Semi-active speakers that excel at "bringing the performance home."
artially active speakers, once so rare, are becoming increasingly common, not least because the formula offers (and often delivers) very real benefits. Installing amplifiers to drive the bass leg in a three-way design promises to increase low-frequency extension from a given cabinet, improve bass control by direct-coupling the driving amp to the drivers, and create the possibility for low-frequency adjustment and room compensation. In addition, there are fringe benefits to be enjoyed by the systems main amplifier, which has a far easier time of it, now that it doesnt have to answer the demands imposed by heavy low-frequency transients. So, it should be a win-win situation, from both the designer's and owners point of view, right? Youd think so, but in audio, nothing is quite what it seems, and even surefire success strategies can easily be undermined by poor execution -- or misapplication.
The classic error made in speakers that offer active bass is to try and deliver too much from the resources available. There is a natural tendency to offer more and more extension from smaller and smaller boxes, relying on active bass-EQ to compensate for the lack of cubic inches. But like any muscle-car fan will tell you, there is no substitute for sheer volume, and turbo power just isnt the same thing, lacking the low-down grunt and heft of a naturally aspirated bottom end. Of course, more EQ means more power and all too often that translates into some ghastly class-D module, delivering a kilowatt of paper power from a circuit the size of a matchbox.
Lets face it -- if you push the laws of physics, as well as the demands on the electrical elements, while simultaneously squeezing the budget, the results are never going to stack up. And thats before you get to the various issues surrounding setup and integration. Partially active definitely has a lot to offer, but like most things hi-fi, its far from a panacea, the end result reflecting the care with which the design has been executed and installed.
On the face of it, a hugely ambitious (as well as just plain huge) design like Gryphons Trident isnt an obvious candidate for the part-active approach. With all that cabinet volume to play with, its not like the speaker should need any real help reaching down to the musics nether regions. But thats just the point; with a speaker like the Trident, the design solutions are all about maximizing performance, not just looking for extra bandwidth. Its a question of how the part-active approach can add to the essential nature of the beast, not what it can add in terms of a few extra Hz or dB. So, in the case of the Zu Definition IV speakers I reviewed recently, the part-active option allowed the designer to add just enough extra bass of sufficient speed to what is essentially a single-driver design to render it full range -- but more importantly, to do it without compromising the 100+dB efficiency thats the speakers raison detre. It wasnt just about adding bass, but about adding the bass in such a way that it didnt undermine the other inherent strengths of the rest of the design.
In the Gryphon Trident, the part-active element is not about more bass but entirely about the quality of the bass, not just theoretically but actually in-room and in relation to the rest of the speaker's output. It is about taking the care of and paying attention to detail, the underlying principles that have shaped the design as a whole, and then using the technology to extend them even further. Understanding the Trident doesnt start with the bass -- thats where it ends. Where it starts is with the arrival of two massive crates, with a combined weight of around half a metric ton.
ormally, Im at pains to prepare well in advance for the arrival of big, heavy products -- and they dont come much bigger or heavier than the Trident. So when these speakers turned up unannounced and several days early, I was less than chuffed. Moving half a ton of Danish cabinetwork on my own wasnt exactly what I had planned. Time then to unveil the first welcome surprise: the massive flight cases in which the speakers are packed incorporate sensible locking casters with proper, large-diameter wheels. Trundling the crates inside was simplicity itself. The second surprise came when my long-suffering brother turned up that evening to help unpack the monsters. Well used to the physical excesses perpetrated by the audio industry in the name of art, even he was stopped in his tracks by the massive black caskets. But unlatching the covers and lifting them clear of the cabinets nestled inside revealed that the speakers were each securely bolted between a pair of bulkheads that located them within the crates. Even better, each bulkhead was fitted with proper handles at just the right height so that grasping them firmly and straightening your legs lifted the speaker and its protective ends just clear of the flight cases base, allowing it to be rolled aside and the speaker lowered in situ -- no fuss, no bother, no back strain!
Of course, that leaves you having to remove the end plates: big, heavy and awkward slabs each held in place by nine large Allen bolts. Unscrew the fixings and just watch the speaker crash to the floor. Except that Gryphon have thoughtfully provided a small trestle that supports the speaker, raising the end plate about a centimeter clear of the floor and making it simplicity itself to remove -- especially given the supplied T-bar Allen wrenches. Once the end plate is gone, lift the speaker (theres a handle for that too) remove the trestle and gently lower the speaker to the floor. Repeat the process at the other end, bolt the substantial aluminum outriggers into place and stand the speaker vertical. Job done. The outriggers are supported on four large Delrin drums with smooth undersides, making small positional adjustments extremely easy, especially on my wooden floor -- I wouldnt fancy it on a carpet though. No spikes are supplied, although the threaded posts that attach the feet offer a leveling or rake-angle adjustment facility, which is, as well see, essential.
As soon as you have these speakers stood in front of you, the fact that the Trident is no ordinary design becomes immediately obvious. Pictures might be worth a thousand words, but they still only tell part of a products story, and its not until you see the Trident in the flesh that the full impact of Gryphons purist approach really hits home. The first and most obvious impression is of sheer size. The Tridents are available with cosmetic side panels in a choice of 13 different wood veneers, five metallic finishes and two standard piano lacquers -- and thats before you get to custom options -- in addition to the genuine carbon-fiber panels on the review pair. Combined with the black baffles, grilles, metalwork and drivers the result was very definitely -- well -- black, which really served to underline the sheer bulk and solidity of the speakers. Not that they are unattractive; the fit and finish are exceptional, while the string grilles serve to soften what might otherwise be a rather forbidding presence, but they definitely leave you in no doubt that they are big speakers.
The second thing you notice is that the Tridents have both a concave baffle and a symmetrical driver array. That means that they have a pair of 8" bass drivers at the top of the cabinet as well as the bottom. At first sight it definitely looks odd, giving the impression that the tweeter is set way too low in the baffle. In fact, it sits 34" off of the floor, not that much different from the height of the tweeter in something like an LS3/5a sat on a 24" stand. Its just the unaccustomed bulk above the tweeter that creates the false impression. Why the unusual layout? Because absolute time and phase coherence are critical design parameters for all Gryphon speakers. That means that all drivers must be in phase at all times, and that they must be both an equal distance from the listener and symmetrically placed about the acoustic center of the speaker. Achieving that goal dictates the curved baffle, symmetrical layout adopted in all Gryphon speakers -- and unconventional appearance. This is where the active bass leg comes in too, allowing the design to remain phase coherent right across the range, while also removing the biggest electrical obstacles from the passive crossover that blends the Scan-Speak Revelator ring-radiator tweeter with the twin custom-built 5" fiberglass sandwich-cone midrange units.
The engineering of the low-frequency system is also pretty unusual -- to say the least. No wimpy class-D modules here. The entire rear panel of the speaker is taken up by the input panel and heatsinking for the active crossover and a purpose-built 1000-watt Gryphon power amp, complete with linear power supply and bipolar output devices. With peak output capabilities of a 4kW, this drives four 8" bass units per channel, each using a similar but custom-tuned fiberglass sandwich cone to the ones employed by the midrange drivers, ensuring material consistency across all cone drivers in the complete system. (The cone drivers also boast custom surrounds to minimize edge reflections, while the tweeter is built onto a 1kg block of machined alloy, its shallow front flare helping to match its dispersion to that of the midrange drivers.) Incorporating the bass amplifier within the system also allows the designers and engineers to tailor its response to match the driver characteristics (and vice versa), extending the notion of system matching and elevating potential performance still further. In this case, the term "speaker system" goes a whole stage further. The inputs for the bass leg and the rest of the speaker are entirely separate, with line-level balanced XLR or single-ended RCA sockets for the bass amp, a single pair of conventional binding posts for the rest of the range.
One other (as far as Im aware) unique feature of Gryphon loudspeakers -- or more properly, their crossover design -- is the application of a 28V DC bias current across the crossover capacitors. I first came across this technique in Gryphon's stand-mounted Cantata model, where the bias voltage was applied by an external battery pack, an arrangement that allowed you to defeat it and thus assess the benefits, which were considerable. Gryphon claim improved stability, body, tonal color and image coherence, and I wouldnt disagree with any of that, pausing only to add that the resultant increase in the natural immediacy and fluidity of performances was well worthwhile. In the Trident, the bias voltage on the passive crossover caps constitutes a hidden benefit, but a benefit nonetheless.
But where things get really unusual is in the fact that the speaker arrives not just with an umbilical to link the two active elements and a remote control to set level, system Q, as well as muting the bass section or switching in a subsonic filter, but with a separate remote receiver/display that you connect to the master speaker. This elegant unit can be placed wherever is convenient and allows the listener to adjust bass level (in 0.5dB steps) and switch between three discrete Q settings from the best possible place -- the listening seat. Its a facility that continues the remote-remote theme established by the Gryphon Mirage preamp, but where that was to do with user convenience and versatility, this goes a stage further, having a very real impact on the performance achieved. This isnt just clever for clevers sake; its the way all such systems should really be arranged. And while Im patting Gryphon on the back for both the elegance and practicality of their design solution, I must repeat my regular commendation of their remote handsets. They are not too big, not too heavy, fit the hand beautifully (as long as you are right handed) and the large, latched buttons deliver exactly the functions you need with positive control and ease of use, even in a darkened room. Oh, that all remote controls were this well thought through; if they were, I might even start using them.
The end result of all this effort and electronics is a speaker that offers a potential bandwidth of 16Hz to 40kHz ±3dB, while presenting the driving (power) amplifier with a 94dB sensitivity and a benign load impedance. The bottom end is deep, powerful and easily configured to match both your room and the overall system characteristics. It is big, physically impressive, and if you want it to match your car, your décor or a piece of Swiss cheese, the company can probably do it. Change your car, change your home and the side panels can change too. Even at 85,000 euros (plus tax) a pair, I cant ever imagine an owner feeling shortchanged. For sheer physical presence, there are few products to touch a Gryphon. That might be a lot of money for a loudspeaker, but it is also indubitably a lot of loudspeaker for the money.
Setup swings and roundabouts
o, on paper at least, system-matching and setup should be a piece of cake, right? Well, yes and no. Theres no question that the Trident is compatible with an astonishing range of power amps. Indeed, I spent some considerable time running them with the 12-watt single-ended OTL Berning monoblocks. But that doesnt mean that getting the best out of them is devoid of issues. Lets take them in turn.
Connections. The Tridents will require a preamp with at least two sets of line-level outputs, along with a second, long set of (preferably balanced) interconnects to hook up the bass amps. You can daisy-chain the speakers, but I preferred the sound achieved with a direct connection. You will also need to power the bass amps, requiring two 15A IEC power cords. And to achieve the best results (and with a speaker like this, why would you want anything else?) all those cables will need to be of the same standard and type as the rest of the cables in the system. Skimp on power cords or interconnects and you hear it immediately. Likewise, think carefully about how and where you plug the speakers in. Simply going for the nearest available socket isnt going to deliver the best results. Ideally you should connect the speakers to the same clean spur/grounds as the rest of your system, via a single distribution block, but that will probably mandate extremely long power cords -- and also raises routing issues for the bass interconnects. I chose instead to connect both the speakers and amps to a separate distribution block connected to my dedicated spur. This achieved noticeably better integration and musical authority, a more emphatic quality to the sound, than keeping the amps on the main system block and the speakers separate.
Also, dont underestimate the burden placed on the capabilities of your preamp, which will either need to be capable of driving two long sets of interconnects or simultaneously handling one long set and one short set without introducing a sonic discontinuity between the two. Youd like to think that anybody contemplating the Tridents would own a truly world-class line stage, but you know what they say about assumptions. Besides which, and as a general observation, all of the above applies equally to speakers that share the Tridents topology but not its price tag -- a situation where ancillary quality could be far more variable.
Placement. Gryphon provide specific recommendations as regards placement, which stipulate a five-meter (16) listening distance, demanding a room of almost cavernous proportions. I ended up sitting at a little over four meters (13) from the center of the baffles. Moving farther back, room issues overcame any potential benefits. The company also stresses the importance of symmetrical placement and toe-in, with the speakers firing directly at the listener, points that I can reinforce, having heard the benefits of really precise placement during the setup process. Best results were achieved with a slightly wider stance than usual, the center of each baffle being 110mm outside the normal position in my room.
Speaker attitude. All speakers benefit from being vertical (side to side) and having the same rake angle, but the Tridents design and the length of its driver array make this a particularly critical factor. Thankfully, the large-diameter Delrin feet make adjustments extremely easy. However, there is one tip to bear in mind. I started by leveling the speaker precisely both side to side and fore and aft. Then I carefully set a strip of masking tape dead level at tweeter height on the outer face of the cabinet. That enabled me to adjust the rake angle (rear tilt) of the speaker cabinet to bring the tweeter axis precisely to seated ear level, focusing the curve of the baffle, by setting my laser level along the strip of tape and aligning the dot on my target head (a Sennheiser glass head perched on my camera tripod). I cannot stress how critical this adjustment is. Prior to really dialing the speakers in there was a midband hollowness and a lack of substance that robbed the music of immediacy and presence. But getting the rake angle just right really locked in both the dimensionality and the body and presence of individual images, transforming the speakers from just big into something really quite special.
All full-range speakers need very careful placement. If you find yourself setting up a pair of Gryphons, just dont assume that the priorities are the same as with other speaker designs. They arent, and getting them right really is make or break.
"Down, down -- (deeper and down?)"
chieving genuinely full-range performance from domestic loudspeaker systems is notoriously difficult. Achieving it in a situation where the bottom end matches the quality of the rest of the range is significantly more difficult than that -- reflected in the cost and size of the speaker systems that can make any real claims in this regard. If deep bass output is so hard to achieve, why bother? Because the deepest notes establish not just the foundation of the music itself, they also reveal the acoustic volume in which recordings are made -- whether thats a hall, a studio or a recording booth. They anchor the performance in time and in space. If you want a musical presentation from your system that really approaches the sense and experience of the live recording, then a good biggun will always beat a good littlun. The problem of course is that qualifier -- "good"; in practice a good littlun will nearly always beat an indifferent biggun, a genuine case of less being more. The reason is, that when it comes to bass output, the one thing worse than too little is definitely too much.
Herein lies the essential tension within large-loudspeaker designs. Really deep bass demands big cabinets. Okay, as I mentioned earlier, you can squeeze low frequencies out of a small cabinet using heavily equalized electronics, but they rarely convince, always exhibiting what I can only describe as an extruded character. If you want bass that breathes and floats, so that you can hear beneath the notes, then there really is no substitute for size. But big cabinets are de facto expensive and visually imposing -- and the customer who has just spent all that money and is now looking at the substantial beasts stood in front of him (and lets just agree for the moment that its nearly always a "him") wants nothing more than to hear and feel the benefits -- crank up the volume! But the real benefits he has just paid for will be far more subtle than the rib-rattling impact of the average cinematic train wreck. Yes, you can go looking for percussion-heavy orchestral tuttis, trance tracks that mellow down so far they almost massage, or revisit the reggae excursions of your youth, but thats not really the point. The really good full-range loudspeakers are working right across the musical spectrum all of the time -- its just that you dont always notice them. But saying you dont notice them is not the same as saying that you dont hear them -- and the Gryphon Trident is a seriously good full-range loudspeaker.
Of course, every speaker depends on precise setup to achieve its potential performance, and as weve already discussed, the Gryphons are no exception. The difference here is the ease with which that setup can be achieved, once you know what parameters are really important. Ive talked about precise placement and rake angle; time then to talk about the low-frequency adjustments. As with subwoofers, I can see the uninitiated starting out with the bass levels set way too high and then slowly reducing them over time as they learn that the best bass is the bass you barely hear. The beauty of the Gryphon is that the remote control of all parameters, combined with the clear readout of settings will significantly hasten that process. The level range runs from +8dB down to main speaker level and beyond, which gives a massive variation. I ended up with the controls set at -0.5dB and with the Q setting on 2. Those may seem like incredibly small deviations from flat, but I would point out two things: firstly, I have a dedicated room that allows me to position the speakers optimally, without recourse to domestic considerations; secondly, those might be small adjustments but they had a profound effect on the music -- which is kind of the whole point.
Once Id gotten the Tridents really singing, I was rewarded with exactly the sort of agile, communicative and expressive midband, underpinned by the tactile and connected bottom end, that the topology promises. Take the staccato, repetitive opening of "So What" from the iconic Kind of Blue, a passage that is so often plodding, vague and rhythmically indistinct. On the Sony Mastersound gold CD [480410-2], thus avoiding all issues of speed and EQ, Paul Chambers bass is precisely located on the stage, as is Wynton Kellys piano. You clearly hear the pitch and placement of the bass notes, the shape of those instantly recognizable opening phrases, the relationship between bass and piano as the two instruments feel towards each other, joining for that short but glorious union where Chambers' playing choruses Kellys so closely that his instrument seems almost like a left-hand extension of the piano, before they dance apart for the call-and-response development, leading to the main brass entry. What sets the big Gryphons presentation apart is not just that they let you hear the pitch, shape, pace and attack of Chambers notes, the incredible ensemble connection between him and Kelly, a chemistry that sets the rhythmic agenda for the whole track; its not that they place the bass precisely in space, that it never moves or wanders, that it is still right there when it reemerges at the close; its not the fact that the new clarity and purpose in the rhythm section completely rejuvenates the track, adding tension and purpose, a sense of anticipation and expectation to the music. No, what sets the Gryphons presentation apart is the sheer effortlessness with which it delivers the performance. Musically, what Ive just attempted to describe really is quite exceptional. There are very few systems that can deliver this deceptively complex music with the sheer acoustic and musical coherence that the Tridents achieve -- yet they do it almost without your noticing. Instead of sitting there thinking and "Wow, thats so much better than it usually is!" your response is quite different; instead, you find yourself thinking, "Thats the way it should always have been," and in terms of musical satisfaction, in terms of the systems ability to convince and satisfy, thats a big difference. In fact, make that huge.
This uncanny ability to convince, to portray a natural, unforced view of the musical event depends not just on a range of virtues, but on the way those virtues combine -- which is where the setup is all-important. What makes the Tridents so impressive is the way in which they combine dimensionality, both when it comes to the size and shape of individual instruments and the recording venue itself, with an uninhibited sense of musical pace and flow. Thats what preserves the critical spatial and temporal relationships between the instruments within a band, maintains the rhythm and momentum of a track. So, returning to Kind of Blue and "All Blues," the simple, pulsing rhythm never seems repetitive or tedious -- more hypnotic and vital as it underpins the meanderings of Miles horn. Likewise, where the bass and piano accompaniment to the opening of "Flamenco Sketches" can seem detached or meandering, on the Tridents the linkage between the three instruments is rock solid, where the rhythm section is going -- and why -- never in question. The intimacy of these relationships is hard to describe until you hear it, but once its there, the naturally expressive quality that goes with it is really quite special -- but also fragile.
The just-so stories
et the Tridents attitude or bass settings even slightly wrong and it is amazing how quickly they collapse from magical to sub-ordinary. Too little bass and they sound quick but insubstantial, with no sense of presence or solidity; too much and they sound ponderous and lackluster; once you get dialed in for the speakers and the room, too much/little means 0.5dB. The bass setting (and driving amplifier) needs to be balanced against the Q value as well; this critically affects the flow of the music, its ability to breathe. If the rake ankle isnt spot on, the speakers dont just lose integration and continuity at the bottom end, they develop a "quacky" coloration in the lower mids. If theyre not quite vertical or correctly spaced, the soundstage flattens and loses its sense of independence. Its really hard for a big speaker like this to disappear; the visual cues are just too strong. But shut your eyes and the soundfield drops away from the plane of the speakers, the band or orchestra laid out beyond and quite separate to the cabinets. The saving grace is that Gryphon is very clear as to how the speakers should be positioned, and the speakers make it equally clear when youve got it right -- and when you have, they dont just hit the groove, they get right on in there and mine it.
Listeners familiar with the likes of Wilson will decry a lack of transparency or reach-out-and-touch immediacy in the Tridents presentation. Those more used to the bigger Avalons or Focals will find the top-end lacking in air and extension. All of which is true -- but also misses the point. If Gryphon has a house sound, it rests in a tonality that is velvety smooth but also slightly dark, traits that bring a slightly rounded and forgiving quality to their presentation. These are not speakers that latch on to the recording or reveal its shortcomings. Instead they cleave directly to the performance and the musical message, as opposed to the medium, making for immensely enjoyable, involving and relaxed listening. Unlike some speakers, the Tridents dont make you suffer for your art; they simply serve it up the way you probably always wanted it.
The other thing thats a prerequisite for any big speaker, another thing that the Gryphons manage with an effortless grace, is scale. Kind of Blue is delivered with images that perfectly match the set-back perspective. Theyre not as big or immediate as the front-row presentation you get from some speakers, but they are perfectly in keeping with the second-row perspective they deliver. Play a real blockbuster like The Thin Red Line original soundtrack [RCA/BMG 09026 63382 2] -- think Gladiator with less testosterone but more brains and emotion -- and the Tridents really rise to the challenge. A track like "Approach To The Line" creates a massive soundfield that the Gryphons extend out way beyond the front wall of the listening room. They maintain the pace of the track and capture the slowly building threat and unease to perfection. Things just build and build, slowly increasing in level and intensity without the soundstage collapsing or getting congested, right up to and through the massive drum impacts that mark the prolonged crescendo. In fact, those drums are telling in two ways. Very, very few speakers capture their full impact and internal volume, and the Tridents are not among that select number (Gryphon have the Poseidons for that), but unlike most of the competition, what the Tridents do manage is to hold that drum at its correct height and placement in the soundstage. No grubbing along the bottom here; the instrument is just where it should be, and even when its going full tilt it stays right there. Likewise, the big bass drum used on track six, "Air," stays firmly rear left, even as its massive, multiple beats canon across the acoustic space, perfectly mapping the recording venue.
The SHM SACD of the Benedetti Michelangeli/Giulini Beethoven Piano Concertos Nos. 1 and 3 (Vienna Symphony [Universal UCGG-9044]) might not have the sheer scale or dynamic demands of The Thin Red Line, but it does combine a perfectly poised performance with a beautifully developed and detailed soundstage. Again, the Tridents keep everything exactly where it should be, perfectly capturing the verve and life of Giulinis direction and the astonishing fluidity and delicacy of Michelangelis playing. This disc really makes a system jump through hoops, and it's brutal when it comes to revealing tonal aberration, but the Gryphons rise to the challenge. Swapping to the Speakers Corner 180-gram reissue from The Colour Of Classics; The Pianists three-LP set [Speakers Corner 2531 302] reveals the greater air and side-wall definition available from the LP, while confirming the bass linearity of the SACD, its ability to resolve the muted timp notes accenting the strings throughout the opening. Likewise, the speakers make differences between filters on the Krell Cypher or dCS Paganini clearly apparent -- without imposing them on the music in the destructive fashion of some. Its not so much that some are wrong; more that one is right -- again a subtle but important distinction.
Likewise, if you want the full spit-hitting-the-microphone vocal presentation, there are other speakers that will give you that. But while the Tridents might lack that last ounce of immediacy, they dont lack for presence or vocal communication. Play Shawn Colvins "Shotgun Down the Avalanche" (Steady On [CBS 466142 1]) and they still deliver the almost ghostly presence and reality of her voice, while other familiar singers like Nanci Griffith or Eleanor McEvoy are immediately identifiable. There you have the Gryphons in a single sentence: They deliver the sense and sensibilities of the musical performance without being overly concerning about its sonic quality. Singers and instruments sound immediately like themselves, the internal dynamic of each performance is revealed, what separates the great band or song from the merely good.
he Gryphon Tridents might look like your average high-end loudspeaker system (big box, lots of drivers), but theyre actually much more subtle and much better than that. In fact, theres nothing average about them. They offer a performance that is long on the whole and the relationship between the parts, devoid of the sort of obviously impressive presentation that so quickly wears thin. With current trends in expensive speaker systems seemingly favoring explicit detail and separation over integration and coherence, the way that the Gryphons place music so firmly ahead of sonic considerations comes as a relief. Its not that the technical aspects of sonic performance dont matter, simply that they are made to serve the goal rather than being the goal itself. While they are sonically revealing, they are not musically destructive and possess an uncanny ability to seize on the threads wound around the core of the recorded performance.
That something so large, so solid, so apparently immovable can react so quickly and with such a deft touch continues to surprise and delight, while the phenomenal coherence and integrity of the musical whole that is achievable with these speakers is an object lesson in what high-end audio should be doing -- bringing the performance home. Demanding on first acquaintance, they quickly settle into the sort of rewarding, entertaining and involving behavior that promises a long and fruitful relationship.
No product can be all things to all men (or women) and this one is no exception. But, if you have the space and the money, if you value fit, finish and flawless workmanship, if you like the idea of something a little different to the crowd, but most of all, if you really want music as opposed to sound, then the Gryphon speakers could be just your cup of Earl Grey.
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