PURE SOUND

What does it take to cre­ate the world’s most pow­er­ful ul­tra-com­pact speaker? De­vialet in­vited T3 to its Paris HQ to re­veal all…

T3 - - Contents - Words: Claire Davies Pho­tog­ra­phy: Olly Cur­tis

De­vialet has cre­ated the world’s most pow­er­ful ul­tra- com­pact speaker. Join us as we find out how they achieved it

What mu­sic do you want to lis­ten to? Scratch that. Here’s a more per­ti­nent ques­tion: how do you want to feel when you lis­ten to that mu­sic? Isn’t it in­ter­est­ing how, along the way in our fer­vour to try bet­ter speak­ers or fancier head­phones, we of­ten for­get why we buy this stuff: to lis­ten to our favourite mu­sic. To feel some­thing, per­haps.

Mu­sic has al­ways been a con­duit for emo­tion, but the qual­ity of the de­vices we lis­ten on can ei­ther in­ten­sify that emo­tion or stran­gle it. There are tons of speaker com­pa­nies in the world, and many pro­duce great sound. Ar­guably, though, few fo­cus on it quite as in­tently as award-win­ning French au­dio spe­cial­ist De­vialet. And when we say in­tently, we mean this: pure sound, ac­ces­si­ble to all (one day), is the rea­son this com­pany ex­ists.

When De­vialet con­tacted us to say they were launch­ing a new speaker and would T3 like to be among the first to hear it, we knew it was a no-brainer. We loved the orig­i­nal De­vialet Phan­tom (now re­named the Clas­sic Phan­tom), re­leased in 2015, and hoped for some­thing of a sim­i­lar qual­ity from De­vialet’s new speaker. We weren’t go­ing to be dis­ap­pointed…

Mini size, max power

We’re sit­ting in a spa­cious meet­ing room at De­vialet’s modern-look­ing HQ in cen­tral Paris. Early morn­ing sun is beat­ing in through the floor-to-ceil­ing win­dows, fresh pas­tries and juice are be­ing passed around, and De­vialet’s new speaker is cur­rently hid­den be­neath a black box perched at the end of our eight-seater ta­ble.

The mys­tery speaker is play­ing Ben Harper, and the sound is full and rich. ‘Did they choose this track be­cause it sounds es­pe­cially good on the new speaker?’ We whis­per con­spir­a­to­ri­ally to one an­other. How­ever, we weren’t ex­pect­ing the sight that greets us when prod­uct man­ager Joachim Fritsch turns up the vol­ume, then lifts the lid of the box… In­side sits a baby Phan­tom. It’s so dinky, so el­e­gantly beau­ti­ful, we can’t help but squeal.

De­vialet’s stun­ning new au­dio­phile grade speaker is called the Phan­tom Re­ac­tor. The cul­mi­na­tion of three years of R&D, the Re­ac­tor packs in all of the com­pany’s award-win­ning tech, de­spite be­ing a quar­ter of the size of the Clas­sic Phan­tom. It even squeezes in some new fea­tures (keep read­ing).

The Re­ac­tor comes in two guises: the Re­ac­tor 600 and the Re­ac­tor 900, which look iden­ti­cal. While the 600 reaches an im­pres­sive 95dB, the 900 hits 98dB thanks to 900 watts of peak power. Although it’s a far cry from the frankly scary 4,500 watts of power found in the top of the range Phan­tom Pre­mier Gold, it’s hugely im­pres­sive con­sid­er­ing how much smaller the Re­ac­tor is in com­par­i­son.

Franck Le­bouchard, De­vialet’s CEO, tells us, “The Phan­tom Re­ac­tor is a key step to­wards our ul­ti­mate goal, which is for mil­lions of peo­ple to have this pure De­vialet sound. To reach that goal we need to get our sound into smaller, and more af­ford­able, de­vices. The Re­ac­tor is the next step to­wards ev­ery­one hav­ing an af­ford­able, in­cred­i­ble-sound­ing au­dio de­vice at home.” Af­ford­able can be in­ter­preted in many ways, though, depend­ing on your avail­able in­come.

“The Re­ac­tor is De­vialet’s first per­sonal Phan­tom,” elab­o­rates Em­manuel Nardin, De­vialet co­founder and Prod­uct and De­sign Di­rec­tor. “The con­cept be­hind the Re­ac­tor’s size is that it be­longs to you and your home – it can go any­where.”

Death to dis­tor­tion

As we all know, a bad speaker can make a mas­ter­piece sound like it’s be­ing played through a tin can, whereas a great speaker puts you in the stu­dio, sit­ting in front of the singer, with the en­tire band sur­round­ing you. The Phan­tom Re­ac­tor is a great speaker. Small stature, big sound… Just think of it as the au­dio tech equiv­a­lent of Lady Gaga.

Pre­ci­sion en­gi­neered down to the last mil­lime­tre, the Re­ac­tor sports a smooth spher­i­cal form hous­ing two push-push woofers and one full-range speaker, all work­ing in har­mony to de­liver an un­for­get­table sound ex­pe­ri­ence. Fun fact: De­vialet says the Re­ac­tor is pow­er­ful enough to match a sym­phony or­ches­tra play­ing at full force, yet small enough that you can hold it one-handed.

‘No dis­tor­tion, no back­ground noise, no sat­u­ra­tion’. That’s the un­of­fi­cial mantra among De­vialet’s 100 or so en­gi­neers. Lit­tle sur­prise, then, that the sound pro­duced by the Re­ac­tor re­ally feels like it’s be­ing true to the artist, show­ing in­cred­i­ble new de­tail in your favourite tracks.

You can stream mu­sic eas­ily too, as the Blue­tooth Re­ac­tor of­fers Spo­tify Con­nect and Ap­ple AirPlay sup­port at launch. Chrome­cast and AirPlay 2 sup­port will be avail­able fur­ther down the line via a soft­ware up­date, and stereo-pair­ing will be­come avail­able in the first half of 2019. The Re­ac­tor is con­trolled via the De­vialet app, or by press­ing the con­trols ar­ranged on top of the speaker; a new feature de­signed es­pe­cially for the Re­ac­tor.

“with the phan­tom re­ac­tor we are break­ing many bar­ri­ers: size, price, porta­bil­ity”

So, how did De­vialet pull all of this off in such an ul­tra-com­pact prod­uct? “It was three years of prob­lems,” laughs Pierre-Em­manuel Calmel, co-founder, CTO and in­ven­tor of De­vialet’s Ana­logue Dig­i­tal Hy­brid tech­nol­ogy. “One of the main chal­lenges was squeez­ing all of that tech into the prod­uct with­out any com­pro­mise in sound qual­ity and per­for­mance. We were not able to just re­pro­duce the so­lu­tion used in the first Phan­tom, so we had to de­sign trans­duc­ers and a third-gen­er­a­tion chipset for the Re­ac­tor.

“When I started De­vialet, we didn’t have ac­cess to state-of-the-art minia­tur­i­sa­tion tech­nol­ogy. Be­cause the first Phan­tom was a suc­cess, now we have ac­cess to this tech­nol­ogy. So the Re­ac­tor is a con­tin­u­a­tion of the story, of the suc­cess, but with more in­te­grated func­tion­al­ity. With Re­ac­tor we are break­ing many bar­ri­ers: size, price, porta­bil­ity.”

The Re­ac­tor started out in the form of a five-litre mock-up model, then four. “The mock-up for the three-litre speaker was ex­actly the one you now see, just a lit­tle smaller. So from the in­ten­tion to the fi­nal prod­uct, what we got is ex­actly what we wanted,” re­veals Pierre-Em­manuel.

“It’s not easy to achieve that. Ev­ery small mod­i­fi­ca­tion has a huge im­pact

on the prod­uct, and each time you have an is­sue with de­sign, the eas­i­est so­lu­tion is to in­crease the size of the prod­uct or to re­duce per­for­mance. We didn’t do ei­ther with Re­ac­tor. This was also the rea­son why it took so long to de­sign, and why you have this wow re­ac­tion when you lis­ten to the speaker for the first time.”

All the feels

Some­one has been fool­ish enough to leave T3 alone with the Re­ac­tor for a while, so we fire up the app and blast out some Sia, John Mayer, Me­tal­lica… It’s all han­dled bril­liantly, and it’s im­pres­sively loud for such a small speaker, thanks to De­vialet’s ar­se­nal of award-win­ning tech: Heart Bass Im­plo­sion, Speaker Ac­tive Match­ing, Ac­tive Co­spher­i­cal En­gine, and Ana­logue Dig­i­tal Hy­brid (see the box be­low for more about th­ese), the latter patented by Pier­reEm­manuel in 2004. “Prior to that we had ana­logue am­pli­fi­ca­tion,” he re­mem­bers. “It pro­duces good sound qual­ity, but it gen­er­ates a lot of heat, which means you can’t make a pow­er­ful, com­pact prod­uct.”

The Re­ac­tor’s diminu­tive size also posed chal­lenges for Em­manuel Nardin. “With Phan­tom you need to dis­si­pate heat, so it was re­ally dif­fi­cult to keep the look of a smaller prod­uct while en­sur­ing you’re still dis­si­pat­ing the right amount of heat,” he ex­plains. “We had to find that bal­ance to en­sure the Re­ac­tor re­mained a very beau­ti­ful speaker with­out look­ing like an air con­di­tion­ing unit.

“The orig­i­nal Phan­tom is very round and looks like a bal­loon,” laughs Em­manuel. “We wanted the Re­ac­tor to be more spher­i­cal. We had to keep what makes the Phan­tom so special, of course, with those iconic lines on each side of the speaker, but we com­pletely re­designed the back unit. So the Re­ac­tor is put to­gether dif­fer­ently. It goes from back to front in­stead of from side to side, which was very dif­fi­cult for us to do.

“Be­cause it’s a smaller prod­uct, we also had to im­prove the join­ings be­tween all parts. We didn’t want a line down the mid­dle be­cause Re­ac­tor is smaller and we wanted to take care of the small de­tails. The first Phan­tom was also a lit­tle wob­bly, so for the Re­ac­tor we cre­ated a sim­ple base that’s very sta­ble.”

“we had to en­sure the re­ac­tor didn’t look like an air con­di­tion­ing unit”

“pure sound is our pri­or­ity. that’s why we get up each morn­ing”

De­sign­ing the Re­ac­tor in­volved epic col­lab­o­ra­tion be­tween the de­sign and en­gi­neer­ing teams, with many ses­sions needed to try and fig­ure out how to in­fuse such a raft of premium tech into a sig­nif­i­cantly smaller yet el­e­gantly sim­ple body. “The ini­tial draw­ings were easy be­cause the in­spi­ra­tion was al­ready there from the orig­i­nal Phan­tom,” Em­manuel re­calls. “It took three or four it­er­a­tions to reach the fi­nal de­sign.”

Ori­gin of sound

De­vialet was founded in 2007, with its first com­mer­cial and crit­i­cal suc­cess tak­ing the shape of the Ex­pert Pro au­dio sys­tem. It was (and still is) a true au­dio­phile prod­uct, with an eye­wa­ter­ing price tag to match. Con­sid­er­ing De­vialet’s high-end rep­u­ta­tion from the get-go, in 2013 the com­pany ran a rather provoca­tive ad­vert stat­ing, ‘One day, ev­ery­one will own a De­vialet’. So it seems that the end goal has al­ways been to pro­duce smaller, more ‘af­ford­able’ sources of De­vialet’s pure sound.

“Our goal, one way or an­other, is to have De­vialet sound in ev­ery prod­uct that pro­duces sound,” con­firms Pierre-Em­manuel. “To do that we have two dis­tinct paths: our own prod­ucts, which will even­tu­ally be­come smaller and more af­ford­able, gen­er­a­tion af­ter gen­er­a­tion, and our li­cens­ing pro­gram.” The fruits of said pro­gram are al­ready start­ing to ripen, thanks to note­wor­thy col­lab­o­ra­tions with the likes of Re­nault and its fu­ture-gaz­ing Sym­bioz con­cept car, and Sky, with the re­lease of the Sky Sound­box.

Again, De­vialet’s cur­rent ver­sion of af­ford­able might be dif­fer­ent to yours – and it might change over the years to come, as their de­vices get smaller still. Right now, it comes down to how much you value au­dio­phile-grade sound, or whether you’re happy with less nu­anced au­dio as long as you keep some change in your pocket.

“Our strong­est be­lief is that the purest sound pro­vides you with in­cred­i­ble emo­tion and joy,” adds Franck, wrap­ping up our visit to the De­vialet HQ. “Be­cause we so strongly be­lieve this, our dream is that De­vialet sound will be wher­ever you need it: at home with Phan­tom, one day in your car, one day in your head­phones, in your lap­top, in your smart­phone. It’s go­ing to take time, be­cause with each de­vice we’re go­ing smaller and that’s more chal­leng­ing.”

And if you’re won­der­ing why De­vialet has so far snubbed the smart speaker trend, the an­swer is this: “Our route is fo­cused on pro­vid­ing pure sound,” Franck clar­i­fies. “That said, you can con­nect the Re­ac­tor to any Alexa de­vice. So you can ‘bun­dle’ it with a smart speaker for voice con­trol. Will we one day in­tro­duce AI in our prod­ucts? Prob­a­bly, but it’s not our pri­or­ity. Pure sound is. That’s our dream. That’s why we get up each morn­ing and do this.”

The De­vialet fac­tory, an hour out­side of Paris, has this awe­somely fu­tur­is­tic acous­tic cham­ber where all Re­ac­tor speak­ers are tested be­fore re­lease

ABOVE LEFT AND ABOVEFrank Le­bouchard, CEO of De­vialet; Em­manuel Nardin, co-founder, Prod­uct and De­sign Di­rec­tor, and the man who makes De­vialet’s speak­ers look so damn gor­geous

Far LEFT Pierre-Em­manuel Calmel, co­founder, CTO and the tech lead be­hind the Re­ac­tor’s in­cred­i­ble soundThe high-tech, cus­tom-built fac­tory line for the Re­ac­tor can pro­duce 4,000 speak­ers a week

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