Ascot '23 – the Ideon and Gryphon Experience
Updated: Oct 24
So the winter 2023 show season is up and running, and this Friday at the Ascot hifi show I met up with the importers and some of the manufacturers of two of our significant brands, Ideon and Gryphon. They were demonstrating with Dali. I had not experienced most of the specific products they had on demonstration, so I was treated to a good introduction and listening session through the system you can see in this picture.
I had come to hear the system using the Ideon front end, so we didn't use the Gryphon CD spinner (top centre) or the Bergmann turntable (top left). The system was playing using the Ideon Absolute DAC, Absolute Time and Absolute Stream, (top three items on the right hand rack), playing into the Gryphon Commander two-box preamp (centre rack), and then into the massive Gryphon Apex monoblocks. For the speakers, we swapped between the Dali Epikores (pictured) and the top of the line Dali Kores. And I have to say, both brilliant speakers and the Kores were clearly even more controlled than the Epikores, but on the day I didn't think that the Epikores were inferior to the Kores in any significant enough way to rob the performance of fabulous musicality and drama.
Let's tackle the elephant in the room first – price. So for the main electronics: Ideon 'stack', £73k, Gryphon two-box pre, £60k, Apex monos £190k. Speakers: Epikores £40k or Kores £85k (we used both). Racks and cables etc probably another £40k. That takes you (with the Kores) to a total of around £450k. I really don't know how you get into a value for money debate with that price tag – it's a family home, a brilliant hifi system or a couple of rare luxury watches – where do you start. So I'm forgetting the price and just reporting what I heard and where I think the system has moved the goalposts.
We listened to some of the various standard pieces and then I chose two rather different tracks to listen to – tracks I have used as test pieces many times over the years.The first is YYZ on the Rush album Moving Pictures, and the second is The Ballad of Bill Hubbard from Roger Waters' Amused to Death. The Rush track is a studio recorded instrumental on the album, released in 1981, and the Water's track is a Q-Sound recording released in 1992. They're very useful tracks because the Rush is a brilliant yet frenetic short piece of rock virtuosity that trips up systems that don't have very high levels of grip, headroom, timing and actually, very good tonal purity. Without these qualities the track drops into a bright and uninteresting muddled mess – but with them, you are transported right to that great moment in rock recording history. The Waters' track is musically moderately interesting, but it's really about testing control, image accuracy and layering with it's great use of Q-Sound. Elements of the recording, such as the conversational ballad itself and a cheetah growling should be positioned about 60 degrees left and 90 degrees right (respectively) of the listening axis. Unless a system has really low end-to-end phase distortion, particularly under load as the music power increases, these images will not be clear or remain in their correct position through the track.
The Rush track went on and the volume went up. The music was more palpable than I have ever head it before. The percussion was fast and tight, strong and very wide as Neil Peart went round the toms. The kick drum and snare were truly 'drum kit realistic' in the room. But I am familiar with how the track stresses systems and in all my previous listening experience, the size and shape of the drum kit itself has never really been obvious until now. And that drum kit is being pushed hard and there are resonant rings, metallic taps plus sharply struck and quickly damped cymbals – good quality cymbals that don't usually sound this whole. Not by a long way.
Then in the breaks through the middle of the track, Geddy Lee's bass comes to the fore. Here it's the combination of immense speed and energy that stands out. Most systems will either sound fast but not rich enough or bloated without the necessary crisp speed – so not capturing the wonder of such great bass playing. And when Geddy hits the pickups at the peak of the track it comes through with a glorious thud that turns it, like the drums, into a real instrument in front of you. I started to also get the idea of the purity of the system's tonality at this point but that was then confirmed when Alex Lifeson's soaring lead came in. Strength and presence came to mind again with the lead focussed in the centre of the soundstage, with plenty of distance and space around it too. But there was a tonality there that is wholly uncommon – certainly playing at this level in such a large room. There was nothing in the tone that was 'wrong', and usually there is with this guitar piece. No harshness at all, no brightly lit edges. There was really strong body to the upper-mid energy in the notes – rich and harmonically complete. And again speed. But I have found speed in the mid range is sometimes hard to differentiate from wayward treble. No, here the combined midband and treble energy envelope soars and flies in and out, stops on a dime then leaps straight back in again a millisecond later.
We then switched to the Waters' track. Straight away I was enveloped in that slightly eery and ominous soundscape with crickets all around me. The dog barks in the distance then the shopping channel clicks on. Soaring guitar with rich body then comes in, followed by the growling cheetah at 90 degrees out on the right. Then the main dialogue starts – out on the left hand side. The rhythm builds up and so does the guitar. But now I realise how stable the soundstage is, and how clearly separated all the pieces of information really are. The result of all this was the cleanest, most focussed and stable rendition of that dialogue (as a completely separate entity to the rest of the track) that I have ever heard.
I then went through all my library of experience to try and identify the why's. And from my digital design experience the first irrefutable big credit has to go to that Ideon digital front end. No system on the planet can do what this was doing without a world class front end – or maybe here, a game-changing front end. Way back in the day I was co-designer of probably one of the best NOS DACs of it's time (the Vertex AQ Aletheia) and that machine was in my view, rarely bettered – until now. I had the pleasure of talking to George Ligerakis from Ideon at the show and we immediately identified our similar take on digital design – separated and multiple layers of power supply regulation everywhere you can put it, and "clocks, clocks, clocks'! Add proper anti-resonance thinking and so on, and suddenly the musical output truly moves into the realms of realistic.
Then we come to that Gryphon amplification. It's almost unworldly. Three things spring to mind – power, class A and the new low junction-capacitance transistor technology that Gryphon are using in these Commander and Apex machines. First of all, class A is something everyone knows about. It's hot, power hungry and maybe not that much better in general listening terms to good class A/B or even class D. But that's not what Gryphon think and now, nor do I. A lot of it comes down to sheer engineering capability – the construction of the Apex monos is massive and has to be, to contain the power supplies required and provide enough heat management capability. But doing that well, without it getting in the way of musical values is not easy, particularly when you're talking about delivering 1690W of Class A power into a 1Ω load as these can. But there's something else going on – and I think it's that new transistor technology. There's a new level of neutrality, transparency, reality and musicality here that maintains startling consistency under serious load – we were playing that Rush loud!
So to conclude. Have the goalposts moved? Of that I have no doubt. The listening experience was spectacular in musical terms but was also showing some huge steps forwards in capability. The critical attention to detail of the Ideon at every step of the process combined with great new innovation from Gryphon came together to make a very special system. The Dali speakers were fabulous too – their ability to turn all this greatness into a room-filling extravaganza was abundantly evident.
To find out more about these amazing products, please follow these links to our Gryphon and Ideon product pages. And of course we are more than happy to talk about all the products from both of these brands, including the more affordable, yet still brilliant models a little bit down the line – so don't hesitate to give us a call. In particular, we are waiting to receive our own demo Gryphon Diablo 333 integrated amp as soon as they arrive in country – and that, by all accounts, is awesome.