The ultimate Beatles sound test

Experts compare refurbished albums with older releases

Tribune reporter Mark Caro meet with fellow Beatles fans to discuss their opinions on three different vinyl editions from the famed British band. The group congregated at Audio Consultants in Evanston on Nov. 7, 2012. (Chris Sweda, Chicago Tribune)

Meet the new Beatles … same as the old Beatles?

The albums being released Tuesday on vinyl certainly are old — the Beatles broke up 42 years ago, after all — and the mixes being used are the same as those that appeared on the 2009 remastered CDs. The cover art and inserts also will look familiar, albeit likely in much better shape than the packaging on those LPs that may have been sitting on your shelves for years.

That's the point actually: taking what's old and making it new — and even improved. The colors on the cover of "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" sure look more vibrant than on any of my old covers, and the sound …

Well, we'll get to the Ultimate Beatles Sound Test in a bit.

The much-ballyhooed, very popular 2009 CD reissues of the Beatles catalog in stereo and mono represented an overdue refurbishment of the band's music after years of neglect; the previous CD editions of those albums dated to the primitive digital days of 1987. The band's long-awaited debut on iTunes and other digital formats in late 2010 struck a blow for accessibility and the way younger generations consume music, though die-hard fans shrugged given that the MP3s would never compare sonically to the CDs.

But the vinyl …

Ahhh … the vinyl

this is what gets the Beatlemaniac's heart palpitating. Records were the dominant format when the Beatles' music was coming out as well as when it was attracting new generations of fans (such as myself) up through the 1980s (cassettes aside). Beatles nostalgia is rooted in the LPs and their full-size, iconic artwork that announced the bold changes of musical direction within.

What's more, many of us remain enamored of how those records sounded. The 1987 CDs revealed some new details but were overly bright and cold. The 2009 discs marked a significant improvement — with deeper bass and a richer musical palette — but purists will always prefer the needle-in-the-groove warmth and accuracy of vinyl. That feeling is widespread enough that vinyl is now an ascendant format again while CDs appear to be on a slow death march.

So the Beatles' return to vinyl — available as individual albums (list price: $22.99 for single albums; $34.99 each for the White Album and "Past Masters") and in a lavish boxed set that includes a coffee table picture-and-essays book (list price: $399.99) — is both a way to win over younger listeners who care about sound quality and physical packages as well as older fans who need an excuse to repurchase Beatles albums again, if for no other reason than to recapture the excitement of experiencing "the Beatles" and "new" in the same sentence. (We'll have that opportunity again in a year, when a box of the Beatles' LPs is released in mono; the current ones are all stereo.)

These editions are being manufactured on 180-gram vinyl using 24-bit remasters (the CDs used 16-bit) and a process that cuts the sound into a lacquer coating on a nickel disc.

Are the new vinyl editions worth it?

That's a question that no longer can be answered simply: If you're someone who experiences your music through MP3s and earbuds, you may find little point in buying Beatles records.

But for music lovers who actually own functioning turntables, we ran the Ultimate Beatles Sound Test.

As I did three years ago when the CD reissues came out, I assembled a panel of Beatlemaniacs at Audio Consultants in Evanston to do some careful listening and comparing on an ultra high-end stereo system. (This one retails for $165,000.) The experts included Gregory Alexander, aka Professor Moptop of WXRT-FM 93.1's "Breakfast With the Beatles" (disclosure: my wife anchors the WXRT morning news); Robert Rodriguez, author of this year's "Revolver: How the Beatles Reimagined Rock 'n' Roll"; Richard Buskin, author of "The Complete Idiot's Guide to the Beatles" and the upcoming "Classic Tracks: The Real Stories Behind 68 Seminal Recordings"; T.J. Shanoff, a Second City director/writer/music director who has bought every Paul McCartney boxed set, even "McCartney II"; Bob Purse, a musician and Fest for Beatles Fans regular; and Scott Soloway, Audio Consultants technical expert and Beatles aficionado.

Here's what we compared:

•The Beatles' British albums as issued in a boxed set called "The Beatles Collection" in late 1979 (to be referred to as "old").

•Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs' 1982 audiophile boxed set (pressed from half-speed masters) of the Beatles' British LPs called "The Beatles: The Collection" (to be referred to as "Mobile Fidelity").

•The new Beatles Stereo Vinyl Box Set (to be referred to as "new").

I picked a song each from seven albums and played all three versions in a different order each time, not disclosing which was which until everyone had commented. Warning: Beatles geekery to follow.

Round 1: "I Saw Her Standing There" ("Please Please Me," 1963)

We started with the rousing opener to the Beatles' first album, with the new version first, which prompted Rodriguez to call the bass "boomy" and Buskin to say, "It sounded very flat to me," though Purse countered, "I was thinking, wow, this sounds really good."

I played the old one next, which was brighter and had less bass. "That sounded thinner to me," Buskin said.

"George sounded like he was in the next room," Purse said in reference to Harrison's guitar playing.

Finally came the Mobile Fidelity version, which also boasted more high end than the new one and offered more dimension and punch than the old one.

"It's the fullest sounding, the best balance," Buskin said.

"Everything was well-defined," Rodriguez said.

But Shanoff said he thought the first one had the best mix of the three. "George's solo with the first one gave me chills, and that's the only one that did," he said.

WINNER: Mobile Fidelity.

Round 2: "Here Comes the Sun" ("Abbey Road," 1969)

George Harrison's shimmering opener to my favorite side of music ever (Side 2 of "Abbey Road") came next, with its glistening acoustic playing, Moog synthesizer accents and prominent McCartney bass line. I played the old version first, and Purse and Shanoff thought it sounded the way it always has sounded, while Buskin deemed it "a bit muted," and Alexander considered the synth wash to be a bit washed out.

The new one, played second, received better feedback, with Purse calling it "punchier" and Buskin praising the "fuller sound" and overall balance.

"It sounded like a curtain had been removed," Soloway said.

Shanoff said it lacked "the clarity of the '09 master," which is funny given that this was the '09 master.

Last came the Mobile Fidelity one.

"This is like the first way I ever heard it," Rodriguez said.

Buskin said it had "better separation of the instruments, but where was the kick drum? The bass sounded the least overpowering, but it had less guts."

"I kind of liked the third one the best of the three," Alexander said.

But after I played the new one again, it got Shanoff's and Buskin's votes.

WINNER: New.

Round 3: "Norwegian Wood" ("Rubber Soul," 1965)

It's worth noting that the new records of "Help!" and "Rubber Soul" use the remixes that producer George Martin prepared for the 1987 CDs, not the primitive stereo mix on those earlier records and the Mobile Fidelity version. Mobile Fidelity was played first here, and Purse declared, "That was like being in the room."

But Buskin declared the vocal "muted," Shanoff considered the mix "too separated," and Alexander called the sound "a little too clean."

Then came the new one, which was notably louder, with more bass. Rodriguez and Buskin preferred it to the first one, though Buskin felt the sitar "disappeared." Purse opted for the first one, saying it "sounded different than what I've experienced, but I liked it a lot."

Last came the old one, which was like the just-right porridge for most of these Goldilockses.

Rodriguez: "This is it."

Buskin: "This is the best one. Everything about this is better."

Alexander: "The sitar sounds just right."

Soloway: "There was only one where I felt involved, and that was the third one."

"This is the new one, I think," Shanoff said. "It's gotta be."

Actually, guys, it's the old one.

The news floored our panel.

"There's no consistency," Buskin marveled.

WINNER: Old.

Round 4: "Tomorrow Never Knows" ("Revolver," 1966)

Lennon's psychedelic album-ending game-changer deserves the volume-goes-to-11 treatment no matter the stereo system, with Starr's propulsive drumming powering a sound-effects-laden drone. I played the old one first, and Buskin complained about the "dry sound" and inferior stereo imagining, and Rodriguez noted that "Ringo didn't feel as present in this as I'm used to."

Next came the Mobile Fidelity version, which featured a crisper tambourine and, said Rodriguez, "more wash of the ride cymbal, but the bass drum was not there. We're not there yet."

Finally came the new one, which boasted the best bass sound yet.

"That's the one I wanted to hear," Buskin said. "The whole thing came to life."

"I liked that one best for sure," agreed Rodriguez.

"The first one was too scrunched together," Soloway said. "The second one was dull. I've always loved Ringo's drumming on that track, and (on) the third one it was there."

The minority opinion came from Alexander, who correctly identified the third one as having come from the 2009 mixes. "The problem I have with the 2009 one is it sounds too clean," he said. "I liked the second one best."

WINNER: New.

Round 5: "Happiness Is a Warm Gun" ("The Beatles" aka The White Album, 1968)

Lennon's sinister, scene-shifting closer to the White Album's first side presents a wide range of dynamics, but they felt lacking in the new version, which sounded almost as if there was a pillow over the speakers.

"I immediately think this is the 2009 mix," said Alexander, demonstrating why he is the Professor Moptop. "It sounds too clean."

Rodriguez and Buskin used the word "veiled" to describe it, and Purse observed, "It felt like all of the harsh edges had been sanded off."

"No juice," concluded Soloway.

The second version was the old one, and as the more prominent vocals kicked in, Buskin declared, "That's more like it."

"Yeah," Shanoff said, air drumming. "It's night and day is what it is."

"This had the edge I was missing on the other one," Purse said.

The third version, from Mobile Fidelity, sounded more muted than the second one, "like somebody put a curtain in front of the band," Purse said.

But Alexander preferred this version. "I liked the fact that it sounded even," he said.

"The second one felt the best because it sounded like what I remember," Soloway said.

That made sense because the second one is what he remembers, but again the panel was surprised to have found the old version superior to the new one.

"It's like they've regressed," Buskin said.

WINNER: Old.

Round 6: "All My Loving" ("With the Beatles," 1963)

This early chiming McCartney song presented an instructive exercise in matching memory to reality. In all three versions the listeners were lamenting that McCartney's bass line was buried, but that's how it sounds in the version we've heard hundreds of times. Bass guitar wasn't being recorded back then as it was a few years later on "Revolver."

"That jumps because it has a very toppy sound," Baskin said of the first version, the very bright old one.

"The vocals and guitar sounded great," Purse said. "The bass was missing."

"It was very crunchy," Soloway said.

The Mobile Fidelity version, played second, got kudos for boasting more clarity and bass, though Buskin and Rodriguez preferred the first one's energy. Then came the new one, prompting Shanoff to say, "There's the bass. This is it."

The new one had the fullest sound, and was, in Buskin's words, "the most balanced. All the elements were there." Alexander liked it the most, and Soloway declared it the best audio experience of the three, though "the first one had the energy we remember."

"The third one is the best audio experience," Buskin agreed, "but if I were at home, I'd rather hear the first one."

WINNER: Tie, Old and New.

Round 7: "A Day in the Life" ("Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band," 1967)

Our last test was the grand finale of the Beatles' most celebrated album, with its dreamy verses, mind-warping orchestral ascents and crashing final piano chord. The new one came first, and the room listened in almost religious silence.

"This was the best-sounding thing we've heard tonight," Buskin said, and almost everyone agreed, though Alexander deemed it "too clear," and Purse thought the orchestra swell was overwhelming.

The old version, played second, was less full and deemed flat by Shanoff and Alexander and muddy by Buskin and Purse, though Purse appreciated that the orchestra sounded "more organic."

The Mobile Fidelity version, played third, was an improvement over the old one, but the consensus was that the first one offered the biggest payoff.

"This to me is in a different class," Buskin said as we listened to the new vinyl again. "Beautiful."

Finally, we listened to "A Day in the Life" on the 2009 CD (and even more expensive equipment) and found the vinyl to have more body and warmth.

WINNER: New.

So the new albums fared best, and on my far more modest home stereo system, I spun some of the albums we hadn't test-driven, such as "A Hard Day's Night" and "Help!" and they sounded excellent as well (standout: "And I Love Her"), though the White Album still had that strangely muffled quality.

Although Buskin tended to prefer the new ones, he was frustrated by the inconsistency. "What is unsatisfying about it if you invest the money, you're still not assured of getting the definitive versions across the board," he said.

But Shanoff felt that all of our nit-picking missed the larger point: The Beatles albums were available again on vinyl, and the fact that so much more care was put into these reissues than the commonly available reissues of earlier years was just icing on the cake.

"I'm of the belief it's a good thing to have Beatles albums back in print," he said, "whether they're $12.95 or $24.95."

Yes. Yes. Yes.

mcaro@tribune.com
Twitter @MarkCaro

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