Listening With Harry

Solid-state power amplifiers,
Tubed power amplifiers,
Solid-state preamplifiers,
Tubed preamplifiers,
Listening With Harry

The following piece was published in the June/July 2001 issue of TAS, as a “Last Page” feature. I got some ridicule, from a now-defunct audio-magazine editor who felt this sounded like sycophancy, who wrote a very clever parody of the piece. Actually, I was flattered. For if unallayed admiration of another human being is what I’m charged with, guilty as charged.

Andrew Quint 11/5/14

Listening with Harry
Andrew Quint

Admit it. If he called and asked you to come over and listen to some records, you’d go. The fact is, the audiophile experience is usually a lonely endeavor, and it’s getting lonelier. Increasingly, people just don’t think of sitting in front of two speakers as doing something. Go out to a concert or a club? Sure. Watch a video with surround sound in the family room? Definitely. But propose a session of playing CDs (or, heaven forbid, LPs) and friends look at you as if you’ve suggested spending an afternoon looking at child pornography. It’s rare to find a like-minded soul with whom to share one’s musical discoveries, who will appreciate a well-made recording and the equipment that does it justice. The Absolute Sound can stand in for such a companion. But imagine listening with the guy who invented much of the language we use to describe what we hear, famous for his tough standards and unexpected revelations. Imagine listening with Harry. I did.

I’d been writing for TAS for a number of months when, in the course of discussing some editorial issue on the phone, HP asked me to come up to hear his current system. I’m just a couple of hours drive away, so I said sure. I have Monday afternoons off, I told him. There was a pause at the other end of the line. Harry answered, resonantly: “I have every day off.” A man who loves his work.

So I went. And I’ve returned every few months for the past five years, sometimes by myself, sometimes with a colleague. Harry generally won’t host more than two at a time—he feels the space and social dynamic won’t support more than that number. I arrive in the quiet little village overlooking the Long Island Sound around two in the afternoon and make my way to the splendid Victorian. HP and a squad of Maine Coon cats live on the upper two floors; the first floor has been converted, as long-time readers know, into three listening rooms - a kind of audiophile bordello. Entering through the back door takes you into Listening Room 3, where the large speaker system of the moment resides. One is expected to remove one’s shoes at the door. At first I wondered if this belied some irrational fear of contagion, or a nod to the ways of the Orient. Now, I just think Harry wants his carpets to last. No rare, 1960s-vintage French designer chairs, by the way. For seating, there’s PVC patio furniture with plastic cushions—three specimens in a row in front of the speakers. Quite comfortable, actually, though they can squeak a little when you change position.

Before a visit, HP and Scot Markwell have long since done the hard work (and heavy lifting) necessary to integrate a new piece of audio equipment into the reference system. The right amplifier has been found, the right cables, the correct VTA. Harry has the software carefully picked out, choosing music that shows up the gear’s strengths but also suits the visitor. For me, that means mostly classical material, but once we started with a half hour of dance singles played at disco-like levels, to make a point about a certain speaker’s coherency and preservation of detail at high volume. There are discs heard virtually every visit that provide a basis for comparison, but I always come away having encountered  something new. We listen only to complete selections - whole movements, if not entire pieces. Harry knows the artist must be permitted to finish his thoughts, if the equipment’s truthfulness is to be judged fairly. Though HP has usually long since come to terms with a particular piece of gear by the time I’m on the scene, he never pronounces - not until his guest has developed his own opinions. He’ll withhold his views for hours, if necessary. Talking during playback? Certainly, there’s none of the incessant chatter I’ve endured at some audio get-togethers, but HP doesn’t confuse listening to a stereo with a concert experience, and occasional comment is encouraged. Every so often, though, with the right recording and the right equipment, things get so good that everyone sits in rapt silence, until Harry can stand it no more and, breaking into a broad grin and chortling deeply, he rises up in his patio chair and starts pointing at not-so-imaginary brass players in the ambient sound field.

We stop a little before six and head off for supper at one of Harry’s many favorite places. There’s surprisingly little talk about the music and audio equipment we’ve just listened to so intensely for the past several hours; somehow, I always feel that I’ve understood everything I was meant to understand. It occurs to me that if all audiophiles could demonstrate the capacity for canned sound to enthrall and transport as well as Harry did, maybe we’d have more company in our listening rooms. There’s an art to this, really. To educate without becoming overbearing; to impress without showing off. To let another person have his own insights and epiphanies and make the experience truly his own. After dinner, I return Harry to the dark Victorian and say good night. He reminds me to drive safely, and he’ll call my wife to tell her to expect me around 11. Then, I imagine, HP will get to bed not too late, as it is a weekday and he must be up bright and early to return to the best job in the world.