July 2010

rclogosm_noyear201007_galloThose lucky years I get a chance to attend a Consumer Electronics Show, I always make sure to visit the showroom of Anthony Gallo Acoustics -- I want to know what Gallo’s doing with his gorgeous, ultramodern Reference 3 floorstanding speakers. Every few years, he seems able to coax some additional musical accuracy from his original spherical enclosure by extending and sweetening both the high and low ends. I’ve yet to hear a Gallo Reference 3-series speaker that didn’t make it onto my Best of Show list -- and often, the Gallo is the least expensive speaker listed there.

What Gallo has always delivered

From the very start, Gallo’s Reference speakers have been celebrated for their great sound, very modern looks, and the fact that they are so tiny for the incredible bass they produce. In the world of behemoth speakers, the Nucleus Reference 3.5 ($6000 per pair USD), with dimensions of 35"H x 8"W x 16"D, qualifies for use in a New York City efficiency apartment.

Few speakers with any pretense of qualifying as the state of the art go this deep in the bass while still seeming to entirely "disappear." We’ve all heard tiny speakers where you can close your eyes and get lost in the space of a soundstage. That’s partly because they’re small enough to approximate the gold standard of soundstaging: a true point source. Unfortunately, the bigger the drivers and cabinet, the harder it is to pull off that disappearing trick. It’s not impossible -- some designers of big speakers have figured out ways to get close -- but the more you go for deep bass, the harder it is to disappear.

Which is one of the reasons some audiophiles prefer a combination of small speakers and a subwoofer. Gallo’s smaller Reference model, the stand-mounted Nucleus Reference Strada, combined with one of their TR-1 or TR-3 subwoofers, is about half the price of the Reference 3.5, and it also pulls a neat disappearing act while providing copious bass. But when Anthony Gallo was demonstrating these two Reference models in his showroom at the 2010 CES, the larger Reference 3.5 was far more involving in the upper bass and low midrange. Acoustic instruments had the type of transient impact usually only heard live, sitting up front in a club and listening to unamplified instruments.

Part of the reason for this sound quality is the seamless clarity you get from a minimalist crossover design. Gallo has chosen drivers -- especially the mid/tweeter assembly -- whose frequency response naturally rolls off at the right levels to avoid the harmful effects of extensive crossover parts. Rabid audiophiles who constantly search for Lowther-styled single-driver nirvana might find a lot to like about Gallo’s Reference 3.5 or Strada. The Gallos need a bit more amplifier power, but the Lowther’s characteristic transparency is neatly mirrored in Gallo’s Reference 3.5s.

Of course, that should be no surprise. Gallo’s first commercial product was a single-driver, one-way system that was astonishingly transparent. He’s got the single-driver sound in his blood -- and in his product line, in the forms of the A’Diva and Nucleus Micro models.

Another thing the Gallo Reference series has always offered is dazzling appearance. Some might disagree, but to me, the Reference 3.5 is one of the most attractive speakers made, with a beautiful combination of Scandinavian simplicity and modern American engineering. This speaker managed to look good in a Las Vegas hotel suite; put a pair of them in a clean, stylish, well-designed house, whether in modern, contemporary, Tuscan, French, or traditional American style, and they’ll look fine. The more modern the house, the more they’ll blend in; the older the style, the more they’ll make a statement. Either way, the Reference 3.5 has the looks of a classic design, and should delight any spouse, however picky.

Finally, you get 16 years of continually proven, and improving, Gallo quality. The man builds well-engineered, dependable products that do what they should. I have two models in my home from his current collection and wholeheartedly recommend both. I use a Reference AV Center in my home theater, where I have only a limited amount of space to dedicate to a center-channel speaker. While I believe that the best speaker array for a home theater comprises five or seven identical speakers, I can’t afford a setup like that when my main two front speakers are ATC SCM50As. For those of you who can afford to spend a mere $75,000 to $100,000 on speakers, congratulations -- I highly recommend an array of ATCs. You’d be in good company: Pink Floyd, Tom Petty, the Rolling Stones, Doug Sax, Bob Ludwig, Abbey Road, Sony, PolyGram, Telarc, Warner Bros., and Naxos all use them. But I could afford the Gallo Reference AV Center, which shares the ATC’s razor-sharp imaging, transparent sound, and powerful transient attack.

In my recording and listening studio I use a Gallo TR-3 sub, which beautifully complements my Digidesign RM2 Reference Monitors, an active design engineered by PMC. The Digidesign’s frequency response is essentially flat in my room, so adding the TR-3 was a snap -- and the system plays as loudly as I’d ever want.

What you get for $6000

Those who’ve spent time with any of the earlier iterations of the Nucleus Reference 3, the 3.0, or 3.1, will have to spend some time listening to the 3.5 to know what they’re getting for their extra money. The fact that the Reference 3.5 is visually nearly identical to the 3.1, which cost only about half as much, apparently troubles some folks.

Of course, the important issue is not how the 3.5’s price compares to the older model but how it compares with other speakers at anywhere near the new price. I believe that the 3.5 is competitive with many speakers costing upward of $20,000/pair; how many of those manufacturers think nothing of making minor changes to the crossover and adding $3000 to their price? Gallo gives us a lot more than minor changes.

What’s new in the Nucleus Reference 3.5 isn’t immediately apparent. The most expensive driver in the speaker is the CDT3 tweeter, and it’s better in drawing less attention to itself, both physically and aurally. It’s more coherent in its aesthetic consistency with the dual 4" carbon-fiber mids, and does an even better job of disappearing into the soundstage.

Bass lovers will appreciate the new, more efficient 10" ceramic-coated aluminum woofer. In the earlier Reference 3s, using a separate amp for the woofers was vital. Adding the amp to the older models kicked the response down to the low end of the 20-30Hz range. In my room, the Nucleus Reference 3.5 easily dealt with frequencies below the lowest note of a double bass, but it missed the lowest thrummm of the bass drum. If you’re driving the 3.5s with a low-power amp, adding a second amp for the woofers might give you an extra 5-10Hz of extension down low. Anthony Gallo recommends and demonstrates his speakers using a single, high-powered amp.

The next improvement is in the Optimized Pulse Technology (OPT) Level 2 system. I have to admit that this sounds to me a little like subtle voodoo, but it seems to work. Gallo uses a small lead from the hot terminal to the speaker’s main body which, he says, ensures strict timing relationships between all system transducers in the electrical domain. (I don’t understand it either.)

Finally, in the four years since the launch of the Nucleus Reference 3.0, the value of the US dollar has declined and the prices of imported goods have risen. Thus, Gallo must now pay more for his raw materials, and that cost is passed along to the customer.

New sound for your money

Other reviewers, especially those who are Lowther fans, have evaluated the Nucleus Reference 3.5 with low-powered amps, but I think they need at least 100Wpc. I used them with the Anthem Statement A5, conservatively rated at 180Wpc; this produced an open sound with no sense of high-level compression. The Gallos can be positioned with their woofers facing toward or away from each other. The former produces more midbass, the latter less. First try pointing the woofers inward; if the sound is a little thick in the upper bass and lower midrange, try them the other way.

While I’d never owned the Nucleus Reference 3 model before, our own Jim Saxon owned a pair of 3.0s and reported that "they had two limitations that hectored me into selling them: 1) they self-protected in silence on sustained loud passages, and 2) they imaged too low, causing me to ‘look down’ at the performers." Love that word, hectored. What I can report is that the 3.5s never caused any sort of protection to trip, and they imaged like champs.

The opening of Giuseppe Patané’s recording of Arrigo Boito’s opera Mefistofele (CD, Sony Classical S2K 44983) is among the loudest music in the entire classical realm. As the forces of good sing their hearts out, praying for Faust’s soul in his bet with the devil, you can get a glimpse of what Heaven must really look like. Any speaker trying to cope with these forces needs to be able to play loud and long, and the Reference 3.5s lived to tell the tale. I missed the savage, house-rattling bass that my reference B&W CT SW15 subwoofer provides. I mean, Heaven needs some help to counter Mefistofele’s promises of riches, long life, and naked women.

Fink’s Sort of Revolution (CD, Ninja Tune ZENCD146P) is one of my favorite releases of 2009, and a good example of a radio-friendly recording that also sounds great on a top-flight audio system. In the title song, Fink’s nylon-string guitar and weary voice came through so clearly I could feel his pain and pleasure, and the bass through the Gallos would please even such dubmeisters as Keith Hudson or Scratch Perry. To get this sound before would have required the addition of a big sub amp. Not now.

Though the improvement is subtle, the new tweeter has also made the sound more coherent. Conductor Andrew Litton is an audiophile who has sunk more cash into his stereo system than he would like his wife to know about. That’s where he checks the quality of his own recordings, and he has a keen ear. His recording, with the Bergen Philharmonic, of the three suites from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet (CD, BIS 1301) has both subtlety and power, and is simple and lucid enough to be a fine test of a stereo system. The ability of the Gallo’s CDT3 tweeter to be at one with the speaker’s midrange drivers let me see just that bit deeper into the soundstage.

Whether or not listeners were able to use audiophile jargon to describe what about a music system appealed to them, no one who listened to the Gallos in my room missed its incredible vanishing act -- the effect was not subtle. No one had to sit there, eyes closed, and struggle to hear tiny cues that the sound really was accurate. Everyone heard it.

Is it worth your money?

One of the best pieces of information a person can glean from Statistics 101 is the concept of the asymptotic curve: As one thing increases, so does another, albeit at a much lower rate -- in other words, diminishing returns. We see this every day in our search for quality music and home-theater gear. There is a point at which a 100% increase in cost brings a 100% increase in quality, but usually, the next 100% increase in cost yields only a 50% increase in quality. The next 100% price hike may offer only a 25% quality increase. Etc.

These Gallo Nucleus Reference 3.5 loudspeakers hit the curve at the perfect place. Of course, each of us defines quality differently; someone who makes $50 million a year might be willing to pay more money for a just-noticeable difference in quality than someone making $50,000/year.

Four years ago, when the Nucleus Reference 3.1 came out, I told anyone who would listen that it was a bargain at twice the price. I was wrong. The 3.5 is twice the price, but as good a speaker as most people will ever need. In the opinions of most people it probably won’t outperform the Jeff Fritz-approved Rockport Technologies Arrakis ($165,000/pair), but the Anthony Gallo Acoustics Nucleus Reference 3.5 is as close to the state of the art of loudspeaker technology as most of us will ever need. Bravo.

. . . Wes Marshall

Anthony Gallo Acoustics Nucleus Reference 3.5 Loudspeakers
Price: $6000 USD per pair.
Warranty: Five years parts and labor with registration.

Anthony Gallo Acoustics
20841 Prairie Street
Chatsworth, CA 91311
Phone: (800) 459-4183
Fax: (818) 341-2188

Website: www.roundsound.com