Ron Resnick joins the Mono & Stereo team, opening up his grand act with elaborated review of the Gryphon Audio Pendragon flagship loudspeakers. Ron down to earth, compelling, insightful and elaborated writing will be a great, valued addition to Mono and Stereo and his vision follows the quest that our team believes in. Thanks and welcome aboard Ron!
My wife and I planned a trip to Denmark for the purpose of auditioning the Gryphon Audio Designs Pendragon loudspeaker system. I had been anticipating with excitement this audition for so long that I could barely get to sleep the night before it!
My wife and I traveled from London to Billund Airport in the Western part of Denmark. We stayed two nights in Aarhus, the second largest city in Denmark, but far smaller than Copenhagen. On our third day in Denmark we took a train from Aarhus to Ry, an upscale and bucolic small town about half an hour West of Aarhus. Upon seeing how beautiful Ry is we immediately regretted staying in Aarhus.
Ry is the location of Gryphon Audio Designs, the designer and manufacturer of the Pendragon loudspeaker system.
Rune Skov, Gryphon's new Sales Manager, Europe, as of four months ago, was equally warm and inviting and already extremely knowledgeable and enthusiastic about each of the Gryphon products. Rune most recently spent four years marketing Nordost products around the world. He feels honored to be working now with a company of Gryphon's longevity, diversified product line and reputation. Rune generously performed the LP playing duties during our audition.
Gryphon operates out of two contemporary-style buildings in Ry. The main building is painted in Gryphon's signature colors of black with red trim.
Flemming gave us a tour of the company. Inside the offices are very modern. Sports-type motorcycles are parked inside, near a kitchen on the ground floor. Several component testing rooms and a large workspace area where the Pendragon is assembled also are on the ground floor. These testing and assembly areas look clean and well-organized.
Flemming's photographs adorn the walls of the staircase leading upstairs. Numerous awards honoring Gryphon products line the hallway on the second floor.
The main listening room now doubles as Rune's office. In this room Flemming showed us the Gryphon product museum, a collection of every single product Gryphon has ever made, including an example of the original phono cartridge amplifier on the back of which Flemming founded Gryphon.
The Gryphon Pendragon is a four column speaker system with a woofer tower consisting of eight 8" drivers in a heroically heavy cabinet, and a separate midrange/tweeter panel consisting of a two meter tall, full-range ribbon used as a midrange driver and four air motion tweeters operating from 18 kHz to 40 kHz. Flemming says the tweeters provide frequency extension, openness and "air." The cone drivers in the woofer tower are custom made for Gryphon to Flemming's specifications and are powered by a Gryphon Class AB 1,000 watt continuous/4,000 watt peak amplifier designed specifically for this purpose.
Flemming learned from his friend and Gryphon loudspeaker design collaborator, Steen Dueland, to make crossovers as simple as possible and to keep crossover networks in constant phase. Dueland believed that "all drivers must be in phase at all times and at all frequencies." The Pendragon expresses these principles by having a relatively simple crossover from the ribbon driver to the woofer tower; by dispensing with the need for phase adjustment in the crossover electronics; and by not having any crossover between the midrange ribbon and the tweeters (the ribbon is allowed simply to roll off naturally).
The panels were driven by a Gryphon Mephisto stereo amplifier. The turntable was a new Bergmann turntable with an integrated, air-bearing, linear-tracking tonearm. The cartridge was an old Kiseki -- I think Flemming said it was a Lapis Lazuli. The cables were all Gryphon products.
The Gryphon listening room is about 30 feet wide by about 40 feet long by about 10 feet high. Except for some sound absorbing-looking tiles on the ceiling, wall-to-wall carpet, a couple of acoustic panels on the front wall behind each speaker and what looked like an Acoustic Science Corporation half-round on the inside of the door to the room, there was no other formal acoustic treatment.
Flemming believes in the rule of thirds for initial speaker and listening position placement. The room is divided into thirds -- with the speakers located at the first line, one-third of the way into the room from the front wall, and the listening position located at the second line. The woofer tower and the midrange/tweeter panel for each channel are positioned on a curve, such that each piece is at the same radius distance to the listening position.
Flemming believes (as I do) in not absorbing the rear wave of dipole speakers. The ribbon panels and the center of the listening couch were arranged in an equilateral triangle configuration.
The construction quality and machining finish on the Pendragon look fantastic. Flemming's perfectionism about design and materials quality and cosmetic quality is very much in evidence on the Pendragon. The Pendragon is assembled entirely by one Gryphon employee at Gryphon's main office.
I asked Flemming what is the purpose of the long, thin rubber strings running vertically down the towers and over the drivers. Flemming said the strings are to remind people not to touch the drivers. He said the distance between the strings is very wide to avoid any smearing effect.
"The Rose" by Amanda McBroom, Growing Up in Hollywood Town (Sheffield Lab 13)
"Send in the Clowns" by Bill Henderson, Live at the Times (Jazz Planet Records/Classic Records)
“Landslide” and “Rhiannon,” by Fleetwood Mac, Fleetwood Mac (MFSL)
"First We Take Manhattan" and "Bird on a Wire" by Jennifer Warnes, Famous Blue Raincoat*(Rock the House Records/Classic Records) (I know this is a digital recording.)
”I've Got the Music in Me" by Thelma Houston, I've Got the Music in Me (Sheffield Lab 2)
"Hallelujah" by Jeff Buckley
"Where the Wild Roses Grow" and "Stagger Lee" by Nick Cave, Murder Ballads
"Back in Black" by AC/DC, Back in Black
After we listened to music for about an hour and a half I asked if we could take a break and process what we heard so far. I will repeat here exactly what at that point I said to Flemming:
I am not saying this to brown-nose you -- it is the truth. If you were to give me a blank piece of paper and ask me to sketch out my theoretically ideal, dream speaker system it would be a four column design, with a woofer tower consisting of a number of vertically-arrayed cone drivers powered by a very high-power Class A or Class AB amplifier, and a midrange/tweeter panel consisting of a long ribbon driver or a big electrostatic driver in a heavy, non-resonant frame. The panel would cross over to the woofer tower at 200 Hz or higher.
So my dream speaker is either a purely hypothetical four column version of the MartinLogan Neolith, but with the 15" driver broken out from under the electrostatic panel and moved to a separate self-powered woofer tower with another two or three drivers (i.e., a Statement E3), or the existing (and made since 2013) Gryphon Pendragon.
I think Gary Koh believes that a crossover above about 100Hz is the wrong choice because it breaks up between the two drivers the frequency range covered by piano. Gary may very well be correct. I do not know. But I simply like the additional dynamic impact provided by having the woofer column play up to and a little above 200Hz.
During the audition, just out of curiosity, I moved to a chair just behind the center of the listening couch. This difference of only about two feet further back occasioned a different perspective. When seated in the center of the couch my wife and I both thought it sounded more like the sound was coming toward us and we were a bit immersed in the sound ("like the sound was hugging us," she said). Just two feet further back it sounded like we were a bit distant from a soundstage located distinctly in front of us.
Each of the loudspeakers I have auditioned on this odyssey is an amazing loudspeaker. I easily could live happily for the rest of my life with any of them. But these speakers do have significant differences in design. Sometimes they have differences in purpose. I hear subtle differences in their sonic attributes.
VERSUS GENESIS ADVANCED TECHNOLOGIES 1.1
Gary has conscientiously designed his big Genesis speakers to sound good off-axis and to ameliorate the phenomenon of the "sweet spot,” which is a single listening seat dead center between the speakers at whatever distance to the speakers sounds best. I do not care about sound quality off-axis so for me the antidote to the sweet spot "problem" results in a sound which I personally find a bit too diffuse. (This diffuseness may very well represent more accurately the sound of live music, as Gary believes.) Good off-axis response just is not something I value.
Audiophiles and amplifier manufacturers may disagree on this but I just like the fact that the Pendragon woofer towers are driven by Class AB and not Class D amplification. The circuitry in the amplifiers in the woofer towers are essentially the same circuits incorporated in Gryphon's standalone, Class A, solid-state amplifiers.
I think Flemming's eight 8" drivers per woofer tower sound "tighter" and "faster" than the six 12" drivers per woofer tower in the Genesis 1.1. (Please keep in mind that Gary significantly revised the 1.1 with the 1.2 version and then the Dragon model, and these revised designs incorporate twelve 12" drivers per tower, so my comments may not apply to the current Genesis models.) If one listens primarily to symphony orchestra music maybe the big bore drivers of the Genesis woofer towers would have more visceral impact than, and therefore be preferred to, the smaller drivers of the Pendragon woofer towers.
I personally think the design of the Pendragon woofer tower is ideal. I like the design brief of a large number of relatively small drivers powered by a purpose-specific, Class AB amplifier with enormous power and headroom.
The Genesis system is a very complex design with many drivers and crossovers and outboard amplifiers and cables. I appreciate that the Pendragon gets to substantially the same place, but takes a materially simpler design path to get there.
I was not conscious of any discontinuity or lack of a seamless blend between the midrange/tweeter panel and the woofer tower of the Genesis 1.1 I heard in Audiocrack's home. Yet, after hearing the Pendragon, somehow the Pendragon sounded more coherent to me than I remember from the Genesis. With the Pendragon I know I heard no discontinuity whatsoever between the midrange/tweeter panel and the woofer tower.
Not in comparison to the Genesis but just about the Pendragon itself my wife said that she could not distinguish sound coming from the panel versus sound coming from the woofer tower. She agreed that the sound coming from each channel was truly and effortlessly blended together into a seamless experience.
VERSUS MARTINLOGAN NEOLITH
To my ears the MartinLogan electrostatic panel is a smidgen more transparent on female vocals than the ribbon drivers in the Analysis Audio Omega, the Genesis 1.1 or the Pendragon. I confirm with my audition of the Pendragon that while I give up a smidgen of transparency going from the electrostatic panel of the Neolith to the ribbon driver of the Analysis Audio or the Genesis 1.1 or the Pendragon, I think that slight loss of transparency is more than made up by an increase in "weight" and corporeal body in the midrange of the ribbon driver versus the electrostatic driver.
There seems to be some reason why it's a little bit easier to blend a ribbon driver with a woofer tower than it is to blend an electrostatic panel with a woofer tower. I assume this is because an electrostatic panel is, indeed, a bit faster theoretically and a bit more transparent sonically than the ribbon driver and, therefore, is even more difficult to blend with a woofer tower.
I have always liked the very precise and clearly delineated solo vocalist image of MartinLogan speakers. However, listening to live music has taught me that that a clearly defined and delineated solo vocalist image is not true-to-life.
The delineation of the image of a solo vocalist on the Pendragon was somewhere between that of the Neolith and that of the Genesis. The solo vocalist imaging of the Pendragon was more diffuse than that of the Neolith but less diffuse than that of the Genesis. I think the Pendragon's image and delineation of a solo vocalist is ideal and realistic.
The mere vertical height of the Genesis and the Arrakis and the Pendragon provides a scale and a greater sonic realism of soundstage height and size which cannot be matched by shorter speakers. Even the relatively tall Neolith does not have quite the same scale and grandeur of the other three loudspeakers. It is easier to suspend disbelief with the Rockport Arrakis than with the sonically very similar, but half the height, Rockport Altair II.
If all you ever listen to is vocals and chamber music, then, out of this exalted group of loudspeakers, the Neolith may be the correct answer for you, as it almost is for me. But for big rock and symphony orchestra music the single 12" lower midrange driver and the single 15" woofer in the Neolith simply cannot compete with eight 8" woofers driven by a dedicated 1,000 watt amplifier. Versus the Pendragon the bass of the Neolith is not as extended, well-defined or "tight."
I think the 15" driver is the weak link in the ultra-transparent flagship from MartinLogan. I could happily live with the Neolith for rest of my life. But to do so I would have to resign myself to knowing that while its reproduction from arguably 100 Hz and up (and certainly from 400 Hz and up) is state-of-the-art, its reproduction from 100 Hz and below, while without doubt the best MartinLogan can do in a one-column format, is not state-of-the-art. As impressive and successful as the Neolith is for an all-out assault on the one-column format there just is too much going on in the bottom of the Neolith cabinet to be considered an ultimate expression of ESL hybrid design.
VERSUS ROCKPORT ARRAKIS
The Rockport Arrakis is supremely coherent. It's tonal balance sounds perfect to me. Its dynamics are amazing. With that speaker you stop thinking about audiophile stuff and just listen to, and enjoy, the music. Versus the dipole speakers I think the Arrakis is one or two smidgeons of transparency behind the Neolith, and maybe one smidgen of transparency behind the ribbon speakers.
There is also the issue that I am simply, by nature, a panel guy. This is unfair to any dynamic driver speaker system. Some people are panel people and some people are not panel people, and a panel person is almost always going to prefer a dipole design over any conventional dynamic driver system. With respect to the Arrakis I might be, to some extent, mistaking the openness of dipoles for transparency. If I were not a panel person I without doubt would buy the Arrakis.
The Arrakis -- which likely has the most inert cabinet of any dynamic driver speaker in the world -- aside, I think a state-of-the-art speaker requires a four column design. Separating out the reproduction of bass frequencies from the midrange and treble drivers is, I think, a requirement to achieving a true, state-of-the-art result. The theoretical and practical, audible benefits of a separate woofer tower to move a large volume of air for low frequency power and extension (without resorting to equalization), and which avoids exciting with vibration the midrange and treble drivers, cannot be denied. Of course such a design (e.g., the Genesis 1.2 and Dragon, the Evolution Acoustics MM7, the MartinLogan Statement E2, the Verity Monsalvat, the MBL X-Treme, the Pendragon) carries downsides in size, complexity, cost and, possibly, multiple amplifiers.
The differences I believe I hear among the loudspeakers I have auditioned are subtle and subjective. For my listening room, and the sonic preferences and listening biases I have, and the kinds of music I typically listen to, the Pendragon is the best speaker system I have ever heard in my life.
After a hot, wild affair one weekend last May at the T.H.E. Show in Irvine with the MBL 101E Mk. II, and despite amazing dates with the Neolith, the Arrakis and the Genesis 1.1, and a brief flirtation with the Analysis Audio Omega, the Pendragon is the first speaker in 28 years which would seduce me away from, and cause me to divorce, my beloved MartinLogan electrostatic hybrid loudspeakers.
The Pendragon gives me everything I want in loudspeaker such as transparency, the tonal balance I like, dynamics, visceral impact, scale, natural detail without "over-etching" or fatiguing initial transients and realistically-sized images. This system is at least as good at performing each of these attributes as any other speaker I have ever heard. (The only caveat being, again, that I think I hear slightly greater transparency on female vocals with the Neolith.) During our audition I perceived from the Pendragon no negative characteristic to offset its collection of positive attributes.
This is the only speaker I have auditioned about which I do not say "I like this, this, this and this, but I wish that were different." The Pendragon is an actualization of my ideal, dream speaker design.
More than many audiophiles I also value a product produced by a company long in business and with a stellar reputation of quality and service. Gryphon has been owned continuously by Flemming and his partner, and Gryphon has been in business -- and thriving and growing -- for over thirty years. That gives a buyer a lot of comfort and peace of mind when considering a purchase of this level of cost and complexity.
Would there be a way to make up with an electrostatic panel the smidgen of transparency I lose with the ribbon driver without, also, losing the greater weight and corporeal body of the ribbon driver? We might learn the answer to that question only if MartinLogan designs and produces a Statement E3. I know that Martin Logan has thought about such a product, but it is on a very distant drawing board, if at all.
Until then, and probably even then, the Gryphon Pendragon is the speaker I would most like to have in my home for the rest of my life.
Mono and Stereo Senior contributing reviewer