You might agree with some reviewers that EMI’s engineers did a pretty good job with the new stereo pressing of Sgt. Pepper mastered by Sean Magee from the 2009 digitally remastered tapes.
In the March 2013 issue of Stereophile Art Dudley weighed in, finding little to fault on this title but being less impressed with most of the others in the new box set. His reference disc? The MoFi UHQR! Oh, and he also has some old mono pressings and a domestic Let It Be.
Now there’s a man who knows his Beatles. Fanatical? Of course he is! We’re talkin’ The Beatles for Chrissakes.
When I read the reviews by writers such as these, I often get the sense that I must’ve fallen through some sort of Audio Time Warp and landed back in 1982. How is it that our so-called experts evince so little understanding of how records are made, how variable the pressings can be, and, more importantly, how absolutely crucial it is to understand and implement rigorous protocols when attempting to carry out comparisons among pressings.
Critically comparing LPs is difficult and time-consuming. It requires highly developed listening skills. I didn’t know how to do it in 1982. I see no evidence that the audiophile reviewers of today are much better at it now than I was in 1982.
Just to take one example: They all seem to be operating under the same evidence-free conceit: that the original is the benchmark against which other pressings must be compared.
To those of us who have played Beatles pressings by the hundreds, this is patent nonsense. To cite just one instance, a recent Hot Stamper listing notes [inaccurately as it turns out, see below]:
We defy any original to step into the ring with it. One thing we can tell you, it would not be a fair fight. The cutting equipment to make a record of this quality did not exist in 1967, not at EMI anyway.
We had the opportunity not long ago to audition a very clean original early pressing of the album and were frankly taken aback by how AWFUL it was in virtually every respect. No top end above 8k or so, flabby bass, murky mids — this was as far from Hot Stamper sound as one could imagine. If it were a Heavy Vinyl or Audiophile pressing we would surely have graded it F and put it in our Hall of Shame.
To be fair we have played exactly one early copy of the record on our current system. (Played a copy or two long ago but on much different equipment, so any judgments we might have made must be considered highly suspect.) Perhaps there are good ones. We have no way of knowing whether there are, and we are certainly not motivated to find out given the price that original Sgt. Pepper’s are fetching these days.
We can tell you this much: no original British pressing of any Beatles album up through Pepper has ever impressed us sonically. We’ve played plenty and have yet to hear one that’s not congested, crude, distorted, bandwidth-limited and full of tube smear. (The monos suffer from all of these problems and more of course, which is only natural; they too are made with the Old School cutting equipment of the day.)
If that’s your sound more power to you. It’s definitely not ours. The hotter the stamper, the less congested, crude, distorted, bandwidth-limited and smeary it will be. (Or your money back.)
[Update: there is a copy of a Beatles album on the original label that was competitive with our best 70s pressings, this one. We explained why it’s not a problem to admit we were wrong about For Sale this way:
This finding about For Sale is precisely why Live and Learn is our motto.
We don’t know it all, and we’ve never claimed that we did. We constantly learn things about pressings in our daily shootouts. That should not be too surprising, as record shootouts are the only way to learn anything about the sound of records that’s actually worth knowing.
Start doing your own experiments and your record knowledge might just take off the way ours has. 99% of what we think we know about the sound of records we’ve learned in shootouts over the course of the last twenty years.
Here is our advice on getting started.
Before this, the only Beatles record we would sell on the Yellow and Black Parlophone label was A Collection of Oldies… But Goldies. That title does have the best sound on the early label. In numerous shootouts, no Black and Silver label pressing from the ’70s was competitive with the best stereo copies made in the ’60s.
Until now, it was clearly the exception to our rule. From With the Beatles up through Yellow Submarine, the best sounding Beatles pressings would always be found on the best reissue pressings.
The Best Pepper Pressings
How did we come to find the best Sgt. Peppers pressings? Our recent commentary about a wonderful Benny Carter record on the original Contemporary Black Label may serve to shed some light on the process.
We noted how Tubey Magical Benny’s trumpet sounded on the original, adding that it unfortunately comes at the expense of all the other instruments — drums, bass and piano — which are simply harder to hear — less immediate, less real, less “live in your listening room.” We went on to say:
Yet this is precisely the sound that many, even most, audiophiles would find perfectly acceptable. There are many reasons for this, but one of the main ones has to be that they have never heard a truly amazing reissue, the kind we sell all day long. Had they heard such a pressing they would be in a much better position to weigh the pros and cons of both. This is why we do shootouts. Every pressing has the potential to show you some quality you can’t hear any other way, some aspect of the sound you would not even know was possible. Super Hot and especially White Hot pressings — on the right equipment — can put you in the presence of a recording you had no idea existed. It would be no exaggeration to say that it happens to us every week.
Not to put too fine a point on it, comparing an original pressing of Sgt. Pepper with the new Heavy Vinyl reissue is simply comparing one badly flawed pressing with another badly flawed pressing. Pace Mr Dudley and his confreres, we’re not exactly sure how their efforts in this regard are of much benefit to audiophiles who take their record collecting seriously, at least to that subset of collectors in search of the best sounding pressings.
If you want to find an LP of Sgt. Pepper that sounds better than the original, that’s one thing. If, on the other hand, you want to find the best sounding pressing there is, that’s quite another.