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Monophonic recorded vinyl. How could and why would a mono-record album sound worth a darn compared to a vinyl record album recorded and cut in true left/right stereo format...and why would someone bother to listen to them at all? Well, there are several reasons one might want to seek out, experience and appreciate 33 1/3 RPM LP vinyl albums recorded in mono. Let's explore some of these reasons. And oh, I'm going to share my opinions regarding only the 33 1/3 RPM mono record types here. There is an ENTIRE other study/world of listeners & collectors that focus on the even older pre-1950's 78RPM mono record varietals, but this article isn't going to go down that path.
Let's first delineate that there are a couple of different types of 33 1/3 RPM "mono records" which are the original pressings and then modern reissues. The 33 1/3 LP was first announced in 1948 by Columbia Records. From this start date, original 33 1/3 RPM mono LP's were produced in great numbers through the 1950's, 1960's and even into the 1970's. Mono recordings preceded and in later years, were recorded right alongside the popular stereo LP evolution which many claim began circa 1958. People then, like people now were hungry for better and better fidelity of their music and playback systems and so the stereo-vinyl-record eventually became the de-facto standard for vinyl record listening over time. Original mono pressings continued to be manufactured alongside their stereo pressing counterparts through the 50's, 60's and early 70's for a number of varied reasons but perhaps one of the biggest drivers was that not everyone could afford to or wanted to upgrade their turntable/hi-fi system to one that could play these newfangled stereo records. Remember that back then, many a record player/receiver/single-speaker were in-built into furniture consoles that were purchased specifically to fit a home owners decor and weren't easy or cheap to replace. WAF likely got its start here!
Regardless of the stereo LP record's popularity from its inception to present day, there is a new resurgence of mono records in the form of modern-mono-reissues. In the recent past there have been quite a number of very high quality audiophile mono-reissues coming from labels such as Classic Records (Blue Note), Analogue Productions/Prestige, EMI, Legacy, etc. These reissues tend to have exceptionally low groove noise/pops/clicks; generally have fantastic dynamics due to the super high vinyl quality itself and masterful pressing work; and can often times cost crazy amounts of money. There are no guarantees with these pricey reissues though and its quite possible to simply get a crappy copy for one reason or another. Always try to find a trustworthy label that states something like "remastered for vinyl from original analogue tapes" or something equivalent that tells you they used an original master tape or tapes for their reissue process and that there isn't an added digital-step somewhere in the mix prior to actual pressing.
The short answer is no, you don't need a mono phono cartridge in order to play back 1950's or 60's original mono pressings or the newer modern reissue mono records, but the mono-purists will always advise to use a true mono cart for a couple of reasons that I'll explain in just a bit. Modern stereo phono cartridges do a surprisingly good job of producing beautiful sound from mono records but they can present a little more noise like clicks and pops during playback due to them being inherently more compliant (movement in the up/down direction of the stylus and cantilever) compared to a true mono cart that has less vertical compliance and is built to track left and right movements alone within the record groove. Something that people often do is run a stereo cart when playing mono records and then just flip the mono switch on their preamplifier or receiver. If you don't have a mono switch on your front end gear, you can also buy/build TWO different Y-Cables to sum the L+R channel information into a mono signal. You'll need #1 Y-cable with TWO FEMALE RCA's on one end with a single MALE RCA on the other end. Plug the interconnect cable coming from your turntable into this first Y-cables' TWO FEMALE connectors. This will combine the stereo signal into one channel. The #2 Y-cable will need to have ONE FEMALE RCA on one end and TWO MALE RCA's on the other end. Plug the #1 Y-Cable and #2 Y-cable single-ends together (#1 Male to #2 Female) and plug the #2 Y-cable's TWO MALE RCA's into your preamp or receiver's Left and Right channel inputs. Basically you are using the #1 Y-Cable to combine the stereo signal into one channel, then using the #2 Y-Cable to simple break out this single channel of music signal into two identical channels at your preamp or receiver. Doing so will allow you to listen to both loudspeakers with equal signal information going to both.
The reasons that mono vinyl purists will often recommend a dedicated mono-cartridge over a stereo cartridge is to lower the overall groove noise in a given mono recording, lower the risk of damaging an expensive stereo cartridge when spinning older mono records with an unknown history of playback equipment (think of the possible groove damage potential that an old Magnavox console record player with the original 1950's stylus still mounted dragging through the grooves could cause) and also because a true mono cart will usually have a spherical stylus profile with a slightly larger diameter than most stereo cartridges of equal quality and price. In other words, many stereo cartridges can have far more fanciful stylus profiles (elliptical, line contact, Shibata, fine line, etc.) that weren't designed for tracing the simple shape of a mono groove. Again, these unique stylus profiles on many a stereo cartridge will sound good to great tracing a mono groove, but since they are designed to traverse far more complex groove structures with accuracy in a stereo groove, they can be less stable in a mono groove due to years old crud in the grooves (snap crackle pop) and/or groove damage and can have the potential for phase errors and crosstalk to affect the sound because stereo carts generally don't have an ideal stylus shape for mono records. See this page on the Ortofon website for a far more detailed description of mono phono cartridges, stylus shapes and history.
First off, there are a ton of historic recordings and artists/performances that can only be found on the mono-record format. A great many recordings and performances were originally mastered and cut for the mono format in the 1950's and 60's by some of the most talented mastering and cutting engineers in history and can produce absolutely wonderful audiophile worthy sound. Some of these LP releases were less than popular with audiences of the time and if they didn't sell well enough in mono, then they never found a new life when stereo records began their own surge. Makes sense, if the mono performance/title didn't sell very well then why spend the time, effort and money to reproduce it in stereo? In the end, those mono records that didn't hit their numbers with the audiences of the 1950's and 60's simply became obsolete.
Original mono pressings are cheap to purchase compared to modern reissues. Heck, if you find a stash of old monos at the thrift store that are in great visual shape, buy the whole slug of them for $10.00 and bring them home, clean them up properly and give a listen. You might have just purchased a little goldmine for next to nothing! If not, at least you didn't spend a bunch to experiment. NOTE: Please play any thrift store vinyl of unknown pedigree at your own risk and always carefully inspect for defects and clean any record prior to playing. Even if you purchase 60 year old original pressing mono records from your normal record store that have already been graded and/or cleaned, you're likely able to purchase 4 or 5 of them for the cost of just one audiophile reissue pressing.
Now, as for the sound you can expect from a great mono pressing (original or reissue) when using a PAIR of speakers normally used for stereo playback...hate to say it, but it all depends. Just like with stereo record playback, mono records are very dependent on the recorded media itself which will include the overall recording quality, mastering, cutting process (cutting lathe operation) and vinyl composite quality. Additionally, just like with stereo record playback that is dependent on the turntable, tonearm, phono cartridge, stylus condition and type, cables and preamplification, a mono record is susceptible to the same gear path variabilities and follies. If the totality of the front end gear is up to snuff and your stereo playback is already very pleasing to you, then flopping a mono disc onto the platter and dropping the needle should likewise be quite pleasing. Prepare yourself to experience a sound-field that is NOT presented with left speaker content (like a guitar wailing off to the left) and right speaker content (like a keyboardist pounding it out on the right side) but rather with a mono recording the sound-field will be very much center focused between the speakers. Floating.
The sound stage and instrument sounds do not move around left and right, it is a wave of sound emanating from and remaining in the center, across the width between the speakers. This might seem unattractive, but it's not. Instead, you might be amazed at how robust or delicate and natural it can sound. When you have your speakers set up properly and with a good mono recording, you should also get to experience a nice depth to the sound stage. Especially with classical recordings, you'll be able to experience close up and intimate listening such as that for a string quartet, a further back experience in the auditorium such as that for an orchestra when sitting 10th, 15th row center, etc. all due to recording microphone placement techniques by the recording engineers that set things up for the performance.
Suffice it to say, if you're into playing vinyl records you really should at least pick up a few copies in mono and see for yourself if its something you'd like to explore further. After all, it won't cost you much money to give it a try.
Wow, I kind of ran long on this entry. There's plenty more to share but that will have to wait for another time. Next I'll explore my own vinyl playback setup that I've worked hard to fine tune and also the collection of mono LP's that I cherish.
Until next time...take care and thanks for reading this far!