Here’s something interesting: speakers made by a musician for playing music that sounds like music.
WHEN THE PRICE of a pair of loudspeakers starts nudging its way towards the 10 thousand dollar point, things start getting really interesting. In the grand scheme of all things audiophile that’s not a lot of money, but for many punters these may well be the last (and best) speakers they ever buy, so the damn things better be spectacular.
Fortunately for the DeVore Fidelity Gibbon 88 floorstanders, their designer has ticked all the boxes. John DeVore is a musician who’s also worked in the rarefied world of high-end hi-fi. As anyone with a foot in both camps will tell you, playing music and playing back music are often two very different things. According to the DeVore website, his design sensibilities are primarily orientated towards making hi-fi sound like live music, complete with the emotional impact. As he puts it: “I know playback will never approach the live experience, but it became my goal to create audio equipment that brought the listener into the listening experience, and then held their interest there like a live performance.”
That’s an admirable goal, and one that seems a long way removed from the “input numbers into computer program and then build the speaker that the computer (and the marketing department) tell you to build” school of thought. This means that DeVore’s products will never be mainstream but for enthusiasts, that’s a very good thing.
Design, Features & Construction
John DeVore approaches his speaker designs from a holistic perspective, with every element working with, and complementing every other element:
“Pursuing designs that embody both engineering and artistic integrity holds the most reward for me. A perfect design is not one where form follows function, but rather one where form and function are developed as equals to form a unified whole.”
One look at the Gibbon 88s in their cherry bamboo finish tells you all you need to know about the deft touch DeVore has for form: these speakers are lovely. Not nice, not pretty, not stylish. Just lovely. The veneer is gorgeous, except for the fact that it’s not a veneer at all; these speakers are hand made using solid bamboo. The light colour is perfectly complemented by the black gloss front and rear panels. The fit and finish is perfect and the overall looks are entirely in keeping with the price. The cabinets aren’t rock solid, heavily braced numbers – there’s a fair amount of noise as opposed to a dull thud when they’re given a thump with a knuckle but as we’ll see, this makes no difference to the way they sound.
The small grilles are held on with strong magnets but the Care And Feeding Guide (i.e. the user manual) reckons that the speakers sound better with them off, so the magnets are cunningly duplicated round the back so the grills can be popped on and popped off as required.
When it comes to the functionality, DeVore’s holistic approach dictates that the componentry is high quality; even the stuff you can’t see. So, while the solid metal binding posts (single wire only) are obviously first-class bits, the wiring and crossover parts are all carefully selected and definitely not el-cheapo numbers from the bottom bin. The mid/woofer is a 7-inch treated paper unit backed up by a rear reflex port mounted halfway up the back panel. The tweeter is a comparatively small 0.75-inch silk dome, mounted below the woofer, and the tweeters are designed to be placed on the outer edge of the cabinet. At 94cm tall, the Gibbon 88s aren’t massive speakers but they do come with some of the best-crafted (and most lethal) adjustable spikes ever to grace my listening room. The spikes could be used to fend off invaders, but they’re best used to angle the speakers so that the top of the cabinet is only just visible when the listener is seated.
The Gibbon 88s are designed to be valve friendly but they’re certainly not flea-power SET amp friendly. With 90.5dB sensitivity, they’re going to be happier with a tube or solid state amp with a bit of grunt. This depends on listening levels and content of course – some folk run them with 15 watts of Shindo amplification on the end and report rapturous results. The impendence curve on the other hand is very friendly indeed, without any precipitous dips into amp-straining territory.
I figured that I could easily borrow an Ecko or Line Magnetic valve amplifier if my solid state Viganoni and Viganoni Sachem power amps weren’t a match made in heaven, but as it turned out the Gibbon 88s loved the Sachems, and vice-versa. Pre-amplification duties were handled by a StereoKnight Silverstone Balance transformer passive preamp, the source was my old Marantz SA8260 SACD player, and the cabling a mix of Slinkylinks cryo-treated silver (interconnect) and Monster M Series copper (speaker).
Running In & Listening – Going Massive
DeVore speakers seem to have picked up a bit of a reputation for needing to be broken in before they sound their best. As in really, really broken in. The manual states that the Gibbons need 200 hours to get to the point where they’re mostly sorted, with further incremental improvements happening all the way up to 1000 hours. From what I’m told, a brand new pair of Gibbon 88s changes dramatically between zero and 200 hours, particularly in the bass region. They’re now being pre run-in to a degree by the factory, which means that the differences should be less dramatic.
Not so, I’m afraid. The DeVore’s sounded good from the upper bass through to the top end when they arrived, but they seemed to be strangely reluctant in the low bass. It wasn’t a case of being bass light like a pair of standmounts or small floorstanders – they actually sounded slightly odd, with a bizarre thinness to the bass as if there was something wrong with the integration of the woofer and the port.
Knowing about the run-in requirements, I persisted and just let these speakers play away in the background at moderate to normal volume levels with the occasional foray into the loud zone. One day, after about a week, I had Massive Attack’s Collected CD playing on repeat when I noticed that the neighbours were away. So while I washed my car, the Gibbons got a vicious hammering at levels I wouldn’t normally entertain for more than a few minutes (not quite abusive, but close). After half an hour or so, with the mid/woofers moving back and forth like demented pistons, something had profoundly changed and it kept changing, albeit less dramatically over the next few days.
I don’t whether the timing was just right and the Gibbons had finally had enough of a run-in, or if they just needed to be worked seriously hard, but the low bass had put in an appearance, and while it wasn’t at subwoofer levels, it was there in spades. ‘Karmacoma’ sounded suitably huge, with a deep rumble that was far more impressive than the mild grumbling that had gone before.
Some people might write off Massive Attack’s back catalogue as nothing more than a collection of low frequency noises intermingled with obscure samples and an occasional bit of vocals. They’d be wrong, because not only is the music widely varied and hugely enjoyable, it’s also densely packed and well recorded in most cases. There’s a lot happening in some of those recordings, with layer upon layer coming together to form the whole. Generally I prefer to take in these sonic treats via good headphones or in-ear monitors, because they give me all the detail I want, along with the much-needed powerful low bass. Many speaker-based systems – even good ones – can obscure and muddy all that information. Not so the Gibbon 88s.
Admittedly, they needed some volume to really do justice to the music, and while they ran out of puff if the volume levels were pushed too high (car washing and critical listening require different levels, of course), the 7-inch driver and port were capable of generating more than enough low bass to make the tracks work. But where the speakers really shone was the way they handled subtle detail – from the textures in the big drums on ‘Daydreaming’ and ‘Inertia Creeps’ and the deep growl or snapped percussion on ‘Angel’ to the shimmering notes found in ‘Weather Storm’. The balanced performance of the DeVore’s kept me very close to enthralled.
In my room, the speakers were able to provide power and impact aplenty, and despite mentions in other reviews that these speakers aren’t great with heavier music, they seemed to revel in higher volume levels and music with big dynamic shifts and lots of drive. The port tuning is nigh on perfect, with no sign of chuffing; in fact, there’s no sense that the port is even active unless you place your ear very close to it, which is exactly how a port should behave. There’s no boom whatsoever to the overall bass: it’s very quick, runs cohesively from the bottom into the mids, and it integrated very well with my room once the speakers were placed about a metre from the rear wall.
The speakers were happy with rock ranging from Lynyrd Skynyrd to The Black Angels, sounding big and dynamic, far more so than the driver complement and cabinet size would lead one to believe. Their limits are obvious, and as long as you don’t push them too close to the edges of the envelope, they’ll handle the pressure and will sound good while doing it.
Detail, Detail & More Detail
From the top to the bottom, the Gibbon 88s delivered detail that was quite breathtaking. John DeVore talks about detail in his Buying Speakers: A Speaker Designer’s Perspective article that originally appeared on HiFi.com in 1998, and it’s worth quoting from this at length, because he makes some excellent points:
“Detail is an important quality of a good loudspeaker. Detail, or clarity, has to do with the amount of information you hear. The more detailed a speaker system is, the more musical information you get to hear. This aspect of a speaker’s performance is one of the most often misunderstood, and many mediocre speakers have been touted as having exceptional clarity when in reality they are overly bright, or artificially emphasized in the higher frequencies. This misrepresentation of clarity has made it more difficult to separate brightness from detail, especially for the novice speaker-buyer. A bright speaker is designed to stand out in a sound room when a listener is auditioning a number of speakers. It has a boost in the upper midrange that makes vocals, violins, drums, and other such instrumental sounds snap out at you and sound very sharp and present. It often sounds impressive in a sound room with a quick demonstration, but over time this exaggeration can be tiresome and annoying. A bright speaker will emphasize the “S” and “T” sounds in vocal recordings, making them pop out, and sound disjointed and disconnected from the rest of the voice.
“A speaker with true clarity does not exaggerate any one frequency or sound above others. It is far more even-handed, letting each instrument take its proper place among the rest, and allowing the original musical intent to come through. A speaker system that has better detail will allow you to hear more of the subtle nuances in the recorded performance. Maybe it will let you hear Ella Fitzgerald’s breath between phrases, or Kurt Cobain’s fingers on his guitar strings, or the woody, rosined quality of a violin. These little sounds may not seem like much individually, but together they bring you closer to the performance, and allow you to become more immersed in the experience. The easier you make it for your brain to believe there is live music in the room with you, the more you will enjoy the experience, and the more directly the artist’s intent will be communicated to you.”
Detail is probably the element of the Gibbon 88’s presentation that stands out the most (with imaging just below – more to follow on this). I didn’t find them to be at all bright or even well lit up top, even with the matter-of-fact Marantz/StereoKnight/Sachem combination in the loop. They’re neutral in the treble range, and everywhere else, so their sound is well balanced and reflects the music they’re fed – lush and full bodied with certain music, raw and gritty with other tracks as required. When it comes to detail retrieval and accuracy of timbre, that tweeter is amazing, as is the woofer; aided of course in no small way by the high-quality crossover. The midrange is butter-smooth, but wonderfully open and crisp – quite an achievement and a superb partner to the top-class treble and bass. That paper driver is fast and light, which translates into good dynamics and gives all kinds of music a lively energy that sets the feet tapping and ties in the emotional hook.
Turning to music that’s more subdued than seemingly endless spins of my Massive Attack CDs, I reached for Calexico’s splendid Carried To Dust CD. I was pretty sure that the DeVore’s would be perfectly suited to this subtle album, and so it proved. The background harmonies on ‘Writer’s Minor Holiday’ were beautifully overlaid around the main vocal and the instruments, giving a deep sense of ambience to the track. The percussion on ‘House Of Valaparaiso’ had a speed to it that was quite delicious, and once the horns kicked in, I was content to just hit repeat and ease back into the couch. Instruments sound lifelike (if not real) through the DeVore’s – guitar bodies have resonance and depth to their sound, double bass strings thrum and shiver and drum kits are rendered from a myriad of individual sounds. This makes for music that you genuinely can get lost in.
The Gibbon 88s are perfectly suited to female vocals, majoring on detail and texture while refraining from adding even a hint of sibilance to the music. If it isn’t there, you won’t hear it, and that’s a characteristic I really value considering how many female vocalists are in my collection. From the many splendored pleasures of the Rickie Lee Jones CDs that I purloined from Editor Steel, to the Diana Krall, Lisa Ekdahl and Aimee Mann discs in my own collection, I spent days trying to catch out the DeVore’s capacity for nuance. I failed every time.
Once they were set up properly according to the well-written and informative suggestions in the manual, the Gibbon 88’s offered a wide and deep soundstage that was taller than expected, especially considering the low mounted tweeter. Into this soundstage they placed artists and performers with great precision and focus – more like high-quality mini-monitors than floorstanders. The old reach-out-and-touch cliché comes to mind but forget about that, it’s enough to say that the DeVore’s are as adept with imaging as any speaker of their size that I’ve ever heard.
Review equipment comes and goes. Some ends up back in the box and returns to the distributors with barely a ripple in the force, but other gear leaves a Death Star-sized hole when it leaves. The DeVore Gibbon 88s did exactly that. I would walk past them and just appreciate their sheer beauty while they were doing nothing more than acting as furniture. The fact that they sound every bit as good as they look is enough to make me miss them heaps, and to earn them a very strong recommendation.
These speakers deserve really good amplification and sources, but they’re likely to match with just about any components that are able to deliver enough of their own elusive and subtle character.
Not everyone wants Cerwin Vega-style punch, and few people can accommodate a pair of 15-inch Tannoy’s in their lounge, which is where more delicate but vastly capable speakers like this come in. In the right room, and with their absolute volume limits and low frequency extension kept in mind, these speakers can sound as fragile as a tiny butterfly or hit as hard as a hammer on an anvil. They’re just lovely in every way and would definitely be on my list of must-listen-to speakers for anyone shopping in this price range. ASHLEY KRAMER
The only retail stockist of DeVore in NZ at the moment is Turned On Audio in Auckland www.turned-onaudio.co.nz