Written by 5:00 am Audiophile

How Harry Pearson Changed Audio

Brent Butterworth examines the accomplishments and philosophies of audio journalism pioneer Harry Pearson.

Harry Pearson, founder of The Absolute Sound magazine, passed away on November 4. I’ve read a few remembrances of him, mostly anecdotes from people who knew him well and had a great deal of affection and respect for him. But I’ve yet to read one that details the impact he had on the audio industry, on audiophiles and on audio journalism. I think Pearson’s ideas and accomplishments deserve and demand a serious examination.

TAS.jpgI can’t say I knew Pearson. In fact, the one time I met him face-to-face, I enthused, “Now I can tell people I know Harry Pearson!”

“No,” he replied with a big smile, “but you can tell them we’re acquainted.” It’s a line I’ve used many times in the 20 years since.

I would argue that Pearson was the most influential person in the history of audio journalism. His work was a reaction against the audio journalism of the 1960s and ’70s, which relied mostly on measurement to evaluate components. Pearson went to the other extreme, relying entirely on subjective assessment — i.e., listening. His stated standard was comparing the sound of an audio system to the sound of unamplified acoustic music performed live, which he called “the absolute sound.” (Scientific types will immediately start pointing out the flaws in this approach, but let’s let that go for now.)

Pearson uncovered a core truth that not only influenced the audio industry, but laid the foundation for a subset of that industry: high-end audio. He was essentially correct when he proclaimed that the audio measurements of the 1960s and ’70s could not provide a substantial assessment of a component’s performance. This inadequacy was due partly to the relatively primitive measurement techniques of the time, and partly because little research had been done into how measurements correspond to the actual listening experience.

Instead of presenting page after page of signal-to-noise ratios and frequency response charts, Pearson filled The Absolute Sound with his charming, eloquent prose, numerous footnotes, and letters sections that ran for a dozen pages or more. Stereophile founder J. Gordon Holt had been publishing subjective audio reviews for more than a decade when The Absolute Sound launched, but while Holt attracted readers, Pearson attracted fans. A cult of personality grew around him. Many readers followed his advice as devoutly and unquestioningly as some wine connoisseurs follow Robert Parker‘s recommendations. No other journalist has ever gotten people so excited about audio, and I doubt any audio journalist ever will again.

I think Pearson deserves some credit for many improvements that have been made in audio technology. It’s partly because of his complaints that engineers were able to identify and address flaws in early transistor-based amplifiers, in CD players, and in speaker designs of the 1960s and ’70s. I wonder how many now-revered high-end marques would have survived were it not for his support.

Yet this immensely influential man conducted his work with few or no controls or formal procedures. To my knowledge, he always knew the brand and model of the component he was hearing, as well as the technology used in the component. While opinions of multiple listeners on the TAS staff were often included in reviews, those reviewers’ procedures were usually as informal as Pearson’s. Thus, unlike the audio analyzers that Stereo Review‘s Julian Hirsch mostly relied on, the opinions printed in TAS could be influenced by preconceptions, personal relationships or even just a good or bad day at work. In the end, all Pearson’s readers had to go on was his word. But for most, that was enough.

Why did a man who was so casual about his process possess such influence? I believe it’s in large part because he created a new and far more gratifying model for the audio enthusiast. Before Pearson, the word “audiophile” might have conjured images of someone like Hirsch, who looked like the prototypical audio nerd and focused almost exclusively on the technical side of audio rather than the artistic side. Pearson, through his erudition and by flaunting his refined tastes, single-handedly changed the image of the audiophile from nerd to aesthete, from geek to connoisseur.

This line from the editor’s note in the very first issue of TAS really jumps out at me: “What such assertions show us is either a tin ear (Mr. Hirsch) or someone who doesn’t know how to listen to music.” The inference is that Pearson knows how to listen to music — and so, by extension, does his reader, because he was wise enough to buy TAS. The message is clear: If you read this magazine, you are a man of taste and refinement. You will be told by the mainstream hi-fi mags that the things you believe about audio don’t hold up to scientific inquiry, but because you and I know how to listen to music and they don’t, we’re right and they’re wrong.

Ultimately, Pearson was perhaps just as right and just as wrong as Hirsch. Both did most of their work in an era when we didn’t understand audio well. Both grasped for answers, and found some. But among audiophiles, at least, Pearson’s philosophies have prevailed. The Absolute Sound is still around despite the troubles of the magazine industry, and for what it’s worth, it’s the thickest of all U.S. audio magazines. Stereo Review no longer exists; it was folded into Sound & Vision, where little trace of Hirsch’s influence remains.

As a media professional, I am fascinated by Pearson’s career. His strategy — providing a confident voice that told his audience they were right and the other guy was wrong — dates back to the dawn of journalism and is still employed every day in every type of media outlet. Yet others who pursued a similar strategy, including Pearson nemeses Peter Aczel of The Audio Critic and Tom Nousaine of Stereo Review and Sound & Vision, never achieved a following as enthusiastic as Pearson’s. Why did it work so well for Pearson and not as well for his foes? Was he just a better writer? Or was his message more appealing? I wish I knew.

The downside of Pearson’s influence is that his dismissal of scientific methods has, in my opinion, led too many audiophiles to reject science. It is now common for audiophiles to embrace technologies that have not been shown in controlled tests to deliver a clear improvement in sound quality, and to reject any technical findings that counter their opinions. If they believe it works, that’s good enough.

Pearson leaves behind an audio world that has largely coalesced into two camps: audiophiles and manufacturers inspired, influenced and guided by his work; and another, probably smaller group more influenced by the work of Hirsch, Nousaine and other technically oriented writers and researchers. It’s my hope that audiophiles of the future will discover the merits and flaws in both points of view.

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