PLAYBACK 24: Gallo Acoustics Reference Strada 5.1-Channel System

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Gallo Acoustics Strada System
PLAYBACK 24: Gallo Acoustics Reference Strada 5.1-Channel System

From the very beginning, Anthony Gallo’s loudspeakers have had a certain futuristic and almost otherworldly look—with design motifs that suggest a cross between science fiction and fantasy, touched with just a hint of whimsy. Perhaps for this reason, though, some enthusiasts tend to mistake Gallo’s designs for trendy “toys,” which they assuredly are not. As those who’ve had the opportunity to get to know Anthony Gallo can attest, his speaker designs are never “different” for arbitrary reasons. Instead, even the smallest details—no matter how odd they might look at first—have been carefully thought through and set in place with one goal in mind: namely, achieving superior sound quality at a reasonable price. A perfect case in point would the new Gallo Reference Strada system, which is the subject of this review.

The Reference Strada system consists of five Reference Strada satellites ($999/each)—four Reference Sides and a Reference Center, plus a pair of self-powered TR-3 subwoofers ($984.50/each), for a total system price that falls just a tick below $7000. The closer you look at any of the system elements, the more obvious it becomes that each of them fairly bristles with advanced technologies (and that’s not even counting some of the finer-point details hidden on the insides of the speaker enclosures).

Any notion that the small Reference Strada satellites are “toys” is quickly dispelled the first time you try to pick one up and realize that the speaker’s main chassis is made of solid die-cast aluminum. Into this chassis, which serves as the backbone of the Strada, are fitted two semi-spherical mid-bass driver enclosures made of spun stainless steel, and that house very high-quality, long-throw, carbon fiber diaphragm-equipped mid-bass drivers. Those drivers, in turn, flank Gallo’s distinctive, centrally positioned, semi-cylindrical CDT 3 (“Cylindrical Diaphragm Transducer”) tweeter, which—get this—requires no crossover network at all and offers an amazing 180 degrees of horizontal dispersion from 3kHz to 20kHz. In Strada Center models, the cylindrical tweeter is rotated 90 degrees, so that the center channel speaker can be placed on its side.

In an effort to give the Reference Strada a more open, immediate, and transparent sound than achieved by any of his previous Reference-series designs, Gallo worked to prefect what he terms the OPT (Optimized Pulse Technology) system. In a conversation about the Strada, Gallo explained that OPT involves the combination of his new third-generation CDT tweeter, a revised “mouth flange” for the mid-bass driver, which gives the speaker somewhat more tightly focused dispersion characteristics at midrange frequencies, and some clever internal changes, which Gallo prefers to hold as trade secrets at this time. But the cumulative effect of the OPT system is a net improvement in resolution of low level sonic details, more effortless and explosive dynamics, and significantly reduced break-in time for the speaker. (Previous Gallo designs required many, many hours of break-in before optimal sound was achieved.).

Rounding out the Reference Strada system is a pair of Gallo’s latest TR-3 powered subwoofers, which feature 10-inch, long-throw, “ceramic-enhanced aluminum” woofers (the same woofers that will be used in Gallo’s upcoming Reference 3.5 floorstanding speaker) housed in a cylindrical steel enclosure that looks—appropriately enough—like a submarine depth charge. Each TR-3 provides a 300-watt, Class A/B high-current amplifier augmented by a sophisticated set of bass EQ and filter controls.

The individual elements of the Reference Strada system look deceptively small, but as you’ll learn in a moment, their sound is huge. Once again, this is by design. All of Gallo’s speakers use a very unusual proprietary damping material that Gallo simply calls “S2”. One of the distinctive properties of S2 material is that it alters the spring constant of the air contained inside Gallo’s sealed speaker enclosures, effectively increasing the apparent volume of those enclosures. The result, in simple terms, is a small speaker that behaves like a much bigger one. 

OVERVIEW

Consider this system if: you want a visually compact surround speaker system that in every practical way behaves like a much larger system—in terms of producing a big, dynamically expressive, full-bodied sound. Consider this system, too, if you’re drawn to the sound of high-end surround systems with five-figure price tags, but need or want to stay at a lower (just slightly sub-$7k) price point. Most importantly, choose this system for the sheer quality of its sound, which is smooth and neutral yet richly detailed and deeply involving.

Look further if: you can’t make peace with Gallo’s industrial design motifs; some will embrace the look (and obviously high build quality) of the Reference Strada system, while others will find it a bit too futuristic for their tastes. Also, be aware that while the system can be driven satisfactorily by pretty modest electronics, it really needs (and we think deserves) very high quality (and fairly high-powered) amplification in order to give of its best.

Ratings (relative to comparably-priced surround speaker systems)

  • Transparency and Focus: 10
  • Imaging and Soundstaging: 10
  • Tonal Balance: 9
  • Dynamics: 9
  • Bass Extension: 9
  • Bass Pitch Definition: 10
  • Bass Dynamics: 9
  • Value: 10

FEATURES 

I’ve discussed at least some of the key features of the Reference Strada system above, but let me provide a brief bullet-point summary, below:

Reference Strada highlights:

  • Solid die-cast aluminum chassis are extremely sturdy.
  • Spun stainless steel, semi-spherical mid-bass driver housings are exceptionally rigid and help foster effortless imaging and 3D soundstaging.
  • Stradas are offered in two-tone black/stainless steel or all matte black finishes.
  • High-quality carbon fiber diaphragm-equipped mid-bass drivers presented in a D’Appolito-type array with Gallo’s CDT3 tweeter. The mid-bass drivers are allowed to operate full range, and thus require no crossover components.
  • CDT 3 is a third-generation design that sounds more open and transparent than ever before. As in previous Gallo designs, the CDT-type tweeter offers remarkably broad, 180-degree horizontal dispersion.
  • Interestingly, the CDT 3 driver surface is made out of a semi-cylindrically-shaped sheet of a piezoelectric material called Kynar that not only expands and contracts when driven by an audio signal, but that—take note—also allows the tweeter to serve as its own crossover network.
  • No external crossover components are needed or used in the Reference Strada.
  • Enclosures are loaded with Gallo’s proprietary S2 damping materials, which have the effect of making the speakers’ compact cabinets perform as if they were larger than, in fact, they really are.
  • Gallo’s OPT systems is said to give the Reference Stradas a significant more open, transparent, and high-impact sound than previous Reference-series designs.
  • Reference Strada promises in-room frequency response of 45Hz – 20kHz +/- 3db if speakers are placed within 1 foot of an adjacent wall surface (but offers somewhat less bass extension if pulled further out into the room).
  • Gallo offers both tabletop and floor stands, plus available wall-mount brackets, for the Reference Strada system. The metal stands are extremely well made and highly recommended.

TR-3 highlights:

  • Uses the same 10-inch, long-throw, ceramic-enhanced aluminum woofer that will be used in Gallo’s upcoming Reference 3.5 floorstanding loudspeaker.
  • Uses the same beefy, all-metal cylindrical woofer enclosure pioneered in Gallo’s earlier TR-1 subwoofers.
  • 300-watt high-current Class A/B amplifier.
  • Extensive bass filter and EQ controls.
  • Offered in matte black or platinum gray finishes.
  • Promises solid output down to 22Hz.

SONIC CHARACTER

The Reference Strada system offers a beautifully balanced combination of four qualities that, in my experience, don’t always mesh as harmoniously as they do here. The four qualities are openness/transparency, high resolution/definition, expressive (and at times explosive) dynamics, and smooth/neutrally balanced voicing. Let’s take a closer look at each of these qualities in turn.

One of the main reasons to consider buying, say, a $7000 surround system as opposed to a system half that price is the quest for sonic openness and transparency—that sense peeling away electronic layers of noise, distortion and even minor forms of grunge so that you are left, quite simply, face to face with whatever sounds the record producer or movie soundtrack designer meant for you to hear. Gallo’s Reference-series speakers, such as the Reference 3 and Reference 3.1, have traditionally done a good job in this area, but in the Reference Strada system has taken this important quality to a new and much higher level. The effect is not unlike the sonic equivalent of shifting from looking through an ever so slightly smudged window to looking through a freshly cleaned, crystal-clear pane of glass. Suddenly, everything seems to snap into sharper focus, while contrasts—even very subtle ones—become more readily apparent. And, to borrow the old expression, you can’t help but notice that there is "more there there”—even in records and soundtracks you might have thought you knew well.

Another reason to step up to high-performance surround speaker system is the desire to experience and savor all the subtle, low-level textural and transient details in recordings that, for whatever reason, are often overlooked or otherwise fail to be captured by lesser systems. Here again, the Reference Strada system pushes the envelope harder than most systems its price, and reaches a higher level of performance than its earlier-generation Reference-series predecessors—which is saying a mouthful. From the listener’s perspective, the experience is a bit like going on an archeological expedition and finding that, just beneath what you thought was the surface of the ground, there are whole new worlds of information waiting to be discovered. And for obvious reasons, once the Reference Strada system reveals those new layers of sonic details, you won’t to be without them.

Because the components of the Reference Strada system are relatively small and compact, it’s only human to assume the system’s sound will be small and a bit constrained, as well, but this turns out not to be the case. While the Reference Strada satellites are not terribly sensitive (rated sensitivity is a low-ish 87dB/1watt/1meter), they appear to be a relatively benign load to drive and can handle a substantial amount of power. Just remember that you made need to use significantly higher gain settings than you would with other speaker systems. With gain turned up to appropriate levels, the Strada satellites, along with their companion TR-3 subwoofers, produce an unexpectedly big, dynamically expressive, full-bodied sound. What is more, they do so with almost none of the latent edginess or glare to which some higher-efficiency speaker systems are sometimes prone.

It often happens that high performance speaker systems that deliver the virtues I’ve mentioned above entail certain implicit tradeoffs—often in the form of sounding slightly brash, sterile, or edgy when asked to play less than ideal material. But the Reference Strada system really isn’t like that at all. Instead, it offers unusually smooth, neutral tonal balance and a welcome degree of freedom from cabinet-induced noises and artifacts. Some listeners felt there was a subtle dip in the Strada’s upper midrange response—roughly in the region where output from the mid-bass drivers transitions to output from the CDT tweeter—but this is not particularly noticeable and, if anything, contributes to the perceived smoothness of the system’s sound. Not surprisingly, then, the Reference Strada system’s imaging and soundstaging are exceptional, and not just at the system’s price point, but in an absolute sense. This means the Reference Strada system is that rare audio beast that is at once highly revealing, yet rarely if ever punishing—a sweet combination.

Are there caveats to note? There are a few, though I consider them relatively minor ones. First, as mentioned above, the Reference Strada system is relatively low in sensitivity and therefore requires both ample power and higher than normal gain settings. I tried the Strada system with several different AVRs and found, not surprisingly, that it worked best when driven by the most powerful (and also the highest quality) receiver I had on hand. That said, I would say that the Stradas can still perform at a pretty high level when used with modestly priced but well designed receivers such as Onkyo’s excellent $600 TX-SR607. It’s just that the Stradas will also show you in no uncertain terms why more powerful, higher-end amplification components might be a good investment.

Second, be aware that the Strada’s wide-dispersion CDT 3 tweeter can be something of a double-edged sword. Wide dispersion of upper midrange and treble frequencies can be—and often is—a beautiful thing, but it can also mean that the Stradas sometimes pick up unwanted sonic reflections from nearby pieces of furniture or from the sidewalls of the listening room. The solution to this problem, should it occur, is to angle the Stradas inward toward the listening area.

Finally, note that the speaker’s highly revealing nature can, in a sense, be a mixed blessing. Unlike earlier Reference-series Gallos, which tended on the whole to be pretty forgiving speakers, the Reference Stradas are sufficiently revealing that they can and do expose the sonic effects of almost any change you make in your system—often for the better, but sometimes not. The Stradas, for instance, can easily delineate differences between competing receivers, EQ systems, DACs, source components, audio cables, and power conditioners, and they will let you hear the effects of even quite subtle variations in system setup technique. My point is that while it is easy to get the Strada system up to a “very good” level of performance, it can take a fair amount of additional fine-tuning and experimentation to help the system realize its full potential.

I found this particularly true in the areas of imaging and soundstaging (potentially two of the Stradas most compelling strengths). At first, I just could not seem to get the Stradas to deliver the stunningly three-dimensional sound I had come to expect from Gallo models I’ve reviewed in the past. But, after consulting with Anthony Gallo and trying several setup experiments he suggested, I eventually got the Strada system tweaked to a point where its imaging not only equaled but in fact surpassed that of the earlier models. Patience is key.    

Some prospective customers are bound to ask if the Strada system benefits from automated room EQ systems. My answer is that that the Strada system is quite well balanced to begin with, so help from a good auto EQ system (such as the Audyssey MultEQ system or Pioneer’s Advanced MCACC system) is not so much a necessity, but rather a matter of sonically “gilding the lily.” But, that said, the gilding can potentially be worthwhile. I got good results when using an Audyssey system with the Strada and even more impressive results with Pioneer’s Advanced MCACC system, which pushed the transparency and focus of the Stradas a notch or two higher up the performance ladder. 

MOVIE PERFORMANCE

The beauty of a system as good as the Reference Strada rig is that it can make even familiar soundtracks seem fresh and new all over again, or at least that was what I found when watching the film U-571 with the Gallo system in play. Two scenes—one subtle and the other rather more bombastic—showed off the Reference Stradas’ broad spectrum of strengths.

As the “Trojan horse” U.S. submarine S-33 cruises toward its targeted rendezvous with the crippled German U-boat, U-571, we see the officers of the S-33 at dinner as they near their objective. Seas are rough and, to conserve electrical power, the S-33 is cruising on the surface. The camera turns to give us a view of the officer’s mess table as the boat rolls and pitches in the waves. We see dinnerware and utensils slide from one side of the table to the other as the boat rolls, with—at one point—the sound of some silverware sliding off the table and clattering to the floor. Through the Reference Strada system, the soundtrack for this scene sounds eerily vivid, focused, and intensely three-dimensional so that listeners become aware of the smallest of details: the closeness of the curved inner walls of the sub’s hull, the nervous sounds of non-mariners at the table trying to cope with their gliding soup bowls, the sounds of crewmen passing in the corridor outside the mess room, and soft whoosh of dishes sliding on the table surface. It’s one of those rare cinematic moments where, if your sound system is equal to the task, it’s easy to be drawn out of your chair and to feel really present in setting of the scene onscreen. This is why owning a first-rate surround system can be so rewarding.

Much later, after the Allied crew has taken U-571 by force, the rag-tag crew finds itself in a desperate underwater duel with a second German sub that has appeared on the scene. Torpedo shots are exchanged and the encounter concludes with the one of the Allie’s torpedoes striking the enemy U-boat and detonating underwater. The Gallo system not only handled but seemed to thrive on the multi-faceted concussive force of that explosion—an explosion that, for the Allied crew, not only represents survival but a measure of retribution for Allied lives lost earlier on when the intruding U-boat first attacked. Two things struck me about the Reference Strada system’s performance. First, I was moved—both in a literal and figurative sense—by the system’s unexpected dynamic clout. It was a good thing that I conducted this listening test after normal office hours, since if I attempted the test during the daytime other office members would surely have thought some catastrophe had just befallen our building! Second, I was impressed by the system’s surefootedness and composure as it reproduced the complex medley of sounds that together represented to torpedo’s detonation. Though the sequence was very loud and forceful, there were no signs of distress, compression, or distortion. Talk about maintaining, “grace under fire.” 

MUSIC PERFORMANCE 

More so than most surround sound speaker systems, the Reference Strada system could fairly be called an “audiophile’s” speaker system. By this I mean that the Reference Strada rig is at least as much at home playing high-resolution stereo and multichannel music material as it is negotiating the rigors of movie soundtracks. Ordinarily hardcore audiophiles tend to gravitate toward traditional stereo systems, but the Reference Strada is so good at what it does that it builds a very strong case for stepping into the surround world.

Want proof? Just try putting on the SACD version of the classic RCA Living Stereo recording of the Jascha Heifetz/Charles Munch/Boston Symphony Orchestra performance of Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No. 2 in G Minor. This extraordinary recording was made in 1959, but it sounds so fresh, so vital, and so full of spectacular inner details that it could have been made yesterday (if, that is, we could still find record producers as skilled and sensitive as John Pfeiffer was when he made this record roughly fifty years ago). Interestingly, the original 1959 recording featured three channels (left, center, and right) and thus qualifies as one of the earliest true multichannel recordings around.

What floored me about the Gallo system’s performance on the Prokofiev piece was, first of all, the richly detailed and yet never, ever edgy way in which it captured the energy, articulation and underlying sweetness of Heifetz’s violin sound. Masterful violin playing, I think, represents a real high-wire act where, on the one hand, the violinist works to make each note count and to give each note its own clearly delineated beginning and end, yet on the other hand works to tie notes together so they form a cohesive, organic whole. Err in one direction and the sound becomes overly sharp-edged and brittle, but err in the other and the sound loses definition and inner clarity of purpose. What the Stradas effortlessly revealed is the way Heifetz found that elusive middle path, playing with power and clarity, yet with a touch of warmth that tied the whole concerto together. Few speaker systems of any configuration or price could handle this material more sensitively than the Reference Strada system did.

Another impressive element of the Stradas’ performance involved the way Gallos captured the lively yet well-controlled and very well balanced sound of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Orchestral music is, in many respects, an acid test of loudspeaker performance because it forces systems to reproduce multiple timbres (and dynamic envelopes) at once. On the Prokofiev piece the Stradas beautifully delineated orchestral sections—and, where appropriate, even individual instrumental voices—with real grace and fluidity, giving a convincing sensation of hearing a real orchestra at play in a plausible, real-world acoustic space (replete with hall ambience and reverberations).

As good as the Reference Strada system proved to be on orchestral music some readers will no doubt want to ask, “yes, but can the Stradas rock?” My unequivocal answer (provided your amplifier or receiver is up to the job) is that they most certainly can. To put the question to the test, I put on the spectacular track “Lil’ Victa” from SMV’s Thunder [Heads Up]. SMV, as some of you may know, represents a collaborative effort between the master bass guitarists Stanley Clarke, Marcus Miller, and Victor Wooten, and “Lil’Victa” is a showcase piece that features signature solos from all three. Even those who are not bass guitar aficionados can appreciate the way the track captures the distinctive instrumental voices, variations in playing techniques, and sheer punchy exuberance each player brings to the party. On lesser systems these distinctions can be (and often are) blurred and blunted, so that the differences between the players are obscured, but through the Stradas each player’s signature sound stood out in sharp relief from the others. When heard live this sort of music is almost always performed a vigorous though not ear-splitting volume levels—levels that most systems struggle to reproduce in a realistic way. But not so the Stradas; they just waded right in and made themselves at home with the material, reproducing it with the power, punch, and clarity it ought to have.

BOTTOM LINE:

Despite its comparatively diminutive size and unorthodox looks, Gallo’s Reference Strada system is a terrifically refined and robust performer that is equally at home when playing high-powered movie soundtracks or the most delicate of musical recordings. At a price nearing $7000 the Reference Strada system is certainly not cheap, but it is worth every red cent of its asking price as it can, quite seriously, stand tall in comparison to systems twice its price. Very enthusiastically recommended.

SPECS & PRICING

Anthony Gallo Acoustics Reference Strada Side and Strada Center

Driver complement: One CDT 3 semi-cylindrical Kynar piezoelectric tweeter, two 4-inch carbon fiber diaphragm equipped mid bass drivers
Frequency response: 45Hz–20kHz, ± 3dB (speakers placed within 1 foot of walls)
Sensitivity: 87 dB

Impedance: 8 ohms
Dimensions (HxWxD): 13.5” x 5” x 7.5”
Weight: 11.4 lbs./each
Warranty: 5 years (if product registered within 60 days of purchase)
Price: $999/each

Tabletop Stands & Wall-Mount Brackets for Reference Strada Side & Center speakers: $125/each
Floor Stands for Reference Strada Sides: $450/pair

Anthony Gallo Acoustics TR-3 powered subwoofer

Driver complement: One 10-inch long-throw woofer with ceramic-enhanced aluminum diaphragm
Integrated amplifier power: 300W, Class A/B
Dimensions (HxWxD): 12” x 10.75” x13.5”
Weight: 36 lbs./each
Warranty: 1 year (2 years if product registered within 60 days of purchase)
Price: $984.50/each

System Price: $6964 as tested

ANTHONY GALLO ACOUSTICS
www.roundsound.com

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