|Anthony Gallo Acoustics Reference AV On-wall Speaker System|
|Home Theater Loudspeakers On-wall Loudspeakers|
|Written by Andrew Robinson|
|Sunday, 01 October 2006|
Page 2 of 3
Music and Movies
I decided to kick things off with Counting Crows’ greatest hits compilation, Films About Ghosts (Geffen). Beginning with the track “Friend of the Devil,” the Reference AV speakers quickly let me know that their reference moniker wasn’t just a cheap marketing ploy. From the get-go, the opening guitar riff was rife with detail and snap, which gave the song’s introduction a palpable presence that was more in-room than recreation. Likewise, the vocals were extremely focused, with excellent texture and weight despite the Reference AV’s satellite/subwoofer design. The sound from the TR-2 sub blended beautifully, creating more or less floor-standing sound from the wall-mounted speaker system. A note on the TR-2 sub: while the bass exhibited excellent speed and rhythm, it didn’t quite plunge into the basement the way my Outlaw LFM-1plus sub (review forthcoming) does. Then again, the TR-2 is quite a bit smaller than the LFM-1 and, for what it is, the TR-2 is very impressive.
Moving on to the track “Anna Begins,” the opening drum line was as good as it gets for a speaker in the Reference AV’s price class. The sheer snap and kick to every strike was so immediate and powerful that it bordered on the surreal. The song’s vocal track was pure, coming close to electrostatic quality with zero bloat or artificially added warmth. The Reference AV speakers are immediate throughout the high frequencies and midrange. At first, I found the sound to be rather lean. However, after further listening, I came to realize that the Reference AVs simply put out what you put in, with little to no signature of their own, as all true Reference speakers should. The Reference AV’s high frequency presentation was staggering in its air and detail and showed zero signs of strain, even at the extremes. The cymbals shimmered with such grace that I could almost feel the ridges of the instruments vibrating in space. Switching gears, the Reference AV’s soundstage is astonishing. The soundstage was huge, striking a good balance between depth and width, which extended well beyond the speaker’s outermost boundaries. The image presented by the Reference AV’s was close to laser etched, with every musical element holding steadfast in its respective space with little signs of slurring.
Ending things with “Holiday in Spain,” I was greeted with a slightly subdued sound that I found to be interesting. Blown away by the Reference AV’s sheer detail and transparency, I found the slightly laid-back presentation of “Holiday in Spain” to be soothing and rather refreshing. Clearly, the Reference AVs are no one-trick pony. Focusing on the song’s climatic build-up, I was in awe of the Reference AV’s dynamic capabilities. Like electrostatics, the Reference AVs can accelerate at will (provided you have a powerful enough amp) and stop on a dime. The raw unbridled sound is so clear and crisp that dynamic swings seem to carry a bit more heft and overall impact when compared to more traditional box speakers. Unlike electrostatics, the Reference AVs retain their wonderful sonic signature even when pushed beyond normal limits, making them, in my opinion, a true hybrid of styles, electrostatic and dynamic.
Next, I opted for Elton John’s mid-‘90s release Made in England (PolyGram). During the track “Believe,” the Reference AV speakers were just as comfortable with large orchestral music as they are with modern pop-rock. The symphonic bridge was larger than life and filled my room with an abundance of glorious music. The dynamic range of the Reference AV speakers is amazing, yet it never came at the cost of detail, air and ultimate extension into my room. The bass was thunderous and well-defined, while the treble remained sweet and extremely nimble. John’s vocals were dead center in the soundstage with almost no movement as I shifted from one end of my sofa to the next. The lead vocals also stood out from the rest of the musical elements without seeming out of place or over-exaggerated. If you’re the type of listener who gets off on well-produced vocals, then the Reference AV system is your cup of tea. Turning my attention to the track “Belfast,” it was more of the same. It was at this point that I began to draw comparisons and conclusions about the Reference AV speakers in terms of their two-channel capabilities. I recently raved about the Morel Vario on-wall speakers for their sheer musicality and seemingly endless dynamic reserves. While I consider both the Varios and the Reference AVs to be in the same class, you couldn’t ask for two more different approaches to speaker voicing and performance. As the song “Belfast” continued, I marveled at the Reference AV’s ability to bathe me in detail, texture and subtlety. As “Belfast” came to a close, I simply ended my two-channel demo with this simple thought: there is no denying that the Reference AV speakers are amazing. They are. Period. However, personal listening tastes aren’t as quantifiable. While I was bowled over by the Reference AV’s ability to present me with an amazingly well-rounded musical experience, I found the more romanticized sound of the Varios a bit more to my liking. Regardless of personal tastes, the Reference AVs should be on your short list of two-channel speakers to audition, with price no consideration. I could stop there, but there is something that the Reference AV system can do that two speakers cannot … surround sound.
Switching gears to multi-channel music, I opted for Monster Music’s release of Ray Charles’ Genius Loves Company (Monster Music). On the Norah Jones duet “Here We Go Again,” the Reference AVs proved to have even more tricks up their sleeves. For starters, the bass through the TR-2 sub seemed to plunge a bit deeper than I remembered during my stereo listen. The bass was very tight and the added impact to the presentation helped blend the midrange and bass together, making the overall sound of the Reference AV system a bit warmer, which I liked. It wasn’t bloated or slow, no, sir, just fuller, richer and more enjoyable. The drums had wonderful snap and rhythm, which helped drive the somewhat slower pace of the track up a notch. The vocal harmonies between Jones and Charles were something magical. Apart from the recording itself, which I consider to be one of Charles’ greatest, there was something special happening in my listening room. The way the Reference AVs simply enraptured me with their midrange purity was unlike anything I’ve experienced. It was simply effortless, the kind of sound you can’t seem to credit to a speaker. The vocals simply appeared, as if the singers themselves materialized in my room. As much as I marveled at their two-channel abilities, despite my preference for the Varios, the Reference AVs’ multi-channel talents proved to be jaw-dropping. On the track “Sorry Seems to be the Hardest Word,” the opening piano part was so damn airy and true to life that I’m not sure I could’ve pointed out the live instrument from the recorded one had you blindfolded me. It was that good. There was so much music happening just behind the speaker’s boundaries that I wanted to get up and walk around it. From the treble on down, everything about the Reference AV’s presentation improved almost tenfold. Whatever reservations I may have had with two-channel music were all but squashed when I utilized the Reference AV speakers in a multi-channel configuration. I quickly realized these are special speakers.
I ended my evaluation with a few movies, starting with Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky on wheels, Driven (Warner Home Video). I cued up the scene where Stallone got behind the wheel for the first time for what his pit crew called “his coin bit.” Say what you want about the film, good or bad (it’s pretty bad), the racing scenes are just plain fun and this scene wasn’t about to disappoint. From the first tire squeal, I was in the cockpit of the open wheel cart and in for a ride. The Reference AV system simply came to life as I throttled up the volume. The high frequencies never became brittle or harsh as the car squealed through the corners. When the car rolled to a stop, giving Stallone enough time to toss a quarter onto the road, the ensuing “ping” of the coin hitting the pavement was absolutely pristine. The moment quickly passed as the car roared back to life, blasting me back in my seat with real bass. If dynamic capability could be represented in brake horsepower, then the Reference AVs would be in league with the likes of Ferrari. The bass was tremendous, simply staggering, and I must say I wanted more. The low rumble of Stallone’s approaching car was so primal that I could feel it in regions of my body I never knew existed. The soundtrack was balanced beautifully between the five speakers, which only added to the overall excitement. The Reference AV’s truly toe the line between grace and subtlety and gut-wrenching power. They are the kind of speakers, given the right material and equipment, that can smash you right in the face, then gingerly wipe the blood from your lip, letting you know everything is going to be okay.
As impressive as they were with action, it was time to see if the Reference AVs could work their subtle magic with more dramatic moments. I skipped ahead to the confrontation between Burt Reynolds and Stallone in the garage over the smoldering wreckage of their fellow driver’s car. The scene is a smorgasbord of gentle ambient cues and vivid dialogue and, happily, the Reference AVs didn’t miss a beat. The rain striking the metal sheeting of the garage provided an appropriately hollow-sounding backdrop for the characters’ sparring. The high frequencies were so effortlessly pure that I began to revel in their sounds alone and lose focus on the scene itself. However, the dialogue only needed to get going before I was quickly drawn back into the drama. The Reference AVs were nearly pitch-perfect when it came to reproducing Stallone’s signature vocals and never betrayed a single breath or pause. They were moving. Throughout the film, I could detect zero signs of strain, even at ear-splitting levels, which I’m known to employ for certain movies. The surround sound performance was enveloping, to say the least. With no real cabinet to speak of, the Reference AVs’ huge dispersion made it seem that there were more speakers in the rear of my theater than just the two on the walls. They were always enjoyable, never fatiguing and perfectly suited for any occasion, be it high action or drama.
I ended my review with the HD DVD version of the Tim Burton classic Sleepy Hollow (Paramount Home Entertainment). Consistent with my earlier observations, the Reference AVs proved once again that the better the source material, the greater the sonic gain. However, in the case of the Reference AVs, the difference between red book CD performance and HD DVD performance isn’t so much baby steps as it is a running long jump. The high frequencies across the board took on yet another level of air, extension and transparency, while the already detailed and crystalline sound remained intact. One only has to listen to the Horseman unsheathe his sword to know exactly what I’m talking about. The film’s eclectic cast, lead by the ever-popular Johnny Depp, proved no contest for the Reference AV’s vocal capabilities. Even in densely populated scenes, the speakers were able to easily track and assign each actor his or her respective space within the soundstage that was not only accurate to the location on screen but so full-bodied that, on close-ups, I felt as if I could feel the full weight of the actors themselves, feet and all. The thundering hooves of the Horseman’s steed did little to stress the TR-2. I did switch out the TR-2 for my Outlaw sub at one point to see if I could detect any differences. The TR-2 wasn’t able to go quite as low as the Outlaw subwoofer, but in the uppermost frequencies of its capabilities, it was a touch faster.