Harry Pearson, 1937–2014, a Personal Appreciation

Harry Pearson (left) with Stereophile founder J. Gordon Holt (right) at a 1988 party in Sea Cliff, NY. Photo: Chris Yuin

I was shocked when I learned that my dear friend Harry Pearson had passed away, on November 4.

Harry founded the subjective audio magazine The Absolute Sound and published his first issue in 1972. He was enamored of what J. Gordon Holt had done in creating the first American subjective audio magazine, Stereophile, a decade earlier, but Harry wanted to take the concept to another level. In TAS, he and a small cadre of trusted writers reviewed all of the new high-end gear, and in many cases had two or three writers offer various viewpoints on a single component. The concept caught on, and within a few years Harry was able to quit his day job as an environmental writer for Newsday and focus on his baby full time.

Many products HP covered were cutting-edge assaults on the state of the art that were largely unknown to readers before being covered in TAS—for example, the Infinity IRS loudspeaker and Conrad-Johnson's Premier 3 preamplifier. TAS's golden age was from 1975 to 1985; in that decade, audio designers significantly extended the boundaries of the possible in the re-creation of sonic realism in the living room. In those days, subscribers waited with unbridled anticipation for the arrival of each quarterly issue of TAS. I remember one cold winter night in the early 1980s, coming home to find the new issue in my mailbox. Rather than waste 20 seconds of reading time by moving into the warm house, I stood outside my front door in my winter coat, reading it under the dim porch light.

This period saw tremendous breakthroughs in the design of tube electronics and moving-coil cartridges, and Harry covered them all. He seemed to invent a more detailed vocabulary to describe what he was hearing. Some of his reviews were so graphic that one could almost go into an audio store, hear an unknown piece of tube gear, and say, "That sounds like HP's description of the x preamp, from the last issue."

My own journey with TAS began in 1983, when a letter to the editor about New Music turned into a job of reviewing recordings for the magazine. Later, after a listening session with HP and his reference system, I began to review equipment. When I joined TAS, I was a mediocre writer, but Harry and his editorial team nurtured me, continually critiquing and revising my copy until it was publishable. Over time, I improved; before long, my colleagues in my day job, in finance, began to compliment me on how well written my reports and presentations had become.

Harry did not separate his audio business from his friendships, and many of his relationships with audio designers and manufacturers became indelible friendships decades long. I'm certain that when the news of Harry's death hit such industry icons as Arnie Nudell (founder of Infinity and Genesis), Paul McGowan (PS Audio), Harry Weisfeld (VPI), Carl Marchisotto (Nola), and Leonard Bellezza (Lyric Hi-fi), there were more than a few tears shed.

My strongest memories of my friendship with Harry have nothing to do with audio. That Harry was first a music lover is attested by his decades-long subscriptions to the best orchestral series at Carnegie Hall (in his choice front-center seats, with a soundstage not unlike what he re-created in his own Listening Room 1), and his sojourns to Manhattan's hot new dance clubs. We enjoyed a wide range of music in our listening sessions; Harry turned me on to the latest electronic dance blockbusters, and I played for him the best work of George Crumb.

Harry was also an aficionado of food and wine. In the '80s, my girlfriend, Ellen (now my wife), and I would troll the streets of Manhattan with Harry, seeking culinary nirvana. I remember one dinner at Restaurant Lafayette—we sampled the wares of the 29-year-old chef, Jean-Georges Vongerichten, who was then unknown. Harry ended the meal by admonishing the waiter, "Please tell the chef he should cook with lower-fat ingredients." And, at a magical dinner at the late, lamented Zanghi's, in Glen Cove, Harry and I shared a 1967 Chateau d'Yquem, courtesy Harry's childhood friend and fellow TAS writer John Cooledge. To this day, it remains the finest wine I've ever drunk.

Many people who didn't know Harry well complained about how difficult he was to deal with. His certainly was a complex personality—I've described him elsewhere as a delicate blend of Truman Capote, Buddha, and the Wizard of Oz. At the end of the day, he was no worse than any other moody, high-maintenance friend I've dealt with. (I typically hang with investment bankers and musicians, so my tolerance for personal quirks may be higher than most.)

Harry's biggest quirk—the one that people most had to deal with—was the difficulty he had committing to a meeting or appointment. If you said, "Harry, let's get together for dinner real soon" and he agreed, the time between the ensuing postponements, cancellations, and unreturned phone calls, and the eventual dinner, might stretch to two years—if you were persistent. In the 1990s, Harry wrote in his reviews about "Pearson's Rule of Thirds," his methodology for speaker placement. I had an alternative Pearson's Rule of Thirds: "Make an appointment to visit Harry in Sea Cliff. After you drive one-third of the way to his house, pull off the road and call him to see if he's canceled. If he hasn't, drive another one-third of the way, pull off the road, and call him again to see if he's canceled. If he hasn't, drive to his house, ring the bell, and pray that he answers the door."

Harry's personality did have one tragic flaw that only his closest friends saw. If he got close to someone, he was likely to do something, personally or professionally, to push that person away. This made maintaining a friendship a task that needed to be actively managed. Over the years, seven audio writers have migrated from The Absolute Sound to Stereophile, and although each of us had his own reasons for making the move, I'm sure that this troubling aspect of Harry's character played a part in more than a few of those decisions.

But my own friendship with Harry remained firm for over 30 years, despite my twice leaving TAS to write for other publications. I was glad I saw Harry last spring, as he was recovering from a broken hip. We reminisced about the best of the old times, and some of the precious moments we'd shared. We didn't talk much about audio, but we did express our mutual admiration for the Audio Research Reference 75 amplifier, which we both felt was ARC's most significant amplifier design since the D79B. When I left the rehab center, I said, "Let's get together for dinner when you get out." Harry said, "Yes, let's do that." For not following through on that, I could kick myself.

Thank you, Harry, for changing the way I listen to music. Thank you for teaching me to evaluate sound more critically. And thank you for teaching me to be a good writer. You can add me to the list of the tens of thousands whose lives you've changed.—Robert J. Reina

Although Harry Pearson left The Absolute Sound in 2012, he kept writing about equipment and records until the very end. You can read his latest work at www.thehighfidelityreport.com.

Photo: Wes Bender

A memorial service for Harry was held at the Dodge-Thomas Funeral Home in Glen Cove, NY, on Wednesday, November 19, 2014. His ashes will be given wings over Big Sur.Ed.