Gryphon Diablo Integrated Amplifier (Hi-Fi+)

Integrated amplifiers
Gryphon Audio Designs Diablo
Gryphon Diablo Integrated Amplifier (Hi-Fi+)

When you sit in front of your system for a bit of musical therapy, what are you listening for? It seems logical to assume that each of us listens in a different way and that we listen for and hear different things – or should I say that we hear the same things differently? Are you especially conscious of the sheer detail levels within the music or are you someone who is more sensitive to rhythmic elements and timing issues? Do you look for a system to have a broad tonal palette or is holographic sound-staging high on your list of priorities? Or perhaps you listen for all of these things at different times. I have a friend who loves pure in-your-face presence. He wants the music to leap out of the speakers and confront him head-on. Anything less and the system is of no interest to him and when buying any component he always imposes his notion of what a system should do upon the music. Whether an album has been recorded in that way seems completely irrelevant. Despite my pointing out the obvious pitfalls of such an approach to him, he wants to fashion systems that appeal to his particular tastes rather than appreciate that no two recordings are constructed in the same way.

Surely there can be no right or wrong here as it is his money and he spends it how he wants, but he is a perfect example to me of how a great many people have pre-set views of just how they want their music to be presented. What is vitally important to some is actually a big negative to others. For instance, I believe that a real-world, three-dimensional soundstage and a realistic portrayal of depth all fall under the general heading of coherence and those systems that have only height and width start at a disadvantage. But I didn’t always feel that way. When I had a system that was purely two-dimensional I did not believe it was important. These are aspects of the recording more specifically than the music and fall under the remit of the producer whose job it is to realise the material into something solid and to use all the means at his disposal to achieve this. All of these questions have been on my mind since I began listening to the Gryphon Diablo integrated amplifier. This is an expensive product, especially by integrated amp standards, a powerhouse of a design that will drive just about any speaker to destruction. It makes a bold statement in appearance and sound, has seemingly limitless reserves of power and is tremendously well specified technically and is as user-friendly as you are likely to find. All good things and yet, even after hours and hours of listening to it, I still find myself having concerns over its ability to completely involve me musically. I have spent much of my time with it asking myself why. As with the Mikado CD player I reviewed in the last issue, the Diablo is all about high impact. It writes the music bold and large before your ears. You could never call it shy, but that does not mean that it is not subtle too. It grabs hold of a speaker and manhandles it with grip, pace and intensity across an impressively useable bandwidth and with exceptionally taut control.

Physically too it is an imposing object. Basically a large and fairly conventional box, the pen of Gryphon design supremo Flemming Rasmussen, has clad the Diablo been in acrylic and machined aluminium add-ons, giving it a stylish and distinctive appearance, a Ziggurat-like structure. It is very well built and has typical Gryphon attention to detail inside and out. All of their products are eye-catching designs, but at their heart they are extremely solid and serious components. The Diablo provides inputs for four single-ended and one balanced connection, plus a couple of outputs and has a single set of speaker connections. There are no moving parts on the front panel. All switching and volume control are carried out by light touches to specific areas and the vacuum fluorescent display, itself offering three levels of brightness, keeps you informed of the amplifier’s output level and selected input status.

The remote is one of the very best I have tried, a long, slim metal design that enables you to get where you want to be quickly and completely intuitively. It is an object lesson in uncluttered clarity and it makes the amplifier a joy to control. You need to be a bit sensitive with it though as the power comes on with a hell of a rush and that is one thing that this amplifier has in abundance. It can produce 250 watts into 8 Ohms, 500 into four and a whopping 800 watts into a 2 Ohm load. This makes it just about the most powerful integrated amplifier I have ever used and when you couple this with such a seriously broad bandwidth (0.1Hz-250kHz) you soon realise that you are in control of a heavy duty device capable of terrifying speakers into submission. Like the Mikado CD player, the well-named Diablo needs a fair bit of time from new to gather all of its strengths and concentrate them on the music-making process. It runs hot, takes a while to run in (though not as long as the Mikado), but be patient and let it cook for a few weeks and it slowly comes on song. After that you can leave it in standby and it will be back up to speed within an hour or so of re-awakening.

I hesitate to say that the Diablo is all about its rampant nature but it goes about its business with such vigour that the way it employs those Watts is, let’s say, central to its character and there is always the temptation to advance the volume that little bit extra and see how it responds. It does become horribly addictive though as the Gryphon is not an amplifier that necessarily caresses the music. It does not suffer from big-amp syndrome, is not slow to react or sluggish in the turns. Instead it holds the speakers in a vice-like grip, hurling them into life, imposing a level of dynamic control that leaves them in no doubt as to just who is boss. It brings fresh meaning to the term “driving the speaker”.

Plug in their Mikado CD player that I reviewed in the last issue and you have a potentially explosive mixture of audio detail and dynamics that makes for very impressive Hi-Fi. The heady alchemy involved leaves you in no doubt that you are going to need to consider your speakers and cabling rather carefully. But don’t get the idea that the Diablo sacrifices too much finesse for pure muscle. True, it does carry the whiff of a hairy chest but remains extremely nuanced when the occasion calls for it and is well able to take advantage of the open, spatial sound-staging that the Mikado does so well. It has a finely structured and delicate sense of detail right across its considerable bandwidth and that keeps your attention as much as the sheer dynamic potential, both great and small. This is where its fine control of relative instrumental levels keeps the music locked in focus, even at low levels, where it is extremely impressive.

The bass is strong powerful and fast while the high frequencies, though clear and articulate are just a touch hard. I didn’t find too much in the way of tonal warmth through the midband and the balance remains resolutely on the cool side and especially so with the Mikado at the front end. For those wanting to bask in the colourful vibrancy of bowed and stringed instruments the Diablo/Mikado duet would probably not be my first recommendation.

Listen to the Alison Krauss collaboration with Robert Plant on Raising Sand and you will certainly be impressed with the superb separation of the instruments and their dynamic individuality but I found the amplifier missing out on the sense of intimacy and the warmth and affection between the two singers. Producer T Bone Burnett has done a great job in balancing the two distinctive voices against each other and the mix he has produced is masterfully understated. Sweet and sour, Ying and Yang, call it what you will, but, for me, this relationship is what the album is all about. Like hearing Ella sing against Louis Armstrong, there is something almost spiritual in the contrasting blend. This is where the Gryphon failed to get the juices flowing.

It’s elusive and you cannot easily point to it, but sometimes a system just has it and sometimes it doesn’t. I found exactly the same with the new Joni Mitchell release, Shine. This is her best work for sometime. Her now dusky voice, honed with a million cigarettes, has found the perfect instrumental environment on this album and the inclusion of the pedalsteel guitar is a masterstroke. Being a musician on a Joni Mitchell gig must be unlike anything else. Each player is given their own voice but she has this uncanny ability to pick their styles and fuse them together around the track. You will seldom hear anything superfluous on a Joni album and this is as lean and mean as they come. Again we are talking about intimacy and the ability of the system to call out to your soul, to go that step further and speak to you on a different and far more personal level. This is, for me, what makes some top-end audio worth paying for. It is not the extra bandwidth or the better control or the superior resolution as you can very soon get used to those things. Music, at its best, is art and should surely be about spiritual enlightenment, at whatever level you personally operate. Well, it is for me anyway but I definitely know, having read thousands of reviews in my time, that it isn’t the same for everyone. My real concerns are that the Gryphon often leaves music seeming somewhat impersonal and rather matter of fact. It is one of those amplifiers that you can really hear working as it reconstructs and feeds the information into a torrent of fine dynamic detail. I use the term information deliberately as I found the Gryphon to be too mechanical in the way it portrays music. In other words, it seldom sounds beautiful and the more I listened, the more I became aware of this. Some amplifiers seem like a wide-open window and just let the music flow through them, but the Gryphon imprints its mark firmly and tends to sound very busy and somewhat electronic.

Which brings me back to my first question. What do you listen for when you play your system? Because, technically speaking, the Gryphon Diablo really does tick most of the boxes. It is certainly great Hi-Fi – of that I have no doubt and I can easily imagine it both impressing and satisfying many people with its dramatic all-round abilities. At this level of performance though, it is other things that make the difference between you connecting with the music or not and surely that is what it is all about. You have probably gathered that the Diablo and I were slightly uneasy housemates during this review and I feel frustrated that I never managed to bind its considerable attributes to the music, to warm to its performance more than I did. I make no value judgements here, just a simple observation that comes from the heart rather than the head.

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