With mono sound, all you need is one speaker

Stereo has been the primary music format for more than 50 years, but mono sound is enjoying a comeback.

More and more audiophiles and music lovers are rediscovering the value of mono recordings. Stereo's bigger and more spacious image are perfectly fine. But mono's more concentrated sound seems to connect with some listeners in a very different way.

I'm not in the back-to-mono camp. But over the last few weeks, I've attended a series of events that championed the glories of monophonic sound.

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Steve Guttenberg/CNET

The first one was a press preview of the Beatles mono LPs, recently remastered from the original, analog tapes. That's interesting -- when the stereo LPs were remastered in 2012 they were made from digital masters, and Beatles fans were, for the most part, underwhelmed by the sound. When I reviewed them, I recommended searching for original 1960s vintage, all-analog stereo LPs -- they're not hard to find.

Apple, the Beatles' company, took note, so for the upcoming mono LPs, the engineers went back to the analog master tapes. And the sound, as I heard it at a press event in NYC, was spectacular. The 2012 stereo LPs were fairly noisy pressings, but the monos were eerily quiet. Paul McCartney's vocal on "Yesterday" was more fully present and realistic than I've ever heard it before. The 180-gram LPs will be available starting September 8, individually and in a 14-LP limited-edition box set with a gorgeous hardcover book. I'm hoping to get a few review samples in September so I can comment on the sound in greater depth.

More recently, I attended a couple of mono LP listening sessions, where the turntables were fitted with cartridges designed for mono playback. While you can play mono LPs with a stereo cartridge, mono cartridges reduce groove noise compared with stereo cartridges. A number of high-end cartridge makers offer mono models, and Grado has a $90 Prestige MC+ mono cartridge. Heavily played mono LPs that looked worn-out were remarkably quiet when played with mono cartridges. Monos aren't limited to just decades-old LPs; I occasionally find newly recorded mono CDs and LPs showing up here and there.

So the mono-holics and hipsters aren't crazy. But I prefer stereo. With some mono recordings, the sound feels like it's missing something. I tried listening with one of my ears blocked with my Sensaphonic plugs, but my "mono ear" trials fell flat. One-ear mono sound was unpleasantly lopsided, so I yanked the plug out and returned to two-eared mono auditioning.

I asked some true believers about mono's continuing appeal, and they all said mono recordings had "solidity," and pulled them into the music more than stereo. One guy pointed out that if the artists focused on the mono mix when they made the recording, then that has to be the best way to hear it. He recently heard an early Rolling Stones record in mono, and felt the mono version made them sound more like a band. The stereo mix separated the instruments too much.

When I ran into Stereophile magazine writer Art Dudley at a mono listening party at the In Living Stereo NYC store, he said, "It really comes down to body and impact. I appreciate stereo imaging -- it can be highly entertaining with the right sort of music -- but the 'phasey' quality of stereo can be a distraction." It's not just old mono LPs; he felt the same way about mono CDs. The more concentrated sound focuses the listener's attention.

Curiously, all of the mono-holics hook up two speakers to their mono systems, which confounds me. If you really believe in mono, wouldn't it make more sense to use just a single speaker?

If you enjoy mono recordings, post your comments here.

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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