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Futureshocked by the Devialet Silver Phantom (Part 1)

  • Shock the monkey. On display at the uptown end of high street in Paris’ Colette where Devialet enjoys a home turf advantage, the Phantom might not seem too out there: a funky-looking high-end wireless loudspeaker with wallet damage to match; one that promises “room filling sound” (don’t they all?) but possesses all the hallmarks of a Jony Ive design (but isn’t). You want one before you even know what it does. It’ll come as surprise to almost no-one that the Devialet Phantom is now available for purchase at select Apple Stores.

    Equally, one might be forgiven for thinking that Devialet instead tapped fellow-countryman Phillipe Starck’s skills in ensuring that the Phantom’s radically overhauled form didn’t compromise its function – Starck’s wheelhouse. They didn’t. And it doesn’t.

    The Phantom loudspeaker is designed in-house at Devialet’s Paris headquarters. Its shell is polycarbonate, its colour Traffic White and the retro-futurist vibe wouldn’t have looked out of place in 2001:A Space Odyssey, supplying music to the Space Station 5. Phantom’s quasi-spherical shape is no happy accident: it takes its cues from famed audio engineer Harry Olson’s discovery/belief that the optimal shape for a loudspeaker is a sphere.

    Lift Phantom from its appropriately deluxe hinged packaging for a first taste of its high-end promise: bend your knees though, the Phantom weighs 11kg. Plug the yellow power cord into the rear and hit the power button just above the IEC socket’s cavity. You’re in for the quite the ride.

    This commentator’s Phantom journey has enjoyed its fair share of ups and downs. I was there at Devialet’s Stateside CES launch in January 2015 and also at the official European debut at the Munich HighEnd Show in May.

    Seeing/hearing the Phantom again in the USA at RMAF in October preceded the arrival of a single Silver Phantom at DAR HQ. But only after the Australian distributor’s (Interdyn) Melbourne launch event did I fully grasp the potential of having more than one. Twelve months in the making, this review lands in two parts.

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    One things for sure, neither Phantom wants for power, even when running solo. The standard version threatens 750 watts and 99db for US$1999. The “weaponised” (Devialet’s words) Silver Phantom moves on tap power into more rarefied territory: 3000 watts, 105db, US$2399.

    Remember high school physics? The decibel scale is logarithmic. Every 3db increase solicits a doubling in calculated sound intensity. Do the maths on the wattage to confirm it: the 6db delta between Phantom and its silver-cheeked cousin equates to a four fold power/SPL increase. More than likely a moot point when the majority of home listeners rarely find long-term comfort listening at levels above 90db.

    Let’s get one conclusion out of the way early: only ostentatious buyers or those with enormous listening spaces will have genuine need for the Silver Phantom, especially when doubling down on a stereo pair…which, by the way, I recommend you do.

    Why? Missing from the uni-box performance is a proper stereo image – aka stereophony. That’s as true for the UE Boom and KEF MUO as it is for this dinosaur egg-shaped high-ender. The Phantom’s internal DSP sums both channels to mono prior to D/A conversion and ADH (Analogue Digital Hybrid) output, amplifier tech that supplies a combination of Class A and digital switching (Class ‘D’) power and hitherto the cornerstone of Devialet’s Expert series.

    Inside the Phantom, ADH has been boiled down to a pair of square centimetre-sized silicon chips that supply four transducers – two bass, one mid, one high – but bespoke-tailored to each one’s measure performance thanks to another three-letter-signed technology: Devialet’s SAM (Speaker Active Matching).

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    At the front of its hemispherical nose behind a patterned grille sit coaxially aligned midrange driver and tweeter. Immediately behind that, a pair of three litre chambers that run the depth of the unit – only 34cm. Think of these as the Phantom’s lungs from which the side-firing bass woofers breathe deeply to deliver some serious low end performance.

    This brings us to another of Devialet’s three-letter codes: HBI (Heart Bass Implosion). The Phantom’s low frequency limit is rated by the manufacturer at below the limit of human hearing (20Hz). Deep bullshit it is not. Jokes about the brown note might knock constantly but the quality of the bass response here – the texture, the heft – is exceptional. Play Dave Clark’s “Rhapsody In Red” or Radiohead’s “Treefingers” and the Phantom calls out low bass notes missed by most other speakers of this size. The Phantom’s width and height run a mere 25cm and 26cm respectively. Punch in Clark’s “No-One’s Driving” and watch the woofers flap – a neat party trick that nets real bass results and arguably this unit’s strongest suit.

    With DAC and streamer built into the circuit, music supply comes via a Bluetooth-paired smart device or over the LAN via Devialet’s own SPARK app. Setup is a breeze once you know how: power on at rear, wait for the startup bass driver cheek blow that precedes a Brian Eno-esque ambient drone that plays on loop until SPARK walks us one time only through the network connection process. An Ethernet port tucked up above the IEC socket keeps those with an aversion to wireless in play. Next to that, a Toslink input for your TV, CD player, streamer or DAP.

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    Back to the network. Once connected, the user works SPARK and SPARK tells the Phantom which songs to pull down from 1) any networked device running the app (Android, iOS, OS X and Windows) or 2) Deezer, Tidal or Qobuz. Support for Spotify Connect should be in place by the time you read this. For SPARK-sourced music, or streamers that don’t bring their own volume control, the Devialet app is required to attenuate the Phantom’s output. Whether you find that super-fiddly or super-convenient will largely depend on your lifestyle.

    Less impressive is the SPARK-Phantom’s inability to play gaplessly. Hook a Google Chromecast into the optical input brings a gapless* workaround AND a better user interface. The Google dongle gets those who listen to classical, DJ mixes, live albums, Tool or Pink Floyd over the line for close to chump change: US$35. For those with deeper pockets, an AURALiC Aries Mini might be the go. Its Lightning DS platform handles gapless playback flawlessly. So too does the Sonos Connect. Ditto the Squeezebox Touch and Astell&Kern DAPs.

    Perhaps Devialet intend to add gapless support via a future firmware update? The Phantom’s OS is based on the Expert Series’ EVO platform – it auto-updates over the air. With Devialet’s DSP-fuelled approach, that means not only means the addition of new features but possible improvements to sound quality.

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    Devialet demo the Phantom @ RMAF ’15.

    Gapless troubles aside, Devialet’s claim that the Phantom is “The Best Wireless Speaker in the World” is easily verified. It’s a stunner! Put the Phantom up against Bluetooth-only rivals like the UE Boom or KEF MUO and there’s simply no contest on performance. Or price! You get what you pay for.

    The Naim Muso (US$1499) puts up a fairer fight but if the additional US$500 commanded by Devialet unit isn’t a concern and you’re not swayed by the Muso’s lower physical profile, brushed aluminium enclosure and coloured grille cloth, the French fella has it all over the Brit on power, SPLs and IMPACT – ingredients that sum to a far more physically arresting interpretation than the Muso can muster. Even those who dismiss speakers as all sounding the same would probably peg the Phantom as the better choice for working bigger spaces.

    Ensure Phantom is placed on a well-secured surface. Despite what the promo pics would have you believe, the average coffee table won’t cut it; too much shake, rattle and roll going on. And don’t put Phantom on the floor either – it doesn’t sound great and is sure to upset downstairs neighbours if you have them. Like all speakers, ear level positioning yields far greater aural satisfaction. The solo Silver Phantom sounded clearer and more dynamically alive atop IKEA Expedit shelves loaded with vinyl than it did on the floor.

    In my listening tests, best results, however, were achieved with the Silver Phantom on a proper speaker stand. Mine are the Atacama Nexus 6i but Devialet offer the bespoke Branch stand that also doubles as heatsink and cable tidy.

    Now we’re inching into audiophile woods where the shadows of cynicism and skepticism go long. A Bluetooth speaker? That doesn’t even do proper stereo? “Non merci, Monsieur!” Indeed, deployed in its most basic form – a Bluetooth-fed monobox – and meeting with audiophile-centric pre-judgement sees the Phantom very much on the back foot. Rightly so too. I’d sooner take the KEF X300a Wireless that arrive as a pair for under half the coin because they do fully separated two-channel stereo. A similar case could even be made for a pair of Sonos Play:1.

    Two average loudspeakers will almost always be more satisfying than one, even when that one is of a higher calibre – a sentiment shared by two audiophile pals dropping ‘round for a first listen to a solo Silver Phantom soon after it arrived at DAR HQ last November. As much as the Phantom’s technological make-up demonstrates Devialet’s commitment to audiophile sensitivities, without stereo in play it’s hard for audiophiles not to see the Phantom as an active speaker that, as a solo rider, pedals harder than its resulting sound quality would suggest.

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    Frustratingly, Devialet have done themselves few favours in trying to convince show-going audiophiles of the Phantom’s worth. At the Munich High-End Show, five months after Phantom’s CES 2015 coming out party, the Devialet team appeared not to know their product’s own strength. The press demo emerged from the oven thoroughly overcooked: multiple synchronised Phantoms pushed SPLs way north of comfortable. Why the need for such a crass display when a simple two-channel demo would have been much more appropriate for both room and audience? In case you need to be told: many Phantoms can play LOUD sans distortion.

    These are wrongs that Devialet clearly tried (and failed) to right several months later at RMAF. In Denver, stereo Phantom demo, complete with Branch stands, sounded somewhat lacklustre.. Whilst there’s no rear-firing port to consider, some clearance between front wall and speaker plane really helps with stage depth.

    It wasn’t until Phantom’s Australian debut in November that I found myself wowed for the first time since CES 2015. At the Devialet Block Party in Melbourne, Carlton Audio Visual demonstrated L’Original D’Atelier downstairs. Meanwhile, upstairs at the restaurant next door, four fully-sync-d Phantoms worked the room: two Silver Phantom’s in a stereo pair augmented by two standard Phantoms playing mono.

    For fully synchronised multi-Phantom playback, even stereo, a third box is necessary: Devialet’s Dialog (US$299). Here the setup/config conversation SPARKs not with the solo-running Phantom but the Dialog. Think of the Dialog as similar to your home network’s data router but one charged with routing only incoming digital audio signals to each Phantom.

    In Melbourne, the Dialog sent left and right channel data to each of the corresponding Silver units but BOTH channels to each of the two standard Phantoms. SPARK control and music supply came from a MacBook. The result was a sound more than sufficient for the large room with high ceilings. No speaker strain or bass shortfall.

    During that afternoon’s L’Original D’Atelier presentation, Devialet’s Yann Wachten reckoned that the Phantom measured better and sounded better than a pair of KEF LS50, even when driven by one of the company’s own Expert Series amplifiers and with SAM applied. Can you hear the sound of a gauntlet hitting the floor? With 1) Le 200 now driving a pair of red KEF LS50 and 2) a second Silver Phantom in place at DAR HQ, that gives us GAME ON.

    In Part 2 here we cover the Expert/KEF vs (Silver) Phantom stand off as well as discuss other matters pertaining to running a pair of Phantom with the Dialog router.

    Further information: Devialet | Interdyn

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    Devialet at RMAF 2015.

     

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    Devialet ‘Block Party’, Melbourne 2015.

    *Google Play Music only.

    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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