Gryphon Audio Designs • Legato Legacy Phono Stage
A solid-state phono stage that pushes "analog's performance and technological boundaries."
by Marc Mickelson
As a reasonably well-read audiophile, I know Denmark for Hamlet, Niels Bohr and Gryphon Audio Designs, though not necessarily in that order. I've been acquainted with Gryphon Audio for more than a decade, the introduction coming at THE Show when it was held at the St. Tropez Hotel, next door to the Alexis Park and the CES. For many reasons, those were truly the good old days, not the least being that Gryphon assembled some very ambitious systems and hasn't exhibited in Las Vegas since. There is also no distribution of the company's products in North America, making it more difficult for those of us here to follow the brand -- and there has been a great deal worth following. While Gryphon Audio introduced new line-topping electronics a few years ago, this fact is somewhat misleading, because any Gryphon preamp or amp is a final destination point for audiophiles, both in terms of performance and price. The same is true for Gryphon's lineup of speakers, its sumptuous-looking CD players, and the subject of this review -- the fully balanced, dual-chassis, dual-mono Legato Legacy phono stage.
Flemming Rasmussen, president of Gryphon Audio and the person responsible for designing the company's products, is especially proud of this last thing. "Dual mono is a superior solution in any application," says Rasmussen, noting that Gryphon was the first manufacturer to introduce the use of separate channels and separate power supplies, which it did in 1985. Gryphon Audio has also been using balanced circuits for its phono stages since the company's inception. This is both a bow to reality and a shrewd design choice. By its nature, a phono cartridge is inherently balanced, having separate outputs for each channel and phase, so why not preserve that into and out of the phono stage, where gain and equalization turn the cartridge's infinitesimal signal into line-level music? There are technical gains to be had, including the common-mode noise rejection of balanced circuits, which is even more consequential, given that a phono stage can just as easily amplify noise as it can the cartridge's output.
It is the quest to decrease noise, and thereby preserve the purity of the musical signal, that Rasmussen's design addresses. Take even a passing glance at the Legato Legacy and you will see the outward remnants of Gryphon's signature topology: right and left modules in each chassis that separate the channels galvanically. From input to the power supply, the channels share only a single on/off switch. The two chassis are connected by a pair of umbilicals, and there is even a pair of power cords, ensuring that never shall the two channels meet.
If you think that all of this paints a picture of a somewhat hairshirt phono stage, you're perceptive, especially when you consider that the only input is via three-pin LEMO connectors, not RCAs or even XLRs. What is a LEMO? It's a connector developed for medical and aerospace applications that's especially good for low-level signals. Pre-Madrigal Mark Levinson pioneered its use for audio. "Nowhere in the chain is the signal more minute and delicate than from the cartridge," Flemming Rasmussen reasons. "This requires/deserves something better than the unusual solutions that leave much to be desired." So LEMOs it is, which for many audiophiles, myself included, means reterminating a tonearm or phono cable. While Gryphon offers a LEMO-terminated phono cable, the DIN used was a whisker too large for my Graham tonearm, so I sent a pair of LEMOs to Nordost and they built a cable. Keep this in mind as you consider the Legato Legacy: Plug 'n' play it's not, unless you have a LEMO-terminated tonearm or phono cable.
Outputs are via XLRs or RCAs, the former making the most sense, given that you have to connect your tonearm and cartridge in such a way as to preserve the balanced nature of the signal, so why spoil that by converting to single-ended at the output? More important, the Legato Legacy sounds best from its XLR outputs, and you get 6dB of additional gain as well. As I've reasoned regarding various balanced digital products, if you're paying for the redundancy of a balanced circuit, why not make full use of it?
The Legato Legacy's gain and loading are set with jumpers on the left and right circuit boards. There are two gain levels: 38dB and 68dB. All gain is derived from active devices, not step-up transformers, which makes loading more precise. There are six stock loading options -- 10, 40, 80, 300, 800 and 47,000 ohms -- but custom values are also possible with installed resistors. While other phono stages make both gain and loading options easier to access, in reality gain will be set once, based on the type of cartridge used (moving coil being almost a certainty, given the Legato Legacy's price), while loading requires some experimentation but will also boil down to a single setting. Everything is clearly pictured and explained in the manual.
On the outside, the Legato Legacy exudes elegance and class, its thick acrylic faceplates and satiny aluminum casework giving it a deep, dark, dramatic handsomeness. But it's when you peer inside that understanding of its sheer refinement takes fullest hold. The cleanliness of the layout along with the dual-mono construction instill great confidence that Gryphon Audio has addressed all sources of the noise that's so detrimental to analog playback, especially with low-output moving-coil cartridges.
So you've reterminated your phono cable and decided to connect the Legato Legacy via its XLR outputs. The challenges don't end there. You must also find room on your equipment rack for two chassis. They are meant to be physically separated, as Flemming Rasmussen so resolutely pointed out: "Since we have gone to great lengths to diminish noise, it makes little sense to place the main unit right on top of the external power supply, which is large enough to drive a small amplifier." You will also need to make room in your power distributor for two power cords. Gryphon certainly doesn't make it easy for potential customers of the Legato Legacy. If you want this phono stage, be ready for some reconfiguration of your system.
I used the Legato Legacy with Dynavector XV-1s mono and XV-1t stereo cartridges, along with Denon's overachieving DL-103R. Loading of 80 ohms was right for both Dynavectors, while the Denon liked 300 or 800 ohms -- I could never decide which was better. Even running the cartridges wide open at 47,000 ohms had its charms, some additional top-end sparkle being the most obvious of them. While balanced operation is a key design goal, given the LEMO inputs and XLR outputs, the Legato Legacy does have single-ended RCA outputs as well, and unlike with some fully balanced digital gear, these sounded largely similar to the XLRs, if a bit less dynamically authoritative and powerful in the bass. What I describe about the Legato Legacy's sound applies to both sets of outputs, though it's mostly the product of the XLRs.
What is the role of artistry in the creation of high-end audio equipment? Is it subordinate to the technical endeavor of designing a circuit, or is it central to the process, the thing that turns technical competence into sonic enchantment? I've gone on record to say that my experience reviewing audio equipment for more than 15 years has convinced me that the technical ability of the designer will get a product only so far, with the most elusive qualities that aid the best audio products in attaining a special status as being more art than science, more the product of a human being than a measurement suite. This question becomes central when evaluating Gryphon products, as Flemming Rasmussen, a graduate of Arhaus Art Academy in Denmark, is, in fact, an accomplished painter. I would argue that an artist's touch shows in his products, not just in their outward appearance, but also the sonic acuity they achieve, the Legato Legacy proving this point all over again.
A few years ago, I reviewed a cartridge from ZYX, the Atmos (also referred to as the 4D). Among its capabilities was one I discovered by accident. While mounting and aligning it, I found that it could play a 25Hz test tone with linearity that equaled that of digital. This was no small feat. Of the many ways that analog trumps digital, bass depth and linearity are not two of them. A cartridge has to deal the vagaries of the record itself and the performance of the tonearm, the combined 'arm-cartridge resonance (not to mention any acoustic feedback) able to obscure really low frequencies.
My initial thought, after playing the first LP with the Legato Legacy, was that I wished I still had that ZYX cartridge around. The bass from this phono stage was not just noteworthy but powerfully real in a way I've never experienced with analog. The Legato Legacy's bass showed tremendous depth and control along with, for the lack of a better term, elasticity, the ability to sound varied and lithe, even athletic, from record to record. It didn't just bloom and pound; it purred when the record commanded, and I found no better example of this than Michael Murray's The Great Organ of Methuen [Telarc DG-10049]. The power of any organ recording comes not in quick bursts, as with so much pop music, but in the sustained exhalation of the organ, as the organist cuts loose and the instrument roars. Hearing an organ at full bore used to be a thrill of playing records, when records were all we had, but digital has supplanted analog here -- except with a phono stage like the Legato Legacy. Within Telarc's catalogue, the organ recordings occupy a special place, both for the sheer power of their sound and Murray's sensitive playing, all captured by Telarc's digital-recording sorcerer Jack Renner. The Gryphon phono stage, had no issue at either end performance range, scaling with the organ and the demands of the playing, especially when the organ flexed its muscles and taxed the rest of the system's ability to capture it.
Listening to The Great Organ of Methuen was thrilling for sure, but also musically engrossing, which was more to the point and underscored that the Legato Legacy's bass performance was more than a sonic trick. It was not a matter of more but better. When I asked about this, thinking it might have been an area of special emphasis, Flemming Rasmussen suggested that it could be due to the Legato Legacy's fully balanced circuit, "the cartridge [functioning] as the balanced device it was born to be." Possibly, but I've heard other balanced phono stages, and none of them achieved the power and drama of the Legato Legacy down low -- not even close, in fact.
Some of those phono stages were solid state as well, and they handled tonality in a distinctly gaunt, monochromatic way, at least to my ears. Not the Legato Legacy, whose tonal saturation was complete, more like film than video tape in the way it fleshed out the voices of instruments. I actually listened to more mono than stereo with the Legato Legacy, and with mono tonality often carries the presentation, as you revel in the realism of Miles Davis's trumpetness or Ray Brown's bassness. A while back I bought a box of LPs that included an original pressing of John Coltrane's early masterpiece Soultrane [Prestige 7142]. I couldn't wait to clean and play it, which I did within an hour of getting it in the door. Talk about an instrumental voice -- Coltrane's was like no other, and it was more forceful and resounding with the Legato Legacy than it had ever been. I suppose in an ultimate sense, taking competing phono stages into account, the Legato Legacy falls on the side of fullness, as opposed to the leanness that some phono stages impart, but it also sounds less like a piece of electronic equipment, and thus more real. Performers have color, an identifying condition that, for me at least, goes a long way toward suspending disbelief while listening intently to reproduced music. While Soultrane is not a sonic blockbuster, it was once again a thrill through the Legato Legacy, because of the substance, the living color the phono stage preserved.
Any product's resolving power encompasses not just revealing the big and small details that are on a recording, but also that all-encompassing color -- everything, in short, that a recording has to offer. In this sense, the Legato Legacy is highly resolving, even as other phono stages will sound more immediate, possibly even more exciting. But excitement is often a sign of emphasis, of the pendulum swinging too far in one direction, and for this reason it wears thin (before it wears off), whereas true resolving power is a constant, reconstructing the music in its totality and in an unpretentious manner. This is what the Legato Legacy does: totality without sonic whoopla. Even its potent bass is just a cog in the greater machine.
Perhaps as a byproduct of its way with tonality, the Legato Legacy presented full, substantial images, not just with distinct outlines but with internal mass. It would not be a stretch to call them concrete, though I wouldn't want this to imply a fundamental thickness or a plodding way with pace and timing. Instead, there were naturalness and the music's own sense of momentum, the mids transitioning upward into a smooth yet airy treble and downward into a bouncy midbass and those powerful lows.
Electronics of all kinds that have fullness like that of the Legato Legacy can also congeal and thereby blur spatial cues, but here again the Gryphon phono stage proved to be thoroughly itself. It sounded spacious but not excessively so. When it comes to capturing space, it's hard to beat some of the direct-to-disc recordings, and even harder to beat For Duke [M&K Realtime RT-101], an audiophile war-horse that has all-around demo-quality sound. The Legato Legacy spread the ensemble out laterally and front to back, presenting a walk-within-it soundstage, but it wasn't flashy in doing so, the music never sounding bigger than it should. It would be difficult for any phono stage -- or amp, preamp or cartridge -- to sound bad with For Duke, but only the greats uncover all of its charms. In so many ways, it unleashed all that the Legato Legacy does so well: its tangible presence, its complete resolution, its power with powerful music. With lesser equipment, For Duke is a workout; for the Legato Legacy, it was a sonic sibling, each mirroring what the other was truly capable of. In fact, if you know the sound of For Duke, you know even better than I can describe what the Legato Legacy sounds like.
Like every audiophile (and every member of the audio press, truth be known), I have my biases, my set of personal views of what constitutes a great audio system in general and great components in specific. These become even more pronounced with analog, because I make the connection between live music and what I hear from LPs more readily than with other media. These boil down to a few well-rooted beliefs.
Here's one of them. I believe that there is something musically complementary, something immediately right, about the combination of analog and tubes. I want my records to sound like records, and to my ears, tubes, especially in a phono stage, achieve this far more reliably than solid state. While I've been able to admire some solid-state phono stages, many of them, even highly praised ones, pushed analog toward the sonic signature of digital. Thus, among my favorite phono stages are the Audio Research Reference Phono 2 SE ($12,995) and Allnic H-3000V ($13,900), a pair of true analog heavy hitters that don't sound anything near alike but do reinforce the connection between analog and tubes. Like the Legato Legacy, the Reference Phono 2 SE derives its gain completely from active devices -- tubes and J-FETs in the Reference Phono 2 SE's case. It also offers multiple gain and loading options, but changes in both are made via front-panel buttons or with the unit's remote control. The Allnic phono stage does use step-up transformers and an LCR network for deriving its EQ. It allows for copious adjustment of EQ, for dialing in just the right settings for each LP, RIAA or pre-RIAA titles. The Reference Phono 2 also allows EQ adjustment, but it has only two options beyond RIAA. Both the H-3000V and Reference Phono 2 SE have more than one input, perfect for those of us who use two tonearms, as well as single-ended RCA and balanced XLR outputs.
When discussing three different products of any type, it's tempting to consider two as boundaries, placing the one that best encompasses the traits of the other two in between them. That just doesn't work here, as these three phono stages have such distinct sonic personalities. The Reference Phono 2 SE presents space in a grand way, as all Audio Research products do. It illuminates the furthest reaches of the sound stage as well as the images that occupy it with rare insight. I haven't had the H-3000V (or the H-3000, which eschews the EQ adjustablility) in my system for some time, but it's an easy phono stage to remember, especially its ability to conjure images within the soundfield it conveys -- "spooky" I've called it, because of how well rooted and palpable the images were. The Allnic phono stage presented the music with a more midrangey slant than the Audio Research, though it would be easy, I think, to identify both as having tubes.
In a certain sense, this applies to the Legato Legacy as well. Its tonal completeness and image density are often the stuff of tubes, although these things blend into a less ostentatious sense of space than with the tube units -- still spacious to be sure, but not overwhelmingly so, like the Reference Phono 2 SE, which is the most immediate, even the most forward of the three, perhaps owing to the vast space it portrays. The Allnic does imaging in a way that the other two do not quite equal, and in a way that by itself will sell some potential buyers on it. Neither of the tube units approach the bass depth and power of the Legato Legacy, and they don't possess quite the tonal saturation or midbass punch either. And it is within such a comparison that Flemming Rasmussen's addressing of noise has its greatest impact, the music from the tube units not emerging from as deep and dark a place as with the Legato Legacy.
While the Legato Legacy may have initially had something of a perceptual deficit with me, owing to its fully solid-state circuitry, it quickly established itself among the uppercrust of phono stages I've heard, even top-flight tube competition, biases be damned. Which among the Gryphon, Audio Research and Allnic would I choose? Copout time -- I could be very happy with any of them. If I had to chose one of them, it would be for reasons that largely wouldn't apply to the other two, so distinctive in terms of features and sound is this trio of phono stages. Having all of them (and three tonearms on my turntable) would be a reasonable compromise, I think.
No one said that writing about audio gear would be easy, and reviewing the Gryphon Legato Legacy underscored this point. This was one of the most involved reviews I've written, purely because the Legato Legacy performed in such a wide-ranging and comprehensive way, challenging my preconceived notions and causing some reconfiguration of my system, due to its two-chassis design and those LEMO connectors. Even so, this is one special piece of audio equipment, pushing both analog's performance and technological boundaries, divulging the music in those grooves in an absolute, and absolutely engrossing, way. While I might not have expected what I'd discover from the Legato Legacy, I wasn't totally surprised either. I've had enough past exposure to Gryphon equipment to know that this level of performance is common.
Now, on to a more pressing issue: we in the US need the Gryphon to cease being a mythical beast. We need access to the Legato Legacy and the entire product line -- and soon, please!