There was a big fuss over 2012 about the eventual release of the Beatles’ albums on 180g vinyl. EMI had every chance they could to get this right. But, did they? Let’s find out!
I’ll admit right off the bat that I’m no expert in Beatles, especially the numerous vinyl pressings out there. I do know that the 1987 CDs were OK, but by no means a revelation. I always found them to be harsh and brittle, very “digital” sounding in other words. The remastered CDs from a couple of years ago improved on that sound. Vinyl? Forget it. I should not need a scorecard to know which vinyl pressing, from which country, from a particular stamper, is the best-sounding…and it’s all subjective anyway. Even a BC-13 box is hard to find in playable condition now–“playable” meaning there is no groove wear and the vinyl plays back cleanly. Given the used vinyl market now, there is a ton of crap circulating out there at unwarranted high prices. Count me out.
Enter the new 2012 180 gram vinyl. My comparison covers only four of the LPs, representing a sampling of the catalog. I’ve had both good and fair luck with these so far.
My first two were supposedly my favorite two albums: Rubber Soul and Revolver. Both came by way of Amazon US, so they are pressings made at Rainbo here in the US. On first listen, at lower volume, they actually sounded pretty good. It was when I had a chance to play them at a moderate volume that I started noticing problems: scratches on “Eleanor Rigby,” a “buzzing” every so often on a couple of tracks (your classic case of no-fill), and even a skip on one of the George Harrison tracks. One of the sides was slightly off-center as well. Overall, there was slightly more rumble than other 180 gram vinyl I’ve purchased in recent years, and the noise level (in terms of minor ticks and clicks during playback) was not what I expect from brand new vinyl.
Looking closely at “Eleanor Rigby,” hoping there was just some crud in the grooves, I saw a series of small scratches on the last half of the track that plainly shows that something had come in contact with the record before it was packaged. (If I can find a way to photograph them, I’ll update this post.) Looking at one of the sides of Revolver in the light sideways, I can see two concentric rings of no-fill (areas where there was not enough vinyl to completely fill the depth of the grooves).
If you think I’m being nitpicky, well…yes, maybe I am. But while the problems themselves, alone, might be considered minor, together as a whole I find them unacceptable for new 180 gram vinyl sold at a premium price.
Having read numerous accounts on the Internet of how poorly these Rainbo pressings are, and how much better the UK pressings are, I took a chance and ordered Magical Mystery Tour and Past Masters from Amazon UK. I was hoping they’d be a remedy to the sloppy US pressings.
And were they ever! At times the vinyl was so quiet that it was like playing back the CD. Sure there was an occasional minor tick here and there, but that is pretty much expected of any new vinyl. These played back very nicely. And the cutting on Past Masters is impressive, seeing that there are as many as nine (!) tracks to a side in this 2-LP set! With shipping, the records came to about $27 each in equivalent US funds.
Needless to say, my future purchases of Beatles vinyl will come from the UK. Based on my own observations, as well as many of my fellow vinyl buddies who have bought a few, we can safely say the US pressings are not even worth seeking out. One of them has already returned two copies of Sgt. Pepper with numerous problems on both.
As for the sound, skip back a few paragraphs: these LPs may not be the ultimate in fidelity (they were unfortunately cut from the 24-bit/44.1kHz master vs. the high-res 192kHz master, a very poor decision on EMI’s part), but…do I care? In a way, yes. I do find these to be quite satisfactory in fidelity. Yet I’m not worried about “ultimate” fidelity in something like this, especially given the situation. As I mentioned, the used Beatles vinyl for the most part is trash, unless you’re willing to spend a small fortune to get clean copies. And with vinyl that old, played on questionable equipment, it is too big of a gamble.
The packaging is meticulous. While they are reproductions, the jackets are of a nice heavy weight, and include original inserts. Past Masters even includes a nice square booklet to go with the album. The labels on the LPs themselves reflect their country of origin, so the early records sport a Parlophone label, Magical Mystery Tour a Capitol label, and later albums the Apple label. Nice touch!
Summary: the little bit I give up in ultimate fidelity is worth it to have nice, clean, brand new pressings with no wear and minimal noise; what little difference remains to get an “ultimate” pressing is not worth my paying for. And given the exquisite packaging of the titles I’ve seen, I give the Beatles on UK vinyl only a resounding two thumbs up! As for the US vinyl, I recommend against wasting time and money. EMI needs to escalate quality control on their pressing plants, and demand a better product. This is not the 70s and 80s when reclaimed vinyl ruled–we are past that. EMI should know better by now.