The Audio Start-up Beloved By Billionaires and Rockstars
It’s a product that reduced LVMH billionaire Bernard Arnault to tears and impressed Jay-Z so much, he bought eight for his home.
It's a speaker, but it’s not just any speaker, says Pierre-Emmanuel Calmel, snowy-haired French inventor and co-founder of audio tech disrupter Devialet. He is in Hong Kong promoting the Asian expansion of the brand and its signature Phantom, a wireless speaker that looks a bit like what you would expect if Apple designed a space helmet.
“Ultimately, we want the technology to disappear, and keep the beauty of the object and the emotion of the music,” says Calmel. “Our goal is to reproduce the music exactly as it was when it was played and recorded and, to do that, you need to be able to reproduce sounds that have deep bases, because the base contains the emotion of the music. And this is extremely difficult, but we found a new way to amplify the signal and this is what we have achieved with Phantom,” he explains.
Calmel scrolls through his phone and taps the screen. Suddenly the speaker opposite me starts to physically throb with Beyoncé’s defiant tones and the room is filled with a pure, rich sound. It is just like sitting in the front row at The Mrs Carter Show World Tour.
“Normally you would need a concert system to get this quality from this size speaker,” he adds, before changing the track to ‘Danse Macabre’ by Camille Saint-Saëns. “If you close your eyes you can believe you are there. For the magic to operate you need to listen to the small details, such as the noise of the pianist’s feet on the floor. If you don’t have that, your brain is not fooled, and it knows it’s a reproduction.”
Since the recent launch of Phantom in Taipei and Hong Kong, and the upcoming Singapore next month, Phantom speakers (specifically the 22k rose-gold-plated ones) have sold well, actually selling out in Taipei. An eye-watering price point of HK$25,800 does not seem a barrier.
Phantom is the result of 13 years of disrupting audio technology. Calmel invented ADH (Analog Digital Hybrid) in 2004. Devialet was officially created in 2007 when he joined forces with entrepreneur Quentin Sannié and designer Emmanuel Nardin. Devialet has 108 patents to date for design and technology, including hardware, software and proprietary technologies such as SAM (Speaker Active Matching) and HBI (Heart Bass Implosion).
“There had been no innovation in the audio industry since the invention of the CD 40 years ago, until we arrived with Devialet, after I invented and patented ADH in 2004. For the first time, you could amplify sound without altering it, without distorting or killing the emotion inside the music,” he explains.
Many recognised the potential of this technological leap. One of the first investors was French billionaire Bernard Arnault, who is himself a keen pianist. Last year, the company raised a further €100 million in funding from an eclectic group of global investors, including producer and artist Jay-Z, Foxconn tycoon Terry Gou, and Android founder Andy Rubin. Multimedia partnerships are on the table. The Paris Opera and Devialet have announced a 10-year licence agreement for a ‘sound discovery area’ within the Palais Garnier, and an opera ‘hors les murs’ (outside the walls) project, offering a new way to listen to and experience opera.
But Calmel does not want to stop there.
“It opens the path to make smaller and smaller devices with this sound quality,” he adds.
He recently met with Angela Ahrendts, Apple's senior vice-president of retail, who “instantly recognised” the potential. “She knows a good brand and a good product,” said Calmel. Now Devialet speakers are sold in around half of the world’s Apple stores, complementary in their sleek appearance and invisible tech to Apple's iconic products.
Calmel is cagey about sales and numbers, but says that revenues are doubling every year. “One day, everyone will own a Devialet speaker,” he believes. “At the moment the price is only high end but that will change in future.” He has ambitions to put chips into every device that makes sound or music, from laptops to car stereos to cellphones. “The global market for all devices with sound capabilities is 3.5 billion a year. We want to be in everything.”