The Devialet Phantom Wireless Speaker System
Devialet Phantom (750Watt $1990; 3000Watt $2390; Dialog Hub $329)
Not long ago, a colleague here in the Stereophile Home Tech Group said to me, "Why do you bother reviewing Bluetooth speakers? There's no such thing as a high-end Bluetooth speaker, right?"
On one level, I get it: A table-top Bluetooth speaker will never do what a killer floor-standing speaker in a big-rig is capable of. On the other hand, when I'm out on a motorcycle trip, camping in unusual places, or just want to listen on the back porch or in the garage, I'm not going to be bringing a complete stereo rig...but I still want something that sounds good. Table-top speakers may not ever reach what separates can do, but there are still products that perform very well and will satisfy enthusiasts. I very much appreciate the sound and price of the Riva Turbo X and Peachtree Deepblue2, for example.
Still, I get it...they're just really not high-end, are they?
Then, along comes the Devialet Phantom. A roughly $2000 stand-alone Bluetooth and optical input speaker from a fairdinkum audiophile company. At around $2000, it's way more expensive than any other Bluetooth speaker, but a deep peruse of their white paperturning a blind eye toward the over-the-top marketing claimsdoes develop a pretty impressive picture of the technologies within. And given the price of high-end headphones today, it seems a positive bargain.
Briefly, the Phantom comes in two flavors: the plain Phantom with 750Watts of power amplification, and the Silver Phantom with 3000Watts of juice. Power amplifiers are a class-A/class-D hybrid given the acronym ADH. Devialet claims the class-D amps do the grunt work, leaving the class-A amps free to deliver their nuanced sound.
Devialet likes the three letter acronyms; here's a few more: SAM stands for "speaker active matching." This is, from what I can tell, a digital signal processing engine that "acts on the driver's motion by means of a novel processing of the audio signal that is performed in the time domain" as opposed to most DSP loudspeaker correction systems that "typically involve IIR or FIR filters and cannot reach the same performance, being affected by such phenomena as extra phase rotation or time delay, and in general sub-optimal performance on transients." Their goal here is to create an acoustic signal from the Phantom that perfectly matches the incoming electronic audio signal.
The last acronym I'll call out here is the HBI (Heart Bass Implosion) design of the two large low-frequency drivers to either side of the Phantom. Devialet claims 20Hz to 20kHz +/-0.5dB! I have no way to accurately measure the Phantom, but its quite obviously the most bass out of a small enclosure I've ever heard...and not by a little. This mighty impressive feat is accomplished by extremely powerful, long-travel bass drivers that, in combination with the SAM processing, can overcome the pressure extremes within the small enclosure (over 170dBspl!) that allow it to move a lot of air in the room.
Although Devialet didn't coin an acronym, maybe the most obvious characteristic of the Phantom is its orb-like shape intended to allow the speaker to emit sound as if from a point source. The tweeter and midrange drivers are coaxially mounted at the front of the speaker, and the low-frequency drivers pulse in and out to either side.
Okay, some theoretically good stuff going on inside the Phantom. Let's have a look at the outside.
Measuring in at 14" long by 10" wide and high, and weighing in at around 24 lbs., this is one hefty orb. Personally, I'm not one to fawn over modern styling, but I do like the look of the Phantom and think it will suit a modern decore. The one glaring exception is the bright yellow power cord...seems really out of place to me. Devialet also offers an optional stand mount for use mid-room called the White Tree ($349), and soon to be available natural wood finish, and a wall-mount called the Gecko ($199). Also available soon will be the Cocoon carry case.
My Initial Experience with One Phantom
My initial experience was with a single 750 Watt Phantom. The packaging was well executed, but removing the Phantom and carrying it to the garage for the first time was a bit worrisome as it's quite heavy and has little in the way of hand holds. I was told by a Devialet representative that the best way to carry it is to hold it fore and aft below the waistline without putting hands on the front drivers. I was also told the drivers themselves are quite robust and should be fairly immune from problems if they are inadvertently pushed.
Evidently the only real problem along these lines is if you place a hard object too close to the bass drivers on either side. Woofer excursion on the Phantom can be quite long, and if the driver dome does touch something hard while moving a dimple could result.
Alrightythen, let's plug this thing in...um, no lights, no nothing. I find what looks like a power button on the back and push it. Nothing. I push it a few more times...and after a few moments the woofers start pulsing in and out and it starts making a spacy noise. I go to my phone and scan for a Bluetooth device, and...there it is. I start streaming Tidal at its highest resolution from my Samsung Galaxy Note 4.
Holy smoke! This thing has bass down to subterranean levels! Seriously, I'm shocked you can get bass extension this good from a unit this small. Quite obviously Devialet has managed something special with their "Heart Bass Implosion" technology.
The Phantom had no problem whatsoever filling the space of my garage; off-axis performance seems quite good. After a while, however, I began to get the feeling that there was actually too much low bass. Not wooly or loosethe bottom octaves were tight and responsiveit just seemed a little too much energy in the bottom two octaves throwing the overall balance off a bit. The midrange and treble seemed to have good balance, but were a bit hard sounding. Over the course of the next week or so I tried the Phantom in a number of places in my home, and the overall impression remained fairly consistant.
Okay, let's step it up a bit. I downloaded the Spark app used to control the Phantom so that I could stream music over WiFi rather than Bluetooth. The app has changed a bit since I first started using the Phantom; at this point when using the Spark app on a phone you can select from Spotify Connect, internet radio, or music located on your phone.
I played some of my reference wave files, and while the bass quantity still seemed a bit elevated, it was less so, and the sound quality of the midrange and treble got markedly better. The Phantom was now clearly the best table-top speaker I've heard. No, not ultra-high-end liquid yummy good, but coherent and reasonably neutral and musical.
With the amount of bass the Phantom is capable of, speaker positioning is fairly importantsticking it in a corner is not a good idea as the bass can become overwhelming. When mounted on a 22" tall speaker stand in my living room, and even though it was coming from one speaker only, the sound had a sense of dimension and space not strictly limited to the speaker itself. The sound seemed like it came from a few feet behind and slightly above the drivers themselves.
Well, so far, so good. But I want my Tidal, and access to the music on my network, and there's no way to get that without the Devialet Dialog ($329)a network hub for the Phantom...in fact, for up to 24 Phantoms around your home. At this point, my curiosity was peaked and I wanted the full Phantom experience. I sent out my request for a Dialog and second Phantom so I could listen to high-res files in stereo. The Phantom promised a pretty terrific experience and I was excited to give it a go.
And this was where things took a turn for the worse.
My Experience with the Dialog and Second Phantom
Upon receipt, I set up the second Phantom in my living room and connected the Dialog directly into my router in my lab one room down the hall. I powered everything on and installed the Spark app on my MacBookPro.
This is where things began to get a little hazy: The process of getting all the gear to sync up was quite weird, and felt rather blind. There was really no way of knowing what, exactly, was going on. I was, however, prompted through a strange set of requests like placing my hands on the top of the Phantoms to identify them, or when it was unable to identify one of the Phantoms I had to push the power button three time to get it to wake up to the network...or something like that.
There was also a point where I had to identify which speaker was left or right by dragging them into position on a little map of the living room speakers. As you clicked and dragged the speaker being positioned would make a slightly different sound and the woofers would visually wobble in and out. Not quite sure exactly what was going on during all these steps, but it eventually made it through the start-up procedure.
I then had to sign into my Tidal account and identify the folders on my network drive that held music, which was all pretty painless. I start to stream some music from Tidal and...shazam!...I had stereo tunes...for about ten minutes. Then it stopped. I pushed pause and play...it started again. And then stopped again. Ergh.
After multiple attempts at powering everything off and restarting the set-up to no avail, I started looking around for help on the Phantom support page, in Devialet's user forums, and at the Amazon reviews. While there certainly seems to be a lot of people who were successful setting up their Phantoms, there are clearly lots of others who've had a very hard time. The Phantom system seems to be far from a plug-and-play experience for many.
From what I can gather, the culprit appears to be the need for a very clean and dedicated network configuration. Many user claimed improved performance by putting the Dialog in the same room as the Phantomswhich I tried, to no avail. Other users said direct ethernet connections to the speakers did the trickthis was too inconvenient to try in my home. And besides, these are advertised as wireless speakers.
I called Devialet tech support for some assistance. They were responsive and quick to helpof course, they knew I was a reviewer. After a few initial trouble shooting procedureslike doing the set-up procedure again for the umpteenth timethey sent me an Apple Airport to act as a dedicated router for the Phantom/Dialog system. Once received, the set-up procedure went quite smoothlyI was pretty good at it by now. The system did work better than previously, but it still quite randomly exhibited numerous drop-outs both on music from my server and from Tidal's streaming service.
Because it was rather random it's somewhat hard to tell, but it did seem like the higher the bitrate music I played from my network drives, the more often I'd experience drop-outs. The system also exhibited a rather strange behavior when it was on the edge of drop-outs: the volume from the two Phantom speakers would subtly and independently go up and down a few dB, change tonality slightly (less bass), and just sound a bit weird. I did find this post on the Devialet forums:
The time-sync algorithms only work if the buffer is kept full at each Phantom. If the quality of the connection via Wi-Fi means that the buffer is marginal and even sometimes empties (which would result in a momentary sound glitch), then it is entirely possible that the effects of phase differential between the stereo pair occurs which would result in exactly the symptoms described.
I'll belabor the point no more. I've had the Bluesound system in my house and it worked without a hitch. I have a Sonos system, and while it makes me crazy that they haven't fully implemented the Tidal interface (no artist radio, for example), it only rarely (maybe once a week) experiences drop-outs. I probably could have done more to lock down wifi IP adresses, or cable up the speakers and give network priorities to the Devialet gear, but I'm sorry, it simply shouldn't be that hard.
I will add a short and incomplete list of other problems and gripes I had to provide some additional examples of frustrations with the system to help you get the feeling of the experience I had. In no particular order:
- Spark app only shows Artists, Albums, and Playlists for netwrok stored music, and can only be seen as a total library listing. I keep my music in a folder structure and would like to be able to see it that way, or at least be able to filter it by folder.
- At one point I turned on the Bluetooth for one of the stereo pair to connect with my phone. Once done, I could not turn off the Bluetooth on that speaker and it subsequently became lost to the Spark app. Had to re-do the complete set-up to have it become recognized again.
- In order to attach an optical cable to one of the Phantoms, you have to remove the power cord. After doing so, I had to re-do the set-up.
- Toslink connector on the Dialog is too far recessed to completely insert optical cable, resulting in "hissy" sound at times signal. This was a widely reported problem on user forums and reviews.
- There is a "Night Mode" button that reduces bass and compresses the sound a bit so it's less disturbing yet still listenable at lower volumes. So, the DSP is in there that could do the job, but no EQ option is currently available.
- There's a 1000 track limit for the play cue and playlists saved.
- With the Spark app running both on my Mac and smartphone I experienced some weird behaviors at times. For example, I couldn't get my phone to display albums on the phone, but could use the Spark app on the Mac to access the files on my phone. After halting and restarting the app on my phone the problem went away.
The most annoying thing about this whole experience was that the speakers themselves sound pretty great. Way, way better than any table top speaker I've ever heard. Though I'm a headphone guy and not really qualified to rank speakers by sound quality, I though the sound from the $5000 complete dual-Phantom/Dialog system would be surprisingly competitive with $5000 worth of speakers and electronics.
Bass was astonishingly tight and articulate; never even the slightest hint of bloat or loosie-goosie bass. Bass when using one Phantom from Bluetooth seemed a bit excessive; once configured as a stereo pair I found the bass level significantly more neutral, though still a tad elevated. I did go back and check this impression a couple of times and it seemed to persist. It may be that there's some bass build-up when summing together the left and right channels for mono in this mode.
Bass to midrange transition seemed slightly discontinuous. It may be psychological as over the whole course of the review I continued to be amazed at how great the bass quality was from these small devices. But it could also be that Devialet slid in a bit of emphasis way down low. When I played pink noise through the speakers, the lowest rumble was clearly present...but it's hard to tell if it's actually emphasized or not. Either way, in stereo mode, the bass extension is extraordinary and it's quality superb.
Midrange and treble response wasn't as extraordinaryI didn't get that liquid, juicy feeling you can sometimes get from great speakersbut what I did hear I can only characterize as competent and neutral...maybe slightly hard sounding in the mid- and upper-midrange. The Phantoms can play very loud. A 55/100 volume in the Spark app produced a solid listening level. The Phantoms seemed to remain quite composed at any listening level I could stand, though their slightly hard midrange became more apparent as volume increased. Of course, that could have been my ears and brain telling me to turn it down.
Imaging was quite good. The image seemed quite stable, somewhat behind the speakers, and remained within their width. Imaging outside the sweet spot was okayit didn't colapse and snap back to the speakersand tonal character throughout the room was very even. The off-axis response of the Phantoms seemed very good indeed. Dynamic punch seemed good, but not as good as the imaging. Again, "competent" is the word that comes to mind.
The more I listened, the more I felt this was a speaker that I could easily enjoy for the long haul. I don't feel they'd be appropriate for an audiophile to build a listening room aroundmuch more expensive speakers would be the ones for the job therebut I did feel that it would be a satisfying living room/den/patio speaker for even the most ardent audio lover.
Devialet Had Two Things To Do
First, it seems to me they wanted to build a one cubic foot speaker that sounded as good as a much larger pair of speakers in the $4000/pair price range. I'd say they did one hell of a job at that. There seems to be a lot of successfully implemented audio engineering going on in the Phantom. This little thing sounds way better than anything I've ever heard at anywhere near the size.
The second thing they had to do was create the software needed to make the Phantom system seem smart in a world now filled with very smart products. I didn't feel the Spark app was dumb...it just didn't seem done. In my experience the app and network connectivity seemed much more like a V0.5 Beta product rather than a finished system. The, hopefully, good news here is that Devialet does seem to be working hard on their problems. Over the course of the couple of months I've had the product here, I've received two software updatesthe latest of which added internet radio functionality to the Phantom system. I would urge Devialet to continue to work hard on these problems because they absolutely did manage Job-1 mentioned above by making a great sounding speaker that can be updated on-line.
The Devialet Phantom is an extraordinary speaker system that does, it seems to me, fill a need for a designer/wife friendly speaker system for contemporary, up-scale home owners. But difficulties configuring the network environment make it very hard to recommend for anyone attempting to successfully install the system on their own without the significant expertise and time needed to do moderately advanced network configuration. If, however, you're a home owner who has the resources to hire an qualified AV installation company who can handle the work, I do feel a very satisfying installation can be achieved.
I sincerely hope Devialet gets ahead of the curve on the changes needed because if they do, I'll be chomping at the bit for a second try. The Devialet Phantom promises an apex personal audio experience in the home...it just doesn't deliver it reliably...yet.