The most anticipated SoundStage! Ultra review of 2022 did not get off to the smoothest of starts. Full disclosure: the missteps had absolutely nothing to do with Gryphon Audio Designs or SoundStage!
Nonetheless . . .
The first annoyance was quite minor, and this was a delay that kept the whereabouts of the Gryphon Audio Designs Apex ($99,000, all prices USD) in limbo—uh, I mean customs—for about ten days. Considering the need for transatlantic shipping and the associated red-tape hassles I’ve experienced in the past, this came as no surprise. The second issue was a surprise, and that was the huge gouge I noticed in one end of the crate when it finally showed up at my home, apparently caused by an errant forklift fork. Upon initial examination, I couldn’t tell if there was any damage to the amplifier or not, and it wasn’t like I could just hoist the beast from its crate to give it a visual once-over. The Apex would have to linger in my garage, perhaps wounded, for about a week.
The third issue was that I needed to get the amplifier to my second-floor listening room. I insisted that this be done crate and all as I didn’t want to risk moving the Apex upstairs without the protection of its wooden housing. To my great frustration, I’d come to learn that no one wanted to move it, and I was actually losing hope the review would proceed at all. But finally, the seventh moving company I called agreed to transport the Apex in its crate—all 550 pounds of it—up the staircase (complete with a landing and a tight 90-degree turn) leading to my listening room. The moving company figured four experienced guys and a trusty hand truck would be all that was needed to get it done. I’m all about a can-do attitude. When the crew arrived, though, there were only three guys. As it turned out, I was the fourth guy in the company’s proposed four-man moving scenario. Long story short: the Apex did make it into my room—and I was able to skip the gym for a week.
Things took an entirely positive turn once the Apex arrived in my room. Due to Gryphon’s excellent packaging, and possibly a stroke of tremendous luck, the fork puncture in the crate’s end somehow managed to completely miss the Apex.
Despite some early bumps in the road, my review of Gryphon’s mighty Apex Stereo power amplifier, the Danish company’s new flagship, was underway.
The Gryphon Apex, like all Gryphons, is designed and built in Denmark. When you see the Apex in person for the first time, its size may be overwhelming; nonetheless, you’ll quickly notice that its form is—dare I say it?—elegant. There’s good reason behind this. Despite his retirement from Gryphon operations in 2018, Gryphon founder Flemming Rasmussen was responsible for the Apex’s industrial design. To my eyes, the Apex represents some of Flemming’s best work. Particularly when you consider its size: 23.35″W × 14.6″H × 34.9″D and 445 pounds net weight.
The immensity of the Apex is warranted. This amp is rated to produce 210Wpc into 8 ohms, 420Wpc into 4 ohms, 800Wpc into 2 ohms, or 1490Wpc into 1 ohm. The Gryphon operates in class A, a company hallmark.
A curious detail about the Apex is that no acrylic is used on the faceplate, although this is common to most Gryphons. Instead, the front panel is dominated by two large rectangular slabs of 1 5/8″-thick aluminum. Dead center and overlapping these panels is an inverted triangle consisting of an aluminum frame with an inset smoked-glass pane that houses the soft-touch control panel. Above and below this triangle are fins that extend to the bottom of the faceplate and, up top, wrap smoothly into the top panel. These fins—replete with hidden vents—run the length of the top panel, bisecting two more thick aluminum plates that flank either side and meet the heatsinks. Center front, inset into the fins, is a dark-colored Gryphon logo—a nice touch that first appeared on the anniversary edition of Gryphon’s Antileon power amplifier, the Antileon Evo Anniversary. The heatsinks running down the sides are as massive as any I’ve ever seen: four sections on each side, each section a full foot in height.
The back panel contains a pair of binding posts—a new Gryphon design. These posts are large, they fit perfectly in your hand, and there’s a rubber ridge running around their circumference that makes gripping them a cinch. They spin with a precise and satisfying tactility, hinting at the profound care that went into the Apex’s overall design. Two 20A power sockets—yes, this amp has two power cords—are sited low on the rear panel, while a single set of XLR inputs are placed up higher. A ground lug is included, as are Green Bias jacks for connecting a Gryphon preamplifier to automatically control the appropriate bias setting (Low, Medium, or High) for your chosen listening level. A set of 12V trigger jacks sits adjacent to the Green Bias links. Lastly, two main power rockers take the Apex’s left and right channels from off to standby.
The front panel contains several user-controllable functions. First, a power-on button takes the unit from standby to on. There are three user-selectable bias settings: labeled Bias L, Bias M, and Bias H. There’s a Check button to ensure everything is operating properly, and a Mute button as well. On start-up, you can follow the dancing lights that hint at the myriad protection features contained within the Apex. Once it has fully cycled on, these lights go dark. A small green LED indicates the Apex is powered on, and the bias level also has its own LED indicator. Above these, the designation The Gryphon Apex (italics mine) will ensure you don’t forget what you have (LOL). The Apex sits on four feet: each unit is shipped with huge furniture-mover-style, shock-absorbing coaster feet that can be used to slide the Apex easily on carpet. These are very thoughtfully inset into large permanently applied cups and stay put magnetically. Remove them and insert the spikes (which come with protective saucers) if you wish. How do you do this? With the included Winbag, of course. Use of this simple hand pump and vinyl inflatable allows one person to change feet at will. Placing the Winbag under one side of the amp and pumping it up easily tilts the Apex enough to make the foot exchange a snap. What amazing attention to detail.
I spoke to Tom Møller, Gryphon’s chief engineer—the man responsible for the Apex’s circuit design—and asked him some pointed questions about the Apex project.
Jeff Fritz: What design objectives did you have with the Apex project?
Tom Møller: Our goal with the Apex was to design a very big power amplifier which, in every way, could top our existing Mephisto amplifier—if possible, both in terms of sound quality and exterior design.
Regarding sound quality, we wanted to mix the sound characteristics of the Mephisto with our older Colosseum power amplifier. The Colosseum uses a different circuit topology than both the Mephisto and Antileon Evo, resulting in a very fast transient response. The Mephisto’s advantage, when compared to the Colosseum amplifier, lies in its very firm grip on and control over the connected speakers. The Apex should also be stronger in terms of power output and current-drive capabilities than any previous Gryphon amplifier. Of course, this is with the amplification stages driven in pure class A—one of our trademarks.
JF: What accounts for the massive weight of the Apex (445 pounds) when compared to other amps? Say, for example, the Mephisto (238 pounds)?
TM: To fulfill the above requirements, it is first of all important to be able to deliver lots of current, and to do that, we designed a new 2000VA toroidal transformer weighing approximately 20kg (44 pounds). There’s one separate transformer for each channel. Each amplifier, together with its custom-made heatsink profile, weighs in at approximately 45kg (99 pounds) per stereo channel. The capacitor bank consists of eight very large can-type capacitors, which also contribute to the Apex’s massive weight. As with all our power amplifiers that run in full class A, there are no compromises, which means heavy transformers, very large heatsinks, large quantities of expensive mechanical and electronic parts, and costly assembly.
JF: Can you tell us about the new bipolar transistors and any other new part types used in the Apex?
TM: In an effort to achieve the best sound quality possible, we tried out different power transistors in the Apex. In the initial listening tests, we used Sanken power transistors, which provided a pretty good result, but Sanken decided to pull these transistors out of production. So we continued our search for an optimal power transistor pair and ended up using bipolar transistors made by Toshiba. It turned out these have a much lower internal capacitance than the transistor pairs from Sanken, and at the same time, they have similar power capabilities. In the Apex we make use of 16 complementary power transistor pairs in parallel for each stereo channel (in the Mephisto there are nine pairs for each stereo channel), so lowering the total internal transistor capacitance results in wider bandwidth and better transient response, and thus better sound quality. To locally decouple the power supplies, for the first time we’re using Mundorf MCap ZN capacitors, which have a loss factor ten times lower than that of normal metalized polypropylene capacitors. Every other electrical and mechanical component in the Apex design is carefully selected to achieve the best possible performance.
JF: What manufacturing challenges did you face in making the Apex?
TM: In a word, size. Our Danish subcontractor had to develop new equipment and tools to be able to handle the Apex production due to its sheer size and weight.
Here are a few other details you should know about the Apex: The amplifier is arranged in a dual-mono configuration, which Gryphon claims uses no global negative feedback in its circuit design. The Apex is fully balanced, with dual-differential class-A input circuitry and a symmetrical voltage-amplifying stage that operates in, you guessed it, pure class A. The hardware numbers are indeed impressive: the amp’s 32 bipolar output devices per channel are supported by a capacitor bank rated at 1,040,000 microfarads. As Møller stated, each Apex Stereo contains two custom 2000VA toroidal transformers that are encased in metal castings and isolated by large rubber grommets for vibration mitigation. The power supplies in the Apex are all linear types, with separate supplies for the digital and analog circuitry. The Apex has minimal internal wiring but what is used is a Gryphon design made from silver. Two Gryphon Vanta power cords are included with every Apex Stereo.
Once the massive crate was in my room, setting up was a breeze. I made sure the crate was placed precisely on my floor for good reason: once the crate is disassembled, one side of it serves as a ramp. This effectively doubles the length of the crate, with the end of the ramp delineating where the Apex will land once moved off the ramp. There’s a roll of thin green material—which is apparently from the medical field—that unrolls down the ramp and, in conjunction with the shock-absorbing coaster feet, allows the Apex to glide smoothly off the base of the crate, down the ramp, and onto the floor. One aspect of the crate’s design I appreciate is that, once it’s disassembled, the six panels that make it up can easily be stacked and stored without taking up too much space. It’s also easier to carry six individual panels as opposed to one large crate—it seems like Gryphon has taken every possible step to ensure that setup can be handled as a one-person job.
The Gryphon Apex Stereo was placed in my reference system, replacing the Boulder Amplifiers 2060 stereo power amplifier that anchors this setup. The rest of the components consisted of Vivid Audio Giya G1 Spirit loudspeakers, Shunyata Research Alpha SP speaker cables, Delta IC interconnects, Alpha USB cable, and Venom NR-V10 power cords. My source was an MSB Technology Discrete DAC fed from an Apple MacBook Air (2018). Powering everything except the Apex was a Shunyata Research Hydra Alpha A12 power conditioner. The Apple, MSB, and Alpha A12 were placed on an SGR Audio Model III Symphony equipment rack. I used the Bias H setting while gathering my listening notes, although I will say this is not in any way mandatory to achieve great sound. I listened extensively to the Bias M and Bias L settings and found that there’s apparently enough class-A power in these settings for fantastic sound quality. So you don’t have to heat your room with Bias H on a regular basis to enjoy what the Apex can do.
My intention was to publish this review on June 1. Since it’s coming out a month early, you might think I rushed it, but truth is, the sound character of the Apex revealed itself from the first notes it played in my system. When I connected the Vivids, powered up the associated electronics, and hit Play, something amazing happened: I was greeted with a sound so different—and obviously so much better—than what I’d heard just hours earlier that this review practically wrote itself. I want to be clear about this: I was literally seconds into the first track when I recognized that I was experiencing something I had not heard before.
That first track was Joan Jett & the Blackhearts’ “Bad Reputation” (Changeup, 24-bit/96kHz MQA, Blackheart/Legacy Recordings/Tidal). The album, released on March 25, 2022, features newly minted acoustic versions of some of Jett’s biggest hits (though “I Love Rock ’N’ Roll” isn’t one of them). It’s a fantastic album, at once completely familiar and entirely new. As soon as the song began, I was amazed at how Jett’s guitar energized the air in my room, displaying a powerful drive that just wasn’t present when I’d heard it before through my reference amplifier. The resonant character of the guitar was easier to sense, providing a more visceral experience than I thought was possible. The sound was rich, meaty, and raw, while at the same time easy to listen to . . . loud. The experience of listening to “Bad Reputation” was both aural and physical, particularly at the 90dB+ levels I was listening at. The Apex drove the Vivids like a big V8 engine drives a muscle car—I could feel the power reserves even as I was speeding down the road. The sensation produced by the Apex was a sound dichotomy: big and easy, yet powerful and intense. I was taken aback, honestly. The Apex brought forth a sound I was not anticipating, and it wasn’t one I’d heard before in my room. So the opening session included about an hour of rocking to Jett, and this was immensely satisfying.
Next, I moved on to something more delicate: Esther Abrami’s eponymous album (Esther Abrami, 24/48 MQA, Sony Classical/Tidal). The 25-year-old violinist has introduced classical music to thousands of new listeners through her TikTok and Instagram posts, and her first album on a major label, released in March of this year, is a wonderful listen. It was made even more so with the Gryphon Apex anchoring my system. The fourth track, “Tomorrow,” is one of my favorites, particularly for the interplay between violin and piano, which combined to pour rich sound into my room through the Apex. The piano that begins the track was weightier and more tonally saturated than I’ve heard it, and the French player’s violin was satisfyingly resonant—that word again—and textured, yet silky smooth and present in my room. I could not believe how much better this track sounded over my system with the Apex. It honestly made my old setup sound like the dreaded “hi-fi” by comparison: clean and precise, yet still lacking in realism.
The experience of playing these tracks and others revealed perhaps the single most defining characteristic of the Apex, one that would carry through the entire review period: its ability to reveal the resonant nature of instruments, which was particularly noticeable with strings. I could more clearly discern the attack and decay of stringed instruments—guitars, violins, cellos—and I could feel the notes as well as hear them. This made the experience of listening to music more like attending a live concert. The Apex transformed listening sessions into experiencing sessions. These were more full-body events than ones sensed solely through my ears. To say this was unexpected would be a massive understatement. I was anticipating starting the review by writing about how quiet the Apex was, and how crystal clear the sound was, blah, blah, blah. Although these were attributes that the Apex indeed possessed, frankly, they’re attributes shared by almost any well-designed solid-state amplifier. And if that were all the Apex was capable of providing, it would be a perfectly fine trophy amp. But that’s not what this amp is about. I would come to learn over the course of the next few weeks that the Apex is about bringing life to a listening session. It did this over and over.
I next turned to vocals and cued up some tracks that my 17-year-old daughter plays often: Phoebe Bridgers’s 2017 debut release, Stranger in the Alps (16/44.1 FLAC, Dead Oceans/Tidal). The track “Georgia” gave me a microscopic view into the young singer’s voice. Imaging was precise, the accompanying instruments all distinct, and the effects on the vocals were revealed. Nothing was lost in the reproduction of this pop mix, and there were no ill-fitting parts that made me want to turn the music down. As it turned out, this foreshadowed another aspect of the Apex’s performance that would define my time with it: it sounded perfectly balanced and tonally full at very low listening levels, but uniquely in my experience, it simultaneously encouraged louder listening levels. Now this was no doubt partly due to the Vivid Audio Giya G1S loudspeakers, which I’ve come to understand will deliver the same trick. Their character doesn’t change when you play them louder. With the Apex driving them, this characteristic was enhanced even further. It’s hard for me to define this quality, but I can best describe it like this: as the music got louder, I just settled into my seat even more. Instead of feeling edgy about the volume level, I was comfortable with it, wherever it was. The Apex is at once easy and exciting to listen to.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t give the Apex my usual bass torture test: Bruno Coulais’s music for the film Himalaya (16/44.1 AIFF, Virgin). The third track, “Norbu,” features a large bass drum that, when reproduced properly, rolls through the room from front to back in a smooth wave of bass power, each whack decaying into the start of the next note. I’ve found that it is a great test for bass linearity. If a system can energize the room and sustain drive in the lowest frequencies without any apparent drop off, it passes the test. The Gryphon/Vivid combo did just that, and—something I seem to have found over and over with the Apex—there was still a surprise to be heard. As I was paying close attention to the bass, chants that are usually more background than foreground were drawn to my ears. Alas, the Apex never failed to find new ways to deliver more than I anticipated.
40.0150° N, 105.2705° W vs. 56.0907° N, 9.7666° E
Time for the inevitable showdown: the Gryphon Audio Designs Apex versus the Boulder Amplifiers 2060. Boulder Amplifiers (located in Louisville, Colorado) makes exquisitely built, super-engineered products that I have long held in very high regard. So much so, in fact, that I chose to buy a used Boulder instead of a new anything else when I reassembled my reference system after my move a few years back. My Boulder 2060 was manufactured in 2011, and it was sent back to Boulder Amplifiers for a thorough cleaning and testing before I took possession of it in 2018. The 2060 stereo amp was priced at $44,000 when it was discontinued in 2014. My mint-condition example holds pride of place in my system and informs my audiophile worldview in terms of how power amplifiers should perform.
Imagine my shock when the Boulder was thoroughly trounced by the Gryphon. Damn it.
OK, so there were a few areas where the Boulder managed to compete in my comparison. The 2060 has always had a tomb-like silence, both mechanically and through the connected loudspeakers’ tweeters. This translates to super-silent backgrounds from which the music emerges, and this is always a good thing. The Apex merely matched the Boulder in this regard. OK, forget that I said a few areas. That’s the only area where the Boulder held its own.
The Apex revealed more tonally saturated sounds. I could see images that were more solid and more tangible while, by comparison, the 2060 drew only slightly shaded-in outlines. The Apex also cast a larger soundstage, and within those huge spaces, images were generally larger and more three-dimensional. This led to music popping out in space in a more convincing fashion; I could see the performance unfold before me better, and that performance was larger in scale.
Much to my surprise, the Apex also exposed more detail in the music. It wasn’t that I heard fainter sounds more clearly—not that kind of detail—but that some aspects of tracks were brought to my consciousness for the first time. From then on, these sounds seemed more obvious when I listened to the track again, either over the Apex or even other electronics. Maybe this was the most shocking example of the Apex beating the 2060—and every other amplifier I’ve ever heard. I just wasn’t expecting this from an amplifier swap. Maybe speakers, but not electronics. The chants on “Norbu” were a perfect example: the words were brought to the fore and I could not believe I had not paid closer attention to them before.
Lastly, there’s that resonance thing. Strings in particular sounded better over the Apex than anything I’ve ever heard reproduce them. The harmonics of stringed instruments were more audible over the Apex, and this made the reproduction of these sounds more complete.
I still love my 2060, though perhaps just a little bit less. Once the Apex departs the premises (hopefully with less drama than when it arrived!), I hope my fondness for my reference amp will return in full measure. There’s still nothing outside of the Apex that I’d rush out and sell it for. But make no mistake: the Gryphon Apex reigned supreme in this comparison.
Back in 2021, when I arranged with Gryphon to send me the Apex Stereo amplifier, I knew it would be a really good product—it is 100 grand, after all. OK, really good is underselling my expectations. If you’ve read my myriad Gryphon reviews over the years, you’ll know that I’ve adored them all. This being the new Gryphon flagship, it’s not a stretch to say that I expected greatness from the Apex.
What I actually experienced when I auditioned the Apex was wholly different than what I expected. I never imagined the Apex would sound like it did. What it managed in terms of exposing information and actually revealing the very resonant nature of music was nowhere on my radar. In addition, it was the sheer magnitude of improvement that I could not have conceived of before actually listening to this thing. I expected greatness, and I got transformative.
Simply put, the Gryphon Audio Designs Apex Stereo is the most impressive electronic component I’ve yet reviewed. I’ve never heard it’s equal in the realm of power amplifiers, ever.
. . . Jeff Fritz
- Loudspeakers: Vivid Audio Giya G1 Spirits.
- Speaker cables: Shunyata Research Alpha SP.
- Power amplifier: Boulder Amplifiers 2060.
- Interconnects: Shunyata Research Delta IC.
- Digital-to-analog converter: MSB Technology Discrete DAC.
- USB link: Shunyata Research Alpha USB.
- Music server: Apple MacBook Air (2018).
- Power conditioner: Shunyata Research Hydra Alpha A12.
- Power cords: Shunyata Research Venom NR-V10.
Equipment rack: SGR Audio Model III Symphony.
Gryphon Audio Designs Apex Stereo Amplifier
Warranty: Three years, parts and labor.
Gryphon Audio Designs
Industrivej 10B & 10A
8680 Ry, Denmark
Phone: (45) 86891200
Fax: (45) 86891277
Gryphon Audio NA Inc.
9 Lynn Court
Woodcliff Lake, NJ 07677