RMAF 2014: Meet The Beatles

For John Atkinson, Michael Fremer (above, eating up a rare platter), and myself, RMAF 2014 ascended to a higher dimension with the opportunity to compare pristine pressings of three tracks on original Beatles stereo LPs with their mono equivalents in the new Beatles mono box set. To say that the stereos, which were provided by music lover Shane Buettner of Brinkmann USA and Vandersteen, paled before mono remasters is an understatement. The stereo tracks sounded like a hack job embarrassment.

The comparison, which was held twice for the public and once for selected press, took place in a large room sponsored by Audio Alternative. It helped greatly that the system, headlined by the new Brinkmann Spyder turntable outfitted with two arm bases (below, $17,000 total), dual 10.5 tonearms ($6300 each), and RoNt II vacuum tube power supply ($4300), fed signals to Audio Research's REF 2 Phono SE preamp ($13,000) and REF 5SE preamp ($13,000), and Vandersteen's M7-HPA monoblocks ($52,000/pair) and Model Seven experimental update loudspeakers ($62,000/pair est. price). All cabling was by AudioQuest, and isolation stands and bases were from Harmonic Resolution Systems.

First up was "I Saw Her Standing There" from Please Please Me, sourced from a UK silver and black EMI/Parlophone "two-box." As in the subsequent comparisons, Shane played the stereo version using Lyra's top-of-the-line Atlas stereo cartridge ($9500). For mono, the second tonearm came into play, equipped with a lower level Lyra Kleos mono cartridge ($3500). Shane acknowledged that he would have used the mono equivalent of the higher-level Atlas cartridge had one existed.

I was stunned by the difference between the stereo and mono versions of this Beatles classic. "The mono sounds so much smoother and more musical," I wrote in my notes. In fact, that was the only thing I wrote in my notes. All the mono versions were so much fuller in the midrange, smoother and less etched on top, and drop dead beautiful sounding that all I could do was sit and marvel in mouth agape wonder.

Next was "Yesterday" from Help, first from a stereo UK silver and black EMI/Parlophone "two-box," then from the mono remasters. Again, the additional richness of the mono version made the stereo sound like someone wasn't paying attention.

Finally came "When I'm 64" from Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. When Paul McCartney recorded this track, he was supposed to have raised the pitch by a half-step in the mono version to make him sound younger and more naive. The stereo, which is pitched a half step lower despite Paul's wishes, came from a much coveted UK 1st pressing, yellow and black Parlophone, Mothers 1&2, stampers in the low teens. (Michael approved ;-)) Yet despite its provenance, the mono version sounded so much better, and so "you are there," that I had a mini flashback to the summer of 1967, when I was listening to this music for the first time, so stoned out of my tree that I didn't mind (for once) the horrible distortion from our crappy one-piece record player.

After we'd listened to both versions of "When I'm 64," Andre Jennings from The Absolute Sound asked if we could listen to the mono version using the higher-level Atlas stereo cartridge. Since the Audio Research phono preamp had a mono switch, Shane agreed.

Bless Jennings' heart. As you may already know, the Lyra Atlas is capable of conveying far more color than the mono Kleos. With both stereo and mono versions played with the Atlas, it became clear that not only had the stereo remix desecrated much of the beauty of the original mono masters, but it had also robbed them of significant amounts of color and depth.

My thanks to Shane for a marvelous session, and to the Beatles for actually making me believe that the world was filled with tangerine trees and marmalade skies.

Robin Landseadel's picture

My flashback was to the breakfast nook on Lake St in Altadena, 12 years old, working on a model car and listening to KRLA, whose program director, probably stoned out of his tree and listening to better gear than you had, decided to throw out the top 40 format for a few weeks and play every single track from Sgt. Pepper in June of 1967. I had a rather nice sounding all-tube Magnavox AM radio. I must admit I was generous in the use of adhesive during the construction my 1957 Chevy Bel Air 1/24 AMT scale model, eventually painted in purple metal flake. Yes, the remaster's that good.

faskenite's picture

Thanks for this report. I think the new mono LPs are terrific on their own terms, but I suggest comparing them with nice copies of the original UK mono LPs. I have been lucky enough to acquire some good early copies over the years and have done some comparisons of new and original mono issues of a few, mostly the White Album, Help! and For Sale so far. In each case, I have found that there is significantly more detail, naturalness and impact with the original UK monos (if you can, try comparisons of "Mother Nature's Son" and "Everybody's Got Something to Hide..." from the White Album, "You've Got To Hide Your Love Away" from Help!, or "Rock and Roll Music" from For Sale). On the other hand, in the few comparisons I have done with original singles ("I Am The Walrus" and "Paperback Writer")the new mono issues have clearly come out on top, with the originals sounding relatively thin and harsh. Go figure!

Michael Fremer's picture

When the original monos were cut, EMI had an individual on staff playing lacquers on many of the phonographs used at the time by young people. If the lacquer jumped out of the groove the record was labeled a "kangaroo cut" and Harry T. Smith would recut, cutting bass and/or adding a bit of compression.

The reissues were all cut with no such limitations, nor was bass artificially boosted as it seems to have been on the stereo reissues. The bass response is far superior on the new mono LPs compared to the originals and dynamics are greater as well.

I would agree that the top end of some of the originals have more "air" lost over time on the tapes, but in terms of detail and impact (though perhaps not "naturalness") I think the reissues stomp all over the originals. The reissues sound far more dynamic because they are: no limiting was applied while some was to the originals to avoid the "kangaroo cuts".

amudhen's picture

I attended the public demo on Oct 11. Like others there, the difference in the mono vs stereo was amazing. I was even impressed with the sound of the mono played with a stereo cartridge. I next attended another Beatles mono demo at 3PM in room 1130 hosted by my friend David Sckolnik (Dynamic Sounds Associates, DSA)and was totally unprepared for the spectacular sound of the monos compared with the sound of the earlier demo I attended. Here we listened to cuts from each and every lp in the mono box set. The Miyajama Labs Zero-Mono cartridge was used on a VPI Classic 4 with two 12.5 VPI arms, DSA phono preamp and preamp, Wells Audio Innamorata Signature amp and TAD CR1 Mk2 monitors. The audience was in rapture during the hour long plus demo. The sound of the monos in this system totally blew away that of the earlier demo in each and every parameter,in my opinion. Who needs stereo when mono can sound as amazing and life-like as this? Afterwards, I listened to the Vanguard mono classic of Louis and Ella on this system and my jaw dropped once again. Outstanding sound (I understand the Beatles paid close attention to the mono recordings as opposed to the stereo ones)from the Fab Four and thanks to Mr. Sckolnik for a truly "ear opening" experience. Anyone else who was there care to add to this?

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

I have loved the sound of the Wells Audio Innamorata Signature amp at many shows, and am glad that it helped send you to audio nirvana. Concerning the "who needs mono" issue, however, I'm not convinced that the Beatles stereo vs. mono comparison, where mono definitely comes out on top, is applicable to other recordings.

This was a special case, where far more care was lavished on the monos than the stereo. As Michael Fremer explained in his original report on these reissues http://www.analogplanet.com/content/beatles-get-back-mono-and-aaa-vinyl :

"And in reality the albums were produced for mono. The first two albums recorded to BTR two track machines featured voices on one channel and instruments on the other to allow easy post-production leveling. Abbey Road added four track machines as early as 1963 with “I Want to Hold Your Hand” being the first song The Beatles recorded using four tracks.

"Still, four tracks hardly sufficed for their increasingly complex arrangements. As the tape's four tracks filled up and were mixed down to one to make room for more music, these pre-mixes were produced with mono in mind so that when all of the tracks were folded together, they would fit together like a stack of cards. That's why the mono set sounds so coherent and why arguably you can actually hear more detail in mono.

"The mixers created "stereo" by separating (as best as they could) what was intended to be blended, and panning the elements across the soundstage. Since it had previously been pre-mixed, what could be done to separate the pre-mixed elements was limited.

"When I interviewed Ken Scott, he told me that Paul wanted the stereo mix of The Beatles to be as different as possible from the mono because that might induce fans to buy both. The mono mix came first. And the two mixes are very different. You could say the stereo mix was more about commerce than art. If you grew up listening to the stereo mix, the mono will be an ear opener.

"Of course at the time stereo was relatively new and novel so listeners craved hearing "separation" across the soundstage, but today we're all more sophisticated listeners. Hearing the records as originally intended, to me, is the best way to listen."

padreken's picture

Pretty jaw dropping stuff-easily the vivid reproduction of the favs I've heard. Your friend David was a most engaging host, and everyone had a great time, particularly the lady who was up dancing for most of the tracks! I've been seriously thinking about getting a second table along with the new Ortofon 2m cartridge ever since.

padreken's picture

I was at the one hour (ended up being nearly 80 minutes due to popular demand) seminar at RMAF that featured comparisons of selections from from the mono box in a system featuring TAD reference monitors-the table was the Classic 4 with Miyajima mono and stereo cartridges. Fascinating stuff-the mono cart cost 4k less than than the stereo, but the magic with the mono cart was easily audible to all. One woman was so moved she got up and danced!