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The Absolute Sound
February 2010
Our 200th Issue 
Editorial By Robert Harley


The Absolute Sound Issue 200 February 2010  The issue of The Absolute Sound you are now holding is our 200th, a milestone we celebrate by reprinting Harry Pearson's editorial from Issue 1, revisiting a classic review of his, and publishing HP's contemporary reflections on starting the magazine 37 years ago.

The editorial from Issue 1 is the foundation of not only this magazine's guiding principles to this day, but of an entire methodology for judging audio equipment quality. Harry's simple yet revolutionary insight was that audio criticism, while observational, was unlike other forms of observational criticism (food, wine, music, film, for examples) in that there is an absolute reference to which to compare the article under evaluation. There are no "absolute" foods, wines, musics, or films, but there is an "absolute sound" -- the sound of unamplified musical instruments in a real acoustic space. Audio products are judged by how close they come to -- or how far they deviate from -- the absolute sound. Consequently, audio criticism practiced under this framework is more than just a reflection of what the critic happens to like; it becomes anchored in objective reality. For those of us who carry on the tradition of The Absolute Sound, HP's first editorial is like the Magna Carta.

When I asked Harry to select a classic review for reprinting in this issue, I had a hunch he would choose his review of the Infinity/Magnepan system, dubbed the QRS-1D, from Issue 13 (Fall 1978). That review is generally regarded as the beginning of the evaluation and discussion of the spatial aspects of reproduced music -- soundstaging. Before that review, audio criticism was largely confined to overall tonal balance, timbral realism, extension at the frequency extremes, dynamics, and resolution. Although a few critics had written about imaging, the QRS-1D review introduced the idea of an audio system reproducing the sense of acoustic space: "Now the entire orchestral sound floats on its own cushion of air, without being grounded to the floor... Detached from any box, the entire sound field is, suddenly, suspended behind the speakers." Those observations might not seem particularly insightful after 30 years of discussing soundstaging, but in 1980 they were ground-breaking, and shaped the way listeners (and designers) thought about reproduced music.

I'm sure that my first encounter with The Absolute Sound paralleled that of many long-time readers. I was a college student (studying recording engineering) when my roommate left a copy of Issue 14 (Winter, 1979) lying around our apartment. It was a magazine unlike any I had read before, and it fundamentally changed the way I viewed music reproduction. It's fair to say that The Absolute Sound had a profound influence not only on a generation of serious music lovers, but on the industry itself. The two halves of the equation -- manufacturers and consumers -- were shaped symbiotically by the ideology collectively embodied in the magazine. Another music lover who fell under the spell of The Absolute Sound was Tom Martin, a college student in 1973 who was one of the first 232 subscribers to Issue 1. When TAS went through financial problems in the late 1990s, Tom, then Vice President of Worldwide Marketing at Dell, rescued the magazine and assured TAS's continued publication. That milestone was at Issue 112, with the magazine moving from digest-size to full-size at Issue 116.

I joined TAS as a contributing writer at Issue 118 after eight years as Stereophile's Technical Editor and two years in that role at Fi: The Magazine of Music and Sound. Jonathan Valin, my colleague and the Editor at Fi and now a cornerstone of the current TAS, joined at the same time. Since taking the reins of The Absolute Sound in late 2001 (Issue 134, February/March, 2002 was the first issue under my editorship), the magazine has undergone a number of significant changes while maintaining the core values established in the very first issues. Although music-playback technology is radically different (who could have predicted music servers in 1973?), the quest for musical realism is no different today than it was in 1973 when 232 music lovers signed up for an unknown magazine that promised to show them a path toward that realism. The challenge for TAS in the second decade of the 21st century is to share with the largest number of music lovers the great ideals and aspirations on which this magazine was founded. Our fundamental and unwavering goal -- then and now -- is to connect people with music. I can think of no better platform for pursuing that goal than the bedrock principles HP laid down in Issue 1.





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