Don't buy the Beatles remasters, unless...

With all the hoopla surrounding the Beatles remasters, the question remains: How good are they? If you already own your favorite Beatles music, is it worth buying again?

We compared the sound of the new Beatles remastered CDs with original LPs. Steve Guttenberg

They're good, but do the remastered Beatles CDs offer a big enough sonic improvement over the 1987 CDs to make them essential? Listening over my high-end, two-channel system they absolutely do! But are the differences large enough to show up over an iPod, car system, or computer speakers?

The 2009 remasters are louder than the 1987 versions, so a quick comparison might lead you to believe the remaster is "better" simply because it's a little louder. And there's more bass. So if you compare old and new adjust the volume of both CDs to make them the same. Then tell me what you hear.

I compared two of the better sounding CDs, "The Beatles (The White Album)" and "Abbey Road" over my iPod, using my Monster Turbine in-ear headphones, and over my computer, with Audioengine2 speakers. Mind you, the Turbine and Audioengine2 are a good deal better than average-sounding ways to hear music, and after I compensated for the volume differences between the 1987 and 2009 versions, the sound was nearly the same.

And I was listening in a dead quiet room, add some background office or street noise and the differences would be even harder to hear. Rather than buy the new Beatles CDs, buy better headphones or speakers. They would make the Beatles music you already own sound better.

Thing is, with the 2009 remasters we're talking about fairly subtle improvements in clarity, especially in high-frequency detail, overall spaciousness, and naturalness. And the music seems more dynamically alive. Too bad those qualities evaporate over iPods, computer speakers, and car systems.

The colors of the new CDs' covers and booklets pale next to the original British LP covers. Steve Guttenberg

Listen over a decent quality hi-fi or home theater system and those improvements are definitely worthwhile. If you're a Beatles fan with a home hi-fi, get the remasters.

Sound aside, the new digipaks look way better than the 1987 jewel boxes, and the new booklets are loaded with rare photos, many of which even I, a fairly devoted Beatles fan, have never seen. The short minidocumentaries are generally pretty good. But the digipak and booklet color printing seem a bit off compared with my original 1960s British LPs. Flesh tones sometimes take on a greenish cast (see my comparison shot of the "Beatles For Sale" LP and 2009 CD covers).

The good news is just how close the LP and CD sound ! Switching back and forth between my VPI Classic turntable and Ayre C-5 Evolution SACD/DVD-A player, the sound was remarkably similar! Yes, the LP might be a tad warmer and more full bodied, but I had to really focus to hear significant differences. I also compared my Mobile Fidelity "Magical Mystery Tour" LP with the 2009 CD, and this time I preferred the CD. There was something about the LP's harsher, brighter balance and pumped-up bass I didn't like.

Most 2009 Beatles CDs were mastered from the original, stereo analog master tapes, but "Help" for example, was remastered from producer George Martin's 1986 digital master. "Help" is not one of the better ones, that's for sure.

I also compared the 2009 remasters with some of "The Beatles: The Capitol Albums Vol 1 & 2" CDs that came out in 2006. Those eight remastered CDs aren't bad, but the 2009 CDs cream them.

Have you bought the new CDs? Can you hear the difference?

Tell us what you think.

About the author

Ex-movie theater projectionist Steve Guttenberg has also worked as a high-end audio salesman, and as a record producer. Steve currently reviews audio products for CNET and works as a freelance writer for Home Theater, Inner Fidelity, Tone Audio, and Stereophile.

 

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