The remastered Beatles CD box set, released in 2009 sounded great and was pretty handy for anyone looking to acquire their entire discography in one shot. But given that CDs are on the brink of extinction, it seemed a little too late to be truly exciting.
However, putting essentially the same package on audiophile-quality vinyl is a different story. The new limited-edition vinyl box set takes that previous CD set up a big notch. Not only do you get the original artwork, special inserts, the warmth of analogue, but also a gorgeous book full of big glossy pictures. Everything about it feels expensive and luxurious in ways that the CD version can't even approach.
It's strange that even after 30 years, the medium CDs were supposed to make obsolete remains the format of choice for most serious music lovers. Audio nerds are still debating the merits of the various formats, but there's widespread agreement that not much matches the magic of a good vinyl pressing played through a high-end stereo.
If you already have the CDs, or if you've managed to accumulate the all the vintage records - or maybe you're still rocking cassettes and 8-tracks? - you may well wonder if these new remastered 180 gram vinyl discs are amazing enough to make the package worth investing in. After doing a bunch of blind comparisons with some test subjects, the answer still isn't very clear.
First of all, they do sound noticeably different from older vinyl pressings. Some of this is due to the old vinyl wearing down from being played a lot, which you can hear in a more muffled high end. But there are significant differences beyond that too: if anything, the new vinyl is closest to the remastered CDs.
There's more detail in the high frequencies, which makes the singing sound more like John, Paul and George are in the room with you, but also sometimes seems less smooth and refined. As with the CD reissue, you really get a better sense of how good of a drummer Ringo Starr is. Sure, his beats and fills are very simple, but he plays with far more finesse than he gets credit for. Conversely, the greater detail also shows that Paul McCartney's busy bass lines are sometimes sloppier than was previously evident.
Puzzlingly, the biggest difference between my vintage vinyl versions and the new ones is that the old ones were usually louder and had a much more present mid-range. Contemporary recordings often have more extended low and high frequencies, so this could have been an attempt to cater to current tastes, or possibly the originals were mastered to compensate for the limitations of the average stereo back then.
It seems like there's more dynamic range on the new vinyl, but that also makes them sound less present and punchy. If I had a better stereo, it might be an easier call. But even so, sound is pretty subjective, which became more and more evident the more testing we did. It's not as simple as saying which sounded more real, since many of the recordings were never meant to emulate the sound of a band playing live in a room.
The Beatles later albums are more obviously constructions of studio engineering, so it's very difficult to say what they should sound like. Is brighter always better? On some songs, the muddier aspects of the older versions made the arrangements feel tighter, and sometimes the increased detail of the new versions was distracting. On other songs, the enhanced new versions made the intricate layers come alive, offering a rediscovery of tracks you'd heard hundreds of times before.
The most surprising thing to come out of our scientific testing was how hard it was to discern a CD version from an MP3 of the same. As much as people like Neil Young might be convinced that data compression is ruining music, I'd be amazed if even he could tell the difference between a good MP3 and the raw CD in a blind test.
Both the CDs and the MP3s sounded remarkably brighter and crisper than either vinyl version, although, strangely, the signal from my iPhone's headphone jack sounded much closer to the vinyl than the laptop's output. It was just a little less crisp, and because of that, managed to trick the testers a few times into thinking it actually was analogue. This was not expected, and goes against all the angry rhetoric about modern digital audio.
Before you start complaining about the methodology behind these comparisons, it should be made clear that this was intended to be a real world test. My turntable needle is better than most, but you can go way more high end if you've got the money. Maybe if I had a full fledged audiophile system it would be easier to say that the new vinyl versions sound objectively better than the digital files or the worn vintage records. In general, you'll hear a bigger difference by upgrading your playback equipment (speakers/amplifiers/turntable/needle) than you'll get from a different playback medium.
So is the box set worth the money? Despite not being able to honestly claim that the records sound better than the versions I already owned, I will still treasure this package. It looks amazing, feels great, and (unlike my vintage versions of these iconic albums) none of these records skip.
If you're thinking of making the investment though, do it soon - only 50,000 box sets were made, and they're rapidly disappearing from stores.