Futureshocked by the Devialet Silver Phantom (Part 2)

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The Phantom. Some say he’s indestructible; that he feels nothing. Others say beneath the fancy costume beats no heart, inked no soul.

Are we talking original super hero, one who has no super powers but instead relies on intelligence and strength to defeat his foes? Or are we talking about the dinosaur-egg-shaped digital active loudspeaker from France’s Devialet?

Chances are it could be either.

To the newcomer doing breaking radically from the norm, preconceptions abound. Doubts of its validity as a high end audio contender have encircled the Phantom and Silver Phantom since their launch at CES 2015. Despite an amplifier power differential – 750w to 3000w – and slight cosmetic differences, each model is functionally identical. That and more was covered in Part 1 here.

This review pertains to the more powerful Silver Phantom but will henceforth be referred to as Phantom.

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Traditional hifi setups usually see left and right channels handled by a series of boxes: streamer, DAC, amplifier and the loudspeakers, all joined by cables. Done Devialet style, the complete playback chain is housed in the Phantom where it is tweaked for optimal interplay – most notably amplifier and driver – and netting the benefits of shorter signal paths.

Somewhere apart. Tell SPARK you’ve a pair of Phantoms and walks the user through configuring one as the left channel and the other as right. The app then moves its conversation from a single unit to the now mandatory Dialog signal box – another US$299. Music arrives at the Dialog over the air or via its Toslink input. From there, left and right channels are kept separate and streamed over the network to each corresponding Phantom. The Dialog keeps the two speakers in sync whilst the triangular configuration separates each channel’s streaming receiver, DAC and (ADH) amplifier from the other and from the transmitter – the Dialog.

The good news is that two Phantoms sounds light years ahead one. The cliche about a ‘night and day’ difference emphatically applies here; in bold type and thrice underscored. But how would they compare to loudspeakers already in possession of full audiophile cred?

Before journeying from A to B and back again, I threw the question of audiophile expectation out to the hive mind.

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Of the twenty-two Twitter voters, two thirds returned the LS50 + Expert 200 combo as the theoretical champion. Interesting.

I’ll admit to my own premature judgement in which I anticipated the a Phantom-derived shortfall on subtlety and transparency but in reality I heard nothing of the sort. The ensuing listening sessions saw a red pair of KEF LS50 lassoed to a Devialet Expert 200 with AudioQuest Rocket 88 cable. Separating them on detail retrieval proved to be no walk in the park either. The Phantom pairing gets the nod but only just.

Less obvious in this comparo was the KEF’s greater talents with micro dynamic flair, treble extension, midrange forwardness, a slight presence region insistence but (less favourably) more obvious box colouration. You might not notice such personality traits listening to the LS50 in isolation but going back-to-back with the Phantom the French fellas are reflected as a little more backwards in coming forwards; they draw a soundstage that begins at the speaker plane and moves toward the front wall. Image depth is a knockout! Piling on the praise, the Phantom connote more effortlessness than the British control subjects.

Where the Phantom aces the Red Devils further still is on channel separation and image specificity. The French seem more adept at disappearing, at making good on the illusion of separating music from the speakers that reproduce it. The Phantoms hang songs like three-dimensional paintings. There’s also crisper-edged player definition and soundstage depth. On Bowie’s Blackstar, the mainman’s Scott Walker-esque vocal inflections are drawn with darker ink that brings shapes more readily into focus. The LS50/Expert combo affords this same record a little more lens blur and few Farenheit degree’s greater warmth whilst simultaneously thrusting Bowie and his band further into the room.

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The most striking difference however is bass depth; The French duo offer low frequency performance more often associated with floorstanders. Compared to the KEF LS50, the silver-cheeked Phantoms mine far deeper than the Brit passives. Merci-fully, French keep what they unearth on a tight leash.

Could Speaker Active Matching (SAM) on the Expert help close the performance gap? Gradually applied to the LS50, SAM introduces a thickening of mid-bass that has a tendency to congest the speaker’s chest and thus crowd out some midrange; too much SAM and the KEF begin to sound like how a jam-packed Tokyo subway train looks.

However, a little SAM dialled in – between 20% and 30% – seems to introduce the right amount of bass punch improvement and an associated uptick in forward momentum without spoiling the party. That said, even when SAM-sweet-spotted, the KEF prove no match for the Silver Phantom’s full exposure of lower Hz. If you wanna hear all the bass buried in Shed’s Killer, the LS50 won’t cut it. You’ll need double Devialet. And then some.

For those wanting to wind the wick on Modeselektor, Hawtin or Hardfloor but without rattling the walls, there’s the SPARK app’s Night Mode. A press of the crescent moon above volume slider shaves off the very lowest bass and, according to the manual, ”reduces dynamic range”. An essential feature for the electronic music loving apartment dweller looking to maintain neighbourly harmony.

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Albums on which the LS50 don’t obviously pull up a great deal of bass content – Spiritualized’s Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space and Tindersticks’ Simple Pleasure – also benefit from the Phantom’s fathom-deep reach. A fuller seat pant proves to be the more effective anchor for both of these 90s alt-classics. The KEF in contrast seem quite content to bounce along each album’s surface. No shame in that.

Neutrality is a thornier issue. With each piece of hardware imparting its own subtle coloration, filtering music through its own lens, it’s impossible to know how close each of these two setups is to the original master as played back and dialled in via the studio’s own loudspeakers. If I were a betting man, I’d put my cash down on the Phantom; their cooler disposition communicates a greater sense of neutrality as a sensation. The KEF-terminated chain of command is more coloured but no less enjoyable for it.

And that’s one way to conclude this stand off – a dead heat. Neither is subjectively better than the other. Conduct this same A/B in front of a room full of audiophiles and you’d split collective opinion down the middle. Friends of jazz and lighter acoustic fare would probably hang their Fedora on the KEF but tech-heads and rock n rollers would more often than not drop their metaphorical money on white. On the drama and forward thrust of large scale orchestral, the Phantom take it.

The real achievement here belongs to Devialet Phantom: a loudspeaker that defies expectations, one that can go toe to toe with the most lauded standmount of recent years but at the same time dodge the one-two-three anxiety of “Which amplifier?”, “Which DAC?” and “Which streamer?”. The Traffic White eggs lock the owner down – and out – from the outset.

And that’s bring us to another important point: with the Dialog dispatching freshly-timed data out to each wifi-bridged Phantom, optical feed quality seems to matter not a jot: A Google Chromecast Audio sounds as good as an AURALiC Aries; the Wyred4Sound Remedy makes not a jot of difference to either. That makes the Phantom truly source agnostic.

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Instead, we fix a third party streamer to the Dialog’s Toslink input to level up on UX. Next to Spotify Connect, Sonos or AURALiC’s Lightning DS, SPARK just won’t cut it for anything other than volume attenuation and the Night Mode toggling. And until Devialet make the Dialog Roon Ready the closest alternative is the AURALiC Aries or – for those on tighter financial leashes – an Apple TV or Airport Express. Choices abound.

One final myth to pop before we wrap: turntablism just isn’t possible with the Phantom. I know a guy in Austria who’d beg to differ. Pro-Ject’s Essential II DIGITAL sports ADC and Toslink output. TEAC introduced their TN-570 at CES – a more luxurious take on the digitising ‘table concept. The Pro-Ject A/D Phono Box S brings similar circuitry to any turntable.

Moving uptown: PS Audio’s NuWave Phono Converter (reviewed here) spills a digitised signal over coaxial. A Toslink conversion box is therefore required for Dialog connection. Ditto the Devialet Expert 200. An RCA socket can be configured to hand over its digitised turntable input to an outboard converter or re-clocker.

Hardcore vinyl-philes can holler Heathen!” all they like but it’s cover art and the physical process of playing record that’s driving the format’s comeback (far more so than sound quality). The 21st Century audiophile needs an injection of pragmatism.

And what’s more 21st Century Boy than the Phantom? It looks like no other loudspeaker, nor any other high end consumer electronics product. Devialet straddle the space occupied by gadget guys and the whacky world of high end audio. The former category might be more accustomed to the Phantom’s minimal box count than the latter, less so its price point. But what of sticker shock?

Mainstream spending patterns are bizarrely off-kilter: we drop $30K on a car that sees only an hour’s road time each day and don’t flinch but nope out when asked to spend more than a baseline amount on a mattress upon which we spend far more of the day. Where does audio hardware fit into this? In the context of the car, those listening to music for only an hour could consider ~US$4K for an complete music system to be entirely reasonable.

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Long since a de-facto standard in the pro-audio world, unification of loudspeaker and amplifier tends puts the average audiophile on high alert. Gone is their freedom to tinker. The Phantom isn’t for pick n mixers. But who might know best about matching amplifier to loudspeaker: an audio engineer or the average consumer? This begs the question: does the audiophile train of thought run on rails of arrogance?

Moroever, audiophile cynicism – a smokescreen for fear – is usually the first to greet anything (or anyone) daring to deviate. A loudspeaker that flips two fingers at the traditional form – what’s up with THAT?

Some audiophiles might be readying the car context tactic for justifying their next upgrade to a significant other. But why the sleight of hand? The Phantom offers anti-venom to those bitten by the upgrade bug time and again. There is no hardware upgrade path, only software. Devialet issued an over-the-air EVO update as this commentary was being finalised.

What we get from two Phantoms is a result that defies audiophile expectations, preferred by this commentator to the KEF LS50 driven by Devialet’s Expert 200. You may not. That it’s up for debate at all sees Devialet’s R2-D2-esque loudspeakers become a bona fide member of the high-end audio scene. Go listen for yourself — you have nothing to lose but your prejudicial chains.

Further information: Devialet

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Written by John H. Darko

John lives in Sydney, Australia where he derives an income from the ad revenues of DAR. John is also an occasional staff writer for Stereophile, 6moons and TONEAudio.

Twitter: dar__ko
Instagram: dar__ko
Facebook: DAR

46 Comments

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    • Depends on what one is aiming to find out: here I wanted to pit them against a well-known baseline. Far fewer readers will have heard the Kii Three than the LS50 but a Kii Three comparison would be the ideal follow up here, yes.

      • Or a follow up of the D200 with different speakers perhaps? Or is the D200 not officially under review?

        • Yup, the 200 will be reviewed as part of a two-fer with Peter Familari over at 6moons. I’m still trying to net a pair of Harbeth for that.

  1. A wonderful review John. Very nice with the LS50/Expert comparison. You’ve even got vinyl + Phantom covered! I notice that the Essential II Digital outputs 24/96 while the other (older) Pro-ject A/D devices only does 16/48.

  2. Great review! Thanks and rings true of my own, more limited, experience. There aren’t many people I could convince that the Phantoms are a bargain. But once you start comparing sticker prices to other similar stellar sounding setups it’s a no brainer. The prejudice is what holds people back here I believe.

  3. Great review. The other killer point in the Phantom’s favour is it means I can have my audiophile setup in the living room AND my wife will actually be happy (rather than constantly irritated) about how it looks :) No more “Do we have to have all these ugly boxes on show…?” or “I REALLY hate all those cables – can’t we get rid of some of them”!!

    I was 80-90% convinced about trying/buying one of these systems anyway but reading this has settled it for me! I’m planning to get two silver phantoms, plus ‘branch’ stands, dialog and volume control to replace my Audio-GD Ref 7.1, Arcam A90 amp and Monitor Audio RS6 speakers in our living room. (I’ll re-deploy these elsewhere in my house – I like them too much to sell them!)

    Great news about the system being source/jitter immune too. That means I can move my Empirical Audio Pace Car and modded Sonos Connect too and just use a stock Sonos Connect with the Dialog! (So your review has actually saved me money in a funny kind of way…ignoring the not inconsiderable cost of the new Devialet system obviously!!)

    BTW – Did you try the separate volume remote control?

  4. Great review, John.

    If you say it’s a tossup between the Phantoms’s and the LS50 – Expert combo, that puts the Phantom back on my list as a possible candidate for system makeover. Fair comparison in my view: good “audiophile” speaker plus fairly expensive “all in one” electronics unit from the same company with essentially the same electronics (amp+DAC), but in a different physical format.

    The fact that the whole setup costs less than the Expert alone doesn’t hurt.

    The Kii Three would be the ideal comparison. I’m guessing it would smoke the Phantom – but at 3 times the cost, the question is by how much?

    Any chance you can get the Kii Three in for review?

  5. My personal curiosity was about continuity (or lack thereof) of the bass to mid/tweeter range relative to textures. Since the bass system is ‘forced’ (big excursions driven by beaucoup power with additional response correction in DSP with very compact cubic loading), did you hear a gestalt or texture difference? Since you didn’t mention it, I assume not. Whilst on techno, Rock and Pop one may not notice it too much, on classical I’d expect it to telegraph if it was there. Since you thought that classical was a strong suit for a stereo pair of silver Phantoms, any misgivings I had about ‘da basz’ must then be down to the original sub-par show demos -:)

    • I don’t dare venture further comment on how the Phantom play with classical music – it really isn’t my specialist genre. But no, I didn’t peg a disconnect between bass and mid/tweeter or any discontinuity of texture. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t present with classical music just that I’m not the right guy to find it if does. Something for another reviewer to tackle.

  6. btw, are you sure about the “no upgrade path”? I get you on the hardware but Devialet always had firmware updates for their classic flounders. I’d rather assume that this approach carries forward with the Phantoms. If so, don’t underestimate the sonic changes such new firmware code can make. Well, you’re familiar with that already from the PS Audio DirectStream DAC. Marja & Henk on staff own two classic Devialets and have gone through multiple firmware updates. Because they’re IT people, they adopted solid IT protocol and always saved the older firmware versions in case they liked the new ones less. Good thinking too as they didn’t cotton to the later updates and reverted to their favourite ‘oldie’ (not the very first one).
    All this by way of suggesting that the Phantom may not be quite as closed-ended as it appears -:)

    • Yup – EVO platform updates were covered in Part 1 but I’ve clarified in the body text above: no hardware updates possible (as supplied by the end user)…unless of course you count stands. Of course, you’re right about the potency of firmware updates. I too think the version prior to the latest (9.1?) sounds better.

  7. It seems to me that one takeaway here is that active speakers are a superior proposition. Besides the more expensive Kii three, it would be great to know how the phantom compares to other active speakers in other price ranges, for example Genelec, Adam, Neumann, etc.

    John, did you for example compare the Phantom to your Adam models (A7x, Tensor Delta)?

    • Not directly but more anecdotally. The Phantom stomp all over the A7x – they just don’t play in the same league. As for the Tensor Delta, hard to call it. The Phantom image better and seem more forgiving of poorer sources with which the Tensor Delta display some brutality. 😉

  8. Thanks for the review, John. Could you please elaborate on this? “And until Devialet make the Dialog Roon Ready the closest alternative is the AURALiC Aries or – for those on tighter financial leashes – an Apple TV or Airport Express. Choices abound.”

    The presumed inability to use Roon is one reason I’ve held back on buying a pair of Phantoms. It’s a shame to have to add more boxes and cables, but if it makes that possible, I’d consider it. Thank you.

  9. Most interesting development in audio playback – excitement- and praise-worthy….although I’m not a fan of their looks and that kills it for me. Of course, others will buy just on their looks. I’m not their target audience as far as their physical appearance, but good for them to go after the bling crowd – far more potential than targeting where I sit.

  10. Great review, may I ask how Blonde on Blonde sounds with a stereo pair?
    But why does the Phantom have to be part of the high-end scene? Why not just go after music lovers? They are a far bigger market.

  11. Great review John – adding a Sonore Sonic Orbiter SE will enable you to use Roon without fuss in addition to LMS, And UPnP.

    • Yes, but once the Dialog becomes Roon Ready, no need for a fancy schmancy server/player, just slap Roon Server on a NUC or cheap-ass PC and have it send audio data directly to the Dialog.

  12. As an owner of two silver phantom, this review is very good. One area that I did not see covered which is VERY important are the network requirements for Phantom.

    As already known, Phantom is a wireless based music system. As most reviews thus far only cover a single Phantom, it’s a pretty straightforward review. But In a 2.0 setup, things get slightly more complex. I’d like to mention a few things that are highly important but not mentioned when dealing with more than one Phantom.

    For example, in a 2.0 setup, multiple Phantoms + Dialog (required) can communicate to each other via two methods: hardwired ethernet, or wifi. Most reviews cover a wireless setup as that would most-likely be the most convenient way to go.

    For a wifi setup, it is important to know that Dialog + Phantoms communicate to each other via two methods SIMULTANEOUSLY: WIFI + PLC (Power Line Communication via AC electrical wiring in a home). Most reviews briefly mention the wireless part at a high-level, but do not touch upon the PLC component.

    Upon initial multiple Phantom setup, you will need to plug in Dialog + the Phantoms within the same room. Devialet doesn’t go into details as to why, but the reason is because Dialog needs to establish a PLC communication between the Phantoms for initialization and synchronization.

    Once PLC communication is established, Dialog then creates a separate secure wifi network for each Phantom. So if you have two Phantom, you will see two distinct Devialet wifi networks.

    After the system setup is complete, you can then move the Phantoms to the desired location.

    While it isn’t talked about much, best results occur when you place the Phantoms on the SAME electrical circuit as Dialog. While the Phantoms are supposed to rely on the Wifi networks for communication, it’s possible wifi interference due to external overlap from adjacent networks on the same channel can cause audio dropouts. This is where PLC comes in. We’re still trying to figure out the specifics on the forums, but it appears Dialog + Phantoms use wifi and PLC simultaneously when available to ensure the system is robust by using both methods for redundancy. In a wifi setup, best results are achieved when the PLC communication is present.

    But even in a wifi + PLC setup, I’ve sometimes experienced audio dropouts on occasion.

    For the most robust setup, hardwired ethernet is also possible between Dialog + Phantoms. On the unofficial Devialet forums, this is the preferred way for overall system stability.

    Hope this information is helpful.

  13. The only thing holding me back is my partner who thinks they are ugly. Oh well – multiple boxes will reign

  14. Interesting review – thank you. Greatest thing about these is the price to quality ratio. Will definitely give something to think for the other players in the market. Would like to see Devialet licensing RoomPerfect from Lyngdorf as such modern tech should be combined with decent room correction to get most out of them.
    Only downside is the looks: these would ruin mid century modern living room for good :(
    They look like Dyson vacuum cleaners.

  15. So – given Futureshocked Parts 1 & 2 in toto and the concept of properly affordable audio, what are your thoughts on the initial purchase of a single phantom followed by a second phantom at future date? Is the quality of a single phantom such that a slightly longer runway to a full set is worthwhile?

    • Personally, I couldn’t live with only one. It’s two or nothing for me, as it might be for anyone accustomed to stereo separation.

    • I think it was a HUGE mistake for Devialet to send single Phantoms to reviewers. A single Phantom does not do justice to their sound quality. Instead, it would have been better if Devialet marketed them as 2.0 systems primarily, with the ability for individual use or multiple use as options.

      If you hear a single Phantom, it will sound good, but they are simply incredible in a 2.0 application.

      As long as you have this in mind and do not compare a single Phantom to other “lifestyle” systems in terms of price (which is what most reviewers you will see online have done), then sure, buy one now and get the other when funds allow.

      • Let’s be clear: Devialet didn’t send me a single Phantom. I asked for one from the Aussie disty ‘just to play with’. A review was not planned. It’s only after hearing a pair at a friends house and then attending the Melbourne launch event that I requested a second Phantom.

  16. Given that the Phantoms compare well to the Expert-LS50 combo and the marked price differential in favour of the Phantoms, I’m surprised there is no DAR_KO award to be seen. Can you comment?

    Big fan of your work by the way. I find your reviews informative and entertaining.

    AM