An Abbey Roadblock?
First, in general, it's too bad the producers didn't pay as much attention to the albums as they did to the book that accompanies the box. It's superb and in fact my EMI contact told me the box was delayed more because of the box than anything else.
The album jackets are second rate, non-laminated affairs and the artwork is a pale imitation of the original. You get the idea that these folks think the extras, not the records are what today's vinyl fans want. Some of the reproduction is better than others. Abbey Road's cover is faded and drab compared to the rich, saturated look of the laminated original. The reissue does reproduce the original black inner sleeve and the label art is accurate.
What about pressing quality? Well so far I can't say it's up to the high standards of RTI, Pallas or QRP. I haven't gotten my hands on the European edition pressed at Optimal in Germany but I suspect that is better than these records pressed by Rainbo.
However, of the ones I've played, they are acceptably pressed: reasonably flat and quiet but not as quiet as the best available now or certainly the best back "in the day." There was visible "non-fill" in the form of what's called "string of pearls" visible in the right light but it was so mild as to be inaudible. The lead-in groove areas of all of the records I've auditioned were physically a bit rough and before the music begins there's a rumbly noise you don't hear on today's best pressings or on original U.K. Parlophones for that matter.
I realize everyone is disappointed that these are not AAA albums or at the very least the 96k/24 bit transfers that had been rumored to be the source.
The problem is this was "production by committee." One group was responsible for the tape transfers and by all accounts that was meticulously done over a long period of time, flat, at 192k/24 bit. Then why down convert to 44.1/24 bit before the actual mastering? The only rational explanation for that would be to make it "mathematically friendly" for the final "bread and butter" version, which was the CD box set.
Clearly vinyl takes a distant third place in the minds and hearts of the producers. At least that's my conclusion. What else can be the reason for doing it this way?
So Sean Magee was handed these 44.1k/24 bit masters and told to cut lacquers. At least he had the good sense to not make them "loud." The CDs were made "loud" (but only moderately so) because I guess the producers wanted them to sound "fresh." Give Magee credit for leaving the full dynamics in place on the vinyl—not that there's anything wrong with a touch of compression to add "pop" to a limp rock recording. These were not limp rock recordings!
So here's what I did with Abbey Road: I first played my original U.K. pressing that I bought in September of 1969 at New England Music City and Cheap Thrills in Kenmore Square, Boston, MA. I've played that record hundreds of times for sure and the top end is all still there. The record isn't worn out nor is it noisy. It's really quite remarkable. Yes there are a few pops and clicks here and there but the top end is clean and transients are sharply drawn.
Equally remarkable is what a total idiot is a guy whose name I won't mention who runs a website allegedly about high end audio who recently wrote that vinyl will not help save high performance audio because 'records wear out quickly." What a MORON (name available upon request). His arrogance is only exceeded by his ignorance.
So after playing the original and then a second, later, but still early U.K. pressing, one where the green apple under side one's track listing had inexplicably been shifted to the left, I played: the American original, an 'early 80's era Japanese box set version, a Toshiba "Pro-Use" Japanese version, the Mobile Fidelity box set version and then the new box set version. Finally I played the new CD version and then the 44.1k/24 bit USB version.
Then after playing these on two "get out here" priced turntables (the Continuum Caliburn and the new Air Force One imported by Graham Engineering that sells for $85,000) using the Lyra Atlas on the latter and the Ortofon Anna on the former), swapping between two very different sounding phono preamps (the Ypsilon VPS-100 that I own and the Zesto under review), I played a few of the records on a more reasonably priced Acoustic Signature Storm 'table under review (still expensive at $7500) using a Kuzma 4 Point arm and a Stein Audio modified Benz cartridge and a modestly priced Musical Fidelity ViNL 1 phono preamp.
Okay? I spent the better part of a day doing this because I really want to get this right. If you're expecting a snarky review because this set was not produced as we might wish, you've also come to the wrong place as you have if you expect a white wash or a cover up or an unctuously written rave! Not going to do it.
How this box will sound on your system will in great part depend upon how your system sounds generally and of course what kind of sound you prefer.
That out of the way, here's what I found: if you have the Apple USB stick and a really great DAC, you're buying this box for the book and for "the thing." I listened to the stick and the CD using the very costly 4 box MSB Platinum Diamond DAC IV and first of all, the stick just destroys the CD, particularly on top, reinforcing my belief that 16 bit digital sucks eggs. The CD's top end was airless, dark and recessed. Sibilants were smeared too, compared to the 24 bit stick and this is easily the BEST PCM DAC and transport I've heard.
Forget the American pressing. It's as dynamically flaccid and tonally recessed today as it was when I first bought it after buying and enjoying the British pressing. I kept it only because, well, it's the Beatles! The original UK pressing has tremendous presence on top. Not brightness, just presence and transparency.
I paid most attention to side two because it's so well-produced and recorded and so much inner detail, and especially textural and spatial information has been revealed over the years as my system improved. I listened for the space around George's voice on "Hear Comes the Sun" and the fleshy quality to the hand claps. Also the "juicy" quality of the synth parts on "Because" as well as the piano on "You Never Give Me Your Money" and of course Ringo's drums. Also the harmonies on "Sun King" and whether or not you can "hear" the guys smiling. The more you listen to that side, the more you hear, even after forty plus years.
So an original U.K. pressing, early mother and stamper is really the standard by which the reissue and all others must be measured. The later U.K. pressing (when the black inner sleeve had been replaced with white and the lacquer number was in the hundreds) still sounded well-extended and clean on top.
All of the earlier pressings I auditioned, save the American original are kind of bright sounding but in the best sense of the word when applied to most of them—"sparkly" and transparent. The snare "pops", the cymbals shimmer. The soundstage is generously wide and deep, the bass well extended and articulated. The stereo mix is easily the most accomplished of the Beatles albums, producing a seamless expanse.
Tonally, the Japanese pressing was better than I thought when I first auditioned it many years ago. Unlike some Japanese records, it's not overly bright nor is the bass curtailed. In fact the bass is very well-extended and controlled and while it sounds a generation removed from the U.K. original, it's very good and of course impeccably quiet. The "Pro-Use" Toshiba edition is somewhat more reserved and almost mechanical on top as well as being generally dry but its very well-defined in terms of transient detail and clarity and dead quiet.
The Mobile-Fidelity version is uncomfortably bright on top and overly prominent on bottom and that of course depresses the midrange so the record sounds tonally two-dimensional and almost harmonically "black and white." It's nothing a good equalizer can't fix but nothing fixes what a good equalizer breaks! Yes, the vinyl is dead quiet and the 1/2 speed mastering is clean, almost antiseptically so. I own it but I never listen to it and I know why. However, if your system is rolled on top and rich in the mids but not soft on bottom the Mo-Fi box probably sounds just right for you.
So what about the reissue? Tonally it's quite good, particularly in the midrange. The top end is very clean and precise but it lacks the air and extension found on the original U.K. as well as on the Japanese editions and it definitely lacks the transparency and three-dimensionality found on the original—the sense that The Beatles are "there" singing and playing in a space surrounded by and actually breathing air.
The handclaps on "Here Comes the Sun" and the acoustic guitars sound very good, if a bit dry, the synth parts on "Because" are not quite as "juicy" as on the original, but the overall the record sounds good, particularly side two. If you didn't know which version it was, I don't think you'd easily identify it as "digitally sourced," though when you found yourself losing interest for some reason after a while, you'd figure it out.
I thought side one was clearly inferior to the original or the Japanese editions. It lacked sparkle and transient snap and sounded somewhat dull. The drums on that side were kind of soft and "Maxwell's Silver Hammer" was kind of soft and limp compared to the original. "Something" sounded congealed and mushy compared to the original played for 40+ years!
Overall though, I thought Abbey Road came out fairly well, especially side two, which you can crank up and the tonal balance remains pleasing and coherent.
I don't know if the box set will sell out in a hurry as some on line sellers are claiming. I'd say this: buy this album as a separate and see how you like it. If you do, you'll probably like the box. You can then give the album to a friend. If you don't, you can give the album to a friend and then start your Ebay quest for pricey originals, including the German Hor Zu Magical Mystery Tour, which aside from the box, is the only version with side two in real stereo. I'd also add the double Past Masters.
The only other record in the box I've had time to listen to is the first album, a basic, almost primitive recording that I thought sounded great: tonally coherent and reasonably transparent.
As a record producer friend said to me this evening "It wasn't produced the way you wished it to be, but sometimes the end result is better than you might have expected, even if it's not as good as you wanted it to be."
That was my conclusion after all of this listening. I will get to the rest of the set ASAP though I have low hopes for Help! and Rubber Soul mastered from George Martin's not well-regarded CD resolution remixes.