The $1099 iFi Audio xDSD Gryphon Portable Headphone Amp & DAC combines the digital smarts of the iFi audio xDSD Portable Headphone Amp & DAC and the analogue brawn of the iFi audio xCAN Portable Headphone Amplifier into one versatile, pocketable portable device.
With a host of powerful features packed into one impossibly small device, the xDSD Gryphon could very well live up to iFi’s promise of being “a hi-fi system in your pocket” - we’d better take a look and see what it can do!
An instant, on-the-go audio upgrade
If you’re anything like me, then you might find yourself doing a lot of your listening on the go. While it’s great to lean back in a comfy chair at home and plug yourself into a dedicated headphone listening “stack”, your gear at home really is sitting idle if you want to transform your commute or plane-ride into an opportunity to enjoy a few albums in all their delicious hi-resolution goodness. And if I find myself in an office, airport lounge, or hotel room at the other end of a journey, then you can bet that I’m also planning on making the most of that valuable listening time too.
A Digital Audio Player, or “DAP” isn’t always the best solution for mobile listeners. If your primary media device is your smartphone or laptop, then it’s going to be far more convenient to use the onboard storage, streaming apps and screen interface of your main device to control your playback. If you don’t feel like adding yet another “screen” into your life, then a portable DAC/amp device is the best way to add get the best out of your headphones and IEMs while you’re out and about and suddenly have the urge to hit “play”.
The new xDSD Gryphon Portable Headphone Amp & DAC is the latest in a series of tech-filled portable devices from the (very) prolific UK-based manufacturer iFi Audio. At a glance, the xDSD may look extremely familiar as it borrows the same “hip-flask”-esque form-factor as their previous “x”-prefixed mobile devices, namely the iFi audio xDSD Portable Headphone Amp & DAC and the iFi audio xCAN Portable Headphone Amplifier. While the former device was more digitally-focused thanks to its highly capable Burr-Brown DAC, the latter was more of an analogue device designed to provide the additional grunt required by harder-to-drive headphones with a whole Watt of power available on-tap. Like the mythological creature from which iFi Audio took their naming inspiration, the xDSD “Gryphon”is an amalgam of iFi’s digital and analogue technologies in one unique and remarkably versatile package.
The xDSD Gryphon not only combines the features of the xDSD and xCAN, it also adds a sleek new look plus an improved user experience that makes it one of the most instantly-compelling portable products that I’ve had arrive in the mail. In fact, the xDSD Gryphon could very well serve full-time desktop duties for many headphone-oriented audiophiles, and I can picture many instances where it could easily take the place of many other full-sized devices thanks to its features, power, and sheer convenience.
xDSD Gryphon overview & features
In its simplest form, the xDSD Gryphon is a portable DAC/amp featuring a Burr-Brown “multibit” DAC (the same variety used on iFi’s flagship iFi audio Pro iDSD Signature DAC and Headphone Amplifier), and a balanced headphone amplifier capable of pushing-out 1 x Watt of power at 32 ohms.
In terms of footprint, the xDSD Gryphon is roughly the same size as a pack of playing cards, and at a mere 215 grams, it weighs even less than one. The xDSD Gryphon’s shapely grooved and contoured body is made from solid machined aluminium, and unlike the glossy finish of its forebears (which tended to pick-up smudges and fingerprints) it sports a fetching dark matte finish that looks terrific in the flesh and feels reassuringly well-built.
The other main visual “upgrade” on the xDSD is the inclusion of a digital display on the top of the device. The LED screen provides information about volume, bit-rate, battery level, input and other device settings. It makes the overall user interaction with the device a million times easier than on earlier devices, and it also gives you the impression that it’s a pretty serious “tech-y” device - it looks great.
xDSD Gryphon key device specifications:
Headphone Output Power (Single-Ended): 320mW@32Ω; 3.5V@600Ω
Headphone Output Power (Balanced): 1000mW@32Ω; 6.7V@600Ω
Digital Inputs: USB Type C, S/PDIF coaxial, Bluetooth 5.1
Analog Inputs: 4.4mm balanced, 3.5mm single-ended
Digital Formats: up to PCM 768kHz, DSD512, DXD 768kHz, MQA 384kHz
Headphone Outputs: 4.4mm balanced, 3.5mm single-ended
Battery: 3,600mAH (8 hours battery life)
Dimensions: 12.3 x 7.5 x 1.9cm
Packaging and accessories
iFi ships the xDSD Gryphon in a smart-looking white box with enough stickers to definitely give you the impression that there is a “Hi-Res Audio” device inside! A soft carrying pouch is provided for keeping the xDSD Gryphon safe from scratches inside pockets and carry-on luggage, while a total of three USB cables (full-size USB to USB-c, USB-c to USB-c, and USB-c to Lightning) are a welcome inclusion for ensuring proper connection to any number of digital sources.
Having an at-first bewildering array of buttons and features for such a tiny device, a comprehensive user manual is included that help walk you through what’s-what in terms of functionality, user interface controls as well as the (extremely comprehensive) specifications of the xDSD Gryphon.
Digital & wireless capabilities
The xDSD’s Burr-Brown DAC can be accessed via a USB-c or a 3.5mm SPDIF coaxial wired connection and is able to decode DSD natively up to DSD512 and PCM files as high as 32-bit/768kHz. The xDSD Gryphon is also fully-compatible with the MQA format, allowing a complete unfold of files up to 384/352.8kHz (which ought to be noteworthy for the Tidal subscribers among you). Users are able to choose between three different digital filter options, Bit-Perfect, Standard and GTO (Gibbs Transient Optimised), to create further fine-tuning of your preferred sound signature.
Being a portable-oriented device, iFi hasn’t skimped when it comes to the xDSD Gryphon’s wireless credentials, equipping it with a Qualcomm 5100 chipset with Bluetooth 5.1 capability paired with iFi’s discrete components, which they claim makes for a superior and dedicated “Bluetooth engine”. The standard SBC and AAC formats are naturally catered for, but the inclusion of compatibility with higher-fidelity codecs like aptX Low Latency/Adaptive/HD, LDAC, and HWA/LHDV up to 96kHz might very well see users never needing to hard-wire 1’s and 0’s into the xDSD at all.
Analogue power and features
The xDSD Gryphon features iFi’s “PureWave” amplification circuitry, capable of a maximum 6.7v output, or 1000mW at 32 Ohms. The xDSD Gryphon features a standard 3.5mm headphone output (with a maximum of 320mW at 32 ohms) as well as the increasingly-more-common 4.4mm Pentaconn balanced output, which can unleash the device’s full power on full-sized harder-to-drive headphones. When it comes to more sensitive IEMs, iFi has built-in their signature “iEMatch” technology (accessible via a switch on the bottom of the device) which is able to lower the output of either output to help reduce hiss and improve usable volume. With the 113dB/mW Grado GR10e In Ear Earphones I found that this reduced a subtle noise floor that I didn’t realise was present in the first place, and made minute volume adjustments easier.
The xDSD is also able to operate as a “pure” analogue headphone amplifier with both 3.5mm single-ended and 4.4mm balanced analogue inputs on the rear of the device. When a digital or Bluetooth signal is selected, these inputs then act as analogue outputs, allowing you to use the xDSD Gryphon as a digital pre-amplifier with variable volume control - a pretty cool feature if you need to make your powered speakers or power amplifier a whole lot “smarter”.
Further sound tweaking and eq features
Accessible via the settings button on the front of the device, two of iFi’s in-house sound-tweaking proprietary features can be switched-on: XBass II and XSpace. The former, as its name suggests, applies a subtle boost on lower frequencies to help “fill out” the sound that some headphones and IEMs aren’t quite capable of reaching. I found this was quite a welcome effect with leaner-tilted IEMs, such as the single-armature Grado GR10e In Ear Earphones, giving them a tastefully filled-out lower octave without affecting their speed or agility. Switching the XBass II creates a subtle, yet definitely noticeable effect that is in no way bloated nor distorted. Rather than applying digital signal processing (DSP), iFi have implemented both XBass II and XSpace completely within the analogue domain.
When XBass II is selected, you’re able to select to add and emphasis of “Bass”, “Presence” or both “Bass/Presence” frequencies into the mix. “Presence” added a noticeable level of lower treble into the mix with the FiiO EM5 Flagship Open Earphones that did sound a little too honky and telephonic, but with the more V-shaped signature of the Final Audio E5000 In Ear Headphone it did help to provide a little more forwardness in vocals and instruments that was actually quite pleasing thanks to the added apparent detail and intimacy.
XSpace was designed by iFi to “recreate a holographic sound field” that lends a more speaker-like character to headphones. It’s certainly a more subtle effect than XBass II, and seems to add greater emphasis to notes above 10kHz for a slightly more airy, ethereal quality to your music that I found more effective with slightly darker-tilted headphones and IEMs.
xDSD Gryphon user experience
For a relatively tiny portable device, the iFi has packed in an astonishing amount of features that do take a little bit of getting your head around before you’re familiar with how they all work. It doesn’t take an undergraduate degree to get accustomed with the xDSD Gryphon, however, and once you understand how to navigate its settings and what each of the buttons, toggles, and inputs and outputs do, it’s a super intuitive device that is very easy to live with.
The main interface you’ll be dealing with on the xDSD Gryphon is the volume wheel, or the “cap” of the hip-flask, if you like. The tactile, solid metal knob is great to the touch and is responsible for turning the device on and off with a “long press”. A short press of the wheel mutes the device, and rotating it turns the volume up and down. It’s a “clicky” wheel that provides accurate volume adjustment in 1dB increments that are clearly marked on the LED display. The volume wheel is entirely “digital”, meaning there is no volume imbalance at low levels with more sensitive IEMs, and rotates “infinitely” in either direction. It’s also backlit, and the colour of the display matches the selected volume level in varying shades between completely off (mute), blue (low level), all the way up to red (= “turbo” mode). Two small LED lights left of the volume pot also change their colour according to the sample rate being played, and the selected input - it’ll take a while to memorise each, and you’ll need to refer to the manual when you're starting off.
The volume wheel is also the interface for navigating the device’s settings, which are accessible via a “long press” of the same button that controls XBass II and XSpace. Rotating and clicking the wheel allows you to choose whether the USB input charges as well as receiving data (there is a separate USB-c input for charging as well), Digital Filter Settings, turning the BT voice notification on/off, as well as screen brightness - the LED display can be turned off completely if you’re listening in a dark space and don’t want to spoil the mood.
If you’re using a wired connection, simply plug in the appropriate digital or analogue cable into the rear of the xDSD Gryphon and press the right-hand button on the front of the device to choose between “Line” (analogue), “S/PDIF”, “USB”, or select “BT” if you don’t plan on plugging any cables into it at all!
There are a few different possible use cases for the xDSD Gryphon, so let’s take a look at how to set it up and how it works in a few different scenarios:
1. As a Bluetooth mobile player
If you want to keep things cable-free on the go, it’s possible to have your smartphone in one pocket while you keep the xDSD Grypon in the other with your headphones plugged in. Pairing is as simple as holding down the input selector button for 1 second, and choosing “iFi Hi-Res Audio” on your device, and voila - I was able to start streaming 96kHz hi-res Qobuz immediately from my Pixel 6 via LDAC, with the friendly female voice of the xDSD Gryphon politely telling me I was connected via “L-D-A-C”. The xDSD Gryphon’s connection was strong from every room in my house, and I was even able to walk downstairs into my yard before I started to experience minor stutters.
And you’re not just limited to music, of course, when pairing the xDSD Gryphon with your device - taking it with me as my audio travelling companion on a day trip to Melbourne I used it all day to watch Youtube, Netflix, and tune into a conference call or two (although you need to use your device’s mic in this case).
2. As a Bluetooth receiver/pre-amplifier
Want to stream high-quality Bluetooth into your hifi system? Well, the xDSD Gryphon has you covered here. Using a 3.5mm to dual-RCA cable, I plugged it into my decidedly “vintage” stereo receiver and suddenly made it a hell of a lot more 21st Century when I started playing Father John Misty’s newest record Chloë and the Next 20th Century through the passive speakers in my living room. You can even control volume from the device (or your smartphone’s volume control) if you want to use the xDSD Gryphon as a digital “pre-amplifier” upstream from a power amplifier or powered speakers.
The xDSD Gryphon can basically pair with any device that has an analogue/AUX input - including your car! Sure, Sydney’s road and traffic noise isn’t quite the best way to experience glorious hi-res music, but it’s a nice upgrade from whatever garden-variety Bluetooth receiver Skoda saw fit to use back in 2012.
3. As a mobile “stack”
If you want nothing but the best when it comes to fidelity or if you want to directly stream hi-res/MQA files from your mobile device, then you’re probably going to want to “stack” the xDSD Gryphon with your smartphone. Just pop your phone on top of (or next to) the xDSD Gryphon, hook them up via the appropriate cable, select “USB”, and you’re in business.
Sure, it’ll make things a tad more cumbersome (sorry skinny jeans wearers) but if you have DSD or higher-res PCM files on your smartphone, then you can walk around with a smug look on your face knowing that the mere peasants around you aren’t enjoying lossless audio through a Burr-Brown DAC.
4. As a (transportable) desktop DAC/amp
Despite being engineered to excel when used on-the-go, the xDSD Gryphon is actually pretty excellent when parked firmly stationary on your desktop. While it does look a little comical when you have analogue, S/PDIF, and 2 x USB cables plugged into the rear, the xDSD Gryphon is as easy to operate as a multimedia DAC/amp as far larger devices. And I sure did spend some time using the xDSD Gryphon in this exact configuration, with my Macbook connected via USB, my Sony Bravia smart TV connected via S/PDIF, and I even had my turntable connected via the analogue input!
Thanks to its rubber feet, the xDSD Gryphon doesn’t have the annoying tendency to slip and slide around like other smaller devices and stays firmly in place, although physics will definitely come into play if you get up to walk across the room with a pair of headphones plugged in…
The volume wheel on the older xDSD/xCAN models wasn’t quite up to day-to-day desktop usage, but the excellent upgraded knob is easily accessible while on flat surfaces (thanks to the cutout above and below it) and it isn’t unwieldy at all when used in a desktop configuration - in fact, it’s great.
But, the best part about using the xDSD Gryphon as a desktop amp is that you can simply pick it up, pop it in your pocket and take it with you when you're done. If you work in a co-working share-space, study in a library, or simply like to pop out a laptop to get some work done in a cafe, this is invaluable. The xDSD Gryphon’s 3,600mAH is good for a claimed 8 hours, according to iFi, and with mixed usage I found that felt pretty on the mark - I could go a whole day out and about between meetings without needing a recharge until I got home.
Listening to the xDSD Gryphon
I’ve listened to several iFi Audio devices over the years, from the entry-level iFi audio Hip DAC Portable Headphone Amp & DAC all the way up to their range-topping iFi audio Pro iDSD Signature DAC and Headphone Amplifier. I've experienced that iFi products have somewhat of a “house sound” with their Burr-Brown DAC implementation, and it’s certainly the case with the xDSD Gryphon which has a familiar warm, inviting character with a “dense” sense of tonal mass that lends voices plenty of body and tone, plus a well-extended, rich low end.
The terrific thing about the xDSD Gryphon is the ability to tinker and tweak with the sound signature depending on the headphones that you’re using. Like I mentioned earlier, the Grado GR10e, being a leaner-sounding IEM definitely appreciates the additional low-end foundational support which made for a far more satisfying listening of Living Colour’s Time’S Up album, thanks to an added dose of slam and more realistic-sounding bass and kick drums. Want to add a little more emphasis in the upper mids? Hit the “presence” switch and there’s suddenly an injection of energy in the urgent vocals and snappy snare hits in Love Rears Up Its Ugly Head.
Thanks to its “iEMatch” feature, the xDSD Gryphon is a brilliant pairing with IEMs of every variety. If you have sensitive IEMs that are prone to hiss or impedance mismatching like the Campfire Audio Andromeda 2020 In Ear Monitors, simply switch it on and you’re presented with a noticeably clearer background that allows the most minute details in a song to shine through in a defined, visible space. The xDSD Gryphon impressed me by how it can immerse you in a well-constructed soundstage without ever feeling like you’re listening to a digital reconstruction of what was recorded. Being an open-air “earbud”-style earphone, the FiiO EM5 Flagship Open Earphones were a simply awesome pairing with the xDSD Gryphon, and engaging “XSpace” with Beck’s Sea Change record made for an even more immersive and ethereal playback experience that genuinely feels “out of head” - I actually had to check that the background drum-tapping in Lost Cause wasn’t coming from some speakers that I’d accidentally left on.
Lower impedance headphone listeners who are looking for a compact portable DAC/amp solution will be bloody-well served with the xDSD Gryphon, whose 1 Watt of power makes light work of the Grado RS2x Reference Series Headphones. With the xDSD Gryphon’s volume set to -45dB, the 24-bit/192kHz Qobuz version of Soundgarden’s Superunknown had as much rollicking determination and slamming dynamics on the little portable DAC/amp as I’ve heard on any desktop counterpart.
I was determined to see how the xDSD Gryphon would fare when it came to a serious pair of “home”-listening headphones, and the Sennheiser HD800s Audiophile Headphones are about as serious as they get. Being a 300-ohm pair of dynamic headphones, the HD800s isn’t the easiest pair of headphones to drive and they can also be notoriously finicky when it comes to tonal-matching with source gear. South of Reality, the appropriately-weird psychedelic album from The Claypool Lennon Delirium (featuring none other than Sean Lennon and Les Claypool) is a great example of a record with terrific production, abstract soundscapes, and plenty of dynamic contrast between the rockier breakdown tracks (try Amethyst Realm) and the more grandiose neo-Beatles tracks (give Boriska a whirl), and it’s an absolute treat with the HD800s - time to see how it fares with the xDSD Gryphon.
The xDSD Gryphon certainly has the oomph for getting the HD800s singing at full pelt - I couldn’t get any higher than -36dB without getting into hearing-loss territory. The HD800s does sound a little leaner than it does on a dedicated desktop amplifier with a ton more headroom, but it still sounds pretty damn impressive. XBass II is definitely called for here, and it does help provide a degree of needed warmth to the neutral-to-a-fault Sennheisers, but “presence” did ruin the party with simply too much energy around the dreaded “6kHz peak” in the HD800s. The HD800s provides a microscope-like look into a mix, and the xDSD Gryphon obliged with terrific levels of detail, a decent-but-not-amazing soundstage, but perhaps not the kind of macrodynamic slam that an OTL tube amp will offer. Sure, it’s a tough test case but it does show that the little iFi is more than up to the task of tangoing with serious audiophile cans, and certainly won’t disappoint in that regard.
I also spent some time changing between LDAC Bluetooth and lossless audio via USB while I still had the HD800s handy to see if there was much by way of difference between the two. To be honest, I’d be hard-pressed saying that USB sounded a whole lot better - it’s very hard to split the difference. The decay and image clarity in cymbals and other high notes had a fraction more resonance and sharpness when played over USB, but unless you’re looking for it you really won’t be losing anything by choosing to enjoy the xDSD Gryphon in wireless form - unless you have a drive-full of DSD and super-HD FLAC rips that you simply need to get the “best” out of.
Final thoughts on the xDSD Gryphon
It’s staggering to think about how many features and how much flexibility has been squeezed into one good-looking little portable package in the form of the xDSD Gryphon. It puts desktop devices several times its price to shame in terms of its versatility, features and sheer number of use cases, and the fact that this has been done in a portable device really is pretty remarkable.
If you’re a mobile audiophile and want to keep your smartphone or laptop firmly in charge of playback, the xDSD Gryphon has equally-impressive digital talents and analogue guts to get the best out of just about any pair of headphones or IEMs that you can conceive throwing its way. I can also see many headphone listeners auditioning one, mothballing their current DAC/amp stack at home, and replacing it with one small device that they can also easily slip in their pocket at the end of a listening session and take with them - the xDSD Gryphon really does do it all when it comes to enjoying headphones (it would be nice if it could make my breakfast too, but that feature might come with a future firmware upgrade…right?).