15 April, 2012

Talk Vinyl: Mono Replay, Part I

pic shows Paul Klipsch with his masterpiece, the Klipschorn, and Brook amplification. The setup would make a great, perhaps even definitive,  mono playback.

Talk Vinyl: Mono Replay, Part I Background

In case you haven't already heard, there is now a modest resurgence in mono analog playback. This is not a fad, but a thorough re-evaluation by analog lovers and audiophiles, a wicked commentary on why much of modern gear and developments in audio are not the advances in sound reproduction the discerning ear had hoped for.

In HK, there are a few mono addicts in my circle, and I must say I am somewhat infected by their enthusiasm. But, unlike most of them, I look at it from quite a different angle.

Like many a classical music lover of a certain age, mono recordings have long figured in my diet. Many of the greatest artists, like Edwin Fischer, Fritz Kreisler and Furtwangler, had only left us mono recordings from shellacs and the 78' era. Whether remastered on LPs or CDs we had been listening to them for the longest time. But for many people, mono is a new thing. Some started being curious about the "obsolete" technology, and others got drawn in because of their objectivity when exposed to ask the crucial question - why does it sound good at all?

For myself, in recent years I have re-evaluated mono recordings and their replay, from an audiophile perspective. What I find are sometimes surprising, and let me do this step-by-step, starting with facts.

The MONO Analog Renaissance

Well-Known Fact: Despite more than two decades of repeated claims of breakthroughs in digital replay, and now everyday proclamation of CAS advances, analog replay in general has enjoyed not only a resurgence but real growth. Modern day CAS people, who think they are saavy, should really look into this rather than concentrating on meaningless or, at best, dubious measurements. They would do well to hone their ears instead.

Not So Well-Known Fact: MONO analog replay, which has always had its advocates, is enjoying a surprising resurgence of its own. For the longest time, there have only been a few mono cartridges available, like the Denon DL-102 and a model or two from Grado, Shure and Ortofon. Today, there are quite a few newer "boutique" MC mono cartridges, like the Miyajima, and more loom on the horizon or can be made to order. Mono replay has even earned attention from the mainstream press, like Art Dudley in Stereophile.

There MUST be something here, but it is difficult to tell someone new to mono why mono replay can sound superior to stereo, and why it is a viable and living thing. There is not much organized writing on the Internet, but if you google key words you get to read a lot of discussions in various forums, some quite interesting. If you're new to mono, you could start here: enjoythemusic; Stereophile article.

First, back to how mono recordings were made and played. For the technical side, search the internet for the difference between mono and stereo LPs.

Mono Replay in History
To thoroughly understand why some audiophiles are attracted to mono recordings, we must have some historical perspective.

Mono Replay in the 78 Era The earliest reproduction is by mechanical means. Indeed, early recordings were mechanically recorded and replayed by spring-loaded gramophones. Has subsequent technologies rendered this most ancient methodology completely archaic? Unfortunately not. Many people who have heard violinist Heifetz swore that the 78's played through the gramophone most accurately conveyed his tone and playing. Note that Heifetz made many stereo recordings in the LP era (many Living Stereo's treasured by Audiophiles), but many connoisseurs regard the recordings on tape less faithful to his tone than 78's played on the mechanical gramophone (and digital remastering atrocities).

Mono Replay in the LP Era All serious music fans of a certain age grew up with both stereo and mono recordings. That goes without saying for classical fans, but the situation is similar for jazz fans, they too have a veritable treasure trove in mono recordings. Take Blue Note, many swear by the mono pressings, or mono recordings by Rudy van Gelder. Even rock fans may prefer the mono Beatles masterings to the stereo ones. With the advent of stereo, most people just use their stereo cartridge and setup to play mono.

One important thing to note is that there are different kinds of mono LP's: 1) recordings remastered from 78's. Needless to say many of these qualify as immortal recordings, which is why they were remastered for the (mono or stereo) LP crowd. However, some who still have the original 78's for comparison (some use the gramophone even) swear that the LP remasterings do not sound as good as the originals, and Heifetz' tone was used as an example; 2) mono recordings recorded on tape. There is little question that tape recording techniques improved steadily as the LP went along, so that at the dawn of stereo mono recordings enjoyed similar technical standards. Late mono recordings are of the highest quality 3) recordings with both mono and stereo mixes. When it comes to availability, this is easily the largest group, due to popularization of the LP, and because for quite a few years recordings were issued in both mono and stereo to satisfy those who haven't made the switch. While some of mono masters might just have been down-mixed stereo, many recordings had separate mono and stereo masterings. Replayed with the same stereo cartridge (usually; or mono cartridge as the case may be), the details are often different. As usual, the engineer is a factor in the equation (and perhaps the biggest one). It should be noted that on acoustic jazz recordings and small combos early stereo often simply put different performers in the two channels and the resulting sound has nothing much in between, which leads many people to prefer the mono equivalents, which put things smack in the middle. The early Beatles albums serve to illustrate this, and there are good reasons why the mono pressings are coveted. 

Mono Replay in the Digital Era Many reared on vinyl soon found out digital was certainly not "prefect sound forever". Nothing brought this more to the fore than replay of mono recordings. Most of the earlier mono digital remasterings were well-nigh unlistenable. Some of this could be attributed to the tipped up treble of much modern equipment, which paradoxically compromises the most the bandwidth-limited mono recordings (due to midrange suck out). While I am on this point, let me emphasize that, even with a digital remastering, a proper hifi system should be able to play mono recordings with some semblance of fidelity. Consistent failure usually means the system is not balanced. Another significant factor is incompetent remastering, which is unfortunately ubiquitous. In this regard there is good news as more quality mono remasterings are appearing due to the careful efforts of people like Mark Obert-Thorn in classical (whose output on budget Naxos must be commended), and even some good pop mono, like the Beatles, are getting the respect they are due - the new mono remasterings sound fantastic (that is saying a lot for digital mono).

I believe for someone new to mono the basic understandings are important. In Part II I shall detail my impressions on my mono playback using the Denon DL-102 cartridge and comment on why I think some of the enthusiasm I see in my friends are over-the-top. By no means do all mono LPs sound good or benefit greatly from dedicated mono replay, but mono replay is certainly worthwhile when the material and system come together.

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