Devialet Phantom II 98dB - Stereo Wireless Speaker Review
Michael Darroch thinks this striking new wireless speaker gives new meaning to the phrase “performance art”…
Phantom II 98dB - Stereo
When it comes to loudspeaker design, physics inevitably dictates form. While many manufacturers try to spice things up using various exotic materials, or a sprinkling of angular lines and curves, in truth, most contemporary designs are basically variations on the same theme.
It's here that the French high-end hi-fi brand Devialet attempts to stand out from the crowd. The company made a big impression with its highly distinctive Analog Digital Hybrid (ADH) amplifiers a decade ago, but it hasn't stopped there. Describing itself as “an acoustical engineering company operating at the intersection of luxury and cutting-edge technology”, its claims echo things we've heard in relation to even the most everyday items such as coffee machines and epilators. Yet, in the case of the Phantom speaker range, this is more than just marketing.
It could be said that the company's relative newness to the industry may have allowed it to pursue an approach to design and manufacture that would be an impossible risk for many long-established companies to take. Still, it's a revolutionary approach and a commitment to technology. Devialet's Phantom assembly line would not look out of place against some of the world's most advanced carmakers with a production process reminiscent of a sci-fi movie. It's a carefully choreographed dance of automation and innovation, resulting in a level of precision that allows the company to build the Phantom with reportedly a complete absence of internal wiring.
Released to critical acclaim for its bold aesthetic, unique bass driver design and super performance, Devialet has been refining and improving the Phantom line for several years now, culminating in the Phantom I 108dB in 2021. While already compact, the French brand created an even smaller sibling called the Reactor in 2018, which has now been renamed the Phantom II for simplicity's sake. This also happens to be the subject of today's review.
The Phantom II is available either as a single unit, or a stereo pair, in a 95dB or 98dB trim. For those looking for something even more exclusive, there is an Opera de Paris edition which is functionally a Phantom II 98dB but hand-trimmed in what Devialet calls 'Moon Gold', an exquisite palladium/gold alloy. Today though, we are hands-on with the Phantom II 98dB 'white' in a stereo pairing.
On specs alone, the Phantom II 98dB is already impressive. Being a wireless speaker, you can run it in a single room or integrate multiple units into a whole-house audio system. Offering Bluetooth, plus 2.4GHz and 5GHz Wi-Fi and Ethernet connections, you can take advantage of Airplay 2, Spotify Connect and Roon. If this wasn't enough, you can also use an external UPnP renderer to supply online or locally stored media of up to 96kHz/24-bit resolution. If you have even loftier expectations for a wireless speaker, you can even connect a turntable with the optional ARCH accessory.
Devialet claims some hefty performance numbers, citing a flare-flapping 400W RMS of power available from each unit using its proprietary Analogue Digital Hybrid (ADH) amplifier, and a claimed frequency response of 18Hz to 21kHz. Distortion is quoted at a vanishingly low 0.001% THD.
To this writer at least, what really impresses is the Phantom's appearance. Choosing to depart from the drudgery of conventional design, Devialet has created something that looks more like a modernist sculpture than a piece of audio equipment. Reminiscent of Barbara Hepworth's 'Oval Sculpture', the Phantom's design centres around its two, aluminium, partial-sphere woofers which sit within the aluminium central core, semi-encapsulated within the polished ABS and glass-fibre composite body. From the front, this appears almost entirely as a sphere, adorned by a small round grille, itself inspired by the design of French gardens, which holds the single full-range aluminium driver.
While the Phantom I uses a tweeter, this was dropped from the Phantom II to meet the exacting requirements dictated by the compact package. To allow room for the amplifiers, circuitry and heatsink, the rear of the Phantom elongates out, giving it the oval profile. On the rear face, a heatsink dominates the landscape with a small panel towards the bottom housing the AC cord plug, the 3.5mm input and an RJ45 Gigabit port.
The unconventional woofer design is a proprietary system that Devialet calls Heart Bass Implosion (HBI); in essence, it involves using a sealed chamber between large spherical drivers. There are several benefits to this which are at the heart of the performance of the Phantom speaker. For example, it allows the surface area of the woofers to be significantly larger than what would be possible with a conventional driver design – necessary when designing a compact speaker. It also allows for a large degree of movement in the drivers, which is also critical to reproducing the deepest sounds. Devialet says that the spherical surface significantly reduces diffraction across the drive unit cone, improving the reproduction of the sound.
Power amplifiers come in several different types; most are typically Class AB which puts out a good deal of power with low distortion. Class A offers even better sound but creates a lot of heat, while Class D arguably sounds slightly inferior but is very thermally efficient – it puts out lots of power with relatively little heat. Devialet's engineers have created an interesting hybrid of Class A and Class D, called ADH; under normal listening conditions, it outputs in Class A mode but calls up Class D mode when serious amounts of reserve power are needed. This system is said to be able to mete out enough power for the HBI woofer system. Devialet claims that its performance is comparable to the best Class A amplifiers on the market.
Speaker Active Matching (SAM) is also used, another of Devialet's proprietary technologies developed for its Expert Pro amplifiers. It allows the output signal to be specifically tuned for the physical properties of the speaker itself, which Devialet measures with literal laser precision. In practice, this is said to offer more accurate and expansive bass performance. You might think of it as being similar to Audyssey or DIRAC, but instead of correcting for your room, it's correcting for the physical properties of your speaker to ensure you are getting the sound that the creator intended.
On extricating the speaker from its packaging, my immediate reaction was that this was much smaller than I anticipated, given its weight. At 157x158x168mm in size, you certainly don't expect 4.3kg to hold the heft that it does, but this is a reassuring feeling of solidity commensurate with the price.
Setup is completed through Devialet's app, which is refreshingly simple to use. As I am reviewing a stereo pair, these come as two single Phantom IIs paired in the app as a single speaker, which is then recognised by Spotify or my UPnP renderer, either as a Bluetooth speaker or as a network speaker. The app also lets you adjust equaliser settings for bass and treble, as well as latency for using the Phantom in a multi-room environment. A handy night mode will trim the bass output for late-night listening.
Devialet has clearly worked hard to make a quality user interface, which does mean that using a third-party UPnP renderer (in my case, Bubble UPnP) to be able to stream lossless audio over Wi-Fi, rather than using lossy Bluetooth, does take you out of the premium ecosystem Devialet has curated. This is a fairly niche usage scenario, but it would have been nice to control all my sources within Devialet's premium app interface or from the source app similar to Spotify Connect.
The output is the biggest surprise when you listen to the Phantom II 98dB. I did not believe it possible to draw such a massive sound from such a small speaker. You can read the specifications, but when you play your favourite songs, it's impossible not to be awestruck by just how well the full spectrum of those tracks is reproduced from a speaker that would almost fit inside a very baggy pocket.
Not only is the output power surprising, but that it's also achieved with such a low level of distortion. No matter what volume level you choose, the Devialet never displays any characteristics of harshness or fatigue. The combination of the ADH and the SAM partner to create an impossibly dynamic but clear reproduction that never exceeds the grasp of the HBI woofer system. The only distortion you notice is that when you really dial up the volume to a level that the bass drivers can't supply, the SAM trims the necessary frequencies to ensure that the drivers aren't overwhelmed. The bass level relative to the rest of the track begins to reduce audibly, and the Phantom overall maintains its clarity and poise.
Alicia Keys' Fallin contains a good test of low-frequency capability in the resonant bass drum beat. While the HBI woofers responded with detail and enthusiasm, it was the rich vocal detail that really captured my attention. This characteristic wasn't just obvious from the queen of soul herself, but also the delicacy of the overlaying textures as her backup vocalists joined the track. Each voice was given its own space and detail by the Phantom's more-than-capable drivers, with soundstaging beyond what you'd expect from a speaker of the Phantom's size. It wrapped around my listening space in a wholesomely satisfying way.
Chan Chan from Buena Vista Social Club is an intensely rewarding and complex listening experience, opening with strength and precision. One of the perks of the driver design in the Phantom II is the pleasure of watching the spherical woofers pulsing outwards like a mechanical heartbeat on steroids. The prominent bass taps that pulse through the song leveraged a surprising amount of motion, demonstrating just how hard the HBI system will work to deliver every nuance of a song, and how much energy is hidden in a track that I wouldn't describe as particularly bass-heavy.
Each instrument was such that I could listen to the song and follow a different musician with every replay, yet sit back and enjoy a cohesive singular performance delivered by the Phantom pair. The depth of the performance overall really draws the listener deep into the musical experience, with the left-right separation allowed by the duo combining in a lively and realistic delivery. Many larger speakers would struggle to deliver a performance as full and clean as this.
Also, Sprach Zarathustraby Richard Strauss is perhaps a classic as embedded with futurism as Devialet's Phantom hails to. Again, the combination of the deep bass performance and the clarity of the full-range driver lent itself to creating a menacing tension in the build-up before the horns and drums. These then committed fully with no sign of fatigue or harshness, the rolling timpanis maintaining balance in the crashing crescendo of the strings and horns that punctuate the piece's closing.
Yet there is also space for softness. Hungarian Dance No5 delivered by Isaac Stern on the violin emoted precision and resolution from the Phantom that perfectly captured the texture of this beautiful instrument. The brute force of the clashing cymbals was as pleasing to the ear as the later gentle ringing of the triangle; nothing was lost. This was an incredible accomplishment for a small wireless speaker.
Life isn't all dinner parties, though, and Metallica's Unforgiven did provide an interesting test of the Phantom's flexibility. The classic Ennio Morricone-style opening is wide and pleasing, but once the drums and guitar join in, the Phantom II becomes a little bright for my taste. Thankfully, the EQ control on the Devialet app allows for simple adjustment of the treble. After dropping a couple of notches of high frequency, the overall response became more balanced, a trait that carried through to Enter Sandman.
While the brash cymbals were tamed, I did feel like the vocals in this track became slightly recessed as a result. This seems to be a one-band trait, though, as another song that can often appear shrill is While My Guitar Gently Weeps by The Beatles. Here, the organ accompaniment can be a little hard on the ears on lesser equipment, but the Phantom II displayed appropriate restraint, ensuring even at volume, this was a refined experience.
If there is one criticism to be made of this speaker, it is that it's an over-engineered product. While its striking looks are matched by the equally striking performance, the end result is a speaker whose transparency leaves little room for personal taste. Those who appreciate a lively output focused on resolution will relish the characteristics of the Phantom II, as it takes all the information your source can muster, and brings it bigger and cleaner into your room. Yet, for those preferring a warmer sound, you may find the Phantom II to be a little too clean and refined.
In the Phantom II 98dB, Devialet has succeeded in taking all the quality and character that made the original Phantom speaker so good, and managed to significantly shrink it while still retaining its very high performance. The Phantom II has been elevated to true wireless hi-fi status by introducing the ability to stereo-pair these units. Incredibly, despite the ear-pleasing performance, it's still the striking aesthetic and unconventional bass driver design that makes it a talking point in any room – and thanks to its wireless integration, every room.
For more information visit Devialet
With a 20 year passion for home cinema ensuring he will never be able to afford retirement, Michael’s days involve endless dad-jokes and enjoying the short time before his son is old enough to demand the home theatre becomes a temple to Frozen II.
Posted in:Applause Awards 2022 Loudspeakers Active Bookshelf / Standmount Smart / Bluetooth Hi-Fi Lifestyle
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