The Beatles – The Beatles Stereo Box Set

The Web has been abuzz for more than a year about EMI’s latest attempt to extract more oil from a well that we keep thinking will eventually run dry: the Beatles catalog. Yet the label manages to surprise us again, with a newly remastered set of vinyl.

Most retailers are discounting the new box to somewhere in the neighborhood of $350-$375, breaking the cost down to about $27 per title; single albums are forthcoming. Not crazy money in audiophile terms. These record sound much better than anything you’ll ever buy from Friday Music.

Unfortunately, Beatles lovers and audiophile collectors got thrown under the bus in one aspect, as the powers that be chose 24-bit/44.1kHz files for mastering instead of the high-resolution 24-bit/192kHz files used for editing. When the box sets reached the buying public last week, and seemingly everyone who was anyone–and a lot of those who aren’t–promptly declared it rubbish.

Of course, once completist collectors are removed from the equation, as many of them won’t take the damn things out of shrink wrap anyway, who is the real audience for these records? If you are lucky enough to have mint, low-stamper UK, German, or Japanese pressings of these classics, you already have the grail. Even if EMI had produced these new records from 24/192 masters, they would have still sucked in comparison.

Sure enough, when evaluating a few tracks from Sgt. Pepper and Magical Mystery Tour on my $100,000 analog front end, the new records fall short. This, however, is akin to comparing a New Beetle to a vintage ’67 VW Bug with 1,500 miles that’s either been lovingly restored to perfection or, better yet, is completely original and NOS. It’s a pointless argument.

Even my favorite go-to set of Beatle albums, the blue BC-13 box, now fetches a thousand bucks in mint condition–if you can find one. When judged against these, the new records still lose a bit in top-end air and ultimate bass punch. Say what you will, but I like the stereo mixes.

Taking to the streets, I scoured a few of my local record stores (we’ve got quite a few here in Portland) and found used Beatles albums in horribly disfigured condition, with tattered covers and vinyl surfaces that I wouldn’t play on a Close and Play. Average cost? About $15, some as high as $30. Most were American Capitol pressings. A rubbish situation, and you won’t do much better on eBay.

Changing it up from my megabuck system to something more real world (a Rega RP6/Exact combination, playing through the vintage Nakamichi receiver and JBL speakers we used in our room at the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest), the new records sound pretty damn good.

The physical presentation of the box also qualifies as very good. Again, we are dealing with copies of copies, and the amount of money required to print these at a level commensurate with fine art is prohibitive. Contrast is picked up and some tonal scale lost, but again, when comparing to my mint BC-13 box or a scuffed American copy in the used bin, the new box comes out ahead. The jewel is the 252-page book, offering an engaging overview of the Beatles history. The records themselves sport a mixture of Parlophone label, Capitol label, and Apple label IDs–a fun touch for those new to Beatlemania. Not historically correct, but informative.

Early purchasers have mentioned sporadic pressing problems, but the set we received for review (purchased from is free of defect. Hopefully, issues remain limited to the first out of the chute. A gentle hand is required to remove the tightly fit outer slipcover, but I’m guessing that if you can’t remove it without damage, you’re not much of a hit with ladies, either.

Seasoned audiophiles, record collectors, and music lovers often forget that new people discover the Beatles and vinyl, every day. A majority of them could care less about first-stamper this or German pressing that. If you have rare, original pressings of these records, relish the fact that you own a precious part of music history. You will never be happy with these pressings.

Those of you beginning your vinyl journey, whether music lover, budding audiophile, or both, the current Beatles box will prove a great addition to your collection. Who knows, they may lead you to get caught up in all this madness to seek out a few mint originals for your collection someday.  -Jeff Dorgay

EMI, 16LP Box Set