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Melding tech and art in pursuit of hifi
WHEN chief executive and co-founder of French audio company Devialet, Quentin Sannie, heard Devialet's first prototype, he cried. His tears flowed partly because he was moved by the music, but also because he knew his dream was within reach.
A year later, in 2007, he founded Devialet, Ingenierie Acoustique de France, together with co-founders Pierre-Emmanuel Calmel and Emmanuel Nardin. And the company has been disrupting the audiophile industry in the decade since.
But with more than 100 software and hardware engineers based in its Paris headquarters, Devialet has more engineers than some tech firms. And it seems set up more like a silicon valley outfit than a traditional audiophile manufacturer. Mr Sannie feels that the company shouldn't be concerned about the music itself but the delivery of the audio signal.
That might seem a trifle sterile, but he also believes that the goal of that focus on signal delivery is to allow music producers and artists the ability to create music that can deliver the feeling previously only available to an audience in live performances. And he sees no contradiction in speaking of technology in one breath, and elusive feelings in the other.
"Our technology is a tribute to the musicians," said Mr Sannie in an interview. "It is not about us. What they create is so beautiful we want people to hear it and, after that, for people to feel this."
Mr Sannie also rejects being pigeon-holed. "We are not an audio company or a hi-fi company; we are a tech company in audio," he said.
There's obvious passion and love for music behind the brand, but it's clear that Devialet is more than what Mr Sannie himself called a crazy dream. Hard-nosed businessmen seem to think that the brand has potential, judging from the big investments that have streamed into Devialet from moguls Bernard Arnault, Marc Simoncini, Xavier Niel and Jacques-Antoine Granjon.
Their unfailing support has given Devialet the financial weight it needed to become the global leader in the high-end audio market. And their faith has paid off. Since its launch, Devialet has experienced an annual average growth of 97 per cent and is currently distributed in 39 countries.
Devialet's entry-level product is the Phantom, which is an all-in-one speaker that can receive music wirelessly without any loss in quality, and looks more like an art noveau sculpture than a consumer electronics gadget. It comes in three variants, ranging in price from S$2,490 for the plain vanilla Phantom, to S$4,490 for the Gold Phantom. And while it works with all the popular music streaming services like Spotify, it can also satisfy the pickiest audiophile, and hold its own against a traditional hifi system comprised of separate components.
There's also the Expert Pro range, which is meant to replace several traditional components in a traditional hifi system. S$10,000 is the price of entry, for the Expert 130 Pro, and it goes up to S$48,000 for the Expert 1000 Pro. While that isn't cheap in absolute terms, it's hardly exorbitant by premium hifi standards. It also often performs beyond its price points, and boasts an usual degree of upgradability.
In Singapore for the first time, Monsieur Sannie was here to attend the launch of their expanded Marina Bay Sands (MBS) store. This will become their largest flagship store in Asia, spanning approximately 100 sq m.
It will hold two acoustically-treated listening rooms, and be a meeting space for the community to make the Devialet experience its own. In a marketplace that is increasingly retreating from physical stores in favour of e-commerce, why is Devialet opening physical stores and moving against the trend? Mr Sannie says, "For the experience. I can tell you it sounds great but you should feel it for yourself."
This latest flagship opening comes on the back of several world-firsts announced by Devialet this year, including a 10-year partnership with the Opera National de Paris, with which it will inaugurate a sound discovery room in the Opera's Palais Garnier, and a new concept car with French carmakers, Renault, where Devialet will engineer the audio experience.
"In the future we will all be in autonomous, electric cars - what would we do during the ride? We want Devialet technology to give you a beautiful journey." A partnership with UK entertainment company, Sky, to create the Sky Soundbox - a bespoke, all-in-one sound system which complements Sky's TV set-top-box, to create the most comprehensive in home entertainment system.
Although Devialet has clearly carved a niche in the high-end audio space, where quality usually trumps quantity, Mr Sannie also has his eye on scale. More than three billion devices around the world have embedded audio capabilities and he wants Devialet technology in every one of those devices. "Our goal at Devialet is to put our technology wherever there is an amplifier. In your tv, in your smart phone, in your car. Everywhere." Ubiquitous audiophile quality? Devialet certainly dreams big.
- The writer is music director and senior producer/presenter at radio station Money FM 89.3, which goes live on Jan 29. Catch her full interview with Quentin Sannie there.