March 1, 2006Gryphon Audio Designs Exorcist
O Minutum Mysterium!
In 1994, I encountered what seemed a bizarre procedure, even for audiophiles. The Sheffield/XLO Test & Burn-in CD, issued in that year, offers a number of perfectly rational items for the setting up, maturation, and evaluation of a domestic sound system. And then there are tracks 6 and 7, "Demagnetizing Sweep" and "Low Frequency Demagnetizing Fade." Using both tracks according to the directions purports to degauss, or demagnetize, ones sound system -- every aspect, bowsprit to poop, anchor to rudder. So there it was, a problem I never knew about, along with its remedy.
But cmon -- this couldnt possibly be serious science. I asked around and got mostly shrugs. No one could explain how playing an upwardly mobile sweep tone and low-frequency fade tone demagnetizes anything. I recall a few snickers and snorts.
Still, I was intrigued. I played the two tracks on my system and came away with the feeling -- no more than that -- that the system had received a light dusting. It sounded a tick perkier. A night-and-day ear-pop audible in the shower? Hardly. Indeed, my impression that the sweep-and-fade drill had performed a worthwhile service remained tenuous at best. And yet I kept playing those intriguing tracks.
What better spot to remind ourselves of the childlike delight with which we audiophiles greet any putative change for the better. Hardly worth mentioning, right? And, again hardly worth mentioning, what first knocked our socks into the adjoining postal zone over time loses its punch. Guaranteed. Likewise guaranteed is the appearance of something better -- a replacement epiphany. A distant cousin of obsessive-compulsive disorder, the condition is known as Audiophilia nervosa. Best to seek out a therapist who wouldnt know a tweak if it bit him in the butt.
I was, at the time, in touch with XLOs Roger Skoff, perpetrator of the degaussing drill. Id recently been using and writing about XLOs audio cables, and I vaguely recall that it was through Skoff that I received the CD. If I ever asked him directly how the two tracks work, Ive forgotten what he said. (I do recall his recommending Static Guard, a household item typically used to relax clingy fabrics, for dispelling static buildup in ones speaker cables. Canny fellow.)
Absent zealous inquiry, I remained under the impression that tracks 6 and 7 of the Sheffield/XLO Test & Burn-in CD were novel innovations. I learned only recently that George Cardas had come out with his own take on degaussing in 1992, on vinyl, and that an item called the Flux Buster antedates that. I touch on this history only because Gryphon Audios Exorcist ($230 USD), the product under review, has also been around for a number of years.
But before we proceed, some statements and claims. George Cardas maintains a question-and-answer department on his companys website, www.cardas.com. An excerpt:
"Q: How can a tone on your Stan Ricker record degauss anything?"
"A: It works the same as any degaussing system. A high amplitude sine decays slowly into silence. Mine also sweeps at the same time, but most degaussers work in the same way, whether they are a flux buster or a tape head [demagnetizer]. The main difference here is by using the record as the source you degauss the whole system end to end and degauss the cartridge in the position in which it is played."
And this, from www.Gryphon-Audio.dk:
"The entire signal path from preamplifier input to speaker drivers contains conductive parts that can be magnetized. Connectors, component pins and even circuit-board copper traces may contain nickel or steel. In addition to being poor conductors, these materials may be magnetized by DC current.
"Most electronic devices have constant DC leakage, ranging from negligible to considerable, depending on the design. Many preamps and power amps generate a DC pulse when switched on, before stabilizing. This is particularly true of tube equipment. It has also been suggested that even the copper in cables contains oxides that may be magnetized.
"The application of DC current is precisely the technique employed in the manufacture of magnets. High-end connector manufacturers and others are very much aware of this and subjective listening tests have often pinpointed the degrading sonic effects of nickel. We would estimate that 95% of all gold-plated connectors have a nickel base beneath the gold plating.
"When an audio signal passes through a magnetic field, it is prone to magnetically induced distortion (MID) that manifests itself as a whiteness, a lack of inter-transient silence and reduced soundstage depth.
"The solution: Those of you old enough to remember the venerable phono cartridge will also recall the indisputable benefits of frequent use of a cartridge demagnetizer. The Gryphon Exorcist applies the same principle to the entire audio system at line-level."
And there you have it, whatever it is. Look, all that really matters to us happy-go-lucky sound geeks is a products audible efficacy, and thats what Ill do my best -- indeed, Ill frown, strain, and grunt -- to report on.
Nitty gritty, swift and pretty
Like a lot of high-end hardware, Gryphon products make a statement in their handsome, bulletproof way. (Have a look at the website.) No exception, the Exorcist is built to withstand abuse only a lunatic would think to inflict. As to where it derives its tone-producing power, inside the aluminum case is an easily accessed 9V battery. The accompanying leaflet makes no mention of changing the battery. Perhaps the Exorcist uses so little power that the battery is presumed to last indefinitely. I removed the cap to find, connected to a pair of gold-plated RCA inputs, several bits of wire, tidy silver-solder points, and a small circuit board too firmly ensconced to examine.
By way of a pair of single-ended interconnects, I connected the Exorcist to my Aurum Acoustics Integris CD players first unbalanced input. If one has a permanently vacant line-level input, using the Exorcist requires less fuss than playing the Sheffield/XLO CD (which, in any event, would be difficult to locate).
Activating the Exorcists On/Off switch produced a steady tone in the low-treble region that faded to nothing in about half a minute. The instructions suggest doing this on the high side of a normal listening level. While one can always leave the room, the experience is not especially painful. However, even for the bohemians for whom John Cages mischievous aesthetic has validity -- those who enjoy, for example, street noise as art -- the drill is less than musically enriching. But what the hell, anything for better sound.
Still wary of theory?
Before I check in with my inflated 2¢ worth, lets update those skeptical shrugs. I asked again, recently, for a disinterested opinion. I respect my correspondents knowledge of electronics and its implementation, but he prefers to remain anonymous. (I read somewhere that, on his deathbed, when asked by a priest whether he renounced the devil and all his works, Voltaire responded, "This is no time to be making enemies.")
"What are the Gryphons claims based on?" asked my interlocutor. "PS Audio developed a clean function for their power conditioners. It sends a bunch of semi-random non-60Hz warbles through its synthesized AC outputs that shake up power cords, transformers, diodes, capacitors, etc. This purports to deliver better sound. Id guess that signal-path degaussing approaches are similar for signal-path circuits, but lets remember that the PS Audio feature addresses the power supply. The process seems the opposite of the break-in concept. To break stuff in, you allow it to settle. So why would you want to shake it up?
"What AudioQuest does with their battery-polarized cables is at the opposite side of the picture. AudioQuest claims that by orienting dielectric particles in one direction, the cables performance improves. This is the reverse of tape-head and PS-Clean practice, I think. Anyway, Im just blowing smoke. Some PhD will answer these conundrums. The topic confuses me, and if Im confused, just imagine how it must baffle the average-Joe audiophile."
Chalk up another shrug. Me, I never allow confusion or incomprehension to impede an opinion.
Raise your right hand. Do you swear . . . ?
I do, often and voluminously. The grandkids are scandalized. Do I swear that the Gryphon Exorcist ameliorates noise as advertised? Probably because I dont understand how the terms being applied, I had no sense of evicted "whiteness," and I didnt notice much of a difference with respect to soundfields. What I did pick up on was a sense of the systems sound having been freshened up -- of having had its face washed, so to speak.
I keep my electronics in standby, for which usage Gryphons instructions suggest weekly Exorcisms. Consequently, Ive been obliged to check out the Exorcists effectiveness less frequently than Id have liked. When I do, that sense of a freshening-up persists. As a succession of episodes of Audiophilia nervosa? Id like to think not. As an interested reader (youve come this far), you dont need to suspect that the reviewer is indulging in the not-so-fine art of waffling.
As my deadline drew near, I played a recently arrived jazz release, Garden of Eden, by the Paul Motian Band: Chris Creek, Tony Malaby, saxophones; Steve Cardenas, Ben Monder, Jakob Bro, guitars; Jerome Harris, bass; Paul Motian, drums [CD, ECM 1917]. This would be quite the perfect disc with which to conclude the review: marvelously well recorded and texturally rich, with clearly delineated musical strands. This time, the before-and-after drill impressed me as a tad more revealing. I again sensed that freshening-up, along with a better sense of instrument locations. The music was arrayed with an ever so slightly heightened emphasis.
These were not profound differences. In my system, the Gryphon Exorcist remains an extraordinarily subtle tool. Take that as a cautious recommendation.
Gryphon Audio Designs Exorcist
Gryphon Audio Designs
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