EMI's Beatles Box In Perspective
No chicken could pass that lady's test.
My point is that I felt obliged to take this Beatles box apart and examine it more closely than was probably necessary and be as critical as necessary, from my perspective, which might not be the same as yours.
Had I done all of the listening and writing first, it would have been old news by now, so I chose to go album by album. Now let's put it all in perspective in terms of concept, presentation, sound quality and value.
Clearly the concept here was not to reissue the original albums as heard in 1963-1970. Were that the case, they would sound far closer to the originals than they do. Clearly they don't as I demonstrated to myself comparing a CD made from the Sgt. Peppers... master tape with the original Parlophone pressing. They sounded remarkably similar. Not so the reissued LP.
A reissue in the strictest sense would be as close as possible a reproduction of the original. It would be done in the analog domain and every attempt would have been made to match the original LPs' EQ. Mistakes would not be corrected, the 'de-essing' would be done using the old school real time method as it's done when necessary today by the guys who cut from analog tape.
Mistakes—all of them—would be left in, including popped "p"s etc. just as did Kevin Gray's Nat King Cole reissues for Analogue Productions.
The goal here was to improve the originals without upsetting their essence. It was more a "re-imagining" of the Beatles catalog than a "reissuing." The best way to do that, the producers felt, was to digitize at high resolution and use that as the starting point for the "restoration". There are those who argue that EMI insisted on attenuating bass on pop and rock records as a matter of sonic policy and that bass was rolled off on Beatle albums so why not restore it on the reissues?
Clearly there's more bass, in my opinion a lot more bass, throughout this reissue set. Sometimes it sounds welcome but at other times it sounds heavy-handed. Because forty and fifty years of playing these records have worn grooves in my mind as to what they should sound like? Or because the mastering engineers went overboard?
Without hearing the tapes I'll never know. How these reissues sound to you in that regard will depend upon your system's bass performance. Overall, a majority of the EQ choices produced improvements, but sometimes not. When mono mixes were substituted for "reprocessed for stereo ones", well no argument from me!
Clearly the engineers feel that digitizing analog at high sampling and bit rates is essentially transparent to the source or they might not have done it. And once they had the music captured at 192/24 bit they also felt down-converting it to 44.1/24 wouldn't diminish the sonic quality.
Here, I definitely differ with the producers! There's a definite loss of transparency and "believability" on these albums compared to the originals. There's a definite loss of image solidity and coherence compared to the originals. You can "see" each Beatle in the original pressing's sonic picture with great clarity and precision that you simply can't on the reissue, even when the EQ makes for a much more appealing tonal balance.
Not everyone cares about this stuff, just as some will find the Rhino Doors box cut from digital masters more than adequate while others upon hearing the double 45s issued AAA will never want to go back to the box so profound are the differences and is the listening experience.
Much of this box set sounds very good on the terms set by the mastering team. However, in my opinion both Abbey Road and The Beatles are serious sonic failures, particularly the former. If you don't think so, you've not heard a UK Apple original. In the cases of those two albums, particularly Abbey Road every attempt should have been made to duplicate the originals. Abbey Road was perfect: open, transparent, soaring. Now it's heavy and thick. It plods instead of soar.
I hope in the future someone can license that tape for an AAA reissue plated and pressed at one of the top pressing plants. The Beatles original pressing is a bit hard and perhaps lacking somewhat on bottom, but the sense of being in the room and "seeing" the performers in the studio on the other side of the microphone is palpable. Not so on the reissue.
Probably were the engineers responsible for the reissues to read this they'd think I'm plain nuts. I accept. This box wasn't aimed at purist audiophiles. It was aimed at Beatles fans. Most of them will think these the best sounding Beatles albums they've ever heard, especially if Capitol's were there only reference.
Speaking of pressing quality, overall I think Rainbo did an excellent job. If I had to rate them out of 100%, they'd get a 90+% from me.
While even the best pressing in my box was not as drop dead quiet as what RTI, QRP or Pallas is capable of, Rainbo's pressings were quiet with but a few minor fleeting defects. None of the aforementioned plants are capable of perfection either. My box was bought as yours was. It wasn't a "special" reviewer sample. I paid my monies and tooks my chances.
Imagine what a job it was to press so many records, collate them, package them and box them. it must have taken the better part of a year and filled Rainbo's plant to capacity with boxes, books and jackets—while they simultaneously pressed other projects. Yet the box I opened was physically perfect in every way. They get my applause.
My phone friend Guy Hayden at EMI who oversaw the project promised to send me an Optimal box to compare but I haven't seen it. Perhaps after reading how carefully I smelled that chicken he's decided I didn't deserve it. Or perhaps he forgot so I can't at this time tell you how the two boxes compare.
As for the book. I can't believe no one's commented on the book. It's spectacular. The presentation, the paper stock, the binding, every aspect of it makes it among the, if not the best book about The Beatles ever. It may not be the most comprehensive but it surely is the smartest in terms of concept and execution.
You get an album by album "history" giving you the most salient aspects of what was happening in The Beatles' lives, set against what happened in the studio all accompanied by the most sumptuous photo spreads. Really, the book alone is worth $75-$100. It's something I'll treasure whichever versions of the albums I choose to play. My only criticism is that it's heavy. My arms got tired!
Ironically, Mr. Hayden told me a few years ago that it was the book not the record production that kept delaying the box's release. It was worth the wait because the book is a 100% success. I wish as much attention had been lavished on the pressings and especially upon the jackets! In the ideal world they would be laminated "fold overs" like the originals. What that would have done to the cost I don't know but I imagine it would have hiked the box's cost by around $100 so I understand why it wasn't done.
The questions are: why was RTI not used at least for the plating? RTI plated the first five albums but apparently only a few plated lacquers ended up being used for production. Not even RTI's Don MacInnis was aware of that. And why was RTI not used to press the records (QRP didn't have the capacity and wasn't even up and running as the job was being contemplated)? Was it cost? RTI's inability to cope with the pressing demand? We'll never know but clearly Rainbo lived up to EMI's expectations if not ours, and if you got a few bad pressings hopefully replacements were made available.
Finally there's the issue of value. Considering that a clean original UK pressing of The Beatles will set you back almost the cost of this entire box (around $300), and this box gives you the entire collection including Past Masters, which otherwise doesn't exist, this box of 180g LPs plus super book has to rate as a very, very good value. Of course I still that like The Doors AAA reissues, at some point someone will offer EMI and Apple and the surviving Beatles and the estates of John and George enough money to entice them to let the tapes have another pass while lacquers are cut directly from them. At least for starters Abbey Road should be so produced.
Yes, I smelled the chicken, but unlike that lady at the butcher's, I paid for and took home the chicken and I'm sure glad I did! Despite my clucking, it's a pretty tasty meal! P.S.: I thank everyone for their thoughtful comments along the way. I learned a lot and that's one of the best parts about having this site!