|THE BEATLES IN MONO 13 discs, $300
• Includes every remastered CD from Please Please Me to The White Album plus the mono version of Past Masters and one big booklet.
THE BEATLES IN STEREO (17 discs, $260)
THE BEATLES: BOX OF VISION ($90)
As you close the front door and stroll to your car, Leo McKern - alias Clang - approaches you furtively, concealing something under wraps in his hands. "Hey, audio-FILL-ee," he whispers, revealing his treasure. "How about this, eh? Mono. All of it, pure mono. On easy-to-handle digital CDs. Unmarked; not a mark on them. You shall have fun, eh?"
We shall, but we have to be forgiven for imagining that revised Help! scenario. After all, even Kevin Howlett's liner notes to The Beatles in Mono make it seem like we audiophiles have always been relegated to lurking in the streets, seeking out sonic fixes. Here, though, Howlett is talking about the dawn of stereo: "At the start of the 1960s, stereo albums were issued in fairly small quantities for a specialist market of hi-fi (high-fidelity) enthusiasts, who muttered mysteriously about moving coils, woofers, tweeters, and rumble. The sleeves of these LPs sometimes included bossy diagrams of how to position your speakers and where to sit, plus technical data about cartridges moving up and down and wiggling sideways."
Our diagrams are "bossy"?
On the contrary, I'd say we audiophiles are a thoughtful lot. So we also have to be forgiven for taking issue with the hyperbolic praise that the Beatles' remastered CDs, whether in mono or stereo, have already received. The British press, of course, is tops in over-the-top. According to Record Collector, songs now sound as if "40 years of dust have been blown off them." And Uncut says that voices and instruments are "stripped of several decades' worth of detritus."
Uncut continues: "It's as if we've been visiting an art gallery to gaze in wonder at a masterpiece all these years, and then suddenly an attendant comes along with a sponge and wipes the painting from top to bottom." On this side of the pond, referring to Abbey Road specifically, USA Today echoes: "It's like standing inches from Van Gogh's Starry Night after squinting at it for years through a dirty window."
More to the point, most everyone wants to join the supposed overriding consensus that the new CDs are so good because the old CDs were so bad. It seems that all of the Beatles' albums "lost dimension and purity" in their 1987 transfer, resulting in "shrill" sound (USA Today). Not just shrill but "abrasive, brittle" and, at the same time, "anemic" (Rolling Stone).
This is nonsense.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. Before we go deep inside to the sound of the remasters, we have to start outside.
1967: Producer George Martin shows that upstart Mccartney a thing or two on piano.
Did I say The Beatles in Mono? I did, and that's just one of several ways you can buy the catalog - the British catalog, naturally.
All told, the Beatles released 12 albums from 1963's Please Please Me to 1970's Let It Be. The British catalog has since made room for the American expansion of Magical Mystery Tour and the now-coupled Past Masters collections of singles and other non-LP tracks.
Because the 1987 CDs had the first four albums in mono and the rest in stereo, buying the boxed set of The Beatles in Mono means finally getting CDs of the British mono mixes for the six albums from Help! to The Beatles, a.k.a. The White Album. The box stops there, because the mono Yellow Submarine LP was just a fold-down, and mono mixes were never made for Abbey Road and Let It Be. You do, however, get a Past Masters parallel called Mono Masters. And you also, of course, get the Holy Grail: the mono version of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, with its much more painstaking mix.
Each mono title comes in a nice LP-replica sleeve (including the Beatles for Sale gatefold), and the outer packaging itself is a handsome, white, sturdy CD-size box housing the discs and one 44-page booklet covering the whole set. But you can only buy the monos in this Limited Edition 13-disc set. Repeat: Limited Edition. (Read: Hurry up!)
With the stereo releases, you have two options. There's an equally handsome and sturdy boxed set simply called The Beatles, this time black and in a 6 x 12-inch vertical configuration. Inside, each album comes in an attractive three-panel Digipak with a dedicated booklet. If you can't spring for this 17-disc set, you can buy the stereo CDs individually. Either way, this means that CDs of the British stereo mixes for the first four albums are available for the first time.
And the original peripherals? The storybook of Magical Mystery Tour is back, faithfully reinstated inside the gatefold of the mono version and reprinted as part of the CD booklet in the stereo version. The stereo editions of Sgt. Pepper and The White Album reproduce full-color images of, respectively, the cutouts and the four portraits, but only the mono box has all of these on separate cards. And whereas both incarnations of The White Album include a small reproduction of the poster, the one in the stereo version has nearly illegible lyrics, requiring them to be duplicated in the CD booklet.
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