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French tech startup Devialet might have created the craziest wireless speaker ever. The Phantom pumps out music at a gut-impacting 99 decibels (about the same as what you get sitting on a motorcycle) via a streamlined sound system that packs all the components of a home audio setup into a glossy white package. The size: a little bigger than a bowling ball. Price tag: $1,990. Naturally, I had to take a closer look (and listen).
Devialet got its start in 2007 by engineering amplifiers for home audio systems that can sell for more than $30,000. Its calling card is a hybrid digital and analog amplification process that allows for high volumes without the distortion that usually comes with that territory. (Remember how your college roommate’s boombox used to sound when he was blasting Nirvana? Yeah, it won’t do that.)
We don’t need to get into all the gritty details of the proprietary amplification system, but suffice to say that Bernard Arnault, chief executive officer of LVMH, was impressed enough that he has invested more than $3 million in Devialet as part of its $19.1 million Series A funding round.
The Phantom contains all the components of a high-end audio setup in one unit.
The Phantom is Devialet’s first self-contained system, meaning you don’t need a collection of speakers, an amplifier, and a pile of other gear to actually hear your music—the digital-to-analog converter (DAC), processor, amplifier, loud speakers, and connectivity are all inside. Just plug the Phantom in, connect your phone, computer, or other audio source to it via Bluetooth or Wi-Fi, and you’re good to go. Think the power of a multipiece setup with the convenience of something like a Jambox. Devialet has received 88 patents on the Phantom and at almost $2,000, it’s the brand’s most affordable product yet. (Affordable, of course, is relative.)
The design is driven by the need for all the sound to originate at a single point at the center of the unit—hermetically sealed by 1.2 tonnes of pressure—and to radiate out from there. This lets the speakers sit very close together without interfering with one another. What we end up with is sort of a capsule shape with a glossy white surface and chrome accents.
It’s clearly well-made and a lot of care has been taken with the aesthetics, but if R2-D2 met the original iPod in a Left Bank nightclub, the Phantom might be the next-morning surprise. In other words, it’s much more Euro-tech than I’d like. In theory the Phantom is portable, too, but at 25 lbs. it’s not something you’ll want to be carrying from room to room too often. Although it does come with a really nice felt case (like carrying a very stylish kettle bell) when the need strikes.
Setting up the speaker is relatively straightforward. Plug it in (yes, at 750 watts it does have to be attached to a wall), turn it on, and pair it with your device over Bluetooth or Wi-Fi. If using the latter, Devialet’s proprietary Spark app (iOS and Android) acts as a bridge between the Phantom and your music, either saved or streamed through a limited selection of services such as Tidal. The app also gives you more detailed volume controls (levels 1-100) and lets you network multiple units together and control them independently from one dashboard, sort of like Sonos (more on that later).
While I was able to test the app during a guided demo of the Phantom, my review unit was a prototype without Wi-Fi and thus I was unable to use Spark during my own tests. I really wish I’d had a chance to get to know the interface better as it’s a critical part of the Phantom experience, and as it turns out, fairly necessary.
For instance, if you don’t use Spark and stream your music directly from Spotify or Google Play Music using your phone/music player, you only get the volume controls built into your device—the only actual button on the unit is the power button. So in my tests I was limited to the dozen or so dots on my iPhone when adjusting the volume. On something this powerful, that lack of 1-to-100 fine-grained control is a problem. I often found myself struggling to keep the volume at a comfortable level in my studio apartment. Even on low settings it was too loud on some songs, and when it was too quiet, raising it one bar would sometimes make it overbearing.
Goldilocksian ideals aside, high volumes are where the Phantom really shines. This is the speaker equivalent of a sports car revving to be let loose on country back roads.
As you crank the volume up to the maximum 99 decibels, the soundstage opens up and you really start to notice the clarity and separation between instruments. Bass shakes your chest—the side woofer cones hypnotically blur along with the music (with 30 kilos of thrust force, according to Devialet’s stats)—and treble is powerful without being shrill. Low-end heavy music such as SBTRKT and The Weeknd sounded boring on my headphones after using the Phantom. Listening to José González, I could almost feel the guitar strings in my hand.
I tested the Phantom both in a multi-thousand-square-foot loft in midtown Manhattan and on a large corporate terrace, and in both cases I was stunned by just how great the system sounded. The only thing missing was the party. If you want something for your living room or bedroom, the Phantom will likely be overkill (though it will still sound great).
If you ask the people at Devialet, they’ll tell you that they’re competing with full home theater and dozen-component audiophile setups and not Bluetooth or networked speakers. While this may be true in some ways, there’s no denying that the Phantom is looking to be a super-premium alternative to the likes of Sonos.
For just a few hundred dollars you can get into either the Sonos system (starting at $199) or the Definitive Technology wireless speaker system (starting at $399), both of which will sound great in most spaces. But the bass is where the Phantom wins out. While I didn’t test them head-to-head, without a $699 subwoofer offered by both Sonos and Definitive, none of the alternatives are going to come close to getting you that same bone-shaking feeling as the Phantom. Having twin woofers packed right into the all-purpose case gives it a leg up over less expensive self-contained options. But if you’re looking for a totally custom multi-unit setup, you’ll probably want to look elsewhere.
The Phantom is extremely high-quality but might be overkill for some people.
The Phantom is an extremely powerful audio system and definitely provides more power and clarity than anything else its size. You’d need an amplifier, a DAC, and two or three loudspeakers at the very least to get close. That said, it might just be too powerful for some customers, especially those who want to use the Phantom in a small space (like my shoebox Manhattan apartment) or without a proprietary app. If you’re looking to fill a huge space or like to entertain outside and want to spend your time enjoying music instead of worrying about wiring, you won’t find something better than the Phantom.
Preorders begin in the U.S. on June 18, with order fulfillment coming after Sept. 7. The initial batch of Phantoms is limited to 1,000 units.
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