The audio world has a peculiarly long memory. Any company that has been in business for less than 20 years counts as a ‘newcomer’, but Devialet seems to have risen above this. In just a few short years, the French high-technology company went from ‘Dev-ee-a-who?’ to delivering some of the most desirable audio gear on the planet.
Recently, however, Devialet has become something of a company of two halves. The first is a direct derivation of the original D-Premier project, which morphed successfully into the Expert line. This remains a range of slim, elegant digital integrated amplifiers, designed for the traditional audiophile wanting to replace a series of digital audio and analogue amplifier electronics with one simple, highly polished solution.
The other side is the Phantom, an active wired or wireless loudspeaker system with high performance and even higher aspiration. This started a couple of years ago as part of a rapid expansion phase, the company shifting up several gears from a handful of staff members in Paris to a full-fledged, dozens-strong team, and factories scattered across France. In fairness, this was an expansion plan that could only work with a product like Phantom, because of the potential numbers involved: the Expert is a specialist, high-end audio product that, even if successful beyond the wildest dreams of audiophile makers, will sell at most a few thousand per year, where Phantom is the kind of product that sells a few tens of thousands of products per year.
Phantom at once takes the ADH (Class A/Class D hybrid) amplifier design and high-performance digital pathways from the Expert model and shrinks it down to the internals of a network-enabled loudspeaker. Of course, the ‘imploding’ drive units mounted to the sides don’t make this just another wooden box of dynamic drivers; these force-cancelling mid and bass units essentially work in an unconstrained tandem manner to deliver full-range sound. It’s almost exactly how you would expect to design a dynamic drive unit system, had there not been almost 90 years of dynamic drive unit history in the way.
If you get the chance to see inside a Phantom (Gold, Silver, or standard), it’s a testament to how much electronic engineering you can place inside an extremely limited amount of real estate. The electronics sit in cordoned off parts of the Phantom’s spine, and every millimetre of allocated space is used up (looking at the space around the side ‘imploders’, the engineers built right up to the edge of the drive unit, giving the internal architecture an almost architectural look, akin to a beach-front property building. It’s impressive – and the polar opposite of audiophile engineering that considers the more space between the components, the better they sound.
There are parts of the Phantom that stay common to all designs (such as that spinal central core, the white ABS body of the unit, the aluminium mid and bass units, and the connectivity options), but where the new Gold version differs is a new titanium tweeter, the company’s own DAC embedded in the ADH chip, and a lot more power; up from 3kW to 4.5kW. This is a result of VLSI, placing what would be almost half a PCB’s worth of amplifier circuit in the original D-Premier into a single chip. The core remains the same – it’s still a wireless networked dac-ampli-speaker that works with Bluetooth and Spotify Connect, and uses the company’s Spark app (and if you use more than one of them, the Dialog hub) to control it. Although they look similar (only the colour-coded side cheeks – and the side drivers in the Silver model – denote what kind of Phantom is playing), you can’t mix and match in a stereo context. Using the Dialog hub, it’s perfectly possible to use Gold, Silver, and Phantom in different zones around the same house, but one Gold Phantom and one Silver Phantom will never give good stereo.
From a purely objective standing, the Gold Phantom goes louder, with a wider bandwidth, and does so with lower distortion and less background noise than its brothers. The Phantom and Silver Phantom were already impressive in this with claimed frequency response of 16Hz-25kHz (albeit at -6dB points and with 0.001% THD+N, but the Gold extends to 14Hz-27kHz, cuts the harmonic distortion, and noise rating drops to 0.0005%. A lot of this seems to be down to background noise reduction: the Phantom is already quiet, but the Gold Phantom is extremely silent in operation.
In a way, I’ve skirted around the technology inside the Gold Phantom, and indeed the tech inside the whole Phantom concept. There’s good reason for that – it ultimately doesn’t matter. The audiophile’s obsession with what goes on under the hood does not apply to anything like the same extent here. Not because there are things worth hiding, but because the people who buy products like the Phantom don’t paw over technology or specifications.
However, that doesn’t mean the performance gets a free pass, and Devialet’s original Phantom made claims it couldn’t reach. The Phantom should have been portrayed as ‘the little loudspeaker that could’; instead, it was claimed to be the ‘little loudspeaker that was better than every loudspeaker that went before’. And that claim was found wanting in the speaker’s earliest guise. It’s a good loudspeaker and in it’s proper context (a small, intelligent, networked loudspeaker capable of delivering some surprisingly deep bass notes; the kind that tears to tatters the leaders of the wider audio market) is highly respected, but practically no-one with a pair of well-engineered high-end loudspeakers found the claim for the original Phantom to hold water. The Gold Phantom is an entirely different prospect, however. It doesn’t need a tag line to justify its position, and sounds damn good in its own right.
Installation is almost insanely easy if you have the Dialog hub. Load up the Spark app to a computer, tablet, or smartphone, and pair the Phantom to the app by placing your hand on the Phantom when prompted. If you have more than one loudspeaker, you need to repeat the process in order to tell the Spark app whether the loudspeakers are in different rooms, and if the Phantoms are in stereo, which is left and which is right. It’s hard not to think ‘laying on of hands’ during the process. If you have a Deezer, Qobuz, Spotify, or TIDAL account, sign in through Spark to connect automatically, and you can also beam to your speakers through Bluetooth or connect through optical inputs for games consoles, etc. Spark also automatically checks for firmware updates and will upgrade your Phantoms as and when such upgrades arrive. This is more than just bug fixes, as it also means if tomorrow’s Phantom owners require a new wireless protocol or music format, it can be beamed out to every owner with ease.
There are a few aspects of today’s digital world that are still on Devialet’s ‘to do’ list, although some are – in context – of less relevance given the audience; others not so. I suspect the lack of DSD support will be of less relevance to many prospective Phantom owners, but the format’s inclusion has become something of a touchstone in modern audio specifications. Possibly more relevant given its networked links, the Phantom range does not support UPnP/DLNA digital audio streaming, but given many of the DLNA supporting companies report a widespread migration from local streaming to online services like TIDAL, this too might not be a big downside.
As the Devialet package is so incredibly TIDAL-chummy, you end up using the service more readily than you might delve through your stored music collection. And there is something about the look and the sound of the Devialet Gold Phantom that leads you toward something big, bassy, and beefy. There may even be rap involved, as TIDAL’s front panel is always awash with the stuff. Whatever, like the first Phantom, you will be drawn to playing something ‘phat’ at the outset.
Part of this comes down to those pulsating side cheeks, which move so fast, all you can see is a blur. But a big part is due to the seeming physics-bending properties of getting that much bottom end out of a loudspeaker the size of a crash helmet. In fact, it’s not physics bending at all, but just the result of looking at what a loudspeaker does without being bound by conventional concepts of how a loudspeaker is supposed to be designed.
However, that bass impressiveness is also where the Gold begins to leave the Silver and the standard models behind. All three designs do that immediately impressive deep bass sound, but the Gold adds a level of sophistication that immediately sets it apart from the pack. The addition of more power, the improved internal architecture, new DAC, and the new tweeter all combine to create in the Gold Phantom a small loudspeaker that no longer sounds like it’s performing an impression of a high-end loudspeaker, but a good loudspeaker in its own right.
The most immediate and obvious point about the Gold Phantom is the extremely low distortion. OK, so that isn’t immediately noticeable when you are pumping out bass notes at a fair lick, but play something like Mozart’s Requiem and that lack of obvious distortion means it sounds more viscerally ‘there’ in the room. The treble in particular is accurate, easy to live with, uncompressed, and extends up to the upper registers without sounding hard or harsh in the process.
The sign of a good loudspeaker is in its chameleon-like properties. Play something exciting and the loudspeaker is excitable and enthusiastic. Play something with more gravitas and the loudspeaker reacts with decorum. The Devialet Gold Phantom passes this ‘chameleon’ test well. It also passes the other ‘Chameleon’ test, where I play ‘Chameleon’ by Trentemøller [The Last Resort, Poker Flat]. Although rated at 108dB loudness, the loudspeaker plays extremely loud in small-to-medium sized rooms (in mono or stereo) and ‘loud enough’ in medium-to-large rooms, and does so with a shocking ability to play scary deep bass notes. And if you decide you want scary deep bass notes without high volume levels, the Gold Phantom is surprisingly good at that too; in lowering the listening levels to anything beyond a whisper, the sound stays remarkably coherent and is never uneven.
If this is a full-range loudspeaker capable of subtlety and refinement across the frequency ranges and at low and high volumes, where does that leave traditional high-end audio? Does the Gold Phantom live up to Devialet’s original statement on the subject? What more traditional high-performance loudspeakers offer is more mid-band openness, more dynamic (or microdynamic) shading, greater dynamic headroom especially at higher volume levels, rock-solid imagery, and the impression of physical instruments in the room. What is impressive about the Gold Phantom in these respects, however, is that it does all of these aspects of high-end loudspeaker performance well in its own right, even if there are more traditional high-end speakers that excel in one or more of these individual parameters. Put another way, it’s hard to not like everything the Gold Phantom does!
What people want from a Phantom is still hard-wired into the Gold Phantom, and those looking for an ‘audiophile loudspeaker shrinking ray’ and are in search of a small loudspeaker that delivers all the sound of your giant, six-figure super-speaker will not find it here. But what the Gold Phantom shows is what the concept is capable of, and that is incredibly impressive. Although ultimately it has more to offer, the Gold Phantom should be considered one of the best ‘bridge’ products in audio. It is the product that brings 21st Century audio levels of ease of use to audiophiles, and it is also the product that raises the bar for those more used to those convenient 21st Century audio products. It’s a gateway to better performance or functionality, depending on where you are coming from. That is worth seeking out.
Type: Wireless active networked loudspeaker
Drive units: Titanium grade 1 high frequency unit, aluminium mid and bass drivers
Amplifier type: Devialet ADH v2, 4.5kW peak power
DAC: Devialet DAC embedded in ADH v2 VLSI, up to 24-bit, 192kHz precision
Processor: ARM A9, with 512MB DDR3 memory
Connectivity: Bluetooth A2D and AVRCP profiles, aptX, AAC, SBC audio codecs, Spotify Connect
Network: Wi-Fi Dual-band (a/b/g/n 2.4 GHz & 5 GHz) Ethernet RJ-45 10/100/1000 Mbps (Gigabit) CPL Homeplug AV2 Toslink optical input (TV, CD player, Blu-Ray, video games console)
Audio formats supported: HE-AAC (V1), AAC (16 to 320 kbit/s), WMA (16 bit), MP3 (16 to 320 kbit/s), MP3 VBR, Apple Lossless, AIFF and WAV, FLAC, OGG, VORBIS
Frequency Response: 14Hz-27kHz (@-6dB)
SPL: 108dB @ 1m
Finish: White RAL 9016 ABS and aluminium dome drivers, 22ct rose gold sides
Dimensions (W×H×D): 25.3×25.2×34.3cm
Price: £2,190 each (Dialog £249)
Manufactured by: Devialet
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