— by John Richardson
It’s not easy being green, or so says Kermit the Frog. I suppose that he means being different can be tough, but then again, Kermit is also famous (and presumably wealthy, as least as frogs go). Whatever the case, it takes guts to deviate from the norm and do something differently, whether it’s marching to the beat of one’s own drum, being the yin to everyone else’s yang, or whatever. I believe most of us have a bit of that rebel-with-a-cause mentality. I remember as a kid preferring mustard to ketchup on my sandwiches only because everyone else liked ketchup.
So it goes with Anthony Gallo, head of Gallo Acoustics, who designs and builds a decidedly different kind of speaker. I recall years ago seeing advertisements for Anthony’s “eyeball” speakers and being intrigued as they looked so different from anything else out there at the time. When we think of normal speakers, we tend to think of drivers organized on the front baffle of a wooden box. Or maybe the large, flat panels associated with electrostatic designs. Either way, such approaches more or less define the norm for what speaker design means to most of us.
What’s the deal then with Mr. Gallo and his designs? Stepping over to his company’s website provides some insight. Apparently, the two major design breakthroughs behind the company’s success have been the thin-film cylindrical 180 degree radiating tweeter and carbon fiber dynamic drivers housed in inert, ceramic-like spherical housings. It’s exactly these two design components melded into one speaker that define the primary subject of this review: Gallo’s Strada 2 monitor speakers ($999 apiece). Also along for the ride is Anthony’s top-of-the-line cylindrical subwoofer, the TR-3 ($995). And let me tell you right now that together these components make up a pretty formidable speaker system, one of those rare combinations where the sum of the whole towers above its individual parts.
Looking through the various speaker designs offered by Gallo, I discovered that the Strada 2 model falls into the Reference Line, which appears to be a nice, middle-of-the-road option cost-wise. I’d say that this line probably hits the sweet spot value-wise as well, as the Stradas capture the full design essence of Gallo Acoustics. Indeed, the speakers are sold individually at $999 apiece, so the buyer has the option to order as many or as few as he or she needs. Want a six-channel home theater setup made up exclusively of Stradas? No problem. How about a simple two-channel desktop configuration? Gotcha covered… Even add a subwoofer or two for ultimate effect if the spirit so moves you. The sky’s the limit as far as options go, and that’s really cool. Start simple and get bigger over time if you’re on a budget, for instance. The system I got, consisting of a pair of Strada 2 speakers augmented with a single TR-3 subwoofer would suit the standard two-channel audio nut such as myself just fine, thank you very much, all at a cost just south of three grand.
Look Into My Eyes
Before I get into the setup and performance of the system itself, let’s take a closer look at the technology and design of the individual speakers themselves. I’ll start with the Strada 2 “eyeball” monitors. Taking a casual gander, one sees something that looks like an old-fashioned telephone receiver. Yep, the type that had the coiled springy thingy that kept it attached to the telephone itself. If you are under 30, you might want to find a picture of such an antique communication device so you can see what I’m talking about. Of course, when I took one of the Stradas out of its packaging, I just had to hold it up to my ear and “answer” it. My teenage kids looked clueless, and my wife was not amused.
Looking directly at the speakers, one notes a pair of 4-inch midrange drivers encased in the “eyeball” enclosures sandwiching the curved tweeter in a typical D’Appolito driver configuration. That’s about where the comparison to a typical box-type speaker ends, primarily because there is no box or cabinet to speak of. Straight-on the drivers look pretty much naked, but that’s not the case; the mids are really encased in attractive spherical stainless steel holders — the “eyeballs.” Holding the two “eyeballs” together is a minimal but nicely constructed bit of aluminum casework nestling the tweeter assembly in place.
A few words about the tweeter are in order here, as it’s a pretty unique device. As I mentioned previously, it’s actually composed of a thin piezoelectric film stretched across a semi-cylindrical support to aid in improved dispersion. As I found out later, it doesn’t employ a crossover, as the tweeter itself rolls off gently toward the midrange, whose drivers naturally stretch up to meet it. I like this idea, as it dispenses with electrical components such as resistors, capacitors, and inductors, which can affect the sound, either by adding coloration or phase effects that just aren’t natural. Doing without seems like a great idea, as long as we can get away with it, as simpler is usually better when it comes to these sorts of things.
All of the drivers are nicely protected with a sturdy black anodized wire mesh, which will most certainly be appreciated by those of us who have kids, pets, and housekeepers. My pair also came with rather tall, pillar-like stands meant to get the tweeters close to ear level. Other options include desktop stands as well as wall-mounting brackets. Altogether this is a minimalist but very cool looking setup, appearing quite modern in its own way. My wife, who rarely comments on any audio gear passing through the house, definitely liked the way these looked in our somewhat modern living room.
The speakers themselves are directly coupled to the stands with pairs of Allen bolts. Herein lay my only real gripe: the stands sort of blocked access to the binding posts on the rear of the speakers such that banana connectors were definitely out of the question. Small spades would probably work fine, but I ended up going with bare wire connections, which took up the least amount of space possible. Further, it would be decidedly difficult to get a thick pair of speaker cables hooked up to these guys with the rear of the speaker butted up with minimal offset against the stand.
The TR-3 subwoofer was equally intriguing. It’s quite small and tubular in form, standing on four squat legs that makes it look sort of like a piglet or overfed dachshund. I kind of wanted to attach a little head to one end and a squiggly tail to the other just for effect. Even without such accoutrements, this little thing is cute! But don’t let cute fool you, as it packs some seriously big, deep sound. Housed in that tubby little piglet body is a 10” dynamic ceramic/aluminum cone bass driver powered by an internal 300 watt class D amplifier, so this sub means business. This little piggy can bite! I also greatly appreciated the almost infinite adjustments available on the rear panel. These include potentiometers for adjustment of master output level and low-pass cutoff filtering, as well as switches for phase inversion, bass boost, and power on/off. Line in and line out options were provided as gold-plated RCA jacks.
Breaking In… Or Am I Breaking Down?
Once I took receipt of the speaker system, I separated the parts out into two systems. The Stradas went into my small downstairs living room system, and the subwoofer went into my attic big rig system. My intention was to break the various components in individually before mating them back together as they were intended for review. And here is where I got yet another lesson in component compatibility, as we shall soon see.
While everything went just honky-dory with the subwoofer up in the attic feathered in and playing nice with a pair of Fritzspeakers Rev 7 monitors, I just couldn’t get the Strada 2s to sound good on their own. Well, that’s sort of an understatement. They really sounded like crap. Now this I sort of expected, at least initially, as a friend in the know had advised me to put a lot of hours on those carbon fiber drivers before I made any serious judgements. I did exactly that, putting tons of music of all types through the speakers, day and night, for several weeks. While I noted some improvements over time, the sonic signature never really changed… What I was hearing was no real bass (not surprising), weak, threadbare, uninvolving midrange, and somewhat forward and spitty treble; in short, a total lack of integration of the normal regions of the audible spectrum. Again, my wife, who never comments on audio gear, went out of her way to remind me how bad these things sounded. When I asked her to be specific, she mentioned exactly the same shortcomings I had noted. At least I knew I wasn’t losing my hearing or going crazy. Maybe the Stradas just weren’t close enough to the rear walls to get any bass reinforcement. Or maybe the speakers and my amp just weren’t getting along and playing nice. My amplifier downstairs is a Virtue Audio Sensation M-451, which is a Tripath design that puts out about 18 watts per channel into 8 ohms. I’ve had this amplifier for some time, and it has always sounded good with any speakers I’ve mated it with, especially those of decent sensitivity like the Stradas. Just as I had gotten a few good weeks of painfully pushing music through the Stradas with the Virtue amp and had begun thinking about how I would explain this travesty to Mr. Hull, I decided it was finally time to move the Stradas up to the attic listening room and try powering them with a different amp.
To make a long story short, I’m glad I finally made that change. Once I hooked the Stradas up to my REDGUM RGi60ENR integrated amp, what I got was a totally different animal. The speakers not only sounded good, they sounded damn good! I’ll just have to go with the assumption that there was an unexpected but severe lack of synergy between the Stradas and the Virtue Audio amp, and I’ll leave it at that. Be warned folks: system synergy really does matter, so when possible, try before you buy.
Finally, On To The Real Listening
When you first unpack and hook up your minty new Gallo speaker system, please, please do give your ears time to adjust. Let me explain using an example… I am a big fan of Shahinian speakers, which are famously (or notoriously) indirect in their presentation. For many years my speakers of reference have been Shahinian Compasses, which are non-conventional looking to say the least. These have angled, top-mounted baffles that house the bass/mid drivers and tweeters such that the sound emanates at roughly a 45 degree angle toward the vertical. What this means is that by the time the sound gets to me in the listening chair, it’s been bounced off the walls and ceiling, making for a very different presentation than one gets from a regular forward-firing set of drivers. I’ve had a bevy of regular box speakers with forward firing drivers come through my reference system lately for review, and every time I hook up my beloved Compasses, it takes a couple of days to get used to their sound again. Of course once I do, I’m back in love with them for the umpteenth time. So it also goes with the Gallo Stradas. There’s no box enclosing the drivers, and the tweeters have a tremendously wide dispersion. These speakers, upon first hearing, tend to sound as naked as they look, and this apparent sense of leanness, particularly through the lower midrange, takes some getting used to. The lack of a boxy wooden enclosure requires some adjustment on the part of our ears, but be patient, as the end result is definitely worth it.
Don’t get me wrong. I like box speakers and make sure to keep a few good sounding pairs around. Heck, my Shahinians are technically of the box variety. Such speakers tend to sound nice and romantic because the enclosure itself is never fully taken out of the sonic equation. Of course, there are companies (Wilson Audio comes to mind) that go to heroic and costly lengths to minimize boxy colorations, either by using extensive internal bracing and secret deadening materials on the interior, or by trying to employ very high-tech non-resonant materials for the enclosures themselves. When the enclosure does come into play, designers tend to fine tune it to play along with the drivers, adding a bit of romantic woodiness to the overall sound, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, especially when listening to acoustic works such as jazz and classical.
Now that I seem to be jumping the gun in describing the sound of these diminutive little monitors, let’s go ahead and jump in feet first. Once upstairs in the attic, I opted to set the Strada 2s up in a semi-nearfield configuration that has worked well for me with other stand mount speakers in the past. More specifically, they were set up in roughly an equilateral triangle with about seven feet of space between them and with each monitor the same distance from my listening chair. I began listening with no toe-in, but did end up directing the speakers more toward my listening position in order to get a bit more stable and meaty center image, especially with monophonic recordings. While I was at it, I went ahead and set up the TR-3 subwoofer as well. I ended up placing the sub next to my amp, maybe three or four feet behind the plane of the Stradas and offset a couple of feet to the left of center as referenced from my listening position. I set the subwoofer’s output level at about 50% and feathered it in somewhere between 80 and 100 Hz. I don’t have an SPL meter, so these adjustments were made totally by ear such that I could tell that the subwoofer was there, but that it never became overly conspicuous. The bass boost control was left at 0 dB.
One thing I can recommend right off the bat is that anyone looking at using the Stradas as their main system monitors will want to grab the subwoofer as well; just assume that it will be part of the system. If you want to use the Stradas as desktop speakers playing along with your computer, then using them alone might be just fine. The reality is that there just isn’t any real bass coming from the little guys on their own, and this should not be surprising giving their size. I mean, they really do look like satellite speakers. According to the Gallo website, the Stradas are flat to about 80 Hz, but I’m thinking this might actually be a bit generous, especially if you prefer to use them in the middle of a large room, away from room boundaries. However, with the TR-3 sub in place, this system became surprisingly robust sound-wise. What I got was a nice, full, reasonably fleshed out presentation that honestly surprised me just looking at the speakers themselves: they’re just so diminutive! No matter what I threw at them, be it small ensemble jazz, classic rock, or even full-tilt orchestral music, the Gallos were just plain (and surprisingly) satisfying. I might have noted a slight suck-out in the upper bass or lower midrange band of the spectrum, but this may have just been due to accurate reproduction showing itself as lack of coloration in that region.
As I mentioned earlier, this apparent lack of coloration and transparency take a bit of time to get used to, especially if you are accustomed to listening to regular dynamic speakers which tend toward “boxy” colorations. In fact, it’s a bit disconcerting at first, but hang with it for awhile and see what you think. There’s an initial feeling of leanness and speed that made the music, for want of a better term, almost feel “naked.”
Oh, and watch out for those macrodynamics as well. I didn’t expect a lot of dynamic punch from speakers this size, and didn’t have high hopes for my prized collection of symphonic works, but I found all that unwarranted. When the orchestra needed to sound big, it could; but when it backed off for quieter sections, all of the feeling and tenderness was still there, just as it should be. Loud seemed loud, and soft seemed appropriately soft in comparison. Sure, larger speakers can push more air and ultimately play louder and with more headroom, but I was quite pleased by what these little buggers could do, especially with the help of the TR-3.
Spatial re-creation was exemplary via the Stradas, as should be no surprise. Since there’s no baffle, and the drivers are pretty much hanging out there in space, there’s not much surface area to reflect or otherwise distort those sound waves. Couple that with the 180 degree dispersion of the tweeter, and these things image like gangbusters. They also throw a crazy wide and deep stereophonic soundstage, with the speakers themselves slinking into the background of nothingness like a severely scolded dog. You might see them, but you surely can’t audibly discern their locations. Try closing your eyes and pointing to the speakers themselves while they’re playing. Of course, you know where they are, so pretend that you’re pinning the tail on the donkey. They really do disappear.
“Eyeing” The Competition
Okay then, these Gallo Strada 2 speakers and TR-3 subwoofer are a pretty good team. How do they compare against some other favorites here in the Richardson attic/listening emporium? Conveniently on hand were two sets of speakers I really like: my Shahinian Compasses, which sell for something like $4500 new these days, and a review pair of Fritzspeakers REV 7 monitors ($2500 per pair). Given that the Strada/TR-3 ensemble goes for around $3000, it’s nice to compare it to speakers both a bit less and more expensive. When using both the REV 7s (see Scot Hull’s vignette of this wonderful monitor speaker here) and the Compasses, no subwoofer was employed, though both benefit from the use of one, as both push down to around 40 Hz as their lowest useful frequency ranges. Of course, the Compasses are floorstanding, while the Fritzes will need a good pair of stands, which will add several hundred more dollars to their ultimate cost.
Up front and center first were the Fritz REV 7s. These are very musical, medium-sized two-way stand mounts. Employing high quality drivers from ScanSpeak, the Fritzes have become recent favorites of mine. I decided to choose three very diverse music choices from which to glean my comparisons. One was an old sleeper that I recently rediscovered in my collection: The Upward Stream: Music of Russell Peck (CD, Albany, Troy 040). The first track on the disc, “The Glory and the Grandeur,” is a short concerto for orchestra and percussion that is a wonderful demonstration of vivid drum sound, as well as other percussion instruments such as marimba and bells. It also has some really huge dynamic swings. The opening of the work features wild pounding of what sound like war drums circling back and forth across the soundstage. In terms of dynamics, I thought the Fritz speakers were roughly equivalent to the Gallos, but offered noticeably more meat and timbre in the midrange, especially the lower midrange. While what the Gallos offered there didn’t necessarily leave me wanting for more, I’d have to say that I preferred the added oomph and flesh provided by the Fritzes, which contributed more to my musical enjoyment. It also helps that the REV 7s somehow avoid sounding too boxy and colored, though I appreciated the slightly improved speed, immediacy, and airiness of the Strada 2/TR-3 combo. My next choice was a jazz LP featuring Coleman Hawkins in what must have been one of his last recorded studio performances. It’s called Sirius (LP, Pablo 2310707, archived digitally at 24/96 resolution), and while not considered one of Hawk’s best outings, it’s still remarkable in the reproduction of the tonal and harmonic texture of the tenor sax. It’s also wonderful for assessing a speaker’s ability to re-create spatial cues. I typically use the cut “Sweet and Lovely” to see what a system can do in these areas. Through the Fritz REV 7s, each instrument occupied its own space in the three-dimensional soundstage, and the plucked bass exhibited very nice definition and attack, with just enough sustain to sound convincing. The saxophone also sounded gritty and a bit edgy, like an older man was playing it, but with a nice sense of air moving through the horn. Via the Gallos, I didn’t get quite as much burnish from the horn, which sounded like it had actually lost some weight, but I did sense excellent attack and decay, especially with the bass, with nothing left to chance when it came to snap and zing. Imaging was every bit as good as that provided by the REV 7s (which was excellent in its own right), if not superior, as I sensed a bit more air around the instruments. Again, the curved ribbon tweeters of the Stradas work wonders when it comes to reproducing spatial cues and a sense of air in the recording. My final musical choice is all about rocking out: Led Zeppelin’s “Celebration Day,” the well-known live stadium recording from the band’s 2007 reunion (24/48 resolution download, HDTracks). I love this recording because of its punch, realism, and the bursting excitement of the crowd present that day. I particularly like the bass, which is punchy, yet wooly and at times a bit undefined, but somehow exactly what I remember from attending similar live events in similar venues. “Polite” is not exactly an adjective we are looking for when playing this music back. Checking out the cut “Nobody’s Fault but Mine,” the REV 7s offered up a nicely coherent and exciting rendering of the event, which may have fallen just a tad on the “polite” side. Here, I think the immediacy, speed, and slightly naked austerity of the Gallo combo actually worked to the advantage of this music, as it cleaned up the massive swirling of sound and left things a bit more musically sorted. These Gallos do like live rock ‘n‘ roll, I’ve found.
For a final comparison, it’s on to the Shahinian Compasses, which in all honesty are at their best in the reproduction of acoustic jazz and classical. I’ll do them a favor and leave the “Celebration Day” cut out of the equation. In some ways, the Shahinians and Gallos share similar traits: both rely on wide dispersion and tend toward an almost diffuse sense of spaciousness. This is the “getting used to them” factor that I mentioned before that can be quite rewarding once, well, you get used to it. I will note that I had the Compasses placed a few feet farther back from my listening position than the other two sets of speakers, as they are meant to rely on room reflections. Listening to the Compasses after having had a series of more conventional speakers in my system was like putting on a comfortable and well broken-in pair of shoes, especially with music like Peck’s “The Glory and the Grandeur,” which is exactly what the Shahinians were built to best reproduce. What the Compasses gave me was a majestic, opulent, and entirely fleshed out upper bass and midrange that made strings, percussion, and brass sound just dreamy. Maybe the Compasses were a bit slower and less resolved in their presentation than the Gallos, but the harmonic texture, at least to me, made up for these possible shortcomings in terms of pure musical enjoyment and realism. I also felt that the Shahinians had an edge in terms of overall dynamics, but then again, they are transmission line floor standers capable of moving more air than the Gallo Stradas can. Likewise, I was impressed by the Shahinians’ ability to reproduce Coleman Hawkins’ horn; it sounded more like a real instrument than a facsimile of one. Again, it came down to that elusive texture that adds so much enjoyment to music reproduction.
Ultimately, what we as consumers end up deciding to purchase comes down to our individual listening preferences and maybe even the types of music we like to enjoy. Some of us may want a bit of euphonic coloration to enhance an otherwise dry recording; others of us may well prefer the truth and nothing less. I’d say that the Gallo Strada 2/TR-3 subwoofer combination ultimately falls into the latter camp. A bit on the lean and dry side at times, I still nonetheless found them to be satisfying and engaging on a musical level. Oh, and the things they do well — speed, soundstaging, imaging, and resolution to name a few — they do extremely well. Anthony Gallo and his team deserve kudos for going out on a limb and thinking outside of the literal and proverbial box. If they sound like your cup of tea, I’d say they are definitely worth checking out.
- Digital Source: Mac Mini using Channel D Pure Music playback software; Sound Devices USBPre2 usb to S/PDIF converter with YFS 5 V power supply; Antelope Zodiac DAC with YFS 18 V power supply
- Analog Source: Technics SP25 turntable with custom plinth, bearing, and platter by Applied Fidelity; modified Audio Technica AT 1009 tonearm; Shelter 901 cartridge
- Amplification: REDGUM RGi60ENR integrated amplifier
- Power Conditioner: Spiritual Audio VX-9
- Cables and Power Cords: Kimber, YFS, KingRex, REDGUM, Darwin Audio, Tel-wire
About the Author
John is also a professor of analytical chemistry and forensic chemistry consultant in his spare time when he isn’t listening to music or evaluating gear. He tries to fit in plenty of time to hang out with his two teenage kids, his lovely wife, and the family cat, though only the cat also seems to harbor audiophile tendencies. John also enjoys running, cycling, golfing, hiking, or just about any other activity that sucks up time and money.