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