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