Close Encounters Of The Devialet Kind – Part Two

This is the second part of our interview with Andy Kennard, Devialet’s General Manager for Asia. Part one can be found here.

Andy Kennard: “Okay, so we brought this product out, the D-Premier. When we initially built it, it was like a concept car, sort of ‘We’re not quite sure what we’re going to commercialise but this is the kind of thing we’re thinking about’. We made 10 of them and punted them around some reviewers and said ‘What do you think? Give us some advice’ and the advice was overwhelmingly ‘Make this’, so we did. Then the D-Premier evolved into the 240, but we also had a 110 and a 170 – that’s watts per channel. Slightly different functionality and fewer inputs on the 110. We also made the monoblocks, which are two 240’s, which we call the 500, as in 500 watts per channel.

One of the things the designer bangs his fist on the table about is ‘Don’t tell me it’s an integrated amp’, functionally it’s a preamp, a power amp, a DA convertor, a phono stage and a Wi-Fi streamer but what we’d like to get across is it’s not like we got all these separate components and then stuck a wire between them to connect them all up. This was designed from the ground up with all the technologies working together. There are so many areas where Pierre-Emmanuel (the founder of the company) said ‘I don’t like the way this is done in audio, so I’m going to invent something new’. For example, shortest analogue signal path, so from analogue signal in to analogue signal out is 10 centimetres.

Think about the common logic in the industry where you have a separate box for each function so you don’t have the electrical circuits interfering with each other, so that must be better. Except that if you know how to build circuits that don’t make noise, then they won’t interfere with each other. Then you can have a major benefit – which is not having the disadvantage of all of those boxes in a rack, the signal coming in from your source has to go there, then there, then there, then there and there’s an awful lot of resistance and damage to the sound. Instead – 10 centimeters.”

Witchdoctor: “You’re speaking to someone who’s got five boxes of amplification.”

WD-Devialet-artAK: “Here’s something that surprises people. There are 58 patents in that box. We focus on a few that are easier to understand but there’s a lot that we invented to get the sound and functionality that we wanted.

The two that we highlight are these – Analogue/Digital Hybrid (ADH) and Speaker Active Matching (SAM). SAM hasn’t been formally announced, it’s coming out at Munich and we’ll demo it there. ADH has been around from the start and from our perspective, it’s about optimising the sound with the best of both worlds, analogue sound with digital efficiency, but SAM is optimising the speakers.

In terms of SAM, we were just exhibiting at the Shanghai Audio Show and to try to make the point of this, we had a big room, and in it we had a little table and on it were two 240’s, so two little boxes and a pair of B&W 800D speakers. For the Chinese market, those are iconic, incredibly popular speakers. They’re extremely well known but they’re also extremely well known as being very hard to drive, and we had thousands of people coming into the room over the three days saying ‘I cannot believe that the sound is coming from those speakers driven by those tiny little things there’. Lots of people said ‘That’s great but where are the amps?’, they were looking behind the screen at the back of the room, looking for racks of amps.

And that’s ADH. There’s an analogue amp, with a digital amp supplying extra current, and this very clever, software-driven control box knows how to dump current when you need to in such a way that it doesn’t affect the sound, and that’s the skill of it. “

WD: “It’s got to be hugely challenging to do that using software.”

AK: “When you go from converting current to voltage, conventional wisdom says you use an op-amp, and please bear in mind that I’m a sales guy bluffing you that I’m hugely technical at the moment, I’m not. The problem with op-amps is that there’s lots of distortion introduced to the audio signal, especially thermal distortion, and you create a lot of heat. So Pierre-Emmanuel again said ‘I need to invent something new, we just can’t have the distortion’. So we have a separate circuit made up of over 200 individual components although the sound only goes through two of those components and there’s zero thermal distortion. In lab tests, you can’t measure the thermal distortion, or any kind of distortion. So it’s a very clever way of extracting the musical part of the current from other types like offset current and then pumping that to the Class A amp.

Sometimes people say that they don’t believe it’s Class A but you can literally remove the digital amp and it’s a fully functioning Class A amp, low powered but fully functional.

When it comes to objective testing, we really are the industry leaders. This is the best performing amp, and whatever the measure is, it’s sometimes not like we’re 20 percent better than others, it’s more like 1,800 times better than the next best. Those are lab tests but in simplistic terms, I can do a little test with you if you’re a consumer. When you’re listening to a CD, we stop playback, turn the volume to the max and then ask you to put your ear right against the tweeter and ask what you hear. The answer is absolutely nothing, because this thing is so unbelievably quiet.”

WD-Devialet-faceWD: “Tell me more about this Speaker Active Matching.”

AK: “Okay, so how do you create sound? The amplifier sends a command to the speaker drivers to say please create a certain acoustic pressure that pushes the diaphragm of the driver. The problem is physics, you have something called inertia, which equals time delay, so the actual pressure that’s created that results in the sound isn’t the same as the original signal. Here’s a graph that shows the difference. For every model of speaker, not brand of speaker, that difference is different, there are different drivers, cabinets, crossovers so it’s complicated.What we’ve built is a technology that can measure for a particular model of speakers what the difference is and correct it.”

WD: “Is this as crude as digital signal processing?”

AK: “Well it’s done in the DSP, but it’s not ‘let’s boost the treble or the bass’, it’s not changing the sound of the speakers. It’s just making it more precise. The result is really fabulous. You know how when you do an audio demo and there are three audiophiles in the room and three ordinary people. All the audiophiles are going ‘Check out the decay of the piano note, it’s so different’ and the non-audiophiles are going ‘Uh? It’s just nice piano, I can’t tell the difference’. With SAM, non-audiophiles can tell the difference very very clearly. It makes the speaker a more expensive speaker, with much greater accuracy and transparency, the soundstage is clearer, the imaging more precise. And you can get lower frequencies too.

WD: “ I’d assume that this would provoke a lot of negative feedback from audiophiles because in their heads, it’s taking away from the purity. But I’ve always liked the idea of active speakers because at least the same design team worked on the amps and the speakers. But my speakers are made in Christchurch and the amps in Auckland. The designers didn’t collaborate. Maybe the amps don’t quite like the impedance curve of the speakers, who knows. But you’re saying that SAM will get the speakers to sound as close to what the designer intended.”

AK: “Well you’ll always get people arguing. It’s the same as is red wine best, is white wine best, Bordeaux vs. Burgundy. So I’m sure that there will be audiophiles who assume that we’re changing the signal so it must be bad, in the way that there are some who ignore the A in ADH and only focus on the D, and say ‘Oh it’s digital, it’ll sound brittle and horrible’. But as long as you’re open minded, it does sound better.”

WD: “That’s all that matters. If it sounds better, end of story, I’ve always said this. If you don’t like the sound of a $500 power cable, then don’t buy it.”

AK: “Of course. To give you a sense of what speaker manufacturers think, we don’t have any particular partnership with B&W, we’re friendly, they’re nice guys and we work with them sometimes. They came to Paris to hear SAM and they were a bit nervous that we were going to change the sound of their speakers. When they heard it, they said ‘We want to send you our entire range, when can we do it?’ because we have to do the lab testing. It was instant, and in future you’ll see more of this type of thing.

All we’re doing is correcting a flaw. It’s not the speaker manufacturer’s fault. It’s physics.”

Looking to tweak? Go for it!

WD: “So given the software based functionality, I understand that the Devialet amps offer a fair amount of customisation?”

AK: “You go onto our website, click a button called Configurator and you get a picture of the back of the unit. You can configure it to your heart’s content via SD card.

We sometimes get told that the amps are beautiful but can’t be for hard-core audiophiles, the ones who like to tweak. Well, we have customers that have 12 SD cards on a table, most don’t do this obviously but they’ll have one for Jazz at 3AM and one for Classical and on and on. My point is that the configurability is huge, even in the phono stage for example. You don’t even have to run the amps at max power, if you want to have a go at 160 watts or 128.5, it’s up to you. Analogue outputs can become digital outputs, or can become a pre-out or a sub out with a click. If you want to monoblock it, click. If you want to use eight of them, click. We do have customers with four and eight. It’s just so simple.”

WD: “The pricing is pretty good, especially at the 110/170 point.”

AK: “It is a lot of money but it’s great value for money. I’ve tried this exercise a number of times – try to spend that amount of money on separate components.”

WD: “Good point seeing as you’re getting the phono stage and a WiFi streamer too.”

AK: “We have a number of customers who got into the brand because an enterprising dealer suggested they use it as a power amp and only a power amp, against say a $20,000 Class A unit. The customer goes ‘really?’ and gives it a go. Then they find it’s better, so they trade in their power amp but then they can trade in their preamp, DAC, interconnects. You can give people money and a Devialet!”

WD-Devialet-rearWD: “So there are functionality differences between the models?”

AK: “They’re all giving you the same sound. It’s not like this one’s got a cheap engine and cheap tyres but this one’s got something different. They’re all giving you the same amplification circuitry, the same patents and technology. They don’t sound identical because they have different power levels and some of the components in the 110 aren’t the same spec as the ones in here because you simply don’t need them. You’re not putting the same power through, so it’s just massive overkill. The chassis on the top model is different because it needs to dissipate more heat because of the extra power. What you’re buying into is more flexibility, and the ability to drive bigger, harder speakers”

WD: “Speaking of flexibility, earlier, you mentioned upgradability…”

AK: “This slide is a good way to show the promise of the Devialet software platform – here we have the 110, 170, 240 and 500. We’re going to rename the line in two weeks and we will call these the 120, the 200, the 250 and the 800 (although it’ll deliver 670 watts per channel). My point here is that through a simple software upgrade, you’re getting more power, and if you’re an existing customer, you’ll see that we’re advertising a 200, and you’ll go ‘Oh no, what about the 170 I just bought?’ Well no worries, put it the firmware update and you’ve got a 200. So the power will increase in all units in the line.

So what will we announce at Munich? No new hardware, we don’t need any. Speaker Active Matching, power improvements, and so many functionality updates that I can’t cover them all. Let me give you a few examples – this model can now be daisy-chained, you’ll be able to use the inputs and outputs of the slave unit, the USB will become bidirectional, so if you’ve got a turntable and you want to rip your vinyl collection, you can now do that in 24/192, all you need is a computer. There’s a remote App, which will become more functional, the display becomes a little bit more modern and so on.

Everything that we’re doing, we’re trying to improve on. Everyone is complaining about an audiophile market that’s getting smaller and smaller, that’s getting older, when will the good old days come back? Wake up! They’re not. And if you want to survive as a retailer, you’ve got to adapt. Yes keep your audiophile customer base, but you have to find a new type of person that’ll buy products from you, and new sorts of products. And that works for both the audiophile buyer and the traditional B&O buyer or white-collar workers who will invest if they’re excited about something.”

WD: “I quite like that you don’t really have to sell this to the wife, so to speak. It just looks so good.”

AK: “You can’t imagine the number of times that a guy comes in with his wife and she’s been round three shops and he’s been ‘What about this thing here?’ and she’s politely going “Ummmmm I don’t know’ and then she sees a Devialet and she says ‘Buy that one’.

The number of questions where Devialet can be the answer is growing – from the high-end customers with their Nautilus speakers to home theatre, hard to drive speakers, bedrooms where there just isn’t room, you name it. It’s a really nice place to be.” ASHLEY KRAMER

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