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Reviewer: Srajan Ebaen
Financial interests: click here
Sources: Retina 5K 27" iMac (4GHz quad-core with Turbo boost, 32GB RAM, 3TB FusionDrive, OSX Yosemite. iTunes 14.4), PureMusic 3.02, Audirvana 3, Qobuz Hifi, Tidal Hifi, Fore Audio DAISy1, COS Engineering D1, Denafrips Terminator, Soundaware D300Ref, AURALiC Vega, Jay's Audio CDT 2 MkII
Preamplifier: Nagra Classic, Wyred4Sound STP-SE Stage II, Vinnie Rossi LIO (AVT module)
Power & integrated amplifiers: Pass Labs XA30.8; FirstWatt SIT1 monos, SIT-3, F5, F6, F7; Goldmund/Job 225; Aura Note Premier; Wyred4Sound mINT; Nord Acoustics NC500 monos; LinnenberG Audio Liszt monos; SAG AIO; Gold Note PA-1175 MkII x 2 [on review]
Loudspeakers: Audio Physic Codex; Cube Audio Nenuphar; Kroma Audio Mimí; Albedo Audio Aptica; EnigmAcoustics Mythology 1; Boenicke Audio W5se; Zu Audio Druid V & VI & Submission; German Physiks HRS-120; Eversound Essence; Fram Midi 150; sound|kaos Vox 3f [on review]
Cables: Complete loom of Allnic Audio ZL3000 and Zu Event; KingRex uArt, Zu and LightHarmonic LightSpeed double-header USB cables; Tombo Trøn S/PDIF; van den Hul AES/EBU; AudioQuest Diamond glass-fibre Toslink; Black Cat Cable redlevel Lupo; Ocellia OCC Silver
Power delivery: Vibex Granada/Alhambra on all source components, Vibex One 11R on amps/sub
Equipment rack: Artesania Audio Exoteryc double-wide 3-tier with optional glass shelves, Exoteryc Krion and glass amp stands
Sundry accessories: Acoustic System resonators
Room: 4 x 6m with high gabled beam ceiling opening into 4 x 8m kitchen and 5 x 8m living room, hence no wall behind the listening chairs
Review component retail: starting at €12'800; add €4'800 for the DAC module or €1'800 for the phono (only one of those can be installed)
Zena. With sufficiently creative English, it could be the feminine form of zenith. In Denmark's house of Gryphon, it most certainly is their latest one-box preamplifier. It's also the first new product since retired founder Flemming Rasmussen relinquished stewartship of the brand to new CEO Jakob Odgaard as announced at Munich HighEnd 2018. But one glance at Zena assures us that at Gryphon, it's business as usual. Zena is based on fully discrete dual-mono DC-coupled class A circuitry with no global feedback but 18dB of voltage gain and 0.1Hz-1MHz bandwidth for top speed and zero phase shift in the audio band's extremes. Unlike the precursor's mechanical volume wheel on ball races, Zena does it with touch-sensitive controls across 43 x 2dB steps and never more than two surface-mount metal-foil resistors actuated by gold-plated hermetically sealed Pickering reed relays. As a true balanced design front to back, this volume control is fully balanced. For highest bandwidth and lowest noise, shunt regulators feed the voltage rails of the attenuator's active circuitry. One each XLR and RCA input can be configured as a home-theatre throughput to bypass the attenuator for unity gain.
In typical Gryphon creed, internal cabling is at a minimum and limited to a ground lead, display ribbons and a channeled power spur from IEC inlet to belly-mounted power switch. Also typical Gryphon are the industrial design in various shades and textures of black; the shiny green/blue vacuum fluorescent touch screen behind black Perspex; and the microprocessor-driven menu with 8-character alphanumeric input naming, start/max level, up to 8dB of input level trim, 4-stage brightness plus off, default restore and green bias. The latter relies on a Gryphon Green Bias Link cable to a suitable Gryphon power amp. Now Zena can control the latter's class A bias intensity to reduce dissipation and power consumption for less critical listening.
Like Gryphon's two Diablo integrated amplifiers, Zena's modular concept anticipates the fitting of a phono or DAC module. The former is lifted from the standalone Sonett above, the latter a scaled-down form of the Kalliope model based on the ESS Sabre ES9018 and equipped with five digital inputs as shown. Befitting a modern preamp, output impedance is a low 15/22.5Ω on XLR/RCA respectively. Equivalent input impedance is 50 and 25kΩ.
As a true balanced machine, Zena naturally anticipates balanced amplifiers. This ideally leaves the RCA outputs to a subwoofer or perhaps headphone amp. The rear panel also shows a ground post for the phono option; and trigger ports to switch linked Gryphon mates. The two frontal supports are of the flat-footed male persuasion whilst the rear footers are pointy cones like a woman's heels. Finally the only finish is black as shown. Unlike with their loudspeakers' lacquer wings, Gryphon don't go for the unpredictable excess inventory of multiple finishes on their electronics. That's because unlike their interchangeable speaker fairings—given Flemming Rasmussen's love of motorcycles, that term is doubly apt—hot-swappable chassis parts aren't convenient. And the black acrylic fascias of the electronics really demand matching black bodies.
The included remote is another stylish example of industrial design; a gentleman's cigarillo with a square cross section, control buttons along the upper edge, double IR eye end elevated on an inverted 'V' brace. It's purposeful, elegant and practical all at once.
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