The Gryphon Ethos player makes CD sound a lot like high-resolution audio is supposed to sound. It’s impressively clean (yet less bright and forward than people expect), remarkably dynamic and extremely extended into the upper and lower registers. Around about five discs in, you begin to ask yourself whether audio took a massive wrong turn by going down the streaming route when Compact Disc really can sound this good.
Then you put on something you know really well. I’m at once proud and not proud to say that first disc was Back In Blackby AC/DC [Atlantic]. This is one of those albums I had on LP, cassette and CD (the LP got destroyed by playing on cheap equipment and was stolen by a junkie friend of an ex-girlfriend, the tape got mangled in a car cassette player and the CD has led a comparatively sheltered life by way of comparison). From the opening peel of ‘Hells Bells’ through to the title track, Ethos played these early 1980s arena rock tracks with the sort of force and intensity that makes you reach for the volume control and wish you were young enough to headbang without all the crepitus. The guitars on this disc can often sound ‘toppy’ and compressed, but here although you can still hear the compression, you realise its both deliberate and a pedal effect before the amp’s own distortion rather than laid on afterwards. As a consequence, it causes an equalisation of plectrum strike and makes for those intense power chords the Young brothers used to such good effect.
This all comes from an extraordinary degree of resolution of fine detail. This is perhaps why you keep thinking CD is high-resolution audio through the Ethos. Those who have turned their back on CD to pursue high-sampling PCM and DSD dreams should give the Ethos a serious and critical listen, in order to see just how much information there is to be extracted from a 16/44 PCM file, and in particular how much more information can be pulled from that disc. The Ethos makes that supposedly old-hat task significant and every bit as relevant as it was when first heard in the early 1980s, but now its potential is realised.
There will be those reading the above and think it ‘a bit’ pretentious. Then there will be those who’ve heard what the Gryphon Ethos actually does in playing a disc and will nod in agreement, wondering just how the company manages to make the CD have that much spaciousness, transient snap and accuracy, musical and melodic integrity, harmonic precision and sheer focus.
The odd thing about the Ethos is that it makes the disc – any disc – sound like it was pressed specifically for that player. It is a vibrant and dynamic performer, with sounds rising out of a noise-free background (anyone who pipes up with ‘digital has no noise’ forgets just how much analogue circuitry is used to deliver that digital datastream, and just how much of that noise gets eliminated by the Ethos), and the sort of image properties and solidity not normally associated with digital of any kind.
I want to say that the Ethos is like shining a powerful light on the music, but that makes it read like it’s bright. Similarly, I want to say it’s like putting a magnifying lens on the music, but that makes it sound like its over analytical and fails to take in the bigger picture. In fact, it does both of these things, and shows just how fast analogies run out of puff in the process. But, the fact remains, the Ethos is musically illuminating without making the sound ‘brightly lit’ and it is a very focused sound without it eviscerating the musical intent. The result, however, is an uncannily un-digital, in fact un-audio like presentation; big and bold, yes, but ultimately enjoyable and musically deeply satisfying.
Most of all, though, two big things struck me about the Ethos. First was a sense of cohesiveness and coherence to the sound, which – coupled with that epic sense of dynamic range – made music sound like the real deal, not a digital facsimile. This was universal, applying to all discs, but I quantified the experience first on the title track of Anouar Brahem’s Blue Maqams [ECM], as the interplay between musicians became almost hypnotic (this can easily descend into elevator music). Next was a degree of detail that transcends the normal ‘all the information on the disc’ and got into the inner space of the music itself. Yes, it had all the information audiophiles would happily commit crimes to attain, but behind and beyond that was a sort of Zen-like musical clarity of intent.