Do audiophiles ever wonder why all contemporary electronics tend to be beautiful and ergonomically well thought out, except for their cherished audio toys? Ease of use – that’s precisely what we admire in iPhones, iPads and other Apple gadgets. That’s also why we love Tesla cars, why we prefer to use iTunes and streaming services for our HD home cinema instead of filling shelves with DVDs and Blu-rays. Space saving and immediate access to your library are really important today.
Only the music lovers have been left out. They are either offered mp3 players and smartphones for their music on the go - these are convenient and ergonomic but not so good sound-wise - or enormous and outrageously expensive gear for home listening. With zero wife acceptance factor, by the way. This begs the question – why? Why other contemporary gear, from TVs to tablets, look like they’ve come from the future but hi-fi and even more so high end audio equipment has remained practically unchanged for the past decades? In order to have reference audio playback you still need to purchase plenty of separates – a digital source, a DAC, a preamplifier, power amplifiers, which weigh a ton and, of course, speakers. Besides that you would need cables as thick as you arm to connect it all together. If you still possess a turntable, you will have to set up the tonearm and the cartridge and match it to the phono stage. After that you must burn the system in for a hundred hours. Only then will you be able to start listening to your music. If you’d still want it, that is.
No wonder high end audio is on decline. Today’s customer (not a hard core audio geek, mind you), even if he likes his music passionately, will not stand for long the fuss needed to set up a high end system, especially when he can compare it to his trusted iPod or iPhone. Most likely he will just go for an AV-receiver supporting UPnP streaming and AirPlay, even if that would mean a loss in quality. Where are comparably user friendly and intuitive solutions for high end audio? Are audiophiles doomed to forever bear the complexity of separates, is this they really the only way to obtain reference quality sound?
Four years ago a small French company Devialet launched D-Premier, a truly revolutionary product, combining in one slim casing a high end amplifier, a preamplifier and a DAC. It took many years of development and tens of millions euros to come up with such a product. Two years ago it was upgraded with a wireless streaming module. D-Premier was discontinued in 2013 after the company received 20 more millions in investments and was then able to create a new line-up, which is touted as nothing less than historical breakthrough for high end audio market. This new line-up consists of three models. The entry level Devialet 110 is the most affordable, not very powerful and is stripped of some important features. The top-of-the-line Devialet 240 is naturally the most expensive of all three, it can be used in bridge mode and has two (!) very flexible phono stages on board. Between them is Devialet 170, the one with the best price-quality ratio, and it is the one we decided to get for review.
So what is so good about it? Devialet 170 retails for about 7 000 euros, and after you bought one, you will simply need a pair of passive speakers to start enjoying your music. Naturally you won’t escape speaker and power cables, but that’s about it. With Devialet you get a DAC, a preamp, a power amp and a phono stage in one beautiful package. It will stream your music from any PC or NAS and it will be just as easy and fun to use as any Apple product, such as Apple TV, for example.
The heart of Devialet 170 is the ADH system and that’s what sets it apart of any other solution on the market. It’s a combination of a Class A analog amplifier providing necessary voltage and a D Class module for high current. This solution combines high power and high current in a very tight package. The amplifier section of Devialet 170 is no bigger than two packs of smokes but don’t be fooled by the size, it packs some serious punch. At the same time it is very apt with music, unlike many D Class amplifiers, which are completely at home with movie soundtracks, providing plenty of power bursts and grunt, but fall flat on their faces when called upon for delicate music reproduction. The most outstanding characteristic of ADH, however, is the noise, or more precisely, the complete lack thereof. Devialet’s power amplifier stage exhibits noise levels normally associated with line level equipment or DACs. You can turn it up all the way and still hear no hiss from your speakers. Nada, zip.
Figures speak for themselves: THD+N – 0,001%, IMD SMTPE 0,001%, Signal-to-Noise - 130 dB, Output impedance - <0,001 Ω. And this is for an amplifier delivering 170 watts into 6 Om. Add to that a damping factor of more than 1500 and the ability to drive even 2 Om speakers, peak power consumption of 2100 W and it will be enough to leave any measuring lab bemused. Just as we were, as a matter of fact. Actually, if we reviewed the equipment based on measured figures only we would feel compelled to discard immediately all other amplifiers once and forever in favor of this new hybrid solution. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves and first give it a listen.
The processing power of Devialet 170 is equally impressive. All analog signals are digitized at 24/192 by PCM 4220 chip, central DSP is a four core solution operating at 40 bit resolution. The DAC makes use of several TI PCM1972 chips, outputting signals at no lower than 24/192.
Devialet 170 is encased in a slim aluminum body measuring 38х38х4 cm and weighing in at 5.9 kg. It has a plethora of selectable and adjustable inputs – optical, USB 2.0 (supporting 24 bit/192 Hz), Ethernet (24 bit/192 Hz, only active with asynchronous Wi-Fi streaming module installed), AES/EBU, 4 SPIDFs, a pair of which can be configured as analog line inputs. There’s also a cinch pair for phono input – Devialet 170 has an inbuilt adjustable MM/MC phono stage. You can also use the device to digitize your precious records; all that is required is an audio card in your PC capable to handle linear PCM signal output by Devialet. There is also a dedicated SUB output. But what’s best is that you can configure all inputs and outputs through an online tool at http://en.devialet.com/configurator/welcome/
Devialet 170 arrived at our doorstep in a stylish black box. There is also a jaw-dropping beautiful RF remote included but you most likely won’t need it. If you want to stream your music from a PC or a server, you will be better off using a tablet to control the playback and the volume, and there’s a special Devialet app for it. The initial setup is fairly easy. You can enter the serial number of your device on company’s website or just create your profile without any specifics. Then you will be guided through some initial steps and finally you will see the back panel of your Devialet 170 with all the inputs and outputs, which you will be able to configure according to your needs. You will also be offered to download a new version of the firmware. Now consider this – it will not only give you better stability but also increase the output power of your amplifier! This is really XXII century stuff.
Once you get your configuration finalized, you can save it on an SD card, which you will then slip into a special slot in Devialet 170. That’s it, when you switch the device on, the configuration will be uploaded automatically, together with the new firmware, should you choose to upgrade it at the same time.
If you want to use Devialet as an amplifier for external sources, you will have to simply connect them to corresponding inputs. To integrate 170 into a home theater system in order to power frontal speakers there’s a Bypass option that will switch off the preamplifier section. However, you really want to use Devialet 170 for its digital streaming capabilities, especially as it handles 24 bit/192 kHz signals. Just don’t forget to integrate it into your home network.
Since Devialet 170 can not itself handle UPnP servers and play files directly from them, there are two ways to install it.
First one is to install Devialet Air program onto your Mac or PC, it will enable Wi-Fi and Ethernet streaming. If you’re using a Mac, your music must be organized with iTunes, iRiver or Adobe Audition. If you’re a PC user, you can also run, besides the above mentioned programs, Foobar 2000 or WinAmp. All these programs will secure a bit perfect transmission of data through Devialet Air. Then you’ll have to download a special app for your tablet, for example, Remote for iTunes, and you’re ready to go. Devialet have been actively touting Wi-Fi streaming at 2.4 GHz; however, we weren’t immensely impressed with it. Yes, there is no difference in sound quality with Ethernet and if your router is in the same room, you can use Wi-Fi streaming. But should the router be separated by a wall from your Devialet 170, you’re likely to experience problems, especially with 24 bit/192 kHz files. So in that scenario the good ole Ethernet is the way to go.
The second way is to use a Synology NAS. It has its own UPnP streamer, called Audio Station. In this case all you have to do is connect your Devialet directly to the server via USB. To control the playback you should use an AudioStation dedicated app. Don’t forget to select USB Data High Quality – WAV in server’s and app’s panel, it will enable 24 bit/192 kHz streaming. Theoretically the USB connection should provide better sound that Ethernet but that difference will be leveled by the absence of the bit perfect transmission. Audio Station has its own volume control, which will mess with the signal. And there is no Devialet Air app for Synology OS. If you still want to have a bit perfect USB connection, try using the audiophile Tiny MDP OS, which can be installed onto some UPnP devices. Or you can directly connect a PC to Devialet 170.
So how does Devialet 170 sound? We know it’s been beaten to death but there is no better way to describe it – we really felt like a veil has been lifted, something that was there between the listener and the speakers was gone. Bear in mind that we used mostly 24 bit/192 kHz recordings for our evaluation. The resolution and detail across the band were just staggering. The complete lack of noise, no soldered joints in the signal path – welding only, a reference quality DAC, all that make up for truly outstanding sound. Timing, soundstage, depth, articulation, you name it. Devialet has checked all audiophile’s boxes for what is called high end sound quality. Still, there were some reservations. Devialet 170 wasn’t able to drive convincingly such difficult load as Magico Q3 speakers, which have low sensitivity combined with sealed box configuration. For those you’d need a Devialet 240 or even two of them in a bridged mode but as far as other speakers go, we didn’t detect any serious problems. We tried Devialet 170 with such high end speakers as Gryphon Atlantis, ProAc Carbon Pro 6 and Wilson Audio Sophia with very good results. What impressed us above everything else were the clarity and the macrodynamics. When called upon, Devialet 170 can deliver the bid, big sound of a symphonic orchestra in spades, keeping things in perfect control, with absolutely no distortion. Usually such prowess is reserved to amplifiers costing many times more.
So what about cables? Yes, Devialet is still sensitive to the quality of speaker cables. Of course, best cables will produce best results; we were especially impressed by Nordost Valhalla II. But even with modest Oyaide the sound was still very enjoyable. Contrary to our expectations – Devialet 170 uses a switched mode power supply – power cables were equally as important, especially for lower registers. Yet again Nordost Valhalla II proved to be the best choice. What you really won’t need are line filters and power conditioners, Devialet 170 has no love for them as they will compress its dynamic range. As for Ethernet cables, we recommend using shielded CAT7.
So, did we like it? Yes, a lot. Devialet 170 is not exactly cheap but separates delivering comparable sound will cost many times more. And most importantly we finally got a high end system, which has killer looks, is easy to use and doesn’t take up space. And you only have to press one button to switch it on!