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The AnalogLovers interview with one and only HP (Harry Pearson) founder and chairman of "the absolute sound"

Teresa: The first thing that attracted me to the original "absolute sound" magazine back in the mid 1970’s was that your accepted no advertising from equipment manufacturer’s thus insuring the reviews are fair and balanced with no pressure for a positive review. I don’t see anyone doing this today. How do most magazines avoid the problem of pressure for a good review from a paying advertiser?

Harry Pearson: First of all, I did not take advertising at the magazine's beginning but not out of any deep sense of conviction or bias against such (see the original editorial), but rather to establish the fact that the magazine was independent. "It isn't advertising that corrupts, it's the lust for advertising that does" is what I wrote at the time. We struggled along for years without advertising, depending entirely on subscription revenues, which came in fits and starts (depending on the issue we were at). What I had not anticipated was that most readers don't think a magazine is "real" unless it does have ads, and that they actually enjoy reading ads. Who would have known? When I decided to take ads, it was a move to establish a steady revenue flow so that we could publish on time and pay our writers, as well as attend to the side of the magazine that never much interested me, it as a business. I wanted to be an editor, reviewer (et. al.) and not a businessman. Before we took ads, I wrote an editorial stating the reasons I thought it would benefit us, and asked the readers for input and ran, over two issues, their responses, almost all of them pro-ads. For my part, I promised there would be no connection between the ads and the reviews, and I meant whatsoever. This gave our gifted ad salesperson a fit, but my position was that anyone could buy a page of the magazine and say whatever he, she or it wished, as long as the libel laws weren't violated. And this is how The Absolute Sound ran as long as I was in control of it. The problem for those who want to make a big killing in what is essentially a niche business is that the wall between church and state (editorial and business) will be breached. All you have to do is count the number of ad pages in any given set of magazine issues versus the reviews written and the front cover space given. It doesn't have to be this way.

T. The second thing that interested me was a lot of my favorite recordings were on your Super Disc List, such as "The Fantasy Film World of Bernard Herrmann" and "Cat Stevens’ Tea for the Tillerman". I figured since you liked a lot of the same LPs I did I should like the ones you recommend and that was so true. I used your Super Disc List to augment my LP shopping. When can we expect an updated Super Disc LP List?

HP: I should have done this many issues ago, and, indeed, several of the new management team at TAS have strongly suggested an update and revision. To that end, I have been collecting the latest LPs from Classic Records, Acoustic Sounds, Clearaudio, Speakers Corner, et. al. And, of course, rummaging through the several thousand High-End discs I have in my collection, looking for goodies I might have missed. So why not just yet? Probably because I have become fascinated by the promise of DSD encoding (i.e., SACD) and the hundreds of discs being issued regularly by Telarc, Pentatone, Chesky, and a host of small independent European labels. I do not believe the technology has evolved to the point where it surpasses analog at its best, but with the best equipment (vide, Ed Meitner's design work) and the best multi-channel systems, the results can be imposing. Problem is, of course, that almost no one really has exploited the promise of those additional channels, and, oddly enough, it is a few of the old three-track recordings that best demonstrate the virtue of an extra speaker (though to date, the DCS encoding system has played havoc with most of the Mercury and quite a few of the RCA originals).

T. The goal of the original "Absolute Sound" was the quest to create the illusion of a live un-amplified musical event in our living rooms. It seems this has shifted when you lost editorial control of TAS and the many appeasement’s to listeners of studio setting amplified music. Do you still believe, as I do, that the goal of anyone wanting to bring the realism of real musicians playing in their humble abodes to try to create the illusion of a live un-amplified music event?

HP: I do not know if many reviewers writing anywhere subscribe to the notion of an absolute sound, other than in paying lip service to the concept (perhaps in a mistaken effort to emulate my work). And that is because there are only the very few reviewers -- or designers for that matter - who actually attend concerts of unamplified music, and thus have any idea of how the real things sound. If you have a system that can reproduce a reasonable facsimile of the absolute, then it will be technically superior to the mass of so-called "luxury" components now flooding the market, components that are designed to sound "good", "sweet", "spectacular" or anything, lord save us, but a reflection upon the real. Just a few sessions in any decent acoustic space will let you see how far we are drifting from musical truth, and how dire the situation really is.

T. Many were not totally pleased with Classic Records early 180 Gram remasterings from RCA Living Stereo using transistor equipment as the original "Shaded Dogs" had a much smoother more liquid midrange. I was willing to give up this smoother midrange in exchange for the extended frequency extremes, larger soundstage, lower distortion and much lower surface noise. When Wilma Cozart-Fine talked Bernie Grudman into getting tubed equipment for the Mercury Living Presence LPs he also used it for some of the later 180 Gram the new 200 Gram RCA Living Stereos and to my ears these "tubed" remasterings sound better than the original "Shaded Dogs". Harry what is your take on these?

HP: First of all, when Classic first started remasterings of the great recordings from the Golden Age of American engineering (say from the late Fifties to the very early Sixties), a great wailing went up from collectors, traders and dealers who could no longer charge exorbitant prices for the rarest and best recordings. To my acute regret, I who sort of inspired this madness with the Super Disc listings, could not even replace many of the discs destroyed in a fire at my Sea Cliff home. And, if the truth be told, the original RCA pressings were often "sweetened" (artificially) to achieve that glorious liquidity. Nonetheless, I believe Ms. Cozart-Fine's insistence upon the use of tube amplification in Bernie Grundman's remasterings for Classic Records proved a revelation to Grundman and the eagle-eared Mike Hobson, Classic's owner. And thus the subsequent remasterings sounded better, and better yet as Hobson moved to discs that were flatter and heavier, even though it is clear that some of the nearly half-century old tapes had/have lost information at the high frequency extremes. But what you do get are far better dynamics, far better ambience retrieval (even with some top octave loss) and wider bandwidth. And these LPs, especially in Hobson's custom series of 45-rpm re-issues, I'd take almost any day over the original LPs. Heresy? Nope, just common sense, because they are overall better and because you can hear more of the greatness of the original Reiner (etc) interpretations.

T. I have a lot of reservations about the new TAS but one thing I do still love is they have resisted the "measurement crowd" and still use human hearing to judge how well a component sounds. What convinced me the measurement crowd was wrong was at CES hearing earsplitting ugly sound for highly rated transistor components that measured superbly well and in the very next room was Cary Audio producing amazing life-like real music from dual-mono 28wpc SET tube amps that measured poorly. I remember early transistor amps had high levels of as yet undiscovered TIM distortion, when it was discovered this distortion could be lowered. Also early PCM had high levels of as yet undiscovered Jitter. I have experimented with the high resolution Digital formats such as SACD and DVD-Audio and the best offer sound that rivals the best LPs however for me there is still a "human" quality missing as if digital still has some undiscovered distortions. Do you believe digital will someday equal analog on a musical level?

HP: Well, I would certainly hope so. Otherwise, in the name of "perfect sound forever", we have gone backward, in terms of the "living Presence" of music to the early LP era. I actually believe, given wide enough bandwidth in a new digital system that this might happen. I say might because Sony's failure to stay behind the DSD technology, which its engineers couldn't perfect, which is why Ed Meitner was called in to make DSD sound genuinely better than either DVD-A, or red book CDs.

T. I understand as a Reviewer who has to survive in this Digital word you have told me you have no intention of letting the latest digital developments escape your utmost critical scrutiny. You wondered about my stance on digital that you said if rigidly adhered to, would never let me analyze and identify its flaws, a task that must be done, given its dominance. I do believe there are many sufferers of "Digitalis" of which I am one. I cannot enjoy music on CD, SACD or DVD-Audio from low resolution PCM Masters as they produce excessive pain in my head. In other words it is painful noise not music to me. However SACD and DVD-Audio from higher resolution PCM, DSD or Analog masters DO NOT produce this pain. Are you aware of others who suffer this malady and do you think the pain could be caused by undiscovered PCM distortions as alluded to in the last question?

HP: I believe the sources of PCM distortions are beginning to be well understood, if not scotched. But what many engineers are doing is "sweetening" the PCM sound by adding colorations that are designed to make the experience less exhausting, but, which, at the same time, remove the sound further from any known reality.

T. How do you feel about "the absolute sound" system recommendations such as, "Six Overachieving Audio Systems You Can Afford" by Chris Martens, in which the only recommended front end is low resolution CDs priced up to $1,000? When there are many excellent turntables and even SACD / DVD-Audio universal players that also play CD in that price range. To me it is a statement that everyone needs a CD player, which I find not only untrue but insulting as well. What are your feelings on these issues?

HP: As a practical matter, he is probably on solid ground (for now) saying just that. These systems, as I understand it, were not designed for Old Hands at audio; much less devotees of live music. The systems listed in the review were not evaluated as systems, but rather on the basis of the separate components that made up such systems.

T. As you may know the famous engineer Tony Faulkner who has made many recordings in 192kHz PCM and DSD has re-discovered 2 Track 15 IPS Analog and finds it sonically superior and more musical than any of the high resolution digital formats. He is making back-up analog tapes for high resolution Digital recordings done for his clients. And will be negotiating release of these on LP. Do you feel other engineers will have similar epiphanies and switch back to analog recording for the sake of the music?

HP: Let us hope and pray.

T. As you know the Polyester backcoated tape stock everyone one switched to in the 1980’s has damaged analog tape’s reputation as an archival format as many of these tapes become squeaky due to Sticky Shed Syndrome or Loss of Lubricant. Many of these valuable Master Tapes have been "baked" to make them temporarily playable and then transferred to Digital. Yet all of the Master Tapes made on Acetate stock from the 1950’s to the 1970’s are in near perfect shape. Plus the new Mylar tapes are supposed to not break like the old Acetate and not develop "squealing" like the Polyester backcoated. Do you feel this will be enough to regain confidence in analog tape as a long-term storage medium?

HP: Baking as you know can destroy the original master if done improperly (vide, the original masters for "Casino Royale"). But I think a religious set of mind has occurred among the vast majority of the engineering community, who remain unaware that digital "masters" or remasterings do not have the shelf life of acetate-backed analog encodings.

T. As you know laser read discs were originally an analog technology. What are your thoughts on George Mann’s proposed Analog laser read audio disc format using Frequency Modulation similar to that used in LaserDisc but with full frequency response?

HP: There seems to be a limit to the laser's ability to resolve the extremely fine cuttings of the ultra-high frequencies, at least based on my experience with the one player out there commercially. If that deficiency can be overcome, I'd be all for it, but I genuinely doubt it will be, even so, a viable commercial product.

T. Harry have you managed to buy replacement copies of most of the LPs on your Super Disc LP List lost in the fire? Some of your favorite LPs such as Malcolm Arnold’s Dances on Lyrita are going for ridiculous prices. Basically the better you like an LP the higher price it goes for in auctions and set sales.

HP: This has been a particularly sad irony for me. The discs I have recommended I cannot afford to replace, unless I get very lucky (and that includes many from the fire, where my Mercury’s took a hard hit, along with the basic RCA’s), and what is the committed reader to do. I feel as if we are all like kids with our noses pressed against the glass window of the outrageously expensive ice cream store. 

T. Harry thank you very much for this very informative interview.

The Absolute Sound web site

  October 2006 analoglovers.com