It’s easy for reviewers to digest a company’s products by starting at the bottom of a manufacturer’s line and working their way up to the top models. You’re initiated into what that company can do at a lower price, and hopefully you see and hear more and better as you ascend their price ladder. It seems to make psychological sense to experience a company’s line this way, and it often works out just as you’d hope: the higher the price, the better the qualities of build, appearance, and sound.
But when you go in the opposite direction -- when you start at the top of a company’s line and work your way down -- it can be a challenge to keep your perspective. You can be crazy impressed by that top model, and then experience only increasing disappointment as you descend the price ladder. As I went into this review, that was a real concern for me.
The last power amplifier I reviewed from Gryphon Audio Designs was their Antileon Evo stereo model, in March 2017 ($39,000, all prices USD) -- in terms of price, it sits square in the middle of the Gryphon amp universe. Before that, in September 2013, I wrote about the Mephisto stereo amplifier ($61,000), which was then and still is their flagship. In March 2011 I reviewed the Colosseum ($43,500, discontinued), and in June 2004 the Antileon Signature ($24,000, discontinued). In short, I’ve heard in my own stereo system almost every stereo power amp Gryphon has made in the last 15 years.
So it was with a mix of excitement and trepidation that I agreed -- no, jumped at the chance -- to review Gryphon’s latest and lowest-priced stereo power amp, the Essence ($22,990). Would it live up to the Gryphon reputation? Or would I find myself in the position of telling my readers to save up even more to buy one of Gryphon’s even costlier offerings?
The Essence measures 18.5”W x 9.5”H x 18.1”D and weighs 99 pounds. Its exterior metalwork isn’t quite as elaborate as that of the larger Gryphon power amps, but its appearance is no less striking. A wide, thick triangle of acrylic fits flush into a cutout on the equally thick aluminum front panel. An LED bar of blue cuts across the bottommost portion of the acrylic wedge and runs into the aluminum surface to either side. Above this blue bar appears “The Gryphon Essence Power,” and below it Gryphon’s logo. It’s all very clean, and the tolerances where the various materials meet look so tight that I had to run my fingers across them to feel if they were as smooth as they looked. They were. Tall, deep heatsinks cover the entirety of each side panel, and covering everything but the heatsinks is a vented, screwed-down top plate decorated with a large Gryphon logo.
On the rear panel are two pairs of chunky, custom-made Gryphon binding posts and a single set of balanced (XLR) inputs, as is standard on all Gryphon amps. A 20A AC power inlet is dead center at the bottom, and to its right are a ground post, 12V trigger in/out jacks, and Green Bias In and Pass Thru connectors, so that the user can control the Essence’s bias setting (more on this below) from a partnered Gryphon preamplifier. The main power switch is on the bottom plate, toward the very front, just behind the front panel; and just to the right of it is the bias switch (see below).
Inside is the sort of brute-force power supply typical of Gryphon amps: a large, 1350VA toroidal transformer sits proudly front and center, and behind it, toward the rear of the interior, a 440,000-microfarad bank of capacitors. There are ten bipolar output devices per channel.
Gryphon specifies the Essence’s power output as 50Wpc into 8 ohms, 100Wpc into 4 ohms, or 200Wpc into 2 ohms. You might think 50Wpc sounds a bit skimpy, but in practice I found it wasn’t. The sound of the class-A-biased Essence proved ginormous when the music called for it, particularly when set to class-A. But you don’t have to run the Essence in class-A. Using either the bias button under the front panel or a connected Gryphon preamp, switching bias settings couldn’t be easier. Low bias will give you class-AB output, High bias class-A -- the amp, of course, generating considerably more heat in the latter mode. The blue bar on the front panel glows red for High bias, Green for Low bias. (Alternatives for the light bar’s color display are available via the Mode button to the left of the On button, at the front of the bottom plate.) But because the Essence sounded better in class-A, that’s how I did all of my critical listening.
The Essence’s visual design was done by Flemming E. Rasmussen, Gryphon’s founder (retired), and its circuitry was designed by Tom Møller. Gryphon describes that circuitry as dual-mono, with zero global negative feedback and balanced dual-differential class-A input circuits, followed by a high-speed, voltage-amplifying, class-A output stage. The circuits are traced in 70μm-thick copper on four-layer boards, and the digital control and analog circuits have their own separate power supplies. Non-invasive protection circuitry is included to keep the Essence bulletproof in operation.
During my time with the Essence I had no problems with it. It worked as it was supposed to, as any high-end product should. The Essence’s appearance isn’t as elaborate as the larger Gryphon amps, but its simplicity gives it a cleaner look that doesn’t betray Gryphon’s design history while establishing a kind of beauty all its own. I loved the view from my listening seat.
From the moment I turned on the Essence stereo power amplifier, I was thrilled with its sound. Which brought up something interesting. With the Essence set up in my medium-size room and driving my Vimberg Tonda speakers, which have a specified sensitivity of 90dB/2.83V/m, I found I could play music at any volume level with no audible clipping. In fact, the Essence didn’t clip once, despite its seemingly modest output of 50Wpc in class-A. Nor was the music I listened to chosen to “accommodate” any preconceptions I might have had about that power rating.
Ever since the start of the pandemic lockdown I’ve been on a Linkin Park rampage, and anyone who knows the band’s music knows it has to be played loud for it to sound as intended. That’s how I played it. From more subdued music such as the title track of One More Light (16-bit/44.1kHz FLAC, Warner Bros./Qobuz) to more aggressive fare like the Rick Rubin-produced “Bleed It Out,” from Minutes to Midnight (16/44.1 FLAC, Warner Bros./Qobuz), I cranked it all. At 2:33 in “One More Light,” when the bass line comes in strong, the Essence-Tonda combination pressurized my room with full-blooded, propulsive, tuneful bass. The Essence played deep and sustained it, reproducing powerful lows and effortless physicality through my speakers. I cranked up “Bleed It Out” -- a much more aggressive track with screaming electric guitars -- even louder, to over 90dB at the listening position. The system just pounded it. The Essence never ran out of steam, and never sounded strained or compressed on dynamic peaks. In short, despite its modest power rating and reasonable size (for a Gryphon amp), the Essence was a powerhouse.
My Linkin Park session ended with their monster hit “Numb,” from Meteora (24/48 FLAC, Warner Bros./Qobuz). It sounded amazingly complete, the full-throttled energy of the guitars reproduced intact -- a must, because this driving quality is inherent in the band’s music (lead singer Chester Bennington committed suicide in 2017, and it’s unknown whether the band will return). This 50-watter having passed the Linkin Park test, I wouldn’t hesitate to use it for anything I wanted to play. This supports the long-held audiophile belief that watts aren’t just watts -- some amps sound more powerful than other amps of similar or identical power rating. The Gryphon Essence is the poster child for those overachieving amplifiers.
Having definitely answered, at least for my own purposes, the question “Is 50Wpc enough?,” I moved on to more typical audiophile fare to assess other aspects of the Essence’s sound. I went straight to what I’m sure has appeared in the recent Qobuz playlists of many audiophiles: Lido Pimienta’s Miss Colombia (16/44.1 FLAC, Anti-/Qobuz) and its first track, “Para Transcriber (Sol).” The Gryphon painted this track with vivid colors, impressive depth of soundstage, and with all its minute details intact. There was a magnificent amount of space around Pimienta’s voice at the beginning, with soundstage depth for miles, and enough ambience retrieval to make my listening room completely transform into another acoustic environment. Pimienta’s voice was also smooth and tonally perfect -- the Essence reproduced this track with finesse and fidelity.
Next up was Sara Bareilles and the live version of her “King of Anything” on her concert video Brave Enough: Live at the Variety Playhouse (24/96 FLAC, Epic/Qobuz). Again I was in awe of how the Essence reproduced the sense of space contained on this track. When Bareilles gets the crowd into the act around 3:15, not only could I hear the many individuals singing and cheering and making all sorts of noises, I could sense the physical space around the audience members, as well as the overall acoustic signature of the venue. It didn’t sound cavernous, but more intimate, in keeping with the Variety’s 1000 seats. In the next track, “Gravity,” I was able to focus on Bareilles’s piano playing, which was weighty when it needed to be, and always devoid of bass overhang. The Gryphon Essence was not a colored amplifier, but did reproduce tonal color appropriately -- I would never describe this amp’s sound as thin or as lacking in tonal density.
Which brings me to my overall assessment of where the Essence fits in the Gryphon soundosphere. When, for the SoundStage! Network’s YouTube channel, I interviewed Gryphon’s Rune Skov about the Essence products, he said that Gryphon doesn’t design their gear to produce a specific “house sound,” but instead aims for neutrality. But I’ve reviewed almost every stereo amp Gryphon has made in the last 15 years, and all of them, including the Essence, have shared a few aspects of sound. First is the classic Gryphon bass: the Essence produced deep, meaningful bass. Whatever the technical reason -- Skov attributes it to high current -- every Gryphon amp I’ve heard, including the Essence, has produced profoundly substantial bass. Second, the immense soundstages thrown by the Essence are also in keeping with Gryphons past and present. The Essence sounded big, painting massive, complete soundscapes in my room -- assuming that information was present on the recording.
If you’re afraid that the Essence is not a real Gryphon power amp, but only a watered-down version of the larger, $16,010-more-expensive Antileon Evo, banish the thought. Yes, the Essence is smaller and less powerful than its pricier stablemates, but this least-costly Gryphon amp is immensely capable in its own right, and never gave me the impression that it was compromising the very high level of sound quality I’m used to. I’d love to compare all three Gryphon stereo amps -- the Essence, the Antileon Evo, and the Mephisto -- to hear precisely what the differences between them might be. Having sampled all three, albeit years apart, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Essence, when used within its power rating with speakers of at least average sensitivity in a midsize room, would be just as musically satisfying. Maybe there’s a dealer somewhere -- maybe even the folks at Gryphon -- who could perform this comparison and answer these questions definitively. What I can predict with confidence is that it would be closer than the retail prices suggest.
I recently reviewed another class-A power amplifier, the Plinius Reference A-150 ($13,000). I characterized this sweet New Zealand amp as having “feathery highs, strong but round bass, [and] a midband of tonal density to die for.” The Essence had some of those qualities, as well as some quite different ones. Starting with those “feathery highs” -- much like the Plinius A-150, the Gryphon Essence won’t ever have you lunging for the volume control to turn down screechy highs. The Gryphon had poise in the upper frequencies -- its reproduction of detail sounded natural, without calling attention to itself. Much like the Plinius’s, the Gryphon’s midrange was tonally dense, something that’s long been a hallmark of Gryphon amps.
But the biggest difference was in the bass. Whereas the Plinius possesses what I described as “round bass,” the Gryphon’s bass was tighter and more physically present. Although Gryphon’s larger, more expensive Antileon Evo and Mephisto amps are even more impressive in just this way, if only slightly, in this area the Essence still has an advantage over most other power amps -- including the Plinius A-150.
I have a feeling that Gryphon Audio Designs’ Essence stereo power amplifier will find its way into many high-end systems around the globe. It has terrific industrial design with build quality to match, is made by a brand with a strong global reputation, and has features such as Green Bias that will make it attractive to many buyers. But those qualities can be found in power amps from many brands -- it’s the Essence’s sound that sets it apart.
Gryphon likes to say that their electronics have no “house sound,” that their goal is sonic neutrality. And while that noble quest is largely successful in the Essence and other Gryphon amps, the sounds of those amps do share some traits that I’ve heard in every Gryphon amp I’ve reviewed: large soundstages, detailed but graceful highs, a tonally full midrange, and that bass . . . bass that will make your speakers come alive in the lows in a way that somehow eludes almost all other amplifiers.
It seems I end most of my reviews of Gryphon amplifiers with something about a desert-island amp, or choosing a Gryphon for the long haul, or some other statement reassuring future buyers about the long-term soundness of such a purchase. Well, here I go again: You can buy a Gryphon Essence and then forget about power amps for a very long time. As long as you match it with an appropriate loudspeaker in a reasonably sized room, you’ll be missing little, if anything, that spending more might have got you. But spending less will likely result in a sound easily inferior to what this baby Gryphon offers.
In short: Another strong endorsement of a Gryphon power amplifier from me.
. . . Jeff Fritz
- Speakers -- Vimberg Tonda
- Amplifier -- Boulder 2060
- DAC-preamplifier -- MSB Technology Discrete DAC
- Source -- Apple MacBook Air running Audirvana, Roon, Qobuz
- Power conditioner -- Shunyata Research Hydra Alpha A12
- Interconnects, speaker cables, power cords -- Shunyata Research: Delta IC balanced interconnects, Alpha USB link, Alpha SP speaker cables, Venom NR-V10 power cords
- Rack -- SGR Audio Model III Symphony
Gryphon Audio Designs Essence Stereo Amplifier
Price: $22,990 USD.
Warranty: Three years parts and labor.
Gryphon Audio Designs
Phone: (45) 86891200
Fax: (45) 86891277