Beatles remasters: the verdict

My first comment on the remasters is this:  I haven’t been able to buy them! 😦

It seems that EMI Canada underestimated the demand for the discs — which, after all, most of us already own. I was first in line at HMV (Rideau Centre, Ottawa) when the store opened on the big day. But all the units of the stereo set had been set aside for customers who pre-ordered. It was a similar story at a local, independent retailer (Compact Music). Likewise at the other HMVs I called, including an HMV in Winnipeg.

So I placed an order with Amazon.ca. They happily accepted my order, but they still haven’t shipped the set to me. In other words, Amazon.ca doesn’t have any product in stock, either. (The individual discs are available in stores — just not the complete set.)

Nonetheless, I am able to provide you with my verdict.

One of my friends was able to get his hands on a set in Toronto. Through him, I’ve had a chance to compare the 1987 release with the 2009 re-release. In my opinion, this CNET review is a little sceptical, but not completely unreasonable:

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.

[…] 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.

I agree with a lot of the above, but I wouldn’t go so far as the reviewer does in the final sentence quoted.

Consider the following excerpt from “Glass Onion” (a track on the White Album). I have combined twelve seconds from the original CD, followed by twelve seconds from the remaster, returning to the original CD, then returning again to the remaster. You will notice a change in volume at the 12, 24, and 36 second marks (as the excerpt shifts back and forth between the 1987 release and the 2009 re-release):

(If you'd like to see the difference you've just heard, Pitchfork prepared an interesting series of waveforms, giving you a visual comparison. It's at the bottom of the review here.)

Using an old version of Cool Edit Pro, I amplified the segments of “Glass Onion” which needed it (i.e., the segments from the original, 1987 CD). When I had compensated for the volume difference, there was still a discernible difference in sound quality:  but it was subtle.

Other reviewers have criticized the 1987 CD sound as “thin” and overly “bright”. That’s where I notice a significant improvement in the 2009 re-release of “Glass Onion”. The bass, in particular, has a much richer bottom end. But the strings and the other instruments likewise have fuller, relatively well-rounded tones.

I’m not going to post the other version of the excerpt, with the volume corrected, because I don’t think it would be a fair comparison. You would be listening to a streamed version, over your computer speakers, and you probably wouldn’t perceive the difference.

Which probably tells you something, all by itself. The difference is not that dramatic, or presumably you could perceive it even over computer speakers (as you can with the increased volume, above).

My bottom line:

  • Yes, there’s an improvement in sound quality. The increased volume, all by itself, counts for a lot, in my opinion. Especially if you typically listen to a bunch of different artists in “shuffle” mode. The Beatles will hold their own better with this louder re-release.
     
  • Even after compensating for the lower volume of the 1987 release — if you listen closely, there’s a discernible difference in sound quality. The problem of the “thin”, overly “bright” sound of the 1987 CDs has been corrected.1
     
  • However, to a casual listener, the difference might not be enough to warrant the investment in the 2009 re-releases. Perhaps you should limit your investment by buying only your favourite discs.

Personally, I’m still eagerly awaiting my shipment of the entire set from Amazon.ca. Arguably, this is the finest music made in my lifetime, and the sonic difference is significant enough to be worth it to me.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~
1LP enthusiasts will be thrilled by CNET’s bottom line:

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.

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2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. aaron
    Sep 21, 2009 @ 17:24:23

    Thanks for your thoughts Stephen. I’ve pretty much reached the conclusion to pass on this purchase. I have no doubt that there’s a difference, but given the infrequency with which I listen to music on my stereo these days, instead using my jukebox, I just can’t justify buying the new set.

    Enjoy!

    Reply

  2. Mike Hunt
    Jul 25, 2012 @ 19:50:18

    Mike Hunt approves of this.

    Reply

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