[SoundStage!]Standout Systems
Back Issue Article
June 1999

The Arrangement

Our standout system this month is accompanied by an interesting story. A local audiophile e-mailed me one day to volunteer the use of his Gallo Nucleus Reference speakers in my house. Admittedly, I had expressed an earlier interest to visit him and hear up close and personal these speakers that had so impressed me during previous trade shows. But that lustful comment didn’t prepare me for his sudden and radical offer. Turns out he was in the midst of a messy interior remodel and couldn’t set them up. I was subsequently to find out that my benefactor-to-be actually had a complete top-notch system that was languishing in boxes stored in his basement. He had bought these components second-hand over a period of many months to assemble a dream system for his San Diego University-district digs. But the remodeling bug bit and his living space turned into Beirut before long. This meant he had in fact never yet heard his system once! Imagine. Everything was still in boxes waiting for the day when peace would return to the dust-ridden war zone of his living room. Not until then would he find out whether his components worked magic together or not. Enter the reviewer’s ego. I had an upcoming review of a statement piece of equipment (stay tuned) for which I had wanted a universally acclaimed, well-known reference stack for comparison. I had an idea. I’d set up his entire system in my house, and he was welcome to listen to it as often as possible until such time that his own space was ready. He agreed to this arrangement without hesitation.

While this sounds like a fairy tale -- and I certainly felt zapped by copious amounts of fairy dust on this occasion -- it is all entirely true. I bow my head to Jim Edwards for his generosity of spirit and hope that his visits to my listening room pay back in some small measure the ecstatic delight I have derived from his unexpected and comprehensive loan over the last few months.

The gun

If you paid attention, a big question mark should now be looming over your head like a cartoon thought bubble. Why would anyone in his right mind assemble a system in stages without listening to everything first? After all, peruse Audio magazine’s annual October issue and calculate the possible combinations of systems one could put together from what the market offers in individual components. The average calculator runs out of zeros before the math is done. Doesn’t buying on spec strike you as Russian roulette, more certain to maim with disaster rather than let you off with that one-in-a-million configuration that mysteriously gets it just right?

Well, not if you load the gun like Jim. You see, there was precise method to his madness. He figured (correctly if you ask me) that of all the components in a system, the choice of speakers was most significant; hence, it needed to be settled first. After the usual auditioning spree of anxious comparisons, Jim fell in love with Anthony Gallo’s unique Nucleus Reference. He trusted his ears, good man, and made the commitment. Then he did something very smart -- he telephoned the manufacturer. He reasoned that since his personal priorities concerning speakers obviously aligned with the designer’s notion of good sound, the same designer would be the perfect source to recommend ancillary electronics. With the exception of the digital components, Jim’s eventual system, including cabling, duplicated Anthony Gallo’s personal reference system of the day -- exactly. It’s also what’s under consideration here. (Note: the Anthony Gallo Acoustics 'Reference' and 'Solo' speakers are not currently being produced by the company as the gear up production for their new 'Micro' loudspeaker)

The wise guy

Have you ever observed some wise guy intrude into a listening demo, spend 20 seconds and then proclaim with an air of omniscience "great preamp" before making a U-turn exit to pawn off his brilliant flashes of audio wisdom elsewhere? Preposterous shmuck, he. We are always listening to a system, the sum total of all hardware and tweaks and their interaction with each other and the room. Without laboriously replacing one component at a time and observing proper level-matching procedures, it is absolutely impossible to make valid judgments and assign responsibility for certain traits to a particular component. With this in mind, the following observations are about the sound of the system, not its components. But first a bit of background.

The bullets

The Pass Labs Aleph L preamp, like its power-amp sibling, is from the less-is-more school of design, eschewing complexity and aiming for a minimal count of parts of the highest quality possible. Hence it’s passive, but with a unique twist. At the 3:00 stetting of the patent-pending volume control, one listens to unity gain, zero attenuation, no devices in the signal path but bare wire and switch contacts between input and output. Below 3:00, discrete resistor ladders provide passive attenuation. Above 3:00, MOSFET gain kicks in for those whose amps require an added signal boost of up to 10dB to reach desired output levels. Here we have a passive/active preamp, unique in my experience, but all my listening took place well below 3:00 in passive mode. My one-meter interconnect was well short enough to even worry about capacitance problems. The 30W Aleph 3 makes a strong visual statement. It literally bristles with porcupine-like armor, protected by rugged heat sinks on all four sides of its cubic profile. Still, once it’s powered up, you can nearly fry eggs on the top plate. It runs that hot, a testament to pure class-A operation. It is single-ended, which may surprise those who’ve assumed this circuit topology is reserved for tube amps. One single MOSFET output device per channel provides power. This eliminates multiple output devices from switching through off- and on-duty cycles thousands of times per second as in a push-pull circuit.

Both Pass units are built like the proverbial battleships and have a similar no-nonsense appearance, quite in contrast to the audio jewelry of gold- and chrome-plated eye candy. They’re only a foot wide and finished in an attractive anthracite gray, with blue LEDs. In a recent interview with noted designers about the correlation between performance and measurements, Nelson Pass offered this nonchalant comment: "If you want to listen to my components with machines, be my guest." Coming from one of our most respected amplifier designers, this charming bit of common sense delves right to the heart of the matter!

The Anthony Gallo Acoustics Nucleus Reference speakers are designs whose uniqueness is apparent at first glance, though there’s even more than meets the eye. They are crossover-less three-driver two-ways, with the required roll-off between drivers accomplished mechanically. The stacked, dual-spherical enclosures of anodized aluminum create a refraction-less platform for the always-spherical wave propagation of the 6.5" modified Dynaudio drivers. The cabinet shape further avoids internal standing waves and resonances with their associated need for extensive bracing as well as makes energy storage/release problems a mute point. The 3" plug atop the upper ball is a very unique patented 330-degree dispersion tweeter without moving parts and nearly unlimited power handling, which eliminates compression in the treble region. These speakers are such a technological tour de force that, within the format of this article, I won’t even attempt to do them justice. The amount of original thinking and endless R&D required to bring them to market ought to be obvious even upon cursory inspection of the photo. Not a whole lot of new happens under the sun of speaker design, most novelties being but thinly disguised incremental refinements made possible by advances in materials or manufacturing processes. The Gallo speakers are decidedly revolutionary and truly novel on more than one count.

The JPS Labs Superconductor2 interconnects and NC Series speaker cables are far from being chopped liver either. A proprietary, solid-core aluminum center conductor is heavily cladded with copper and shielded by a corrugated solid-copper tube that is direct-soldered to the WBT RCA plugs, or in case of the speaker cables, terminated via pigtails and Cardas rhodium-plated spades. A black nylon mesh skin completes the outer appearance. Construction quality is top-notch, but a bit of care needs to be exercised due to the inherent stiffness of the outer shield. Twisting it gently into the required shape for optimum routing, the cables don’t spring back as long as you observe common sense and don’t bend them tighter than mechanics allow.

Little needs to be said about the Theta Data. Until the advent of DVD, it was one of the most serious dual-purpose video/audio spinners on the market, designed by one of high end’s digital pioneers. Used as a CD transport only, the cue-up and initialization protocol before the TOC is read is much lengthier than with regular CD players. The transport mechanism itself is uncommonly sturdy since it was designed to deal with the much heavier laserdiscs as well as CDs. While front-panel controls cover the basics, a comprehensive remote allows access to all necessary functions.

The Dodson Audio D/A converter is designed and manufactured by Ralph Dodson, a San Diego resident with 20+ years experience in electronics design and digital data transmission. Here was an electronics engineer who loved his turntable and couldn’t stomach the perfect sound forever of early and later digital. His HDCD-compatible 263H, using dual Burr-Brown PCM63K chips, has since evolved into the 217 Mk II, by many Golden Ears considered one of the world’s finest DACs. SoundStager Todd Warnke owns one himself, and a review should be forthcoming in these cyber pages soon.

The chase

Let’s cut to the chase. The overall character of this system is one of electrostatic clarity, with an absolutely expansive soundstage and eerily holographic imaging and layering. Depth and precision of placement of images are beyond superb -- the Gallos are spacemeisters sans pareil. These qualities must surely be a function of their non-cabinet and omni tweeter. But that would be overlooking the contributions of the passive Pass preamp and zero-feedback, SE circuitry of the Pass amp, the vanishingly low noise floor of the 100%-shielded JPS cables and the refined circuitry of the DAC as well as the low-jitter transmission of the transport. As I said earlier, while tempting, it’s just not possible to discern who is doing what outside of a comparative evaluation.

The system’s transparency is not of the hyper-edged kind that’s utterly divorced from reality but popular with the resolution-uber-alles crowd. Neither does it suffer from what I call the ghosting effect. A ghost by definition is an immaterial likeness of a living being. I personally like my musicians as robust and bodily present as possible. This requires a certain image density. My personal response to many an electrostat is that they relinquish too much density to gain the last degree of transparency. While music through the standout system possesses terrific clarity that allows me to follow individual instrumental threads even in the midst of colossal mayhem and chaos, my need for a tangible embodiment of the performers and their instruments is fully satisfied. To my ears, a wonderful balance has been struck here, allowing me to "see" the performers in the absence of the major visual segment of the original event and believing them to be corporeal as opposed to phantoms.

The unique dispersion pattern of the Gallo CDT tweeter, operative from 2.2kHz up, makes for outstanding image specificity that remains stable way off-axis, creating a sweet spot as wide as three dozen donuts at a police convention. Even standing outside the left or right speaker, the stage remains bafflingly centered, allowing "serious" musical enjoyment on the move, which, let’s face it, is a real life concern to those with little dedicated listening time.

My room is rather large, about 18'W x 30'L with 15' ceilings and a lot of adjoining open space. Four 6.5" drivers should not produce the kind of bass in this cubic volume as this system does. Some of my synth-bass bottom-feeder tracks outright startled me with not only stunning extension but also very precise pitch definition and speed. The bass possesses real weight that to me is much more realistic than the sock-you-in-the-chest assault of some arc-welding superpower amps. Compared to the many tube amps I’ve lived with, this bass is drier but has better speed and bounce and goes noticeably lower. Those wanting slam factor need to look elsewhere, though. Nothing in the power rating of the Aleph 3 or the driver complement and physical size of the speakers correlates in any overt fashion to this astounding bass performance. I have extensive experience with the JPS cables and know their bass extension and weight to be as good as it gets. My resident Meadowlark Shearwaters, with their transmission-line loaded 7" Scan-Speak drivers, are rated at -3dB at 35Hz. The Gallos extended even lower and with more authority. One problem many speakers suffer concerns energy storage and its subsequent, time-delayed release, especially in the bass. This becomes audible as a smearing and thickening of inner detail that obscures and can render unintelligible complex material. The speed and clarity of this whole system, extending seamlessly from top to bottom, suggests that this problem has been addressed systematically, and most likely in all components.

The treble is very extended and airy, with long decay trails of cymbals, hi-hats and triangles, but never once hard, bright, edgy or fatiguing, even at elevated levels. This smoothness is reminiscent of tubes, but it strikes me as more extended, with a fabulous sense of air. Pat McGinty of Meadowlark Audio once confided that most reviewers and astute listeners rather easily recognize compression in the bass when the output capability of a speaker’s bass system begins to lag behind that of the midrange or tweeter. But as a designer, he was equally sensitive to dynamic compression in the treble, nearly impossible to overcome with relatively affordable drive units. This particular system, as far as I can tell from my limited excursions into low-def as opposed to utterly deaf territory, simply gets louder without changing overall tonal character or balance. The CDT tweeter’s ridiculously high power-handling ability must have something to do with this. In short, this system parties and does not bite off your ears in exchange.

Tonal balance strikes me as very natural, with no undue prominence anywhere in the frequency spectrum. The ultra-extended treble is matched by an equally extended bass that retains the apparent acoustic center where it belongs, rather than shifting it upwards (lightweight) or downwards (dark/muddy). The term coherence expresses rather nicely this very important aspect. It makes one reflect on the crossover-less nature of the speakers and the minimal parts count of the amplification elements. However, coherence didn’t rule from day one. The speaker’s Dynaudio drivers seemed seriously reticent in the midrange which, coupled to the flat-into-the-stratosphere tweeters, created a hollow balance that was distinctly thin. Obviously related to break-in, this utterly remedied itself in a matter of days, and experimentation with varying degrees of toe-in fine-tuned this further. I don’t know how long the previous owner, Walker Audio of turntable and accessory fame, kept them. (For those readers who erroneously assume that all manufacturers are merely fixated on the bottom line of business, it should come as a surprise that a turntable manufacturer would purchase a pair of speakers just to evaluate and study them. But truly, most specialty manufacturers in this business will never get rich. The only reason they don’t leave the challenging circumstance of a small-scale entrepreneur is their love -- no, make that passion -- of music and everything involved therewith. It is not uncommon at all for designers of various disciplines to exercise their curiosity about the ongoing evolution of the entire industry by buying components from their fellow manufacturers, either directly or through a retailer.)

Captured

To recap, this system delivers on all fronts without any apparent weaknesses. It is of extremely high resolution, but it retains the drive, energy and presence that are so vital for a compelling musical experience. Not romantic-sounding in the traditional tubey sense, it’s also the antithesis of the hi-fi artifice that bombards with attributes impressive at first hearing but wearing thin rapidly. This is a sign of balance.

The word balance makes for an easy visualization of two scales in perfect equilibrium. As long as you add the exact same amount of weight per side, the scales will remain in balance ad infinitum. If we equate balance with quality, there is then an infinite amount of different quantities possible -- lesser as well as higher degrees of balance. Many a year in the industry has convinced me that the amount of money spent has no bearing whatsoever on the achievement of balance in a system. An inexpensive system like a Creek/Epos rig or a Jolida/Triangle stack can provide a wonderful, set-up-and-forget, musically satisfying performance much more convincing over the long haul than many an audiophile he-man rig (to appropriate the Corey Greenberg coinage).

This particular system is of a very high-order balance. With an approximate retail total of $15,000+, it must be considered he-man, but it does offer returns in the scheme of things that seem entirely commensurate with the expense. I wish I could impress upon you how difficult this balance is to achieve. Neither money nor advertising claims nor specs has anything to do with it. The need for cogent advice, usually from a caring retailer, cannot be overstressed. In this particular case, the system’s owner took full advantage of Anthony Gallo’s own and presumably long, arduous and still-ongoing journey of trial and error to find components that matched up well with his speakers. I will be sorry to return this system to its rightful owner. As a diehard tube fiend, you could consider this very high praise.

Let me go further: based on this experience and one I will report on soon, devotees of the vacuum tube, especially the SE variety, can enjoy the convenience, sonic stability and long-term reliability of solid state without any sonic casualties whatsoever. Ditto for electrostatic and Quad lovers -- if panel size or limited dynamics have been issues you’ve wrestled with unsuccessfully, the Gallos are speakers that, when driven by electronics of similar qualities as the ones discussed here, will give you electrostatic splendor without the usual flies in the ointment. Jim Edwards, your system is medicine for the soul! Congratulations.

...Srajan Ebaen
srajan@soundstage.com

 

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