Australian Hi-Fi caught up with Andy Kennard Devialet’s General Manager, Asia at the recent Melbourne AV Show. Among many topics, we discussed Devialet’s SAM (Speaker Active Matching) project which adapts and corrects loudspeaker time domain irregularities on a model-specific basis.
Andy Kennard: You know Edgar, most journalists around the world reviewing Devialet are doing SAM reviews. It’s a new technology and it’s great to have innovations in the industry. We are now selling the Devialet concept with SAM as a system in the context of the Atohm GT1 speakers you saw in the Avation and Audio Fidelity room. Also interesting is what we did recently in Shanghai, for example. Chinese audiophiles are hardcore, they really do their research, they really know their stuff and they buy brands that they’re familiar with. One of the iconic speakers for the Chinese market are the B&W 800 Diamond but, as you know, they’re very hard to drive. So we just have an empty room with the 800 Diamonds with not even a Hi-Fi rack, just a simple table with Devialet 800 monoblocs and listen to some music. Well, we had people basically saying in Chinese “Holy cow!” and going around the back of the speakers checking whether there were massive power amps hidden behind. It was astounding.
Edgar Kramer: So how long has Devialet been working on SAM and how did it come about?
AK: Devialet’s ambition as a company is to change the face of audio. I know that sounds incredibly grand and over-the-top but it’s very, very serious. We have 46 engineers in the company and hiring more every week. We have 15 or 16 software engineers; we have more software engineers than many brands have people. So that gives you a sense of the work, the creation and the innovation that we’re doing. We invest 80 percent of all our profits into R&D and new inventions with 71 patents among our products. We aspire to be a company of innovation and we want to change things. From the visual design, to changing the logic that says the best performance equals one box per function. At every level, this is very natural for us to think let’s do something clever, something different and look at every stage from source to the sound of music that you hear. We say, can we make it better and SAM was one thing. If you have very accurate, very precise, low noise, low distortion amplification, as we do, and with a DSP in the unit, we can correct the errors of physics that speaker manufacturers have to face. We can fix that.
EK: So with the massive amount of speaker products on the market, how do you qualify the speakers you will ‘SAM’?
AK: We’re basically been led by consumer demand. Our philosophy is that we want your Devialet product to get better and better via software upgrades. We want you to own your product for many, many years. And as new technologies come, for example, DSD is interesting at the moment, so we’ll put DSD compatibility in there via software upgrade… we’re working on that now. Same with improved functionality and new features, we can offer them via software upgrades. We want to have long-term relationships with our customers. So we have them voting on the website for the speakers they’d like to get SAM for. Vote for SAM. So as soon as we have enough votes we’ll develop the SAM software for your speakers.
In the very early days we were driven by the speaker manufacturers that wanted to collaborate. You can imagine us going to manufacturers and saying “we’d like to correct the errors in your speakers…” so diplomacy was key. And it’s pure time domain stuff we’re not trying to change your characteristic sound, it’s not graphic equalisation, we’re trying to make your speakers sound better. Some manufacturers got it straight away and some didn’t. But soon [via the end user] the idea started catching on much quicker than we expected.
For example, a few weeks ago I was in Korea for a private show and the owners from Wilson Benesch, fellow Brits, and the VP of Sales and Marketing at YG Acoustics approached me saying they want their speakers ‘SAM’ed’. They’re getting lots of customers hitting them with emails asking for this. And interestingly, some are saying “when you get your speakers SAM’ed I’ll buy them.” So this is becoming commercially important for many brands.
So votes are streaming in for many brands and we can do about two to four pairs per week and we’re getting quicker and better at it.
EK: So many brands and models plus they keep getting updated too…
AK: And we’re doing old models too, not just new ones. If enough consumers tell us they have an awesome five year old speaker then we’ll do that too as long as there are enough votes.
EK: Well the product is stunning as far as design, features and sound but do you find there’s an obstacle from enthusiasts expecting big chassis and heatsinks?
AK: Absolutely! In fact we have two barriers. One is, “how can something so small be high performance when all I care about is sound and not all the features?” And we say, no, we’re hardcore audiophiles and we’re about the emotion of the music. That’s why the logo of Devialet is a little teardrop. And we’re a no-compromise technology and engineering company to produce the best sound; we just have a different take.
For example, you don’t go to a supercar maker and say, give me the best engine, the best cornering and the best technology and make it as ugly as hell. You don’t. You want the feel of the leather, the curves of the chassis… you want everything about it to be right. So the world is changing, even in the more conservative markets… so it’s not about big black boxes anymore. We’re accelerating the change of mindset of the conservative audiophile.
The other barrier is trade-ins. You can imagine, you have a DAC, a phono stage a preamp and a power amp, maybe monoblocs, all separate items. Then we come along and say we can improve your sound with just one beautiful box. So what do customers do with all the old stuff? It’s a difficult thing for a dealer to handle too. Although in markets like Hong Kong and Singapore it’s relatively easy because of the size of the market. In a specific case in Singapore a customer changed his entire system with expensive monoblocs and we gave him better sound, more real estate and some cash. The second hand value of the stuff he got rid of was higher than the cost of our all-in-one product.
EK: I hadn’t thought of that as a barrier, but I thought the hybrid nature of Devialet which includes Class-D as part of its amplification topology would be…
AK: Yes, that’s actually the third barrier; the ‘dirty’ word digital. All I can say is have a listen. We do not believe that digital amplification is good for high quality audio. Full stop. P.A. systems? No problem. But for high-end audio we don’t think it’s appropriate. We’re not a digital amplification company. It’s a true Class-A linear amplifier. The output voltage goes straight through that, and only that, to the speakers. Just the current ‘dumping’ is done by the digital amplifiers. So you have more open-minded audiophiles and the more religious ones. We are making steady progress and getting through to the more conservative enthusiasts.
If you’re after a warm, coloured sound of, say, valve amplifiers, then we’re not for you. We’re about accuracy and realism. We want to get you as close as possible to what the recording artist wanted you to hear… whatever that means. It’s a matter of taste.
EK: Are all Devialet products built in France?
AK: One hundred percent built in France in a factory two and a half hour’s drive north of Paris in the countryside in Normandy. It’s made in a facility that makes products for three brands. Devialet, Airbus – and you can imagine the quality of stuff that goes in a plane with three hundred people on board – and the French Defence industry, and there you can imagine the reliability and robustness. So it’s an incredibly high-tech facility.
EK: So how did you join the company?
AK: Because audio and music are in my blood. And I’m a rational guy I used to work for Microsoft and doing quite well and have career ambitions. But it’s that combination of the technology and innovation of Devialet and trying to do things differently and shake things up that interested me. And it’s the product vision as well. It’s like Microsoft inventing the smart phone and tablet technology while Apple actually understanding what people want and how to present it, and what to omit.
I love the product vision of Devialet and where the company wants to go. I think it fits within the future needs of human beings much better than what the industry is generally trying to do.
And the other reason is I love the guys who run it, the founders. The CEO is a Strategy Consultant and one is a Sales and Marketing expert, one is a technologist and the other one is into Design and Manufacturing. His family owns Ulysse Nardin Swiss luxury watches. Two hundred year old company, ultra high-end watches from a family obsessed by design and precision and the no-compromise sense of form and function. The perfect team.
EK: So with all that talent and brain power behind it, what can we expect from Devialet in the near future?
AK: I’ll give you both a closed and an open answer. The closed answer is I can’t tell you because it’s super-secret but very exciting. The open answer is that you can’t change the world of audio if you only stay in the high-end audio niche. It’s a wonderful place; it’s my home and it’s your home. But it’s a very small group of people. So we have to make our products in the future more affordable and easier to use for a non-audiophile. That’s inevitable. I can tell you that we look at everything.
We want to change the world of audio, we want to have thousands of employees, make billions of Euros of turnover. Think of every possible way to listen to music and we want to be involved. The only thing that holds us back is the speed at which we can create and materialise ideas.