Gryphon Mikado CD Player (Hi-Fi+)

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Gryphon Audio Designs Mikado
Gryphon Mikado CD Player (Hi-Fi+)

Anybody wanting proof of the burnin phenomenon as applied to hi-fi equipment needs look no further than the gryphon Mikado. Listen to one with anything less than weeks on the clock (months would be better) and you will hear a bright, vibrant and undoubtedly dynamic performer but it will be so forward and in your face that, unless you just happen to like that sort of thing or are comatose, you will likely write it off as just another pretty, but expensive piece of equipment that swells the ranks of similarly flawed machines.

Straight from the box it delivers an intimidating, stiff and forthright musical message that grabbed my attention all right, but very soon had me feeling weary of its tense and rather brittle character. Now, I quite like a bold and forward sound, but this was a step way too far. I couldn’t get far enough away from the speakers. Yet, beneath this insistently obvious presentation I couldn’t help but notice micro-focus and sharp resolution – and that intrigued me. So I left it on repeat in a separate room for several weeks. Now, all equipment needs running in and over the years I had been here many times before, as have all reviewers. There have been some startling caterpillar to butterfly transformations but none quite as stark as the player that was emerging when I re-installed the Mikado, and it has continued to blossom over the passing weeks into something very interesting indeed. This all-black, gloss-fronted player from Danish company Gryphon is a beautiful looking single-box design. Slim in profile it has a semi-detached, angled display that has its own power supply, completely isolated from those tasked with digital duties. An elegant circular, motorised door swings open with a rather unattractive wheezing noise to reveal the transport. It also offers a light-tight environment for the disc, which is instead bathed in blue light from several sources located around the disc tray.

As the lid opens these begin to flash, which also adds a bit of theatre to the whole operation. When you look at the design of the 40 gram clamp which secures the disc to the heavily modified floating Phillips CD PR0-2 transport and see those blue flashing lights, it is hard not to conclude that designer Flemming Rasmussen is a fan of 50’s American Sci-Fi movies (I’m thinking Forbidden Planet here). Gryphon have been a devotee of dual mono electronic design for years and the Mikado continues this trend. It has full-time up-sampling to 24/96 via four AKM Delta-Sigma D/A converters, each with an individually regulated power supply, four toroidal transformers and both single-ended and balanced outputs as well as a couple of digital outputs as well. I have often complained about the quality of remote control units supplied with expensive CD players and amplifiers but not here. The Mikado unit is a solid, felt-bottomed device that only adds to the pleasure of using the player. Don’t skimp on your power-cord either, as care here reaps rich rewards.

Although I have had limited experience of previous Gryphon products, they do seem characterised by a couple of things. Their physical appearance is always super-stylish, extremely distinctive and they are superbly built with a musical approach that is very involving and right to the point. This player is no shrinking violet. A well run-in Mikado puts you at the heart of the music and in the right system, will show you its innermost workings. It is extremely transparent with a broad, open soundstage and the ability to disengage the performers from the limitations of the speaker boundaries and almost float them in space before you.

But don’t get the impression that the pictures it paints are anything other than rock-solid. It is true that the Mikado never sounds as firmly grounded as my Naim CD 555, but it is endlessly dynamic in both big and small ways, and full of micro resolution that is not only instrumentally revealing, but also spatially. The Mikado makes extraordinary and ruthless demands of the system it is sourcing, as do all great products, but give it the right opportunities and you will be impressed at the sheer variaty of musical expression it is capable of. For me it soon becomes one of the player’s main attractions and the one that has endured. This is no ice-cold digital analysis and reconstruction of information. Although I would still describe the tonal balance as slightly cool, there is undoubted warmth and intimacy in the way that it brings the music into the room. David Sylvian’s Blemish remixes of "The Good Son vs. The Only Daughter" (Sound CD SIS 005) is both a very unusual recording and one of those discs that relies heavily on an open spacious soundstage for its dramatic effect. It is as if the music has been remixed in 3-dimensional space. I have never heard it sound starker than through the Mikado as the contrasts of scale and texture fill the room. It becomes so easy to hear the relative positioning and precise levels of everything in the mix and the mid-air materialisation of Sylvian’s quivering moody vocal is just plain spooky. Anyone who says that high levels of transparency, front-to-back depth and image are unimportant where hi-fi is concerned should hear just how critical they become here. This is a recording dripping in both atmosphere and weirdness and so much of its drama comes from the soundscape and the sheer distances between instruments and effects, making it a mix in the truest sense of the word. The Mikado’s superb transparency and perspectives lets the music live and the system becomes a kind of musical image projector. This is indeed a strange collection of tracks and ideas in sound and that is just how the Gryphon portrays it.

More conventional perhaps is Herbie Hancock’s The New Standard, now a ten year old disc that is one of those recordings that walks that fine line between sounding excellent on good systems and abysmal on bad ones. Piano has always been one of the most difficult instruments to record and reproduce (particularly digitally) and great examples are rare. But the Mikado always treats music with a delicate and deft touch. It has speed and strength in good measure but couple that with these attributes and it brings a real feeling of progression and rhythmic momentum. I have seldom heard The New Standard sound better or more joyous. Where my Naim CD 555 offers a serious and darkly shaded, intense view, the Mikado’s offers a somewhat lighter approach by the musicians. Where most systems fall down on this disc is that they cannot resolve the density of the instrumentation, lacking the tonality and fine shadings of colour and character necessary. This is exactly why the Gryphon excels as its superb separation, tonality and speed, coupled with its beautifully light touch really bring the playing to a peak and let you concentrate on all those things that set fantastic musicians apart. The phrasing of Hancock and his unique left hand chord technique which is so often a mere suggestion of where the harmonic direction might lie, is brought to life and so easy to follow. You begin to understand that nothing on this album is quite as straightforward as you thought as he leaves the occasional brick out of the rhythmic wall altogether. Add to the mix the truly astonishing drumming of Jack DeJohnette and the way he uses his cymbals to illuminate the melody and the path ahead, and on the right system this becomes an involving and eye-opening experience. It is not one of the great recordings that are so often used to demonstrate hi-fi systems but it’s great music nevertheless, music that might have been made for the Mikado’s strengths.

There are very few downsides. There is, even after several months of intense use, a slight sheen that lays like a gloss varnish over the music. It does not really bother me, but I am aware that it is there. In the same way, I know that the tonal balance is slightly bright and that the presentation is always going to be a little on the forward and brash side. In comparison with my Naim CD 555, which is more than double the price, it can also sound a little rushed, when dealing with highly complex musical passages. The Naim is more relaxed and has a blacker and more tranquil background to operate from. But theses are minor caveats and the sort of remarks that can be made of all but the very best players around – and they cost a lot more than the Mikado.

But let’s not forget that music through a fine system should often have an element of fun to it. The Mikado does not disappoint here either. It possesses a really fruity bass that is tight and full of impact. It never fades away as the frequency drops but remains impressively taut and in focus. Add to this its undoubted speed and you begin to understand what sort of system the Mikado requires. Coupling it with the Gryphon Diablo, a powerhouse integrated amplifier, makes a system with dramatic transient abilities that is full of impact and plain oldfashioned grip.

Trio Of Doom is a very interesting disc from the late, but very great bass-player, Jaco Pastorius, drummer Tony Williams, who died in 1997 and John McLaughlin. This is a commemoration and a snapshot of a trio that existed once upon a time and just for the duration of this disc. It was recorded in 1979 at the Havana Jazz Festival and only recently released. There is plenty of tape hiss and the recording itself endures completely unpolished and this is a good thing. The opening salvos are fired by Williams on a track named Drum Improvisation. Normally a title like that would have me moving swiftly on to track two but with the Mikado in place and the volume control advanced beyond what would normally be considered a sensible level, it has a quality that you very seldom hear from recorded drums these days. The sheer visceral nature of the stick striking the skin, the tautness and resistance of the skin itself and the incredible presence and transient impact place enormous strain on any system. Add to this the tuning of the tom-toms and the murderous high frequency impact from the cymbals and I guarantee you that dealing with this sort of energy would have most systems running for the hills. They couldn’t live with it and you couldn’t listen to it. With the Mikado running through the Lyra Connoisseur 4.2L SE and a pair of the exquisite Ayre MXR mono amplifiers the sound is intimidating and exciting, but never unpleasant. I suppose you could call the whole album a system- killer as it is so raw and uncompressed but, given the Mikado’s innate talent for dealing with the transient and the MXR’s unflappable ability to supply clean power without fuss or strain, it soon became a benchmark for the system’s abilities. Because that is what we are dealing with here and in every other review of any piece of audio equipment. It is how you assemble a system around the component in question that really determines the results and the Mikado ticks most the boxes.

This Gryphon presents the music enthusiastically and with a pacey edge and flavour. It may not be the most uncoloured or most tonally accurate at the price, but it always delivers a compelling and attention-grabbing view of the music and that, to me, is just as important. Be careful with partnering equipment though and remember my opening words of advice and never audition one that hasn’t rotated many, many discs or you may wonder what all the fuss is about. The Mikado may not be cheap, but it presents an attractive and stylish option.

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