How do electronic components designed to reproduce recordings of music figure into this equation? Some say it’s all about the numbers. Others, such as Danish audio designer Flemming Rasmussen, would likely tell you that in the creation of one of his Gryphon Audio Designs products, art holds sway over all. That’s not to say that the numbers and the nuts’n’bolts aren’t all in their proper place -- as far as I can see and hear, they are. But these details work in service to a grander vision: the art of audio design as understood by Flemming Rasmussen.
That said, I introduce you to Rasmussen’s Mirage preamplifier and Colosseum stereo amplifier. High-fidelity electronic components? Yes. Art? Oh, yes.
The Gryphon Mirage is a solid-state preamplifier in four parts ($25,750 USD). Its first component is a slim, wand-like remote control of machined aluminum that allows the user to adjust the Mirage’s volume, select a source, engage the muting, and power it up or down, and at one end it has a built-in two-legged stand that lets it sit propped up on a coffee or end table. This remote is a conversation piece in and of itself, such is the visual style imparted to its design. For instance, the buttons aren’t all on one flat surface, as you’d expect, but are mounted on a sharp edge instead. Although that sounds odd, the result is as functional as you’d want a remote to be.
GryphonThe second of the Mirage’s four components is the front panel, which is essentially a standalone touch-sensitive panel mounted on its own cylindrical chassis with an integral four-legged stand similar to the remote’s. This allows it to stand on its own, away from the preamp’s main chassis where the connections are made. The thinking here is that most people will want to see the information displayed by a preamp’s front panel, but would rather not have a large chassis -- and the subsequent rat’s nest of wires going to and from it -- messing up the décor of their home. The Mirage gives you that flexibility. This arrangement also keeps the display itself away from the sensitive audio circuitry, thereby avoiding a root cause of potential noise.
That main chassis is the Mirage’s third component -- a black box of anodized aluminum with a subtly emblazoned Gryphon logo on the top panel. The Mirage has three pairs of XLR inputs, two pairs of RCA inputs, two pairs of XLR outputs, and a pair of RCA tape-loop inputs. Three blue LEDs are aligned from front to back of the top panel, each at the center of a metal ring embedded in the panel. A glance at these tells the owner whether the Mirage is powered up without having to check the front panel, which could be located in an altogether different location. They look cool.
The circuits of the front panel and main chassis communicate wirelessly; nonetheless, they can be fitted together to visually form a single unit: still propped up on its integral legs, the front panel’s backside nestles up against the chassis’s front. It’s a slick and beautiful design.
The fourth component is the Mirage’s power supply, another black-anodized aluminum box, tethered to the main chassis with two cables (included). It’s this that you plug into the wall. The fully assembled Mirage measures 19"W x 5.1"H x 15.75"D and weighs almost 40 pounds.
Though much care and creativity have obviously gone into the aesthetic and functional designs of the Mirage, it also represents considerable efforts to raise the sonic bar, as you’d expect at its very high price. Some details of its electrical performance: A true dual-mono design with mirror-imaged power supplies and circuit boards, the Mirage runs in pure class-A through discrete circuitry. The power supply consists of twin toroidal transformers and 63,000 microfarads of capacitance -- beefier than some power amps. The Mirage is a zero-negative-feedback design with an ultra-wide bandwidth said to extend to 3MHz. The 50-step, microprocessor-controlled volume control includes Vishay resistors and "ultra-low-capacitance relays" for setting levels. The Mirage can also control the bias level (Low, Medium, or High) of connected Gryphon power amps, and can be updated by the factory if the need arises through a flash-memory system. There are many more details about the Mirage’s design that would take up far more real estate to describe than I have allocated here. But Gryphon’s website provides complete documentation; I encourage you to visit it for the full story.
The Colosseum stereo amplifier ($43,500) is the most beautiful electronic component I’ve ever laid eyes on. Oval in cross section, it measures 30"H x 10.6"W x 24.8"D and weighs 176 pounds. The heatsinks run the amp’s full height at front and rear. Seen from the front, the Colosseum’s front profile is very narrow, and its all-black livery makes it almost disappear. The side panels are customizable -- colors, textures, materials, you name it -- though my sample came in a gorgeous piano-black acrylic. The Colosseum is sculptural in form and perfectly symmetrical in appearance, completely eschewing the usual blockiness of audio components.
On the Colosseum’s top panel are the controls and a vacuum-fluorescent display, the former being the same touch-sensitive buttons found on other Gryphon products. You can power up the amp from standby with these controls, as well as adjust the bias level from Low to Medium to High, and access the Menu. Each step up in bias adjusts the amplifier’s output stage further into class-A. The thought is that for less-critical listening, a lower bias would be sufficient, but for those nights when only the most sublime sound will do, you can ramp it up to blazing-hot and let the music pour forth, unblemished by crossover distortion.
The Colosseum’s output is rated at 160Wpc into 8 ohms, 320Wpc into 4 ohms, or 640Wpc into 2 ohms. While 160Wpc may not seem like that much these days, when 1000W from ten-pound class-D designs is common, consider the nature of linear, analog power amplifiers: those 160W are supported by a total of 24 output devices per channel, 340,000µF of power-supply capacitance, and two huge, shielded, 1325W Holmgren power transformers that weigh 30 pounds apiece. According to Gryphon, the Colosseum is actually capable of producing short bursts of a ground-shaking 5400W into a single channel. This amplifier should have no problem powering any competently designed loudspeaker.
Like the Mirage, the Colosseum is a dual-mono, zero-negative-feedback design, and fully balanced from input to output. The Colosseum’s master power switch and IEC power inlet are on the bottom panel. On the rear of the amplifier, just below the heatsinks, are a pair of Neutrik XLR inputs, and two pairs of custom-made, Gryphon-branded binding posts for biwiring.
GryphonUnless otherwise noted, the notes below describe what I heard with the Colosseum’s bias set to High, meaning that it was running in pure, scalding-hot class-A. I began with Jerry Junkin and the Dallas Wind Symphony’s Crown Imperial (24-bit/176.4kHz WAV, Reference HR-112). This recording, engineered by Keith O. Johnson, sounded absolutely spectacular through the Gryphon electronics. The music was presented as huge, bold, and oh so grand. The low-frequency foundation was as unyielding as an iron peg driven into the frozen ground, as Winston Churchill once said -- the massive sound of the pipe organ seemed to underpin my entire house, making the soundstage absolutely magnificent when organist Mary Preston pulled out the 32’ pedal stops. Clearly evident to me when listening to this recording were the tremendous headroom and reach of the Gryphon combo, which made Richard Strauss’s Festival Entrada both utterly dynamic and majestic. The Gryphons could easily and simultaneously reproduce the wide dynamic swings and full audioband captured on this wonderful high-resolution recording. There was never a hint of stridency in the sound, and absolutely no grit or hash.
There’s no question that the Mirage-Colosseum combo was ultimately quieter than Gryphon’s Antileon Sonata Allegro preamplifier and Signature stereo amplifier, which I enthusiastically reviewed in June 2004. The noise floor of the Mirage-Colosseum was minuscule, easily making possible the proverbial ink-black backgrounds from which music emerged unchallenged by any hint of noise. In some respects, the Gryphons’ performance presented somewhat of a dichotomy: Although these components were clearly technically superior to their older, less expensive siblings, the new Gryphons have retained the qualities that made the older electronics so special. In 2004, I wrote that "There was a tonally rich presence; a full palette of colors was available to make the music sound real, in this case just the opposite of washed out and thin." This was also true of the Colosseum and Mirage. If you’re still under the impression that solid-state electronics strip the humanity from the music, you must hear the new Gryphons in a good room and with good speakers. You may give up your tubes forever.
Smaller-scale music was served just as well by the Gryphons. "The Boy from Impanema," from Diana Krall’s Quiet Nights (24/96 AIFF, Verve/HDtracks), had incredible presence in my room. Krall was upfront in the soundstage and personally connected with her audience -- in this case, me. I could hear deep within her voice, getting a keen sense of the texture and exactitude of her musical notes. The Gryphons seemed perfectly suited to hi-rez recordings -- though very revealing, they didn’t overburden me with artificial detail or spotlighting. This is a great combination, because hi-rez recordings themselves need no help in this regard -- music recorded at higher sample rates and greater bit depths contains far more detail than you'll hear on CD. The Gryphons were easily able to scale down the soundstage from what I heard with the Crown Imperial selection when necessary. However, what was consistent regardless of the type of recording or scale of performance I listened to was that the sound was always effortless. The Gryphons were very liquid in this regard, letting go of the music in much the way that very efficient speakers do -- the music just emerged from the speakers, without my ever feeling that it was being forced or pushed.
It seems almost pointless to break down, range by range, the Mirage-Colosseum’s reproduction of the audioband. There was a terrific continuity, from the lowest lows to the highest highs. Bass was as deep and as powerful as I’ve heard with any electronics, easily equaling that of the Boulder Amplifiers 2060 and Musical Fidelity Titan power amplifiers. The midband had so much presence that it clearly revealed all the drama and humanness within recordings. I’m not sure I would describe this as warmth, because that implies a frequency-response aberration, and that wasn’t the case here. Then again, the sound was warmer than what I usually hear; I believe this to be because the Gryphons were revealing so much information in the midband. Livingston Taylor’s whistling and singing in the opening of his cover of Stevie Wonder’s "Isn’t She Lovely," from Ink (24/96 AIFF, Chesky/HDtracks), were airy and close-up, with a healthy dose of resolution. There was ample delicacy, and a very intimate quality that, when coupled with musical ease and a lack of electronic artifacts, made more evident the natural warmth of Taylor’s voice.
It seemed natural to compare the Gryphon Mirage and Colosseum with my reference Boulder Amplifiers 1010 preamplifier ($14,000) and 2060 stereo amplifier ($44,000). I love both of these combos, and found it hard to criticize either -- as I listened to each pairing individually, I couldn’t help but marvel at the qualities of its sound, and simply enjoy my time listening. Then, when I switched to the other pairing, the same thing happened, but differently. There were many similarities, and some differences.
The Boulders were a match for the Gryphons in terms of transparency and resolution, and were as utterly capable at the frequency extremes. I could hear just as deeply into recordings with the Boulders as with the Gryphons. The Gryphons presented music in a more intimate way, however. They seemed to bring me closer to singers, for example. The Boulders presented music more at arm’s length, but in a manner still revealing and neutral, and with backgrounds as quiet as with the Gryphons. The Gryphons seemed to vary the scale of the soundstage more dramatically with various types of music, while the Boulders kept individual players separated in space just as distinctly as the Gryphons. The Gryphons and the Boulders both have excellent user interfaces. I know that sound quality trumps all, but when it can be had while providing the owner with a great way to interact with the gear, all the better. After living with these models, I could never go back to products that lack remote controls or that give the user little feedback about their operation. Day after day, I simply loved using these products.
These two brands of electronics are, all things considered, the two best I’ve ever had in my system. If a reader writes in to ask which state-of-the-art electronics I’ve had in my home that I could recommend without hesitation, I’d name the Gryphons and the Boulders. Before you consider anything else in this price range, put these two companies on your short list. They’ve been around for decades, and the gear they’re producing today is simply superb in every way.
Ultimately, though, after many comparisons and much thought and consternation, I can say that the Gryphons edged out the Boulders in terms of my own musical enjoyment. They just made music feel more alive, more human, and that made me want to listen more. And I did, night after night.
Describing the Gryphon Audio Designs Mirage and Colosseum as functional or industrial art, or some other such term, seems to minimize just how special they are. I prefer just art. They will grace a listening room with sculptural beauty, provide tactile pleasure in use, and make your music sound as real as reproduced music can. I simply adored them. If you have the money, seek them out for audition, even if you have to travel across land and sea to do so. You’ll be richly rewarded by the experience, in the ways that only great art can reward.
. . . Jeff Fritz
The World’s Best Audio System, February 2011