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Feature Articles & Reviews
Those lucky years I get a chance to attend a Consumer Electronics Show, I always make sure to visit the showroom of Anthony Gallo Acoustics -- I want to know what Gallo’s doing with his gorgeous, ultramodern Reference 3 floorstanding speakers. Every few years, he seems able to coax some additional musical accuracy from his original spherical enclosure by extending and sweetening both the high and low ends. I’ve yet to hear a Gallo Reference 3-series speaker that didn’t make it onto my Best of Show list -- and often, the Gallo is the least expensive speaker listed there.
What Gallo has always delivered
From the very start, Gallo’s Reference speakers have been celebrated for their great sound, very modern looks, and the fact that they are so tiny for the incredible bass they produce. In the world of behemoth speakers, the Nucleus Reference 3.5 ($6000 per pair USD), with dimensions of 35"H x 8"W x 16"D, qualifies for use in a New York City efficiency apartment.
Few speakers with any pretense of qualifying as the state of the art go this deep in the bass while still seeming to entirely "disappear." We’ve all heard tiny speakers where you can close your eyes and get lost in the space of a soundstage. That’s partly because they’re small enough to approximate the gold standard of soundstaging: a true point source. Unfortunately, the bigger the drivers and cabinet, the harder it is to pull off that disappearing trick. It’s not impossible -- some designers of big speakers have figured out ways to get close -- but the more you go for deep bass, the harder it is to disappear.
Which is one of the reasons some audiophiles prefer a combination of small speakers and a subwoofer. Gallo’s smaller Reference model, the stand-mounted Nucleus Reference Strada, combined with one of their TR-1 or TR-3 subwoofers, is about half the price of the Reference 3.5, and it also pulls a neat disappearing act while providing copious bass. But when Anthony Gallo was demonstrating these two Reference models in his showroom at the 2010 CES, the larger Reference 3.5 was far more involving in the upper bass and low midrange. Acoustic instruments had the type of transient impact usually only heard live, sitting up front in a club and listening to unamplified instruments.
Part of the reason for this sound quality is the seamless clarity you get from a minimalist crossover design. Gallo has chosen drivers -- especially the mid/tweeter assembly -- whose frequency response naturally rolls off at the right levels to avoid the harmful effects of extensive crossover parts. Rabid audiophiles who constantly search for Lowther-styled single-driver nirvana might find a lot to like about Gallo’s Reference 3.5 or Strada. The Gallos need a bit more amplifier power, but the Lowther’s characteristic transparency is neatly mirrored in Gallo’s Reference 3.5s.
Of course, that should be no surprise. Gallo’s first commercial product was a single-driver, one-way system that was astonishingly transparent. He’s got the single-driver sound in his blood -- and in his product line, in the forms of the A’Diva and Nucleus Micro models.
Another thing the Gallo Reference series has always offered is dazzling appearance. Some might disagree, but to me, the Reference 3.5 is one of the most attractive speakers made, with a beautiful combination of Scandinavian simplicity and modern American engineering. This speaker managed to look good in a Las Vegas hotel suite; put a pair of them in a clean, stylish, well-designed house, whether in modern, contemporary, Tuscan, French, or traditional American style, and they’ll look fine. The more modern the house, the more they’ll blend in; the older the style, the more they’ll make a statement. Either way, the Reference 3.5 has the looks of a classic design, and should delight any spouse, however picky.
Finally, you get 16 years of continually proven, and improving, Gallo quality. The man builds well-engineered, dependable products that do what they should. I have two models in my home from his current collection and wholeheartedly recommend both. I use a Reference AV Center in my home theater, where I have only a limited amount of space to dedicate to a center-channel speaker. While I believe that the best speaker array for a home theater comprises five or seven identical speakers, I can’t afford a setup like that when my main two front speakers are ATC SCM50As. For those of you who can afford to spend a mere $75,000 to $100,000 on speakers, congratulations -- I highly recommend an array of ATCs. You’d be in good company: Pink Floyd, Tom Petty, the Rolling Stones, Doug Sax, Bob Ludwig, Abbey Road, Sony, PolyGram, Telarc, Warner Bros., and Naxos all use them. But I could afford the Gallo Reference AV Center, which shares the ATC’s razor-sharp imaging, transparent sound, and powerful transient attack.
In my recording and listening studio I use a Gallo TR-3 sub, which beautifully complements my Digidesign RM2 Reference Monitors, an active design engineered by PMC. The Digidesign’s frequency response is essentially flat in my room, so adding the TR-3 was a snap -- and the system plays as loudly as I’d ever want.
What you get for $6000
Those who’ve spent time with any of the earlier iterations of the Nucleus Reference 3, the 3.0, or 3.1, will have to spend some time listening to the 3.5 to know what they’re getting for their extra money. The fact that the Reference 3.5 is visually nearly identical to the 3.1, which cost only about half as much, apparently troubles some folks.
Of course, the important issue is not how the 3.5’s price compares to the older model but how it compares with other speakers at anywhere near the new price. I believe that the 3.5 is competitive with many speakers costing upward of $20,000/pair; how many of those manufacturers think nothing of making minor changes to the crossover and adding $3000 to their price? Gallo gives us a lot more than minor changes.
What’s new in the Nucleus Reference 3.5 isn’t immediately apparent. The most expensive driver in the speaker is the CDT3 tweeter, and it’s better in drawing less attention to itself, both physically and aurally. It’s more coherent in its aesthetic consistency with the dual 4" carbon-fiber mids, and does an even better job of disappearing into the soundstage.
Bass lovers will appreciate the new, more efficient 10" ceramic-coated aluminum woofer. In the earlier Reference 3s, using a separate amp for the woofers was vital. Adding the amp to the older models kicked the response down to the low end of the 20-30Hz range. In my room, the Nucleus Reference 3.5 easily dealt with frequencies below the lowest note of a double bass, but it missed the lowest thrummm of the bass drum. If you’re driving the 3.5s with a low-power amp, adding a second amp for the woofers might give you an extra 5-10Hz of extension down low. Anthony Gallo recommends and demonstrates his speakers using a single, high-powered amp.
The next improvement is in the Optimized Pulse Technology (OPT) Level 2 system. I have to admit that this sounds to me a little like subtle voodoo, but it seems to work. Gallo uses a small lead from the hot terminal to the speaker’s main body which, he says, ensures strict timing relationships between all system transducers in the electrical domain. (I don’t understand it either.)
Finally, in the four years since the launch of the Nucleus Reference 3.0, the value of the US dollar has declined and the prices of imported goods have risen. Thus, Gallo must now pay more for his raw materials, and that cost is passed along to the customer.
New sound for your money
Other reviewers, especially those who are Lowther fans, have evaluated the Nucleus Reference 3.5 with low-powered amps, but I think they need at least 100Wpc. I used them with the Anthem Statement A5, conservatively rated at 180Wpc; this produced an open sound with no sense of high-level compression. The Gallos can be positioned with their woofers facing toward or away from each other. The former produces more midbass, the latter less. First try pointing the woofers inward; if the sound is a little thick in the upper bass and lower midrange, try them the other way.
While I’d never owned the Nucleus Reference 3 model before, our own Jim Saxon owned a pair of 3.0s and reported that "they had two limitations that hectored me into selling them: 1) they self-protected in silence on sustained loud passages, and 2) they imaged too low, causing me to ‘look down’ at the performers." Love that word, hectored. What I can report is that the 3.5s never caused any sort of protection to trip, and they imaged like champs.
The opening of Giuseppe Patané’s recording of Arrigo Boito’s opera Mefistofele (CD, Sony Classical S2K 44983) is among the loudest music in the entire classical realm. As the forces of good sing their hearts out, praying for Faust’s soul in his bet with the devil, you can get a glimpse of what Heaven must really look like. Any speaker trying to cope with these forces needs to be able to play loud and long, and the Reference 3.5s lived to tell the tale. I missed the savage, house-rattling bass that my reference B&W CT SW15 subwoofer provides. I mean, Heaven needs some help to counter Mefistofele’s promises of riches, long life, and naked women.
Fink’s Sort of Revolution (CD, Ninja Tune ZENCD146P) is one of my favorite releases of 2009, and a good example of a radio-friendly recording that also sounds great on a top-flight audio system. In the title song, Fink’s nylon-string guitar and weary voice came through so clearly I could feel his pain and pleasure, and the bass through the Gallos would please even such dubmeisters as Keith Hudson or Scratch Perry. To get this sound before would have required the addition of a big sub amp. Not now.
Though the improvement is subtle, the new tweeter has also made the sound more coherent. Conductor Andrew Litton is an audiophile who has sunk more cash into his stereo system than he would like his wife to know about. That’s where he checks the quality of his own recordings, and he has a keen ear. His recording, with the Bergen Philharmonic, of the three suites from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet (CD, BIS 1301) has both subtlety and power, and is simple and lucid enough to be a fine test of a stereo system. The ability of the Gallo’s CDT3 tweeter to be at one with the speaker’s midrange drivers let me see just that bit deeper into the soundstage.
Whether or not listeners were able to use audiophile jargon to describe what about a music system appealed to them, no one who listened to the Gallos in my room missed its incredible vanishing act -- the effect was not subtle. No one had to sit there, eyes closed, and struggle to hear tiny cues that the sound really was accurate. Everyone heard it.
Is it worth your money?
One of the best pieces of information a person can glean from Statistics 101 is the concept of the asymptotic curve: As one thing increases, so does another, albeit at a much lower rate -- in other words, diminishing returns. We see this every day in our search for quality music and home-theater gear. There is a point at which a 100% increase in cost brings a 100% increase in quality, but usually, the next 100% increase in cost yields only a 50% increase in quality. The next 100% price hike may offer only a 25% quality increase. Etc.
These Gallo Nucleus Reference 3.5 loudspeakers hit the curve at the perfect place. Of course, each of us defines quality differently; someone who makes $50 million a year might be willing to pay more money for a just-noticeable difference in quality than someone making $50,000/year.
Four years ago, when the Nucleus Reference 3.1 came out, I told anyone who would listen that it was a bargain at twice the price. I was wrong. The 3.5 is twice the price, but as good a speaker as most people will ever need. In the opinions of most people it probably won’t outperform the Jeff Fritz-approved Rockport Technologies Arrakis ($165,000/pair), but the Anthony Gallo Acoustics Nucleus Reference 3.5 is as close to the state of the art of loudspeaker technology as most of us will ever need. Bravo.
. . . Wes Marshall
Anthony Gallo Acoustics Nucleus Reference 3.5 Loudspeakers
Price: $6000 USD per pair.
Warranty: Five years parts and labor with registration.
Anthony Gallo Acoustics
20841 Prairie Street
Chatsworth, CA 91311
Phone: (800) 459-4183
Fax: (818) 341-2188
The Bentley Mulsanne. Men’s suits by Oxxford Clothes. Domaine de la Romanée-Conti wines. The Rockport Technologies Arrakis speakers. I could make a case that each of these products is at the very pinnacle of its incredibly competitive market. Someone else might point out that each is also priced exclusively for the carriage trade. But if someone really wants his or her own handmade, flawlessly designed piece of creative perfection, then at least these products exist.
The management at NūVision is hoping that home-theater aficionados will add their brand’s name to the elite list of marques that dependably trounce the rest of the market while offering the cachet of rarity that makes carriage traders salivate. While I’m sure NūVision appreciates any good review (including one from SoundStageX.com), my guess is that their gold standard is The Robb Report.
How far does NūVision take this? On the webpage with which they introduce their management (most of whom are either venture capitalists or folks with experience in marketing fine watches), they show an image of not a TV, but a chair. Whenever a marketing department shows pictures of items that have nothing to do with what its company sells, pay attention: They’re hoping for a hat trick using an unconscious syllogism. The chair is Knoll’s Barcelona Chair, designed in 1929 by the great Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. Costing $5000 to $7500, the Barcelona isn’t the most expensive chair on earth, but it makes two statements about its owner: he or she must have not only good taste, but a fair amount of spare cash. Which also describes NūVision’s vision of their ideal customer. Such a customer should own one of their TVs, right?
NūVision understands that they must start with the basics: a great picture with an easy-to-use control system that doesn’t break down. (I’ll get to those basics shortly.) However, in order to make it in the luxury market, you’ve got to offer a lot more than a good picture.
To prevent the dreaded commoditization of their products, NūVision avoids big-box stores in hopes of maintaining their brand’s exclusivity. You’ll have to do some legwork to find their TVs, and when you do, you’ll usually find them in a high-end shop. Luxury buyers expect luxury treatment, and what they can expect to find from NūVision’s +300 outlets is someone who understands the product and can demonstrate what makes it special. Other outlets offer either sales staff of random quality (Best Buy, Fry’s) or no help at all (Costco, Sam’s Club). A NūVision dealer can provide the extra contact that can help allay a buyer’s apprehension.
Luxury buyers want to avoid spending any time getting the TV to look right and work correctly. To that end, the TV comes from the factory with accurate settings, and then the dealer comes to your home to give it a final fine-tuning. NūVision TVs even shift their own backlighting intensity, based on the ambient room conditions. No troublesome adjustments necessary.
The last thing one of these well-heeled consumers would want is to have to pull down a heavy TV, send it back to the factory for service, then spend a week or two without TV. So NūVision provides a guarantee of in-home service with a blazingly fast turnaround of two days. They also offer a two-year warranty, rather than the 90 to 365 days offered by others. Their goal is to make even the luxurious Runco TVs feel like Kmart products.
The NūVision Lucidium NVU40FX5LS (hereinafter called the NVU40) looks as gorgeous as a black television can. NūVision has wisely avoided the Ralph Lauren logo elephantiasis syndrome (soon their polo player will cover both front and back, from tails to collar!). The only indication of the brand is a discreet Ū, and the power-on indicator is a soothing cool blue when on, a restrained red when off. Otherwise, all is black. The NVU40 costs $3499 USD; add $199 for its very sturdy stand.
Remembering that some of their well-heeled customers are sensitive about their home décor, NūVision offers several of their models in any Pantone color you could ask for. There’s an upcharge of $1500, but in this market, who cares? If you want your TV to have the full camouflage routine, they’ll also provide a one-way mirror finish for the NVU40’s glass. Given the fact that it’s as thin as it is (less than 1.5”), a NūVision TV could almost be mistaken for a simple mirror.
The NVU40 is LED driven, but it’s important to remember that there are two types of LED lighting. The less expensive, and the version chosen for the NVU40, is called edge-lit. The lights are placed at the top and bottom edges of the TV instead of behind. In the other version of LED lighting, called local dimming, the LEDs are behind and spread around the screen, which permits a portion of the picture to be dead black yet still right next to a bright area. Edge-lit LED TVs can’t meet the gold standard of absolute black.
Otherwise, edge-lighting is definitely superior to the more common fluorescent system. The edge-lit LED makes possible a thinner box and uses a lot less energy. Still, it’s unclear why NūVision chose the less expensive technology, though my guess is it had to do with the thinness of the screen. The NVU40 is so thin that it’s shipped on a palette, standing straight up and strapped down for dear life. It takes two to move the TV -- not because it’s heavy (it weighs about 40 pounds), but to make sure the screen isn’t accidentally flexed. On the positive side, it looks so elegant that my wife, who has a background in design, wanted to get out her checkbook then and there.
The NVU40 has connections for every possible use, including four separate HDMI inputs. A set of black-on-black controls on the side are well hidden, but usable when the remote isn’t to hand. The remote itself is one of the most graceful versions I’ve used, even if it’s plastic. We especially appreciated its rubbery back, which helps keep the remote snug in the hand. Most NūVision customers mount their TVs on the wall; the rear panel has a stout set of standard VESA 400x400mm screw holes.
Because all NūVision TVs are professionally installed, their ease or difficulty of setup and the comprehensiveness of their settings menus are of no importance to the buyer. Still, kudos to the setup folks at NūVision: out of the box, the review sample was set as close to perfect as any display ever to arrive chez Marshall. My biggest adjustment was to back down the sharpness by about half.
The first thing to grab my attention was the NVU40’s automatically variable, room-dependent backlight (labeled, unhelpfully, Day/Night). I was sure this was a mere gimmick that wouldn’t work. Why would I care so much about such a thing? I have LCDs all over the house, and in most of the rooms I don’t go to the hassle of exercising vigorous light control. A TV that could self-adjust to external lighting conditions would be very welcome. I just didn’t believe it was possible.
I turned it on and off, alternating Day, Night, and Auto. The effect was most powerful with live HD feeds of TV shows: Good Morning America, Letterman, Morning Joe, The Daily Show, Colbert. In every case, Day or Night, with sunshine or low incandescent lights, the auto-backlight worked beautifully. Color was ideal, detail microscopic, and the contrast frankly shocking. Black and bright portions of images that were side by side were of the quality you’d normally find only on local-dimming LED screens. The NVU40 made my other LCDs, all by Samsung and Toshiba, look washed out.
In fact, the NūVision bullied my other TVs so badly that I went around the house, working their controls to see if I could get them any closer to the NVU40’s picture. I couldn’t. The NūVision’s picture was almost three-dimensional in the way its contrast showed all of the depth cues that my other TVs apparently were washing out. Even torture tests, like the bottom of the folds in Letterman’s dark suits, were revealed with incredible clarity.
My favorite sporting event of the year is the NBA playoffs; the NVU40’s picture was so good that I didn’t mind leaving the big projector off for the less important games. Here’s where the NVU40’s internal processing really paid off. I’m normally suspicious of extensive claims made for technologies with company-specific intialisms, such as NūVision’s FX5 and FFM. I’m much more interested in the impact a TV has on realism and eye comfort. No matter what they call it, it worked. Watching the Celtics’ Rajon Rondo scramble through the crowds, there were no motion artifacts. The Phoenix Suns’ Amar’e Stoudemire looked like Godzilla as he crashed through five people, then warped into hyperspeed to jam the ball home. It was as smooth as being there.
Here’s what NūVision claims. FX5 (which stands for Film times Five) is a process in which a frame is repeated five times, to eliminate frame-rate conversion errors. Watching The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) in HD was instructive. (It’s still one of the most beautifully photographed films ever made.) Once film executives thought of TV as a place to show their product, they tried to make directors and cinematographers more sensitive to telecine judder; before TV, not so much. So it’s always a good idea to check movement in an old film and see what happens. Robin Hood features an extended sword fight between Basil Rathbone and Errol Flynn that’s rife with opportunities for problems. I can’t swear that the FX5 process deserves the glory, but the picture looked fantastic on the NVU40. Nary a judder in sight.
Frame Forward Motion (FFM) interpolates between-frame data, which NūVision claims works well for fast-moving sports. I tried flashing through the settings, and there was an effect. On High, it looked fine with sports, but downright odd on slow fades. In fact, before using FFM’s High setting, I’d never noticed how many slow fades there are in television. Notching down to Normal helped alleviate the fade problem, but it still seemed to add a touch of jumpiness. Most of the time, I ended with FFM set to Low or Off.
But it’s the viewer’s overall impression of the images that’s most important. I’d never before seen a display of any type that offered such an intensely colored, highly defined, and three-dimensional picture. It was distinct, smooth, and lifelike, as close to 3D as I’ve ever seen in a 2D TV.
Is it worth it?
The Lucidium NVU40FX5LS costs $3499, and that price is accurate -- no one discounts NūVision products. Compare it with similarly specified, high-performance 40-42” TVs, such as the LG 42LX6500 ($1899), Samsung UN40C7000 ($1799), or Sony Bravia KDL-40NX700 ($1529). Even the 46” Toshiba Regza 46SV670U costs only about $2400. Only the Runco CX-OPAL42HD ($4495) and B&O BeoVision 10 ($6300) go for more.
But let’s go back to that luxury concept. Are you a person who would choose between a BMW and a Mercedes? Or would you make up your mind between a Rolls-Royce and a Bentley? NūVision is hoping you’ll see themselves as the latter choice, and all the other premium brands as the former. Those of us who choose between a Honda and a Nissan are left to press our noses against the fence and wish.
But if you can afford a flawlessly designed TV, then at least these products exist. If you can come up with the $3700 it will cost to see one of NūVision’s brilliant TVs installed on your wall, good for you. I wouldn’t look any further. You’ll love the experience.
. . . Wes Marshall
NūVision Lucidium NVU40FX5LS LED TV
Price: $3499 USD (add $199 for stand).
Warranty: Two years parts and labor.
Phone: (877) 738-7641
I relate this journey in hopes it will help you avoid your own.
Longtime readers know that I am a fan of HDMI. Any time a single cable can replace as many as 19 cables and all their functions, I’m a happy videophile. Add the fact that HDMI licensees must certify that their products are compliant with HDMI specifications before they can use the HDMI logo, I’m even happier. And the HDMI trade group certifies not just wires but the entire signal chain: receivers, processors, switchers, splitters, and amplifiers (all of which they collectively refer to as “repeaters”). What’s not to love?
Well, a few weeks ago, my wife and I rose from bed for our morning political fix from MSNBC, recorded on our DISH DVR. Not a single TV in the house had a DISH signal -- just the dreaded blue screens signifying that none was receiving a usable signal.
No problem, right? Obviously, the predicament wasn’t caused by a TV, because all six sets were showing the same blue screen. Must be a source or repeater that needed a hard reset. Our Integra DHC-9.9 A/V processor wasn’t getting a signal either, so I checked the Accell 2x8 HDMI switcher/splitter. It was frozen in the off position, which made it the likely source of our woes. But Accell’s tech support was language-challenged, and the only solution they offered was for me to return the unit. I replaced it with an Octava 4x4 HDMI switcher. The screens were still blue.
This made me think the villain was probably High-bandwidth Digital Content Protection (HDCP), the entertainment industry’s system for preventing digital copying of content. The lack of consistently dependable HDCP “handshakes” between A/V components is well known, and the fact that nothing was working made me believe that something like that was shutting down my whole system. I even tried recommendations from anonymous advisors on the Internet, who suggested specific and tedious solutions involving detailed ways of verifying and forcing handshakes in certain magical sequences that were often contradictory. I felt I was descending through the Nine Circles of Hell.