SO ONE DAY, there was nothing. The next day, out of the blue, there was this new audio brand from France with a breath of fresh air amplifier that looked like nothing we’d ever seen. It seemed to have been carved from solid by a designer with an eye for the gorgeous. Old school hi-fi this wasn’t! Apparently the internal design was as different as the outside thanks to some very innovative thinking, and the thing started blowing the minds of reviewers all over the world.
That amp was the Devialet D-Premier. Given that we’re way down in NZ, there didn’t seem to be much of a chance to hear one, so I put Devialet more or less out of my mind, which is probably how I came to have a number of misconceptions about the amp and the brand itself.
When Jeff Clark at The Audio Consultant told me that he was importing Devialet, I thought that things might be looking up but when he invited me to meet one of the guys from the company, I knew they were. So I drove up to Auckland to spend a couple of hours chatting to Andy Kennard, Devialet’s General Manager for Asia.
After arriving at Jeff’s new showroom in Ponsonby, I spent some time taking a closer look at a Devialet 170 hanging on a wall between two Focal floorstanders. In the flesh, this thing really does look like a piece of art. It’s stunning in ways that I never thought an audio product could be. When I sat down to chat to Andy, I looked at his business card and my first question was to ask what on Earth a tiny French hi-fi company needed with a General Manager for Asia? Andy just laughed and asked me to remind him to tell me about the six guys who work for him in the Asia region alone.
He then proceeded to explain a number of things about the company that had totally escaped me. Mind = blown, as they say.
Andy Kennard: “Okay, so this is the marketing strapline that we’ve had for the last six months or so. It’s just about to change but actually, we’re very serious. This is exactly what we expect to do.”
(Said marketing strapline is: ‘One day, everyone will own a Devialet’).
Now that doesn’t mean that everyone will own one of these (points at the 170 on the wall). They’re very good value for money but they’re a lot of money and that’s not necessarily for everybody, but it gives you an idea of the future of the company. We expect to make an impact on everybody and how everybody listens to music, which is a very, very big goal.”
Witchdoctor: “You’re telling me!”
Andy went on to tell me about how Devialet was started by a guy named Pierre-Emmanuel Calmel, who is also the inventor of the technology in the amplifiers. He used to run research for Nortel Networks, which as you can imagine is a fairly serious position. He’s a software and electrical engineer, and as Andy put it:
AK: “You tend to get breakthroughs in any industry when you take technology from another industry and bring it across. Perhaps the audio industry isn’t renowned for being leading edge in terms of innovation, where the telecoms industry really is. Pierre’s an audiophile and a musician – he plays saxophone – and he was frustrated that analogue amps sound really awesome but have to be 70kg with big heatsinks. They’re terribly inefficient, where digital amps are incredibly efficient but sound brittle. He was playing around with the idea that you could have the best of both worlds – an analogue amp with the efficiency of a digital amp. So he created the very first hybrid analogue/digital amplifier. Luckily for him it worked, and he started to imagine what he could do to make it better. He was so excited that he formed a company.”
WD: “It doesn’t sound like the little hi-fi company I’ve got in my head.”
AK: “It’s not. He got together with some friends, who were also passionate audiophiles and musicians who bring complementary experiences and skills. One of the reasons that many startups don’t do well is that they have one great thing, an invention or a leader or something but they don’t have the skills that you need to grow a company. But here you’ve got a technical guru, and a design guru who doesn’t do audiophile design, his family business is high-end Swiss watches…”
WD: “You can tell that someone who isn’t a hi-fi guy designed that thing, or else it would look like that (points to a rack of Musical Fidelity components on the other side of the room).”
AK: “Absolutely. He’s a very interesting guy and an utter perfectionist. Now these two guys are strategy consultants. In fact, this guy owned a strategy consulting business, and this one is a retail sales and marketing specialist. You need the right team to get this kind of startup to work.”
WD: “This is the kind of team you’d expect to be behind a big telco or IT startup, not an audio company.”
AK: “That’s true. I want to say something very politely here. There are so many brands out there, and they’re all lovely people and nice businesses making nice products but the companies lack either the skills or the ambitions to become something bigger. And a lot of the new technology is ‘I’ve used higher grade copper wire’ or ‘the power supply is even bigger than it was before’. Really? That’s the best of it? Devialet is a company that’s really trying to reinvent things and to change the industry because it’s from the outside, it’s not from the industry. So the goal is to change the way people listen to music everywhere, to become a multi-billion [dollar] Euro company that’s a household name.
Here’s a little sense of a company that’s serious and takes risks. This is the home of Devialet in Paris. It’s at the absolute centre of the city, top quality and top price real estate. This is the richest and wealthiest part of Paris. When they rented this space in 2010, there were nine people in the company. They said we’ll fill this and now we’re bursting at the seams. We’re about 76 people at the moment, we’re hiring two or three every month and there are 42 engineers amongst that.”
WD: “That’s quite an astonishing percentage of engineers.”
AK: “Seriously, in high-end, who’s got 42 engineers? So many of the names we’ve heard of in the industry, the well respected ones. They’re tiny. Nine people, maybe 30 people, so this wouldn’t make sense if we wanted to be a high-end audio niche, sell an amp or two type company. So you get a sense of what we’re trying to achieve. We plow back 80 percent of our revenue into R&D. So however impressed you are, or aren’t with what we’ve got, we’ve only just started.
We’re in 51 countries with 230 dealers. Compared to Macintosh for example, they’ve got around 300 dealers in the US, we’ve got 20 or 25, so there’s a lot of scope for growth for us. But in a risk averse industry, to do that in four years?”
WD: “Especially with the GFC in those years of course.”
AK: “And with a new brand and a new product that doesn’t look like anything else, that’s an analogue/digital hybrid. That’s seriously impressive. We tripled in size last year and we’ll do it again this year.”
Andy went on to explain how Devialet had raised 50 million Euros last year from some very well known French investors, who are all billionaires in their own right, including the guy who owns Louis Vuitton, Moet and Hennessy who’s also one of the 10 richest men in the world.
AK: “These are the people who can advise and sit of boards of directors and make a huge difference. Their networks are incredible, the kind of people who can pick up a phone and put you in touch with virtually anyone, so the value they bring is much more than a bit of cash. Which makes the company’s claim about becoming a multi-billion [dollar] Euro company all the more believable because investors like this aren’t audiophiles, they don’t care about audio, so why would they invest in another niche audio brand unless they saw the potential of the company.”
WD: “Nice! So, onto the products.”
AK: “ There’s a sense of revolution in all the comments we get from reviewers. It’s usually about best product/best sound but we also get design awards and entrepreneurial awards. We really care about design. Unfortunately, in the high-end audio space, which is where we are at the moment, good design is like…oh, you’re like Bang and Olufsen, you look beautiful, congratulations but how’s the performance? No way. This is a full-on, high-end technical audio company but from our perspective, there should be no compromises. Consumers don’t want compromise. If you’re lucky enough to buy a Ferrari or an expensive Swiss watch, you don’t say ‘Please make ultimate performance but make it ugly and industrial looking’, do you? No, you want everything. So that’s what we’re trying to do.
It’s a pretty looking box, you can wall-mount it. We care about the remote-control. When you ask consumers about whatever they buy (walks over to a Musical Fidelity amplifier and turns the large volume knob up and down), they say ‘this feels really nice, I love the tactile feel of it’ but it’s not quite the same on this (picks up the plastic remote control that comes with the MF amp) with volume up and volume down. They want the experience from their chair, and what they don’t want is something like that, which looks like a well-made, quality product and then you have a $30 remote control as an afterthought. So this is the sort of styling we have on our remote, where you have the tactile feel. This is a single chunk of aluminium like the unit itself. It’s solid. We really care about the details. Same with the packaging, we want every detail to make people feel good about buying this product.”
WD: “That’s critical at this price point. Even a set of $500 headphones should be properly presented, let alone a high-end amp.”
AK: “Absolutely. I’m relatively new to the industry and I still can’t get over the packaging, whether that’s literally the packaging, or the way the showroom looks. How come that packaging doesn’t match the price point and the quality of the products?”
WD: “It baffles me. Always has. You can spend more on an amp than a car but you don’t get treated that way.”
AK: “That’s the message we’re taking out as we recruit dealers. If you want to grow your business, then you’ve got to think outside of the hard-core audiophile customer base. You’ve got to think of new kinds of markets, and if I think of your doctor or lawyer, who’s got the money. If they’re excited about something, whether that’s a car, a watch, a pair or shoes or hi-fi, they’ll buy it but you’ve got to work in their world with design and a way of talking that suits them.
And I’ll pause here to say that this doesn’t mean that we don’t care about audiophiles. Right now, almost all of our customer base are audiophiles. In the future, it’ll be less than five percent but that doesn’t mean we’ll stop caring about the audiophiles. They give us credibility, because if the people who know what to buy, buy Devialet…”
WD: “Which is why the product isn’t just a styling exercise?”
AK: “Exactly right.”
…Continued in Part Two…