One of the main reasons to consider buying, say, a $7000 surround system as opposed to a system half that price is the quest for sonic openness and transparency—that sense peeling away electronic layers of noise, distortion and even minor forms of grunge so that you are left, quite simply, face to face with whatever sounds the record producer or movie soundtrack designer meant for you to hear. Gallo’s Reference-series speakers, such as the Reference 3 and Reference 3.1, have traditionally done a good job in this area, but in the Reference Strada system has taken this important quality to a new and much higher level. The effect is not unlike the sonic equivalent of shifting from looking through an ever so slightly smudged window to looking through a freshly cleaned, crystal-clear pane of glass. Suddenly, everything seems to snap into sharper focus, while contrasts—even very subtle ones—become more readily apparent. And, to borrow the old expression, you can’t help but notice that there is "more there there”—even in records and soundtracks you might have thought you knew well.
Another reason to step up to high-performance surround speaker system is the desire to experience and savor all the subtle, low-level textural and transient details in recordings that, for whatever reason, are often overlooked or otherwise fail to be captured by lesser systems. Here again, the Reference Strada system pushes the envelope harder than most systems its price, and reaches a higher level of performance than its earlier-generation Reference-series predecessors—which is saying a mouthful. From the listener’s perspective, the experience is a bit like going on an archeological expedition and finding that, just beneath what you thought was the surface of the ground, there are whole new worlds of information waiting to be discovered. And for obvious reasons, once the Reference Strada system reveals those new layers of sonic details, you won’t to be without them.
Because the components of the Reference Strada system are relatively small and compact, it’s only human to assume the system’s sound will be small and a bit constrained, as well, but this turns out not to be the case. While the Reference Strada satellites are not terribly sensitive (rated sensitivity is a low-ish 87dB/1watt/1meter), they appear to be a relatively benign load to drive and can handle a substantial amount of power. Just remember that you made need to use significantly higher gain settings than you would with other speaker systems. With gain turned up to appropriate levels, the Strada satellites, along with their companion TR-3 subwoofers, produce an unexpectedly big, dynamically expressive, full-bodied sound. What is more, they do so with almost none of the latent edginess or glare to which some higher-efficiency speaker systems are sometimes prone.
It often happens that high performance speaker systems that deliver the virtues I’ve mentioned above entail certain implicit tradeoffs—often in the form of sounding slightly brash, sterile, or edgy when asked to play less than ideal material. But the Reference Strada system really isn’t like that at all. Instead, it offers unusually smooth, neutral tonal balance and a welcome degree of freedom from cabinet-induced noises and artifacts. Some listeners felt there was a subtle dip in the Strada’s upper midrange response—roughly in the region where output from the mid-bass drivers transitions to output from the CDT tweeter—but this is not particularly noticeable and, if anything, contributes to the perceived smoothness of the system’s sound. Not surprisingly, then, the Reference Strada system’s imaging and soundstaging are exceptional, and not just at the system’s price point, but in an absolute sense. This means the Reference Strada system is that rare audio beast that is at once highly revealing, yet rarely if ever punishing—a sweet combination.
Are there caveats to note? There are a few, though I consider them relatively minor ones. First, as mentioned above, the Reference Strada system is relatively low in sensitivity and therefore requires both ample power and higher than normal gain settings. I tried the Strada system with several different AVRs and found, not surprisingly, that it worked best when driven by the most powerful (and also the highest quality) receiver I had on hand. That said, I would say that the Stradas can still perform at a pretty high level when used with modestly priced but well designed receivers such as Onkyo’s excellent $600 TX-SR607. It’s just that the Stradas will also show you in no uncertain terms why more powerful, higher-end amplification components might be a good investment.