When you listen to music from a streaming site, you never have to think about the nuances of the recording process. For casual listeners, this is a plus, they can simply pick a song or album and then enjoy the music. But for audiophiles who collect records, there are different considerations that come into play. If you’ve spent any time digging through crates of classic records, then you already know there are mono records and stereo records.
As with all things sound related, music lovers have strong opinions about whether they prefer stereo or mono pressing of a given album. There is, of course, no definite or objective answer to which is “better,” but there is a rich history and plenty of considerations to take into account. So, let’s dig into the differences, and why some people pick a camp.
What is a mono record?
Mono is short for monophonic sound reproduction (or monaural), and refers to a sound that’s played back using one audio channel. Because it’s only using one audio channel, mono is only heard from one position. This means, even if you have multiple speakers, the sound will be the exact same mix on both sounds, there will be no instrumental or vocal panning. If you listen on headphones, you’ll notice that both ears completely match each other with no sense of a moving soundstage.
Because they only produce one signal, mono lps only need sound coming from one direction. So, the grooves on a mono record are laterally cut with no vertical cuts, since the stylus is only meant to move sideways.
What is a stereo record?
Stereo, or stereophonic sound uses two or more channels. This means that it creates sound coming from multiple directions, similar to how we’d experience hearing a live band in a room. Because a stereo mix is creating sound from multiple directions, the record grooves are cut both laterally and vertically, with the intent to let the stylus move up and down to create two different audio channels (to be blasted out of two speakers or your headphones).
How do they sound different?
The easiest way to notice if a recording is stereo or mono (without looking at a label), is to listen through headphones and notice if any of the sound pans. If you’re listening through speakers, you’ll hear whether the sound from the right speaker and left speaker match, or if instrumentals and vocals dance around to create a holographic soundstage effect.
Audio playback of mono vinyl records sounds centered, it’s a punchier effect with all the musical parts competing for the same space. With stereo vinyl records, there is often a sense of there being more air or “space” as the music moves and splits around you through the speakers. Whether you prefer one effect to the other is simply a matter of preference, but it’s generally more relevant to consider how individual albums were intended to be listened to.
Can you play mono vinyl on a stereo set-up?
The short answer is yes.
The longer answer is that stereo cartridges and mono cartridges are different, because mono and stereo records have slightly different grooves. So if you play a mono vinyl on a modern record player you may notice that the sound is a little off, since one signal is being split into two for the speakers. The only time you absolutely can’t play a mono record on a modern stereo record player is if it’s an old shellac 78, in which case you’d need the right set-up.
Conversely, stereo LPs shouldn’t be played on a mono record player, because a mono cartridge doesn’t move both laterally and vertically, so it’ll damage the grooves on a stereo LP.
The history of stereo vs mono
Mono existed before stereo was even a twinkle in the recording industry’s eyes. For the first few decades following the invention of the phonograph, all recordings were a mono mix. If you had a listening corner at home, it would be equipped with a record player, and one monoblock speaker through which to play the hottest tunes.
Technically, experiments in stereo recordings and playback started as early as the 1930s. The soundtrack to the 1940 Disney movie Fantasia was a stereo mix that played in surround sound in theaters across different cities. In the early 1950s, an engineer named Emory Cook began experimenting with and releasing what he called “binaural recordings.” These recordings had two tracks on each side that were intended to be played at once, creating a layered sound effect that now resembles stereo. These recordings required a tonearm with two cartridges and needles mounted so that the tracks could play in unison. Cook launched his own record company Cook Records in the 1950s, and continued to explore this technique.
For the average music lover who didn’t have cash to spare for a fancy adapter or a tonearm with two needles, it wasn’t until 1957 that the first official stereo album was released by Audio Fidelity. It was a recording of the Dukes of Dixieland layered over railroad recordings.
Example of binaural recording: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PgbO_OFVaQc&t=42s
The transition from mono to stereo
Unlike the rapid transition from shellac 78s to 33 RPM lps and 45 RPM singles, the public shift from mono pressings to stereo took a full decade. For music lovers, switching to stereo recordings meant they had to replace their turntable. In most cases, they’d also need a second mono amplifier, or they’d need to swing for a stereo model. On top of this, they’d have to buy a second speaker, essentially building an entire hi-fi system in order to listen to new stereo recordings. When you add the fact that stereo versions were still more rare than mono versions, it’s hardly surprising it took listeners a while to jump on the new bandwagon, regardless of the sound quality itself.
On the production side, record companies (and the musicians themselves in some cases) had to shell out for expensive stereo tape recorders, learn the ins and outs of mastering stereo on vinyl, and then convince the public it was worth the shift. When stereo was still new, many record labels released “stereo demonstration records” chock full of vocals, orchestra sounds, and even street sounds to excite buyers about the new format. After 1970, almost all records (there are always exceptions) were produced in stereo, but the pocket of time between 1958-1970 presented a unique time of transition, where many bands were releasing recordings in both formats.
What is fake stereo?
Record companies love to make money, which means full transparency isn’t always the top priority. Selling “back catalog” is one of the major money makers for labels. So, when stereo started to become more popular in the 1960s, labels were scrambling to sell back catalog in the stereo format. Two of the big major labels, RCA and Atlantic, had predicted the boom of stereo and purchased equipment in the early 1950s. This enabled them to reach into the vault and release some classic titles in stereo when the iron was hot.
However, not all record companies were as prepared, and even RCA and Atlantic had a limited number of stereo backlog, so the industry got creative. This is when “electronically rechanneled stereo” also known as “Duophonic” stereo hit the scene (many listeners simply call it fake stereo). Fake stereo recordings were remastered mono recordings. The process varied, but in most cases engineers would split the mono recording from the master tape into two signals. Filters would be used to separate high and low frequencies between the channels, and oftentimes reverb was added to create a stereophonic sense of space. This tactic was common for a few years, with labels from Columbia to Capitol to RCA dipping their toes into the fake stereo pool.
Sound quality wise, many audiophiles find these recordings to be less desirable since it obscures both the potential strengths of both stereo and mono. But from a historical perspective, they can provide an interesting look into the evolution of sound mixing.
Popular records in mono and stereo
Given that most new music is released in stereo, the debate between mono and stereo feels most relevant when talking about older records, particularly those released in the years bridging both formats.
One of the most popular looks into mono today is The Beatles mono masters LP box set. Because they rose to fame right in the interim between mono and stereo, the sound arc of The Beatles provides a great window into how sound has changed.
Their album Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was originally mixed in mono, but the version most people today are familiar with is the stereo reissue. Listening to both versions can provide a great look into how an artist’s vision translates differently based on the sound mix. Similarly, Abbey Road marked the first stereo full-length album from The Beatles, and gives listeners an example of what the band’s music sounds like when they tailor it to stereo.
It feels simple enough, but oftentimes the best way to pick between mono and stereo is to research the artist’s original recording and what they intended with the album. If you listen to Bob Dylan’s Original Mono Recordings, it’s clear he’s an artist that truly worked with mono and the AM radio format, particularly with such straightforward folk instrumentals.
The Pink Floyd debut album The Piper at the Gates of Dawn was released in mono, but now has stereo remixes. If you listen to both versions closely, it’s clear that the stereo version has erratic panning and doesn’t reflect the artistic vision.
The psychedelic chops of Jimi Hendrix however, make sense in stereo, which is reflected in his choice to mainly record in stereo despite coming up at the end of mono.
Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys mixed Pet Sounds in mono because it was his preferred format, and because he’s deaf in one ear, and mixing in stereo made far less sense. If you compare the 1997 stereo release of the album to the original, it’s nearly apples and oranges. So much of the detail comes off differently, which speaks again to the importance of following the artist’s lead.
Comparing the Quality of Mono Vinyl Vs Stereo, Follow Your Ears
At face value, comparing the quality of a mono signal to a stereo signal can feel ahistorical, since one clearly came before the other. The possibilities of recorded sound would not be as advanced as they are if it wasn’t for the first analog mono recordings. That said, when you’re picking between a given record that’s available in both, these basic rules of thumb can be helpful.
Anything released before 1959 was recorded when stereo still wasn’t largely commercially available. So a mono release is going to most accurately reflect what the artist crafted, and also what people heard blasting over AM radio. It’s generally safe to be suspicious of the quality and validity of stereo released before 1959.
Between 1958/1959 and 1970, you’ll want to look into the album itself and see how the band or artist originally recorded. If they recorded two mixes at the time, or don’t have a strong artistic link to the mix, you can always go with whatever format you tend to prefer.
With anything that came out after 1970, it’s usually safe to stick with stereo, unless it’s a band doing something purposefully experimental or vintage.