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Reviewer: Ken Micallef
Digital Source: McIntosh MVP 861 universal player, McCormack UDP-1 universal player
Analog Source: Kuzma Stabi/Kuzma Stogi turntable/arm combo
Preamp: Shindo Monbrison
Amp: BAT VK-75 (equipped with Tungsol and Raytheon VT-231s, RCA 5692s)
Speakers: DeVore Fidelity 7.1 [in for review], DeVore Fidelity Gibbon 8 [on loan]; Gallo Ref 3 [on follow-up review]
Cables: Stealth PGSX and 3D ICs, 3MLT Hybrid speaker cables [in for review]; Auditorium A23 speaker cables [on loan], Crystal Cables Micro ICs and Micro speaker cables [in for review]
Stands: Salamander 5.0 rack, 2" Mapleshade platforms (8" x 15" x 2"), Blue Circle custom amp stand (for BAT)
Powerline conditioning: BPT Model BP-3.5 Signature Ultra Isolator for digital components and turntable, JPS Kaptovator and JPS Power AC power cords, Shunyata Black Mamba and Anaconda Vx Powersnake
Sundry accessories: Mapleshade Surefoot and Heavyfoot brass points and IsoBlocks; 8 x) RPG ProFoam damping panels/ceiling treatment, Mapleshade Ionoclast for static cling, HALO-O Tube Dampers
Room size: 24' x 12' with 10-13' sloped ceiling, short-wall setup
Review component retail: $2,599/pr | $900 for amp

When 6moons master blaster Srajan asked if I would like to pen the follow-up review to Anthony Gallo's already acclaimed Ref 3s, I reacted along the lines of "surely you jest, keymosahib of the great Taos hinterlands. Not? Then bring 'em on!" Little did I know that release of the speakers' other half -- the optional Reference 3 SA bass amp/xover --
would take many more moons and the sourcing of a truly quiet whisper fan before a final production unit became available. This allowed me time to become very familiar with the speakers sans the extra amperage that would eventually fire up their second pair of woofer voice coils. Much gear came and went through my rig in the months that followed. All of it tested the Gallos' ability to match with various digital sources and to compare them to other, more conventionally designed speakers. Would the Ref 3s ultimately even need the extra woofage to make mighty music? Or was the second voice coil a design feature better left to the home theater crowd? Read on.

Right off the bat -- or out of the box -- it took a while to find the appropriate set of interconnects and speaker cables to make the Gallos sing. My previous speakers were the Proac 2.5s, a deliberately warmish speaker voiced for musicality. When mated to the BAT VK-75 tube amp, the complementary treble energy, amazing speed and lean balance of the Omega Mikro cables worked like a synergistic charm. With the Gallos, this cable recipe was clearly wrong. Bass was either too rotund or MIA. Or, the treble was disconnected from the rest of the proceedings and the midrange oddly sucked out and shallow. This naturally led me to reevaluating my entire cabling complement. It's an ongoing saga. So out with the old bass-shy, treble-lifted and somewhat zippy Omega Mikros, in with evaluation wires from Auditorium 23, Stealth Audio and Crystal Cable. They are all excellent products with different sonic virtues (and the latter two in for review). They now allowed the Gallos to approach the superior level of sonics that the reviews had assured me would fill my listening room. For specs on both the speakers and bass amp, I refer you to Srajan's original writeups. [Like Ken's review model, the current generation of Ref3s eliminates the earlier +/-2dB treble contour switch - Ed.]

Sweet spot?
The Ref 3s (without the bass amp) were reasonably easy to set up, fitting comfortably into the same spot that my former Proac 2.5s had occupied: approximately six feet from the back wall, with the listening position five feet out from the speakers and another five-or-so feet behind me leading to an exposed brick wall. I found that the Ref 3s definitely needed more power to kick into high gear than my old 7-inch 2-way Proacs, making me think the Gallos' 88dB-rated sensitivity is spot on. I played around with toe-in and still do though my room seems to favor the Gallos firing straight ahead. More difficult to figure out was the horizontal angle at which these time-aligned speakers should fire. The Ref 3's four adjustable round metal feet allow for infinite fine-tuning. Pitched too parallel to the floor and the Ref3's tweeter aimed
well below my ears to sound dead and shut in. Aimed too high and the speaker took on an airy, overly ethereal quality that lacked any degree of low-end thump. Once dialed in, I still felt the speakers ultimately favored upper register excitement over low-end heft or boogie or that kind of supersonically illustrated, tightly defined bass you hear in some floorstanders. The crowning
achievement of the Ref 3s clearly is that amazing tweeter. It portrays treble information in a 3-dimensional way that I have heard from only a very few speakers. The tweeter's wonderfully spatial presentation coupled with the speaker's midrange presence created tactile and palpable images with complete heads, hands and feet displayed in real time and space. I simply could not refuse the Ref 3s' very open sound and detailed imaging of mid-to-upper register sounds and its unvarying knack to disappear from my room and only leave the music.

There was no sense of sounds arising from left or right channels - unless specific material dictated it from the mix as such. Images and soundstaging were as apt and fleshy as a 20-something cleavage, completely believable and virtually liberated from the speaker's radical looking enclosure ("Mystery Science 2000 scare machines", my girlfriend punned upon their arrival). The Ref 3s also portrayed depth of field quite well, with a well-recorded source like AIX Records' The Latin Jazz Trio [AIX 80011] revealing all the acoustics of the studio's ambient space.

Mark Waldrep's AIX Records is producing some of the finest DVD/A discs around. Having all routine aspects of mixing, recording and mastering executed with a keen eye and ear for the smallest of details results in the most live and natural-sounding high-resolution recordings I have heard. [I heartily second Ken's opinion. AIX is sonically at the very top of the hi-rez genre - Ed.] Featuring pianist David Garfield, percussionist Luis Conte and bassist David Carpenter, The Latin Jazz Trio disc is an all-acoustic outing. Conte's excellent percussion effects add an extra element of excitement and become a source for easy audio focus (and fanaticism). Conte's bell chimes, egg shakers, congas and cymbals sounded absolutely alive in "Mujaka". Garfield's piano rode a train of left-hand pulsations and upper-register ease in Horace Silver's relaxed "Song For My Father". With my BAT amp driving the Gallos, Carpenter's upright bass, while sounding full, fat and deep, never socked me in the old Gulliver. The tension wasn't quite there - a feeling that's almost more intellectual than emotional, of finely articulated notes diving deep and planting you to the seat, every chordal movement and neck run exposed and illustrated. All manner of drums resonated with life and the sound bouncing against the studio's walls was quickly apparent but the lowest notes of the acoustic bass did lack ultimate impact and weight. This jibed with the specified 40Hz roll-off for the sealed alignment in the tiny enclosure. I kept the woofers firing outward, finding the overall sound to be clearer and more forceful. In due fairness, I also wondered whether the somewhat lightweight bass wasn't attributable to this particular DVD/A disc.

Next I dropped in bassist Dave Holland's Grammy-winning big band CD, What Goes Around [ECM 1777]. Aha. Here the bass sounded stickier and more tightly wound, with a greater sense of presence. While it still didn't quite match the extension of the speaker's upper registers, the bass was much more in the game now and a real blast to follow. The Gallos conveyed the disc's raunchy baritone sax and jumping tom sounds with force, snap and good tonality. All of the components of the big band -- the swirling brass and crisscrossing rhythms, the splashy cymbals and shouting trumpets -- were clearly delineated in a big, rich soundstage that simply felt good.

There was still an air of upper register etherealness at times, a certain lightness of character. This illumination was mostly enjoyable and the imaging was -- again -- to
die for. Then I remembered that the speaker was also designed with home theater in mind. The tweeter's ability to spread the signal all across the room at 300 degrees of dispersion will certainly benefit effects sounds and extreme panning and while serious listeners might shy away from such sonic gimmickry, I could not resist it. I really enjoyed the sheen of cymbals and guitars, percussion, vocals and piano all charging the air around me like supercharged particles. Other listeners might resist this kind of energetic propulsion of the music but I completely fell for the Gallos' charms and am seriously contemplating buying them.

Bass buster me quiver
Still without the bass amp, I played electronic music in the form of film composer David Arnold's Shaken And Stirred [Sire 31011]. That's a collection of James Bond classics revisited by popular late-90s artists such as Aimee Mann, Pulp and the Propellerheads. Arnold's "Diamonds are Forever" is a thunderous performance of shouting brass and titanic, earthshaking synth tones so powerful and deep I have only heard a giant pair of Wilson speakers reproduce them without choking. The Gallos made much music of the disc but expectedly, this bass proved almost too much for them. They got the notes right and the warmth and tremendous wobble of the colliding synth frequencies but the absolute edge of the

notes I remember from the Wilsons was lacking. However, the sound more than filled the room and the bass for the most part sounded appropriately deep and fat. It just lacked ultimate definition. [For comparison's sake, my reference tube amps don't generate enough current for that low-frequency leading edge into those 10-inch woofers either. However, the 1000-watt into 4-ohm ICEpower amps are truly shocking in that regard. At least in my space, they could well render the addition of the bass amp redundant. The same would probably hold true for a more affordable Bryston or McCormack amp - Ed.]

I next felt like some Brazilian music so I played Ellis Regina's early '60s masterpieces, O Bem Do Amor and Ellis Regina, both on Columbia. The Gallos captured the music's lilting arrangements and Regina's graceful voice perfectly. All of this added up to a very transporting experience. More upbeat tracks exhibited that early '60s' studio practice of exaggerated echo and tinkling cocktail piano. The Gallos tracked everything fast, pure and tonally truthful to the recording. These romantic recordings -- mastered simply to two tracks with all-tube gear used in the recording chain -- exhibited a lustrous purity that proved simply irresistible.

Getting all knobby (or not)
Adjusting the various settings on Gallo's Reference 3 bass amp to find its ultimate place in my system became both a frustrating and fulfilling experience. The amp offers pots for left and right gain, left and right phase, crossover and bass boost. Best settings for my small listening room were to leave phase untouched at 0, crossover set to 90Hz, bass boost to +3dB and the left and right gain to about 10:30. Unlike all the other settings (which can be tuned with a fingernail), the gain knobs have no clearly marked gradations of adjustment. Thus there is no way to set them absolutely in unison (a design flaw in my opinion). Why enable all other pots to be set precisely according to clearly marked gradations and not repeat those markings for the master gain settings? In general, I had to experiment with the various adjustment settings of low-pass frequency, boost, phase and gain quite a bit to find a sound I was ultimately set-and-forget happy with. Some folks might like to twiddle endlessly from disc to disc but that's not me.

With the bass amp in the mix, The Latin Jazz Trio sounded more present and images in general became more sharply defined. Now you must know that my room suffers a minor suck-out around 100Hz.
With a 90Hz low-pass, this filled out perfectly but naturally, the low bass suffered a bit so I backed the crossover down to the 40Hz region. Now I could hear the low, rubbery notes of the acoustic with more clarity if not more projection. The relative lightness, I finally determined, was really more attributable to the disc than the speakers because there now was certainly more detail and even greater room ambience with the bass amp set to fill in below the Ref3s' acoustical roll-off. However, I wasn't sure I cared for the overall change in tonality. That was slight but still noticeable. Because of my room, the Gallo amp made me work to find its sweet spot in the big picture. My room is covered in carpets and ceiling treatment so the sound is already warm overall. Given a choice between ultimate resolution of treble frequencies and hearing the kind of low notes that make for a complete sonic picture, I will go for (off?) the deep end every time. The Gallos had plenty of low-end romance but it was not quite as special as the speaker's treble character. Once I finally nailed it, however, the low end did become more defined and focused, the midrange seemed to have more depth and information while the tweeter kept on going, its highly illuminated character completely unchanged. The sound with the bass amp was certainly not a night and day difference but appropriately more subtle. The low notes of the acoustic bass became more taut and articulate and the soundstage gained greater overall depth, height and focus but again, the differences were not enormous nor should they have been.

The Holland Big Band disc sounded as rich and warm as before but image edges were now better defined and carved out in space. In general, there was more major ass kicking taking place, more power pumping from the big-band booty. Midway through the first track of the Holland disc, the bassist jockeys between the low and high notes on the neck. Without the bass amp, those notes sounded boomy and unclear - they didn't speak well and made a little hoofing sound. With the bass amp, the acoustic bass notes became much clearer and resolved as did the walking bass line that follows. The increased high-current solid-state power simply added up to more overall drive, projection, slam and resolution though finding just the perfect setting where I could optimize these performance gains was difficult. Too much bass volume created bass soup. Ditto for the bass boost feature. Kept too low and the music would dry up. Pushed too high and I was in the land of phony home theater. After a period of leaving the bass amp settings untouched, I moved the crossover point back to 90Hz and the midrange sprang to life. It allowed for more top-to-bottom coherence, filling in that area of depression my room creates. This overlap also created an aura of increased Hifi sound but the newfound richness and immediacy of the midrange was hard to resist. The bass naturally was no longer pumping in quite the same depth-charge fashion as before since I had fattened up the midbass but the music was more accurate overall.

The amazing flexibility of the Anthony Gallo Acoustics Reference 3speakers and Reference 3 SA bass amp/xover combo put me through many changes. But tweaking for perfection is work and one shouldn't complain that custom tools provide more options. These speakers were a marvel of "information overload" and I mean that in the very best sense of the phrase. They presented a soundstage any serious listener could make a home in, the music spreading out so far and wide as to practically engulf Manhattan. Well, let me rephrase that. The Ref 3s presented tactile images with much illumination and focus, particularly in the treble area where the sound simply reached out and touched me - all over. The speakers practically disappeared, the polar opposite of the common boxy sound we attribute to poorly designed conventional enclosures. The Ref 3s soared but their bass response with my tube amp was ultimately not as splendiferous as their midrange and treble presentation and I didn't have a hi-current transistor main amp on hand to experiment with. Weight and depth were not a problem but traction on the road was not as evident as with some tube-friendlier speakers I've heard. Of course, did those certain speakers sell for anywhere near $2600/pr? Well no - but since we're picking nits here, there ya go.

Adding the Reference SA to the equation was not quite the no-brainer some might think or I might have expected. I had to really play with its settings to find the spot where its bounteous array of adjustments made sense in the big picture. Once I did, the improvements were welcome if not extraordinary. You could experiment with this amp forever to
tweak the bass, massage the crossover and never find sanity. Or perhaps this flexibility is a tweaker's fantasy for those made of sterner stuff? After toying with the available adjustments, power and projection increased as did overall definition - but was the sound unequivocally better with the bass amp than without it? I suggest that if you seriously consider these speakers to test them as did I (if that's possible): Run them solo for a few months and then add the bass amp to see what changes are wrought. Incidentally, the amp made a greater difference in my small room than it did in the much larger one of friend and Gallo owner Steve Yagerman. Go figure. But one thing is clear. For the current asking price of $2600/pr (and how long that price can stand unchanged seems questionable), you practically owe it to yourself -- if only this once -- to believe the reviews and check out what they're talking about.

In closing, the Gallo Acoustics Ref3 is one special speaker. Though I am a cautious reviewer by nature, I found that the Ref 3's ability to project a soundstage totally free of the enclosure while offering outstanding detail, palatable images and excellent midrange-to-treble coherency at such an outstanding price makes it into a groundbreaking product. In freeing the music from the standard box, Anthony Gallo offers listeners the kind of transparency and room-filling dynamics usually only found in more expensive speakers. I had difficulty integrating the bass amp with the speakers to my liking. Part of that lies with the myriad settings available and the degree to which one must go to balance the amp with one's room (or at least my room). Some will enjoy the endless tweaking available with the SA amp, I am less enamored of such fiddling. But after adjusting the amp to a point I was happy with, it added a degree of soundstage weight that was perhaps more felt than heard and, most definitely, a midrange thrust and focus that allowed greater insight into the music. You don't want to spend additional money on the amp? No problem, the Ref 3s sound great without it. In fact and in my narrow room, I may even prefer the speakers without it. The Ref3s are definitely on the shortlist of speakers I am considering for my own setup and as such, highly recommended. So give that man another Blue Moon!
Anthony Gallo comments:
Having personally delivered the review pair to Ken to take the opportunity to hear the Ref3s in a different environment again, I appreciate his tough choices between the 40Hz and 90Hz low-pass positions. When he asked me to sit in his chair, I too noticed a bass null in the 80-100Hz band. When we designed the feature set of the SA amp, we faced the usual dilemma of offering more or less choices. More flexibility offers better adaptability to a higher number of variables but by the same stroke, it can also offer more user insecurities. In the end, we opted for dual-mono controls to accommodate also those occasional situations where a left/right imbalance in a setup enforced by decor or room layout requires some corrective measures.

Ken's BAT tube amp is a wonderful device but when it comes to the low bass transients of which Ken as a drummer is rightly fond of, I suspect the BAT may simply not generate sufficient current for such results. As Srajan noted in his review, his 8wpc push/pull MiniMax tube amp can drive the Ref3s to satisfying levels but it certainly loses out in bass control. The high-current ICEpower amps he's currently reviewing or the high-power Spectron digital amp I've been using are true champs in that regard. This is a reminder that it's perhaps more important to first find the best amplifier for the full-range input of the Ref3s without relying too much on the bass augmentation amp to address certain performance parameters.

Anthony Gallo
Manufacturer's website