For decades we have all been swimming in the great stereo sea and enjoying almost all of our audio content in stereo. Surround sound is a real thing, and so is spatial audio, true, but stereo is still the dominant format. Accordingly, you don’t even really “choose” to listen to music in stereo; often it is the only option.
Sure, streaming services like Tidal and Apple Music let you hear Dolby Atmos music mixes, but generally speaking, stereo is what you’ll get when listening to music. This is not surprising given that stereo is a really good audio format and we now know very well how to work in stereo. That doesn’t mean that stereo always sounds best, though.
With a lot of music, especially older music that was originally created in mono, a stereo mix can sound weird and off-putting, while the mono mix sounds delightfully musical. When it comes to the music of the Fab Four, particularly for the group’s earlier records, I find that the mono mixes sound great, while unfortunately stereo sounds disappointing in comparison.
Forward this page to your favorite boomer uncle and sit back, buckle up, and let me tell you why you’ll never make a habit of listening please please me on stereo…
Why early Beatles records don’t work in stereo for me…
If you don’t mind if I assume you have two ears sticking out of either side of your head, right? So you can understand why you might want to hear something in stereo, especially if you’re using a pair of earphones, for example. It’s nice when you play a track, the music envelops you and you can place the track’s elements on a virtual stage just by ear.
Of course, this kind of added complexity for music wasn’t possible to the same extent with mono, which only has a single channel, so whatever sound you hear out of your left earbud/speaker is identical to the sound coming out of your right earbud /speakers, meaning you get less benefit from humans having two ears.
Right, so stereo is the best choice? Well, not exactly. As our test case, look up something from the first few Beatles records, such as A taste of honey out please please me. Make sure you have the stereo version and give it a listen. It doesn’t matter if you’re listening through speakers or earbuds, whether you’re in the car or in the shower. You will hear the problem immediately.
It’s split. The vocals are locked on the right, while the beat and guitar are chained on the left. If you’ve heard music before, you know it’s not really meant to be divided up like that. It sounds unnatural because it is unnatural. When you’re listening to music played live in front of you, the singer’s voice doesn’t just come out of the right speaker.
A significant amount of musicality just dissipates instantly when you load up a stereo version of an early Beatles track. Your ears are You get more acoustic information than mono, but more information doesn’t usually result in a better listening experience or even better audio quality.
Why exactly do the stereo mixes of early Beatles music sound so bad? There’s a complicated answer to that, but you can hear for yourself what a good stereo Beatles mix sounds like if you decide to listen to a later record, such as abbey road…
…and why later Beatles recordings definitely work in stereo
They don’t call them the Fab Four for nothing: McCartney and his crew eventually managed to release fantastic stereo mixes of their music. When you listen to stereo music today, and a lot of older stereo music, you don’t usually get the feeling that half the elements of the track are on one side and half on the other.
This is the case with later Beatles records. Load come together out abbey road, and this time don’t be afraid to select the stereo mix. Give it a listen and again the difference will be easy to tell after a few seconds: there is no weird, unnatural division in the music, no unholy separation of the elements.
However, it’s definitely not like the group’s mono mixes either, as you can clearly tell that both ears are hearing slightly different things at different points on the track. This is where stereo’s extra listening information actually makes for a richer, more detailed listen.
Exactly where the Beatles’ stereo mixes get ‘good’ is a point of debate (OK, a lot), but until then Sergeant Pepper, this and later records clearly use stereo better than the group’s early records. Taste is of course a matter of subjective preference, so there’s no shame in enjoying the stereo mixes of past Beatles records.
As a teenager in the 2000s, I grew up listening to the Beatles’ stereo mixes. When I bought my first box of The Beatles Collected Works, I got it in stereo, because why wouldn’t I? At 14, all I knew was that stereo had “two channels of audio” — and two is better than one, right? The folks at the retirement home can spin their single channel vinyl however they want, but I was aiming for bigger and better.
Of course, this was a huge oversimplification, and I was wrong in thinking the choice was so obvious, but it’s an easy oversimplification these days, especially if you’re on the younger end of the spectrum. You might not always think about listening to music in anything other than stereo, even if you know better.
I am grateful that I learned this lesson and hopefully this article can serve as a reminder to people young and old alike that even today it is sometimes better to listen to mono than the traditional stereo mix.
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