Harry Pearson, HP And The High-End As We Know It

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Harry Pearson, HP And The High-End As We Know It

I became aware of Harry Pearson, without exactly realizing it, in the spring of 1973. I was in my first year at university in the U.S., and I happened upon a tiny classified ad in Rolling Stone magazine promising a new, critically rigorous audio magazine. As a budding audiophile I immediately sent in my check for what I suppose was something like $8, although that was quite a bit of money for a student in those days. A few months later, I received Issue 1 of The Absolute Sound (or TAS for short).

To understand the impact that Harry Pearson (or HP as was his nom de plume) and TAS made on high-performance audio, you need to take your mind back to those days. You need to go back because now it is hard to imagine the advent of a single magazine making such an impact. But at that time, at least in the U.S., there was only one publication attempting to describe in detail the sonic differences between different pieces of audio gear. That publication was Stereophile, edited and mostly written by the great J. Gordon Holt. Unlike the modern Stereophile, JGH published irregularly. And that is putting it mildly, because readers would sometimes wait a year or longer between issues. With a hobby that was really beginning to take off, that simply wasn’t frequent enough to cover much of the available equipment or to keep up with new technological developments.

HP’s TAS stepped into that void. And though HP was hardly publishing on an exact schedule, he generally managed to get at least three issues out per year. That kept audio junkies in the game, though I’d have to say there were times when the wait for a new issue was excruciating.

But once an issue arrived, oh how it was devoured! On the day of arrival, I would sequester myself in my dorm room or bedroom and just begin reading. A day or two later, the entire issue had been consumed—every word—and some re-reading began. If you have children or grandchildren who were readers of the Harry Potter series, you will likely have witnessed similar behaviors. No more avid study would greet the arrival of a newly discovered and authentic book of the Bible at an evangelical prayer meeting.

HP founded a publication whose success at the time was built on more that just satisfying a real hunger, though. As a newspaper journalist, HP not only wrote well, but he had a great sense of the story. And he surrounded himself with other writers—JWC, PHD, JN, and more—who, while certainly not his equal, were quite capable of telling the tale of music as delivered through high-end gear.

HP studied psychology at Duke University and from that he developed a philosophy about audio reviewing that was a game-changer. Harry’s idea was that the human perceptive apparatus could be trained to objectively observe the distinctive performance characteristics of audio gear. Not only could it do this; it was also the best “test equipment” for that job. What then was needed was a standard for using one’s hearing to judge good, mediocre, and bad. The standard HP proposed, and then built the magazine on, is the sound of live acoustic music played in a real space. That sound, he argued, is the reference to which reviewers should compare the sound of audio equipment when describing and judging its performance. HP called that reference “the absolute sound.” Naturally, he chose it as the title for the magazine as well.

And HP’s philosophy proved essential to the development of high-performance audio. Without a common goal that was understood and shared by much of the audiophile consumer base, the audio world would likely have pursued many competing goals, and consumers would likely have been confused about what the game was. We would have had an industry in which companies made products they thought “sounded good,” but in which they (and consumers) lacked a clear path toward making them sound better. Because without a standard, it is hard to know the difference between good and better. It is much easier to detect inaccuracies when matching the sound of live music, and to work to eliminate them. And, certainly in the 1970s, the differences between live and reproduced sound were profound. Which is to say there was a long way to go and much development possible.

To go with this philosophy, HP and team developed a language to convey what they were hearing. They understood that they needed not only to perceive how music sounded on the gear they were reviewing, but also to communicate it in an understandable way. And since objective observation, with the exception of JGH, had largely been missing in audio reviewing, the necessary lexicon was largely missing, too. You don’t need, for example, a word to convey “soundstaging” until you have observed it and then need to convey the idea to readers.

HP’s amazing achievement was not only starting a magazine (a difficult operational and financial task, to be sure) but also starting it with a staff and a direction that made it almost immediately influential. HP didn’t just start a magazine; he started a movement. There is no doubt that others at this time were on the same track. Certainly Bill Johnson and Arnie Nudell and Jim Winey and Bob Carver and Mark Levinson and many others were already working on this same project. HP and TAS were pivotal in turning it into a community on a mission.

Fast forward about 25 years. Stereophile, led by Larry Archibald and John Atkinson, was now the regularly published leader in the field. And Harry was struggling to get TAS out not just on time but at all, having lurched from financial crisis to financial crisis at least one time too many. I vividly recall wondering when the next TAS would arrive and if something more serious was wrong. Then, some months later, a new issue arrived and upon opening it and reading the letter from the editor, I found that Harry was indeed in dire straits and inviting readers who might be interested in investing to call him. So, I did. I told him I was interested in buying the magazine, and we agreed to meet.

I flew to Sea Cliff, with Mark Fisher, Harry’s proposed publisher. For me it was a fascinating meeting. Of course, even though I held most of the cards, I was more than a bit nervous meeting “the great man” of my early adulthood. But Harry, without contrivance, managed to stage a meeting at which I was at once impressed and charmed. As others have observed, Harry had a great, deep voice. He also spoke to a significant degree in pronouncements (“I am at the height of my powers”; “this is the finest sound ever obtained from that cartridge”; etc.). He was quite willing and able to get down to a discussion of the core philosophical elements that make TAS what it is and that, like the constitution, had to be protected. He interlaced references to wines and Carnegie Hall into casual remarks. And yet he set the meeting up in a local pancake house that hadn’t altered its architecture since 1965. He was never rude, exuded hope, and clearly wanted help. It was a bit like having a pint with the King at the local pub while discussing your views on foreign policy. Odd, and yet engaging.

I learned a lot from Harry in those days. Harry and Sallie Reynolds (who was essential to making the editorial department run) knew people and knew how to get things done with limited resources. They had a deep sense of what readers cared about and Harry had a nose for interesting gear. Harry had some good relationships in the industry, too.

Harry could also test a relationship in surprising ways at surprising times. Almost everyone who knew Harry has some specific memory of this. In my case, he often seemed to carry his journalistic (“don’t trust the subject”) sensibilities into realms where they didn’t belong. We had frankly unnecessary work to do to deliver reviews and return equipment on time.

We (eventually) worked through or around those issues. Still, I don’t think Harry was ever happy without the formality of being in charge. It wasn’t that he was a control freak. And it wasn’t only that he had created TAS and now others were shaping it—he actually seemed to enjoy working with others. Mostly, it was that Harry truly was “a great man,” and simply being “an important man” in the TAS structure didn’t fit his identity.

I don’t think that should have mattered. Nothing could have or will change Harry’s greatness. Harry, wherever you are now, I hope you realize, with some finality, that you were always a great man to a great many of us. Thanks. 

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