Revolver is the perfect intersection of everything that made the Beatles such a force for change. Experimental yet accessible, unfailingly commercial even as it rejected convention, and so freaking good that, 55 years later, it still sounds fresh.
It’s also a record that takes on a new life with headphones, and not because it’s loaded with the kind of tripped-out effects found on Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon or boasts a complex mix that creates a sonic universe as with D’Angelo’s Voodoo. It’s because headphones turn the famously awful stereo mix into something much different: a hybrid of the stereo and mono versions that’s arguably a better option than either.
The extreme separation that was common with early stereo recordings did not serve Revolver well, which is why mono pressings — even recent ones — are preferred by many and more collectible. In a living room setting, too much of the stereo version is stereo only in the sense that something is happening in each channel, often with zero logic or adherence to reality. There’s rarely even a truly solid center image.
On headphones, however, the separation is much less of an issue and the mix turns oddly lovable. There are still some jarring moments — “Taxman” is especially egregious, with an entire rhythm section stuffed into the left speaker — but the lazy manipulation of left and right channels becomes far more coherent when the music is fitted into six inches of skull. The soundstage is still wildly artificial but it’s now extremely cool instead of weirdly dumb.
I should know because I’ve listened to Revolver a dozen times in less than a week, switching between in-room stereo and headphones, and I consistently found myself much more lost in the music using headphones.
A pair of Sennheiser HD560S headphones was used with a Schiit Valhalla headphone amp, Clearaudio Concept turntable sporting a Shelter 501 III moving coil cartridge, and a PS Audio GCPH phono preamp. For digital, an iFi Zen headphone amp/DAC was plugged into a laptop with Spotify supplying the music.
It takes around 15 seconds to realize how much better the opening track, “Taxman,” sounds on headphones. Most of the instruments are still crowded into the left channel but George Harrison’s vocals are much more centered and present sounding. Actually, everything sounds more centered, and when the tambourine, cowbell, and lead guitar join the party in the right channel it sounds almost like a band.
“Eleanor Rigby” is split on a traditional system, with the extremely odd panning of Paul McCartney’s lead vocal from hard right on verses to both channels on the chorus sounding more like an accident than a decision. On cans, however, everything is huddled together more tightly and the panning takes on a psychedelic quality otherwise absent from one of McCartney’s finest character studies; when “Ah, look at all the lonely people” suddenly fils both channels it feels like a Greek chorus in Beatle boots.
The album’s experimental qualities first show up with the masterful “I’m Only Sleeping,” John Lennon’s criminally neglected plea to be left alone. Halfway through, a backmasked guitar appears for the first time in a pop song, a result of Harrison and producer George Martin laboriously working out the process for hours. It swirls around your head, as elusive, foreign, and otherworldly as a dream.
“Tomorrow Never Knows” is, of course, the track that was the most built for headphones. The band and Martin threw everything they had at this one — tape loops, backmasked guitars, distorted vocals, all of it laced with Lennon’s LSD lyrics. And while completely artificial separation is still the order of the day, it becomes more hallucinogenic on headphones, in part because it was designed that way but also because headphones make it more focused and potent.
Other songs dramatically enhanced by headphones include “For No One,” a McCartney classic. The spare instrumentation is again divided between channels but everything sounds more lucid with far more impact. McCartney’s voice is now placed squarely in the center of your head as he sums up the dull grey feeling that comes after a breakup.
“Got to Get You Into My Life” is another McCartney song that turns semi-psychedelic on headphones. There aren’t any sonic special effects or backward guitars but the instruments suddenly sound like they are part of a soundstage rather than shoehorned into either channel, and that soundstage is almost casually surreal.
McCartney’s voice on “GTGYIML” is actually fairly well centered on a living room rig but it’s now rock solid, and Ringo Starr’s tambourine is placed squarely above, almost as if Ringo is bouncing the tambourine off McCartney’s head. And when Harrison’s guitar appears out of nowhere near the end, it sounds like god taking a solo instead of what we get with the in-room weak sauce where Harrison seems lost between channels.
“And Your Bird Can Sing,” another of Lennon’s perfect pop songs, is unusual in that the vocals are still widely separated — Lennon’s voice doesn’t become centered as is the case with most tracks — but the intimacy of headphones absolutely makes it work. The song is either nonsense, as Lennon claims, or a moderately complex look at a loving but fractured friendship. The way Lennon’s voice is placed both hard right and hard left almost feels like the mix is a reflection of the song’s conflict.
Moments like that are what make Revolver such a rewarding headphone listen. It isn’t about studio pyrotechnics but rather the mysterious and wonderful way that merely listening to it on headphones fixes so many issues caused by the lazy stereo mix.
The mono mix is glorious, and by far the best way to listen in-room, but with headphones, I’ll gladly trade the directness and immediacy of the mono mix for the eccentricities of the stereo. There’s obviously no way anyone planned it, but this happy accident of technology might make you appreciate the stereo Revolver with fresh ears. It might even become your favorite version of the album. There’s only one way to find out and it’s never a bad time to listen to Revolver.
Oh, and for the record, “She Said She Said” is the best song that the Beatles ever recorded and it doesn’t matter how it’s mixed, mastered, or manipulated. It’s immune to failure of any kind and sounds like pure pop bliss every time.
Published in partnership with Sennheiser.