Devialet Diary

It's day five of our planned month-long stay à Paris, late April through most of May. My wife is here for work—for me, it's strictly for pleasure—and we're enjoying Paris's rich, sensual goodness: food, museums, architecture, coffee, people, food. And yet, earlier today, when we were out for a walk—we've been walking close to 10 miles each day, exploring the city—I realized that my life here has been missing something important.

As we approached one of Paris's many bridges over the Seine, I heard music. The source, I soon learned, was an organ grinder—tall, bearded, upended Greek fisherman's cap on the sidewalk, soliciting donations. Sitting on the organ, in the traditional monkey's spot, was a white rabbit.

Enlivened by the walk and the cool air, I was already feeling good. But when I heard the music—a few lo-fi notes off in the distance—I felt great. It was an immediate, intense sensation, like a cold drink on a hot day. I had not realized how much I was missing music. Back home, sitting in the chair that serves as my office, I have music on most of the day. I tossed a €2 coin in the organ grinder's hat.

It's not as if my life here in Paris has been free of music. Music is always a high priority. We've already attended a couple of musical events, including an opera—Ravel's L'enfant et les sortilèges, performed with piano accompaniment by a professional chamber group in a lovely old hall, the Théâtre du Ranelagh. Street musicians are hardly rare, though no others have affected me nearly as intensely as the organ grinder's tunes did today. Also, it's not as if I didn't plan for this—I hauled tens of pounds of audio gear in my luggage: my tiny, NUC-based music server; the Benchmark DAC 3 DAC and headphone amplifier (see review elsewhere in this issue); my Sennheiser HD650 headphones; a Bose Bluetooth speaker. But, truly, I'm not a fan of headphones—I prefer at least the potential for shared musical experiences—and that Bose Bluetooth, which I've had for several years, gives me little joy. Since our arrival here, I've hardly turned it on.

About an hour after the encounter with the organ grinder, we stumbled on Devialet's flagship store, on the rue Réaumur, not far from the Palais Garnier, Paris's large, ornate opera house. I just looked up and there it was. Gleaming in the window was the shiny D-Premier amplifier, which John Atkinson praised effusively in the January 2013 issue, and also several Phantoms, Devialet's all-in-one wireless loudspeaker, in various configurations including the top-of-the-line Gold Phantom ($2990 each).

I'd been thinking about Devialet already, ever since a friend—a writer for another hi-fi publication—suggested I visit them while in Paris. Devialet is, arguably, Paris's hottest audio company (footnote 1)—mainly on the strength of their versatile, innovative amplifier, the D-Premier, which JA so loved. "At a stroke, the D-Premier replaces streaming program, USB or other computer audio interface, D/A processor, preamplifier, power amplifier, and many cables," he wrote. Yet the most interesting thing about the D-Premier is its amplification technology, which uses a low-power class-A amplifier to control a high-power class-D amp—and the way it sounds. JA called the D-Premier "the most extraordinary product I have reviewed for Stereophile. Superb sound quality, future-proof design, everything you need in one box—it is the epitome of what a high-end audio product should be. Wow!"

So there I stood, outside the Devialet flagship store. But I was nervous, as always, about my lousy French, so I didn't go in but just stared through the window for a while. I resolved to get in touch, and we walked on in search of coffee. We didn't have to walk far.

I never knew the charm of spring
Our first days in France were rainy and cold. I agree with my friend Henry Wilkenson that Yip Harburg probably had never been here—not this time of year—when he wrote the lyrics for Vernon Duke's "April in Paris," that classic Ella Fitzgerald song about blooming chestnuts and holiday tables under trees. It has been much too cold for picnics. Today, finally, it's a little warmer.

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After returning from that walk last week, I sent an e-mail to Jonathan Hirshon, Devialet's PR guy in the US, thinking maybe he could put me in touch with Devialet HQ and help me solve my Paris music problem. He wrote back quickly, with good news: "I am delighted to let you know that we are going to do something well-nigh unprecedented in Devialet reviews: we are arranging to loan you not one but TWO Gold Phantoms and a Dialog to sync them! Yes, you're getting our best—Stereophile deserves nothing less!" (footnote 2) Hirshon introduced me to Alix Leblais, Devialet's Paris-based marketing director. We started to work out the logistics of having that Phantom-based system delivered to our apartment on the rue des Ursulines, adjacent to the theater where Jim encounters Jules and Catherine in Truffaut's film Jules et Jim.

The Phantom, like the D-Premier, is a departure from audiophile orthodoxy. It replaces several components: DAC, preamp, amplifier, cables, speaker. It also incorporates the D-Premier's amplifier technology; in this latest, Gold version, the digital amplification module does the digital-to-analog conversion too, replacing a separate (but integrated) DAC chip. The Gold Phantom is powerful: Devialet claims an output of 4500W per speaker. It goes lower in frequency than the other Phantoms, to an astonishing (claimed) 14Hz, and plays very loud: 106dB at 1m. For the highs, the Gold Phantom has a titanium tweeter that reaches a claimed 27kHz. Devialet's website boasts "0 distortion, 0 saturation, 0 background noise."

Due to its versatility, design, completeness, and compactness, the Phantom is a genre-bender: Is it serious audio or a lifestyle product? Apparently, it's both, with ambitions to dissolve the barriers between convenience and audiophile sound quality.

Some of the Phantom's innovations seem, on the surface, aimed more at convenience and artful packaging—especially the drivers, which are shaped, apparently, to mesh with the product's appearance: is that convex donut really the optimal shape for a midrange driver? But most audio devices strike some sort of bargain—between sound and price, sound and convenience, sound and looks. The best designers use constraints to their advantage, creating something new and better—but even if it's a trade-off, that's okay. And any invention that sprang from the mind of Pierre-Emmanuel Calmel, creator of the D-Premier amplifier, deserves the benefit of the doubt. The key for the audiophile—hence, for a reviewer of a genre-bending product like the Phantom—is to assess the trade-offs (if that's what they are) and the component's overall performance.

My timing could have been better. Hirshon and Leblais seemed eager to set me up with a Gold Phantom system in my Paris apartment, but most of the staff were in Venice, where French artist Xavier Veilhan is using Gold Phantoms in an installation at the French pavilion at the Venice Biennale, and others are opening a Devialet store in another European city (I've forgotten which one). Leblais tells me it will be a while before they can collect and deliver the Gold Phantoms and the ancillary gear. It's my own fault: I should have set this up in advance.

"Sprengt die Opernhäuser in die Luft!"
Last night, after a quick beer on the Place de la Bastille—the drinking was quick because the service was slow—we joined a young throng converging on the Opéra Bastille to see Berg's Wozzeck, performed by the Paris National Opera. Yes, I did just write "young throng": This crowd was at least a generation younger than any crowd I've seen at a New York opera. Why? Culture surely plays a role, but I'm sure ticket prices do, too: Our seats cost less than a third of what comparable seats would cost at the Met: less than €100 for ninth-row-center, orchestra.

I love this strange music, and my favorite recording of this Viennese opera is conducted by a Frenchman, composer Pierre Boulez, whose call to "Blow up the opera houses!" was, ironically, key to getting this working-class opera house built. The Opéra Bastille, opened in 1989, is a beautiful, gloriously stark hall exactly in line with my modernist tastes, though the acoustics are marginal. Some voices got lost among those dark, cantilevered balconies. The opera was well sung and well played, but the production was odd even for Berg—set in what appeared to be a combination biergarten and childcare facility, with a bouncy-house in the background and a deranged man gesturing behind the plastic. The Drum Major—the illicit love interest of the title character's wife—wore a dirty T-shirt over his pot-belly and frequently smoothed his quasi-Mohawk. Not an attractive fellow, but he could sing.

The morning after the opera—that is, earlier today—I met up with Alix Leblais at Devialet's headquarters, not far from the flagship showroom that tempted me a few days ago. Leblais arranged an Uber and we hauled through heavy scooter traffic back to our apartment on the left bank, two Gold Phantoms, two Tree integral stands ($375 each with wood veneer), a Dialog router ($329, footnote 3), and a wireless remote volume control creatively dubbed Remote ($149).



Footnote 1: France has several other excellent and well-known audio companies—Atoll, Cabasse, Focal, Jadis, Metronome, Micromega, TotalDAC—but they're all located outside Paris.

Footnote 2: I interpreted this as hyperbole, but the Gold Phantom reviews I've seen online have evaluated just one Gold Phantom.

Footnote 3: The Dialog is the Phantom's dedicated wireless router. It connects to your digital source and delivers music to the Phantoms. Devialet makes two kinds of stands: the Treepod, which is low and made of sustainably harvested wood; and the Tree, which raises the Phantom to an appropriate listening height.

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COMMENTS
tonykaz's picture

I've spent decades associating with "Hairshirt" ( JA's term ), Lunatic Fringe Audiophiles ( pretty much, like myself ).

But

I've loved ( and imported ) Meridian Active Loudspeakers, which never sold well to USA Audiophiles or USA households, as far as I can tell.

I'm figuring these Phantoms are for the Female Stereophiles out there, the ones that have Decorated Homes, who Live and function with their iPhones. Those Women that make decisions and their fascinated Grandchildren who will rest their hands on these devices while it plays music.

This system sure is pretty!

But not in the same way as a pair of Magnapans, a pair of mono tube amps and a 6 foot pair of Music Hose MH750.

I have it in my Will that my Casket will have my collection of 6sn7 tubes.

But then again

I wonder if I could live with a simple, clean system like this one,

it sure would make life easier.

Tony in Michigan

volvic's picture

It was thoughtful and well reasoned, but if I read it correctly there are some caveats, especially when he said it doesn't resolve timbres as well as other speakers. Jim Austin was much kinder than a hi-fi retailer friend of mine who simply said they are not that good, but he sells them because people want something that fits in with their decor rather than sonic virtues. On another note, so true about Paris and affordability, on our honeymoon we got great last minute tickets to see Pagliacci and Cavaleria Rusticana at the Bastille Opera House. I won't even go into the finest meal I hever had at Le Grand Vefour.

helomech's picture

I'm surprised by the lack of comparisons given Devialet's bold claims. How do they compare to Kef LS5Os? No desire to mention their slow bass due to the absurd woofer excursion? From what I heard during an audition of these speakers, they'd be competitive if sold for half their MSRP.

PaulMG's picture

The Phantoms are the most precise and best matched speakers I ever could listen. The precision of staging and pinpointing instruments and vocals is just jaw dropping. The SPARK app allows to create playlists and gives easy access to streaming portals. No problem to play vinyl via an ADC. The near ideal point source design however is most different to traditional loudspeaker designs having cluttered the drivers over the baffle and cabinets most prone for internal vibrations and resonances. Thus the only problem of these technological highlights is the adaptation of the audiophile to his most imperfect classical loudspeaker designs. And of course the tastes are most different concerning the shape of a loudspeaker. :-)

helomech's picture

Many Bose owners have this same opinion of their speakers.

Give us some examples of inferior, "traditional" speakers in the same price range.

Ortofan's picture

... a pair of KEF R900 and an NAD C 388.

For a good baguette in NYC, try one of the shops listed here:
http://www.grubstreet.com/bestofnewyork/best-baguette-nyc.html

JimAustin's picture

Thanks! Since I wrote that, Maison Kayser has become my go-to. But there are several on that list I haven't tried.

nowave's picture

Would love to hear these.

In the meantime, though, thanks for the Bennie Maupin recommendation - I just pulled up Early Reflections on my phone via Tidal and it's now playing through my ancient Allison Ones, sounding great.

dcolak's picture

Are we going to get the measurements?

John Atkinson's picture
dcolak wrote:
Are we going to get the measurements?

I hadn't planned on measuring the Phantoms.

John Atkinson
Editor, Stereophile

dcolak's picture

How can we get to know are they any good without measurements?

I can't find measurements anywhere on the Internet.

Why not doing measurements?

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