Super High-End Speaker Devialet Phantom Aims To Take On Sonos

18 Jun 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Bernard Arnault’s Passion Project: Revolutionizing Home Audio.

French speaker maker Devialet builds some really expensive audio gear. Devialet, known for its Phantom speaker which supposedly sounds better than speakers 20 times bigger, just announced that it has closed a $20 million Series B round.

Though I’ve been referring to the Phantom as a single speaker, it actually has four drivers: one tweeter, a mid-range speaker, and two subwoofers (those silver discs you see on the sides).Devialet’s Phantom resembles something from Portal, has audiophiles by turns fuming or fawning, and squeezes up to 3,000W into a casing some physicists say shouldn’t work.

After 10 years in development, Devialet has 88 patents and awards galore for its audio-engineering technology, with amplifiers on the market since 2010. The Phantom pumps out music at a gut-impacting 99 decibels (about the same as what you get sitting on a motorcycle) via a streamlined sound system that packs all the components of a home audio setup into a glossy white package. The first all-in-one music system from the polarizing French firm, Phantom’s odd looks are, Devialet claims, merely the side-product of its homegrown pressurized drivers and hybridized analog/digital amplifiers. But the company is hoping to break into the mass market with its $2,000 Phantom speakers and now it’s bringing them to the United States — and it’s raised another $20 million to help it break into the market. The enterprise is backed by luxury goods tycoon Bernard Arnault and a small group of investors who have the goal of changing the way consumers hear and feel sound.

With the Phantom, however, Devialet delivers a 750 watt all-in-one amp and speaker, costing an eye-watering $2,000, with a 3,000 watt incarnation setting you back an extra $400. Devialet, a French company that is perhaps best known for making high-end, rack-mounted amps, is using its “ADH” amplifiers in the Phantom, which are a hybrid of Class A analog and Class D digital amplifiers. Devialet also uses another acronym — SAM — to describe the technology it developed to adjust the frequencies it delivers to each individual speaker to best replicate the source audio. Devialet will ship two versions of Phantom come July. $1,990 gets you the 750W, 99db model – the version I’ve been testing – while $2,390 snags the Silver Phantom. That musters a frankly ridiculous 3,000 watts and 105 dB, and is not least, Phantom project director Romain Salzman told me in a moment of distinctly French bluntness, a retort to the company’s naysayers.

Dre made a monumental success of his premium Beats headphones brand, while Tidal launched in the U.S. last year bringing a “lossless” audio-streaming service to market — shortly before Jay Z acquired it. Then there’s Devialet’s fellow French company Qobuz, which also specializes in high-definition streaming and downloads, which will undoubtedly sound better on a top-notch sound-system à la Phantom.

Its calling card is a hybrid digital and analog amplification process that allows for high volumes without the distortion that usually comes with that territory. (Remember how your college roommate’s boombox used to sound when he was blasting Nirvana? The main advancement in the audio hardware comes from what the company calls analog-digital hybrid (ADH) technology that blends the smoothness of analog with the strength of digital amplification. Designed by a French team that has years of experience in the speaker and amplification industry, the company didn’t try to create yet another portable speaker. There has always been demand for high-quality audio, which is why news of Devialet’s $20 million funding round, led by French business magnate Bernard Arnault, should come as little surprise. Yeah, it won’t do that.) We don’t need to get into all the gritty details of the proprietary amplification system, but suffice to say that Bernard Arnault, chief executive officer of LVMH, was impressed enough that he has invested more than $3 million in Devialet as part of its $19.1 million Series A funding round.

The technical side runs to reams of pages and a fair proportion of Devialet’s 88 patents, but boils down to the digital side doing the heavy lifting across the frequency range, while the analog side then does the final smoothing. I had a chance to demo a Phantom (the Silver model, which packs the 3,000-watt wallop) for a couple of days, and it’s an impressive piece of hardware to have on your desk or table, to say the least. The Phantom is Devialet’s first self-contained system, meaning you don’t need a collection of speakers, an amplifier, and a pile of other gear to actually hear your music—the digital-to-analog converter (DAC), processor, amplifier, loud speakers, and connectivity are all inside. It’s been in use since Devialet was founded in 2007, and ADH is already offered in the company’s standalone amplifiers which run the gamut from $7,000 up to $30,000.

The Phantom will be shipping to U.S. customers in July but you can state your intent from today by pre-ordering a unit, costing $1990 for the standard Phantom and $2390 for the 3000 watt Silver Phantom. As you might expect of the audiophile market, both Devialet’s claims and technology have provoked some controversy. $30k might sound like a lot, but in the high-end audio world it’s a relative drop in the ocean. I set up the Phantom in our office, and once I got it connected to our Wi-Fi network (which is a chore) I turned on some dubstep (it was the music that happened to be on my phone at the time, no judging). Some well-heeled and keen-eared music lovers have completely fallen for the charms of the Devialet amps and praised them for besting components exponentially more costly, while others remain highly skeptical: think the Apple-effect, only in stereo components not computers, phones, or tablets.

Devialet has received 88 patents on the Phantom and at almost $2,000, it’s the brand’s most affordable product yet. (Affordable, of course, is relative.) The design is driven by the need for all the sound to originate at a single point at the center of the unit—hermetically sealed by 1.2 tonnes of pressure—and to radiate out from there. In fact, it took four years of development – not to mention around $30m in investment – to shrink the ADH amplification circuit into a chip roughly the size of your thumbnail.

But when I cranked it to half power, the subs on the side started reverberating with intensity and the 50 or so people in the office with me jumped out of their desks. It’s clearly well-made and a lot of care has been taken with the aesthetics, but if R2-D2 met the original iPod in a Left Bank nightclub, the Phantom might be the next-morning surprise. By learning a speaker’s distinct sound reproduction style, SAM can process the audio input so that, when the speaker’s foibles have had their way, it’s as close as possible to the original recording. When used with Devialet’s standalone amps it requires owners have speakers from a list of approved models that the engineers have “taught” to SAM.

Shipping this summer, the new hyperbolically named device could be powerful enough to replace all other audio components traditionally needed for a proper audio setup. The app also gives you more detailed volume controls (levels 1-100) and lets you network multiple units together and control them independently from one dashboard, sort of like Sonos (more on that later). Devialet claims a frequency range of 16Hz to 25kHz – the more typical range is 20Hz-21kHz – and no clipping, since by the time it might happen the speakers are outside of the point of human hearing.

The unit I was listening to didn’t have Bluetooth capability, which forced me to use Devialet’s rather basic smartphone app or web portal to play music. While I was able to test the app during a guided demo of the Phantom, my review unit was a prototype without Wi-Fi and thus I was unable to use Spark during my own tests.

For a start, Devialet provided me with a near-final version of the US Phantom, the biggest shortcoming of which being its absence of WiFi and Bluetooth support. For instance, if you don’t use Spark and stream your music directly from Spotify or Google Play Music using your phone/music player, you only get the volume controls built into your device—the only actual button on the unit is the power button. Another bug required any audio source to be set to output in mono not stereo; that would’ve been a bigger issue had I been equipped with twin Phantoms, but wasn’t so pressing with only one. Sonos has also worked hard on creating a WiFi mesh network for its speakers, so you can route the music all over a house with multiple Sonos speakers. “ Sonos is a great company, but they’re a software company,” claimed Devialet’s Salzman. “There’s no hardware advacements. Had I Devialet’s Dialog audio router meanwhile, a $239 accessory, I could’ve used it to do the same thing either through WiFi, gigabit ethernet, or PowerLine networking, including distributing the Toslink input on any one unit to all the rest.

With Dialog, you can play music from a local source, from a network-attached drive, or from streaming services like Tidal and Deezer, though no Spotify and no word on Apple Music quite yet. We’re getting closer.” As streaming music continues to take off with the introduction of Apple Music, the market for WiFi-enabled speakers, which work particularly well for streaming high-quality audio, is also growing. As you crank the volume up to the maximum 99 decibels, the soundstage opens up and you really start to notice the clarity and separation between instruments. Bass shakes your chest—the side woofer cones hypnotically blur along with the music (with 30 kilos of thrust force, according to Devialet’s stats)—and treble is powerful without being shrill. I compared Phantom with a PLAYBAR, Sonos’ speaker bar, which has a sticker price of $699, and with a range of what I’d call typical music options for the target audience.

In the wireless speaker market, Sonos is at the number two spot with a 16% share of revenues, behind Bose with a 22% share, according to research firm NPD Group. I tested the Phantom both in a multi-thousand-square-foot loft in midtown Manhattan and on a large corporate terrace, and in both cases I was stunned by just how great the system sounded.

Sometimes I’d do back-to-back comparisons, playing the same track multiple times but switching between systems; other times I’d just set the Phantom playing and see how well it engaged me. Devialet promises aural astonishment, and though I was never driven to tears – blame, perhaps, my British stiff-upper-lip – the Phantom certainly delivered a more engaging sound.

There’s a clarity and presence that’s clearly noticeable: vocals cut through like crystal, the breaths and sibilance of the singers making them more lifelike. If you ask the people at Devialet, they’ll tell you that they’re competing with full home theater and dozen-component audiophile setups and not Bluetooth or networked speakers. For just a few hundred dollars you can get into either the Sonos system (starting at $199) or the Definitive Technology wireless speaker system (starting at $399), both of which will sound great in most spaces. I’d needn’t have worried: you can easily reach neighbor-infuriating levels without encountering any distortion, the Phantom’s woofers visibly shuddering and shimmying like the cheeks of a pufferfish. While I didn’t test them head-to-head, without a $699 subwoofer offered by both Sonos and Definitive, none of the alternatives are going to come close to getting you that same bone-shaking feeling as the Phantom.

Think complex, and luscious, and engaging: I’d never describe the PLAYBAR as muddied, but Devialet’s system brought out new details I’d never heard before in otherwise familiar tracks. Sonos cofounder and CEO John MacFarlane told me last month that he thinks Apple will most likely come out with its own WiFi speakers eventually, and that will ultimately be for the betterment of the entire market. “What we’re getting ready for is when Apple gets into this space,” MacFarlene said, “because all these others guys are tiny.

By way of example, I’ve been on a Rob Dougan kick of late, revisiting his incredible 2002 album Furious Angels – several tracks of which were popularized by their inclusion the Matrix soundtrack – as well as his recently-released orchestral EP. As one fellow listener commented after I’d played Clubbed to Death for the third or fourth time in a row, “it just sounds better.” Phantom isn’t a complete home-run.

If you’re looking to fill a huge space or like to entertain outside and want to spend your time enjoying music instead of worrying about wiring, you won’t find something better than the Phantom.

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