the cutter head to 16kHz is "necessary") and reveals (the USB stick's files usage, the consumer DAC) as well as some pleasent surprises such as the fact these LPs are less dynamiclally constrained than the originals.

My takeaway since November is that for those that haven't heard them this good previously, they'll be happy with their purchase because they do sound better than any of the CDs and few people bought the USB stick. For the rest of us, we know they could have done better on a few blindingly obvious fronts.

My reaction to reading AD's column here was cathartically wonderful. I wanted to scream, "YES ART GO AND KICK EMI'S ASS!"

WillWeber's picture

I've been on the fence about this purchase, your review is to be quite helpful in my decision. Unfortunately. But fortunately I did not already spring. I have also read rumblings about pressing quality (the lack thereof) from many purchasers' reviews, poor fill in the grooves presumably. You did not mention this problem so it may not be too widespread, per a very limited statistical sampling.

If I may be cynically speculative, I might suspect that the reason the master tapes were not used is that these may have been secretly sold to the highest bidding collector, at circa $60M, with a vintage Ampex thrown in for good measure. It only makes sense, since the digital "master copies" are probably considered "good enough" for any next generation of profits. Do you really think these guys give a hoot on a strawberry field about audiophiles, or art, Art?

I had similar hopes for the remastered cd issues, but these sound oversaturated to me, in a photoshop image processing kind of way. It may make them a sort of vivid, but so are cartoons.

Oh well, was so hopeful that these would be special, alas perhaps no. Maybe by some miracle, in the future...


dalethorn's picture

I never was a huge Beatles fan, preferring the dark side haunted by Stones, Yardbirds, Animals et al. But I have a few digital Beatles tracks from circa 1964: And I Love Her, Things We Said Today, I'll Be Back, I'll Follow The Sun ... most of these in a minor key not coincidentally ... and the recorded quality seems unusually good to me - better in many ways than their later recrdings. Then by an amazing coincidence, a few Stones tracks I have also from 1964: I Can't Be Satisfied, Around and Around, Confessin' The Blues, Empty Heart, It's All Over Now, 2120 South Michigan Avenue ... also have better recorded quality than most of their later recordings.

Worse yet, many of the downloads on albums like Let It Bleed have obvious tape dropouts, something I don't hear on these 1964 recordings.

BTW, my copy of 1959's Time Out is a 'K2HD' disc from Sony Japan. I don't know how it might compare to the hirez downloads, but it is good.

Paul Luscusk's picture

Just like xrcd.

volvic's picture

I read this article twice; once when I got my subscription and yesterday online.  It is obvious Art loves this band (who doesn't) and reviewing and critiquing each record was I suppose a labor of love.  I might still buy the box set but I have a clearer understanding as to what I am buying thanks to Art's review.  



ElizabethS's picture

The theoretical complaint aside. the sound of my new White Album rocks. When i heard it I started dancing. Something I have not done to my Brit copy, nor my US numbered copy.

So a big thumbs up from me for the remastering.

jastrup's picture

Strange, A Hard Day's Night is one the most natural sounding albums from the Beatles IME. This is based on a box called Beatles Collection (which are UK pressings, probably made somewhere around 1980) AND the USB reissue. I have found this to be consistent on the various iterations of my system, even in the AAC files I have made for my iPod. 

PeterHH's picture

I had most of the Fab Four's lps when they first came out. The word on the street was that the German pressings were best, then the Japanese, then the British, and finally the American. There was also some difference in song selection e.g. the American Rubber Soul led off with "I've just seen a face" and did not include 'Nowhere Man.'

Since my boyhood lps went up in a fire decades ago, I have bought a number of Beatles and Stones CDs over the years. The earliest CDs were kind of flat and faded sounding, while recent ones sound 'thin' and 'cool' but at least have good dynamics and pretty good detail -- the timbre is a bit monchromatic but it's hard to say how much of that is due to playing them though solid state amps and modern speakers. The Chess Chuck Berry double CD sounded heavenly when I played it through KLH Sixes driven by a Rotel poweramp fed by a Dyna PAS2 with the tone controls goosed (it is a mistake to remove them, campers!)

For a while I used to rifle through used record bins looking for lps I had as a kid, as an alternative to buying them on CD. In this way I discovered that modern equipment is brighter (duh!) and more dynamic. Timbres are less vivid but dynamic contrasts a lot more dramatic, as compared to our old Scott-Fisher-Weathers system.

I wonder whether sixties master tapes are still good enough to permit a genuine AAA release. Listening to recent vintage digital remasters I do seem to hear flaws in the analog masters, and in some cases they may have been there all along but often they are so egregious that I suspect deterioration. The flaws I have in mind do not sound like they are of digital origin.

Which gives me an idea: Where the tapes have deteriorated, why not locate a mint copy of an original lp and digitize it either with a laser turntable or simply play it through a great analog front end and digitize the preamp output? i.e. use an lp in top condition as your 'master.'

Parting comment: the worst effect of the proliferation of digital reissues is that the customer is forced to guess which one is the most faithful. I don't want to have to buy several versions of A Hard Day's Night to find the one that sounds as I remember it. On iTunes I get sick of fishing around to find the original version of a beloved Top Forty tune. Looking for the original version of She's Not There with the snare drum flams intact has been a living hell! There are all sorts of not-what-you-wanted versions of everything now. Maybe there's a guidebook out there that sorts these version issues out but I doubt it.

rdubya73's picture

"[A]n analog pressing of a digital recording is still a digital recording"

Of course this makes sense, and as a relatively new vinyl collector, these words have haunted me as many of the titles I'm after are produced/recorded after the advent of the CD/digital tamepring. New vinyl enthusiasts contributing to the resurgence of the format are faced with this paradox.