Gryphon Zena DAC Module


BOB’s Review Series - No 49 – Gryphon Zena DAC Module

Introduction – Over the last year and a half I’ve reviewed several DACs ranging in price from around £5k to more than £50k and there is no doubt in my mind that with DACs more than any other piece of audio equipment the more you spend the better they get. We all have a budget that we hope to allocate to a new equipment purchase or upgrade but not many of us could ever contemplate spending more than £20k let alone £50k on a DAC and fortunately there are still many good ones to choose from in the £1k to £10k range, and I have been using one for some time. The Zena DAC on review here is not for everyone however because it can only be used installed inside one of Gryphon’s fine pre or integrated amps, it’s not a standalone DAC.

I appreciate that reviewing a DAC that can only be used inside a specific piece of equipment will not be of great interest to most customers but notwithstanding this I know from experience of using the Gryphon DAC module installed in our demo Diablo 300 integrated amplifier that it is a rewarding experience. So I asked myself what would a Zena DAC module sound like installed into my Gryphon Essence preamp and is it a viable option for Gryphon users who want less boxes. At £5,500 it’s still not a cheap option but you do also save on the need for a mains lead and an interconnect making it more reasonably priced when compared to other DACs. Gryphon do of course make a standalone DAC called the Kalliope which retails at £23,500 and as the Zena DAC module is based on the Kalliope design it seems like even better value for money for those capable of taking advantage of it.

As the image shows this is a sealed box unit not just a circuit board.

Technology – The Zena DAC Module fits inside either their Zena or Essence preamps where space, fixings and connections already wait in anticipation of the DAC module being fitted. The module is a manufacturer or dealer fit item and can be ordered at the time of purchasing the preamp or fitted, as in my case, as a later dealer upgrade. It takes around 30min for us to fit. It comes in its own all metal enclosure (see images) so it is fully screened from other electronics and has connections for two SP/DIF on BNC, one TOSlink optical, one AES/EBU on XLR and the now obligatory USB. When installed the DAC Module is instantly recognised by the preamp which now gains 5 further inputs, 6 through to 10 and now also displays sampling frequency, format and digital filter settings on the front screen. A similar DAC modulecan be fitted to the Diablo 300 integrated amp which can have both the DAC module and the Gryphon Phono stage fitted together whereas the Essence and Zena preamps can only have one or the other but not both installed due to the smaller cabinet sizes involved.

The Zena DAC Module uses an ESS Sabre ES9018 DAC chip, not the latest version from ESS, but I’ve always found that it’s not what you use but how you use it that counts most in the audio world and here Gryphon seems to have got it just right. The DAC module can process via the BNC and AES/EBU connections data to 192kHz/32 bit and via the Toslink connection to 96kHz/24 bit. USB extends this to 384kHz/32 bit and DSD up to 512.

The Zena DAC Module doesn’t draw any power from the USB connection instead drawing power internally from the preamp. It incorporates a 12.5 Farad SuperCap power supply which acts as a virtual battery for the DAC. This effectively isolates the power supply from any influence from a connected computer or streamer. There are two filters available via the preamp menu or the remote for slow and fast roll off and DSD sources have three bandpass filter options for 50, 60 or 70kHz. Finally, the output from the DAC can be set at 0dB or -6dB, again selectable via the menu or the remote.

System Components used in this Review:

Pre-Amp: Gryphon Essence Pre

Power Amp: Gryphon Essence Power

Streamer: Innuos Statement

Compact Disc: Shanling SCD-T200 CD Player

Music Streaming: Tidal, Qobuz, Roon

DAC: Gryphon Zena DAC Module installed in the Essence Pre

Analogue Sources: Sansui TU-719 Tuner

Speakers: Marten Mingus Quintet

Subwoofer: REL Carbon Limited

Cables: Jorma Cables throughout

Performance – The first thing you notice when firing up the preamp after fitting the Zena DAC Module is a little blue flashing light on the front panel that you didn’t know existed before. This can flash for a few minutes and is letting you know that the capacitor bank inside the DAC module is being charged. Once fully charged the light goes out and from this point on the DAC runs in virtual battery mode with power sourced from those large capacitors. The second thing I noticed when playing the first track was wow where is all that bass coming from, this DAC is certainly able to find an extra octave. If you want to hear what this DAC can do I suggest listening to “All About You’ by Sophie Zelmani from her Soul album (Tidal 44.1/16bit). The detail ,dynamics, percussive strength and room filling sound is addictive. Then play ‘Ain’t No Sunshine’ by Dana Sedgewick and her version of this classic track will simply have you spellbound (Tidal 44.1/16bit).

I have found that some DACs, no matter the price, don’t do justice to a connected CD player used in transport mode via RCA or BNC connection. I’m not sure why this is but the Zena DAC module was an exception to the rule by giving more life, sparkle and energy to my connected transport.

Going back to streaming via USB I listened to the October Road album by James Taylor which is now 20 years old, but the album really showcases his voice and guitar. The Zena DAC reproduced his voice on the title track by breathing extra life, rhythm and pace into the recording, a speciality of this DAC it seems. On the track ‘Mean Old Man’ from the same album the piano work was noticeable for its realistic reproduction that many replay systems seem to find difficult, but not the Zena DAC which did a fine job.

Conclusion – Having installed and lived with the Zena DAC for a while I have decided to keep it as a replacement for my standalone DAC. That’s how good I think this DAC is. I know from experience that spending 4 times as much is usually where outboard DACs really start to sing but if like me you just don’t have that amount of disposable income, and if you have a compatible Gryphon amplifier then this is one of the best DACs around under £20k. Highly recommended for those capable of taking advantage.

Bob – Team Reference Audio