Gryphon Audio Designs Essence Pre and Stereo Power Amplifier Review
Jay Garrett is very taken with this high-end audiophile pre-power amp combination…
Gryphon Audio Designs
Essence Pre and Stereo Power Amplifiers
AUD $26,995 (from) and $34,995 respectively
Those familiar with Danish high-end brand Gryphon Audio Designs, and its retired founder Flemming E Rasmussen, will expect exacting design and performance with a price tag to match. The Essence series represents Gryphon's entry-level preamplifier and power amplifier range. It's not exactly cheap, but when compared to the company's $90,000 Commander preamp and $275,000 Apex monoblock power amps, it rather puts things into perspective!
Since Flemming's retirement in 2018, the company has been owned by Valdemar Martin Børsting and Gryphon's employees. This includes electronics designer Tom Møller, who has been the head of Gryphon's design team for many years now, and is responsible for the Essence. As we shall see, although you can pair the power amp with any preamplifier you fancy, it is only with a Gryphon preamp that you will take full advantage of all the features on offer.
You expect a sense of occasion at this price point, and Gryphon duly delivers. Each amplifier is supplied in its own cleverly designed collapsible crate, and even the instruction manuals are hard-backed books worthy of any high-class coffee table. In fact, I have kept these on display on my rack, not something I'd ever contemplate with the stapled A4 sheets one usually is subjected to.
Build quality is exceptional. These might not be as interesting as the Zena, Commander, Antileon or Apex, but everything fits perfectly together. There is no panel flexing from the brushed, anodised aluminium casement and no sign of chewed screws or unfinished edges. I like the red-lit logos, green display and backlit control buttons, which add to a clean, fuss-free, reassuringly refined form.
The Gryphon Essence preamp is a dual mono Class A design. Interestingly, there are no signal wires to be found inside. Instead, the few cables you'll see, should the pre go topless, include a short ground lead and some ribbons for the front panel display. Meanwhile, the mains power wires are fed through shielded channelling from the IEC socket to the touch-sensitive power switch on the unit's fascia. This is to minimise interference.
Even a cursory glance at the company's website will convey that Gryphon is big on signal purity. Hence, it's no real surprise to discover that the Essence preamp is a zero negative feedback design that's fully relay-driven and microprocessor controlled. Here you have a discrete fixed 43-step fully balanced relay-controlled resistor array for volume control giving you 00-42 levels of volume. I am assuming there's a Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy link with the choice of 42, as it is, of course, the meaning of life, the universe and everything!
The front features a triangular acrylic inlay that houses an incredibly clear fluorescent display that can be dimmed and a set of backlit touch-sensitive controls that all work incredibly well. I especially like that you can name the inputs, too, beyond their default numbers. The menu also lets you adjust Maximum Level (a maximum volume setting which cannot be exceeded, manually or by remote) and Start-Up Level (a default volume setting every time you turn the unit on). Finally, Level Matching can also be preset to automatically match the levels of your low and high output sources. For me, this is one of the smartest inclusions as, instead of adding more components into the signal path to achieve this, Gryphon has stored the offset values in the microprocessor that controls the resistor attenuator network.
I prefer a separate DAC and phono stage in my system, but Gryphon lets you add a digital or phono stage module to this preamp; you can only opt for one or the other as there is one slot for a single module. Gryphon suggests, of the two, you install the digital module (Zena DAC) and then buy the Danish company's Sonett phono stage and connect it via Essence's line inputs. Interestingly, it is recommended that you connect the Sonett to Input 5, which explains why it's labelled 'RIAA' even though it's not strictly a phono input as we've come to know it.
Around the rear of this large and heavy (165x470x385mm [HxWxD], 13.4kg) product are five line inputs – two pairs of balanced gold-plated XLR connectors and three pairs of unbalanced gold-plated RCAs. Notice that the dual mono design sets left and right inputs at opposite ends of the rear panel. You also get a pair of Tape Out RCAs and two subwoofer outputs; however, the latter connections are full-frequency and not low-pass filtered, meaning that you could treat them as preamplifier outputs and connect them to anything requiring a line-level signal. Output to the power amplifier is via balanced XLR.
Finally, the Green Bias Link port is next to the grounding post. This neat little connection only works its magic when hooked up to a Gryphon power amplifier as it allows automatic selection of the level of bias applied to the power amplifier's output transistors. Clever stuff!
The massive 45kg power amp is equally brilliant in its simplicity and boasts a custom 1,350VA toroidal transformer and an incredible total of 440,000µF reservoir capacitance. The clean frontage echoes the preamp's design and sports a lightbar that indicates standby (blue) as it goes through its health checks and whether it is in one of the aforementioned Green Bias Modes or full Class A. You can adjust the volume that Class AB switches to pure Class A using the buttons found on the front underside of the unit.
As standard, the Essence stereo power runs 50W in Class A, doubling in a four ohm load and almost doubling again when in a two ohm load, thanks to an array of twenty very high current bipolar output transistors. The amp runs noticeably cooler in Low Bias Class AB mode, with just the first 8W in Class A, indicated by the green light bar. High Bias Class A switches the light to red, turns the amp into a neat little heat source but also gives a much richer sound.
The Green Bias Mode connection offers you the choice of 50%, 75% or 100% Class A “with no sonic degradation”. So, when the Green Bias cable connects the brand's power and pre pairing, the power amplifier will automatically select its bias level, calculated using an algorithm based on the position of the preamp's volume control. So, instead of simply getting the option of High or Low Bias, you also get a Medium Bias mode.
For example, one scenario sets Low Bias for volume settings between 00 and 09, Medium Bias for 10 to 19 and High Bias between 20 and 42. Alternatively, Low Bias can be applied for volumes 00 to 15, Medium Bias between 16 to 25, and High Bias for settings 26 to 42. While Low and Medium Bias settings sound good, going full Class A does sound more fulsome at the cost of higher power use and more heat radiated. Nevertheless, it is great to have these options so that if simply playing background music, you're not using unnecessary power or heating the room.
In reviews, if the remote control supplied with a component is mentioned at all, it might get a sentence regarding its layout, functionality and ergonomics. However, the one bundled with the Gryphon Essence preamplifier deserves its own paragraph. Of sturdy metal construction, the infra-red remote control is wonderfully weighty with an asymmetrical design making buttons more easily thumb-able (if you're right-handed), aided by a ridged grip on this side. Additionally, the flat edge allows the remote to sit on its side. Meanwhile, the underside is covered in soft rubberised foam to mitigate damage to your posh wooden surfaces and prevent the remote from sliding off things. Such attention to the most minor details lets you know you have arrived at the high end!
The Gryphon Essence pre-power combo impresses right from the off. Indeed, I dare say that it might complete many music fans' quest for end-game amplification. This isn't just down to its excellent sonics, but also it's about how consistent its stellar performance is – not only through musical genres and our reviewing metrics but also regardless of which inputs and sources are used.
Furthermore, while this Gryphon pairing may be down on power compared with my Boulder 1110/ 1160 pre/ power benchmark, there seems to be more of a sense of “right” with the Gryphons to my ears – as well as quite a cost-saving between these options. Let me expand on this. The Boulder pairing is hugely impressive but, for many people, is the equivalent to using a sledgehammer to crack a nut. Additionally, where the Boulder does a fine job of not getting in the way of the character of the music and sources being used, it feels like it does this consciously. Whereas, with the Gryphon, I get the impression that its detail and articulation comes naturally.
For instance, whether picking out vocals, wind or stringed instruments, all those crucial markers of individuality, whether due to technique or vocal inflexions, are delivered untainted, giving each performance a more organic shape. Furthermore, these singular characteristics also help the listener follow these particular threads throughout even the most intricately woven tracks. This became instantly apparent upon playing John McLaughlin, Paco DeLucia, and Al DiMeola's Friday Night in San Francisco. My reference system, which included a pair of Audiovector R 6 Arreté, elegantly conveyed the friendly and relaxed interplay between these three amazing guitarists while allowing the individual personalities come through the music.
Stravinsky's Firebird: The Infernal Dance was similarly impressive but with the addition of grander scale and dynamics. Here the low expressions of tuba and timpani were contrasted by the keen highs of xylophone, flute and strings. Where the temptation is to throw all this at the listener in a demonstration of pure power, the Gryphon amps instead showed control. Somehow this pre-power combo brings everything closer to you. This was also the case when spinning Portishead's Live in NYC, where I enjoyed a wonderfully wide vista alongside a great sense of being there.
Michael Jackson's Off The Wall showed how deftly the Essence pairing copes with such frenetic activity and energy while remaining rhythmically in charge of the situation at all times. And the Trentemøller Club Remix of Depeche Mode's Wrong sounded as vibrant as it was visceral. It took great resolve not to keep tapping the volume up button on that wonderfully sculpted remote control!
Returning to the Sound City album as used in my Boulder review and You Can't Fix This featuring Stevie Nicks, Dave Grohl, Taylor Hawkins and Rami Jaffee, there was a distinct impression of an intimate session. However, not only was each musician sitting in their own space, additional insight was imparted to a level where the listener could almost see the nods and smiles across the studio as this supergroup collaborated on this recording. Such was the level of emotional content delivered by the Gryphon amplifiers.
My heart strings were well and truly strummed when playing the touching cover version of Nine Inch Nails' Hurt by Johnny Cash. This ability to thoroughly get every nuance and subtlety of a piece of music brought together the Danish combo's talent for detail and authority with impressive dynamic range and superb transient speed.
Some may demand a more aesthetic, jewellery-like appearance and a wow-factor more commensurate with its price tag. Yet I personally applaud this pre-power combo's typically understated Danish looks, combined with flexibility and a rewarding user experience.
This Gryphon Essence combo offers supreme control with a rousingly emotional presentation, and dynamics like you've never heard before. I honestly think you will have to spend much more money to significantly better it – and that's why after an extended audition period with the stereo power amplifier and preamp, I have put my money where my mouth is. So, if you are considering a high-end, 'end game' pre-power, then do put this at the top of your very short list.
Visit Gryphon Audio Design for more information
StereoNET’s resident rock star, bass player, and gadget junkie. His passion for gadgets and Hi-Fi is second only to being a touring musician.
Posted in:StereoLUX! Hi-Fi Amplifiers Power Amplifiers Preamplifiers Applause Awards 2022
Tags: gryphon advance audio
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