Gryphon Audiophile Preamp Reviewed

Gryphon Audiophile Preamp Reviewed

Beautifully made and packed with quality hardware such as Swiss 24-position passive resistor, WBT connectors, and Wima caps. The Gryphon handles MM and MM carts via special boards that allow you to dial in the gain to your requirements.

Niche marketing looks to be the only salvation for the over-crowded high-end market. There are, quite simply, too many products out there, and the clever manufacturer can only grab a slice of the pie by offering something unique. With so many
fine-sounding, well-made products competing at specific price points, it's the only way a marque's offerings can stand out from the crowd.

Additional Resources
• Read more audiophile stereo preamp reviews from brands like Audio Research, Classé, Mark Levinson, Krell, Linn, Naim and dozens others.
• Follow AudiophileReview.com for blog posts and opinion on the world of audiophile preamps including passive preamps, solid state preamps, tube preamps and more.
• Read Audiophile Power amp reviews here.
• Read more about Gryphon here.

The best examples so far of high-end electronics lines aimed at specific types of customers are the radically-styled, remote control separates from companies like Primare and Meitner. These
products opened up the field to consumers who want high-end
performance but don't want massive amplifiers, laboratory styling
or hair-shirt minimalism. 

 has decided to endow its new
pre-amplifier with an identity by going in the other direction:
minimalism at the limits.

This in itself is nothing new; there are plenty of facility-free,
absolutely basic control units out there. What Gryphon has done
is to create a wonderful contradiction: They've made minimalism
luxurious. The Gryphon Preamplifier is the basic pre-amp for
those who want peerless build quality, gorgeous styling, sensuous
'feel' and high-end cred. It is about as far removed from the
ultimate minimalist product -- a 10k pot in a coffee tin -- as
you can get without adding any non-essentials. The company is
quite unapologetic, describing their offering as a state of the
art preamplifier for the absolute purist, but one who wants it to
ooze quality and exclusivity. In other words, it's like a Roller
or a Mercedes with all the non-driving-related functions and
facilities eliminated.

This unapologetic stance was emphasised by the inclusion of
separate left/right stepped attenuators and separate left/right
source selection. To pre-empt my usual moaning about such
arrangements, because I hate separate left/right controls and
broad-step attenuators, I must admit that their inclusion is a
by-product of the design which is absolutely unavoidable; you
have to accept this or look elsewhere for your next pre-amp. The
Gryphon Preamplifier is, like all Gryphon products, of true dual
mono construction and the only connection between the two
channels is the face plate and a couple of spacers between the
separate enclosures. All you see on the fascia are, from left to
right, Left Source Select and Volume and Right Source Select and
Volume. There's a Gryphon logo separating the two halves, and red
fibre-optic cursor indicators, but that's it. The faceplate is a
thick slab of black perspex, while the knobs consist of large,
engraved gold discs with rosewood centres. Ordinarily, I find
perspex a pain because it gets grubby so easily; the knobs on the
Gryphon are deep enough to keep your oily fingers away from the
glossy surface.

At the back are WBT gold-plated phono connectors for phono, CD,
tuner, tape and auxiliary, two main outputs (for bi-amping or
running two systems), and small screw-lock connectors for the
power supplies. There's no tape loop, by the way, so making
recordings means staying away from the volume controls while the
recording is in progress. Each chassis has its own earthing post
and there's an additional socket above the phono input for
accepting phono-plug-style loading resistors for establishing the
correct values for moving-coil cartridges. Gryphon supplies
various values plus a spare set for custom loading.

I should add at this point that I used the m-c version of the
Gryphon, but it's also available as a line-level-only pre-amp or
for m-m use. The line level or m-m versions come with two
heavily-regulated and filtered outboard power supplies -- again
in keeping with the true dual-mono architecture -- while the m-c
version is powered by four separate supplies; yes, you need four
mains outlets for this baby. The power supplies are housed in
small, beautifully finished enclosures and the leads are long
enough to allow you to 'hide' them if such is your wont. Gryphon
recommends leaving the pre-amp on at all times (advisable, as the
warm-up period is long but essential) so you won't need access to
the main power supplies' on/off switches. There are no on/off
switches for the m-c sections' power supplies.

The only other notable external features are the TipToe-style
feet for superior mechanical earthing (coasters are supplied to
protect your furniture). Also supplied with the m-c version is a
clear perspex tray pre-drilled to hold the resistor plugs when
not it use and a pair of white gloves to wear when handling the
pre-amp. Apparently, the company can supply acrylic top covers
for those of you who like to drool over glorious pre-amp
internals; once you've looked inside a Gryphon, you won't think
that the idea is so crazy.

The Gryphon is packed with quality hardware, starting at the
front with the hand-made, Swiss 24-position passive resistor
volume controls. Before we even get to the sonic characteristics
of this unit, I'll tell you now that the steps are too coarse for
my own liking, but I've resigned myself to this aspect of the
trade-off. I don't like it, but I can't see any company coming
out with a 144-position-or-more pot at an affordable price and of
reasonable dimensions. But like I said earlier, Gryphon is
absolutely unapologetic about this and the company is prepared to
alienate the types of customers who find this a nuisance.

Behind the volume pot you find one of the very few wire links in
the Gryphon, as the majority of connections are direct -- a
result of the unit's compact layout. Behind the pot is the line
pre-amp board, followed by the RIAA network, followed by the m-c
board. Gryphon also supplied the blank board which is found in
the m-m version so I could try my cartridges 'straight in', but I
reverted to the m-c board because I needed more gain with the
Roksan Shiraz and Tsurugi cartridges. The other half of the
chassis, the area behind the source selector all the way back to
the rear panel, is occupied by the mains filtering network. Those
who recall my review of the Gryphon Phono Stage and Head Amp in
the March 1989 issue will realize that the m-c version of the
Preamplifier contains both of those items plus a line amp, while
the m-m version of the Preamplifier contains a Gryphon Phono
Stage plus line-amp.

A number of concerns determined the design of the Preamplifier,
in addition to the adherence to dual-mono architecture. Other
Gryphon obsessions include: fully discrete construction; the use
of a non-resonant, non-magnetic chassis; mechanical earthing;
star earthing; zero negative feedback; the aforementioned
separate, regulated power supplies; modular construction with
little or no internal wiring. (Upgrading is possible from
line-only to m-m to m-c by installing easy-to-fit boards)

Although that list contains a number of buzzwords, Gryphon
avoided the easy way out, which means packing your products with
'designer' components. Instead, the design team opted for premium
components which suited their needs, whether they were
fashionable or not. In some cases, Gryphon installed custom
components, including the C-core transformers, or items sourced
from the computer industry.

Gryphon also devotes a sizable portion of the owner's manual to
earthing techniques, some of which may prove awkward for those
who have to run two separate earth wires from their turntables or
tonearms to the separate left/right earthing posts. I can't
really advise you in this area, because this aspect of
installation is entirely systems dependent. In the review
systems, which consisted of the SME V tonearm on the Oracle
Delphi Mk III and the Roksan Xerxes/Artemiz/Shiraz, the CAL
Tempest II SE and Marantz CD 12 CD players, Apogee DAX Crossover,
two Aragon 4004 amps and Apogee Divas as well as the Counterpoint
SA-12 driving Sonus Faber Electa Amators, I earthed everything to
one post and found no gains by adding a 'second channel' on the
phono earthing. A low level buzz -- wa-a-y down near the noise
floor -- turned out to be caused by the orientation of the mains
leads and the signal leads. By tidying up the nest of vipers, I
was able to eliminate the bzzzz.

Even though the review sample enjoyed a run-in period through
constant use at the Hi-fi Show in September, I noticed that the
sound continued to improve over the course of the three weeks
leading up to my deadline. This was confirmed by both Gryphon and
the importers, Pure Sound, so I can only hope that the shops
which stock the Gryphon are able to burn-in their demonstration
units before they try to sell them. The ice-cold Gryphon sounds
clinical to the point of edginess, while the warmed-up and run-in
version sounds almost as lush and sweet as some all-valve
designs.

No interface problems were noted with the components I used,
although the Preamplifier seemed particularly fussy about the
cables used between it and the DAX (but not when fed straight
into the Counterpoint). The Master Links were fine but
exaggerated the unit's clinical tendencies, while the Mandrake
was more 'musical' but less detailed. I ended up using Quantum
Audio's YFERE/YBLENT combination for most of the review period,
only to note that after the three weeks' run-in the Gryphon
sounded better with the Master Links.

The only functions you have to deal with are source select and
volume setting, and I learned -- as with the Matisse, some Croft
products and other dual-mono units -- that you soon get used to
two actions where previously one would suffice. I'm not saying
that I liked it, only that I got used to it. To eliminate the
need to re-set the volume every time you change discs or LPs, the
source selector's first setting, marked 'O', is a true mute. I
used this frequently instead of the volume controls because the
settings are hard to see unless the pre-amp is at eye level.
(This isn't such a bad idea, because the thing is so damned
attractive that you might want to look at it as often as
possible.) Although the knobs' action is silky and positive, with
an audible 'clunk' when you reach each setting, the graduations
on the volume control are not that clear, and you'll often set
the level and return to your listening position, only to find
that one channel is louder than the other. As far as the
convenience of the mute is concerned, it's one move away from the
phono setting and two from CD; when you're using auxiliary, you
have to swing the knob 180 degrees. Perhaps Gryphon could follow
Concordant's lead and put a mute setting inbetween each source
setting?

Read more on Page 2

I was expecting the Preamplifier to sound just like the Phono
Stage/Head Amp combination, which it did for a while. But unlike
the latter, which reached optimum performance more quickly than
did the Preamplifier, the unit under review eventually shed its
cut-glass presentation. Detail retrieval was of a high order from
the outset and it remained so throughout the review period, so
don't think that the 'softening' involved any compromises. The
top end stayed clear and crisp, the transients maintained their
'attack' and desired edges, but the overall character acquired a
warmth missing in the separate versions, regardless of the line
stages with which I might have mixed them. I don't know if the
aging process affected just the line section or the phono section
as well, but the change was noted regardless of source. I stress
this again to emphasize the importance of auditioning a sample
which has been operated for two weeks or more.

And it's easy to do because the Gryphon is sensational even
before it reaches a state of grace. If it's possible for a hi-fi
product to demonstrate one individual characteristic which
creates its sonic identity -- however good it may be in other
areas -- the Gryphon is a stand-out from initial switch-on
because of its consummate control, or precision if you prefer.
Images are rock-solid and positioned with the accuracy shown by a
top diamond cutter. On a sonic rather than spatial level, the
Gryphon produces bass which is shorn of any unwanted flab and it
does this without truncating the desired decay of acoustically
generated notes. What improves is the way that the occasional
heavy-handedness is replaced with a more smooth and graceful
approach. Bass that might be described as too dry acquires a
bloom when replayed a few weeks later. Vocals which were a shade
too crystalline -- eg the majority of traditional female country
& western singers -- acquire a liquidity reminiscent of Koetsu
cartridges and Golden Age valve amps.

The final response, though, reached after all of those
impatiently spent weeks, is something quite unlike the initial
impression. Gone are fears that this is a Northern European
exercise in solid-state excess (have you heard what the Germans
do with high-end solid state electronics?!?). What eventually
dawns on you is that the Gryphon manages to combine the
analytical properties of reference calibre components with the
musicality of high-end products which might be condemned by the
prunes for a lack of accuracy.

The Gryphon earns a 'reference' tag because it is ghostly quiet
and non-intrusive. Its soundstaging capabilities, especially what
it does with CD, are among the best: a deep and wide stage
containing life-like images in a correct relationship to each
other. Within the soundstage is a recreation of a venue's
acoustics which borders on the uncanny. (I used my own
live'n'sleazy blues recordings for this one, so skip the 'Were
you at the recording sessions?' patter, if you please.) Added to
the exceptional speed, control and lack of smearing, these
qualities are just what a reviewer needs when assessing other
products.

What the Gryphon lacks in comparison with some of its competitors
is absolute transparency. I don't want to resort to those
hackneyed images of gauzy curtains and the like, other than to
say that the sound of the Gryphon is mildly textured. It is not
offensive and is only noticeable on sparse works rather than on
crowded performances, but solo piano, a capella voices and the
like will show slight traces of grain. But this doesn't stop the
Gryphon from being one of the four or five finest pre-amps I've
ever employed.

At 4995, the Gryphon is far from inexpensive but hardly
outrageous. The performance, construction and (in my eyes)
styling place this in a thinly populated class. Which brings us
back to niche marketing. The Gryphon Preamplifier is the ultimate
choice for the enthusiast who wants the sound without any frills
whatsoever, other than the luxury imparted by the fit, feel and
finish. It's a mechanical Alpa or Leica to the world's
all-singing/all-dancing automatic cameras, a single blade to a
Swiss Army knife, a simple chronometer to 24-button Casio. In
other words, less is more, and on every level.

Additional Resources
• Read more audiophile stereo preamp reviews from brands like Audio Research, Classé, Mark Levinson, Krell, Linn, Naim and dozens others.
• Follow AudiophileReview.com for blog posts and opinion on the world of audiophile preamps including passive preamps, solid state preamps, tube preamps and more.
• Read Audiophile Power amp reviews here.

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