Mono versus stereo?

CDs versus vinyl? It's an age-old sonic squabble between those who treasure the scratchy noises emanating from that piece of plastic on a museum-piece turntable to modern-day music aficionados who swear that new technology in the shape of pro-tools will always trump the vintage sounds of rock 'n' roll in its infancy.

The Beatles were squarely in mono's corner and not just because stereo didn't become the musical norm until the band was in its death throes in the late 1960s. John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr were hailed as songwriting revolutionaries when they transformed a dormant pop scene an eye-watering 51 years ago.

Yet they were surprisingly reluctant to embrace new recording techniques, preferring instead to rely on the tried and tested single channel facility which was the bedrock of recording at Abbey Road studios where change happened at a snail's pace.

And the reason was simple: the Fab Four wanted fans to hear them on vinyl much as they heard themselves in the studio, with occasional imperfections laid bare between the grooves that forever changed the path of pop culture. They, and thousands of others, dismissed stereo as a fad.

Harrison once declared: "When they invented stereo I remember thinking 'Why? What do you want two speakers for? Because it ruined the sound from our point of view. We had everything coming out of one speaker, now it had to come out of two speakers - it sounded pretty naked."

Now, however, all the band's first 10 albums, plus The Mono Masters singles compilation, have been repackaged in a box set for the first time in glorious mono, allowing fans old and new to hear The Beatles as nature intended and sounding as close as possible to the audio that was first played back in the hallowed confines of Studio Two under the schoolmasterly gaze of producer George Martin.

From their rough and ready 1963 debut album Please Please Me through to the unfettered pop of A Hard Day's Night, the folk rock of Revolver through to the psychedelic overtures of Sergeant Pepper and Magical Mystery and climaxing with the eclecticism of The White Album, this is the raw, unvarnished sound of The Beatles without the adornment of stereo's studio trickery. Only Abbey Road and Let it Be are missing, since by then even The Beatles had to bend the knee to studio advances.

The results are a tour de force - providing, of course, you can actually play them.

I had to blow the dust off my old Garrard turntable - hip in its day - and replace the stylus before I hooked up the speakers and the amp. Of the pile of Beatles vinyl albums I own, nearly all are second-generation stereo reheats so I was unprepared for the differences that the mono versions of these offer.

While the first-generation CD versions released in 1987 were rightly rubbished, the new mono versions from the initial analogue masters, crackle with authenticity. The instruments and vocals cut through the mix, propelling many songs forward with a drive that makes them sound forever young.

The main beneficiary of this sonic scrub is Ringo Starr, whose drumming is the heartbeat of the Beatles on record. Lennon's eerie intro to A Day In The Life now sounds like it was recorded in Notre Dame. And the entire two sides of Revolver - McCartney's pumping and innovative bass lines have never sounded better - shimmer with an energy Britpop only fleetingly matched.

Does all this really matter? And will these remasters catch the riptide of vinyl's new popularity wave, especially when you're being asked to shell out £288 to be precise, although the outlay includes a lavish book.

The answer is yes... if you want it to. And the reason inevitably lies in the songs. Many of the mono versions differ significantly from their younger stereo counterparts and it is these nuances that continue to fascinate.

For example, Help's mono version had a distinctly different Lennon vocal; I'm Only Sleeping includes a backwards guitar effect missing on the stereo offering; flubbed lyrics remain, bum guitar notes fly like empty beer bottles in a Reeperbahn pub; some songs are speeded up, others slowed down.

One of the biggest surprises for me was listening to Helter Skelter, the raucous track on The White Album which ends with Ringo screaming: "I've got blisters on my fingers."

Only on the mono version, it didn't, it just fades out naturally without Ringo's ad lib. Strange really when you're so used to hearing it on the stereo version.

Mono versus stereo? When it comes to The Beatles, I'm going to give mono a spin, if only for the sense that I'm feeling my way along the band's auditory canal anew and setting off on an unexplored magical history tour. Lennon was right...tomorrow never knows.

The Beatles mono boxed set is out now, price £288.

Ken McNab is the author of The Beatles in Scotland (Polygon, £9.99).