Stereo? Who needs it: I think The Beatles sound better in mono

The Beatles / Disney+
(Image credit: The Beatles / Disney+)

For decades, we've all been swimming in the great stereo sea, enjoying almost all of our audio content in stereo. Surround sound is a real thing and so is spatial audio, that's true, but stereo is still the dominant format. Accordingly, you don't even really 'choose' to listen to music in stereo; often, it's the only option.

Sure, streaming services such as Tidal and Apple Music will let you listen to Dolby Atmos mixes of music, but generally when listening to music, stereo is what you're going to get. Unsurprisingly, this is because stereo is a really good audio format, and we know how to engineer in stereo really well by now. But that doesn't mean stereo always sounds the best.

For a lot of music, especially older music originally engineered to be in mono, a stereo mix can sound strange 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 think the mono mixes sound great while stereo, unfortunately, sounds comparatively disappointing.

Forward this page to your favourite boomer uncle and sit back, strap in, and let me tell you why you'll never want to make a habit of listening to Please Please Me in stereo...

Why early Beatles records in stereo don't work for me...

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(Image credit: Apple Corps Ltd. WingNut Films / Peter Jackson, via YouTube (The Beatles))

If you don't mind me assuming, you've got two ears jutting out of either side of your head, right? So, you can understand why you might want to listen to something in stereo, especially if you're listening on a pair of earbuds, for example. It's nice when you play a track, the music envelops you, and you can place the elements of the track on a virtual stage all by ear.

Naturally, this kind of added complexity to music wasn't really possible to the same extent with mono, which just has a single channel, so whatever sound you're hearing come out of your left earbud/speaker will be identical to the sound coming out of your right earbud/speaker, meaning you're taking less advantage of humans having two ears.

Right, so stereo's the best pick, then? Well, not exactly. As our test case, look up something off the first couple of Beatles records, like A Taste Of Honey off Please Please Me. Make sure you've got the stereo version, and have a listen. It doesn't matter if you're listening on speakers or earbuds, if you're in a car or the shower. You'll hear the problem instantly.

It's split. Vocals are locked to your right, while the beat and the guitar are chained to 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 being played, live, in front of you, the singer's voice isn't only coming out of the right speaker.

A significant amount of musicality just evaporates instantly when you load up a stereo version of an early Beatles track. Your ears are getting more auditory information than you get with mono, but more information does not as a rule make for 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 there, but you can hear for yourself what a good stereo Beatles mix sounds like if you decide to listen to a later record, like Abbey Road...

...and why later Beatles records in stereo definitely do

The best spatial aduio tracks on Apple Music to try

(Image credit: Parlophone / EMI)

They don't call them the Fab Four for nothing: McCartney and crew did eventually manage to release fantastic stereo mixes of their music. When you listen to stereo music today, and lots of older stereo music too, you don't normally feel like half the elements of the track are on one side and the other on another.

This is the case for later Beatles records. Load up Come Together off Abbey Road, and this time, don't be afraid to pick the stereo mix. Have yourself a listen, and once again, the difference will be easy to spot after a few seconds: there's no strange, unnatural division to the music, no unholy separation of the elements.

However, it's definitely not like the group's mono mixes, either, as you'll be able to clearly notice that both your ears are hearing slightly different things at different moments throughout the track. Here, the added auditory information of stereo actually does make for a richer, more detailed listen.

Where exactly the stereo mixes of The Beatles become 'good' is argued by some (OK, many), but by the time of Sgt. Pepper's, this and later records clearly make better use of stereo than the group's early records. Though, of course, taste is a matter of subjective preference, so there's no shame in enjoying the stereo mixes of earlier Beatles records.

As an adolescent in the 2000s, I grew up hearing the stereo mixes of The Beatles. When I bought my first box set of the collected works of The Beatles, 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 was better than one, right? The folks at the retirement home can spin their single-channel vinyl all they like, but I was onto bigger and better things.

Of course, this was a huge oversimplification and I was wrong to think that the choice was so obvious, but it's an easy oversimplification to make in the modern day, especially if you're on the younger side of the spectrum. You may not always even think to listen to music in anything but stereo, even if you know better.

It's a lesson I'm thankful I learned, and hopefully, this article can serve as a reminder to young and old folks alike that, even today, sometimes you're better off listening in mono over the traditional stereo mix.


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Ruben Circelli

Ruben is a long-time freelance consumer technology and gaming journalist, and was previously a Staff Writer at What Hi-Fi?. Since 2014, Ruben has written news, reviews, features, guides, and everything in-between at a huge variety of outlets that include Lifewire, PCGamesN, GamesRadar+, TheGamer, Twinfinite, and many more. Ruben's a dedicated gamer, tech nerd, and the kind of person who misses physical media. In his spare time, you can find Ruben cooking something delicious or, more likely, lying in bed consuming content.

  • JennaChaplin
    I definitely agree. Some old 'stereo' recordings are just plain awful with instruments 'locked' to one channel or another. You're lucky if the bass and/or drums are exactly in the middle.
  • Quadrophonic.4Ever
    JennaChaplinAug 15, 2022I definitely agree. Some old 'stereo' recordings are just plain awful with instruments 'locked' to one channel or another. You're lucky if the bass and/or drums are exactly in the middle.
    Re quoted content, that didn't jump across as I had hoped?
    My reply, to JennaChaplin
    They are stereo only in one sense, and that is this, those early "so called" stereo recordings were made on 2 track tape and "pressed" onto two sides of the V needle track, on a vinyl record, so that the resultant mono, if a mono player - or two channels of a stereo player, can be "sent" into the amplifier either as a single mono, or into a stereo amp, with two channels thereafter the amplified sound, goes out either one mono, or two stereo terminals. where those are DELIBERATELY crossed across each other, as a mono output, to run either a single mono output to a single speaker, or if two channel outputs, both dual channel wires, get exactly the same summated mono feed, to power either one or more speakers at a remote location, so long as the final impedance of that "greater than two" speaker circuit is managed at a "feedback 8 ohms" to the amps dual outputs, as 4ohms to each.

    Hence anyone can then further passively split these with signal separators, using coils of wire and capacitors, thus tweeters and mids and bass, and finally a subwoofer (1) was put somewhere up front, as if that's where the lion roars? Each and every time, to the left of a larger than needed tv screen.

    Thankfully, studio technicians finally learnt, to place more and more music, on both channels, by "panning" mono sounds, all the way, slowly, from one channel - say in from the extreme left channel through the middle mono center channel, then out past the right - to give an impression of a moving thng, such as a train in a movie moves across the screen

    Some people eventually sent "by accident or design", a signal that had a floating earth, being sent directly to the right channel from the left - or back the other way, without needing a central earthing / bonded point, thereby allowing one speaker at the back, or two speakers to be placed at the rear corners, such that these "opposed" each other, and thus were muted a little which was good eh? as they sat either side of the rearward lounge seat eh?
    (as putting them on the same phase - meant a single sound in the middle rear, and no one wanted that eh?)
    Then recording artists went wild, making all different records, some good some trashed, as everyone came to terns with dual but different side channels, not just a centre front and rear the same?

    Oops accidentally little fingered that useless caps button again,
    Playing the earliest please please releases, when I got a copy, sounded magnificent, because I played them my way, on a three phased output, off the back of any older style "non-bridged" valve or early electronic amp, meaning that I 3phased the two channel output, into a FULL CHANNEL, all the uppers, mids, lows and bass, along with subwoofers, THREE DISTINCTLY DIFFERENT channels, from a two channel stereo anything, from a single player?????

    Yet I played to have the BEATLES play in concert at my place, a cow-byre's cream separator room, and several paddock fences around it, where I strung along a heap of ad-hoc speakers from old house stereograms through to salvaged radios and tv's as well as a few newer car stereo speakers, all doing their thing via passive crossover filters I made from the variety of salvaged sources at the dump, as - back then until well after I started working for wages, in the 1970's onwards, I could only buy what I could afford, sortof one at a time thing, until in the late 1999's early 2,000's when I started my own business, could I ever afford multiple speakers in one purchase, to install those systems as I went through my working life/

    And now at 70+, I am finally telling people that hifi, to me, means absolutely nothing, (oh for sure, better quality equipment, more inputs, more whizzbangs for your buck, such as MONO Bluetooth, (or an inferior stereo version) as well as anything that shines or attracts people - as soon you can make a coffee out of them too I'll bet?
    Yet to me, none of it is HIGH FIDELITY, as it is all bog standard two channel Stereo
    With a vastly boosted low frequency (summated MONO) center channel, as well as the upper ranges from that same channel, as TWEETERS?

    That isn't Hi Fi, neither is the delay timing, of the 5 point 1?
    Or anything point one?
    One subwoofer, for all the other DIFFERENT channels?
    You are joking I hope, but no, 1 sub instead of 1 sub on all channels.