The quality of the sound and the quality of the packaging are a given at Time-Life. What about their most recent projects?

The Legendary Singers series kicked off with Nat (King) Cole, followed by Frank Sinatra and soon Ella Fitzgerald. Future sets will feature Perry Como, Peggy Lee, Bing Crosby, Lena Horne, Sarah Vaughan, Judy Garland, Jo Stafford and others.

The Nat (King) Cole set, coinciding with the 20th anniversary of that singer's death and the publication of a new biography, is an excellent overview on a career that began in 1944 with the R&B-tinged "Straighten Up and Fly Right" and came to a close in the '60s with commercial junk like "Ramblin' Rose" and "Those Lazy Hazy Crazy Days of Summer." In between, Cole had more than 50 charted hits, sold millions of records and established himself as "Unforgettable," which also happened to be one of his best-loved ballads.

Cole had already carved out a considerable reputation as a jazz pianist in the late '30s and early '40s (Earl Hines was a model, Bill Evans and Oscar Peterson disciples), but he is best remembered as a pop singer of immense warmth. Cole's instrument was certainly not ideal -- his range was actually quite limited and Time once described his voice as "three parts fog to one part frog" -- but it was idiosyncratically distinctive. Despite Cole's jazz background, he was not given to great embellishment -- his renditions are invariably straightforward. But there was a depth of emotion that made the lyrics sing for Cole. His enunciation was perfect, his tones rich and velvety, his sonority inescapably romantic.

Which may explain why Cole still sounds best as a balladeer, investing songs like "Sweet Lorraine," "Mona Lisa," "Answer Me, My Love," "(I Love You) For Sentimental Reasons," "Smile" and "A Blossom Fell" with a visceral melancholy, melody lines unwinding with legato grace as the singer insinuates the lyrics in that deep, intimate voice. Cole was once described as a fondler of words, a caresser of melodies, and those relaxed approaches certainly informed his best work.

He was capable of more, of course: just listen to the snap of "Route 66" and the jumpy exuberance of "Walkin' My Baby Back Home." But what emerges from this 22-song set is a confident and gifted communicator who sounds far less dated than the lush orchestrations that smother so much of his material. Cole would later recut many of his early hits to take advantage of technological advances (particularly for the three-record "Nat King Cole Story"), but those cuts pale next to Time-Life's remastered originals.

Last year, Mobile Fidelity released a boxed-set audiophile version of Frank Sinatra's entire Capitol catalogue. If you have several hundred dollars to invest, that set is still the one to go for. But "Frank Sinatra" (SLGD-02) is not a bad shortcut. One could quibble about selections till the bars close down, but it's a given that this was the most fertile period of Sinatra's long and distinguished career.

The move from Columbia to Capitol freed Sinatra from a series of unimaginative producers, and freed him musically. As Henry Pleasants notes, Sinatra's jazz sympathies were encouraged and he was reborn as the swinging balladeer, the confident, easy-riding, hard-driving, irresistible and unchallenged Chairman of the Board. His most precious ally in the transformation was Nelson Riddle, who arranged and produced 20 of the 22 cuts heard here. Riddle's work sounds as fresh as Sinatra's singing, buoyant and breezy, always riding on a swinging pulse whose dynamics were defined by the song.

Enough has been written about Sinatra's way with a lyric. If Cole was a coddler, then Sinatra was the ultimate phraser. Few singers could insinuate themselves into the melodic and emotional fabric of a song as well as Sinatra. He had that uncanny ability to make the songs sound like they had been written just for him. He would have his way with a lyric and invariably leave it improved, revealed. This is particularly true of melancholy ballads like "Willow Weep for Me," "My Funny Valentine," "When Your Lover Has Gone" and "One for My Baby," often described as the perfect saloon song.

Of course, Sinatra was more than a one-dimensional singer: he could kick the rhythm right out from under "I Get a Kick Out of You" and "The Lady Is a Tramp" or insinuate the mystery of "Witchcraft" or the insouciance of "I Won't Dance." Few singers would dip into the wellspring of American popular song and pull out gem after gem, as Sinatra did during the Capitol years. Again, these 22 songs are a kick-start to an even greater appreciation of his contributions to American music.

The same goes for "Ella Fitzgerald" (SLGD-03), which only confirms her place as the First Lady of Song. The Fitzgerald set starts from her breakthrough hit in 1938, "A-Tisket, A-Tasket," and includes a number of her early hits ("My Happiness," "How High the Moon") and the revealing interpretations that have marked her half-century of peerless music-making. Of special interest are the calypso-flavored "Stone Cold Dead in the Market," the elemental blues of "Moanin' Low" and the tear-torn sentimentality of "Until the Real Thing Comes Along."

All these two-record/one cassette sets sell for $14.95, plus shipping and handling. For further information on Time-Life music: (800) 621-7026 or write to Time-Life Music, 541 N. Fairbanks Ct., Chicago, Ill. 60611.