More so than most surround sound speaker systems, the Reference Strada system could fairly be called an “audiophile’s” speaker system. By this I mean that the Reference Strada rig is at least as much at home playing high-resolution stereo and multichannel music material as it is negotiating the rigors of movie soundtracks. Ordinarily hardcore audiophiles tend to gravitate toward traditional stereo systems, but the Reference Strada is so good at what it does that it builds a very strong case for stepping into the surround world.
Want proof? Just try putting on the SACD version of the classic RCA Living Stereo recording of the Jascha Heifetz/Charles Munch/Boston Symphony Orchestra performance of Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No. 2 in G Minor. This extraordinary recording was made in 1959, but it sounds so fresh, so vital, and so full of spectacular inner details that it could have been made yesterday (if, that is, we could still find record producers as skilled and sensitive as John Pfeiffer was when he made this record roughly fifty years ago). Interestingly, the original 1959 recording featured three channels (left, center, and right) and thus qualifies as one of the earliest true multichannel recordings around.
What floored me about the Gallo system’s performance on the Prokofiev piece was, first of all, the richly detailed and yet never, ever edgy way in which it captured the energy, articulation and underlying sweetness of Heifetz’s violin sound. Masterful violin playing, I think, represents a real high-wire act where, on the one hand, the violinist works to make each note count and to give each note its own clearly delineated beginning and end, yet on the other hand works to tie notes together so they form a cohesive, organic whole. Err in one direction and the sound becomes overly sharp-edged and brittle, but err in the other and the sound loses definition and inner clarity of purpose. What the Stradas effortlessly revealed is the way Heifetz found that elusive middle path, playing with power and clarity, yet with a touch of warmth that tied the whole concerto together. Few speaker systems of any configuration or price could handle this material more sensitively than the Reference Strada system did.
Another impressive element of the Stradas’ performance involved the way Gallos captured the lively yet well-controlled and very well balanced sound of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Orchestral music is, in many respects, an acid test of loudspeaker performance because it forces systems to reproduce multiple timbres (and dynamic envelopes) at once. On the Prokofiev piece the Stradas beautifully delineated orchestral sections—and, where appropriate, even individual instrumental voices—with real grace and fluidity, giving a convincing sensation of hearing a real orchestra at play in a plausible, real-world acoustic space (replete with hall ambience and reverberations).
As good as the Reference Strada system proved to be on orchestral music some readers will no doubt want to ask, “yes, but can the Stradas rock?” My unequivocal answer (provided your amplifier or receiver is up to the job) is that they most certainly can. To put the question to the test, I put on the spectacular track “Lil’ Victa” from SMV’s Thunder [Heads Up]. SMV, as some of you may know, represents a collaborative effort between the master bass guitarists Stanley Clarke, Marcus Miller, and Victor Wooten, and “Lil’Victa” is a showcase piece that features signature solos from all three. Even those who are not bass guitar aficionados can appreciate the way the track captures the distinctive instrumental voices, variations in playing techniques, and sheer punchy exuberance each player brings to the party. On lesser systems these distinctions can be (and often are) blurred and blunted, so that the differences between the players are obscured, but through the Stradas each player’s signature sound stood out in sharp relief from the others. When heard live this sort of music is almost always performed a vigorous though not ear-splitting volume levels—levels that most systems struggle to reproduce in a realistic way. But not so the Stradas; they just waded right in and made themselves at home with the material, reproducing it with the power, punch, and clarity it ought to have.
Despite its comparatively diminutive size and unorthodox looks, Gallo’s Reference Strada system is a terrifically refined and robust performer that is equally at home when playing high-powered movie soundtracks or the most delicate of musical recordings. At a price nearing $7000 the Reference Strada system is certainly not cheap, but it is worth every red cent of its asking price as it can, quite seriously, stand tall in comparison to systems twice its price. Very enthusiastically recommended.