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The Harry Pearson TAS List – How Good Is It?
Rob Pennock - Classical Source Online and Audiophile Sound Magazine
For some the HP (Harry Pearson), TAS (The Absolute Sound) list is the audiophile bible of LP sound, which people worship with varying degrees of devotion and I thought it would be interesting to take a brief look at it and how good it is.
So who was HP? Well in 1973 he founded what remains the world’s premier hi-fi magazine, The Absolute Sound, which originally, as Jonathan Valin points out in his excellent ‘ Some Thoughts on our Fortieth Anniversary’ ( https://www.theabsolutesound.com/articles/harry-pearson ), was solely aimed at classical music lovers who sought ‘the most convincing illusion of the sound of acoustic instruments in a real space’, in other words, the absolute sound. This concept was applied to both hi- end hi-fi equipment and LPs, which gradually created a reference catalogue of recordings, the HP TAS list.
It is however sometimes forgotten that HPs egotism, his refusal to accept that rock and pop were real music, declining editorial standards and an inability to see and/or accept changing market forces led to the magazines closure in the 1990s and it was very fortunate that a long-time reader, Thomas Martin, acquired and transformed it into what it is today, with HP contributing a regular column.
The list is divided into Best of the Bunch: Classical, with 12 LPs and almost 4 pages of Special Merit: Classical, Collections and Opera.
If an album is featured on it, its value increases and most specialist vinyl dealers will add HP to an items description, as will those companies that produce 180gm LPs.
For those poor misguided souls who sold their vinyl collections the list remains important because as hi-res sound has massively improved the quality of analogue to digital remastering - which Bob Witrak at HDTT provides state-of-the-art examples of - it does give digital audiophiles, or those like myself who want both, an interesting idea of what to look out for.
However the list is far, far from perfect. Alfred Brendel in ‘Musical Thoughts & Afterthoughts’ (1982) said ‘In coping with pianos, modern recording technique appears to run into one problem after another’ and one can only assume that HP thought the same as there are only two piano recitals to be found. This isn’t acceptable. Particularly in the solid-state era companies as diverse as Decca and Hyperion produced some marvellous sounding discs, the very best of which should be there.
With regard to the harpsichord, there is one entry; Balbastre, Harpsichord Works, from Afka. But HP could, to give but one example, have mentioned the superb 45rpm Nimbus LPs of Gilbert Rowland playing Soler.
Similarly you could be forgiven for thinking that no-one ever recorded an outstanding lieder recital. However Decca SXL 6207 (1965) with Hermann Prey and Gerald Moore in Wolf and Pfitzner features perfect overall and internal balance and both artists are palpably there in front of you, their timbres beautifully captured.
Regrettably, but predictably, chamber music is also virtually ignored with just two entries, one of which is the Julliard Quartet in Schubert (RCA LSC 2378} where the sound is actually nothing special. So one can only assume that Harry Pearson had very little knowledge of, or interest in, anything small scale.
He also very clearly favoured certain labels. This is, in part, understandable. When stereo was launched Decca, Mercury and RCA Living Stereo, produced some very fine LPs, as to a lesser degree, did the EMI HMV labels. However, given Mercury classical fizzled out in the mid-sixties, there does seem to be a disproportionately large number of their discs, while the HMV ASD label is largely ignored up until the solid-state era, so perhaps HP liked the rather two dimensional, oddly balanced ‘hi-fi’ sound Mercury often produced.
Of course here we enter into surmise and personal opinion, but all I would say is that the HP TAS list is a flawed endeavour, which still excites opinion and disagreement and should be in the library of every audiophile.
The problem with HP is that he barely scraped what was available as 12" 45s in the 80s. PIL’s Metal Box sounds pretty amazing with Jah Wobble’s bass playing. If you follow HP’s list you’ll be selling yourself short: no reggae, no Tibetan bells, no music after 1980, no Bartok string quartets, a bare minimum of jazz, no rock or no punk. HP had a limited appreciation for different genres if you are referring to his list. The sad part is people take his list to be gospel and don’t try to make their own list. I appreciate TAS and Stereophile raising the bar for how to listen to music, but people get hung up on the gear and having the right records and in a way it limits some peoples’ potential for listening pleasure.
As an occasional writer for TAS in the 1980s, let me add my 2-cents. TAS never “closed”. It was sold to Tom Martin who had the cash that TAS desperately needed to keep afloat. Market conditions in the late 1990s led to the loss or sale of many alternative audio publications. The two survivors, TAS and Stereophile, both found buyers in 1998 which is why we have them today.
When it came to music and building the TAS list, Harry was not a snob about classical music; he was sincere about his limitations. He knew what he knew. For years he would attend live performances at Carnegie and other venues and through careful observation developed his concept of “the absolute sound” as you mentioned above. Over time he did acquire an appreciation for other kinds of music, but only when he was sure that the recording quality maintained the same standards that he set for classical music. For example, his all-time favorite pop recording was “The Look of Love” sung by Dusty Springfield from the Casino Royale sound track. Believe it or not, Harry became a lover of some disco dance music because the introduction of 12" singles, particularly at 45 rpm, produced sound quality far better than other vinyl pop recordings. In short, he had an open mind, wrote well and never compromised his standards. I miss him dearly.