The Phantom. Some say he’s indestructible; that he feels nothing. Others say beneath the fancy costume beats no heart, inked no soul.
Are we talking original super hero, one who has no super powers but instead relies on intelligence and strength to defeat his foes? Or are we talking about the dinosaur-egg-shaped digital active loudspeaker from France’s Devialet?
Chances are it could be either.
To the newcomer doing breaking radically from the norm, preconceptions abound. Doubts of its validity as a high end audio contender have encircled the Phantom and Silver Phantom since their launch at CES 2015. Despite an amplifier power differential – 750w to 3000w – and slight cosmetic differences, each model is functionally identical. That and more was covered in Part 1 here.
This review pertains to the more powerful Silver Phantom but will henceforth be referred to as Phantom.
Traditional hifi setups usually see left and right channels handled by a series of boxes: streamer, DAC, amplifier and the loudspeakers, all joined by cables. Done Devialet style, the complete playback chain is housed in the Phantom where it is tweaked for optimal interplay – most notably amplifier and driver – and netting the benefits of shorter signal paths.
Somewhere apart. Tell SPARK you’ve a pair of Phantoms and walks the user through configuring one as the left channel and the other as right. The app then moves its conversation from a single unit to the now mandatory Dialog signal box – another US$299. Music arrives at the Dialog over the air or via its Toslink input. From there, left and right channels are kept separate and streamed over the network to each corresponding Phantom. The Dialog keeps the two speakers in sync whilst the triangular configuration separates each channel’s streaming receiver, DAC and (ADH) amplifier from the other and from the transmitter – the Dialog.
The good news is that two Phantoms sounds light years ahead one. The cliche about a ‘night and day’ difference emphatically applies here; in bold type and thrice underscored. But how would they compare to loudspeakers already in possession of full audiophile cred?
Before journeying from A to B and back again, I threw the question of audiophile expectation out to the hive mind.
Of the twenty-two Twitter voters, two thirds returned the LS50 + Expert 200 combo as the theoretical champion. Interesting.
I’ll admit to my own premature judgement in which I anticipated the a Phantom-derived shortfall on subtlety and transparency but in reality I heard nothing of the sort. The ensuing listening sessions saw a red pair of KEF LS50 lassoed to a Devialet Expert 200 with AudioQuest Rocket 88 cable. Separating them on detail retrieval proved to be no walk in the park either. The Phantom pairing gets the nod but only just.
Less obvious in this comparo was the KEF’s greater talents with micro dynamic flair, treble extension, midrange forwardness, a slight presence region insistence but (less favourably) more obvious box colouration. You might not notice such personality traits listening to the LS50 in isolation but going back-to-back with the Phantom the French fellas are reflected as a little more backwards in coming forwards; they draw a soundstage that begins at the speaker plane and moves toward the front wall. Image depth is a knockout! Piling on the praise, the Phantom connote more effortlessness than the British control subjects.
Where the Phantom aces the Red Devils further still is on channel separation and image specificity. The French seem more adept at disappearing, at making good on the illusion of separating music from the speakers that reproduce it. The Phantoms hang songs like three-dimensional paintings. There’s also crisper-edged player definition and soundstage depth. On Bowie’s Blackstar, the mainman’s Scott Walker-esque vocal inflections are drawn with darker ink that brings shapes more readily into focus. The LS50/Expert combo affords this same record a little more lens blur and few Farenheit degree’s greater warmth whilst simultaneously thrusting Bowie and his band further into the room.
The most striking difference however is bass depth; The French duo offer low frequency performance more often associated with floorstanders. Compared to the KEF LS50, the silver-cheeked Phantoms mine far deeper than the Brit passives. Merci-fully, French keep what they unearth on a tight leash.
Could Speaker Active Matching (SAM) on the Expert help close the performance gap? Gradually applied to the LS50, SAM introduces a thickening of mid-bass that has a tendency to congest the speaker’s chest and thus crowd out some midrange; too much SAM and the KEF begin to sound like how a jam-packed Tokyo subway train looks.
However, a little SAM dialled in – between 20% and 30% – seems to introduce the right amount of bass punch improvement and an associated uptick in forward momentum without spoiling the party. That said, even when SAM-sweet-spotted, the KEF prove no match for the Silver Phantom’s full exposure of lower Hz. If you wanna hear all the bass buried in Shed’s Killer, the LS50 won’t cut it. You’ll need double Devialet. And then some.
For those wanting to wind the wick on Modeselektor, Hawtin or Hardfloor but without rattling the walls, there’s the SPARK app’s Night Mode. A press of the crescent moon above volume slider shaves off the very lowest bass and, according to the manual, ”reduces dynamic range”. An essential feature for the electronic music loving apartment dweller looking to maintain neighbourly harmony.
Albums on which the LS50 don’t obviously pull up a great deal of bass content – Spiritualized’s Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space and Tindersticks’ Simple Pleasure – also benefit from the Phantom’s fathom-deep reach. A fuller seat pant proves to be the more effective anchor for both of these 90s alt-classics. The KEF in contrast seem quite content to bounce along each album’s surface. No shame in that.
Neutrality is a thornier issue. With each piece of hardware imparting its own subtle coloration, filtering music through its own lens, it’s impossible to know how close each of these two setups is to the original master as played back and dialled in via the studio’s own loudspeakers. If I were a betting man, I’d put my cash down on the Phantom; their cooler disposition communicates a greater sense of neutrality as a sensation. The KEF-terminated chain of command is more coloured but no less enjoyable for it.
And that’s one way to conclude this stand off – a dead heat. Neither is subjectively better than the other. Conduct this same A/B in front of a room full of audiophiles and you’d split collective opinion down the middle. Friends of jazz and lighter acoustic fare would probably hang their Fedora on the KEF but tech-heads and rock n rollers would more often than not drop their metaphorical money on white. On the drama and forward thrust of large scale orchestral, the Phantom take it.
The real achievement here belongs to Devialet Phantom: a loudspeaker that defies expectations, one that can go toe to toe with the most lauded standmount of recent years but at the same time dodge the one-two-three anxiety of “Which amplifier?”, “Which DAC?” and “Which streamer?”. The Traffic White eggs lock the owner down – and out – from the outset.
And that’s bring us to another important point: with the Dialog dispatching freshly-timed data out to each wifi-bridged Phantom, optical feed quality seems to matter not a jot: A Google Chromecast Audio sounds as good as an AURALiC Aries; the Wyred4Sound Remedy makes not a jot of difference to either. That makes the Phantom truly source agnostic.
Instead, we fix a third party streamer to the Dialog’s Toslink input to level up on UX. Next to Spotify Connect, Sonos or AURALiC’s Lightning DS, SPARK just won’t cut it for anything other than volume attenuation and the Night Mode toggling. And until Devialet make the Dialog Roon Ready the closest alternative is the AURALiC Aries or – for those on tighter financial leashes – an Apple TV or Airport Express. Choices abound.
One final myth to pop before we wrap: turntablism just isn’t possible with the Phantom. I know a guy in Austria who’d beg to differ. Pro-Ject’s Essential II DIGITAL sports ADC and Toslink output. TEAC introduced their TN-570 at CES – a more luxurious take on the digitising ‘table concept. The Pro-Ject A/D Phono Box S brings similar circuitry to any turntable.
Moving uptown: PS Audio’s NuWave Phono Converter (reviewed here) spills a digitised signal over coaxial. A Toslink conversion box is therefore required for Dialog connection. Ditto the Devialet Expert 200. An RCA socket can be configured to hand over its digitised turntable input to an outboard converter or re-clocker.
Hardcore vinyl-philes can holler “Heathen!” all they like but it’s cover art and the physical process of playing record that’s driving the format’s comeback (far more so than sound quality). The 21st Century audiophile needs an injection of pragmatism.
And what’s more 21st Century Boy than the Phantom? It looks like no other loudspeaker, nor any other high end consumer electronics product. Devialet straddle the space occupied by gadget guys and the whacky world of high end audio. The former category might be more accustomed to the Phantom’s minimal box count than the latter, less so its price point. But what of sticker shock?
Mainstream spending patterns are bizarrely off-kilter: we drop $30K on a car that sees only an hour’s road time each day and don’t flinch but nope out when asked to spend more than a baseline amount on a mattress upon which we spend far more of the day. Where does audio hardware fit into this? In the context of the car, those listening to music for only an hour could consider ~US$4K for an complete music system to be entirely reasonable.
Long since a de-facto standard in the pro-audio world, unification of loudspeaker and amplifier tends puts the average audiophile on high alert. Gone is their freedom to tinker. The Phantom isn’t for pick n mixers. But who might know best about matching amplifier to loudspeaker: an audio engineer or the average consumer? This begs the question: does the audiophile train of thought run on rails of arrogance?
Moroever, audiophile cynicism – a smokescreen for fear – is usually the first to greet anything (or anyone) daring to deviate. A loudspeaker that flips two fingers at the traditional form – what’s up with THAT?
Some audiophiles might be readying the car context tactic for justifying their next upgrade to a significant other. But why the sleight of hand? The Phantom offers anti-venom to those bitten by the upgrade bug time and again. There is no hardware upgrade path, only software. Devialet issued an over-the-air EVO update as this commentary was being finalised.
What we get from two Phantoms is a result that defies audiophile expectations, preferred by this commentator to the KEF LS50 driven by Devialet’s Expert 200. You may not. That it’s up for debate at all sees Devialet’s R2-D2-esque loudspeakers become a bona fide member of the high-end audio scene. Go listen for yourself — you have nothing to lose but your prejudicial chains.
Further information: Devialet