Reviewer: Srajan Ebaen
Source: Zanden Audio Model 5000 MkIII DAC; Accustic Arts Drive-1; Eastern Electric MiniMax CDP; Jolida JD-100
Preamp/Integrated: Bel Canto PRe2; Eastern Electric MiniMax
Amp: AUDIOPAX Model 88; Eastern Electric MiniMax amplifier
Speakers: Gallo Acoustic Reference III
Cables: HMS Grand Finale; Crystal Cable Reference complete wire set of analog and digital interconnects, speaker cables and power cords; Z-Cable Reference Cyclone power cords on both powerline conditioner; 2 x Stealth Audio Cables Indra analogue & Varidig S/PDIF cable
Stands: 2 x Grand Prix Audio Monaco four-tier
Powerline conditioning: BPT BP-3.5 Signature; Walker Audio Velocitor for source components
Sundry accessories: GPA Formula Carbon/Kevlar shelf for tube amps; GPA Apex footers underneath stand and speakers; Walker Audio SST on all connections; Walker Audio Vivid CD cleaner; Furutech RD-2 CD demagnetizer; WorldPower cryo'd Hubbell wall sockets; Musse Audio resonance dampers on DUO subs; Mapleshade 4" solid maple platform under BPT conditioner
Room size: 30' w x 18' d x 10' h [sloping ceiling] in long-wall setup in one half, with open adjoining living room for a total of ca.1000 squ.ft floor plan and significant 'active' cubic air volume of essentially the entire (small) house
Review component retail: $900 CDP; $800 pre; $900 amp

Many many years ago when my world was still flat and audiophilia an unfamiliar word vaguely suggestive of something pornographic, I visited my older sister and her husband in Germany. Being French horn player and clarinetist in the Hessian State Theater of Wiesbaden, they are heavily into Classical music. At the time, they owned a large stereo system around Magnat ribbon-tweeter speakers in the living room and a small bookshelf rig around Celestion 3s and some Cyrus electronics in a study. Being musicians, not audiophiles, they had bought both systems 'as is'. It didn't occur to them that one could tweak the sound post-purchase in various directions depending on whim and fancy. They both volunteered how the modest system was more fun to listen to and thus saw far more use.

Contrast this not-uncommon finding with most reviews of affordable gear, especially when those are penned by well-off reviewers (or at least writers who own gear completely out of proportion with the remainder of their life style). 'Everyman' electronics will invariably elicit commentary not for what they do but for what they don't do. After being dutifully exposed to their various virtues -- "rather surprising for the price, dear" -- the reader is finally confronted with all their shortcomings as compared to the really hot Class-A-rated stuff such writers use for their reference.

After reading such reviews, the budget-challenged or simply sane music lover is left to feel like a second-class citizen. He's got to live with hand-me-down rejects. Something about this scenario is an understandable byproduct of escalating standards. Over time, a so-called expert's taste for down-home cooking becomes fatally compromised. 5-course designer meals on company time and company wallet first erase and then overwrite aural memories of the affordable stuff. But there's perhaps no better antidote for ivory-tower abstraction than reviewing so-called budget gear on a regular basis. It helps to not lose touch with how the 'amateur' leagues keep creeping up on the 'pro' leagues. In certain instances, they simply play better or with more passion and innocence despite not wearing them fancy jerseys while competing for the really deep purse - your loaded wallet.

With an intro like that, you are now rightfully expecting "case in point". It's acomin'. Just don't expect to read that today's $6100-before-cables system inclusive of Gallo Acoustics' Reference III speakers and Gallo bass amp is better than my $85,000 reference rig. It ain't. But is my usual rig 10 times better? Or 5 times? Or even double? Unless I get a far bigger room, definitely none of the former. Double? Perhaps. But when we consider pure listening enjoyment rather than audiophile hairsplitting and obsessive agonizing, perhaps not even that. Deeply satisfying playback can be had for a lot less. It will have you miss for nothing unless you just can't leave good enough alone and continue to compare and compare - against far more expensive stuff, that is. And did I just say $6,100? You bet. Bill O'Connell of Morningstar Imports, the US distributor and part owner of Eastern Electric, just went direct and adjusted his retail pricing accordingly.

For $2,700, you can now purchase all three of his components. I don't know what this says about our US dealer network in general but I do know what it says for the end user: Hellacious value! Incidentally, Mr O'Connell asked me to stress the fact that just because market realities forced him to go direct and implement a brand-new order-taking website doesn't mean he expects you to place an anonymous order without talking to him in person first. He's a hands-on guy with a massive tube arsenal who wants to be directly involved in each and every transaction to insure that he understands your personal needs, precisely, and can make appropriate recommendations for the most copasetic valves [below at CES 04].

Depending on your perspective, you could call this triple-decker MiniMax sandwich 'transitional', 'entry-level HighEnd', 'maxed-out budget', 'who the hell needs more?' or 'criminally insane'. Whatever you call it, rest assured that build quality, sonics, features and customer support make no excuses versus whatever you might assume awaits the chosen few who play in the stratospheric leagues. There's a special boon with these electronics, too. Obtaining a complete stack from one single designer is your assurance for a seamless sound that was designed exactly so. It's subject only to minor flavor variations of whatever cables and speakers you add. Being driven by small tubes and only a few, you can tweak and tune to your heart's content on a small budget - and the distributor/one-stop-retailer stocks a plethora of 'em to set you up.

Of course you have to like the house sound first. Before we get to that, one last point: While the Reference 3 speakers by Anthony Gallo are far and away the best <$10,000 speaker that $2,600 will buy, they are not the most ideal candidates for today's electronics unless you add Gallo's optional $900 bass amp/active crossover/EQ. Even without it, they work far better than paper specs would predict but ideally and in case you're a HipHop or Reggae freak, you want to direct-drive the woofers' 2nd voice coils to extend bass extension and control with a high-current parallel amplifier below 40Hz.

Having previewed the pre-production bass amp, I can categorically vouch for that combination. However, the full production units are just now becoming available so today's test ran the Reference 3s solo and sans bass augmentation until my personal bass amp unit arrives to stay for good. To be sure, the MiniMax electronics have more than enough gain for the Gallos, something the designer insured by making his preamp high gain to account for the low output power of the amp. But speakers like the Gallos thrive on current which an 8-watt tube amp won't provide. To keep with today's theme of real-world sanity, I kept the components in my wooden plant stand with marble inlays, suspended on custom-sized Gingko Audio Cloud 11 platforms for affordable resonance control. I really only cheated on cables by going with Crystal Cable Reference all around. I don't have anything drastically cheaper anymore, having lost me marbles a long time ago - which is one major reason why I delight in discovering affordable gear that I recommend to you without reservations and without suggesting that you should go off the deep end like yours truly who does this shit for a living and thus can justify away his serious audio obsession by calling it "work-related office equipment". Hey, not for nothing does my name mean 'creativity' in Sanskrit...