Perhaps there are some audiophiles that may have only heard of the Danish high-end audio manufacturer Gryphon because they have seen their ads in Enjoy The Music.com. Although, there are probably many more audiophiles and music lovers who have heard of Gryphon Audio Designs because they have been around for more than thirty years and have earned a reputation for making some very nice high-end audio equipment. For those who might not be as familiar with Gryphon as some others, a bit of their history may be in order. Briefly, they were founded by Flemming E. Rasmussen, who holds degrees in painting and graphic arts from the Aarhus Art Academy in Denmark. For about ten years after he graduated he taught, and later he worked for a sportswear company, and then, finally, in the early 1980s he founded 2R Marketing, a high-end audio import company. In 1985 he founded Gryphon Audio, an off-shoot of that company. One thing led to another, including some rave reviews and strong sales of Gryphon's original phono stage, and by 1993 Mr. Rasmussen's import business was phased out so he could dedicate all his time to Gryphon Audio Designs.
Gryphon has come quite a long way since they were founded. To paraphrase an audiophile friend of mine that is highly respected in the high-end audio community, "If I win the lottery, I'm buying a complete Gryphon system including their top-of-the-line four cabinet floor-standing speakers". He went on to praise their components, saying that they are "way over-built and over-designed, and can be compared to any top US brand". He could have easily been speaking of the Gryphon Sonett phono stage. Not only is the Sonett a gorgeous piece of audio jewelry, but its internal design is just as impressive. It is a zero-feedback design that's built with what Gryphon calls a "true" dual mono Class A circuit.
It has DC-coupled topology from input to output. The internal components of the Gryphon Sonett includes Wima polypropylene capacitors and polymer coupling capacitors, Schottky barrier diodes with low Von voltage, and the phono preamp has separate Talema toroidal power transformers for each channel that Gryphon says ensures minimal magnetic radiation. "Low-noise" linear series regulators can deliver a total of 22,400µF for each channel. The Sonett's transformers are mounted behind the front panel as far away as possible from the phono stage circuit to attempt to isolate it from transformer radiation. They mount the internal power wiring from the rear IEC socket to the power switch in a shielded channel to minimize risk of 50/60 Hz interference.
The Sonett can be configured to accept both Moving Magnet (MM) phono cartridges with a gain of 42 dB and Moving Coil (MC) cartridges with a gain of 64 dB, with many loading options available via its rear panel switches. The only things that appear on the front panel of the sleek, jet-black cabinet of the Sonett is a Gryphon logo that is illuminated by an internal red LED, and on its rear panel are only single-ended RCA inputs and outputs, an IEC power socket for one's cable of choice, and an attachment for the tonearm cable's ground wire. Cartridge loading is via two banks of dip switches, one for each channel. That's it. The Gryphon Sonett is a great looking phono preamplifier with a clean, straightforward design and layout.
All the front-end equipment was connected with Accusound cable, their XD single-ended RCA cable from the A-1's tonearm to the phono preamp and from the Sonett to the Nagra preamp, and their XD balanced cable from preamp to the power amps. A 12-foot run of Westlake Audio's magnificent (and rather pricey) speaker cable connects the power amps to my reference Sound Lab Majestic 545 full-range electrostatics, loudspeakers, which are augmented by a pair of Velodyne 1250-Watt 15" subwoofers. Regardless of which phono cartridge I used, the Gold Note Tuscany or the Etsulro Urushi Cobalt Blue, the Sonett had enough output to make it so the amount of gain this phono preamp provided was a non-issue -- but barely so. Perhaps 64 dB of gain isn't a heck of a lot when a cartridge only puts out 0.25 mV. I don't own a step-up transformer, but the thought of using one for this review did cross my mind. If I were faced with using a cartridge with any less than 0.25 mV I would have connected one. With most systems and with most moving coil cartridges 64 dB of gain is plenty.
Depending on the record I was playing, the Gryphon Sonett was able to translate the phono cartridge's signal to an extremely detailed, fully fleshed out sound. When listening to a good pressing of a well-recorded record with the Gryphon Sonett in my system I couldn't help but be reminded that this is one of the reasons why audiophiles love vinyl -- these things are like magic! How can a playback medium with a multi-step manufacturing process that ends up with a slab of polyvinyl chloride containing a delicate spiral groove etched into it make such a convincing sonic replica of what was originally recorded? That's not to mention all the things that can go wrong when producing and storing the record, and then "reading" this spiral groove with the stylus dragging itself along that spiral path. How can this translated signal end up coming from our speakers as sounds that can often bring tears to our eyes? But I digress.
Even though I described the sound quality of the Sonett phono preamplifier as a very physical one, it had a knack of translating the sound of the signal it was fed without drawing attention to itself. This was of course also due to the contributions of the excellent front end that was connected to it and the gear that this phono preamp was connected to, but still, if a phono preamp has its own "sound", this is not a good thing. The "perfect" phono preamp should boost the meager signal of the phono cartridge without changing it one bit. I have a feeling that the Sonett was doing this job very well, because not only did I feel as if I was hearing exactly what was on the record, but when changing phono cartridges, it was very easy to describe the character of this model of phono cartridge. But rather than drive myself crazy with trying to dissect the sound of that particular phono cartridge, it was much easier to enjoy the music coming from my system because the Gryphon Sonett simply did its job and passed the signal onto my linestage. Whether or not I was hearing "exactly" what was on the recording didn't matter anymore. What I heard was music, and this was likely because the Sonett was not interfering with the job that the rest of my system was attempting to perform.
When playing my copy of the Classic Records reissue of Charlie Rouse's Yeah!originally released on Epic in 1961. Rouse is best known for spending the bulk of the 1960s as the tenor sax player in Thelonious Monk's band, but he also spent some time as a leader. He's not as well-known a tenor player as some of his peers, which is odd since he was an excellent musician with a very distinct sound. If judged only on his performances as a backup musician for Monk, he would rank even higher than he does in many jazz aficionados "best of" lists. Nevertheless, on this album his sound is well represented on this rather laidback, swinging LP, backed up by members of drummer Dave Bailey's band, including Mr. Bailey himself. It's a great recording, most likely recorded at CBS Studios in New York. It's an album that epitomizes the sound of a small jazz ensemble, and one of the records I'd play more than a few times during the Gryphon Sonett's stay, mostly because it showed many of the Gryphon's strengths.
On it I could easily hear a sonic diorama of their instruments in the studio, as I could easily form a mental picture of proceedings. Even though this is an early stereo recording (the album cover boasts a "STEREORAMA" logo on its front cover), the mix does away with the hard-panning that was popular at the time, and instead they created (most likely inadvertently) a decent soundstage, with Charlie Rouse and Morrison's bass dead center, Mr. Gardner's piano panned mostly in the left, and Bailey's drums primarily in the right channel. The vintage (well, now it is) spring reverb filled the space between the instruments, and I could hear enough air around Charlie Rouse's tenor to imagine the studio in which they were recording the music. All in all, it's a great session recorded on this LP, and a great performance from the Gryphon Sonett phono stage that contributed to this vinyl magic which I mentioned earlier, which turned my system into a sonic time machine, allowing me to eavesdrop on this recording session taking place in 1961.
About 15 years after the Charlie Rouse album was released, across the Atlantic in London, Roxy Music recorded their third album Stranded that was released in late 1973. This album was a turning point for Roxy Music, not only because they were now recording and performing without Brian Eno, one of their founding members. This album was not a huge success in the US, although the single from the album "Street Life" reached number 9 on the UK pop charts, nevertheless, it remains one of my favorite Roxy albums in addition to their first two releases because of its sophisticated art-rock sound. Also, the recording on this album seems to be a bit better than the first two (especially since my copy was pressed in Japan). Adding to this is that the songs weren't all written by vocalist Bryan Ferry. Sax player Andy Mackay wrote one of the best songs on the album, "A Song For Europe", which is sort of a hard rock tune with layers of piano, keyboards, and saxophone that not only add tension, but allows Bryan Ferry's baritone to seem more like he's singing a prayer than a song.
The Gryphon Sonett lets me hear all this detail, with a thrilling undercurrent of drums and bass that anchored the song with a deep bass thud, and with a transient response that seems to draw outlines around each instrument and voice, separated in space within a huge soundstage. The lead vocals float between the two speakers, its outline a bit more blurred because of the added studio effects, but at the same time there is a dynamic distance placed between it and the rest of the band. The contribution of the Sonett phono stage made me adore this record even more than I did before, which is saying quite a bit.
Even though the Charlie Rouse and the Roxy Music are two very different sounding recordings, it is obvious because they are two very different types of music. Still, they were both excellent at demonstrating the sonic strengths of this phono preamplifier. The Sonett had no problem with either LP because it didn't superimpose any of its own personality onto the recording. The combination of its ultra-silent background and impressive level of transparency made the recording the star of the show, not the component.
Even though the Sonett just squeaks by as far as having enough gain for both reference cartridges I was using, that didn't come into play that much. System matching is important with every component, but a phono stage must be matched with one's choice of phono cartridge as well. If either of these two rather low-output cartridges were a permanent resident of my system, one would think that the Sonett might not be my first choice of a phono preamp. Yet its silent background, combines with the very silent background of both my current linestages and power amplifiers made that point almost a moot one. And for those reasons the Sonett could easily make itself at home in a great many systems.
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