Who knows why we become enamored of certain material things? A particular automobile may “speak” to us on some level even before we drive it. We know it’s the right SUV for us because, mysteriously, it aligns with our views on, well, SUVs. And often, when you finally get behind the wheel, the act of actually driving it for the first time becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. And you buy it.
Those who market products know this all too well, and their job is to make create that connection between product and buyer so that the latter vigorously seeks out the former. How often, in high-end audio, do we see a successful company craft a story around a product’s development that draws us in, even before the first unit rolls off the production line?
While my 20 years as an audio reviewer have, to some degree, inoculated me against such things, I wasn’t always so immune. I can remember where my infatuation with Gryphon Audio Designs began: with their DM100 stereo amplifier. I never owned one. Oh, I tried to get my hands on one, and in the late 1990s even made an agreement to buy a used unit. (Back then, I didn’t have enough money to even consider a new one.) The store that was selling it -- in Oregon, I think -- tested the amp before packing it up to ship to me, and there was a problem. I can’t remember exactly what the problem was, but I do recall that the amp would have to be sent to Denmark to be repaired. The deal fell through, and I never did get to hear a DM100.
But the DM100 continued to haunt me: 100Wpc of pure class-A power with programmable bias, a pair of 1200W transformers in a massive dual-mono design, and an aluminum chassis that exuded the dark, burnished nature of the Gryphon name. It had to sound good. The DM100, launched in 1991, was the very first Gryphon stereo amplifier, and directly antedated the original Antileon, which debuted in 1995. That version of Gryphon’s stereo amp would be in production for about a decade before being replaced by the Antileon Signature.
Which was when I finally got a Gryphon into my system. When I reviewed the Antileon Signature ($24,000 USD) in June 2004, it lived up to the high expectations I’d set for the sound of a Gryphon amplifier. In that review I said, of Gryphon’s Antileon Signature and Sonata Allegro preamplifier ($12,500), “They’re the desert-island pairing I’d most like to be stranded with. And if that happens, don’t come find me anytime soon.” Since then I’ve been blessed to be able to listen to other Gryphon amplifiers. The Colosseum ($43,500) was next, in March 2011, followed in September 2013 by Gryphon’s largest, dearest stereo amp ever, the Mephisto ($57,000).
So what better way to start 2017 than to write about the newest Gryphon stereo amp, the Antileon Evo (€29,000) -- a descendant of the DM100 that I was so enamored of two decades ago?
There are several areas in which Gryphon does not compromise. First, their power amplifiers are always large -- the Antileon Evo measures a hulking 22.5"W x 10.25"H x 23.6"D and weighs 185 pounds. Second, the Antileon Evo is biased in class-A -- as Gryphon’s premium amps have always been and likely always will be. Third, the Antileon Evo’s claimed output of 150Wpc is supported by a ridiculously impressive bill of components and specifications: two 1500W toroidal transformers, 20 bipolar output devices per channel, and 670,000µF of power-supply capacitance.
That makes the Antileon Evo capable of extraordinary output capability: 1200W of continuous power into a 1-ohm load, and an incredible 5000W peak into 0.5 ohm. When was the last time you saw an amp specced for output into 0.5 ohm? Via front-panel buttons, the user can choose among three bias settings: Bias L for 25Wpc class-A, Bias M for 50Wpc class-A, or Bias H for 150Wpc class-A. Or, if the Antileon Evo is used with one of Gryphon’s current preamplifier models, its Green Bias setting allows the preamp to control the amount of class-A power. This is not a signal-sensing biasing scheme -- the Green Bias setting is based solely on the preamp’s volume setting. Whether or not a signal is present, this allows the Antileon Evo to run more efficiently when less class-A power is needed. Nonetheless, the Antileon Evo consumes a lot of juice -- it always runs hot. It’s not a class-A/B design, and it’s about as far from class-D as you can get. I listened mostly in Bias M, which seemed to best fit the 94dB sensitivity of my Magico Q7 Mk.II loudspeakers.
The Antileon Evo’s internal components are connected with Gryphon’s Guideline Reference wire, which has conductors of gold-infused silver -- except for the output stage, which is tied to the binding posts with massive bus bars of gold-plated copper. The power-supply transformers are damped with epoxy and suspended, to minimize vibrations. The heatsinks are massive -- and sharp.
The Antileon Evo’s dual-mono design is taken to its logical conclusion: on the rear panel are two power-cord inlets. Flanking these are the two master power rocker switches -- when activated, they keep AC flowing through the amp’s innards at all times. The On/Standby button on the front panel brings the Antileon Evo into full operation. The amp accepts only balanced signals, via XLR sockets, and Gryphon doesn’t recommend the use of adapters -- as I said, uncompromising. The two pairs of large, custom-designed binding posts are large and easy to grip. The remaining rear-panel connections are a 12V link, and the jack to link to a Gryphon preamp’s Green Bias circuitry.
Most of the front panel is made of acrylic; the rest of the amplifier chassis is made of aluminum. Much information is presented on a red-lettered display behind a sheet of clear acrylic. You probably won’t need to check the AC phase, or that the amp’s temperature is within safe operating parameters, but such attention to detail is part of the Gryphon experience. In addition to the front panel’s bias and On/Standby buttons are buttons for Mute and Check, the last to let you know that your amp’s indicators are all functioning properly. I won’t describe in full each of the exterior design flourishes -- they’re visible in the photos -- but I will say that, aesthetically, the Antileon Evo calls to me more than do Gryphon’s other current models. The Colosseum is more elegant, the Mephisto more gargantuan -- but the Antileon Evo’s looks strike the perfect balance of masculinity and refinement.
As soon as I fired up the Antileon Evo, I was super-impressed. It was mechanically silent -- like, nothing. Operational noises have always been a pet peeve of mine. I can’t stand it when a power amplifier -- in my case, usually a very expensive one -- buzzes and vibrates. Granted, I mostly can’t hear these noises at my listening position, and almost never when music is playing.
But with all the variability in the AC supply that any audio component might experience in the field, I find it comforting when a manufacturer has bothered to deal with potential transformer buzz within the design itself. Can you imagine being told that the new 30-grand amp you’ve just bought will require you to experiment with power conditioners because its transformers are “sensitive” to the AC supply? Gryphon’s suspended, epoxy-damped transformer casings work as claimed. Listening with an ear pressed close to my Magicos’ tweeters revealed a slight hiss that was on the quieter side of average for an expensive, solid-state power amp: not quite as quiet as the Soulution 711, but not far behind.
I began my listening with a cover of the Nirvana classic “In Bloom” -- Sturgil Simpson’s, from his 2016 album, A Sailor’s Guide to Earth (16-bit/44.1kHz FLAC, Atlantic/Tidal). The opening bars created an atmospheric sound that engulfed my listening room, the Music Vault. The sound was immersive and complete, with great depth of soundstage and an enveloping width that, together, practically surrounded my listening position. The soundstage harked back to what I remember of the Antileon Signature’s: huge, and bigger than the Music Vault itself. I was fascinated by the sheer apparent size of the sound I was hearing -- it was very different from I typically hear.The Magico Q7 Mk.II is an easier listen than the first incarnation of that speaker, and is, by a good margin, the fastest, most precise speaker I’ve ever heard. The Soulution 711 stereo power amp augments these strengths -- among other attributes, the Swiss amp is also characterized by speed and resolution. The Antileon Evo enhanced the Magicos’ strengths with a tactile sense of ease and graceful power, making the music both effortless to listen to and enveloping, while retaining a level of transparency that let through every aspect of my favorite recordings. This is the type of nonfatiguing sound quality that leads to marathon listening sessions. In a seeming dichotomy, I never felt that I wasn’t hearing every detail of the various tracks I played, even though the totality of the sound was easier to swallow than is usually the case. It was the best of both worlds: speed, finesse, and detail, and power, grace, and effortlessness.
The Antileon Evo’s sound was also characterized by deep, full bass. I listened to “Norbu,” from Bruno Coulais’s music for the film Himalaya (16/44.1 AIFF, Virgin), a track I often turn to for its substantial nether reach and full-bore power in the low bass. A world-class amplifier must be able to sustain those low notes long enough for the drum thwacks to roll from the speakers to the back of the room. The Gryphon shone, sailing through this tough test without breaking a sweat, and sounding beastly powerful as it rocketed the Magicos’ woofers toward their limits of excursion, even as it seemed to glide along without a care in the world. This was sound that I could relax into for long periods, confident that, when the music called for it, I would be surprised and impressed with its momentary thrusts of power.The highs were burnished, with fine detail -- not the microscope-on-notes detail you might have heard elsewhere, but a sound punctuated by small, naturally occurring sounds that you’re allowed to simply notice rather than have forced on you. Take, for instance, the beginning of “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” from Eva Cassidy’s Live at Blues Alley (16/44.1 FLAC, Blix Street). Her guitar strings had a perfect, completely natural tonality, while the sound of her voice was answered by a fine reverb that defined this as a live recording made in a small club. What I most liked about the Antileon Evo’s sound was how perfectly it trod the line between resolution and the natural beauty of the music I was enjoying. One result of this was that I found myself worrying less about the quality of the recording I was playing, and able to focus solely on what music I wanted to hear.The Antileon Evo is an easy recommendation for anyone who wants to assemble a state-of-the-art sound system. I would imagine that matching speakers and other electronics to it would be a breeze -- it’s unlikely to emphasize any flaws in the partnering gear. At the same time, the Gryphon should bring out the best from the exotic tweeters and massively capable woofers of the speakers it’s likely be paired with. It should make the most of the soundstages preserved on your best recordings, without shining a glaring light on any flaws in those recordings you’d rather ignore. Because this amp sounds beautiful.
From afar, it would be easy to conclude that the Antileon Evo -- being the least-expensive pure power amplifier in the Gryphon Audio line -- would naturally take a back seat to its costlier brethren, the Colosseum and Mephisto. But I’ve lived with all three models, and have found this not to be the case. Yes, the Colosseum was quieter and more resolving than its predecessor, the Antileon Signature. The Colosseum moved Gryphon’s house sound toward higher resolution and faster transients, even as it retained the older models’ warm midband -- it still sounded liquid and continuous, and still invited long listening sessions.The Mephisto’s bass was more powerful and went even deeper than the Colosseum’s, and its soundstages were bigger. It was fully resolving at the extremes of the audioband, textured and luxurious in between. A master at reproducing large-scale works, it was never fazed by anything I threw at it. The Mephisto is one of the three best amplifiers I’ve ever heard.
All that said, it might come as a surprise that I prefer the Antileon Evo to the Mephisto or the Colosseum. There are several reasons for this, some of which have nothing to do with the sound. First is the price. No one in his or her right mind would consider the Antileon Evo, at 30 grand or more, as being even close to affordable -- but it costs a lot less than many of today’s superamps, including the Soulution 711 ($65,000) and the Boulder 2160 ($54,000), not to mention the Colosseum ($43,500) and the Mephisto ($57,000). Second, the amp’s looks: I prefer the Antileon Evo’s more classic proportions to the more massive boxiness of the Mephisto, and can more easily be placed in a room than the squat vertical column of the Colosseum -- especially between a pair of loudspeakers.And the Antileon Evo’s sound, too, differs a bit from those of the Mephisto and Colosseum. It’s not quite as quiet as either of the earlier amps, though so close that in listening it made no difference. After all, we don’t listen with an ear pressed against a tweeter, which was the only time I could hear any noise from the Evo. Although I’m now relying only on my memories of the sounds of those older amps, I can say that the Evo’s soundstaging was just a touch bigger than the Colosseum’s, and virtually matched the Mephisto’s. I also think the Evo sounded more, um, analog than the Mephisto or Colosseum. By which I mean not that its sound was “slower” or less resolving, but that it was so cohesive -- entirely of a piece -- and easygoing. Though the Antileon Evo has impressive resolving capabilities and admirable speed and agility, those traits didn’t stand out and call attention to themselves; instead, I simply appreciated how natural the Evo sounded with any music I threw at it.
Lastly . . .
If I had the money and were in the market for an amplifier today, the Antileon Evo is the one I’d buy. I’m sure that that old DM100 I tried to buy 20 years ago would be no match for the Antileon Evo -- but the Evo is the amp I dreamed, two decades ago, that that DM100 would turn out to be. It sounds stunning, it looks like a real power amp should, and for €29,000, it has all the technology and badass hardware you could want.