Inside Track: The Devialet Story
David Price talks to Pierre-Emmanuel Calmel, co-founder of the illustrious French high-end hi-fi brand…
“It was a crazy idea”, Pierre-Emmanuel Calmel tells me. “People around me were telling me I was insane. I came up with the idea of putting together analogue and digital amplifiers, which ultimately became my Analog Digital Hybrid (ADH) technology. So I started working on this, making simulations, and in 2004 I issued my first patent, and started what ultimately became Devialet. It took me three years to have the first working prototype.”
Pierre-Emmanuel says that he is, first and foremost, a music fan and music technology lover. “I had been doing electronics since the age of fourteen, and I learned it before going to engineering school. For ten years after I graduated I worked in the telecommunications industry, and it was very interesting because you have access to state-of-the-art technology. So my tech side was fulfilled, but I was missing the music and the emotional part of my aspiration.”
The Devialet Founders: Quentin Sannié, Pierre-Emmanuel Calmel and Emmanuel Nardin - with the Phantom speaker.
Then, in 2002 when the 'dot com' bubble exploded, he was working for Nortel Networks, and everything stopped. “For two years,” he remembers, “the engineers had literally nothing to do there. So I had a lot of time to think about my passion for audio amplification – and at that time, it was also the boom for multichannel systems. The sound of this wasn't good, mainly because it used Class D amplification with good thermal efficiency but poor sound quality, and five or seven channels in one single enclosure. So I took up the challenge of how to make the best audiophile amplification with the efficiency of digital amplification and the quality of analogue hi-fi amplifiers…”
“The idea was simple”, he says. “You put an analogue and a digital amplifier together, you connect their outputs together, and you control the digital amplifier in such a way that it is helping the analogue one. It's like a current boost topology, but when adding the analogue amplifier directly connected to the loudspeaker you get the fidelity of the analogue one – what the digital amplifier is not able to provide in terms of transients, the analogue one provides. So this the main idea, but at that time I didn't anticipate that the digital amplifier helping the analogue one, would let the analogue one perform better…”
He continues: “So for example, imagine the digital amplifier is providing 99% of the current and the analogue one is proving just 1%, it means that if you are driving an 8 ohm speaker for the analogue amplifier it's like driving an 800 ohm speaker. Actually, the ratio isn't one hundred times, but ten thousand times at least – so I got outstanding performance, such as 0.001% THD at full power, and barely measurable output impedance of between one and ten micro ohms, so actually you're measuring the impedance of the copper between the output transistors and where you put the scope!”
He says that thanks to the digital amplifier, the analogue amplifier provides almost no current but is still providing the voltage swing. “I placed the analogue amplifier in a moving voltage reference – the analogue amplifier sees almost no voltage swings either. It's the same as when you're in an elevator, you don't see the steady state. It was so hard to make this work – it was quite easy to get the same level of performance as an average analogue amplifier, but it was much more complicated to get it further. It was a delicate balance between benefits and difficulties.”
Pierre-Emmanuel points out that his Class ADH system is a much more complex and expensive system than conventional Class D or Class AB because you have both, plus the control system, plus the fact that you have to make the digital amplifier in quite a special way. “So to be able to put it in a product with its performance and efficiency benefits, it took three years of R&D”, he says. “Many times we hit a brick wall, and we had to find a way to overcome the limitations. So the end product was slightly different to the way I imagined it many years ago.”
It was at this time that he met industrial designer Emmanuel Nardin. “We had a common client. I was doing the electronics and Emmanuel was doing the enclosure. He had been an audiophile for a very long time and was dreaming of designing audio products. We thought there was no point in making another standard-looking black box, so we spent one and a half years before creating Devialet, around 2007. We talked about how we could make a new hi-fi company based on disruptive design – and the marketing to go around it, and the way to create a luxurious brand.”
Pierre-Emmanuel says that it was a very intricate process between the design and technology side, with each challenging the other. “For instance, when we designed the D Premier, we had a very compact amplification system but we needed to make a compact power supply. So Emmanuel challenged me one day, saying, “are you able to make a power supply the size of two cigarette packets?” I am not a smoker, so I didn't know how big this was, and so I said yes. Only later did I realise how small they were!”
This was his first time in the audio industry, so he had no expectations when the first D Premier amplifier launched in 2010. “We were up on the first-floor mezzanine at the Munich High End Show, next to Pioneer, and their engineers came to us every day to listen and said, “thank you, you don't imagine how refreshing it is for us to see a company like you, bringing something new to this industry!”. We also had a very good relationship with Magico and many other loudspeaker brands, from the beginning, as well. We won many awards, like the Best of CES Innovation Award, and got great praise for the measurements in the world's hi-fi press.”
Pierre-Emmanuel remembers this time as being very exciting. “We were so small yet at the same time so giant. At the beginning of the story, you have nothing to lose and everything to win. We had to find a way to tell everybody that we were something new and something amazing. We spent the first two years travelling around the world, making our global brand, opening our first shops. And we met a lot of people, all the major companies and musicians, just to say we are here!”
“Launching a speaker such as the Phantom is always a risk but it was part of our vision that we had since the beginning”, he explains. “We didn't want to just make amplifiers, we wanted to elevate the sound quality and make it open to as many people as possible. When we launched the D Premier, our advertising said “one day, everyone will own a Devialet”. At the time, the D Premier cost over 15,000 Euros, so it wasn't for everyone; we had a roadmap in mind, and the Phantom loudspeaker was the second product we wanted to do. In order to do that, we had to develop many technologies.”
The next of these was the company's Speaker Active Matching Technology. “We developed it first for Phantom but introduced it first on Expert. We used D Premier as our development platform. The second thing we needed to make Phantom a reality was to put the ADH technology into a chipset; on the D Premier it was on a microprocessor and on Phantom it went onto a second-generation chipset. We also needed to become acoustic experts – which was very different to electronics, a purely separate world. So we started working with a small, talented acoustic start-up in Lausanne, which we integrated into the company very soon, and everything was possible – they had carte blanche to create something crazy and new…”
He continues: “It was the first time for many things – including for a transducer with such a long throw. Nobody wanted to manufacture it, so we had to build our own transducer factory and partnered with a small French manufacturer which had the beginning of an automated production line. Ultimately we bought them because we were doing ninety percent of their turnover!”
This period saw Devialet's research and development team really come into its own, spearheaded by Pierre-Emmanuel. “We wanted to create several things. First, to have in-house the knowledge and expertise of everything which is implied – electronics, microelectronics, signal processing and control software, acoustics, mechanics, design, manufacturing processes. We issue many patents. Innovation, knowledge and expertise is there at every step. If you are not doing all this by yourself with the mechanical integration in-house, and you're just asking a third party to do it for you, it's not possible. We are middle-sized in the audio industry – we have about four hundred people working for us – but we do it all ourselves.”
“We will never introduce a “me too” product. With Gemini, it is our first True Wireless product, and it is rated number one for sound quality and ANC, the latter is 10dB to 15dB better than top market product – and they has been doing that for twenty years! We are the newcomer for ANC, but it is better because we are designing everything ourselves. We do that not for the sake of better technical figures, but sound – it lets you listen to the music with less fatigue at the end of the day. We are not doing outstanding figures for the pleasure of having outstanding figures. We are looking at particular types of products and seeing if we can make a difference, using our unique approach.”
Pierre-Emmanuel adds that the challenges for True Wireless speakers and traditional speakers are different. “With True Wireless it is not hard to reproduce deep bass because you are no longer just moving air, but you are working with pressure because it's so close between the transducer and eardrum. When we launched Phantom, the challenge was to do great bass with a compact enclosure – if you look on the market, what loudspeaker is able to reproduce such bass at such level, maybe Magico or Focal's Grand Utopia only. That was the raison d’être for Phantom, and as well as providing a convenient way to have access to this sound quality.”
“With the D-Premier we have a bridge between traditional audiophile systems and what we see as the future of audio”, says Pierre-Emmanuel. “It has a state-of-the-art phono preamplifier with tremendous performance. You are able to tune the input impedance and capacitance for the cartridge – it's really audiophile-grade performance. And yet the amplifier is also superb at streaming hi-res digital audio.”
He adds, “I think we were right about streaming from very early on. We anticipated that streaming quality would reach the right level, and this is absolutely where the industry is going. Amazon Music is now high resolution, the same way as Apple, and Spotify has said it's going to be CD-quality also. We think we have the right products at the right time – five years ago it would have been too early. Now we have the sound quality and the streaming capability and it's a perfect match with our product.”
Pierre-Emmanuel sees Devialet as being a sort of 'gateway' between audiophile products and mass-market consumer electronics, citing Apple as a great example of a market disruptor that popularised (what was then) leading-edge digital technology. “When you inspire people in a positive way, it's a good thing. When you look at what Apple has done – after it made graphical interfaces for computers, then soon all computers got them. Then they introduced the iPhone, and now all the phones on Earth are derived from it. It widens the audience, widens the market. It's one thing to have the patents, but it's another thing to have a wide enough market – if we were the only ones to say high-quality streaming is important, that would not be enough. You need Apple, Sony, etc., to make it work for everyone. There is a balance between doing innovative products, and products that will sell.”
He continues: “We have countless discussions between Franck Lebouchard (CEO) and Emmanuel Nardin (designer) and myself – if we just listen to Emmanuel then the product is never luxurious enough, if you listen to me there's never enough technology inside and Franck also has to make the balance with all the constraints of a business to run. It's not an easy job to make the right decision – and even harder when we're a really fast-growing company. Devialet now has nothing to do with the company of five years ago, and that had nothing to do with Devialet of ten years ago. The people in our organisation have to evolve, and this is both exciting and challenging. We've had to transition from a start with no process, no rules and nothing to lose to a more organised company – and this is what happened when we started to design the Phantom loudspeaker. It was an interesting time, I would say, and a difficult time also. When we were ten people, we had lunch every day together – but when you have four hundred people you can't do that!”
Pierre-Emmanuel reflects that when the company started to design the Phantom, it had just raised 10 million Euros with a company of ten people. “That was a crazy time! It took five months to do, and during this time period I worked until 3 am every day, including weekends, then I drove home and slept a few hours and then I was at the office at 7.30 am. Plus, simultaneously I was creating and recruiting the R&D team of fifty engineers, and starting the microelectronic development and working with the acoustic development. When I look back, I think, “Wow, how did I manage to do that?” So things change all the time, it's always a challenge – but I've never done the same thing twice since I created Devialet. Every day is a new day with excitement and it's been a wonderful journey since the start.”
Devialet Co-founder, Pierre-Emmanuel Calmel
Devialet's name is a reference to the French Enlightenment philosopher Guillaume Vialet, who, along with Denis Diderot, was a key contributor to the French Encyclopaedia. “He sought to make the world a better place through his intellectual, cultural, and scientific commitment. And that is an admirable pursuit, and our approach to technology”, Pierre-Emmanuel informs me.
The company continues to innovate and develop patents and new technologies. Still, Pierre-Emmanuel has what he calls “all these talented people working for me now”, and so has almost no limits to create new things. “We now have a Chief Technology Officer who is responsible for the day-to-day innovation, and I now have a small team who I can work with coming up with new ideas, reminding me of those early days of innovation. So each time we enter a new category, it will be a state-of-the-art product – with the focus on sound quality. Everything interests us, with immersive sound and active noise cancellation being particular fascinations. It's easy to make noise, it's difficult to make music!”
David started his career in 1993 writing for Hi-Fi World and went on to edit the magazine for nearly a decade. He was then made Editor of Hi-Fi Choice and continued to freelance for it and Hi-Fi News until becoming StereoNET’s Editor-in-Chief.
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