The Beatles’ catalog finally got remastered on September 9th. The group’s 13 albums were released on CD, both individually and in two separate box sets. One box set contained the stereo mixes of the albums that are also available individually. The other box set contained mono mixes of all of the albums except Yellow Submarine, Abbey Road and Let it Be. These mono mixes are not available individually.
Some fans insist that the mono mixes are superior to the stereo ones. With that in mind, Onethirtybpm’s Sean Highkin and Brent Koepp listened to both versions of the group’s albums to try to come to a conclusion about which versions are the definitive ones. This was not done with the audiophile in mind…those people will have equipment far more expensive than ours. We were trying to figure out which mixes were better for normal people listening to these albums on normal stereo equipment, which is the majority of people buying these sets. Here’s what we came up with:
Note: There wasn’t a drastic enough difference between the mixing in the first five albums, so we combined them all into one.
The Beatles’ early albums are the ones that are supposed to have the most improvement in the original mono mix, which forces me to wonder if the people who come up with these “accepted” opinions are on crack. The first five albums have almost no bass in the mono mixes, and everything is way too cluttered. Help! in particular has an awful mono mix. When I compared them side by side, I had to check my files to make sure the mono mix wasn’t a 64kbps rip. The difference in clarity between the mono and stereo mixes is like night and day for that one in particular, but for all of their early albums in general.
Maybe it’s because audiophiles have super hearing that 95% of the population do not posses, but I really did not hear the hype that surrounded the earlier Beatles records in mono. It has been said countless times that the first five albums would without a doubt be better in mono. Instead what I got were albums with muddy bass and drums. They sounded flat in comparison to stereo. Does the stereo have vocal panning? Sure. But you know what? I will take that panning if it means I can hear Paul’s bass, Ringo’s drums and John’s and George’s guitar playing in ways I have never been able to before. The stereo remasters of the albums bring new energy to the songs, and they sound absolutely incredible – especially if you are playing these over loud over speakers. The one album I have to single out is Help! It sounded absolutely awful in mono. Even stereo aside, it clearly sounds the worst of out all the mono. It’s very muddy, and low in mix. If you want to know why I mostly prefer the earlier albums in stereo, put on “Help”! in mono, then play it in stereo. The difference is night and day. The mono aren’t completely bad though, as there are some signs of brilliance. I particularly loved “Ticket to Ride” in mono.
From the opening of “Drive My Car,” it’s clear that the mono mix of this one is not going to have the kind of muffled-bass issues that earlier mono mixes had. The bass is loud and clear in the mix, almost at times too much so, competing with the vocals for breathing room. The only major musical difference between the two mixes is at the very end of “What Goes On,” when a guitar line that closes out the stereo version is missing in the mono mix. There are things to be said for both of the mixes of Rubber Soul. And in all likelihood, it will come down to whether one already prefers mono or stereo. Both mixes sound good, and you can’t go wrong either way.
Rubber Soul sounds fantastic in mono. Unlike the earlier albums, it has “punch” but still keeps its clarity. The bass still tends to suffer in this format, as it still sounds muddy compared to its stereo counterpart. However, both albums sound extremely close in quality for this release. I’m giving my nod slightly to mono for this album, because of that extra punch. And the extra punch really shines through on tracks like “Think For Yourself”.
Verdict:Toss Up! (It comes down to preference, both are excellent)
I’m inclined to think that this “panning” issue on the stereo version is something that audiophiles are making up to make it seem like they have better hearing than us normal folks. The stereo mix of Revolver sounded fine to me on headphones. A far bigger issue to me is the bass, which is oftentimes way too muddy and distorted on the mono version. For that reason, I give my nod to stereo.
This album has the worst vocal “panning” out of the entire discography, so often it is argued that this is a must in mono. The problem for me is that the album loses clarity and energy in the mono version. So if you are willing to give up crisper sounding instruments and more “punch” just so you can avoid vocal panning, then so be it. But the album really shines in the stereo format. One of my gripes for the mono is that the bass is too loud on this album and in parts it sounds distorted. Depending on your ears, you might find this to be quite jarring and ear splitting at times. If you want pure vocals go with mono. But I think there are more positives to be offered with the stereo remaster, that I’m willing to put up with the panning. And to be honest, the panning isn’t even that awful (although it’s more noticeable with headphones on).
Verdict:Stereo (If you can’t stand vocal panning, go with mono, but stereo offers more)
The conventional wisdom states that you have never heard Sgt. Pepper’s until you’ve heard it in mono. However, I found the stereo version to be a lot clearer and fuller, particularly on the slashing guitars on “Getting Better.” “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite” has lots of subtleties that get lost in the mono mix, and while John Lennon’s vocal on “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” sounds trippier on the mono mix, the music sounds fuller in stereo.
I think those that have apparently never really “heard” Sgt. Peppers before can finally join in with the audiophiles. They did such a fantastic job with the stereo mix – that if your a fan of stereo, you will be more satisfied with it. More so, even detractors will pleasantly be surprised at how much energy is brought to the album that couldn’t be heard before. The best example of this is “Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite!” which sounds better on stereo. because it is much more fuller and powerful – it sounds epic. Especially the guitar bit one minute in which sounds crisp. Conversely, it sounds muffled on mono compared to stereo. The mono version will probably still be heralded by purists as the definitive way to listen to Sgt. Peppers – but it can now be argued that the stereo version breathes new life into the album.
The clear winner of the mono mix of Magical Mystery Tour is Ringo’s drums, which sound clearer and punchier throughout. This is one of the Beatles albums that is heaviest on studio effects, and everything just sounds more in focus on the mono mix. This is the only time for me where the mono mix is clearly superior.
I agree with Sean, this the first mono album I can clearly say is better then the stereo. To my ears, the stereo version of this album sounds a bit strange. The panning is pretty evident in places. I had actually listened to the stereo version of this first and was impressed, but after hearing the mono it sounded really off. The Horns and backing vocals on “Penny Lane” really shine on the mono version. As a whole, the album just feels “more together” on the mono version.
The most frustrating of the Beatles’ studio albums is also the most frustrating when comparing mixes. The sheer volume and diversity of the music means that it will vary from song to song as to which version is better. “Dear Prudence” and “Happiness is a Warm Gun” sound absolutely perfect in mono, but the acoustic guitar in the background has much more impact on the stereo mix. The mono mix also features a version of “Helter Skelter” that is a minute shorter and far more cluttered than the stereo mix. But there are enough positives for each mix that it’s worth keeping both around if you’ve got the hard drive space.
The White Album is literally a toss up when it comes to mono vs stereo. This is the album that every fan should own both versions of – because literally, some songs sound better on mono, some sound better on stereo. For instance, I noticed on “The Continuing Story Of Bungalow Bill” the bass is a little too loud, and the guitar bits are more muffled on the mono version. On the flip side tho, the vocals sound much better. So a bit of a trade off. “Happiness Is A Warm Gun” always sounded strange on the stereo mix to me. Especially if you have headphones on. The mono delivers a much better sounding version of the song, and this is a good example of why you need to own both version. So to sum up it up: there are moments when the mono version is clearly better – where the drums smack with ferocity and the vocals sound beautiful. But on the same note, there are also times where the stereo mix breathes better – especially on “Helter Sketer”.
Verdict:Toss Up! (This is definitive album where listeners should own both the mono and the stereo version of it. Some songs sound better on mono and vice versa).
Conclusion: Chances are that you are wondering what box set is “right for you”. The mono box set entices you because purists will always say that mono “is how the Beatles always intended” them to be heard. Then there is the fact that the mono box set is “limited”. However, we found that the Stereo far outperformed the Mono versions. There were only a couple albums that we could see ourselves arguing as being definitively better on mono. Taking all that into consideration, it’s hard to justify paying $40-60 more for a box set that not only has less content (it doesn’t include Abbey Road, Let It Be, Yellow Submarine, or the DVD documentaries), but overall doesn’t sound as good as the Stereo versions. It is true that mono was originally how most of these album were recorded. But they never sounded better then they do now with the Stereo remasters that will have you listening to the Beatles like you have never before.
Editor’s Note: Past Masters is not included because it’s mono equivalent, Mono Masters, has a different tracklisting. We suggest you check out both releases. Abbey Road, Let It Be, Yellow Submarine have only been mixed in stereo.