Equipment Review 27 – Gryphon Ethos Compact Disc Player and Digital to Analogue Converter
Introduction – Those with long memories or a fondness for old movies may remember Dick Van Dyke who stared in Mary Poppins and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang where he “perfected” his Americanised Cockney accent. Faced with the Gryphon Ethos CD Player he may well have empathised with those born within earshot of the Bow Bells and said something like ‘Cor blimy mate, thirty bags of sand for a CD Player, you’re avin a Giraffe’.
And he would’ve been right of course, £30,000 for a CD player is an astonishing price to pay for a format that many say is in terminal decline. But putting that into perspective it’s easy to blow £30k+ on a topflight turntable that still needs an arm and a cartridge if it’s going to play records or an equal amount on a top of range preamp or DAC. I’ve read recently that Goldmund have just released an SACD Player priced at almost 6 times that of the Gryphon Ethos under review here, yes £175,000 for a CD Player, but hey, it does also play SACD! Supercar money. Even so the Ethos can’t be described as a bargain unless seen in the likely context of a decent six figure system with amplifiers and speakers in a similar price bracket.
Back in the day I studied Architecture and before qualifying I was lucky enough to take my part-one course at a Fine Arts College in the West Country that also taught Fashion, Fine Arts and Landscape Architecture giving me an insight into how other designers think. Unfortunately, this didn’t include industrial design and I can only applaud the founder of Gryphon, Flemming Erik Rasmussen for his desire to bring his own design background to full effect with Gryphon products. He has degrees in Painting and Graphic Design and a background in industrial design and fine arts and this has clearly informed his sense of the importance of design into all their products. Rasmussen is now in retirement, but his legacy lives on at Gryphon.
I’ve been a constant user of CD right from the get-go in 1983/84 when CD players first appeared in UK shops. I still own both players I bought at that time, a Toshiba XR-Z90 and a Marantz CD63, both still working. I also own four other CD players: – two Meridian 200 Transports, a Mark 1 and a Mark 2, a Sony X55ES and a Sony CDP-X3000ES. Interestingly, like the Ethos the Marantz, Meridian and Sony X3000ES are all top loading machines and the Toshiba is front loading, a bit like loading a cassette. Only the Sony X55ES is a traditional draw loading player. I guess I like the idea of some user involvement in the loading and playing of CDs and the Ethos exemplifies this cause.
Interestingly just a few years ago one of Gryphon’s fellow Scandinavian audio manufacturers released what they advertised at the time as being ‘Your last CD Player’ and even gave it an appropriate endgame name, perhaps a rethink is in order because I can’t see this trend towards even higher end CD Players slowing down any time soon and it seems there is still a healthy market for a £30k CD player.
In my last review (No 26) of the Gryphon Diablo 300 amplifier, I gave a potted history of Gryphon as I did when reviewing their Scorpio S CD Player (No 04) so I don’t intend to go into too much company detail again here, suffice to say they are based in Denmark and can supply you with a complete system including speakers, amplifiers, phono stages, CD players, equipment stands and cables.
Technology – This CD Player is an aesthetic delight, its triangular form and hinged manual top loading tray make it stand out from the crowd and its tactile use is akin to playing vinyl. It measures 480mm wide, 453mm deep and 178mm high and weighs 13.7kg so it needs a good sized stand to house it. It runs in Class A and is powered via two internal toroidal transformers. To operate it you need to manually lift the circular transport cover by the gold-plated finger lift which is attached to a funky curved bracket/arm that hinges open to reveal the transport tray which is bathed in a blue light. Insert a CD, place the gold-plated puck in place, manually close the lid and it only takes a few seconds for the Ethos to read the TOC and you’re ready to go. The Player sits on three large and adjustable feet to allow levelling and it comes with a small circular level for just this purpose. The spiked feet come with cups to protect your furniture and a dedicated remote control is also provided. A nice touch is the inclusion of a soft leather Gryphon embossed circular coaster onto which you can place the puck whilst inserting a CD. The Player has outputs on fully balanced XLR, and RCA and the front panel is the now familiar Gryphon Vacuum Fluorescent Display which is dimmable in stages. It has several user adjustable settings, some accessible on the player and some such as filtering and upsampling only available via the remote.
The Ethos is not just a CD player because it’s possible to access the built in DAC for use by other digital sources such as streamers. The Ethos DAC now uses the latest* ESS Sabre ES9038 Pro DAC chips, one per channel. Whilst this chip can top out at 768kHz via USB and 384kHz/32-bit via PCM the Ethos has been set to top out at 384kHz via USB and whilst this chip is also capable of full MQA decoding Gryphon seem not to have enabled MQA processing, probably a licensing issue or perhaps like Chord Electronics they just don’t like MQA. The Ethos is however a Roon ready device, and this makes it easy to use with streamers or other network devices. It’s also capable of upsampling incoming data streams to DSD levels but my audition was undertaken using the native data stream inputs and outputs. It incorporates no less than 7 PCM user selectable filters and 3 DSD filters. The DAC has a USB type B input together with S/PDIF on BNC and AES/EBU on XLR. It also has an AES/EBU XLR output. Besides having an accessible DAC this is just a plain CD Player and it will not play SACD’s or DVD’s etc.
*ESS have recently announced the availability of their latest chip, the ES 9033Q.
System Components used in this Review:
Amplifiers: Esoteric C-03X Preamp and S-03 Stereo Power amp
Digital Sources: Innuos Statement – Sony CDP X3000ES CD – Matrix Audio X-Sabre Pro (MQA) DAC
Analogue Sources: Pioneer F-91 FM Tuner with Ron Smith Roof Mounted Ariel
Streaming Sources: Tidal and Qobuz – Roon Management
Speakers: Marten Mingus Quintet
Mains: Evotek Titan - Nordost Quantum QBase6 - Nordost Qx2 and Qx4
Accessories: Quadraspire custom made SVT stands – All Cables by Jorma Design except: QED Glass optical cable from the CD Player- Nordost Blue Heaven Coax cables - Chord Epic USB cable and an English Electric Network Switch
Performance – Right from the first few bars of the first CD you play on the Ethos you are aware of being in the presence of something very special. It’s hard to describe in words just what makes it stand out from the pack and by such a large margin, it just sounds right and by that, I mean that it makes you want to play CD after CD and sit there completely stunned that red-book CD can sound this good. Not once whilst I had the Ethos in my home system did I contemplate listening to my streamer or any other source other than for review purposes. I’ve always believed that if your system sounds good from outside your listening room then you are onto something, but Gryphon have countered this by saying ‘the peerless finish, build quality, ergonomics and pride of ownership … can only be fully understood and appreciated up close and in person’ and they are spot on, but it still sounded great from the Kitchen.
Listening to Compact Disc - It really doesn’t matter what CD you first play; it will sound just as good as the last one you played during your first listening experience with the Ethos and that experience will live with you for a long time. I played so many CDs before writing any notes that I can’t recall what the first one was but at some point, I played the ‘Ophelia’ CD by Natalie Merchant which is always a good listen, but the Ethos gelled it all together providing warmth to the bass, detail to the midrange and sparkle to the highs without at any time sounding harsh, or brittle as CD did in the early days.
The recent Lindsey Buckingham and Christine McVie album is a good example of two long term friends finding that special bond that allows them to anticipate and harmonise their singing with real emotion (Rodney Crowell and Emmylou Harris can do the same) and the Ethos seemed to understand their relationship better than any other CD Player I have used, and it found content on CDs that I’d not heard before. The Ethos seems to thrive on enhancing the listening experience adding weight to the bottom end, clarity to the midrange and sparkle to the highs but mostly adding emotion. Its impressive and I couldn’t fault the way it goes about extracting information from a format designed in the 70’s and recorded at just 16 bit/44.1kHz resolution. If you have a good stock of CD’s and an Ethos to play them on you won’t feel any temptation to play so called high-res files, CD has it all covered.
It will of course play those rare UHQCD’s from Japan that try and mostly succeed to give a better sound than basic red-book CD, but I find they can be a bit bright for my liking and nothing was changed via the Ethos, so stick to normal CD’s and you won’t feel short changed.
‘The Snake’ from Desperate Man by Eric Church starts with some simple guitar picking and the Ethos resolved this well and highlighted his finger slides. The track soon opens into a rhythmic beat supporting his gravelly voice, but they were not fighting each other for your attention, they were just supporting each other perfectly. This is harder to reproduce than it sounds and the Ethos met the challenge perfectly.
Moving back in time more than 50 years to Abbey Road by the Beatles, albeit playing the 2009 remastered edition and the Fab Four were seemingly performing just for me. How I wish I could have seen them live. ‘Come Together’, the opening track gets a lot of play, and the Ethos was able to deliver Ringo’s rolling drumbeats that underpin this track so well showing how talented a drummer he is. Again, I ended up playing the whole album and for sure the 24bit/96kHz high-res download version is also of a high standard, but the Ethos CD Player can deliver plain CD like nothing before it.
Listening to the Digital to Analogue Converter – I used the DAC without enabling the upsampling that it is capable of, and my first listen was by streaming the Bob Harris live Radio 2 broadcast on a Thursday evening. He played one of my favourite tracks from Little Big Town called ‘Girl Crush’ and it was hard to believe it was just a 324kbps/48Hz stream. It sounded every bit like a high-res track and of course I had to listen to the whole hour broadcast with Bob’s distinctive voice and complete subject knowledge keeping my full attention played through the Ethos DAC.
I listened to some CD’s I had ripped to the Innuos hard drive and music streamed from Tidal and Qobuz and it was clear that the Ethos uses DAC chips from ESS and not AKM, delivering a sound signature similar in nature to my own Matrix Audio Sabre DAC. However, because the Ethos uses a pair of the Sabre ES9038 chips instead of a single chip shared between channels and probably better internal components, it delivered a much more engaging sound. By this I mean better clarity, better and stronger dynamics, a wider and deeper soundstage and a much more inviting and involving musical experience.
Manufacturers who rely on the marketplace to source their DAC chips rather than design their own (Chord, MSB etc) can improve performance from the off the shelf chips by applying their design knowledge and better components and Gryphon have done just that with the Ethos relying on ES Sabre chips but also their own in-house expertise in circuit design and implementation. Gryphon clearly understand how to extract the maximum from the ESS9038 chips, and this shows directly in the capability of the Ethos whether using its DAC for CD playback or when playing other digital sources through it.
Conclusion – When you stand in front of a painting in a gallery, particularly by one of the recognised master’s you are looking at so much more than a canvass with a picture on it. The closer you look the more information seems to flow between you and the artist filling the gap, which may be many centuries between the artists last brush stroke and you standing there today. This is art of communication, and this is ART, it’s what defines the painter and how he can affect your senses across generations. Listening to music can, and mostly does have a similar impact on your mood and wellbeing and of those around you and again there can be a considerable time between the composer laying down a track in the studio and you playing it back in your home. Having listened to a great deal of audio equipment during the recent lockdowns I have found that there are a very few pieces of equipment that leave behind a real sense of loss when you take it out of your system and the Gryphon Ethos is one of those rare products. I could have used it at home for many days but chose to return it to the showroom after just two days because it was growing on me so much that I feared the loss of not owning it would get worse the longer I had it at home. Having retired from architecture I’m not able to raise the funds to purchase the Ethos but if I could then I would do so without a second thought regardless of other components in my home system.
More than highly recommended, if only I had more sand.