My two experiences of reviewing amplifiers from Denmark's Gryphon Audio Designs came a number of years apart. I reviewed the Antileon Signature Stereo amplifier way back in 2004. My reference system at the time was based on the original Wilson Audio Specialties X-2 loudspeakers and was housed in my living room. Although vastly different from what I’ve had since -- and especially now -- the sound of the Antileon Signature, which then retailed for $24,000 USD, is still burned into my memory.
Fast-forward seven years. In 2011, I wrote about what was then Gryphon’s flagship stereo amplifier, the Colosseum ($43,500). Although nothing like the Antileon in terms of appearance, and with significantly improved sound, the Colosseum was clearly a Gryphon to the core, in terms of both sound and industrial design. Gryphon still produces both amplifiers, but now there’s a new top model -- the largest amp the company has ever made. Its name is Mephisto, it was introduced at Munich’s High End in 2011, and it retails for a mind-blowing $57,000.
I suspect that the Mephisto will be the last Gryphon amplifier I’ll review. Not that I don’t love their products, but Gryphon rarely replaces a model, and their line of power amps is now quite full -- monoblock (Gryphon calls them Solo) pairs of the Antileon, Colosseum, and even the Mephisto are available at roughly double the prices of the stereo models. Company founder and president Flemming Rasmussen once told me that the Antileon, for instance, would, in one form or another, always be part of Gryphon’s product line. This should make any buyer of a Gryphon feel pretty warm and fuzzy: If you buy a Gryphon product today, you stand a better-than-average chance of having a component in your system that will still be for sale years from now -- a not inconsequential consideration, considering the high prices of these products. If you were to invest in a Mephisto today, ten years from now you might still have the current model. Few companies can boast such stability in their products.
Before I describe the Mephisto’s technical makeup and sound, I thought I’d briefly describe what I recall of the sounds of the Antileon and Colosseum, to give you an idea of Gryphon’s “house sound.” Each of those amplifiers represents a sonic peak of a reviewing career in which I’ve heard a fair number of memorable amplifiers. So, the sounds:
The Antileon Signature Stereo is characterized by an ability to cast a huge soundstage, with subterranean bass and perhaps the most analog feel of any of the huge solid-state amplifiers I’ve ever heard. It doesn’t have the lowest noise floor, but it counters with a cohesiveness that would make tube-amp aficionados stand up and take notice. In a word, it sounds natural.
The Colosseum improves on the Antileon’s already exalted sound without losing any of that model’s strengths. It produces less noise, and adds more resolving capability and transient speed while retaining excellent bass foundation and expansive soundstage. And the Colosseum, too, sounds exceedingly natural. These two amplifiers are easily among the best I’ve ever heard.
Those of you who’ve followed Gryphon Audio Designs and their products will immediately recognize the Mephisto as a refinement of its forebears’ design briefs. First, like all Gryphon power amps, it’s rated to deliver a significant amount of pure class-A power -- in this case, 175Wpc into 8 ohms, 350Wpc into 4 ohms, or 700Wpc into 2 ohms. The Mephisto should be stable into any known loudspeaker load, and is claimed to produce 6000Wpc (in class-A/B, of course) of peak power. I know of no speaker that could actually test that claim, but it sure is nice to know you have that type of power on tap, in case you need help raising the roof of your house.
Any class-A amplifier, of course, runs very hot. But, and again like other Gryphon amps, the Mephisto’s bias is adjustable -- you can choose Low, Medium, or High -- which allows the user to dial in the amount of class-A power needed to keep the amp operating most efficiently with the chosen loudspeaker. For instance, if you have very sensitive speakers, the Low setting might be all you need to keep your listening sessions in class-A most of the time. Or, if you have your system running only in the background, you may prefer not to run the Mephisto in class-A up to its rated power at the High setting. (I found that the Mephisto ran fairly cool when set to Low.)
Additionally, if you own a Gryphon preamplifier, the company’s Green Bias system hands the control of bias over to the preamp: the amount of class-A power is governed by the preamp’s volume setting, obviating the need for any manual adjustment.
The Mephisto’s circuit design is said to include no global negative feedback, and to be completely dual-mono down to the two AC power cords. The output stage uses 20 bipolar output devices per channel and the power supply is equally massive, with a pair of huge, magnetically shielded Holmgren transformers and 500,000µF of filter capacitance.
At 238 pounds and 20.5"W x 13.5"H x 28"D, the Mephisto will dominate a listening room. Its appearance is Gryphon’s usual mix of black-anodized aluminum and black acrylic. Although not as elegant or as progressive in appearance as the Colosseum, the Mephisto will appeal to those buyers who appreciate classic amplifier-case design taken to an extreme. The Mephisto’s looks grew on me. Although the price is high, when you unpack the Mephisto from its flight case, you feel you’ve got something special. The fit’n’finish is about perfect, as far as I can see -- the corners join just right, and the acrylic is flawlessly polished.
Operation could not be simpler. The front panel features backlit, touch-sensitive controls that let you turn on the Mephisto from standby, manually adjust the bias, and visually monitor any faults (which probably won’t occur anyway). Other design elements will be familiar to owners of other Gryphon gear: only Gryphon’s own internal wiring is used; there are no output relays; the amplifier uses DC servo coupling; and there’s a non-invasive protection system designed to keep the amplifier and the connected loudspeakers safe from destruction. The rear panel is equipped with XLR inputs only. Also on the rear are two main power rockers, as befits a true dual-mono design. Even the speaker binding posts are custom-made, gold-plated Gryphon designs -- just what you should expect at the price.
System and setup
Getting the Mephisto into my Music Vault listening room was no small feat. It wasn’t large or heavy enough to justify the cost of the forklift treatment, but it was too big and heavy for just me and a hand truck to take upstairs. So I enlisted the help of a strong friend, and we schlepped the big beast into the room and into place in about half an hour. We kept the amp in its flight case, to minimize any chances of damage, cosmetic or otherwise, during the trek upstairs. I moved out my diminutive, reference Ayre Acoustics MX-R monoblocks to give the Gryphon pride of place between a pair of Magico Q7 loudspeakers. I was anxious to hear just what the Gryphon could contribute to my system’s sound -- after all, the Ayres are great-sounding amps in their own right.
I ran the Gryphon in two configurations. First, I paired it with Ayre’s KX-R preamp and my reference DAC, a Calyx Audio Femto. But I also tried the Mephisto run directly from the Bel Canto Design e.One DAC3.5VB Mk.II / REFLink / VBS1 / VB REF digital front-end setup that I reviewed last month. In the latter configuration, the Bel Canto DAC controlled the volume. There were never any hiccups with the Gryphon in the system -- it performed flawlessly, with nary an operational glitch.
I knew within three seconds that the Gryphon Mephisto was the best amplifier I’d ever heard with the Magico Q7s. That’s not what I wanted to hear. I own the Ayre MX-Rs ($18,500/pair), and they’d proven to be giant killers in my system -- until now. They simply couldn’t slay the huge Mephisto. As the first few notes poured forth from the big Magicos, it was as if my listening room had been expanded. The Mephisto renovated the Music Vault by seeming to stretch its boundaries in each direction by 10’ or so. I could easily hear the acoustics of recording venues in a way I hadn’t before experienced in my room. It made the sound that I’d achieved with The World’s Best Audio System 2012 pale in comparison. I’ve found the perfect match for the Magico Q7s, I thought. The Gryphon allowed these large, four-way speakers to stretch their proverbial legs and, therefore, grow the dimensions of my listening room, making it sound cavernous.
Tyler Bates’s soundtrack score for the film 300 (16-bit/44.1kHz AIFF, Warner Bros.) -- for which he was accused of plagiarizing Elliott Goldenthal’s score for Titus (1999) -- sounded not just driving and hard edged, but now had greater foundation and solidity than what I’m used to hearing. The floors of my listening room shook and flexed during “Returns a King,” adding drama to the performance. Yes, the bass was deeper and in better control with the Gryphon, giving me a more visceral reproduction of this music than what I've heard before. But even beyond the bass, the music as a whole was more . . . tangible. I felt I could really sink my teeth into the sound, such was the physical nature with which 300 was reproduced.
But I kept marveling at the immediacy of the bass. The Mephisto seemed to be directly connected to the Q7s’ woofers, with no passive components or wires or anything acting as go-betweens. In turn, I felt as if the low end were more directly connected to me, giving me greater insight into the lowest notes. The bass was tighter and more impactful; ultimately, I felt, it was more truthful to what was on my recordings.
Comfortable that the mighty Gryphon was delivering what I had most expected it to -- immense power, control, and depth in the bass -- along with that unexpected expansion of my listening room, I felt it time to go smaller-scale and more delicate than 300. I cued up Ola Gjeilo’s “North Country II,” from the 2L-TWBAS 2012 Sampler (24/176.4 FLAC, 2L/SoundStageRecordings.com). I’d listened to this track many times while dialing in the TWBAS 2012 system, but I’d never heard it sound better than through the Mephisto. Gjeilo’s acoustic piano now sounded tonally perfect. There was great delicacy in its reproduction, with microdynamic shadings that were so easy to track. While this 2L recording doesn’t contain nearly the bass weight and slam of Tyler Bates’s 300, it did help to prove to me that the Mephisto could be at once tonally accurate and able to scale back its power output to suit smaller-scale recordings. The resolution was top notch -- I could hear deep into each note. I found the Mephisto’s noise floor to be virtually nonexistent, and easily bettering past Gryphon designs. The Mephisto balanced its ability to resolve fine detail with weight and slam in just the right manner.
Kicking back for “The Lighthouse Tale,” from Nickel Creek’s eponymous 2001 release (16/44.1 AIFF, Sugar Hill), produced a beautiful listening experience. The strings in this bluegrass song need to be just right, with reproduction of detail balanced with tonal density and perfect pace, rhythm, and timing, and the Mephisto brought it to life in a way I’d never heard. I could swear I was listening to a high-resolution version of this track -- there was no grain, no etch, no disconnect between instruments and voices. It sounded like a brand-new recording.
I also listened to a number of tracks of pure acoustic music. Whether guitar from the likes of Rodrigo y Gabriella to all sorts of live performances from my very diverse music collection, string tones were always at least better than I’d ever heard them, and often revelatory. The Mephisto was able to perfectly reproduce anything I threw at it. One thing became clear: This was not the kind of component that excelled with certain types of music and not with others. It could easily scale the heights and play back power music like no other amplifier I’ve had in my system, with the possible exception of Musical Fidelity’s Titan, which I reviewed a number of years ago. But the Gryphon was also able to play smaller-scale material in a way that the Titan couldn’t match. Imaging was always precise, yet images of players and singers were also full-bodied, with dimensional accuracy. The soundstage on which these images appeared, however, was as if from another world. It was quite something to hear a vocalist, for instance, occupying a precise place at the center of the stage, as the space and boundaries around the singer seemed to be expanded in every dimension. I can only conclude that this information has been on my recordings all along, and that it took the resolving capability of the Magico-Gryphon combo to fully reveal it.
I know what you’re thinking: Here we go again with another of those “best ever” proclamations. I really don’t need to do that, because I think you can conclude from my description of the Gryphon Mephisto’s sound what I think of this amplifier. So instead of giving the Internet forum posters a quote to pull and then mock, I’ll say this:
I’ve spent a long time exploring the best solid-state amplifiers available. Back in the day, it was the big Krells and Mark Levinsons; then the Halcros and Boulders came to prominence. Lately, the Vituses and darTZeels have been the vogue. I’ve heard them all, and more, in my systems over the years, and many others at audio shows, and at factories of audio-equipment manufacturers.
But I’ve never heard the equal of the Gryphon Mephisto. It combines qualities that seem clearly contradictory: It had the best bass I could imagine, yet could image as precisely as anything I’ve heard. It expanded the soundstage in every direction, yet perfectly retained the midrange purity of a single performer standing dead center in the soundstage. It resolved the finest details of hi-rez recordings, and at the same time presented music in a cohesive, musically enjoyable manner at all times. It was as perfect a match for the ultra-revealing Magico Q7s as I think exists today.
Flemming Rasmussen has done it again. But this time, he’s done it better than at any time in the past. The Gryphon Mephisto is the best audio product that he’s yet produced. If it is indeed the last Gryphon amplifier that I review, that journey ends at a high point of my electronics-reviewing career. The sound of the Mephisto will be burned into my memory for a long, long time to come.
. . . Jeff Fritz
- Speakers -- Magico Q7 and S1, Sonus Faber Venere 3.0
- Amplifiers -- Ayre Acoustics MX-R monoblocks
- Preamplifier -- Ayre Acoustics KX-R
- Sources -- Apple MacBook running OS X Snow Leopard, iTunes, Amarra 2.4.1, Audirvana; Calyx Audio Femto DAC; Bel Canto Design e.One DAC3.5VB Mk.II / REFLink / VBS1 / VB REF digital front end
- Cables -- Nordost Valhalla interconnects, speaker cables, and power cables; AudioQuest Meteor speaker cables and Niagara interconnects; Siltech Explorer speaker cables, interconnects, and power cords; Dynamique Audio Celestial speaker cables and jumpers
Gryphon Audio Designs Mephisto Stereo Amplifier
Price: $57,000 USD.
Warranty: Three years parts and labor.
Gryphon Audio Designs
Phone: (45) 86891200
Fax: (45) 86891277
European Sound of Canada
Suite 2209, 89 Skymark Drive
Phone: (416) 800-9288