I’m a strong advocate of the philosophy of buying the right thing once. My view is for any activity you care about a lot, it’s cheaper in the long run to buy an expensive product that will keep you happy for a great many years – maybe even for a lifetime – than a cheap product you’ll end up wanting to replace a few years down the line. Buy cheap, buy twice, as they say.
My hi-fi system is a great example. When I was a lot younger, I splashed out on a Bang & Olufsen hi-fi system that was more than twice the price of everything else I tested. Twenty years on, it now looks like an extraordinarily good value. It’s so old it has a cassette deck (yes, really!), but all it took to bring it back up to date was the addition of a simple Wi-Fi audio receiver to add AirPlay support.
Standalone Bluetooth speakers have therefore been of very limited interest to me – and I’d never have dreamed that one could ever replace a proper hi-fi system. So I was intrigued by one that claimed it could: the Devialet Phantom. As if that wasn’t enough to capture my interest, Devialet is a company with a serious reputation when it comes to high-end audio: they make the amps B&W uses to demo their speakers at audio shows. And yes, I’ll admit that part of what made me want to try it was my profound skepticism that any Bluetooth speaker could be worth $1,990 …
There’s all kinds of clever audio tech in the unit, but the core of it – what Devialet is known for – is what the company calls ADH, or Analog/Digital Hybrid. The unit actually uses both analog and digital amplifiers, operating in parallel. While audiophiles tend to be somewhat dismissive of digital amps, Devialet says that the combination actually delivers better results than a standalone analog amp.
A genuine class A amplifier directly connected to the speaker drives the output voltage: as the master, it sets the sound of the whole ADH core. That’s why what we hear is pure analog sound.
Several class D amplifiers are added in parallel to provide the speaker with the current it requires to sustain the output voltage. They act as slaves to the master class A amplifier, minimizing its workload.
Devialet uses the analogy of power steering. The driver (the analog amp) is in charge, but the power steering system (the digital amps) reduce the physical workload on the driver.
Most Devialet kit runs into five figures, so getting access to this technology for $2000 makes the Phantom, relatively speaking, a bargain. But let’s start at the beginning.
Most product first impressions begin when you remove it from the packaging and take a look at it. Sometimes the packaging itself is pretty enough to become the first impression. In the Phantom’s case, I got my first impression as soon as the delivery guy handed it to me: this thing weighs a ton! Ok, not actually a ton, but 26 pounds. That’s an incredible weight for something so small.
The packaging is both beautiful and functional. You slide off the sleeve, then simply pull the box open, dropping the speaker gently onto the floor. This method ensures you don’t have to hold it by any of the speakers themselves, which would risk damaging them.
What you then see is something which looks like a cross between a vacuum cleaner and R2-D2.
Usually I can tell you immediately what I think of the aesthetic appeal of a design, but with the Phantom, it was actually quite hard to say. The resemblance to a vacuum cleaner is a little unfortunate, given the rather vast chasm in price between the two devices, but at the same time there’s no denying that it looks special. I think I’ll just call it unique.
Steve Jobs himself would have approved of the controls. There is precisely one: a power button that doubles as a reset button. Volume control is done from the music source, which is very sensible as you wouldn’t want to get too close to it when it’s at anything close to max volume!
It’s a Bluetooth speaker, so connecting to it is done in Settings on an iPhone and in the speaker selector in iTunes (you can, of course, also choose to output all Mac sounds to it, but I really wouldn’t recommend hearing system sounds through this thing!).
If you prefer wired connections, there are both Ethernet and TOSLINK ports tucked away inside a flap at the back. Pull off the power cable to reveal them. Which is one small complaint: the cable is yellow. Cables, where necessary at all, should of course be black.
The volume curve is quite strange when using the iPhone as the music source. If you use the volume buttons, there are 16 segments, and the speaker is really quiet until you reach about 11 or 12, then it gets very loud, very quickly. It’s a much more normal curve when using the volume slider in the Music app.
The standard Phantom is 750 watts with a maximum sound pressure – aka volume – of 99dB at one meter. That actually beats my BeoLab 6000 speakers – yep, the pair of them – which top out at 96dB. The unit I was sent is the even louder Phantom Silver ($2,390). This has an incredible 3000 watts of power, generating 105dB (remember, decibels are logarithmic, so 105dB is much louder than 99dB). Yes, you read that right: a single unit can actually output the maximum legal sound volume for … a nightclub.
I’ve never run my BeoLabs at max volume beyond a brief test, and couldn’t imagine doing so with this. When I did so briefly just to test it, I went and warned my neighbors first. As with my BeoLab speakers, even maxed out there was zero distortion.
The bass is truly something you feel in your chest. The frequency range starts at 16Hz, which is well below the threshold of human hearing, but you can definitely feel it. The top end is 25kHz – so it has serious range.
The bass was an issue for me. We have wooden floors and minimal furniture, causing sound reflections if speakers are not flat against a wall. Which you can’t really do with the Phantom, as Devialet says the sound is omnidirectional. That’s a slight exaggeration, as there isn’t too much direct sound pumped out at the rear of the unit, but it’s otherwise true, so it was actually quite hard to position without getting a double hit of bass – original and reflected. I had to position in right in a corner of the room to minimize this, and still needed to use the iTunes equalizer to tone down the bass somewhat.
But if you’re a bass fan, you will love this. Just make sure your building insurance covers destruction by sound waves.
There was one other issue for me. I like stereo separation, and this is a mono speaker. You can pair them up over Wi-Fi (in fact, you can network up to 24 of them), but you’re then looking at $4,000 for a pair, plus the cost of the $329 Dialog box needed to connect them. Sure, you’d be able to use the combined sound output to carry out demolitions of small planets, but even so, that’s a huge premium just to get stereo sound.
But if you can live without stereo separation (which I accept is mostly useful for live recordings), then in these days when you don’t need anything other than a Mac or an iPhone as a music source, the Phantom is essentially a complete, top-quality, room-filling hi-fi system in an extremely compact single unit. That’s a truly amazing achievement, even for $2,000.
Devialet Phantom is available from selected retailers. If you want something whose price is a little more accessible, Seth’s roundup of the best Bluetooth speakers concluded that the Bose SoundLink Mini II ($200) had the best sound quality, while the UE Roll ($90) was the best option for an extremely portable speaker suitable for outdoor use.