Gryphon Audio Designs Atilla Integrated Amplifier and Scorpio CD Player

by Roy Gregory | May 9, 2015


Given just how quickly the high-end-audio landscape can change, longevity is an overlooked and seriously undervalued attribute. The latest, greatest products and companies come and go in a kaleidoscopic whirl of competing color, seducing with new charms and (often) tall tales, promising much and even occasionally delivering. If it’s not new, cutting-edge technology, then it's "original tech," some arcane component or approach that everybody else has long forgotten but which represents a good story -- and that matters. Stories sell, and if we can’t always be buying new components, then we at least like to be reading about them. Besides which, how could any product possibly hope to survive without the sublime blessing of those reviewers who bestow status in the reflected glow of their own glory?

But behind this noisy, flashy foreground stand a small number of established companies, the old school, the manufacturers that have been around forever, the ones that actually hold the whole precarious enterprise together. The products might look familiar, the result of evolution rather than revolution, but they work, they go on working and if they do stop working, the company is there and ready to fix them. It’s a mistake to underestimate the value of established experience, proven performance and serviceability. Buyers all too often do just that, seduced by the new -- and all too often they live to regret it.

It’s not too difficult to compile a list of companies like Audio Research and Naim Audio, manufacturers whose products today look pretty much the way they always have, whose sound demonstrates similar consistency and that enjoys an unusually high proportion of loyal, long-term users. Another name that belongs close to the top of that list is Gryphon Audio, doyen of the Danish high end. Gryphon is a company whose products, developed under the balefully benevolent glower and in the substantial shadow of Gryphon-in-chief Flemming Rasmussen, seem to have simply gotten bigger -- and blacker -- over the years.

Gryphon’s first product was an astonishingly beautiful, compact and exquisitely crafted moving-coil head amp. Its gold-plated front panel and tongue-in-cheek rack-mount handles presented their own humorous take on the form factor of those American muscle amps from the likes of Krell and Threshold, which were just reaching European shores at that time. But it wasn’t long before Gryphon’s products moved in that same direction, albeit bringing their own distinctive -- and increasingly black -- presence to proceedings. Pretty soon, the exquisite fit and finish that characterized that first head amp had been incorporated into products like the Antileon power amp, whose size, sophistication and astonishing density made those early Krells seem like positive lightweights.

Unfortunately, that sort of heavyweight engineering doesn’t come cheap, and it wasn’t long before the price of Gryphon’s products had also risen well beyond the reach of mere mortals, their heavenly performance commanding godlike powers to acquire. The current Antileon Evo will set you back €29,000, which might not seem too extreme these days -- until you realize that it represents the company's most affordable, stock stereo power amp! At the other end of the scale, the "you’ll need a forklift to move it" Mephisto weighs in at €44,000 for a stereo chassis -- twice that for the monos! Mind you, for that you do get a 108-kilo (nearly 250-pound) black Colossus, capable of delivering 175Wpc of pure class-A power from the stereo chassis, while the monoblock will dump 1600 watts into a 1-ohm load. This might just be more than you feel you need -- as well as more than you can possibly afford.

Which brings us to the subject of this review, the Atilla integrated amp, along with the matching Scorpio CD player. The notion of an integrated amp that embodies the same ethos, musical and sonic qualities as Gryphon’s esoteric monoblocks, but at a fraction of the price, is clearly an attractive proposition. However, simple continuity of styling and branding is no guarantee of quality, and the question presented by each such product (and there’s more than a few of them) is whether it really does represent a chip off the old block or a pale imitation of the real deal. This is one instance where the experience that goes hand in hand with longevity becomes especially reassuring, because if the brand’s essential DNA is going to survive intact, then the thinking and execution are going to need to extend more than simply skin deep -- and do it in the face of severe financial constraint. There’s no substitute for a clear idea of which parts matter and which embody the core performance attributes of your products, knowledge that’s invariably hard won as a result of chastening experience.

Of course, one way to save build cost is to divest a product of every extraneous facility or function, stripping it naked and justifying the exposure in the name of less-is-more minimalism. Or you can simplify the casework and cut materials cost. After all, the outsides that wrap an amplifier cost more than anything that goes inside. Or you can get it built offsite, often on the far side of the world, where labor is cheap and worker welfare is someone else’s problem.

These are all familiar and widely used strategies, but they are all fraught with problems, at least if you really want your value-orientated integrated product to truly represent the same goals and ambitions as your flagship designs. How much of any owner’s pleasure and pride of ownership are wrapped up in the way a product looks, feels and operates? How much of our experience is tactile as well as aural? How much of that affection and trust dissipates if the unit is unreliable or performance is variable? Isn’t the whole point of a product like this to embody the very things that make the flagship designs so desirable? And let’s not forget that we see and touch any product long before we listen to it.

Now let’s look at the Gryphon Atilla and see if we can spot where the corners have been cut in order to meet its €6950 price. That characteristic casework, all interlocking blocks of flawless acrylic and deeply brushed and anodized aluminum, creates the familiar Gryphon look, a compact and complex construct of contrasting angles and planes that is both reassuringly intricate and impressively solid. It’s also very, very black. Did I mention that Gryphon products are black? Somehow they seem to be blacker than any other audio products out there. Maybe it’s the sense of depth added by the reflective acrylic fascia, or the smooth panels, unbroken by intrusive knobs and buttons -- a facet taken to its logical extreme by the touch-sensitive controls on the Atilla -- but there’s an almost hypnotic mystery and attraction about the big Gryphon amps that makes you want to climb inside. The Atilla has it too -- even if the smaller dimensions would demand an Alice-like effort to penetrate. You could sit it alongside any unit in the Gryphon range and you wouldn’t be able to separate them when it comes to fit, finish or quality of the casework.

That extends to functionality too. The Atilla offers both balanced and single-ended inputs, considerable user-configuration options (four levels of display brightness or off, user-defined starting and maximum volume levels, individual source labeling, an MM/MC phono input option and a dedicated and electrically totally separate A/V bypass function) and enough power to meet most system requirements in its price band. It is also entirely built in the company’s Danish manufacturing facility, while a quick glance inside will reveal its neat dual-mono circuitry, ultra-short signal paths and lack of messy internal wiring. Component quality is excellent, and the Atilla inherits the same high-quality gold-plated and PTFE-insulated socketry and proprietary binding posts used on the flagship products. Less apparent are the heavily plated circuit boards and zero-negative-feedback topology, the sophisticated discrete resistor volume control and low-noise vacuum florescent display in place of the more usual LEDs. The almost obsessive attention to electrical and mechanical grounding that typifies the big Gryphon designs is also equally in evidence here.

So just where have they cut those corners? The answer to that is defined in terms of output power -- not its quantity, but more in terms of its nature. Where Gryphon’s power amps are all described as class A, with all the cost, size and practical constraints that imposes, only a fantasist would suggest that it was possible to create a powerful, load-tolerant output stage using that topology in a chassis the size of the Atilla’s -- especially one devoid of effective external heatsinking. Having said that, this amplifier is no slouch in the power stakes. Its class-AB output stage is rated at 100Wpc into 8 ohms, rising to 370Wpc into 2 ohms. Did I mention that, as well as being black, Gryphon amps also sound way more powerful than the numbers suggest? A familiar claim when it comes to class A, use the Atilla in any kind of sensible system context and the sheer grip it exerts over even awkward speakers, the sheer musical enthusiasm and energy it injects into proceedings, will surprise and delight you. Gryphon’s integrated amp might not be a class-A design, but it makes a darned fine case for class AB. One clue lies in the weight of the amplifier. At 20 kilograms (44 pounds) this is no lightweight, and a lot of that heft is the result of the substantial power supply, another area where Gryphon is clearly reluctant to cut any corners.

But one area in which it is almost traditional to cut costs on products like the Atilla is the remote handset. I’ve never understood the fascination with remote control. I don’t like what they do to the sound, and frankly I rarely need what they offer in terms of convenience. Their one advantage is that they allow designers to clean up their products’ appearance by removing a lot of seldom-used controls. But I also accept that I’m in a minority (of one?) and that the remote handset seems to score big with everybody else. That’s why most upper-end products come with some carved-from-solid brick, generally littered with tiny identical buttons and so heavy it risks damaging whatever you put it down on. To me, that’s just dumb, but hey, somewhere along the line, weight and quality seem to have become equated. These things are crazy expensive to make and just like fancy Swiss watches, you can buy a plastic alternative that actually works just as well.

There are a few manufacturers who seem to be working toward a better understanding of remote functionality and one of them is Gryphon. On the one hand they offer the Mirage preamplifier, a product in which the whole touch-sensitive front panel is free-standing, allowing it to be taken over to the listening seat. On the other, they also supply what I think of as the Toblerone remote, a thin wand-type handset with basic functionality. Actually square in section, the buttons are in a row on one of the angles, outrigger legs on the front end maintaining the correct attitude and making the thing easy to find and easy to handle.

So I was intrigued to see what solution they’d come up with for the Atilla -- and for once when it comes to remote controls, I wasn’t disappointed. The Gryphon integrated amp uses a compact, stubby, molded-plastic remote that fits perfectly into left or right hand and can be operated equally easily with one hand or two. Its gray fascia makes for nice, legible labels and the control layout is logical, with buttons that are big enough for adult fingers and have a positive, tactile click when you push them. It’s chunky enough not to get lost and it will even stand on end. Range is excellent and, best of all, the one supplied with the Scorpio CD player doubles up to control the basic amplifier functions (volume and input). It may not be as swish as the Toblerone or as elegant as the Mirage’s wireless front panel, but it works brilliantly and doesn’t cost the earth.

Talking of the Scorpio, it’s high time to point out that the same engineering quality, fit, finish and functionality that apply to the Atilla also apply to its matching CD player. Built into the same substantial chassis, the Scorpio avoids major revisions to the beautifully executed casework by the simple expedient of mounting its transport underslung beneath the main bodywork, something made possible by Gryphon’s use of large Delrin feet across its range, often in conjunction with mechanical-grounding cones. That doesn’t just keep the two units virtually identical from a visual standpoint, it saves a ton of money and keeps the parts inventory under control. Look closer and you’ll see what appears to be a heatsink trimming the bottom of the transport. That’s there to match the substantial styling feature that graces the front of Gryphon’s other integrated, the bigger, beefier and much more powerful Diablo.

As with the Atilla, the Scorpio’s insides are as impressive as its outside. Its metal disc drawer is as reassuring as the fact that it upsamples to 32 bits/192kHz and employs a proprietary digital filter to feed four DAC chips in a dual-differential array. It also uses a pair of custom clocks and substantial separate power supplies for its digital and dual-mono, fully differential analog circuitry.

But one thing that might well surprise you is the rear panel -- or, more precisely, the lack of socketry you’ll find there. The Scorpio makes no bones about its design brief. This is a high-quality disc-replay solution. As such it is equipped with a single pair of balanced XLR analog outputs and a BNC for its S/PDIF digital output. No RCAs (for analog or digital) and no digital inputs, USB or otherwise. In a world seemingly obsessed with file replay, that might seem like suicide, but I for one can understand the logic here. Do one thing and do it really well is the mantra. Just because you need a DAC to play CDs and you also need one to play files doesn’t mean that you need the same DAC for both. In fact, hooking up a computer source to your CD player is a really good way to compromise the disc replay that should be its sole raison d’être. As listeners start to appreciate that file replay isn’t quite as straightforward as many people thought, with issues surrounding not just the execution but also the quality and consistency of the material itself, the virtues of well-engineered CD replay are swinging back into focus. Remember what I was saying about long-term satisfaction and customer loyalty? Gryphon clearly understands both its customers and the market. Its confidence in putting its money and products where its mouth is can only be applauded. After all, it would be so easy to put a USB input on the Scorpio, and many companies would do just that, citing market forces as a justification. Gryphon doesn’t believe that it’s the right thing to do because it doesn’t believe that it will produce good musical results. It’s nice to see a company with the courage of its convictions. If you want to make the most of file replay, Gryphon has a solution for that -- called the Kalliope DAC -- but that’s a whole nuther story!

Of course, taking a stand is all very well, but ultimately it’s the musical results that have to justify that decision. The Atilla and Scorpio certainly appear to be the real deal. They look like proper Gryphon products and they feel like proper Gryphon products. But the real question is, do they sound like real Gryphon products? The easy answer is yes; the more surprising one is and then some! I’ve had a few Gryphon units through my system, and I’ve invariably been impressed, but few have been as instantly impressive, as simply hook-up-and-forget-about-them enjoyable as the Atilla and Scorpio. This pairing sounded great right from the off -- and then just got better. I think it’s fair to say that in the past, Gryphon has been one of those brands (rather like Conrad-Johnson) whose products sound the way they look -- big and solid, warm and dark. They’ve certainly never strayed to the etched or spot-lit side of the presentational palette, preferring to stay resolutely rich, powerful and musical. Of course, one man’s musical is another man’s shut in. You pays your money and makes your choice. But the Gryphon integrated units present you with no such conundrum. They are light and lively on their feet, solid, powerful and equally extended at both frequency extremes.

The other aspect of their performance that really impressed me was just how versatile they were when it came to partnering speakers. I used the Gryphon electronics with a range of speaker types and models, from the two-way, compact and relatively inefficient B&W 805D, with those awkward corners in its impedance curve, a speaker that really needs the amp to get a hold of it if it’s going to deliver; to the larger, four-way Wilson Benesch Square Five, with its much wider bandwidth and greater dynamic range, facets that demand as much restraint and control as its isobarically loaded bass units. I was so impressed by the Atilla’s confidence and capability to play nice that in between times I rolled out the Focal Scala Utopia V2 and the Spendor SA1s, running the gamut from genuine minimonitors to proper full-range speaker systems, benign crossovers to those awkward networks that flatter to deceive, lulling you into a false sense of security with overly optimistic efficiency or impedance ratings. The Gryphons took it all in their stride without so much as batting an eyelid. The real test came with the Coincident Pure Reference Extreme (PRE), with its 94dB sensitivity, wide bandwidth and ruler-flat 8-ohm impedance. You might think that they represent the very model of an easy load -- and you’d be right. But that’s exactly the kind of speaker that trips up overengineered and muscle-bound amplifiers keyed up to dominate some recalcitrant low-impedance pig of a partnering load. But even with the PREs, all was sweetness and light: not a hint of rhythmic clumsiness or temporal hesitation, slurred leading edges or lagging bass. The Atilla isn’t just genuinely musically coherent, it retains that coherence in the face of a remarkable range of different system contexts and provocations. Even-handed and imperturbable? This amp should have been a diplomat.

But before you go getting the idea that the Atilla is a soft touch or overly polite, or that the Scorpio lacks dynamic range, presence or speed of response, let’s look at a few musical examples, starting with Sir John Barbirolli conducting the Hallé Orchestra in the Sibelius Finlandia and Karelia Suite (The Sibelius Edition [EMI 7243 567299 2-6]), beautiful readings beautifully recorded in the mid-‘60s and lovingly remastered as part of a serious bargain boxed set that includes all seven symphonies and most of the composer's other important pieces. With the Gryphons hooked up to the 805Ds, the result was spectacularly impressive, starting with the astonishing power, weight and scale of the opening to Finlandia. Remember, these are small speakers -- in a big room -- yet the opening fanfare with its rumbling timpani underpinnings was full of body and color, rip and texture. String tone was sweet and the stereo spread (no doubt helped by the upper-mid dip in the 805D’s response) was spectacularly deep and laterally defined, effortlessly separating the brass instruments by position and tone.

A lot of that is down to the even tonality and careful voicing of the speakers, but what I love about this combination is the way the Gryphon electronics make the most of what the speakers can do, not just squeezing every last ounce of bottom-end weight out of the pint-pot enclosure, but keeping it together and in proportion. This isn’t a case of exaggeration or overdriving the bottom end. This is all about control. Despite the lack of really deep bass, you certainly get the impression that the musical foundations are all present and correct -- because what you do hear is exactly that: present and correct. Just listen to the opening intermezzo from the Karelia Suite and you’ll witness the uncanny combination of life and body at first hand, the jaunty rhythms perfectly tied to Barbirolli’s measured tempo, bringing depth and pathos to the piece that leads directly into the more contemplative and melancholy development. This is music of moods and the Gryphons manage to flit between them like the shadows of clouds across the sun. It’s partly a tonal thing, partly a timing thing, but mainly it’s the ability to create a coherent whole that’s greater than the sum of its parts. The result is lucid and expressive. It gives you direct, unfiltered access to the performance and underlines both the similarities and differences between Sibelius and his British contemporaries and the particular vantage point that brings to Barbirolli’s atmospheric readings.

Move on to rock or pop music and you run hard up against the buffers of the 805D’s voicing and inevitable dynamic limitations -- perhaps underlining just how cleverly B&W have voiced their baby for classical/acoustic music. Play the final three tracks on the brilliant Jackson Brown/David Lindley Love Is Strange CD [Inside Recordings INR5111-0] and you’ll be able to map their limitations with precision, the easy, loping rhythm and gently swelling dynamics of "Running On Empty" butting up against the barriers, the subtle interplay and intimacy of "Love Is Strange" showcasing the 805D’s tonal strengths and coherence, while the hard angles and hesitations of Lindley’s Hawaiian guitar solo stretch its rhythmic articulation up to and out beyond the edge of its comfort zone. But it is the intensity and relentless attack of "The Next Voice You Hear" that provides the straw to break the camel’s back. In fairness, the little B&Ws do a sterling job, but they’re always going to be playing catch up on a track like this -- even if it is devoid of electronically amplified excess. But what was impressive was the way the Atilla coaxed and cajoled the B&Ws closer to the sort of dynamic requirements demanded by these tracks, extending its envelope further than I’ve ever heard it pushed before -- at least without resorting to monoblocks, each of which is several times the size of the speaker.

Time to move up to something bigger with longer legs -- in this case the Wilson Benesch Square Five, a speaker that is a far happier match for the Gryphon electronics, in terms of price and ambition, but also uncannily similar in overall philosophy (if different in detail) to the Gryphon loudspeakers. It’s a combination that clicks immediately, the electronics latching onto the phase coherence and bandwidth of the speakers, the Square Fives latching onto the musical organization, articulation and control delivered by the amp and CD player. The natural tonality and texture preserved by the Square Five’s unique drivers make the most of the natural color coming from the amp, their low-loss crossover allowing the Atilla’s musical enthusiasm, purpose, dynamic speed and expression full rein.

If you want to hear just how comfortable this combination is, look no further than Crowded House/Woodface [Capitol CDP 7 93559 2]. From the surging, undulating opening rhythms of "Chocolate Cake" or "Fall at Your Feet" to the straight-ahead, high-octane rock of "Fame Is," there’s a sense of coherent motion, drive and energy right across the bandwidth. The brilliant but brittle chemistry between the Finn brothers gives these songs a penetrating edge and insight, musically and lyrically, that sees sparks fly. With the Gryphons driving the Square Fives, the effect is sonically and emotionally pyrotechnic. Where a song like "All I Ask" sounded almost schmaltzy on the B&Ws, it gains scale, poise, power and angst when the Wilson Benesch speakers are doing duty, extra levels of emotional depth lurking below the crooned vocals and string arrangement.

That sense of unforced power and presence actively encourages you to advance the volume and allows you to reach for material that really pushes the boundaries. Patti Smith’s Land [Arista 07822 14708 2] pulls no punches, with the sort of visceral delivery and raw attitude that send most audio systems into paroxysms of cringing horror. Whether it’s the relentless, escalating pace and power of "Gloria" or the raw, hypnotic rhythms of "Ghost Dance," the thrash punk "Rock N Roll Nigger" or the spitting, puking aggression of "Babelogue" that precedes it, there’s no doubting the force of nature that’s driving this music, the passion and presence that conjure it, big, solid and alive in front of you. But this is all about the medium serving the message and the Gryphon/Square Five system never put the musical cart before the metaphorical horse. If there’s edge and aggression, a snarl or spray of bodily fluid, it’s down to the performance and the recording. There’s no added glare or harshness, no hardening of the sound or audible compression, beyond what’s applied in the production. Instead the player lifts the data and makes sense of it, the amp takes the signal and uses it to drive the speakers, and they belt it out with that combination of focused energy and musical abandon that speaks of rapid dynamic response and serious power that arrives on cue. The system doesn’t lose or skate over the subtle textures or rhythmic patterns of "Dancing Barefoot" or the cover of "When Doves Cry," but when "Because The Night" detonates there’s no escaping that it’s a thing of rare and satisfying beauty.

It’s this ability to combine low-level resolution and articulation with sudden dynamic response and real musical substance that makes these electronics special. Throw in their unflappable sense of balance and poise and their unburstable musical appetite, their harmonic riches and broad tonal palette and suddenly you’ve got a tractable, versatile combination that threatens to punch way, way above its musical and financial weight.

I’ve concentrated on the way these Gryphon electronics allow you to live large, simply because they do so with such an unusual mix of grace, enthusiasm and aplomb. But don’t go getting the idea that they’re just big hammers looking for a nail. Investigate the opposite end of the musical scale and you’ll quickly discover that there’s no lack of low-level resolution or intimacy in their performance. Playing Nick Cave’s The Boatman’s Call [Mute Stumm 142], the Gryphons readily revealed both the complexity of the piano and Cave’s haunting, affected lyrics, his occasionally fractured phrasing and measured pacing. The tracks sound deliberate and heartfelt, never slow or plodding, with the music front and center, the recording and the system removed from the equation. What becomes apparent is that the reason the Atilla and Scorpio sound so good on bigger, more dynamically demanding material is precisely because they manage to preserve the musical organization, resolution, temporal and spatial definition they produce at lower levels as things increase in scale. There is an innate sense of balance to their presentation that binds the musical strands together and which they seem to maintain, almost irrespective of load or dynamic demands.

That ability to balance their virtues is central to their success. No, the most affordable Gryphon products can’t match the massive dynamic swings that come with an amp like the Mephisto; they are certainly transparent (although not obviously or painfully so) -- but they don’t have that sooty-black background from which the flagship systems propel the music, or the sheer dimensionality that the big amps produce. But they are good enough (and consistent enough) to challenge anything in their class -- good enough to convince you that you really aren’t missing anything important, even if subconsciously we all know that we are. Building products devoid of any weakness is impossible. The trick is building products whose weaknesses you simply don’t notice -- and on that score the Atilla and Scorpio are class leaders.

So far I’ve confined discussion of the Gryphons to their use in combination, but what happens if you separate them? It’s an interesting experiment, underlining just how consistent the sound is across both components. Feed the Atilla from a more exotic front-end and you can extract greater transparency and resolution, finer dynamic graduations and more articulate phrasing -- at a price. And the exercise won’t just lighten your wallet; it will also lighten the sound, robbing it of some of that sheer substance and body that make it so satisfying. Irrespective of whether you swap out the CD player or the amp, you reach the same conclusions: First, that these are, individually impressive products that can easily hold their own in isolation; and second that their deep-rooted sense of balance and musical confidence is reinforced when they are used in combination, a whole that’s greater than the already considerable sum of the parts. I’d be more than happy to recommend either the Atilla or the Scorpio as a standalone solution. I think they both offer serious musical benefits and versatility at their (relatively) approachable price. What’s more, they deliver the goods in a wide range of system contexts, being devoid of the sort of flaws that mandate careful matching. Instead, as I’ve already noted, they have the happy knack of tending to lift partnering equipment, making the most of its virtues. You can’t ask more than that.

But there’s also no ignoring the fact that they perform the same supportive trick with each other, combining to create the core of an impressively musical and satisfying system. Which in turn raises the question, what happens when you take that process a step further? Back in the day, a previous Gryphon product sat less than happily with my preferred Nordost cables and in order to avoid the risk of any repeat experience, the company supplied a set of its own interconnects and speaker cables. As it happens, the Atilla and Scorpio were just as happy to embrace the Nordost cables as all the other products I tried them with, but access to Gryphon’s Guideline interconnects and VIP-series speaker cables gave me the opportunity to extend the Gryphon philosophy by another significant step through the system. Sure enough, rewiring with the Gryphon cables (while retaining the Nordost power cords and Quantum distribution) brought an added sense of body, coherence and physical presence to the system. There was some cost in terms of resolution and dynamic precision, but the balance was richer, weightier and the stage more dimensional. But most crucial of all was an improvement in musical flow and phrasing, a new sense of smooth power and muscular swell. This increase in body created a more holistic balance, binding the system even more tightly into a single musical whole -- once I’d adjusted the position of the speakers! Straight substitution of the Gryphon cables for the Nordost Valhalla 2 produced a sound that was thick, overly warm and stodgy. Pulling the Square Fives forward by around half a centimeter (maybe two tenths of an inch) restored the system’s balance, life and energy. It also became more volume critical, tending to close in at lower levels. Too rich, too warm? Try advancing the volume and all the space and air will come flooding back.

With the Gryphon cables in play, "Into My Arms" from the Nick Cave album had a greater sense of purpose, the piano, richer, more planted and more complex, Cave’s voice taking on an even more natural, more gravelly tone. You could argue that the Nordost-wired system was more agile and more revealing of rhythmic nuance, with greater transparency and resolution, but it’s hard to ignore the musical appeal of the solidly emphatic presentation and the structure that come with the complete Gryphon system. Forget analyzing the sound, forget dissecting its individual elements. The Gryphon electronics and cables simply sound right together -- no surprise as presumably that’s how they were developed. It’s a result that once again underlines the fact that, even in development, it’s impossible to listen to a component, only a system. What is remarkable is that even within such a clearly defined context, the Atilla and Scorpio are individually so evenly balanced, neither relying on the other to compensate or correct for anomalies in performance or response. If proof of the value of experience is really needed, perhaps this is the most telling evidence of all.

I soon discovered that the easy, relaxed and confident flow that floods through The Boatman’s Call is matched by the Gryphons’ performance on vocals in general. Playing familiar voices you soon find that they share an instantly recognizable and beguilingly natural, communicative quality. Whether it’s Nanci Griffith’s spoken interludes and lilting vocals on One Fair Summer Evening [MCA Records MCAD-42255] or the characteristically accented, throaty contralto of Eleanor McEvoy (Yola [Blue Dandelion EMC1]) there’s a natural sense of diction and expression that brings added sense, intent and impact to songs. The carefully layered arrangements on Yola thrive on the stability and structure imbued by the Gryphon system, revealing both the care that’s gone into the songs’ construction and what that contributes to making this a landmark album. The natural sense of flow brings a poised and fragile beauty to a song like Griffith’s "Deadwood, South Dakota," an energetic and thoroughly appropriate sense of musical abandon to "Spin on a Red Brick Floor."

Running the Atilla and Scorpio with their own cables really brings home just how successfully these electronics sidestep simple categorization. Their combination of natural warmth and neutrality, top-to-bottom continuity and dynamic enthusiasm defy the traditional hi-fi pigeonholes. It would be misleading to describe them as sounding solid-state-ish and equally untrue to label them tube-like. Sitting firmly on the center of notes, leaning neither to the leading edge nor extending the tail, they are planted firmly on the musical and sonic middle ground that so many seek and so few find. It’s a perspective that brings a combination of weight, warmth, rhythmic and spatial integrity, life, color and substance to the Scorpio CD player that really sets it apart from the digital crowd. That the Atilla shares those virtues quite so exactly simply adds greater musical authority to the whole.

By now it should be clear that I rate these Gryphon products very highly indeed, both individually and in combination. Which brings us to the issue of quite how they stack up against the competition and the question of value. My entry-level benchmark for high-end performance is the Simaudio Moon Neo components. Solidly musical and reassuringly reliable (in every sense of that word) they can’t match the unforced dynamics, color and sheer presence that the Gryphons generate so effortlessly, a performance gap that easily justifies their doubling in price.

Looking further up the range, the Jeff Rowland Continuum S2 hoves into view, a product that constitutes a fascinating contrast. Similar in so many ways, it’s also hard to conceive of two system solutions that are operationally and sonically so different. The Gryphons are some of the (very) few products that can stand comparison with the aesthetics, fit and finish of the Rowland. Both offer a system solution, with options for internal phono stages and, in the case of the Continuum S2, its own internal DAC as opposed to the standalone disc replay of the Scorpio. But whereas the Gryphons lean toward warmth, weight and presence, the Rowland projects absolute clarity and temporal contiguity. Two sides of the same coin barely begins to cover it, yet both are equally, if very differently, musically engaging. Is that a cop out? Not at all. It reflects the fact that these electronics came at the same goal from very different perspectives -- and succeed in meeting in the middle. The approach that appeals to one listener almost certainly won’t appeal to another, yet both solutions share one critical quality -- that of absence. Both sets of electronics manage to step aside from the music, allowing it its own voice and expressive vocabulary, neither gated nor tainted by the circuitry reproducing it.

If your priorities lean toward absolute clarity and separation, the note as opposed to the phrase, how the performer is playing as opposed to what, then you’ll find alternatives that might better suit your tastes. If you are sold on the notion of file replay and consider the CD old hat, then you might easily dismiss Gryphon’s "threshold" products. But, if you value neutrality and natural instrumental colors, a real sense of presence and musical energy, the soul and sense that makes a performance just that, then you should be taking them very seriously indeed. Not only are they uncannily well-balanced and sure-footed musical performers, the Scorpio breathes convincing new life into the old optical format.

Despite being only the first rung on the Gryphon ladder, these products are impressive enough to constitute all the CD player or amp many of us might ever need. Used in tandem, they create a simple, fuss-free and failsafe system solution that, like all good systems, punches well above its weight. Add in the cables and you achieve a sense of holistic musical integrity that many systems (in many cases, far more expensive systems) can only dream about. Their astonishing sense of musical balance and the Atilla’s robust power delivery allow them to work with many different and different types of speaker, always seeming to find musical common ground. This isn’t just great musical performance -- it’s great musical performance you can actually access, and without jumping through hoops.

Which inevitably leaves me wondering just what happens if you extend the Gryphon philosophy those final steps, adding power cords and speakers to create a complete system solution? I’ve a sneaking suspicion I already know, but that doesn’t stop me from wanting (really wanting) to find out.

Prices: €6950 each.
Warranty: Atilla, five years parts and labor; Scorpio, one year parts and labor.

Gryphon Audio Designs
Industrivej 9
8680 Ry, Denmark
+45 8689 1200

Time to play

Another thing that’s truly impressive about these Gryphon electronics is just how plug'n'play they really are. These products don’t just play nice with partnering equipment. They play nice with their owners too.

Right around this point in most reviews I’d be starting to describe the convoluted chain of setup steps, embracing everything from choice of cables through to supports and mechanical interfaces necessary to get the best out of the review units. Seldom have I enjoyed the fuss-free installation that I got with the Gryphons. Place the Atilla and Scorpio on a decent level surface, plug them in and hook them up and you are ready to go. Sure, they’ll burn in from new and they’ll warm up from cold, but beyond that there’s little or nothing to worry about. If you aren’t using a dedicated audio rack, you might want to put a supporting board -- IKEA’s bamboo chopping boards work a treat -- between each unit and the supporting surface, and you can get a small but worthwhile increase in focus and clarity by using a trio of Nordost Sort Kones under the amplifier, but it’s not the night-and-day difference it so often is.

That’s testament to the fact that Gryphon’s casework is more than just pretty -- it’s pretty darned mechanically sound too. Pay attention to good cable practice and you shouldn’t be far off optimum performance pretty much out of the box. One thing to watch out for: the Scorpio has XLR outputs only, meaning that you’ll need at least one set of balanced interconnects and that the CD player will be taking the one balanced input available on the amp.

Once you have the Scorpio and Atilla set up and switched on, operation is totally intuitive, either from the front panel or the remote control. The touch-sensitive switching on the units themselves is extremely precise and requires a definite single tap with a finger, unless you want to get more than you bargained for. If you’ve switched off the displays (and the units sound slightly better that way, even if they’re not as pretty) the first touch reactivates the light show and the second issues a command. Other than that, the only other thing you need to know is that the ability of the Scorpio’s handset to drive the Atilla’s level and input functions is dependent on pressing the Amp button and the required command simultaneously. This is explained in the manual, so RTFM and all that.

-Roy Gregory

Associated Equipment

Analog: VPI Classic 4 with SDS and Classic Direct Drive, with JMW 3D, 12.7 and Tri-Planar Mk VII tonearms, Kuzma Stabi M with 4Point tonearm, Langer No.7 turntable. Stillpoints LPI record weight. Lyra Etna, Titan i, Skala, Dorian and Dorian Mono, Clearaudio Goldfinger Statement, Kuzma CAR-50, Allnic Puritas and Puritas Mono cartridges. Connoisseur 4.2 PLE phono stage.

Digital: Wadia S7i and 861 GNSC CD players. dCS Paganini transports, DAC and uClock. CEC TL-3N CD transport and Neodio NR22 HD CD player.

Speakers: Focal Scala Utopia V2, Coincident Pure Reference Extreme, Wilson Benesch Square Five, B&W 805D and Spendor SA1.

Cables: Complete looms of Nordost Odin or Valhalla 2, or Crystal Cable Dreamline Plus, from AC socket to speaker terminals. Power distribution was via Quantum QB8s or Crystal Cable Power Strip Diamonds, with a mix of Quantum Qx2 and Qx4 power purifiers and Qv2 AC harmonizers.

Supports: Racks are Hutter Racktime, HRS or Quadraspire SVT Bamboo. These are used with Nordost SortKone equipment couplers throughout. Cables are elevated on HECC Panda Feet. Stand-mount speakers were used on Track Audio stands.

Acoustic treatment: As well as the broadband absorption placed behind the listening seat, I employ a combination of RPG Skyline and LeadingEdge D Panel and Flat Panel microperforated acoustic devices.

Accessories: Essential accessories include the SmarTractor protractor, a USB microscope and Aesthetix cartridge demagnetizer, a precision spirit level and laser, a really long tape measure and plenty of masking tape. I also make extensive use of the Furutech anti-static and demagnetizing devices and the VPI Typhoon record-cleaning machine. The Dr Feikert PlatterSpeed app has to be the best ever case of digital aiding analog.