The Beatles – The Beatles in Mono LP Box Set – Parlophone/EMI/ Universal Music vinyl (14 LPs), [9/9/14] *****:
(John Lennon – vocals, guitars, piano, keyboards; Paul McCartney – vocals, bass, piano, keyboards; George Harrison – vocals, sitar, guitars; Ringo Starr – vocals, drums; Eric Clapton – guitars; Billy Preston – keyboards; many others)
When the Beatles’ remasters came out a few years ago on CD (and the higher-resolution 24-bit USB Apple version), a whole lot of people hoped for a full-blown analogue remastering for release on LP, but it was not to be. When the stereo LPs finally arrived about a year later, they’d been remastered from the new 16/44.1 digital files, and there were numerous complaints from audiophiles and music lovers about the resultant LPs in terms of both sound quality and packaging. I personally found the sound to be generally quite good, but it was nonetheless an audiophile disappointment. Rumors first started circulating a year ago about the possibility of a mono LP box done from the original analogue mono masters – at the time of most of the Beatles original LP release dates, mono was still the predominant format, and the greatest attention was given by George Martin and the EMI staff to the mono mixes – the stereo releases were almost an afterthought. Needless to say, a whole lot of audiophiles just started chomping at the bit in anticipation, and the end result has not disappointed!
The box set is composed of eleven albums, and the 14 total LPs that comprise those albums were pressed in Germany by Optimal Media on AAA vinyl; every LP in my set was perfectly flat with pristine surfaces and no condition issues of any kind. This was a great worry for me – while there were precious few comments and reviews based on the entire box, they truly abounded with regard to the widely variable quality of the LPs available individually. Thankfully, that has not been an issue with this excellent set – to say that everything is sheer perfection is a complete understatement – you know, people on the ‘net just seem to want to complain about something! I’ve seen comments from purported “industry insiders” on various blogs on the ‘Net, and they all seem to concur that the actual rate of returns for any of the individual albums has been really rather low, especially compared to the abundance of problems seen with the stereo set.
And the packaging is truly extraordinary, with heavy-cardboard jackets and each of the 11 albums enclosed in a Japanese resealable outer sleeve. The one exception is the 3-LP Mono Masters album – it’s just to large to squeeze into one of those Japanese sleeves, heck, it’s almost a stretch to get a standard double LP into one. I only have one minor complaint about the otherwise really nice jackets and those Japanese sleeves that the LPs are enclosed in – some of the jackets (and maybe this is an English LP thing) have a fold-over gatefold panel.
But those few early LPs are constructed such that you have to completely open the gatefold to access the LP from the center at the inner fold – there’s absolutely no way around completely removing the jacket from the sleeve. Well, at least it’s only a couple of them. And just to make one other thing perfectly clear here – you won’t find either Let It Be or Abbey Road in this box – neither was ever released in mono, and the producers of the box decided to stay true to history.
In preparation for this review, I assembled a strictly mono equipment setup, that includes a dedicated Zu Audio speaker placed in the center of the speaker wall for mono reproduction (it also doubles as my center channel speaker). I also acquired a single Emotiva XPA-1L monoblock amplifier that outputs 35 watts of pure Class A sound into the Zu loudspeaker – which is plenty, because the Zu is rated at 97 dB/watt – there’s power to spare! I also was able to obtain an Ortofon 2M Mono cartridge, which is the perfect match for my Rega P2 turntable. And my Acurus RL-11 preamp has an extra pre-out pair, so the pure mono signal coming from the Ortofon can easily be fed into the Emotiva amp. I’ll be doing a review coming up soon on the site that will detail the full mono experience more completely, so stay tuned!
One of the great features of the box is that it contains a really nice 108-page hard-bound coffee-table style book, with tons of great photos and essays that’s a perfect companion to the set. Yes, the stereo box had a comprehensive book, too, but you’ll find a whole lot of really cool stuff here in this book that you won’t find there! Heck, this whole set is so very nice, I’m almost paranoid about leaving any of the contents of the box out for fear of well-intentioned guest getting their grubby little fingers all over everything!
And the sound quality? Well, let’s just say that it completely blows away the already-excellent CD mono releases from a couple of years ago – EMI (now part of Universal Music Group) totally hit it out of the park with this one! And played back via my dedicated Ortofon/Rega/Acurus/ Emotiva /Zu system – well, it’s little short of pure ear candy. Everything here seems to have more weight, better clarity of sound and greatly improved bass over the mono CDs. I don’t personally own any of the original mono LPs, but at least one really respected reviewer (OK, Michael Fremer over at Analogue Planet) seems to think that the new LPs pretty much trounce the mono originals.
My personal favorites among the eleven LPs are the earlier five albums that cover the period from Please, Please Me through Help! And remember, these are the British Parlaphone releases, not the convoluted Capitol releases that eventually showed up stateside with totally mixed-up track selections and reduced playing times. Regardless of all the clamoring of late by the American public for true stereo versions of these albums, I honestly enjoy them more in mono. I feel that they’re more faithfully portrayed in mono than the hokey early stereo mixes that often featured hard-panned vocals to either the left or the right. Dead center, that’s where it’s at! I know that most of the kids on my street probably give me a complete double-take when I cruise with the windows down cranking such classics as “Honey Don’t” and “Everybody’s Trying to Be My Baby,” but who cares – it’s the freaking Beatles; OK people?
Even when we get to the later albums, like Magical Mystery Tour and The Beatles, even though most listeners probably have a preference for the stereo versions, let’s remember that these LPs were originally mixed for mono. Albums like Magical Mystery Tour that have always sounded disjointed and murky, and totally suffered from non-existent bass are now clear as a bell, with incredible bass and a remarkable level of detail. True collectors will tell you that the only real stereo version of Magical Mystery Tour to own is the German original pressing – apparently, they totally got it right while the rest of the world got it wrong. But they’re rare and rather expensive, whereas the new mono pressing is relatively affordable by comparison. And that truism goes basically across the board – just try to find excellent quality English monos and you’ll spend significantly more than the cost of this new set, only to find that almost without exception, the new pressings better the mono originals.
The Beatles Mono Masters on three LPs collects singles, B-sides and EP material (like the songs that eventually were used to create Hey Jude in the US). Some might complain that you probably could have squeezed all this material onto two LPs – and it probably could have been done, but it’s really been organized to reflect the flow of the material more chronologically. Just examine the contents, and you’ll see that the song selection flows almost perfectly throughout the mono portion of their career, ending with the handful of songs from Let it Be (which the recordings actually predate their eventual release) that were actually released as mono singles back in the day.
The Beatles In Mono LP box set is a reason for all audiophiles to rejoice – it proves what we’ve known all along, and that is that it only takes a handful of persistent people who really care to make what seems like the impossible truly possible. If you have even the slightest interest in this set, I’d suggest getting one now before it’s too late and spend a) either a whole lot more money, or b) possibly the rest of your life in regret. And a true mono cartridge or setup isn’t required to enjoy these albums – though it does truly take them to the next level of enjoyment. [The Full Mono option on my preamp works very well, and then I hear it thru all my speakers…Ed.] Very, very highly recommended!!
Album List:Please, Please Me With The Beatles A Hard Days Night Beatles For Sale Help! Rubber Soul Revolver Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band Magical Mystery Tour The Beatles (The White Album) The Beatles Mono Masters