From Stem to Stern: A Gryphon Audio System
iven that you cant listen to individual components, only systems, its not surprising that equipment combinations have held an enduring fascination since the dawn of high-end audio. For all the stellar components that have come and gone over the years, its systems that have actually delivered -- and there have always been those components or brands that, as impressive as they may be individually, have actually delivered more in company: Goldmund, the Mark Levinson Reference products, the Spectral/Avalon 2C3D setup or Naim Audios electronics spring to mind, although in truth theres no shortage of examples. Whether that lift in performance is down to fortuitous/careful matching or the stress and demands that some components exert on the chain as a whole, the results are consistent enough to give customers and commentators pause. Youll also note that of the companies mentioned, all have been out there doing this for a while, established names that end up offering complete system solutions.
Well, theres another name we can add to that list: Gryphon Audio Designs from Denmark. Gryphon is amongst the oldest high-end companies in Europe. Its first product, the Gryphon Head Amp, appeared in 1986, at a time when the burgeoning high-end ethos so prevalent in the US had only just achieved a substantial foothold on this side of the Atlantic. Even so, that first product is recognizably a Gryphon, from its totally dual-mono construction (the two channels share only a face plate) and external power supplies to its tongue-in-cheek styling, for all the world like a dolls-house Krell or Threshold power amp.
From that day to this Gryphon has consistently produced some of the most attractive, stylish, beautifully finished and downright elegant audio products ever seen. And not just the odd example: pretty much everything that leaves the drawing board of designer Flemming Rasmussen is a striking example of electronic industrial design, at once distinctive, timeless and unmistakable. If there was nothing more than this 30-year string of gorgeous designs, then Gryphons legacy would be secure, but these are products that sound as impressively striking (and distinctive) as they look. Theres nothing me-too about Gryphon products, either sonically or visually, a fact that makes the apparent ease with which they grasp the audio zeitgeist all the more impressive. But what is most impressive of all is the single-minded consistency of the approach, whether it takes the shape of the front-panel display/control interface of the most affordable integrated amplifier perfectly matching those on the flagship DAC and line stage, or the focus of all design and engineering effort on a single goal -- the re-creation of the uncompressed and undiminished musical event. Its a philosophy that extends across electronics and speakers and that virtually guarantees that, as impressive as Gryphons products might be in isolation, theyre significantly more so when used as a system. Which raises the question, which system? As well see, thats not quite as straightforward in this case as it is in some.
When it comes to systems, theres a serious issue over what they can or should include. In the most complete case, theyd provide every element required, although these days relatively few companies go as far as offering serious cable and support options, despite the significance of these components to overall system performance. Generally speaking, my rule of thumb sets the minimum provision as amplifier and speakers, embracing everything from the volume control onward and the single most critical interface in the chain: the amplifier-to-loudspeaker junction.
This Gryphon system goes significantly beyond that, providing Legato Legacy phono stage (10,800), Kalliope DAC (19,800) and all the Guideline/VIP cabling besides (from 2000 each), making this a genuine source-plus solution. But just to cap it off, they also supplied their Scorpio CD player (7500) to act as disc transport, delivering at least one complete chain. But the real question mark hangs over the choice of speakers, a decision that cuts directly to the heart of Gryphons musical and design philosophy. Its an approach that is perhaps best summed up as low-noise/low-distortion, which might seem like a generalist manifesto for high-end as a whole, but in this case is interpreted in quite a specific sense with quite specific results.
If you start from the assumption that the purpose of the system is to deliver not just the signal but the whole signal, intact and intelligible, then clearly a low-noise environment is crucial to eliminate undesirable addition. Lowering the system noise floor increases both low-level detail and overall dynamic range -- key considerations in any phono stage, which is of course where Gryphon started out, but which were to become central concerns across the range. Its reflected in the emphasis on power supply, and its reflected in the provision of power. Gryphon amps are big and theyre very powerful. Take the Colosseum (36,000) that sits elegantly at the heart of this system. Despite its compact dimensions and svelte appearance it delivers 160Wpc into 8 ohms, 1250Wpc into 1 ohm and has a peak output capability of 5400 watts into 0.5 ohm. Now, 160 watts might not seem like a lot, especially given the Colosseums significant asking price, until you appreciate that those are class-A watts. These guys take low-distortion seriously!
Now look at the speakers and you are in for a surprise. On paper, the Pantheon (35,000/pair) offers bandwidth down to 25Hz with a sensitivity of 90dB and remarkably easy load characteristics, helped by the use of first-order crossovers. Thats an easy drive, especially for an amp like a Gryphon, while the bandwidth and sensitivity mandate a substantial enclosure volume. Many companies would trade some of that volume and the easy load against volume, relying on the amp to muscle a smaller and more awkward loudspeaker. But look at Gryphons larger speaker models and you discover that designs like the Trident and new Kodo are part active, incorporating their own amplifiers to handle the bottom end. Gryphon cite a number of advantages to the approach, not least the ability to tailor low-frequency output level and Q to the specific room, but note two things: the amps they use are genuine, Gryphon-built class-AB powerhouses, and the other reason they give for adopting this approach is that it makes the job of the main amplifier easier. The benefit of that? Better sound, but crucially, better dynamics -- as if 160 watts of class-A power are going to struggle. Theres more than a little in common with the thinking behind Vandersteen speakers here, but the fact that Gryphon build their own electronics allow them to add a few twists of their own.
By now you should have realized that when it comes to Gryphons primary mission, they countenance no half measures. Perhaps even more interesting, their notion of distortion goes way beyond THD and measuring electronics. Instead, it fastens on the entirety of the signal, targeting compression, and, as we shall see, time and phase coherence. The thinking behind the Gryphon loudspeakers can be traced back to the late Steen Duelund, who identified the importance of minimalist, phase-coherent crossovers to the creation of speaker systems capable of good impulse response and musical communication. Look past the paper specs, and in the flesh the Pantheon becomes a five-foot-tall, statuesque floorstanding three-way loudspeaker system, its segmented and bowed baffle accommodating a DAppolito array of five drivers: a Mundorf AMT high-frequency unit flanked by a pair of 4 1/2" (110mm) midranges and 8" (200mm) pulp-coned bass units. Throw in the previously mentioned first-order crossovers, and what you have is a time-and-phase coherent speaker system with wide bandwidth and presenting an easy load. Now factor in the available power from the Colosseum and it becomes apparent that this is a potent system with plenty of dynamic potential and musical impact, all that energy arriving undiminished and on time.
But theres more than simple brute force at work here. Mundorfs ribbon units are quietly gaining a serious reputation, and theres more to those cone drivers than meets the eye. Sourced from Scan-Speak, they may look familiar but are -- as is so often the case -- built specifically to Gryphons specifications. What isnt so common is the extent of the modifications required. Take the midrange unit as an example. This features a modified basket, proprietary surround, different, heavier doping of the cone, a new dustcap and a motor thats three times as powerful as the one used for the standard Scan-Speak driver on which this is (loosely) based.
The Pantheon's time-aligned, curved baffle is machined from individual aluminum segments mounted on a substantial MDF substrate, a system that delivers both mechanically precise placement and a firm footing for the drivers as well as a solid, rigid and inherently well-damped baffle. The use of mixed materials throughout the design, with more aluminum and acrylic sandwiching the MDF carcass, further helps to control and dissipate resonance. The crossover contains premium Dueland components and is also battery biased, something that, once youve heard the benefits, you are forced to wonder why more companies dont implement. The reduction in grain and increase in clarity and tonal color are far from subtle -- which helps explain why, once again, youll find the approach used in both Vandersteens speakers and AudioQuests cables.
But, as physically and visually impressive as the Pantheon is (it manages to look at once dauntingly muscular and yet smaller, or at least less intrusive than its dimensions suggest), what really strikes you about this speaker is the sense of purpose behind it. There isnt a single element or feature that doesnt tie directly to the designs stated purpose. Pitched fairly and squarely as a low-loss/light-touch transducer, this speaker is serious about its business.
With so many individual elements in this system (six products not including the CD player) descriptions are going to be necessarily brief, but here goes. The Legato Legacy phono stage was reviewed by Marc Mickelson, so I dont need to go into detail, although in this case it shares its substantial external supply with the Pandora line stage -- a welcome nod to efficiency and cost effectiveness. Marc highlighted the total separation of the two channels, the fully complementary circuitry (including the use of balanced LEMO connectors on the input) and the beautifully executed circuit boards, as physically impressive in their own way as the chassis architecture -- all features that apply to every unit in this system.
The Kalliope DAC is a thoroughly modern device, capable of accepting multiple inputs and formats, with both AES/EBU and three S/PDIF inputs (BNC). These handle PCM data to 32 bits/192kHz. The asynchronous USB input will accept PCM to 32 bits/384kHz and DSD to 6.144MHz. There is a digital output via AES/EBU and connections for an external clock should you (or your source) deem that desirable. Digital conversion is via a pair of ESS Sabre 9018 chipsets, each involving eight dual-differentially connected DAC chips capable of operation up to the unit's 32-bit/384kHz ceiling. Kalliope also offers user-selectable upsampling.
The Pandora line stage (24,000) is a resolutely balanced device. It offers only one line input and a tape loop on single-ended RCAs, with preamp outputs limited to two pairs of balanced XLRs. What it does offer is one of the nicest volume controls Ive ever used. Speed sensitive and beautifully weighted, it spins incredibly freely, which is disconcerting at first, but it allows you to make rapid, precise and, most importantly, utterly intuitive adjustments to overall level. Like all the switch/select functions on these units, the touch-sensitive fascia is a positive joy to use.
Ive already covered the raw specs of the Colosseum amplifier, but there are a couple of operational niceties to consider. Input is balanced only, with outputs limited to a single pair of Gryphons binding posts per channel. The AC input is a 16A IEC (the same rectangular block used by Audio Research, VTL and others). It is located beneath the center of the chassis, but the terminal block on the rear prevents the cable from exiting directly backward -- although that does serve to keep it away from the signal and speaker leads. The touch-sensitive control panel on the top offers the user standby, mute and a choice of low-, medium- or high-bias operation. Naturally the unit sounds best in high-bias mode, but the low-bias setting keeps things warm between critical listening sessions. The circuit itself is dual-mono to the point of individual mains transformers for each channel, with a total of 340,000 microfarads of reservoir capacitance and 48 selected Sanken bipolar output devices. The Colosseum might not possess the sheer unbridled grunt of the mighty Mephisto, but dont be fooled by its pretty exterior. Besides which, you can always opt for the mono version if you must.
The Gryphon Guideline cables are no mere afterthought or makeweights -- although once youve hefted a systems worth of these cables through your front door you might wonder about that. They are based around silver-gold-alloy conductors and Teflon insulation, a recipe found in many high-end cable ranges. What sets the Guideline apart is the weight of both the conductors (no real surprise given Gryphons predilection for current delivery) and the heavy outer wraps that deliver significant mechanical damping -- presumably to deal with the mechanical output produced by the myriad devices theyre connected to at each end.
Whatever the reason, these cables are very much a part of this system. A few years ago (pre-TAB), I reviewed a Gryphon CD player and integrated amplifier, using my standard Nordost cables. The overall results were less than magnificent. Once Gryphon discovered which cables Id used, they sent me some Guideline. The transformation was sufficient to warrant a complete re-review -- the first and only time thats ever happened. Guideline might not be the only cable that works with Gryphons electronics and speakers, but cabling is definitely an issue you need to take seriously.
Finally, a word regarding remote controls: as many readers will know, I rarely use and even more rarely get excited by remote controls. I dont need what they do (unless the function isnt available on the unit itself) and generally I can hear them in operation all too clearly. My attitude tends to be why bother? So, time to put on record the fact that Gryphon provides what are, in my estimation, the finest remote controls in audio. Not only do they work from a sensible range without being pointed with sniper-like precision, the handsets themselves are a model of sensible operational and ergonomic design. Theyre not too big, not too heavy, fit beautifully into the hand -- that cropped corner fitting the palm perfectly -- and offer a sensibly limited range of functions, so that you can actually find the one you want, even in a darkened room. The six large buttons are well spaced, easy to use and positively latched, meaning that you know when youve pressed one. Best of all, the remotes are all but inaudible in operation. If only all remotes were like this I might even be converted.
Setup of this system was unusually straightforward and no-nonsense. The purist nature of the design ethos leaves few decisions to be made or configuration details to deal with, while the sensible umbilicals provided for the power supply make placing it and the line and phono stages it feeds unusually easy. With a full suite of matching cables, this was as close to plug-and-play as high-end audio gets, albeit down to comprehensive pre-planning. The one thing youll need to get right in advance is your tonearm cable. Gryphon can supply a Guideline tonearm lead terminated with a five-pin DIN, RCAs or XLRs on one end and the necessary LEMOs on the other, but if you want to retain your existing lead or dont have the option to change it, then youll need to have it reterminated. You really dont want to be using adapters this close to the front of your system or with a signal this small. I used my Kuzma Stabi M with the 11" 4Point tonearm mounted in place of the 14" 4Point, as it offers a phono-termination option equipped with RCA sockets, allowing me to utilize the Guideline tonearm lead and complete the all-Gryphon loom.
Like any wide-bandwidth speaker, the Pantheon repays care and attention when it comes to optimizing placement and, in this case, particular care with attitude. The curved, time-aligned baffle makes rake angle especially critical, while the height of the baffle and spread of the drivers makes speaker azimuth more important than usual. However, neither proved difficult to get right, aided by the speakers solid outrigger feet and adjustable Delrin footers. Spikes are available, but in their absence I used a set of Nordosts Sort Füt couplers, one Nordost device that really does work with the Gryphon components and makes getting speaker height and angle simplicity itself, while the lock rings mean that the settings stay put.
ith the housekeeping taken care of it was finally time to listen. But before we go there its worth noting that this system is the most stylistically and ergonomically elegant and aesthetically complete Ive had at home since the last time a Mark Levinson Reference rig graced this house. The unifying consistency of the deep- black casework and subtle LED indicators and displays lurking behind those shiny front fascias really do look all of a piece. Perhaps the most impressive aspect is that this observation includes the Scorpio CD player, a product from the extreme opposite end of the range when compared to the other units here. Its not just the styling but the fit, finish and operation thats consistent too, right across the Gryphon product line. Throw in the Kuzma Stabi Ms substantial black presence and the word system has rarely made quite so much sense -- at least on a purely aesthetic level. It should also be noted that for those looking for something smaller or more visually delicate, AMGs Giro table also made a handsome partner, with the DS Audio DS-W1 cartridge a perfect stylistic match, with its red LED headlight. This is one serious system you really wont have to hide away.
Looking for a single word to sum up the sound generated by this Gryphon rig, the only one adequate to the task is authority. Just as the individual elements of the system created a unified, coherent look, so they created a solid, coherent sound, one that was not so much superimposed on the listening environment as imposed. The Gryphon sound brooks no dissent or argument; theres no equivocation or vagueness, nothing insubstantial or floaty. Instead this system delivers a single, substantial, coherent entity that commands the space around and behind the speakers. This seamless, coherent singularity is another aspect of performance that harks back to the Levinson Reference system and, while the two systems dont actually sound alike, their matter-of-fact presentation and absolute stability are common factors in the way that they both engage and connect so directly. You want another word to sit alongside authority? Try on credibility for size; its a theme Ill be returning to -- but first its time for the three P's: purpose, propulsion and perspective.
When it comes to big solid-state systems (in fact, big systems in general) there are two related tendencies that emerge. Too often, big means just that, with an undue emphasis on sheer scale -- resulting in an expanded soundstage thats dimensionally vast and potentially overblown. At the same time, the audiophile obsession with detail and separation -- qualities that its easier to aurally quantify -- mean that theres an exaggerated delineation of space and location, a tendency to pull the band apart and emphasize its constituent elements. The end result, all too often, is a presentation thats more akin to an exploded diagram than a re-creation of the original performance event: its clean, clear and super defined -- it just doesnt look like the real thing, or communicate like it either and thats the point. Pull all the musical strands apart and you start to mess with the internal chemistry between the performers; expand the soundstage and you mess with the timing cues, rhythm and ensemble. The end result is sound thats rooted to the spot, a performance that is disjointed and lacking both connection and communication.
Its a fate that was neatly sidestepped by the Levinson Reference system way back when, a performance that for all its flaws set it apart from the high-end crowd and made for both instant musical gratification and long-term listening pleasure. It also made it a personal benchmark for me, a system that genuinely put the music first and worried about the sonic niceties afterwards.
This Gryphon system is the natural inheritor of that mantle, delivering the same unimpeded sense of musical purpose and intent. But ten years on, the audio goal posts have moved significantly and weve advanced to a point where its no longer a case of you can ignore the flaws but one where the flaws are becoming minor enough to simply not matter, no matter what you play. One of the things that I really like about this system is its willingness to take on and rise to any musical challenge, big or small. Take The Pet Shop Boys cover of "Always On My Mind/In My House" (Introspective [Parlophone PSBCD 3 5099926829128]), hardly an audiophile recording, but a little over nine minutes of seriously infectious, danceable kitsch that will give your systems bottom end an opportunity to really shake its booty. From the sheer impact and driving, propulsive quality of the central synth beat that opens the track, through the undulating bass line and the scattered, staccato percussion that decorate the melody, to the deadpan vocal, this is an irresistible motive force of musical nature, a track that doesnt just invoke embarrassing acts of physical self-expression but actively encourages you to advance that large, free-spinning volume control. And you do -- because youll give up before the Gryphons do.
In fact, grab any slice of '80s electronica and youll be bounced about by the sheer presence and almost physical substance that this system projects, the solidity and integrity of its dynamic steps. It loves layered, flanged and impossibly slab-like bass, it loves synthetic spatial effects, and it has an insistent, catchy coherence that feeds off the likes of Yello, New Order and Kraftwerk, delivering the sort of ear-popping demo-deluxe to non-audiophiles that means never having to apologize or make excuses for your system ever again.
But theres more to the Gryphons performance than musical smash and grab. That immediacy of communication plays perfectly with smaller, more intimate recordings. Right about now you might be thinking along the lines of cue Alison Krauss, and in fairness, albums like Forget About It [Diverse DIV 002LP] sound spectacularly present and natural -- but then dont they always? Lets try Nirvana's Unplugged LP [Original Recording Groups ORG 034] instead. The sense of a palpable presence, of real instruments, a real space and a real person singing real songs and really meaning it is what this album -- and this system -- is all about. Rarely have I heard Kurt Cobains voice reproduced with such natural power and grit, yet without edge or harshness; rarely have I heard this record produce such an obvious atmosphere, at once intense and tragic; rarely has it been quite so obvious just why Nirvana struck a chord with an entire disenchanted generation.
All of this talk of solidity and presence brings me to the question of perspective. By now you might have gotten the impression that this system produces music in a solid, homogenous mass that sits between the speakers -- and in one sense youd be right. But dont go thinking that it short-changes you in terms of depth, width or height. The Nirvana album has real depth and space, with life-sized images and a reach-out-and-touch immediacy coupled to a natural viewpoint that contributes massively to the convincing nature of the performance. The individual players are precisely located, solid entities within a singular coherent space. Separation here is all about what binds the band together, the relationships on and layout of the stage -- just as it should be. With so few musicians, each really does occupy his own space while the music remains a single, collective output. But pack the stage with extra bodies and that sense of separation diminishes, while the music retains its coherence -- just as it does in real life.
The almost holographic separation of individual violins within a section that Ive heard from audio systems is a microphone and hi-fi artifact. Its there on the recording, but Ive never heard it live because I dont hear it from the microphones perspective. I dont mind if its reproduced by the system, but I mind if it interferes with the sense of the orchestra as a single, multi-faceted instrument. Yet all too often we seem to chase these effects and marvel at their reproduction -- at the expense of the musical whole. The sense of unity, of the performance as a single entity, albeit one made up from many parts, is at the heart of everything the Gryphon system does. This inner substance means that it is one system that never loses the sense of the performance as a whole, one of the reasons it will play anything and everything with equal enthusiasm.
In one sense, the real majesty of this system lies in the fact that solid doesnt mean static. It doesnt just do dynamics for the sake of spectacle; theyre intimately linked to the scale, structure and shifting patterns of the music. Nor do the truly gigantic swings in level and density this equipment is capable of swamp the smaller details. The combination of massive, clean power potential with a relatively easy load is all about headroom, the ability to meet any demand in comfort rather than the capability to simply sound loud. The time-and-phase-coherent speakers keep things in place and in proportion, meaning that big dynamic swings dont bend the music or the soundstage out of shape. This grace under pressure is one of the things that separates really capable, wide-bandwidth systems from the pretenders. This Gryphon system isnt the only setup to turn this trick, but it is one area in which it excels -- and does so despite relatively modest size (and cost compared to the competition). Those other systems of which Im aware that can match the Gryphons capabilities in this regard are both bigger and costlier.
Having talked about the way this setup works on everything from electronica to acoustic recordings, the way it embraces macro- and microdynamics and its willingness to play whatever you throw at it without fear or favor, the thing that really ticks the final box for me is its ability to play large-scale orchestral works. The broad, deep acoustic space and sense of air are matched by the stability of the soundstage and the breadth and warmth of the tonal balance. Older Gryphon designs had a reputation for an almost velvety darkness to their tonality. These latest examples have kept that velvet smoothness, but the darkness has diminished, has been pared back to the point where Id describe it as a subtle rounding at the top and a welcome warmth throughout. Of course, that is one of the things that contributes to the sheer solidity of the musical picture projected by this system, but it is also a major factor in the lack of distracting or intrusive edge or glare.
I talked about credibility earlier and now is the time to return to that concept. The willing suspension of disbelief is a common concept, derived from the theater and often referred to in audio circles. If we stop thinking about the process itself and instead consider the result, what hi-fi should aim to do is transport the listener back to the original event, the occasion of the recording. The best systems can do just that -- but only as long as the illusion of that event remains uninterrupted. Every time the mirror cracks the image shatters -- which is exactly what happens when an amp runs out of headroom or a drive unit rings.
Even the extreme demands imposed by orchestral climaxes leave the Gryphon rig undaunted, and seldom have I engaged with the rising tide and increasing density of Sibelius and Shostakovich, Beethoven and Bizet with such abandon, confident that the system wont crack or let me down. The recent arrival of boxed sets from Previn, Berglund and Claudio Abbado has led to a glut of orchestral listening, a process thats been all the more accessible, enjoyable and rewarding because of the Gryphons contribution. If the acid test of musical communication is to lay bare the interpretational differences between two different readings of the same work, from different conductors or the same conductor but different eras, then its a challenge that this system dispatches with the same ease with which it scales dynamic peaks or leaps tall buildings in a single bound. Whether the music is big or small, its inner nature and structure are clearly preserved. Another recent arrival is a DGG box of Maria Joao Pires chamber music [Universal/Deutsche Grammophon Gesellschaft 289 479 5964] and comparing the difference in balance between her Kreutzer (with Augustin Dumay -- it is after all, a violin sonata) and Martzys with Antonietti is fascinating. Clearly, this ability to embrace all genres and qualities of recording indicates no lack of insight or discernment. The Gryphon system is plenty detailed and certainly revealing -- it just doesnt smack you in the face with the musical shortcomings of the recordings you play.
Finally, one other thing that this journey brought home is just how even-handed the Gryphons are, not just in terms of handling different recordings but also different source formats. The Legato Legacy is a top-notch phono stage as reflected in Marc's review, delivering performance I was only too happy to enjoy. But what really impressed was just how enjoyable and engaging the systems digital replay was. Yes, there was a quality gap between vinyl and CD -- but it wasnt the yawning chasm that youd normally experience. Instead the inherent warmth, solidity, presence and motive tendencies of the digital chain prevented silver disc from sounding as flat and insubstantial as it so often does in comparison to vinyl. This was a timely reminder that as impressive as this system is, its individual elements are pretty impressive too.
y now you should have gotten the picture. This Gryphon system is physically and aesthetically impressive as it is musically satisfying and engaging. It is quiet, capable and operationally impeccable, with a rounded, balanced performance that might just be the perfect example of fit-and-forget hi-fi. There will be those who find fault with its balance, who want a more etched or transparent, a more explicit or obviously detailed presentation. Then there will be those who want more sweetness or romance, or lean to the sort of immediacy that only a horn can deliver. Finally, there are those who will want to tinker and upgrade, chop, change and tweak -- for whom the system itself is as fascinating as the music it plays. They should all definitely look elsewhere!
Thats life and no system can be all things to all men. But in a world where genuine all-rounders are becoming both endangered and undervalued, this is one all-rounder that betters many of the specialists in their own chosen fields. This is a system in the fullest sense of the word, and its a system to keep and enjoy. These are products and this is a system that fully and unmistakably embody the concept and performance that defines high-end audio. Those looking for long-term musical satisfaction rather than audio angst need look no further than Gryphon.
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