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It’s a question we thought belonged in the distant past, but with the steady resurgence of vinyl as the audio medium of choice among true enthusiasts, it’s a live issue once again.
From its beginnings until the late 1950s, recorded music was mixed in the only format available: mono. Stereophonic sound was invented in Britain in the 1930s, but it wasn’t until some 30 years later that engineers started seriously experimenting with the possibilities of the new two-channel technology. Because it allowed instruments to play in separate channels, it created a sense of greater space and seemed to mimic effectively the experience of listening to live music. In extreme cases, gimmicks sometimes overwhelmed the music, but the public was sold. Heads - and ears - were turned, mono mixes were left behind, and by the 1970s, stereo was the only game in town. The terms stereo, record player and music system became interchangeable
A mono record is a vinyl pressing that reproduces all the sounds in a recording, from solo performer to full orchestra, as if they are coming from a single source. Since the material has been recorded using the monaural process, this form of reproduction suits it very well. A mono record has only lateral cut grooves with no vertical element, resulting in a single signal that sounds identical through each speaker even in multiple set-ups. One of the benefits of this format is that it performs perfectly well through a single speaker, but in producing exactly the same sound from different speakers, any distortion is reduced and the signal-to-noise ratio is improved. Stereo records, on the other hand, contain a left and right channel on the two walls of the groove, cut at a 45-degree angle.
If you’ve grown up with stereo, mono recordings can sound constricted compared to the greater sense of space that stereo gives. But in the hands of the best engineers, mono created a sense of cohesion and power all of its own, and some of the world’s great recordings, both iconic and historically important, only exist in mono. That includes the work of many great conductors and soloists from the first half of the 20th century as well as giants of popular music like Billie Holiday, Frank Sinatra, The Beatles and pretty much everything from Motown’s golden era. If you really want to hear this music as it was intended, you need to know how.
Early stereo records came with a warning that they could only be played on mono players with a compatible cartridge. Conversely, the cartridges fitted to the tone arms of stereo record players have always been able to play mono records. However, listening to mono on a stereo system can have surprising advantages, not least in the reduction of surface noise, which is partly masked by the stereo cartridge placing the music in the center of the field.
Ultimately, if you’re serious about playing your mono records on a stereo player, there is no substitute for getting some special equipment. It’s possible to replicate the mono single-channel effect by summing the left and right channels through an amplifier with a mono button. Although these are common features on vintage stereo amplifiers, if you don’t have one of these machines, you’d need a stereo-mono switch, which are rare and usually custom-built. Alternatively, you could select a left channel or right channel only setting, thereby replicating a mono system while allowing you to switch from one to the other if you discover there is greater deterioration on one side of the groove.
If your turntable has a tonearm that accommodates removable headshells, like the Regar Planar 3, you can choose the simpler option of a mono cartridge, like the Lyra Kleos. Is stylus size a factor? No. It’s true that mono records pressed before 1970 were designed for a 1mm stylus, but the 0.7mm that became standard after 1970 will still deliver on older mono records and might even avoid picking up some of the wear higher up on the groove wall.
Vinyl is back in both stereo and mono formats. While stereo is unlikely ever to be toppled as the dominant format, mono brings its own special characteristics, such as directness, simplicity and a powerful punch. Even today, some artists, like Neil Young and John Mellencamp, choose mono for precisely these reasons. Mono records can not only be played - they can be enjoyed and cherished.
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