Some audio products look downright menacing. I include in this group Wilson Audio’s Sasha and Devialet’s Phantom speakers, and the electronics from Metaxas Audio Systems. But perhaps no other audio manufacturer so consistently produces gear that looks bent on world domination than does Denmark’s Gryphon Audio Designs, whose aesthetic is striking, to say the least: ultramodern, often black, and pure badass.
The subject of this review, the Zena preamplifier ($17,500, all prices USD), replaces Gryphon’s Athena and Mirage models and slots into their product line just below their top model, the two-box Pandora ($32,500). With its metal case and acrylic faceplate, and their different textures finished in different variations of black, the Zena resembles an alien spacecraft landing, retros firing, to commence the process of colonizing Earth.
Gryphon was without a North American distributor from 2003 to 2017, when it allied with distributor Philip O’Hanlon’s On a Higher Note, and in that 14-year absence their competition only intensified. Gryphon and O’Hanlon needed to bring their “A” games to this still-recent comeback.
The plan: short, simple, evil
The Gryphon Zena’s buffered circuitry is dual-mono, zero-feedback, DC-coupled, and class-A, with a specified 18dB of voltage gain and a bandwidth of 0.1Hz-1MHz. According to Gryphon, the Zena’s dual-mono configuration eliminates crosstalk and interference between channels, and feedback used in significant quantities can increase transient intermodular distortion (TIM). DC coupling means that there are no capacitors in the signal path. Although caps are commonly used in amplifier circuits to remove DC voltage, Gryphon states that they, too, can degrade sound quality.
Although many high-end preamps have less than 1MHz of bandwidth, Gryphon believes that wide bandwidth is required for accurate reproduction of transients and maximum linearity within the audioband. Although wide-bandwidth components can also be noisy, Gryphon states that the Zena’s balanced circuitry, carefully mapped signal paths, extensive shielding, and high-quality parts all reduce noise.
The Zena’s amplification circuits feature a discrete, single-ended input buffer and local shunt regulators, the latter meaning that the final voltage regulation for each local circuit is individually specified and thus isolated from other circuits. Such circuitry also features an array of SMD foil resisters and hermetically sealed, gold-plated, ultra-capacitance Pickering reed relays. To counter fluctuations in your house’s AC power supply, the Zena filters it with heavily regulated, multistage power supplies. The display and control circuits are each fed by their own power supplies. Also, the supplies use Schottky barrier diodes and WIMA polypropylene caps in parallel with electrolytic caps.
Further familiarizing myself with the Zena, I noted three areas of design emphasis. First, this model is a study in stalwart construction. The thick panels of its case seem built to military standards -- I could find not one ill-fitting join. Gryphon states that while the circuits printed on the boards of many audiophile components are conductive traces 35µm thick, the Zena’s are at least 70µm thick.
But while those circuit traces may be thick, the paths they take are simple and short, and the Zena has no tone, balance, mono/stereo, or polarity controls. The internal wiring is used only for the shielded AC power path, the grounding circuitry, and the ribbons that connect the display to the control and power circuitry. Magnetizable materials that might cause distortion are also eschewed.
Third, Gryphon attempts to reduce unwanted resonances through the uses of decoupling, high-mass parts assembled with ultra-low tolerances of fit, and proprietary footers.
The Zena’s fully balanced, analog volume control is operated via touch-sensitive up and down buttons that raise or lower gain in 43 increments of 2dB each. According to Gryphon, no more than two resistors are in the signal path within this control at any time. Shunt regulators are used in the control’s power supply to minimize output impedance and noise.
Through a proprietary link, the Zena’s Green Bias feature allows the class-A output of many of Gryphon’s power amplifiers to be adjusted, to reduce their power consumption and operating temperature during noncritical listening. Also, either of the Zena’s balanced (XLR) inputs or single-ended phono input (RCA) can be designated an A/V pass-through.
The lower two-thirds of the Zena’s faceplate is occupied by a large vacuum-fluorescent, touch-sensitive display. Centered above this are Gryphon’s name and logo, which glow red when the Zena is powered up in striking contrast to the blue display. In the display’s left portion are touch buttons for on/standby, mute, and volume up/down. At center are displayed the input selection and, in big, bold numbers, the volume level. The right portion contains up/down buttons for input selection, and for menu toggle and enter. Farthest to the right is a sensor for the infrared remote control.
The Zena’s menu permits many adjustments: with Input Naming, the user can assign each input a custom name; Maximum Volume Level prevents a potentially speaker-damaging high volume setting; Start Level sets the volume level to which the Zena defaults when turned on; Display Brightness offers four levels of brightness as well as Off; Input Level Trim allows each input’s volume to be adjusted in 2dB steps, up to a total of 8dB; Green Bias permits a choice of six amplifier output settings; A/V Pass-Through; and Factory Setting Restore.
The rear panel is full. At upper left are the fuse bay and a three-pronged IEC power inlet. The upper central portion of the panel is a plate that can be removed to accommodate an optional phono or DAC module. To the right of this is a smaller plate bearing the model name, the voltage requirement, and the serial number.
The lower portion of the rear panel is heavily populated with analog connectors. The inputs are two stereo pairs of balanced (XLR) and three stereos pair of single-ended (RCA) jacks. The single-ended inputs comprise one pair each of tape and RIAA-equalized phono inputs, their RCA jacks gold-plated and Teflon-insulated. Neutrik makes the XLR jacks for the balanced connections. Outputs are a balanced stereo pair (XLR), a single-ended stereo pair of tape outs (RCA), and a single-ended stereo pair of full-range subwoofer outs (RCA). There are also a ground post, the Green Bias connector, and 12V trigger inputs.
That central plate can be removed and replaced with an optional PS2-S phono stage ($2150) or DAC ($6000) module. If both are desired, the Zena can be used with one of Gryphon’s freestanding phono stages or DACs. My review sample of the Zena contained neither option.
The PS2-S module, based on Gryphon’s Legato phono stage, accepts moving-coil and moving-magnet cartridges; its five standard load-impedance settings are selected with onboard jumpers. (An empty set of jumpers is supplied for fitting custom load resistors up to a maximum of 1k ohm.) The PS2-S uses polypropylene capacitors for what Gryphon claims is precision RIAA correction.
The DAC module is based on Gryphon’s Kalliope DAC, which uses ESS Technology’s Sabre32 ES9018 chipset. Like the Zena itself, this module features class-A topology, heavily regulated and multistage power supplies, and zero negative feedback. Its quartz-crystal oscillator has a specified accuracy of better than five parts per million, and a super-capacitor bank claimed to function as a battery power supply.
The DAC module has five inputs: one USB, one AES/EBU, two S/PDIF coaxial, and one optical. The USB input accepts signals of resolutions up to 32-bit/384kHz PCM and DSD512, the latter when used with Microsoft’s Windows OS. The other inputs max out at 32/96 (TosLink) and 32/192 (S/PDIF coax, AES/EBU). The DAC module also features user-selectable rolloff filters: for PCM, slow rolloff (short group delay) and sharp rolloff (long group delay); and for DSD, a first-order analog filter that can be bypassed or set at 50, 60, or 70kHz.
The Zena sits on removable footers: cylinders in front, cones in back. The main on/off switch is on the bottom plate. The Zena measures 18.9”W x 6.7”H x 15.75”D and, without either optional module, weighs 26.7 pounds.
Kudos to Gryphon for the Zena’s remote-control wand of black-anodized aluminum. It not only worked extremely well, it’s gorgeous and, like the Zena, impeccably made. At one end is a small tilt stand, at the other the Gryphon logo in white. Its highly impressive tactile feedback exemplifies its quality. In fact, the Zena’s touchscreen display and remote control are each so luxurious in operation that I wound up using one as often as the other.
The Zena’s visual design and build quality, the beauty of its display, the attractive owner’s manual, the inclusion of gloves and polishing cloth, and the quality of its packaging all indicate that Gryphon Audio Designs is more concerned with delivering a premium customer experience than with wringing the last dollar of profit from its products.
Per Gryphon, each sample of the Zena is burned in at the factory for 48 hours; they say that the sound quality further improves after 40-50 more hours of use. The Zena comes with a three-year, nontransferrable warranty on parts and labor. That’s common for high-end audio components, but in my opinion, anything less than five years is too short.
Balanced connections recommended
Inside its triple boxes the Zena was protected by sturdy blocks of Styrofoam. In the box I found a packing slip initialed by three Gryphon employees -- the assembler, the tester, and the packer -- and listing the contents: power cord, remote control, Gryphon-branded gloves for handling, polishing cloth, product-registration card -- and the owner’s manual, its thick, classy black binder adorned with polished metal corners, its pages printed on heavy, glossy card stock. Not listed but also included was an interconnect for the Green Bias feature.
As Gryphon recommends, I used the Zena in a fully balanced system, though I was confused about which outputs I’d have used had my rig been unbalanced. Neither of the available choices, Tape or Subwoofer, seemed optimal, even though both run full-range. Philip O’Hanlon explained that in such a case I’d use hybrid interconnects: XLR on one end, to plug into the Zena’s outputs, and RCA on the other end, to plug into the power amp’s inputs.
When I first powered up the Zena, “initializing” and the red Gryphon name and logo flashed on the display for about 25 seconds. Navigating the menu was straightforward.
Is that a raygun in your pocket or are you just happy to see me?
Perhaps intimidated by the Zena’s glowering visage, I was surprised at how warm, lush, and musical it sounded. Overall, instruments and voices in the lower and middle frequencies were solid and, to say the least, harmonically fleshed out. With “Bass and Drum Intro,” from the Nils Lofgren Band’s Live (16-bit/44.1kHz FLAC, Vision Music), Wade Matthews’s bass-guitar notes were rich and chunky, and positioned with excellent solidity on a wide, deep soundstage.
With “April in Paris,” from Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong’s Ella and Louis (HDCD, Verve/LIM MIMUHD045LE), the Zena beautifully brought out the silky sweetness and purity of Fitzgerald’s voice in the mids. In contrast, the sound of Armstrong’s gritty, raspy baritone was captivating, and impressively revealing of his shaky pitch. His trumpet sounded brilliant and fully rounded, and it bristled with complex overtones.
Even more surprising was that, despite the Zena’s full sound, its reproduction of the upper frequencies was also excellent. In Ernest Ansermet and the Swiss Romande Orchestra’s recording of Manuel de Falla’s The Three-Cornered Hat (16/44.1 FLAC, Decca), the penetrating solo piccolo notes at the beginning were brilliant, but with no hint of system-generated shrillness. With Mozart’s Concerto for Flute and Harp, performed by flutist James Galway and harpist Marisa Robles, with Neville Marriner conducting the Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields (16/44.1 FLAC, RCA Red Seal), the Zena reproduced high-register flute notes in a refined and silvery way, while naturally sharp, bright harp notes were clear and pleasingly glittered.
The Zena also displayed impressive detail retrieval and noise rejection, reproducing the short string decays and soundbox resonances of Robles’s concert harp. And while the timbres of most flute notes are quite similar, the Zena reproduced the tonal differences between the extremes of the instrument’s range. When I turned the volume way up with no music playing I heard minimal system noise, even with an ear against one speaker’s tweeter.
Although Gryphon makes a big deal about the Zena’s volume control, I had no way of assessing its effect on sound quality. However, I did take issue with the fact that the control’s full range of operation comprises only 43 steps of 2dB each. I’d like to see twice or even thrice as many steps, each of 1dB or 0.5dB.
This was a problem at the very low end of the volume control’s range. Typically, when breaking in a component, I’ll leave it playing at a level undetectable to my significant other when she passes through the room. I couldn’t do that with the Zena -- that very first step of 2dB raised the volume to a level she could hear. Still, the volume was low, and she raised no objection. I did like the volume control’s linearity, and the Zena had plenty of gain -- I didn’t have to turn up the volume very far to reach high levels. Still, while technologically impressive, the volume control’s ability to make fine adjustments could be improved.
Given its far higher cost, my two-box Esoteric Grandioso C1 preamplifier ($40,000) should deliver more of everything in terms of sound quality, and it does. Still, while the C1 sounds more exciting and transparent, with superior reproduction of leading edges, detail, and transient impact, as well as better noise rejection and overall cleanness of sound, the Zena sounded very slightly fuller and more romantic. With “Trouble’s What You’re In,” from Fink’s Wheels Turn Beneath My Feet (16/44.1 FLAC, Ninja Tune), the Zena reproduced less of the transients and trailing string vibrations created when Fin Greenall’s hand repeatedly slams his guitar strings.
I much preferred the Grandioso C1’s volume control; among other things, it permits extremely fine volume adjustments, and alters the rate of volume change based on how fast the knob is turned. But aesthetically, the C1’s well-crafted but bland remote control can’t hold a candle to the Zena’s uniquely sexy wand. Although I think the Zena and the Grandioso C1 are two of the most accomplished preamplifiers available, a fairer matchup might be between the C1 and Gryphon’s two-box Pandora ($32,500). Now that would be interesting.
After a long period of listening for this review, the Zena’s sound left me little to quibble about and much to admire. And as I write this, I’m repeatedly pulled away from my desk and back to my listening chair to enjoy the Gryphon’s audible charms. It’s one of the most engaging, harmonically flush, and musical components I’ve reviewed.
Far too often, components that sound full and harmonically rich disappoint in the highs. I can’t say whether or not the Zena’s richness and excellent high-frequency performance are results of its generous bandwidth, but I’m curious to hear what it might do when paired with one of Gryphon’s high-bandwidth power amps. Going forward, I’ll be on the lookout for more wide-bandwidth components.
Guess who’s back?
Gryphon Audio Designs, that’s who, and even in this crowded market, their comeback to North America is welcome. If you want an impeccably designed and built preamplifier with exquisite sound quality, and an aesthetic that blends the badass attitude of a 1970 Plymouth Hemi ’Cuda (in black, of course) with the sleek lines of an alien spacecraft, the Gryphon Zena is your preamp. Let’s just hope it comes in peace.
. . . Howard Kneller
- Amplifier -- Esoteric Grandioso S1
- Preamplifier -- Esoteric Grandioso C1
- Sources -- Three-box Windows 10 music server with JPlay player, Linn Kazoo control software, JCAT USB and Ethernet cards, JCAT USB Isolator, HDPlex 200W linear power supply, and iPad Mini 3; Esoteric Grandioso K1 SACD/CD player and Grandioso G1 master clock generator
- Other electronics -- JL Audio CR-1 active subwoofer crossover
- Speakers -- YG Acoustics Kipod II Signature
- Subwoofers -- JL Audio Fathom f113 v2 (2)
- Interconnects -- Synergistic Research Galileo SX
- Digital links -- Mad Scientist Audio Black Magic (USB), Synergistic Research Galileo SX (USB and BNC)
- Speaker cables -- Synergistic Research Galileo SX
- Power cords -- Synergistic Research SR25 (power conditioner) and Galileo SX
- Power conditioners and distribution -- Synergistic Research PowerCell 12 UEF SE and QLS power strips
- Isolation devices -- Symposium Acoustics: Osiris Ultimate and Standard racks, Segue Platform, RollerBlock Series 2+ equipment support system; Synergistic Research: Tranquility Bases and MIG 2.0s; Silent Running Audio VR fp Isobase
- Room treatments and correction -- Synergistic Research: Acoustic Art System, Atmosphere XL4, Black Boxes (2) and HFT and FEQ devices; GIK 2A Alpha diffusor/absorber acoustic panels, WA-Quantum Quantum-Sound-Animator
- Misc. -- Hi Fidelity MC-0.5 Magnetic Wave Guides; Mad Scientist Black Discus Audio System Enhancers and Graphene Contact Enhancer; Synergistic Research Active Grounding Block, Blue fuses, and Electronic Circuit Transducers (ECTs); Telos Quantum connector caps, f.oq damping tape
Gryphon Audio Designs Zena Preamplifier
Price: $17,500 USD as reviewed (optional DAC module, $6000; optional PS2-S phono-stage module, $2250).
Warranty: Three years parts and labor.
Gryphon Audio Designs
Phone: (45) 86891200
Fax: (45) 86891277
North American distributor:
On a Higher Note, LLC
PO Box 698
San Juan Capistrano, CA 92693
Phone: (949) 554-1990
Fax: (949) 612-0201