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.
    Reply
  • Quadrophonic.4Ever
    What Hi-Fi? said:
    Stereo seems like the default pick nowadays, but it's not always the best choice...

    Stereo? Who needs it: I think The Beatles sound better in mono : Read more
    Actually, I would strongly disagree with that statement, as the original STEREO that the Beatles created, was NOT designed to be played as a LEFT / RIGHT system, but as a FRONT & BACK version of stereophonic.
    Their vocal channel "was" a front center MONO track for a reason, as that's what you looked at when looking at the old B&W (mono) TV broadcasts, which summated L&R together as a MONO sound output, via a single TV speaker.
    Playing the same audio on a stereo Hi-Fi amplifier system, meant that you "should" have re-arranged your two stereo speakers, as a FRONT center and a REAR center, which puts the instruments BEHIND you, where they would be if you sat in their studio, where the Beatles would have you facing them - with the instruments playing (unseen) behind you.
    Stereo in, and of, itself does NOT simply mean two channels - but "more than one", which in my discovery, (in 1965), led me to 'now' always play stereo, in as many channels as I can decode from the source, but that is possible, ONLY from genuine stereo recordings, such as the early Beatles tracks, through to the very latest stereo recordings.
    Once people realise that stereo is NOT just a left and right channel (anything), they will be better listeners, especially if they place more than one speaker, differently, than if they just put them say two foot apart beside a record player, as that JUST gets a "close together, is close enough, for a MONO sound" - to thus hear "JUST MONO" in the middle or the back of the room.
    You will ONLY hear any stereo separation if you physically stand "between" the speakers right at the player itself, if the speakers are too close together.
    Even 8 foot apart along one wall, is NOT enough separation, for early Beatles studio recorded sounds, as they didn't use a remasterer, to "pan" both mono tracks across the two main stereo channels, whereas later studio engineers, panned as many as 32 different instrument tracks, across a frontal stage, as if needing to have a one-wall stereo sound.
    Thankfully, other audio engineers, "panned" some instrument tracks as well as a lot of backing vocals, across a THIRD (actual) channel, thereby creating an echo track, behind the middle of the room, which is JUST played in 2 ch stereo format, one hears that sound lighter and further away, than if it was coming from the same "frontal space" as the other two channels.
    It isn't actually intended to be heard BEHIND (anything) in the studio, as if played further away from the lead singers at the front, but should rather be "sent" to a rear speaker (or speakers, if decoded in more than a single channel) at the back of your room, if correctly decoded as a THIRD "surround" channel.
    Me?
    Since 1965 I can decode (naturally) NINE different channels, directly from a single two channels stereo mix.
    If I want more, I then sub-decode more, between any of the main nine that I have from a direct decode.
    Such as in the (11 channel) picture of my demo van (between 2003 & 2007)
    Entitled as:
    Music SOUNDZ a lot more - when 7p3+1 goes into 4x4

    NB:
    The 4th sub (seen almost obscured in front of the other three, as seen from the back of the van) is a reverberation super-subwoofer, derived by combining the three main channels into a sub/subwoofer channel, fed into two 12" speakers where 1 is inverted over the other, and anti-phased - so that both act as if a single double cone speaker, pushing and pulling in a "married union", & thus acting as if a single diaphragm .
    Reply
  • Quadrophonic.4Ever
    What Hi-Fi? said:
    Stereo seems like the default pick nowadays, but it's not always the best choice...

    Stereo? Who needs it: I think The Beatles sound better in mono : Read more
    Oh Lorde` - please, please - help the unhelpfulre:
    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...

    Yes well !!!

    I know why it won't work for you, as YOU aren't listening correctly to it now, are you?

    The earliest Beatles music wasn't created in a delightful way, but rather in the:
    "get it out there as quick as we can" (way), to see if this band is any good, in a crash course for "inferior work".
    Using the most obvious, rough mastering (inferior) format
    That of placing the mono (B&W TV MONO) audio vocals track, in one channel, on one side, whilst gathering all the backing singers and placing them along with the instruments in the "other" stereo channel, to allow the vocal crispness of the main 4 boys to sound better (in a front/rear speaker positioning) than when everything is bundled into a singular track which was the only way most broadcast services played music - inside an ancient (B&W TV or AM Radio) mono format

    Unfortunately, as good as they sounded in bog standard stereo (two front channels of "Left & Right"), they "sounded" a hell of a lot better, when the vocals speaker is placed dead center in the front, whilst the "rest" (of the backing session singers and instrumentation, which is in the "other speaker") - is positioned at the back of your listening room, dead center of that wall, to allow YOU to hear Front & Back, instead of vocals being as stated, locked to your right, while the beat and the guitar are chained to the left.
    Because these (two speakers) sound way better as front CENTER and rear CENTER.

    That way - you listen to both speakers with BOTH ears, as if listening to a simple mono track, (at the center FRONT) whilst getting the room acoustics delivering the rear center speaker into both ears in time with and combining with, the lead vocals.
    Yet your brain still knows one speaker is ahead of you and the other is directly behind you.
    Hence the delivery of two channel surround sound, by the Beatles, long ago.
    Using the simple "plain" recording technique that records a one vocal only input into one input channel., beside a different channel input that contains just the drums and guitars. (using pre-recorded MONO tracks of each)

    As the original mono's were centralised (as a mono/dual mono), they should NOT be placed to one side and the other, but to the front & rear.

    Sadly the stereo of the early songs from the Beatles wasn't inferior to the way YOU played the mono, it was in fact far superior, IF.!!!!
    If you had repositioned the speakers to allow the vocals to be heard in front, with the drums and guitars to be heard behind you, as then you would have appreciated the difference far easier.

    Or (now) take both speakers to a central front position and stack the two speakers by putting the Beat & Instruments speaker BELOW the upper level Vocal speaker.

    Try it, as I am certain you will "like it".

    That way, you can start to see, with just 4 positions in a room, where I have been able to attain / obtain 12 positions rather easily.

    Take a soccer ball with it's patches, and paint each a different colour, then cut the ball so that it lays out flat, and it should look something like my 12 channel surround sound ball image.

    It's my way of describing the surrounding of someone (listening inside, or outside), to multiple channel surround sound, the "old school" Analogue way.

    My way, since 1965.
    Reply