North American Premiere Review!
Ever wonder what happed
to the brand Mark Levinson? I recall about 20 years ago they were at the cutting
edge of Redbook CD digital audio. While it might seem like a strange way to
start a review of Gryphon Audio Designs' top-line Kalliope DAC (€19,800, or
approximately $26,600 USD), I feel the comparison is relevant.
Achieving state-of-the-art performance via intense in-house design and nearly
obsessive-compulsive engineering is very
costly, yet the results speak for themselves. This was true back in the day,
nearly 20 years ago, with the brand Mark Levinson. Today, the audio scene has
greatly changed and Gryphon Audio is at the top of the mark for both sound and
build quality. Designed and engineered in Denmark by a team spearheaded by
Flemming E. Rasmussen, Gryphon Audio Designs' products have always been for
those who appreciate the very best.
These are no-compromise objects with an artful eye in design coupled with
attuned listening to achieve industry-leading results.
Gryphon Audio Designs was founded in 1985 and
grew from a one-off spare time project developed for the designers' own home
systems. Like many audiophile companies, Gryphon Audio started as a hobby that
today has grown to become a formidable manufacturer of source components, preamplification, amplification, speakers, cables, and a
variety of other associated bits. The company's logo, the Gryphon, is no
stranger to this writer, as four of them have been artfully hand-carved into the
top legs of the wooden desk where I am now writing. The desk had been a dream of
mine for many years, yet the price was a bit high. Perhaps the Gryphon,
originating in Greek mythology, with the head and wings of an eagle and the body
of a lion, appears on true luxury
goods more often today than any other time in history.
Following Greek mythology, the Kalliope, meaning 'beautiful
voice', is the eldest of the Muses and Goddesses of music, song and dance.
Kalliope is also said to be the Goddess of eloquence and epic poetry. For me,
Gryphon has always meant something special. Power, dominance, and expertise are
three words that come to mind. When it comes to high-end audio equipment,
Gryphon Audio means highly technical meets highly musical; and as we all know,
each one is not always mutually inclusive to the other. Some gear is technically
near perfect in engineering, yet can sound less than desirable. This may be
especially true with digital to analog converters, since it is easy to soldier
the basic parts together and have them measure quite well, yet resulting in
aural performance that can be less than satisfactory.
According to Gryphon Audio Designs' website, "Three
Reasons Why Bits Are Not Just Bits: The well-worn phrase 'bits is bits'
encapsulates the widespread misconception that any reasonably constructed
digital system will result in "Pure, Perfect Sound Forever," in the lamentable
promotional slogan coined by the inventors of the compact disc.
1.) Digital audio is not a simple one-dimensional
row of numbers, where all that is required is to keep the correct numbers in the
correct order. In fact, it is a data stream of numbers flowing through time. And
the right number at the wrong time is (almost) as bad as the wrong number.
The Gryphon Kalliope ensures effective
correction/prevention of timing errors (jitter) using sophisticated circuit
topology and exclusive, custom-built components.
2.) Following digital to analogue conversion, an
analogue filter is required to remove high frequency noise. The deleterious side
effects of a typical steep-slope "brickwall" filter include temporal smearing,
energy loss, compromised resolution and reduced transparency.
The Gryphon Kalliope employs advanced
technologies and an innovative, minimalist single-component filter with no
adverse audible impact.
3.) Advocates of the 'bits is bits' attitude tend
to ignore the fact at the end of all digital signal processing there is an
analogue stage. The circuit design, component selection, power supply and layout
of this stage are all just as critical now in the digital era as they ever were
in the analogue age.
The Gryphon Kalliope draws on decades of
experience in the design and construction of some of the finest analogue audio
systems the world has ever known."
Now we get to 2014 and are treated to Gryphon
Audio Designs' new Kalliope fully balanced DAC. With a selectable 32-bit/210kHz
asynchronous sample rate conversion and a dedicated ESS SABRE ES9018 32-bit D/A
converter per channel, these chips incorporate eight individual D/A converters
in Dual-Differential coupling. Within the Kalliope, they naturally follow their
philosophy of dual mono configuration, minimal internal wiring, fully isolated
separate power supplies for analog, digital and control/display circuitry, and
exclusive, custom components such as precision crystal oscillators and highly
powerful toroidal transformers. The in-house engineered, four-layer printed
circuit board uses a 70 micron copper trace to ensure optimal grounding,
substantial power distribution, and safeguard the critical signal transfer.
To be powerful you need, well, plenty of power.
Each analog channel within the Gryphon Kalliope employs a dedicated,
custom-built 65 VA toroidal transformer and 34,000 microfarad power capacitor
banks using the finest discrete components. While interviewing many
manufacturers during the AXPONA
2014 event in Chicago, time and again they spoke at length about
their power supply. So it must be incredibly
important during these times as we now have to endure nearly endless ways to
contaminate your power lines with RFI/EMI due to air conditioners, computers,
light dimmers, microwaves, wireless routers and too many other factors to list
here. In fact, the electrical current going to your home may be contaminated to
a point where you truly need
proper filtering. Kalliope's special design utilizes parallel-coupled clusters
of smaller, high-performance capacitors. A total of 28 capacitors ensure
achieving low series resistance. For car enthusiasts, think of it as a
high-torque engine design. Within the Kalliope, this power is then split off to
feed many highly regulated, high-current power supplies in turn feeding each of
the necessary systems; yet without any interference that could cause one section
of the circuitry to interfere with another.
Every Connection You Desire
takes this galvanic isolation to the USB input too. A 12.5 farad (yes farad)
SuperCap power supply for the Kalliope USB module acts like a true battery
supply. Most DACs are relying on the PC or streamer to supply the power for
this. Via asynchronous USB you can achieve the highest resolution file types,
since USB handles full 32-bit/384kHz and S/PDIF maxes out at 'only'
24-bit/192kHz. With asynchronous USB transfer mode, the Kalliope's
high-precision internal clock controls the data stream from the computer to a
buffer near the DAC, thus virtually eliminating timing errors. Input signals
sync to one of two clocks, depending on the signal's sample frequency
Hearing The Very Best
So here are my detailed impressions of the sound
I was hearing. Starting at the bass, you can expect truth. No bloated bass to
give the false aural perception of more than what is there. This is not to say
it lacks deep bass reproduction, far from it! The bass during EDM and dance
music was tight and tuneful, with appropriate timing and fullness, yet without
the bloat found in lesser units. It is the combination of immediacy, definition,
and timing that sets this unit apart from lesser units hoping to achieve
excellence. If you play funk, you get those small timing cues that separate it
from straight 4/4 as found most of the time in mainstream rock 'n' roll. Sure
there is bass slam, yet it is produced with such accuracy and appropriate heft
as the unit itself 'gets out of the way' of the music that was recorded. There
is no doubt that the attention Gryphon Audio Designs' paid to power supply and
distribution helps play a key role here. At no time did I hear any constraints,
or feel there was any dynamic compression of the music.
Moving up to the critical midrange, I could bask
within it all day long; provided the
recording is up to challenge. In fact, here is what separates the DAC
men from the boys; since most acoustic music lives and breathes in the midrange,
this is also where some recordings show their lacklusterness. The Gryphon Audio
Kalliope was so incredibly transparent that certain aural cues most people never
truly hear are laid bare, yet without minimizations or augmentation. Whatever
digital music file you feed the Kalliope comes out the other end without any
flavoring. If the song is musically involving, then that it is what you get. If
the recording is a bit bright or recessed, you get that too. If I was to rename
the Kalliope, it would be called "The Truth" because that is what it
in the highs, my ears heard a natural frequency extension that was suitably
smooth. This is one of the only DACs to properly reproduce my personally
recorded Crotales and all their harmonics. Being able to record at 192kHz/24-bit
and go back and forth between a live music instrument and 'Memorex' means that a
component is laid bare against the real thing. Since our goal is to reproduce
music as accurately as possible, the Gryphon Audio Kalliope DAC would be at home
not just with those seeking the very best, but also within a top-flight
recording studio environment. Everything from shimmering harmonics and extension
to phasing, this DAC is the best my ears have heard. As a percussionist and
drummer, my ears have long been 'tuned' to hear frequencies that are said to
extend beyond normal human hearing. While we can debate the technical aspects,
the fact is that everything in the upper registers sounded ever
so right with this DAC.
Imaging, soundscape, and all those perceptions of
space are produced appropriately. Sometimes I wonder if most audiophiles truly
realize all the information of space and time contained within their recordings.
From speaker setup to time and phase smearing gear, there are many factors that
can hamper the true natural space recoded on many minimal mic'ed acoustic
albums. During shows, I tend to hear so much phasing chaos that I can forget
about extension into the room, sound beyond the physical side and frontal limits
of the speakers, etc. These recordings do not need to be high res either, as the
16-bit/44.1kHz CD from Chesky Records titled O
Magnum Mysterium has an abundance of said information. Rarely does
any DAC get this 3D aurally physical sense of space correct, yet the Gryphon
Audio Kalliope gets it right in spades! And if it can resolve this with a lowly
Redbook CD recording, now imagine what it can do with higher res files from
studio and recording buddies. Yes indeed my friends, it is that
exciting. The bottom line is that time and again the Gryphon Audio Kalliope DAC
ensures you get exactly what you feed it.
It is hard for me to imagine a more musically
accurate DAC in the marketplace today. Gryphon Audio merges creative art and
edge-of-the-art science to produce a product that exceeds expectation. I would
buy the Kalliope right now if I wasn't so deeply involved in getting new gear
the Music.TV's high-rez audio/video studio. If you think high-end
audio gear is pricey, you should check out what professional video gear costs!
In fact, I'd buy the Kalliope in a heartbeat if I worked full-time as a
recording or mastering engineer. At around $26,600, the Gryphon Audio Kalliope
DAC is not an inexpensive investment. Yet when one considers that there are
other lesser-equipped DACs selling for twice that price that are unable to play
DSD 512 or 384kHz files, you can better understand how Gryphon Audio Designs focuses
on delivering a true high-end
audio product is capable of handling every high quality digital music file type
with ease. Forget the usual "highly recommended" statement! Gryphon Audio
Designs' Kalliope is exceedingly recommended
for those who want the very best DAC
with astonishing build quality and technology that can handle all digital music
file types and those in the foreseeable future.
Side Note: Please don't ask me to ship it back. Please. You can't blame a music lover for trying, can you? Hmm, come to think of it, Enjoy the Music.com should start a special social funding campaign called 'Save Steve's Kalliope'. We'll create an attractive and inviting Facebook / Twitter social media campaign... All donations will go towards getting the Kalliope here on a permanent basis. I'll start the campaign off by pitching in the first Benjamin.
As always, in the end what really matters is that you...
Thanks and Best Wishes,
Flemming E. Rasmussen
United States of America Distributor
Voice: (201) 690-9006