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Experts compare refurbished Beatles albums with previous releases

By Mark Caro, Chicago Tribune –

CHICAGO — Meet the new Beatles … same as the old Beatles?

The albums 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, Ill., 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’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”).

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.

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