Anthony Gallo Acoustics Reference AV On-wall Speaker System 
Home Theater Loudspeakers On-wall Loudspeakers
Written by Andrew Robinson   
Sunday, 01 October 2006

The days of floor-standing speakers are numbered. I’m sure this statement is going to be met with a barrage of e-mails to the contrary, but alas, it’s true. The end may not be tomorrow or the next day, but it is coming. When that day comes, there will be two schools of thought: embracing the growing trend of satellite/subwoofer or on-wall/in-wall speaker systems and not embracing it. To all those who haven’t gotten with the program: you’ll only have yourself to blame. And here’s why. While home theater is a booming business with seemingly everyone wanting and/or having some form of AV system in their homes, whether it’s a dedicated room or a living room system, one thing remains constant: it’s the more lifestyle-oriented products, specifically flat panel displays and pint-sized speakers, that are truly driving the marketplace. And why shouldn’t they? More often than not, satellite speakers are better-looking, more budget-friendly and fit within a broader range of system parameters without taking up or becoming the focal point of the room in which they reside. To make matters better or worse (depending on which side of the fence you’re on), technology has gotten to the point where these speakers are beginning to sound as good if not better than their floor-standing counterparts. I’m not saying that every satellite/subwoofer combo or on-wall/in-wall speaker system is fantastic. In fact, a lot of them are still rather horrible-sounding. However, there are a number of highly reputable manufacturers, including Anthony Gallo Acoustics, Definitive Technology, Morel and Paradigm, to name a few, that have the proper formula of style and substance and are on the cusp of giving the once untouchable floor-standing speakers a serious run for their money. I use the running analogy loosely, for once consumers discover these gems, you’d better believe the race for the finish line is going to be a quick one.

One such gem is the new Reference AV Speaker system from the ever-popular Anthony Gallo Acoustics. The concept of small speakers isn’t new to Anthony Gallo. Indeed, they’ve built their entire company on the shoulders of some of the smallest speakers available on the market today. Unlike companies like Bose, Gallo’s satellite/subwoofer systems actually sound good. Scratch that, they sound great. Gallo isn’t the only manufacturer building small speakers, but they are arguably the most successful. While the new Reference AV speakers aren’t as compact as their Nucleus Micro siblings, they are still relatively small and quite stylish, yet another Gallo signature.

The Reference AV speakers are an on-wall or tabletop design (via optional table stands for $200), retailing for $1,200 each and measuring in at a little over 25 inches tall by six inches wide and six inches deep, tipping the scales at a respectable 23 pounds each. The Reference AV speaker’s above average weight is due large in part to the speaker’s attractive aluminum and stainless steel construction. The main speakers themselves are somewhat cylindrical in shape, with a cage-like grille bowing over the four bass/midrange drivers and tweeter. The grill itself is somewhat transparent, as you can still see the drivers behind the perforated metal sheeting, giving the Reference AVs a stylish albeit distinctive modern look. The Reference AVs come in a variety of finishes, which consist of matte black, matte white, or silver-gray. My review samples were silver-gray with matching silver-gray subs, which I found integrated into my Pottery Barn meets DWR listening room quite nicely. Now would be a good time to point out that the entire Reference AV system consists of five seemingly identical speakers, with the center channel varying ever so slightly, the tweeter being positioned horizontally as opposed to vertically. Speaking of the tweeter, it’s probably the first thing potential buyers are going to notice, in that it’s quite unlike any other tweeter I’ve come across. The tweeter, like the speakers themselves, is cylindrical in shape and is made up of a film-like material Anthony Gallo calls Piezo. The basic concept behind the tweeter isn’t unlike an electrostatic diaphragm from the likes of MartinLogan, in that it’s very fast, very articulate and seemingly free from box-like resonances. That’s where the similarities stop. Where MartinLogan electrostatic speakers can be a bit tricky as far as placement goes, due to their limited sound dispersion, the Reference AV’s tweeter dispersion is rated at a whopping 300 degrees, due in part to the tweeter’s curved shape. Apart from the tweeter, the Reference AV speaker also has four four-inch bass/midrange drivers made of carbon fiber, with neodymium magnets behind them. The Reference AV speakers have a stated in-room frequency response of 55Hz to 35kHz at 88dB efficiency into a four- or eight-ohm load. Turning the speakers around, you’ll find the Reference AV’s included mounting bracket and single pair of recessed gold plated five-way binding posts. The mounting bracket is rather ingenious, as it places the speakers an inch or two out from the wall, which allows for potential buyers to take advantage of a variety of speaker cables without punching excess holes in their walls. Also, Gallo includes the necessary hardware to mount the Reference speakers to the wall, but I’ll get to that later.

As with most lifestyle or satellite speaker combos, the need for a separate subwoofer isn’t really an option so much as it is essential. The Reference AV system is no different. Anthony Gallo Acoustics recommends their TR-2 subwoofer. I must say, subwoofers are becoming more and more of a visual statement, moving past the old days of looking big and boxy. The TR-2, with its tube-like shape and diminutive size, is no exception to this trend. Retailing for $700, the TR-2 measures in at 11 inches wide, or diameter, by 12 inches tall and 13-and-a-half inches deep. It weighs a surprising 36 pounds, given its solid steel construction, and comes in either a black or silver finish. The TR-2 features a 250-watt internal power amplifier with a frequency response of 22Hz to 180Hz. Taking a look on the back of the TR-2, I found the usual host of controls and connection options. For starters, there is a small knob for subwoofer volume and another for crossover frequency adjustment. The TR-2’s crossover frequency is completely variable through the sub’s five-way binding post inputs and fixed at 80Hz through its high level or LFE input, which you can use in tandem with your surround sound processor or receiver. There is a Bass EQ switch, which can be set to 0 (which I did for the duration of the review) or toggled between +3dB or +6dB to give the lower regions an added “bump” if you desire. Lastly, there is a three-way power switch that can toggle between auto, on and off, as well as a detachable power cord.

I set up the Reference AV speakers in my new dedicated home theater, which features a 120-inch projection screen video system and some pretty solid but not insanely expensive electronics. For the duration of the review, I mounted the main speakers on either side of my projection screen with the center channel resting just below the bottom edge. I mounted the rears on the side walls just behind the main listening position with the tweeters at approximately ear level. I connected the Reference AV speakers to my Outlaw Audio 970 preamp/processor and 7200 amplifier (review forthcoming) via Monster M Series speaker cable. I set up the TR-2 subwoofer using its LFE input, with the crossover setting falling to my 970 preamp/processor. Gallo sent me two TR-2 subwoofers for this review and I experimented with having both in operation with rather impressive results. However, I couldn’t help but try to get the most out of a single TR-2, for I felt that a single sub set-up would be more in line with the needs of potential buyers. Keep in mind that the ability to easily and affordably include more than one sub into your multi-channel system is something the TR-2 makes easily possible, and if you have the means, I strongly recommend giving two subs a whirl, for the overall sonic presentation will benefit from it. For multi-channel music and movies, I used my Toshiba XA-1 HD DVD player in tandem with my Panasonic AE-900U HD LCD projector, with my trusty Denon 3910 Universal player handling all two-channel music. All power filtering and cabling came by way of Monster Cable.

A quick note on mounting; the Reference AV speakers are easy enough to mount and I applaud Gallo for including the requisite drywall anchors to help in mounting when a stud isn’t present. However, the drywall anchors I received with my review samples were a bit defective, in that the screws were too long for the anchor casing and were ultimately unusable, which forced me to use my own screws that I had on hand. It’s a minor oversight that resulted in momentary inconvenience. Truth be told, I would have gone with my own drywall anchors to begin with had I not been in such a hurry. As with anything, patience is a virtue and I can not stress enough to adhere to proper mounting and safety procedures when positioning the Reference AV speakers, as the last thing you want is for your new speakers to come crashing down around you in the middle of a movie. Lastly, you’ll want to make sure the tweeters are positioned as close as possible to ear level; while the Reference AV’s horizontal dispersion is good, its vertical dispersion (in regards to the tweeter) is not. In a little under two hours, I had everything done and mounted and was ready to enjoy the show.

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.

The Downside
No speaker is perfect and, while the Reference AVs and TR-2 subwoofer made for a great combination, there were a few elements that made me take note. First, the Reference AV’s off-axis response in a stereo set-up, like electrostatics, is a little bit finicky. The dispersion laterally is excellent, but its vertical dispersion, mainly the tweeter, is less than stellar. Mounting the speakers with the tweeter as close to ear level as possible is a must and will reward you in spades.

Next was the mounting procedure itself. The Reference AV system is an ingenious design through and through. However, mounting can still be a bit tricky. As with all on-wall speakers, use caution when placing them in your room. I know that Gallo provides the necessary mounting hardware for their speakers, but I would recommend taking a trip to your hardware store for some beefier anchors. Better yet, any Gallo dealer can install such a high-performance speaker for you. In fact, the dealer likely even knows a handyman who can patch any drywall and/or touch up the paint on your walls before you make it home from work.

With a package price of $6,700.00 for five matching Reference AV speakers and a single TR-2 subwoofer, the latest offering from Gallo isn’t cheap. Then again, they don’t sound cheap, nor do they look cheap. They are reference speakers that live up to their name in every sense of the word and do so with such ease and grace that you’ll probably never question the need for more. The Reference AVs are very revealing and somewhat unforgiving of bad source material and/or components but, provided you have the proper toys, they could quite possibly be the last speakers you ever buy, making their price tag seem like more of a bargain. Ultimately, you’ll have to decide for yourself if the Gallo’s look and sound is for you, but you’d be doing yourself a huge disservice if you bought anything else without hearing the Reference AV system first.
Manufacturer Anthony Gallo Acoustics
Model Reference AV On-wall Speaker System
Reviewer Andrew Robinson

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