Perfect Sound Forever

The Vinyl Anachronist

by Marc Phillips
Part XXXI: Adventures in Mono (March 2002)

You might have noticed that in the last few installments of "The Vinyl Anachronist," I really go after the surround-sound freaks. That's mostly because I see the similarities between their rhetoric condemning good old-fashioned stereo, and the crap we had to endure nearly twenty years ago when we were told how much better CD's sounded than LP's. Multi-channel audio enthusiasts have called me a Luddite, narrow-minded, rooted in the past, and even "scared" of new technologies. I have consistently maintained that I see the promise of these new technologies, but the attacks continue. I have received ten times the flack over this than I ever have in stating that LPs sound better than CD's.


"If you still have a two-channel audio system, then you are behind the times." This was said to me by a well-known, and rather boorish audio reviewer, who felt that my article Perfect Sound Forever Again was out of line. He told me that I was wrong to criticize multi-channel audio and video because the pictures and the sound didn't match up. "That's the software's fault, not the hardware- the hardware is superb." And he's right on that count. But notice that he didn't address my charges that most surround-sound setups are expensive, difficult to install, complicated to operate (you should see some of the ungainly remote controls!), and the speakers completely take over the room. For people like me who don't have a dedicated "media room," the average multi-channel speaker installation definitely fucks up the feng shui in your living room.

You know what I think? I think home theatre and multi-channel and DVD-A and surround are biting the big one. I think that the rich guys bought their toys initially, were fairly pleased, and sequestered themselves in their entertainment dungeons indefinitely. In other words, they really weren't keeping the market moving forward by religiously buying all the new gadgets. I mean, I talk to a lot of audiophiles and audio industry people and dealers and they all tell me how wonderful this stuff really is. But I don't know any normal people who own impressive multi-channel systems. My mother-in-law has a surround set-up in her bedroom, and the receiver and the six speakers cost her about $300. And it sounds awful. But this is what ordinary people think when they hear the word "surround." They don't think about expensive processors and digital speakers and multi-channel SACD players. They just want the 'splosions to be big and impressive when they watch Pearl Harbor.

That's why I think the surround enthusiasts are getting so nasty. I think the cash that's fueling the R&D for these products is starting to dry up. The promise of new, better entertainment systems in the future is starting to look a bit too tentative for comfort. So it's time to go after those primitive, hairy, ape-like stereo-lovers. It's time to hold them at gunpoint and make them buy DVD-A players that need special video monitors in order to choose between source components instead of a simple knob. It's time to get the Multi-Channel Express rolling again!

But I have a plan. Not only will I continue to listen to music through two speakers, and not only will I choose to listen to LP's through two speakers, I will start listening to more MONO LP's! That'll send them back to the drawing board.

It's weird, but monoaural and monophonic recordings, especially on vinyl, are enjoying a resurgence. I'm not sure if this a backlash against what I just mentioned, but it's certainly interesting. In fact, Listener magazine, perhaps my favorite audio publication right now, recently devoted an entire issue to mono, which included, of all things, a $2200 phono cartridge designed specifically to be used with mono recordings. And, according to editor Art Dudley, you've never heard Sgt. Pepper until you've heard a mono pressing played on a fine turntable using this special cartridge.

I believe it, too. There's a certain period in pop music, the early-to-mid '60's, where the stereo versions of certain albums are obnoxious. Vocals out of one channel, the entire band out of the other, and a big empty void between the speakers. Certain Beatles albums are huge offenders, and they make the casual observer wonder why George Martin got all those accolades. But there's a reason why those recordings sound like they do. Back in the day, the average pop music listener had a rather modest sound system, usually just a record player with a single speaker. Jazz and classical recordings of the time were actually some of the greatest-sounding ever, because the average jazz and classical listener was typically older and richer and was more likely to own a stereo system. So many of those pop albums were originally mixed in mono, with care, and then later mixed in stereo with gee-whiz gimmickry in order to impress the very few.

Michael Fremer's interview with Bob Irwin, of Sundazed Records, in the February 2002 Stereophile is especially illuminating. Bob at one point says:

"You have to be aware of things--like you haven't been able to buy a Bob Dylan mono album since it was in print 30 years ago, that they're distinctly different from the stereo counterparts, and in most cases, with the early albums, they're far superior."
And I take Bob's word for it, because, as I have mentioned previously mentioned, his new pressing of Dylan's Highway 61 Revisited is the best-sounding mono recording I've ever heard. You hardly even notice it's not in stereo; it's subjectively full and powerful and complete (and it retails for just $12.98 so go buy it already!).

And Art Dudley, while waxing euphoric about the aforementioned Sgt. Pepper experience, mentioned that while the Beatles were all present and actively involved in the studio while the mono version was being mixed, they were completely absent when the stereo version, reportedly a "rush job," was cut. That's some food for thought.

So where does one start a proper and meaningful foray into the wonderful world of mono? I'm not a particularly knowledgeable source, since I'm new to this, too. The Listener article does mention a Top Ten Mono Recordings, and I'd highly recommend checking out Sundazed Records for those incredible Dylan pressings (The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, The Times They are a-Changin' and Bringing It All Back Home have been recently released in mono as well). And if you can find an LP copy of the MCA "Heavy Vinyl" release of Buddy Holly, then grab it. I heard it on someone else's system a few years ago, and I'm still kicking myself for not buying when it was released. It's worth some money now.

Speaking of that, my old friend e-Bay comes in handy for locating rare and essential mono recordings. If you think I'm crazy for mentioning a mono revival, then cruising e-Bay for mono recordings will be a shock. Most of the mono LP's are actually fetching higher prices than the stereo versions. Sometimes this is because the mono versions are rarer, but once in a while it's because the mono recording is preferred (Pet Sounds, for instance). Usually you can find most of The Beatles' albums, in mono, selling for hefty prices at any given point. I think I may try to get a mono version of Sgt. Pepper to see if Mr. Dudley is right, although I will refrain from slapping the $2200 Lyra Helikon Mono cartridge on my turntable, if you don't mind.

It's funny how I used to avoid mono records like the plague. I can remember playing with the mono/stereo switch on my receiver when I first got into audio, and I'd remark on how lifeless and flat mono sounded. Of course, I was listening to recordings originally mixed and recorded in stereo, so of course it would sound bad. Now, I'm constantly amazed how much life and light I find in some of those old mono recordings. If you have a similar bias against mono, I suggest you revisit the issue, especially with those Dylan pressings. You might decide, like me, that maybe audio isn't about bigger, better, and more. It's about simplicity. And nothing is more simple than one-channel audio, except for listening to old 78s like those crazy geezers in Ghost World.

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