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Reviewer: Srajan Ebaen
Financial Interests: click here
Source: Ancient Audio Lektor Prime, Yamamoto YDA-01, 1TB iMac with AIFF files via FireWire 800 into Weiss DAC2
Preamp/Integrated: Esoteric C-03 (transistor), ModWright DM 36.5 (valves)
Amplifier: FirstWatt J2 & F5, ModWright KWA 150, Octave MRE-130
Speakers: Gallo Strada & TR3 [on review]
Cables: Complete loom of ASI Liveline
Stands: ASI HeartSong - 2 x 3-tier stands, 2 x amp stands
Powerline conditioning: 1 x Walker Audio Velocitor S, 1 x Furutech RTP-6
Sundry accessories: Furutech RD-2 CD demagnetizer; Nanotech Nespa Pro; extensive use of Acoustic System Resonators, noise filters and phase inverters, Advanced Acoustics Orbis Wall & Corner units
Room size: The sound platform is 3 x 4.5m with a 2-story slanted ceiling above; four steps below continue into an 8m long combined open kitchen, dining room and office, an area which widens to 5.2m with a 2.8m ceiling; the sound platform space is open to a 2nd story landing and, via spiral stair case, to a 3rd-floor studio; concrete floor, concrete and brick walls from a converted barn with no parallel walls nor perfect right angles; short-wall setup with speaker backs facing the 8-meter expanse and 2nd-story landing.
Review Component Retail: $5.995/pr.

Once and future king?
The original Anthony Gallo Acoustics Reference 3.0 had been the most universally accoladed speaker in a long time. For once reviewers around the world agreed. They called it a breakthrough product, triumph, game changer, classic and more while heaping awards, Speaker of the Year and other distinctions upon it. When the model's discontinuation announcement finally hit, the entire remaining inventory—which normally would have lasted another six months—sold out in just three short weeks.

The hotly anticipated 2010 relaunch was surrounded by expectations, cynicism—the forum nay sayers touted nothing but greed—and doubt. Why the sudden negativity? It was about whether the serious price hike explained below would see itself counterbalanced by a significant performance increase to retain the original's nearly flamboyant ratio.

Glory. Complications. Demise. Resurrection.
This is the story of an overachieving product that sold for too little and tied expectations to a price that wasn't sustainable. Against that precedent, a cosmetically very similar product at now twice the tag might seem little more than fleecing the gullible. Gallo's customer relations department had furnished the back story early last year: "The Ref 3/3.1 has always been a profit under performer for Gallo especially when compared to industry-expected and accepted product margins.

"Everything in the 6moons article—Anthony Gallo Rides Again—explaining the 3/3.1 QC and cost challenges is valid. The single most contributing factor to the price difference between the Ref 3.0 and 3.5 is due to a jump in our costs for the cast aluminum stalk. To this day it has been a challenging assembly to manufacture consistently. It is the single most expensive component on the entire product.

"In the last 39 months (this was February 2009; Ed) Gallo Acoustics had accumulated and sent back to China a container load of 3/3.1s which failed cosmetic quality control in the US. A large percentage was related to inconsistencies regarding this stalk. Our PRC manufacturer acquires this part finished and ready for assembly from our local subcontractor.

"This supplier had always frowned upon producing this part. In light of the large batch of rejects we just returned for credit, they hit us with a 46% total price increase. Now they also claimed to have eaten costs from the start of the project, hence this increase was not open for negotiation. We tried sourcing other suppliers for this part. We were even willing to retool—a not inexpensive proposition at all—but nobody was willing to do it.

"If our manufacturer would have quoted us a higher cost from the very start, this issue would have never escalated. This particular spine assembly is cast as two vertical halves that are pinned together, then welded around the whole seam. After that, they are ground to make the unit appear as a single smooth continuous support structure. Afterwards it gets drilled and tapped at several locations; sent out for heat treatment to improve its structural rigidity; is powder coated; then sent back to the factory which proceeds with the final assembly. Even after five years, the rejection rate for this particular part remains higher than usual.

"The next production of Ref 3.1s would have had to retail at over $4500/pr for an unchanged product. The thought of discontinuing this speaker was very upsetting to us. So Anthony dug in to find an alternative. Enter the new Ref 3.5. There are added material costs which necessitate a $6000/pr retail. This includes—but is not limited to—a very expensive Dynamicap TRT Stealth bypass capacitor as well as a new composite base and new aluminum cone woofer.

"The new bezels between the midrange drivers and their spheres are machined stainless steel with a gasket to isolate vibration and keep a tight seal. This mandates a far more elaborate QC procedure to insure that all drivers are critically torqued before each speaker leaves our Chatsworth facility. There is an updated CDTIII tweeter which is the single most expensive driver in the whole product. If the major tooling hadn't already been paid for, we'd probably have shut down production on this Reference product now."

New & improved
. My review of the Strada reported on technical developments which filled the intervening year after the above statement was made. Together with my original article, the Strada review fully explains the OPT® and Level 2 OPT® advances which distinguish the new Reference 3.5 from its predecessors. Anyone familiar with the game of hifi knows about diminishing returns. A doubling of price very quickly fails to buy twice the performance or even half that. The Ref 3.5 thus can't be judged against its discontinued predecessor. The question must be whether at its new price, the improved version remains a competitive and perhaps even cheerleading product. What else can $6.000 buy today?

Let's quickly recap Gallo's technical solutions beyond the obviously challenging geometry of spheres, vertical cylinders and horizontal canisters cradling seamlessly in an angled metal spine for an assembler's nightmare. They are the paralleled custom 4-inch Carbon-fiber midranges; the filter-free proprietary hi-tech tweeter with 180° dispersion and massive surface area; a simple 1st-order series filter on the sealed sidefiring 10-inch woofer and midranges; a 2nd voice-coil woofer-direct input to extend response; an OPT® input; and decidedly full-range and high-output performance from a physically quite diminutive (35" short) loudspeaker.

The rationale for these solutions are acute timing and transient fidelity; minimization of diffractions; elimination of box talk colorations; and a broad sweet spot for a more social listening experience. On uncommon features, the Reference 3.5 remains as unique in its new spot as the earlier incarnations were in theirs. Depending on your response to the cosmetics, merely the wow or weird factor has worn off; and the extreme value proposition no longer is as keen as it once was. Six large are simply a different kettle of fish. Nobody appreciates this more than Anthony Gallo. It's squarely what delayed the relaunch. A very lengthy phone conversion made clear that he threw everything at improving the original to sweeten the bitter medicine which economics had imposed.

Anthony's major challenge was working within the dimensional constraints of the original. To avoid additional cost increases, the existing casts should be exploited. Refinements could not come from scaling up drivers or enclosure volumes. His mostly invisible work on the insides thus led to a very similar looking speaker. Its burden of proof about higher performance would rest on personal auditions alone. There were to be no outward changes which could predict performance advances.

The Reference 3.5 is thus quite the gamble. It rides on the success of its near legendary predecessor and fixes a good thing nobody thought broken. It faces cynicism about the new sticker. And it presents no visible assurances that it just might be an altogether superior performer. Was Anthony sweating reactions to the public launch now? All he permitted himself on that topic was "you have no idea".

For the rest of us bystanders not invested but quick with an opinion, the Ref 3.5 remains an unusual 'augmented widebander' concept if we mean a speaker with no electrical crossover above 120Hz. Unlike usual high-efficiency widebanders, Gallo's composite clone only sports an 88dB voltage sensitivity yet single-driver designs can't even dream of his CDIII tweeter's treble extension and off-axis response. Lest widebander invocation seems a stretch, our designer did confess in an earlier phone conversation to admiring the breed's transient accuracy, i.e. that instantaneous but unforced rightness which has all the timbral components of a sound line up and rise together. Optimized Pulse Technology—that's what OPT® stands for—is Anthony's response on the subject. It's his attempt to get that particular quality of single-driver widebander speakers without their compromised bandwidth, dynamics and nonlinear frequency response. His tightly compacted MTM cluster too gets as close to a wideband point source ideal as seems possible with three drivers.

For those lighter of wallet, a pair of Stradas with optional floor stands and one TR3 subwoofer come in at the price the Reference 3.1 last sold for. The Stradas are the 3.5 tops, the TR3 10-inch aluminum woofer is the same unit as in the 3.5. The threesome only makes mono bass but physically separates its bass maker from the 'widebander' modules. The Reference 3.5 adds a bit more air volume to the woofer and builds in perfect bass integration while the three-piece owner must carefully dial it in with TR3 placement and crossover controls.