Recently I received some new CD re-issues from JVC who have begun applying their very nice XRCD process to the RCA Victor catalog of classical recordings from the 1950s and 1960s. Among this batch was a personal favorite: Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony orchestra performing Beethoven's Symphony No.7. I enjoy this one the most of all the Sevenths in my collection, and the fact that my copy is a mono LP isn't something I ever gave all that much thought to. In fact, until someone corrected me on the point, I half assumed that LM-1991 might be one of those recordings in the RCA catalog that never came out in stereo in the first place. (I am not the sort of record collector who concerns himself with such details, although I am often thankful for the knowledge of those who are.) I also remember thinking that a stereo version of this LP, with that big, gaudy LIVING STEREO banner across the top, must surely suffer by comparison in terms of its cover art, which is Botticelli's La Primavera, reproduced on a sturdy fold-over sleeve the likes of which I haven't seen on any other record.
I played the new CD for the first time with great anticipation, wondering if I would prefer hearing this old favorite in stereo. I didn't. The strings swooped and sawed from their various seats, but that spatial "improvement" only distracted me from the notes they were playing. And while there was more detail in the sounds of some instruments, there was a great deal less detail in the sounds of the orchestra, overall — which I know sounds totally weird, but what I'm getting at is that it is easier to hear the conductor "play" the orchestra as an instrument on the mono version. Scale, dynamics, flow, and the general architecture of Reiner's interpretation are more obvious in mono. To me, at least.
JVC's stereo Seventh is a fine thing to have in its own right, and I believe it would do the job had I not already fallen for the older record's charms. But my heart belongs to the mono. In fact, I've been similarly smitten by dozens of other mono LPs over this past summer — during which time I've become acquainted with the new Helikon Mono phono cartridge, manufactured by Scan- Tech and imported to these shores by Immedia Audio of Berkeley, California (www.immediasound.com]. This isn't a part of the magazine where I usually speak about specific hi-fi products (if you're interested, my review of the Helikon Mono begins on page 72), but I would like to take this opportunity to describe one other example of how monaural sound is often reproduced music's "rightest" sound.
This one concerns the new LP reissue of Bob Dylan's The Times They Are A-Changin' from our friends at Sundazed Music (www.sundazed.com). In brief: Sundazed Music's owner, Bob Irwin, has an extensive track record as a house producer for Sony/Columbia, and Bob Dylan personally selected Bob to remaster his entire catalog in modern high-quality vinyl, one release at a time. Dylan and Irwin decided that, in cases where a monophonic mix exists and is deemed musically superior to the stereo mix, the former will be chosen over the latter.
So it goes with The Times They Are A-Changin', which sounds so good — so effective — in its new mono release that I doubt if I'll bother taking either of my stereo copies one original Columbia, one Mobile Fidelity) off the shelf again. And that's with a more or less conventional stereo system and its more or less conventional phono cartridge: With the Helikon Mono cartridge, Sundazed's TTTAAC is utterly transcendent. The mono LP with the mono cartridge is both brilliant music and brilliant sound: Few other home audio experiences have seemed as real, in either sense.
I'm not going to do the Phil Spector back-to-mono thing. I'm not saying you should ignore or discard half of your system. And I'm not saying stereo doesn't have its place. Hell, for some listeners — maybe fans of stuff like ELP, Yes, and Mike Oldfield, I would guess — surround sound might even be the best way to listen, and in those cases I wouldn't knock it on a dare.
What I'm saying is that a mono mix — a deliberately and thoughtfully balanced single-channel record, not just a random blending of all the information on a multi-rack tape—can be musically superior to a stereo mix. In some instances it might have to do with the skills and sensitivities of the engineer, and in others it may be because a certain piece of music is simply better served when its sound isn't spread all over the darn place.
All of that should go without saying, of course — but unfortunately it doesn't, if only because we've been oversold on the primacy of stereo sound by the old-guard press, simply because they themselves are besotted with spatial effects. I've met an awful lot of people over the past 15 years who wouldn't dream of listening to mono recordings on their expensive "high-end" stereo systems, and I'll bet you have, too. And while I can't complain about the effect this has had on the used record marketplace — i.e., mono versions of certain LPs selling for 50 cents apiece while their stereo counterparts go for $50 and much more—I do think it's a shame that so many people have chosen to ignore a half century's worth of music by Josef Hofmann, Arturo Toscanini, Yehudi Menhuin, Bidu Sayao, Bix Beiderbecke, Furry Lewis, the Carter Family, Johnny Kidd and the Pirates, and, yes, Elvis Presley.
And a lot of these audiophiles are the same ones who never miss an opportunity to belch about how they're into this for The Music. That makes my stomach flip most of all.
We can't move ahead without knowing where we've been. And I do not enjoy the prospect of a world of six channels when the people who would shove it down our throats are wholly, blissfully, and smugly ignorant of what can be achieved with only one.