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Fully grown up. Except for size
. That pretty much became the bottom line on the desk top. At first it felt seriously disconcerting to be served up such phenomenal resolution within a one-meter listener distance. It seemed as though my head was shoved between my big expensive tower speakers in the living room. Their sound then wouldn't cohere at all of course. But the association remained perfectly valid for sheer quality. Ditto super headphones like my rewired Sennheiser HD800s*. That's the kind of resolving power I suddenly had working in an environment where I frankly didn't expect it; nor had it before to ever miss it.


With a very fine headphone output on the very same Aura Groove that drove the Stradas, this was quite easy to assess.

My usual desk-top systems—yours could be more uptown already—have revolved around my era Speakers 5 SATs or loaners like Amphion Helium 510s, Mark & Daniel Minis and similar. This admittedly is quite ahead of the average PC audio setup. And, it's also priced at 50% less than the Gallos. You'd expect more from them. And that's exactly what you get. A lot more. Not bass extension though. Without a subwoofer or front-wall reinforcement such as my diagonal open-room office setup subtracts, it was 50-ish for me prior to roll off. That was perfectly appropriate considering. It simply was not earth-shaking or revolutionary. Not that in my book such applications require 30Hz bass to be persuasive. But never mind that. It's with articulation and—there's that word again—resolution that the Stradas mixed it up well beyond their size or price implications.

Reflections from the computer monitor; reflections from the lower mid/woofer off the hard glass; bleed-through from the stands into the glass (fully eliminated with the squishy and sticky elastomeric pads); wrong toe-in or unequal path lengths for the seating area ... these ballsy buggers showed up everything. The designer didn't indulge hollow boasts. This design really is so tweaked—dialed, optimized, sharpened—that surroundings and ancillaries become the only real stumbling blocks. This is particularly true for reflective intrusions into the wide open midband which an appropriate up tilt on the super-solid stands avoids. Any sort of muddying actions telegraph like fingerprints on chrome.

On one hand, it's quite possible that someone allocating $2,000 on a pair of premium desk-top speakers would also acquire—or plan on—equivalently serious amplification. Like Aura's bodacious 75wpc Groove integrated in these photos for example. Or Audio Analogue's surprising new €699 Crescendo gainclone integrated. On the other hand, limited budgets could max out on the speaker. That would leave little for electronics. Unlike strategic smarts—expensive high-efficiency speakers, low-power cheap amps—arbitrary imbalance enforced by empty wallets is never a good thing. The Stradas telegraph less capable matings more than most. You'll of course remain blissfully ignorant unless you'd heard elsewhere how much more they can do. As long as they're enough mo betta than what they replace, it could be a moot point. But, you'd certainly not take reviews serious which describe them in far loftier terms.

Loftier terms are exactly what's to follow. Here it involved fancy Crystal Cable Ultra balanced leads between source and integrated; Crystal Cable Ultra power cords; a passive Furutech power bar; and uncompressed iPod files bypassing my Classic 160GB's volume control. The Aura Groove's alphanumeric volume display sat below 25 while spinning modern (i.e. max output) CDs on the Aura Neo; and at up to 35 for the iPod's measlier output voltage. This gave me stout levels which my pink bits wouldn't want to exceed at 80cm from these drivers (I pulled out the tape measure). The Groove maxes out at 99 in equal volume steps. Without knowing the exact voltage into the Stradas, I can't give you a precise consumption figure. Still, below 10 watts in my nearfield setup was definite reality. Real watts mind you, not wimpy Tripath watts from wall-wart 'power' supplies.

The only thing the Stradas in this setup weren't was baby Ocellias, Cain & Cains or other 95dB plus jobs which spread out the full buffet at very low levels. Just like all other speakers of equivalent sensitivity, the Stradas need more of a volume boost before their sails swell to take off in earnest. I'm not talking stupid or even happy levels - just more than whispers. This comes with the territory. Really efficient small speakers don't exist as a breed. This isn't any special demerit. It's just a factual consideration while still entertaining comparisons to certain bigger speakers.

Unless you hear big boys in the extreme nearfield too where their bass often won't fully integrate—equilateral triangle, steeply toed in—the Stradas will win on raw resolution. Desk-top setups in free air minimize smear from room interactions. Conceptually, we're as close as possible to headphones before moving into an anechoic chamber. This could open a valid discussion. On the fidelity meter, would serious audiophiles be better off listening in an optimized desktop context? Of course the scale of the experience shrinks; performers exist between the 'floor' of your table and somewhere above the speaker baffles to be about two feet tall; and the screen which keeps you glued there in the first place is psychologically and practically in the way to add a deleterious reflective surface. So it's certainly far from a clear-cut advantage. But, Strada performance does inspire such musings. Mentioning them here underscores what makes them special. You could flippantly counter that it all sounds rather wasted on the desktop. On the face of it, you'd be absolutely right. Which amounts to exactly the same thing.

I once described Gallo's Ref 3.1 as essentially electrostatic by nature to hint at its speed and transparency as well as a propensity for sounding just slightly threadbare. The desktop Strada most assuredly does not. Because it obviously makes less low bass, this clearly isn't due to tonal balance implications except possibly for just a bit more fullness in the 1kHz range. One instead assumes better driver integration; and improved time coherence. I say that because early treble fundamentals and harmonics overemphasize leading edge components to induce sharpness. Superior alignment in time doesn't just gain in accuracy and articulation. It also does in natural sweetness as Roy Johnson demonstrated in Taos once with his Green Mountain Audio speakers which sport movable tweeter/midrange modules. You can really hear when that aspect locks in.

Where earlier CDT versions could telegraph their speed in obvious ways, the CDTIII does not. Now one reaps the obvious benefits of its reflexes but the how of the mechanism remains concealed. Very high visibility out to the limits of audibility without any sizzle captures it. This also has rhythmic implications. Anything with natural swing swings easier and harder. If a reliably measurable foot-tapping reflex existed, the Strada would trigger it reliably. Like Green Mountain Audio speakers, this speaker is a timing demon. Most people claim time coherence is inaudible. Yet the very first thing digital crossover adherents correct for is phase and time. And always with immediately audible benefits. It's a joke nobody considering the implications would laugh about. Getting the time domain handled exclusively in the mechanical domain is far more difficult of course. Claiming that it doesn't matter is just laziness. (This does not mean that time correctness overrides frequency domain linearity or other speaker basics. Otherwise Lowther & Co. crossover-less single-driver speakers would rule by default. And they clearly do not. Time domain accuracy isn't everything. But it certainly is also important - and more than detractors credit.)

Because it's broadband, the sealed Strada's innate on-the-money impulse behavior is very infectious. It includes everything down into the upper midbass where it begins to taper off. Phase manipulation tricks of recording engineers intended to expand lateral space become very obvious. Soundstage localization is highly specific not due to pixilated image outlines but because sizing isn't overblown, fuzzy or wandering. This level of precision isn't trying, edgy or relentless. On that count the Strada in fact is more relaxed and purer than its 10-inch woofer'd predecessors were. While I can't be certain (too much time has passed), I believe that the revised mid/woofer scheme has also upped its dynamic reflexes to now better match the highly dynamic low-mass tweeter.

As I wrote about accordion-style pleated tweeters in the Heil air-motion transformer vein elsewhere, their dynamic potential nearly invariably exceeds that of the dynamic drivers they're associated with. Even if perfectly matched and linear in the amplitude domain for a flat frequency response, they will still have zippy, hard and somewhat bright tendencies. That's because they're dynamically more expressive. They flip from quiet to loud faster than the midband drivers. If earlier CDT-fitted Gallos had a small tendency in that direction—with tweeter speed dominating the lower bands—this now seems solved. The upshot is less electrostatic and more dynamically integrated.

Saxophone and bass clarinet farts—those hard-blown short rhythmic accents that are a reedman's compromised answer to hard brass blats that push more air through their pipes—had the proper snotty fierceness. Phtt, phtt, with crisp dry attacks and plosive finishes. Frame-drum trills had proper minor machine-gun incision. Oud plucks of Dhafer Youssef caliber popped brilliantly. Anything with steep rise times saluted snappily without seeming stiff at all. In short, the difficult balance between rise-time speed and tonal development was in place and not shifted forward.

In terms of drive requirements, air displacement and subjectively satisfying levels, the desktop nearfield of course is a fairly non-challenging milieu. Little goes a long way. Here the Strada aced real high-end demands with more clearance than any other speaker I've ever employed in that setting (which most certainly did not include Sonus Fabers or Magicos). Minus bass impact and extension—and minus capacious soundstaging which subjectively was undermined by the nasty Samsung SyncMaster 245B screen and otherwise physically limited by the setup's layout within the room—these minis performed as well as my big €16.000/pr ASI Tango Rs do in the big system. Treble extension was just as stellar. The only thing Franck Tchang's speakers had over them on that end can't be had without his built-in resonators. Those energize upper harmonics in a very specific way. It injects carbonation if you will, a very fine fizz that adds airiness and life to the very ends of decays. Perhaps that's old man's Viagra. But it works.

This performance equivalency outside downscaled scope and impact was quite sobering. Returning to the era Speakers or Amphions—two very viable products and of the high-value sort in fact—became a significant setback in overall transparency and resolving power. For the extra $1000, the Gallos justified themselves. Adding one grand to a $5.000 speaker budget nearly invariably buys a lot less. It gets worse higher up. The Strada is cleverly positioned where the law of diminishing returns still performs a nicely steep 45° ascent when aimed at the right product.

The real question at this juncture was whether this performance could possibly translate when the Stradas hopped onto their floorstanding stilts to move into my regular listening space and energize a lot more air at a standard 4-meter listener distance. This would obviously require the TR3 subwoofer.* At this point, I was already convinced that if a bad restaurant mounted Stradas to its walls, audiophiles would continue eating there just for the sound and to introduce neophytes to the hobby. But I don't run a restaurant nor do I temporarily mount review loaner speakers into the thick stone walls of my rental (even though I was very tempted just to confirm my suspicions that it should be pretty bloody impressive).

* I tried the TR3 underneath my office glass table right between the Stradas. I ultimately preferred them solo because I seemed to get some floor/glass bounce. Amphion's Impact 400 sub with its downfiring 10-incher, 500-watt class D power, bigger enclosure, steeper low-pass slope and finer frequency gradations here was superior. I also compared both subs without the Stradas. The TR3 leaked more upper-frequency data. I preferred the Finn's more defined augmentation.