A daily dose of Hughes; Jimmy Hughes aka James Michael Hughes – “No Mono Please, We’re a Hi-fi Shop.”

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Back in the ‘70s, when I worked in hi-fi retail, I bought the EMI 3LP reissue of Otto Klemperer’s mono Beethoven recordings from the 1950s. I then made the mistake of playing one of the discs in the shop. Bad move. Customers and staff started pulling faces at the ‘poor’ quality of the sound. And, to be honest, I couldn’t disagree. The recordings really did sound their age.

The tonal balance seemed pinched and constrained, with bright violins, thin nasal cellos and undernourished basses. The mono tapes had been reprocessed to give a pseudo stereo effect, but there wasn’t much spread or sense of space. Soundstage? Forget it! The orchestra seemed to come from a small slit midway between the two speakers. Clarity was good, but overall the sound seemed cramped, boxy, and decidedly dated.

Yet, technically speaking, Klemperer’s mono Beethoven recordings were actually among the best of their day. At the time I played them, they were only about 20 years old. But that seemed like a lifetime. Things had moved on massively since then – or so it seemed. My hi-fi enthusiast colleagues couldn’t understand what I was up to. How could anyone listen to such ‘poor’ recordings and gain any sort of musical pleasure from them.

And today? Klemperer’s mono Beethoven recordings played on my current hi-fi system (whether from LP or CD – yes, I bought them again when they came on silver disc) sound wonderful – good clean/clear ‘50s mono sound. Clarity is excellent and the tonal quality (while remaining slightly dry) is smooth, open, and natural. No one pulls faces anymore – the music is beautifully served by EMI’s vintage recordings.

This experience follows a general trend. I now find many of the subjective differences that once seemed to exist between old and new recordings are much less noticeable than before. This is partly down to the excellent quality achieved with careful CD remastering, but I also find the same thing with vintage LPs I’ve had in my collection for 25 years and more. Played on modern equipment, they sound better than ever

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