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Reviewer: Srajan Ebaen
Financial Interests: click here
Source: iPod Classic 160GB with WAV (CD rips) and AIFF (iTunes stores) files
Amplifier: Peachtree Audio iDecco [on loan]
Speakers: Anthony Gallo Acoustics Strada [on review]
Cables: ALO Audio cryo-treated
Power delivery: Crystal Cable Ultra, Furutech RTP-6
Review Component Retail: See review

Mind the question mark. One man's ultimate is another's Mickey Mouse. That said, the desk top imposes limitations on acceptable speaker size, overall box count and, I should think, price. Those of us who work at the PC for a living won't get too much done if the audio there was big Wilsons at Maxell-ad levels. What's ultimate on the desk top is intrinsically scaled back compared to the hifi in the man den. Given that I do make my living from behind the screen; and that my ears are used to quality gear... what would be considered an ultimate desk-top system?

A $995 Peachtree Audio iDecco with a $495 iPod Classic 160B and a pair of $1.995/pr Anthony Gallo Acoustics Stradas. For full-range extension without a back wall, add a $995 Gallo TR-3 subwoofer. With a wall in close proximity, mount the Stradas to the wall instead and forget all about the subwoofer. My layout doesn't allow it though.

My setup at the moment adds the sleek $100 Sieben Technology iDock Gen 2 for when I don't run shuffle or repeat through specific lists (artists, albums, songs or playlists) but want hands-on scroll wheel selections. The sound from the fixed line output of the iPod clearly isn't as good as the digital-direct connection to the iDecco's Sabre converter. But, the iDecco remote at present lacks direct menu access. Convenience or best sound? This way I have both.

Wires are Ken Ball's cryo-treated ALO Audio leads which badly beat up on the Paul Speltz AntiCables I used before. My iPod files are obviously uncompressed WAV. A big secret with the Stradas I just recently learned concerns absolute polarity. Some CD players or preamps sport polarity inversion buttons. Most the time, I can't hear their effect at all. Bupkes. But - invert phase at the amplifier and now you're invoking Eduardo de Lima's Audiopax math of partial distortion cancellation between amp and speaker. One polarity will sound better—that's the theory and it's plausible—because the THD behavior of your amplifier and loudspeaker interact. One hookup increases THD while another exploits partial out-of-phase cancellation of the same distortion.

Even if it were just a 1% reduction, it's audible. With the Stradas and Ref 3.5s, it approaches seriously audible. Per Anthony Gallo, 70% of the amps he's tried require inverted polarity, meaning the plus/red lead of the speaker cable connects—only on the amp or integrated—to the minus/black post and vice versa.

It's a free tweak which takes no time to try. It's mandatory on the Gallos. In fact, anyone auditioning them should insist on hearing 'em both ways just to make sure. Now what qualifies the above iPod/iDecco/Strada chain as ultimate? A number of things. First, we're talking just three main components, none of them huge. In my rig, the Samsung SyncMaster 245B monitor sits atop the iDecco slightly off-center to clear the iPod dock. I have the screen high enough to just see the iPod's display from my seated position.

The Stradas are angled up to where the tweeter axis aims directly at my ears. The stands meanwhile decouple from the glass table top via Gallo's new elastomeric interface. Unlike all other audio doodads I've tried in the past, this one actually works. No footer, cone, puck or equivalent has previously banished 'glass vibes' from migrating into my forearms. Gallo's squishy stuff does it 100%. Even at high volumes, the speakers don't transmit vibrations into the desk top.

I'm told by the way that a high-gloss black Strada finish might be in the pipe line. Those intent on perfect decor matching with the iDecco could fancy that. On the iDecco/Strada combo, the preferred polarity in Chardonne is inverted by the way. You can easily tell by the enhanced live charge. Wrong polarity sounds muffled by comparison and the soundstage isn't as articulated and spectacular.

For stout nearfield levels, the iDecco with the docked iPod sits at 11:00. Over the Sieben dock, make that 2:00. Another big feature is the quality integrated headphone output. I do much listening over full-size headphones yet so do not want another box on the desk. Check. The iDecco's USB input meanwhile is perfect for YouTube feeds, to listen to certain news items or sample MP3 tracks on musician websites. When I think ultimate desk top system, I think simplicity, features and size. On all of those, this system scores top marks. Price admittedly isn't insignificant. This is a very serious proposition. That's where raw sonic performance comes in. For this application where my ears are 80cm from the drivers, the Strada is clearly better than the impressive Swans M3 three-way monitor which is priced identical but consumes a lot more space. I honestly cannot conceive of another speaker as compact as the Strada that has any chances of topping it on the desk. There of course might be. Hence the header's question mark. Still, anyone settling on the Stradas is guaranteed to play at the very top of this game. About that there's no possible argument, period.

The perhaps biggest shocker about this setup is how it transforms the ubiquitous iPod into a portable music server of $3.000 CD player quality. Dock it—I currently have 1500+ songs in WAV on it and more than half my 160GB memory open—and enjoy big-rig quality. Undock it for some late-night headphone listening. Or bring it with you to friends who are curious about your music. Etc. It's ultra flexible. Have music, will travel. And with the iDecco, it's audiophile-approved sound that'll embarass many a dedicated CD player.

As my Strada review put it, listening to these speakers in the nearfield is like having your head parked between your super-duper $15.000/pr towers. That's how elevated their resolution is. Yet the big speakers would fail utterly at cohering at such distances. The Stradas meanwhile excel. It's very much like listening to my Sennheiser HD800s rewired with ALO Audio leads. Except that it gets all that detailed sound outa the head and deep into 3D space.

The cheapskate brigade will have to ridicule this system. I mean, there's inescapable wallet pain when $495 buys a complete Joey Roth system (albeit without headphone or digital iPod features). If you don't spend countless hours a day behind the computer, it's probably not justifiable. If you do however—there's hordes of our kind after all—and if you enjoy the privilege of working out of your home or from a truly private office where making noise is no issue... then in my book, this is the setup to aspire to. In the context of the desk top, it's off-the-charts awesome and quite possibly as good as it gets. For the dirt on each component mentioned, refer to their respective feature reviews.