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The Devialet Phantom is a new frontier, best of CES 2015

  • CES_2015In the past twelve months I’ve clocked up numerous air-miles in covering audio shows all over the world. At last year’s RMAF, one pervasive trend struck me in particular: the preponderance of rooms showing towering loudspeakers powered by huge monoblock amplifiers. That isn’t DAR’s beat. Peruse the pages of Stereophile and The Audio Traveler and you’ll see what I mean: BIG speakers driven by BIG amplifiers. All fine and dandy if you have a large enough – or dedicated – listening room, but less so if you have to integrate your audio system into a living space shared with family members for watching TV, eating and relaxing.

    Smaller, less intrusive hardware is the beating heart of DAR coverage and possibly why I find myself in awe of Devialet’s new Phantom? In the simplest of terms, it’s an active loudspeaker that looks like a dinosaur egg to which you can directly stream your music. No need for an external DAC or amplifier – everything’s included inside the one chassis.

    devialet_phantom_CES2015_2
    Quentin Bernard – l’homme de marketing au Devialet.

    Let’s delve a little deeper. Be forewarned though: there are a good number of three letter abbreviations heading your way.

    If you’ve come across one of Devialet’s chromed pizza box amplifiers you will have probably heard of SAM – ‘Speaker Active Matching’. It’s loudspeaker correction, Devialet style. They whisk a chosen loudspeaker model, voted for by the public, off to their lab in Paris and measure it so that the end user can ultimately extract optimal performance from that very same loudspeaker in their own home.

    The way marketing mainman Quentin Bernard tells it, SAM technology was originally invented for Phantom. “Working in secret for three years, forty or so of our engineers spent US$30million developing Phantom,” he says.

    In the process, Devialet’s ADH (‘Class A + digital amplifier’) technology has been transplanted to the Phantom. The egg-shaped device contains the same amplifier found in the Devialet 120 / 200 but it’s been scaled down to meet with the Phantom’s internal space restrictions. Those same engineers have shrunk the ADH circuitry down to a chip that measures 1cm2.

    devialet_ADH_1cm2

    Inside every Phantom, two of these chips drive four channels: two side-firing woofers work in tandem with a coaxially arranged midrange driver and tweeter – located on the nose of the unit – to cover 16Hz to 25kHz.

    Playing music through only one Phantom sees the internal DSP combine left and right channels. Devialet’s HBI ‘Heart Bass Implosion’ design allows for a seriously physical sound from a relatively small enclosure. Bernard boasts that Phantom’s 6-litre internal volume sees up to 174dbSPL. “The most dense sound in the world”, is how the marketing blurb describes it.

    In room, a standard Phantom (US$1950) threatens peaks of 99db. The souped-up Silver Phantom (US$2350) nets four times the power output with 105db. The latter has been given silver sides so that one can more readily tell them apart.

    Back in 2009, Moderat’s “A New Error” was my goto test track for bass handling. That and I enjoyed terrorizing my local Naim dealer with its overall electronic assault. Starting this review gig a year later meant that I no longer troubled local stores with my more esoteric selections. Nowadays, Moderat only gets spun at home.

    So, imagine my delight to hear the Devialet guys using this very same cut in their suite at the Mirage Hotel to show off Phantom’s bass-handling capabilities. It begins innocuously enough – an atonal synth loops for almost half a minute before the low-end kicks violently into being. It’s a jaw-dropping moment to see the little Phantom more than pull its weight; I posted a video to Instagram here. Just look at those side-firing woofers working hard for their money. It’s an impressive party-trick that only adds to the Phantom’s ability to cut it in real world scenarios.

    Getting music into – and then out of the Phantom – is mostly an invisible process. You can bowel feed it via a rear-facing optical connection but far more elegant is the way Devialet played it during their CES demo: streaming directly from a computer using Devialet’s new SPARK application. SPARK deploys an in-house-developed protocol to stream up to 24bit/192kHz PCM with zero compression. Versions of SPARK will eventually be available for Windows, OS X, Android and iOS.

    If you want to go stereo proper, you’ll need two Phantoms as well as the additional Dialogue box (~US$349) that plugs into your home router and splits the signal into left and right channels. Bernard showed off stereo capabilities with a pair of Phantoms sat atop custom stands about which I forgot to pen details – sorry, but I was completely knocked off my perch by the Star Wars trailer that came on big and bold.

    devialet_phantom_CES2015_3

    The Dialogue will accommodate up to 24 (!) Phantom units. Each unit can be configured by the SPARK app to play in sync with each other or independently. Anyone thinking of putting together five, or even seven, for home theatre configuration is covered from the outset. Bernard reckons a subwoofer isn’t required. Devialet currently have no plans to make one.

    It’s near impossible to conclude on the Phantom’s sound quality without having one at home to play with – a show report is not a review. If I must be drawn on comments, I’d describe the Phantom’s sound as physical and arresting. It demands your attention and cannot be ignored. It might not to be everyone’s tastes. What is? The Phantom probably isn’t for those who enjoy a pipe and slippers presentation. Alan Shaw of Harbeth can continue to sleep easy.

    The audio industry at large should be paying strict attention to what Devialet have done here. Value for money isn’t the only takeaway though. In a single move, Devialet have demonstrated that audio gear doesn’t have to come from a boxy aesthetic. The Phantom looks the business and should be auditioned by anyone considering a US$2K system, if only to benchmark what’s possible from a device that many of his or her friends will envy. Phantom has the mass-market appeal that most manufacturers can only dream of. Devialet makes more of a convincing argument that ‘sound quality matters’ than Neil Young will ever achieve through his Pono iniative.

    One thing’s for certain, these French fellas are taking their hardware to a new audience. In the UK, the Phantom will only be available in Harrods for the first twelve months. Harrods is perhaps London’s most famous department store. As such, Devialet are hitting the man in street right between the eyes, sonically and aesthetically.

    Devialet now have a proven track record in turning things upside down with their chromed pizza-box amplifiers but with the Phantom they’re throwing a grenade into the entry-level audiophile scene. Some might dismiss it as a lifestyle product, silently loading in all the pejorative connotations of that particular ‘L’ word but I’m not buying such an easy way out.

    devialet_phantom_CES2015_6

    The Phantom is a new trajectory, a direct challenge to conventional thinking that an audiophile-grade sound can only be attained with an amplifier and two speakers.

    During the launch of Ultimate Ear’s MegaBoom portable loudspeaker this week, Logitech’s Senior VP Rory Dooley opined that the speaker is the last man standing in the music playback chain. The implication being that the amplifier, DAC and streaming capabilities can be built into the loudspeaker enclosure without sonic penalty. This is what connects the UE Boom/MegaBoom, KEF’s X300A Wireless speakers (reviewed here) and the Devialet Phantom. At the high end, we can point to entries from Meridian and Avantgarde (among others).

    None of these designs render the system made from separate boxes redundant, but they collectively push such component compilation closer to the margins. From Bluetooth portables to high-end actives, all with their own built-in D/A conversion, the signpost that points to all-in-one speaker systems is larger than ever. The audiophile in me also wants to point to the benefits of shorter signal paths, an amplifier tailored precisely to the loudspeaker and the comparative lack of external wiring.

    With the Phantom, Devialet offer a single-box solution that packs in more than enough convenience, aesthetic appeal AND sound quality to get the mainstream listener over the line. Even before playing a note, the Phantom connotes desirability. You want one before you work out the need for why and how. It gets my ‘Best of CES 2015’ gong by a country mile. Magnifique!

    Further information: Devialet

    John Darko

    Written by John Darko

    John currently lives in Berlin where creates videos and podcasts and pens written pieces for Darko.Audio. He has also contributed to 6moons, TONEAudio, AudioStream and Stereophile.

    Darko.Audio is a member of EISA.

    Follow John on YouTube or Instagram

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