Feature Articles & Reviews
My system, as it stood last month, was the RME Fireface 800 digital processor, Dell XPS de garbage computer, Digidesign RM-2 speakers, a Gallo TR-3 subwoofer, and lots of CDs. The first order of business was to replace the Dell. That’s when I discovered Rain Recording.
We’re getting out onto a skinny branch of what listening to music from a computer can mean. The folks at Rain serve professional musicians (and the occasional gifted, well-heeled amateur), especially those who are crazy for the delicacies and intricacies of music. By that I mean professional sound people in the fields of film scoring, music mastering, live performance, you name it. Rain makes computers that are rugged, rack-mountable (thank heavens), and quiet.
And powerful. Mine is an Ion 64, about a year old. Rain has much more powerful machines now, but I still have Windows 7, 64-bit Professional, AMD Phenom 9850 Quad-Core Processor, 8GB of RAM, and direct input from and output to the Fireface 800 via a FireWire 400 cable to the PC, which offers a direct digital feed to my speakers, or an analog feed at whatever rate I care to use. The current equivalent of my model runs about $2500. Want more? Rain’s new Ion Studio uses the Intel Westmere Xeon 6-Core brain, with 24GB of RAM and 6TB of high-performance storage. Now that will make some music. For about $6000.
For another $299, Rain includes a dealmaker offered by no one else I’m aware of: Raincare Encompass. Ever had one of those terrible experiences where your computer crashes, and each support center you call blames it on someone else? I call Dell, they blame it on Cakewalk. I Call Cakewalk, they blame it on Kontakt. You get the idea. This will never happen to me again. I just call Rain and they help me -- no blame game, just let’s get it fixed. I can’t tell you how much joy this single feature has brought me. But on top of that, it is impressively quiet and built with the quality of a musical instrument, which is what it really is.
Rain offers another service that’s vital for folks who want to stream high-resolution recordings from their computers: They test other people’s products, name names in terms of what works and what doesn’t, and thus help avoid costly problems with incompatibilities. A nice touch.
The next decision was where to store my music files. I began by using whatever cheap hard drive I could get, and ripping 320kbps MP3 files. This worked just fine for casual background listening. But after losing a hard drive or two, I decided to move up in quality to Seagate FreeAgent Pro. They had the best warranty for the price and size of drive, and I could choose among eSata, FireWire, or USB connections. And everything is backed up nightly, automatically.
Two English publications also have hi-rez sound on their radar. Gramophone has a monthly column about where to find good classical-music downloads; and for those who believe, as I do, that professional gear offers a good alternative for a home music system, then Sound on Sound offers excellent reviews of professional music-monitoring equipment aimed at people who lack unlimited expense accounts.
I strongly advise that you rip or download your music at the highest possible resolution. The cost of digital storage continues to drop almost as quickly as the cost of processing devices. Currently, 2TB hard drives go for about $100; each will hold about 65,000 songs in the WAV format, or a bit over 300,000 songs as 320kbps MP3s. Either way, that’s a lot of music; don’t skimp with lossy rip rates.
What all true audiophiles seek is the holy grail: a sound source of whatever format that sonically matches the sound of the master tape. With cheaper storage, faster download rates, and higher-definition recorders all hitting at once, a few startups have begun offering downloads of genuinely high quality.
One site where I spend entirely too much time is the Internet Archive. Some generous bands who allow stealthy tapers to capture live shows also allow them to make their recordings available to other fans for free. These have various quality levels, but this site was one of the first I found that offered 24-bit recordings for download. Charlie Hunter Live at the Knitting Factory is a 24-bit, FLAC-encoded (i.e., lossless) recording with amazing percussion sound. Track 4, "Improv," features a percussion solo that completely negates any preconceived notions ("Omigod, yuck, another drum solo!"), and offers a stunning close-up perspective of quietly tapped and bent instruments, some tuned, others spreading into a bed of sound. The solo lasts only 2:30, but what a great test of a system’s resolving abilities. And of earth-shattering importance for those of us willing to admit to a tendency toward Deadheadedness, the Internet Archive is the repository of the most extensive collection of live Grateful Dead material on the Web, including over 1000 concerts in hi-def sound. If you’re so inclined, search out the meticulous 24-bit recordings mastered by Charlie Miller, many of them originally made by Betty Cantor -- for Dead fans, that’s the gold standard. And thank you, Lord, it’s all free.
Two other places where I spend entirely too much time are www.linnrecords.com and HDtracks’ 96kHz/24-bit Store. Linn calls their Studio Master recordings "the highest-quality music file available." Puffery? I’m not sure. Try their recording of John Butt and the Dunedin Consort’s performance of J.S. Bach’s Mass in B Minor (Linn CKD-354). Butt uses Joshua Rifkin’s concept of just one or two singers per choral part, instead of the usual 20 sopranos, 20 altos, etc. The clarity is lifelike. In the Dona nobis pacem (track 27), the complex choral parts are perfectly defined; at 2:05 in, the trumpet’s quiet entrance foreshadows the arrival of the timpani in a gorgeous paean, converting -- in a way I’ve never heard before -- a plea for peace into a triumphal, almost royal announcement of victory. Great sound and great performance in one recording. That’s rare.
William Orbit’s My Oracle Lives Uptown (Linn AKH 351) is offered in a 24-bit FLAC file. I had on hand an MP3 mix from eMusic, who rely on MP3 files with bit rates from 190 to 250kbps. Track 2, "Purdy," makes a good comparison: At 2:50 into the song, a synthesizer rolls in. Ten seconds later, there’s the faint sound of a woman inhaling. Sexy. In the lossy MP3 formats, the burr of the synth sounds is carved off by the compression and the inhalation is buried in the mix. On the 24-bit FLAC, it raises the little hairs on the back of my neck. And Pink Floyd fans should listen closely to the end of the song, where Orbit quotes "Echoes."
Unfortunately, Linn has seen fit to omit The Blue Nile, their finest group ever. Their spectacular recordings cry out for the hi-def treatment, but they’re nowhere to be found on Linn’s site. We can only hope. All Linn purchases include hi-rez cover art, inlay, and booklet, and Linn works with several other labels, including some -- Channel Classics and Fonè -- that make dependably superb recordings.
HDtracks offers infinitely more music than does Linn. To start off, HDtracks has many of the top classical labels: Naxos, Telarc, BIS, ASV, Dorian, Chandos, ECM New Series, and dozens more. In terms of jazz, they have the top jazz label, Concord, as well as Impulse!, and smaller labels like American Clave, Sunnyside, MaxJazz, ECM, and Chesky (including, hallelujah, Dave’s True Story!).
Linn’s store is also quite a bit more expensive: I’m listening to Orbit’s Oracle, a 72-minute, 24-bit/44.1kHz FLAC file that costs $24; and Bach’s Mass in B Minor is $27 for a 102-minute, 24/192 FLAC. HDtracks has Dave’s True Story’s Sex Without Bodies, a 48-minute 24/96 download, for $18.
I’ve also downloaded from eMusic, Rhapsody, Wolfgang’s Vault (a favorite), iTunes, Amazon, Windows Media, and many others. All use lossy systems, which I find perfectly adequate for background music, so long as I keep my MP3 files running at the top rate of 320kbps. It’s only when you listen carefully at high playback volumes that the differences between 320kbps and higher resolutions become apparent.
Unfortunately, many of these services don’t offer 320kbps files. Most use Variable Bit Ratios (VBR), which average 220-250kbps. Wolfgang’s Vault even brags about how its VIP members (count me in) "get 192kbps streams, double our standard bitrate. You will love the quality difference and please don’t blame us if it prompts you to buy better speakers." While the statement is laughable, the music is sublime: a collection of recordings from Winterland and the Fillmores East and West, rescued from the personal collection of the late impresario Bill Graham. If bands like Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead, the Allman Brothers Band, and Miles Davis grab your interest, Wolfgang’s Vault has a serious collection of previously unreleased live broadcasts. Those old enough to remember the King Biscuit Flour Hour will also find a treasure trove.
With all this music available, the final choice was a music player. That market is crowded. iTunes has some quirks I don’t like -- for instance, when I try to highlight files, if I go one file too far, instead of just backing up, I have to start over. WinAmp has almost as many add-ons as an iPhone, but the advertising bothers me, although it does have one specific use for Deadheads. Rhapsody lacks a decent search function. And it always feels to me as if Windows Media is trying to take over my whole computer.
The winner is the Gold Version of MediaMonkey. Their community of brilliant experts seems to be waiting by their computers at all times, day or night, just hoping to answer my vaguest questions. I can catalog my entire collection, not just what’s on my computer. And 24-bit/192kHz is no problem; in fact, MediaMonkey is HDtracks’ recommended music player. There are enough skins to give you any look you can imagine. And when I called a helper at Raincare Encompass, I received a knowing nod of approval -- even he uses MediaMonkey.
The only other program I occasionally fall back on, because it really is the best ripper in the universe, is Exact Audio Copy. For poorly recorded live recordings, or those few occasions when I feel the mastering engineer did a bad job on a CD, I rely on Sound Forge and iZotope’s Mastering Effects Bundle. And I use a Monster Pro 3500 power conditioner ($300) to protect my investment.
So there you have it: RME Fireface 800, Rain Ion 64 computer, Seagate external hard drives, Digidesign RM-2 speakers, Gallo sub, the best sources of downloads I can lay my hands on, and MediaMonkey. It took a lot a sweat and tears to get to this point. I can’t claim it’s the greatest computer-based music-playback system on earth, but it certainly works for me, and delivers a lot of joy, day after day. May you love yours as much.
. . . Wes Marshall
Jeffrey W. Fritz, our editor-in-chief, recently sent out the following missive to SoundStage! Network writers: "As most of you know, we’ve gradually expanded our coverage of computer audio and will continue to do so in the future. If you have computer-audio capability and we haven’t discussed it, please let me know what your setup is."
Why this was exciting news for me requires a little explaining.
I am a very lucky guy. Almost 40 years ago, when I decided on writing as a career, the conventional wisdom was that you should find an underserved area and make yourself the expert in that field. But what was I going to choose? Breeding patterns of South Australian wallabies? High-performance, forged-alloy crankshafts? Women’s belts? There are surely people who feel ardently about those topics, but I wasn’t one of them. Rather than spend my life writing about something I found boring, I decided to pick a topic that seized my curiosity.
I was in college, and my passionate interests were girls, music, and stereo equipment, in that order. As a serial monogamist, I thought it inelegant to write about the girls. Plus, the most exciting parts of the discussion might make me an outcast in polite society. (I began writing five years after the Summer of Love, but social mores were still zippered pretty tightly.) And when it came to audio equipment, I’d spent a couple of years working in the top high-end shop in Dallas, so my working knowledge was stronger than most. However, the opportunities were very limited. Audio, High Fidelity, and Stereo Review were the main players. I had never seen a copy of Stereophile, and The Abso!ute Sound was brand new.
Music. Now there I had some expertise, at least in rock’n’roll, from Dion through Pink Floyd. Ditto for classical music, one of the areas of my major. So music it was.
But I was newly married to the best and last subject of my exercise in serial monogamy, and had to make more money than most music journalists do. Even today, any music writer pulling in over $1000 a month can count him- or herself pretty darn successful. But that’s hardly enough to support a family. So I finished graduate school and became a psychotherapist. Freelancing, I wrote for any publication that loved music and would pay me. All my money and spare time went to music.
Dreaming of the day I might be able to scratch a meager living out of writing, I kept my pen in the game. Over time, several august music and audio journals hired me to write articles or columns here and there: on the national side, Downbeat, Stereophile, Audio, and Film Score Monthly; and regionally, fun magazines and newspapers such as Buddy Magazine, Texas Jazz, and the Dallas Observer.
In late 1998, the day finally arrived. In the years up till then, I’d developed an interest in wine, and the Austin Chronicle took me on as their wine writer. Later, in early 2001, I began reviewing films for the SoundStage! Network. I started to write about wine for such major newspapers as the Dallas Morning News and the San Francisco Chronicle. A book deal followed, which in turn became a PBS TV series. Magazine editors started to call. It was still a meager living, but I was putting food on the table.
I never lost my love of music, and love to make my own music, though the latter is amateurish at best. Starting at about the same time as my full-time writing career, I switched most of my music from hardware and audio tape to computer hard drives. The best recording and digital audio workstation softwares I could afford were from Cakewalk and Sound Forge (Sony). Good-quality monitoring equipment was a necessity, which meant bypassing computers’ inadequate soundcards and hunting down some top-quality monitor speakers. And because, on a writer’s salary, I couldn’t afford two computers, I wrote in my music studio. Each day, I would carry in a day’s worth of CDs and blissfully write while listening to them.
At the time, the practice of listening to music streamed from computers got no respect. Still, I knew there was something special going on -- the acoustic music I was making myself sounded true from the monitors. In fact, because I wasn’t adding EQ, reverb, limiting, compression, and all the other tricks of mastering engineers, it often sounded better. The chain was input through AKG C-3000 and Shure SM57s microphones and several synthesizers (by Alesis, Roland, and EMU) into a Mackie 1202 VLZ-Pro mixer. From there, using the shit stock soundcard of my Dell computer (don’t ask me which, it is thankfully long gone from my memory), I went back to the Mackie and out to some huge but delightful-sounding monitors, the JBL LSR28Ps.
My struggle up the ladder of high-fidelity sound began with upgrading the soundcard. First came the Echo MIA, which brought a substantial improvement in sound, as well as 24-bit/96kHz capability. But even with the Echo MIA, I was bothered by the knowledge that there was so much electromagnetic crapola going on inside the computer. So I decided to get the soundcard out of the computer and away from all that activity. The best I could afford at that time was the Roland-Edirol UA-100, a piece of equipment that England’s Sound on Sound magazine (still the best for those interested in computer-based sound) called "one of the first serious USB MIDI and audio interfaces." With 20-bit A/D and D/A conversion and ASIO drivers, the sound quality jumped three or four levels.
So all day long, when I wasn’t making my own music, I was listening to CDs using a Pioneer DV-414 DVD player plugged into the Mackie-JBL combo. I wasn’t using a hard drive for the digits because the drives were just too small to hold an extensive collection of ripped WAV files; CDs were the best I could get.
The next step up involved a Dell XPS computer system: much faster, bigger hard drives, easy-to-add expansion cards; I could use external USB hard drives and add space for audio files. Two small problems: the computer was garbage, and Dell didn’t care.
Then I tried to find D/A conversion that would beat the Edirol. After much examination of new release sheets, reading reviews, and listening (thank God Austin is such a music city -- almost anything is available), I fell head over heels in love with the RME Fireface 800 ($1999 USD). It reminded me of when I changed from the Apt-Holman preamp to the Jeff Rowland Design Group Consonance: huge difference. The RME created a much more open soundstage. With recordings that image well -- such as William Mathias’s Dance Overture, with David Atherton conducting the London Symphony (CD, Lyrita 328) -- the system is as transparent and as pleasing to listen to as any other preamp or D/A converter. (The RME handles both functions, and also has excellent microphone preamps and the best A/D conversion I’ve heard.) Close your eyes and the musicians are placed in perfect order on a soundstage that includes height, width, and depth information, most startlingly in the opening 30 seconds, when the first violins and glockenspiel play across the room and the horns appear over the shoulders of the violins. It’s uncanny. Also, listening to 24/96 signals from AAS’s Tassman synthesizer, there’s a roundness to the bass, especially the splatty driving bass sounds so beloved of dance-music DJs.
RME also includes an incredibly flexible software-based mixer that offers 28 input, output, and playback pots. It takes a day or two to learn to operate, but once you do, it’s very adaptable.
The JBLs were next to go. They were just too huge to be looking at 4’ from my face. After an exhaustive search in which I tried everything from the best professional active monitors (Adam Audio, Dynaudio, Genelec, JBL, Mackie, Meyer Sound, PMC, Quested, Tannoy, Westlake), as well as some monitor-size hi-fi speakers (B&W, Lipinski, Meridian, ProAc, Sonus Faber). The two speakers I most wanted I couldn’t afford. I'm a huge fan of English active monitors, especially ATCs, so I naturally gravitated toward ATC’s SCM20ASL. Unfortunately, at $8000/pair, they were out of my league. The other speaker I loved was PMC’s AML1, at $8500/pair -- even more, but wow, what sound.
Then I read a reviewer I trust -- Hugh Robjohns of Sound on Sound -- on the new active speaker from Digidesign. Their RM2 is designed and built by PMC. Robjohns wrote, "My two favourite benchmarks for this size of monitor are the stunningly impressive PMC AML1 active two-way, and the remarkable K+H O300 active three-way. While I’m not sure the RM2 quite matches the AML1’s resolution, it’s not far off at all, and it would certainly give the O300s a challenging time. . . . I was actually quite taken aback at what these Digidesign speakers are capable of delivering."
Me, too, once I’d heard them. The Digidesign is now, and has been for the last two and a half years, the speaker I listen to 8 to 10 hours per day, most every day (unless the warden lets me out for a temporary vacation). I have them in a nearfield arrangement, and where most people place studio monitors at about 45 and 135 degrees, I have mine closer to 30 and 150 degrees, pointed with the tweeter axes crossing just behind my head as I type, and directly at my head when I lean back to rest. When I got these installed, I went straight for Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue. I was looking for the woodiness of Paul Chambers’ bass and the spit of Davis’ trumpet in "So What," and Bill Evans’ delicate caress of the piano in "Flamenco Sketches." All were there, as well as more pronounced bass than from the JBLs. They also allowed me to listen through some of my own mixes and hear everything more precisely. But the most amazing trait of the Digidesign RM2s is that, right up until they’re playing loud enough to overload my room (yes, they do play that loud; the spec says 113dB, and I’m inclined to agree), they seem to just disappear with almost all music. The only recordings they can’t pull that trick with are the lousy "stereo" mixes of the 1960s, in which all instruments are shoved into the left channel, all voices into the right. Those mixes still sound like the crap they were when first released.
The only fault of the RM2s was one they share with all small monitors: no bottom octave. So I added a compact but quite powerful subwoofer from Gallo, the TR-3 ($1000). It operates from 40Hz down and does the job quite nicely.
Now, with the RME and Digidesigns on board, I decided to get rid of the Dell XPS. The computer was noisier than hanging on to a 747’s wing during takeoff, and the vaunted ultra-service from upgrading to Dell’s XPS system was a joke. No one could ever help me beyond the mantra of "You need to reinstall Windows." So, after two years of fighting Dell, I started looking for a replacement. That’s when I discovered Rain Recording.
To be continued . . .
. . . Wes Marshall
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.