Issue 249 January 2015
January 5, 1937 – November 4, 2014
Editorial By Jonathan Valin
I've been dreading this day for some time, even though I
knew it was coming. And now it has. On November 4, 2014, Harry Pearson, the founder of this
magazine and the finest and most influential writer in our field, passed away
in his home at Sea Cliff—and with him goes the very last of a thrilling,
now-distant era when the high end was young, and so were we.
Let me be honest: I haven't spoken to HP since the day he
quit the magazine (August 31, 2012), when I called him one final time to beg
him to reconsider his decision, not so much for TAS' sake (because, to be
honest, Harry hadn't been a key contributor to our pages for some time) but
for his own well-being and financial security. It did no good, not that I
expected it would. HP had had a heart attack several months before, and as
life crises tend to do it led him to reconsider the path he'd been taking
and would be taking in the time left to him. To be frank, he was frustrated
about the way things had gone at the magazine, which he'd created and for
many decades single-handedly run, and was now set on recovering his glory days
by starting anew. Nothing I could say about how quixotic such an enterprise
might prove to be at his age, when his health, stamina, and concentration
weren't what they once had been, could dissuade him.
That chutzpah (there is no better word for it) and utter,
unshaken, and unshakeable self-confidence were hallmarks of Harry Pearson from
the start. His courage and confidence and talent were what had led him from a
tough childhood in the South to Duke University and thence to Newsday
magazine, where his environmental reporting (he was among the very first to
report on this now much-reported-on subject) earned him a Pulitzer Prize
nomination. And, as all of you old hands already know, it was that selfsame
audacity and self-confidence that led him (and his friend and fellow
audiophile John W. Cooledge) to launch The Absolute Sound in the spring of
1973, going against the odds and the advice of his friends and colleagues at
Newsday, who to a man warned him that a magazine was a money pit into which he
would soon sink every penny he'd socked away. Harry, being Harry, paid them
just enough heed to limit his losses—and then went right ahead. With 500 to
1500 readers tops at two dollars of revenue per head per issue on a four-issue
yearly subscription, HP calculated that he could afford to "float" the
magazine on his own dime for a single year, and, when the inevitable occurred,
eat whatever debt was left and, in his own words, "live to tell the tale."
But a funny thing happened to Harry on his way to the
poorhouse. After taking out an ad in Audio magazine's classified pages, he
found himself knee-deep in subscription requests—in numbers that went way
beyond his wildest expectations. Within a short time, TAS
became so improbably successful that HP was able to quit his "day job" at
Newsday and devote himself full-time to his lifelong passions, audio and
To paraphrase Max Bialystock, "Where did he go right?"
Well, he picked the right moment, for one thing. The timing
couldn't have been better for a subjectivist audio magazine. Whether it was
good fortune or editorial genius or a little of each, TAS'
founding coincided with a sea change in the market. With the sun setting on
the Golden Age of Hi-Fi, small companies founded by brilliant iconoclastic
engineers as attuned to sonic realism and as uncompromising as Harry himself
had begun to proliferate, and almost all of them found their first home in the
pages of The Absolute Sound.
With a few long-lived exceptions like Quad, KEF, Ortofon,
and McIntosh, most of the marques that we consider old standbys today were
newcomers then—so many of them in such rapid succession, from so many
talented individuals around the country and the world, that this revolution in
hi-fi acquired a new name, the "high end," to distinguish its sonic
aspirations, listener appeal, and, yes, often higher price tags from the
mass-market goods of mid-fi. While it would be an overstatement to say that TAS
created high-end audio, it was certainly indispensable to ushering it
in—weeding out the pretenders from the keepers by comparing both to the
ideal of the absolute sound, creating a market of its own readership for
products that excelled in this comparative test, and making audio seem
exciting again by injecting wit, no-nonsense judgment, and a clubby sense of
exclusivity—of those-in-the-know and those-not—into the once-technocratic
world of audiophilia. Pearson and company made audio gear more exciting by
talking about it in plain English rather than via circuit diagrams or
mathematical formulae, by creating a vocabulary and a standard of comparison
that "ordinary" music lovers could relate to and make use of, and by
calling a spade a spade when it came to good, better, and best.
While being the first on the scene to report on a new,
rapidly evolving market that was itself attuned to the idealistic/subjectivist
aesthetic of the magazine was certainly a key advantage, it wasn't just the
market that was new. The magazine's boomer-generation readership was, too.
In the Fifties, listening to records in Dad's house had
been a joy, a solace, a shared form of discovery and education, a display of
status, and (for teenagers) a tool of seduction, but by the late Sixties all
those threads had been woven into something like an ecstatic communal rite.
The decade is almost unimaginable without the rock music it is famous for; the
protest movements, the sexual revolution, Flower Power, pot, even the Vietnam
War—the other things the Sixties are famous for—still live for us in song,
as if the entire wild, rebellious, besotted era had been scored for a rock 'n' roll movie. If you lived through the Sixties, you didn't just want
to have a nice stereo in your pad; you had to have one. It was your connection
to the world at large and the worlds within that world.
Although Harry was anything but a rock 'n' roller, by
dint of his idealism, his anti-establishmentarianism, his cranky candor, his
unerring nose for the new and promising, and, once again, his superb timing,
he tapped directly into this zeitgeist. For a whole lot of us he and his
magazine became the prime guide and connection to this new, non-mainstream
landscape of "high-end" audio, and the new, non-mainstream music it
brought to life.
Of course, Harry's magazine (journal, actually) wasn't
intended for penniless, bedraggled scum like me—it was meant for the
respectable hi-fi nut, not the hippie hi-fi nut. It was, quite
self-consciously (and sometimes off-puttingly), a members-only club made up of
old-timers from the hi-fi era (like Harry himself), married to the best
reproduction of acoustic music, and FNGs from the Sixties and Seventies, who,
just out of college, were on their way up and wanted that rock soundtrack to
accompany their climb.
But there was something else going on with TAS
in addition to "me generation" conspicuous consumption—something tied
just as closely to Sixties idealism and experimentation as the explosion of "high-end" products from brand-new or little-known companies, many of them
started quite literally in garages—which connected directly to the
don't-trust-anyone-over-thirty iconoclasm of early boomer culture.
Prior to The Absolute Sound, most of us depended on the
numbers published in mainstream audio magazines to form our opinions of which
hi-fi gear looked worthiest of purchase. The better the numbers, the more
appealing the product. Even though readers hungered for plain-English opinions
about the way things actually sounded in real rooms with real sources, such
opinions were seldom voiced in Audio or High Fidelity or Stereo Review, lest a
negative review upset advertisers. It was Harry Pearson who changed this
vaguely cynical, entirely relativistic, basically commercial paradigm, who
made the "absolute-sound" standard—the sound of actual acoustic
instruments playing in a real space—the new benchmark for judging the sound
of gear and the sound of recordings. Using real music as a basis of comparison
wasn't Harry's invention. Acoustic Research, for one, produced "live-versus-recorded" exhibits on an occasional basis throughout the
Fifties. But with Harry, the occasional became the absolute. The only reliable
metric was how close reproduced music came to the real thing; the only
reliable measuring device was the human ear.
What made the products of the Seventies so special—and so
memorable—was that, unlike many of the measurements-bound Old School audio
designers, the new generation believed as fervently in the absolute sound as
Harry and his readers did. The sound of the real thing was what they were
after, too. The resulting colloquy in the pages of TAS
was unprecedented in audio history—an open-ended discussion in which new-gen
(and some old-gen, as well) audio designers, Pearson and his staff, and a
growing and vocal readership, all speaking more or less the same language,
shared frank and sometimes combative opinions about audio gear and audio
In time, something like an extended family formed around the
magazine—a family that those of us alienated from the establishment by the
Sixties embraced wholeheartedly. The absolute sound was something you could
believe in without a penalty in dashed hopes; it was a community you could
belong to even if you couldn't afford the initiation fee. Issues of the
magazine were passed around like pages of the gospels; opinions were voiced
about products heard, unheard, and never to be heard; cliques formed around
certain products and certain reviewers who championed those products; a new
high-end normal began to coalesce, replacing the old hi-fi one; and it was all
incredibly exciting and incredibly fun.
And then, of course, there was the charisma of HP himself.
As a protégé, it is tough for me to be objective about my old mentor. As a
friend, Harry was…difficult. Vain, flighty, lazy, self-indulgent to an
extreme, and prone to gossip and, sometimes, to malicious mischief, he was
also charming, worldly, knowledgeable, funny, gifted, insightful, and, often,
loyal to a fault. As a human being Harry Pearson may have been a mixed
bag—who isn't?—but as "HP," the legendary journalist and thinker and
magazine publisher, he is beyond criticism or complaint. Harry Pearson is
unquestionably the most important, the most entertaining, and the most
influential writer about all things audio this world has seen—or will see.
He not only had a golden ear; he had a brilliant mind, for, as he himself said
to me when I complimented him on the acuity of his hearing, it wasn't the
way he heard equipment but the way he thought about what he heard that made
him such a terrific critic. That and his writing style, of course, with its
Johnsonian complexity and gravitas—and its flashes of Pauline Kael-like (a
writer he admired) snarkiness and wit.
It is not often that you can say of someone you know that he
changed things. Within our little subculture of audio-crazed music lovers,
Harry Pearson did just that—and not only for the people who actually met him
but for the vast audience to whom he was a near-mythical figure. Harry had
that rare writerly gift of making you feel as if you knew him, whether you did
or didn't—that what he had to say was worth hearing because he was worth
listening to, because it was coming from him.
I'm going to close this eulogy with a story that I've
already told about how I met Harry—and then with one that I haven't told
about how we said farewell.
First, the meeting.
Soon after my book on RCA recordings came out back in 1993,
I got a cold call from HP. (I never did find out how he got my number, which
was unlisted.) Even though I'd written ten (soon to be eleven) novels I was
a bit in awe—I'd been reading HP since I was a kid and actually hearing
that deep, rumbling voice of his for the first time, and out of the blue, was
disconcerting. "I feel like I'm talking to God," I blurted out. There
was a pause and then HP replied, "No, God is talking to you."
As I said when I originally penned this anecdote (and as I
feel just as keenly today in light of his passing), that is the way I'll
always think of him. Despite the ups and downs, Harry Pearson has been an
overarching presence in my career since the day I got that phone call. Even
after his resignation from TAS, and now his passing, he will remain an abiding
presence. HP was one of those rare "bigger-than-life" characters, who had
the sheer force of personality to change your life. And so he did mine.
As for the goodbye. After that phone call two years ago in
which I tried to persuade Harry not to leave TAS, he called me back. "I want
you to know that I think of you as a friend," he said. "You've been a
worthy colleague and, at times, a noble adversary." I told him how much he
had meant to me in words I'm not going to print here.
And that was the last time we spoke. I never talked to or
saw Harry again. I wish I had. I wish he were still here. I'm sure all of
you reading this do, as well.
Rest in peace, HP. We will not see your like again.
have created a Wall of Remembrance for Harry at The
Absolute Sound for
readers and the industry to share their HP stories and memories.
--- Jonathan Valin
Click here to subscribe
to The Abso!ute Sound.