Gryphon Audio Designs Diablo 120 Integrated Amplifier-DAC SoundStage 10/2018

Uday Reddy,
SoundStage 10/2018

The Gryphon. Just say it -- the name rolls regally off the tongue, sounding as mythical as it is. How do you live up to such a name? By producing audio components that look and sound beautiful. Gryphon Audio Designs’ reputation for excellent sound quality had for years been on my radar -- when offered the opportunity to review their Diablo 120 integrated amplifier-DAC ($15,450 USD as reviewed, with DAC option), I couldn’t say no.

Gryphon was founded in 1985 by Flemming E. Rasmussen, who recently retired. “Our higher goal is to bring to the listener a ‘You-Are-There’ sensation,” they say. That’s a tough standard to uphold. Let’s see if the Diablo 120 meets it.

Design and specifications

The Diablo 120, Gryphon’s junior model of integrated amplifier, succeeds the Atilla (introduced in 2009), and is based on what Gryphon learned in developing their Pandora preamplifier and Mephisto power amp. The Diablo 120 is a class-AB design of dual-mono architecture, to reduce crosstalk and interchannel interaction, and uses zero negative feedback. The volume control comprises a microprocessor-controlled 46-step relay volume attenuator, which Gryphon feels provides the best sound quality.

The power output is specified as 120Wpc into 8 ohms, 240Wpc into 4 ohms, or 440Wpc into 2 ohms. Clearly, the Diablo 120 will have no problem driving even the most power-hungry loudspeakers. These power specs are supported by a power-supply capacitance of 60,000µF/channel and a 1300VA transformer. The claimed bandwidth is specified as 0Hz-250kHz, -3dB, the gain as +38dB. Impedance for the balanced inputs is 40k ohms, and for the single-ended inputs, 8k ohms.

The base Diablo 120 costs $11,200. Extra-cost options include a moving-magnet/moving-coil phono stage ($2250) or a PCM/DSD DAC module ($4250) -- you can’t have both. The DAC module is based on Gryphon’s Kalliope DAC ($26,600) and has four digital inputs: USB, XLR AES/EBU, TosLink optical, and BNC S/PDIF. Via USB, it can process PCM up to 32-bit/384kHz, as well as DSD (with Windows, up to DSD512; with Mac OS X and Linux, up to DSD128). Through the BNC and XLR inputs, the DAC module can process up to 32/192 PCM, and via TosLink up to 24/96 PCM.

The front panel is in three sections. The upper and lower segments are recessed, and comprise glossy acrylic outer sections flanking central finned aluminum heatsinks. The protruding central panel is bordered in brushed aluminum surrounding a wide, trapezoidal vacuum-fluorescent display with six illuminated, touch-sensitive controls, from left to right: Power/Standby, Volume, Mute, Input, Monitor, and Menu. The central portion of the display shows the input selected and the volume level.

The sides of the Diablo 120 are mostly taken up by finned aluminum heatsinks that never became hot during use. Bisecting the top panel from front to back is a V-shaped trough perforated with round ventilation holes, and there are greater perforated areas next to each heatsink. The bottom panel has slotted vents; the whole chassis rests on four solid feet.

On the rear panel are one pair of balanced XLR inputs flanking four pairs of single-ended inputs (RCA), plus one pair of single-ended RCA outputs (Tape Out). Input 3 can be configured for home-theater bypass so that the Diablo 120 can be paired with a surround-sound processor.

Below the row of inputs and outputs are heavy-duty five-way binding posts flanking DC outputs, and between those are the fuse bay, a ground post, and the IEC power inlet. Above the ins and outs is a cutout for the DAC module. From left to right on the DAC are the inputs: USB, AES/EBU, S/PDIF, and TosLink.

The Diablo 120 measures 17”W x 7”H x 14.5”D, weighs a hefty 57 pounds, and is chunkily handsome. It comes with a nicely shaped remote-control handset of aluminum with red buttons: Mute, Power/Standby, Volume, and Input.

Setup

When I unboxed the Diablo 120, the first thing I found was a pair of white gloves to keep my hands from marring the amplifier’s glossy bits with fingerprints. A nice touch, but there are no rubber nibs on palms and fingers for gripping -- a firm grasp is required, to ensure that this heavy amp doesn’t smash your toes. Or use your bare hands and buff away the fingerprints afterward, as I did.

Gryphon supplies a thorough, well-written owner’s manual in a nice leather three-ring binder. The setup instructions are clearly written, easy to follow, and comprehensive. After setting the Diablo 120 on my equipment stand, I connected my sources, plugged in the power cord, turned it on, and set up the input designations. Painless.

Sound

Since many audiophiles have standalone disc players and/or DACs, I began by evaluating the Diablo 120’s amplifier capabilities, using my Meitner MA-1 DAC connected via the balanced analog inputs.

Right away I noticed that this was one dead-silent amplifier. Holding an ear right next to a tweeter, I could detect no sound at all. The Diablo 120 may as well have been turned off. In all my years of reviewing, I can’t remember coming across an amplifier as quiet as this.

That noiselessness allowed subtle features of recordings to be much more audible. I’ve owned Up for It, by Keith Jarrett, Gary Peacock, and Jack DeJohnette (16-bit/44.1kHz AIFF, ECM 1860), since its release 15 years ago, and I listen to it regularly -- I know this recording intimately. It was recorded at the 2002 Antibes Festival, and in the interval between the first two tracks, “If I Were a Bell” and “Butch & Butch,” a barking dog can be heard. Although I’ve heard that dog dozens of times, I still was astonished the first time it barked through the Diablo 120 -- it sounded as if the dog were outside, in my yard. I was so amazed at how realistic this sounded that I played it several times in a row.

I carried on in this vein, seeking out other recordings with similar qualities. The sound of the tossed coin that opens “The Music Must Change,” from the Who’s Who Are You (24/96 AIFF, Geffen/HDtracks), was startlingly real, as was Pete Townshend’s 6/8-time pacing across the studio, which supplies the track’s underlying beat.

While awaiting completion of our new home (mid-2020), we’ve been renting a small mid-century California ranch house. Here, my new listening room is quite a bit smaller than my old one, with dimensions of 10’L x 8’W x 8’H vs. 17’L x 15’W x 13’H. With an 80% reduction in room volume, my big concern going into this review was soundstage depth -- it was pretty obvious that the width was going to be constricted by the sidewalls.

Remarkably, the Diablo 120 produced a soundstage way deeper than I was expecting, even though the front wall is only 12” behind the speakers. In September 2011, KUSC FM in Los Angeles simulcast a performance of works by George Gershwin, performed by pianist Herbie Hancock, with Gustavo Dudamel conducting the L.A. Philharmonic. 

Although I missed the broadcast, I recently purchased the video of the Great Performances version on Amazon Prime Video (24/96, BFMI/medici.tv), which I stream from Amazon through my Mac Mini server. During Rhapsody in Blue, the soundstage was impressively deep, with a convincing sense of realism. Despite the smallness of my room, the superb acoustic of Walt Disney Hall was well rendered -- I didn’t wish for a larger space.

Dynamically, the Diablo 120 was more than capable. Ever see your favorite athlete execute an astonishing move with seemingly no effort? That’s how I felt when playing large-scale symphonic works through the Diablo 120. Case in point: Mars, the Bringer of War, from Holst’s The Planets, performed by John Eliot Gardiner and the London Philharmonic Orchestra (16/44.1 AIFF, Deutsche Grammophon). This ominous, appropriately martial-sounding score, with all its looming dread and destruction, was superbly reproduced by the Diablo 120, with plenty held in reserve for the final, thundering climax. But the Diablo 120 wasn’t only about brute force -- it gracefully segued into the next movement, Venus, the Bringer of Peace, with lush string tone and warm, burnished brass.

The Diablo 120 sounded, in a word, engaging. The hallmark of a great component is the level of involvement with the music it makes possible, and the degree to which it grabs your attention. Returning to Up for It, this recording had me locked in -- I couldn’t tear myself away until its entire 73 minutes had been played. All the improvisation and rhythmic interplay of this incredible trio was exquisitely relayed, and the bouncy joy in “If I Were a Bell” was positively infectious. You won’t want to multitask with the Diablo 120 -- it demands that you do nothing but listen, and let the music envelop you.

I’m a huge fan of Jarrett’s recently disbanded Standards Trio, but it’s not only the music that I love -- their albums are among the best recordings for me to evaluate components with. I’m particularly sensitive to the sound of hardness in the piano’s upper registers, so I listen for this quality when reviewing gear. Even with Jarrett’s highest notes on Up for It, the Diablo 120 exhibited no hardness or glare, conveying only the fluid sound of the pianist’s runs up and down the keyboard. Additionally, the Gryphon exhibited outstanding damping of my speakers’ woofers: Gary Peacock’s double bass had all the taut, supple qualities I expect when I hear him play with DeJohnette and Jarrett.

Knowing that many designers in high-end audio listen to and voice their products with recordings of non-amplified music, I’m usually not surprised when classical or acoustic jazz is well reproduced, and in this respect the Diablo 120 had not disappointed. But I was anxious to hear if it could rock out.

No need to worry, rock’n’rollers -- it could. First up for me was the bone-crushing funk of “Rock Candy,” from Montrose’s Montrose (16/44.1 FLAC, Warner Bros./Rhino/Tidal). From Danny Carmassi and Bill Church’s “When the Levee Breaks” stomping to Ronnie Montrose and Sammy Hagar’s crunchy guitars, plus Hagar’s from-the-gut belting, the Diablo 120 handled it all without breaking a sweat. Speaking of funky rock, “Walk This Way,” from Aerosmith’s Toys in the Attic (24/96 AIFF, Legacy/Columbia/HDtracks); “Just Got Paid,” from ZZ Top’s Rio Grande Mud (16/44.1 FLAC, Warner Bros./Rhino/Tidal); and “Texas Twister,” from Little Feat’s Hotcakes & Outtakes (16/44.1 AIFF, Warner Bros./Rhino/Tidal) -- all were similarly rendered, with nimble and spot-on precision, and no evidence of sloppy bass bloat.

The Diablo 120’s DAC section was truly plug’n’play. Within minutes of connecting and powering it up, I was listening to music from my Mac Mini server, streamed via USB. Many would assume that no add-on DAC could be as good as a standalone DAC, but I would beg to differ, based on my experience with similarly equipped integrated amplifiers. Additionally, there’s been a proliferation of excellent-sounding, small-chassis DACs that give full-size DACs a run for their money. Properly executed, there’s no reason to believe that excellent results can’t be obtained.

The Diablo 120’s DAC module was proof of this. Neutral in tone, with solid imaging, no hardness or glare, and excellent momentum and flow, it was the perfect companion for the amplifier section. I don’t listen to much electronica, but Deadmau5’s recent Where’s the Drop? (16/44.1 FLAC, mou5trap/Tidal) has been in regular rotation here and proved to be the perfect demo recording. This album of soaring orchestral arrangements of Deadmau5’s previous work, with deep synthesized bass, gave the DAC a good shakedown -- I could find no category of sound in which it was lacking.

Comparisons

My 18-year-old Jeff Rowland Design Group Concentra integrated amplifier ($5600 when available) is no match for modern integrateds. That said, it’s still a great component, with a warm, rich tone that’s been described as having the benefits of vacuum tubes with none of the downside. Compared to the Diablo 120, though, its sound seemed too warm and less distinct, with blurred images -- almost veiled by comparison. The Diablo 120 sounded far more transparent to the recording without adding any superfluous character. Bass impact was also stronger and better defined, and the treble sounded more natural and liquid through the Gryphon. And when I reinserted the Concentra in my system, the soundstage was considerably foreshortened. The Gryphon scored a convincing win over the Rowland.

The best integrated amp I’ve had in my system in the last ten years has been the Ayre Acoustics AX-5 Twenty ($12,950), which I reviewed in mid-2016 on SoundStage! Ultra. Although I didn’t have it at hand and my current room is completely different from the room I evaluated the AX-5 Twenty in, from what I can remember of the Ayre’s sound, the Diablo 120 compared extremely favorably. Both were outstanding in their transparency and musical flow, their reproductions of the treble, bass, and soundstaging -- but the Gryphon’s silence gave it the upper hand.

I’ve mentioned in other reviews that it’s become increasingly hard for me to differentiate between high-end DACs -- not due to age and hearing loss, but because DAC technologies keep improving. They may still differ in tonality, but problems and differences that used to be obvious are now far less audible. So, while this may be difficult to believe, despite multiple A/B comparisons, I could not distinguish between my Meitner MA-1 DAC ($7000, discontinued) and the Diablo 120’s DAC module. That’s incredible!

Conclusion

My Jeff Rowland Concentra integrated is showing its age. Though still a pleasure to use, its capabilities have been outclassed by more modern integrated amplifiers. While in our new home I’ll be going in a different direction from an amplification standpoint, were I to stay with an integrated amp, I’d be hard-pressed to go with a standalone DAC paired with an integrated amplifier, now that I know how compelling the sound of the Diablo 120’s DAC module is.

Ayre’s AX-5 Twenty has long been my favorite integrated amplifier. But unless there’s a plan to include an optional DAC module in the Ayre, I now have to recommend the Diablo 120. “Our higher goal is to bring to the listener a ‘You-Are-There’ sensation”? Mission accomplished, Gryphon.