YOU may know Devialet from reading the recent review of its Phantom loudspeaker here in AudioFi, but this article is to showcase another of the company’s proprietary technologies, SAM (Speaker Active Matching) which one may potentially utilise if fortunate enough to afford and own one of the SAM-capable, the latest being the Expert Pro line of amplifiers.
These shiny space-age bathroom scale-like shaped amplifiers were the products which first put the company on the map some 10 or so years ago. Having heard earlier versions and having contemplated buying the amplifier, but not doing so for the usual reason (a lack of discretionarily-spendable wad of dosh, as if you needed to ask), I didn’t need to have my arm twisted too severely to make me mosey on over to My Hifi Shop’s premises in Petaling Jaya, Malaysia – Devialet representative Maxime Dumont was in town to answer some questions on SAM technology.
So what is SAM then? Briefly, the DSP capabilities of the line of Devialet amplifiers are used to better match the amp to the chosen loudspeakers’ (not just specific to the brand, but also to the particular model) characteristics. The proprietary software then does some clever things to overcome what are apparently frequency response inaccuracies in the lower frequencies of the loudspeaker drivers, so that they move more faithfully in tandem with the signal being reproduced.
This is interesting indeed – while I am a technological doofus and in no way able to fully appreciate these issues, I wondered to myself what I would have made of all this if I was a loudspeaker designer or an expensive and claimed-to-be-superior loudspeaker drive unit manufacturer who the public expects had gotten his products “right”. I decided not to go in over my head and ask any technical questions.
I was introduced to two very youthful-looking individuals, Dumont and Weiying Sim, the other Devialet representative. This was a good start by my reckoning as I had pre-judged that I would necessarily be met by some grey-haired or balding middle-aged gentleman. Nice to see the younger young (we’re all young, right?) people in the business.
Proceedings began with a brief listening session, as I had not previously heard the effects of SAM before. Doing the duties with the two Devialet amps, being daisy-chained to work as monoblocks, was a system consisting of an Audio Note CD transport and floorstanding Raidho loudspeakers and not-cheap cables with more zeroes in their price tags than the figures in the annual income I have seen in recent years. An old Fourplay track was played, which didn’t really thrill me – while I was somewhat familiar with it, I had never warmed to any of their stuff and don’t usually listen to their music (here, I best put on my flameproof suit as I am aware they are madly loved by the audiophile community).
Deciding not to risk being cheeky and asking for a Jay-Z rap track (hidden Easter egg?), we switched over to the Finale of the Firebird Suite (Oue, Minnesota Orchestra). The sum of the brief listening was that, based on what I heard, the technology does have merits and there were myriad positives when SAM was engaged. The lower frequencies especially really got tidied up and electric bass lines, massed strings where the cellos and double basses really work for their keep, and big kettle drums sounded more like what one hears in the real things.
As the “amount of SAM” applied may be varied, and it was just too brief a session to form any views about whether downsides (if any, as I had some gut reactions to how the musical flow seemed to subtly change) would become more apparent with longer-term exposure, I decided to move on to ask some questions of the duo.
The AC/DC question: Who made who? SAM came out before Phantom, yet the technology apparently has its roots in the development of Phantom.
Dumont alluded that the technology which became SAM did originate from the work done with Phantom. Devialet engineers looked at what they had learned and recognised that this could be applied to other manufacturers’ loudspeakers, based on the same principles, so it was only natural to make this proprietary technology available to the Devialet amplifier users.
How did they choose the loudspeakers to be SAM-ed? One can’t sample them all, so what’s a potential user to do if he can’t find his model on the list?
According to Dumont, there was a voting process in the beginning and the Devialet website has a list of several hundred models which have since been measured and may be used with SAM, but in the beginning, the (France) home market was where sales in the beginning was highest, and models from French loudspeaker manufacturers such as Focal were dominant.
Dumont said now with about three years’ experience with the technology and having developed better methods, a given model can be measured in the field a lot quicker and more easily. He himself has done many of these measurements.
While not all models can be SAM-ed, those such as panel ribbons being among the excluded ones, the company believes it can assist most buyers quite easily and readily with the portability of the technology.
When asked if he has had any issues when working with customers who owned several loudspeakers, and how to best to address their needs, he related he had one where the customer’s MBLs (the ones which look like hi-tech onions) just could not be SAM-ed.
I also asked if the technology would face problems as one only measured one sample of the loudspeaker model at hand, so what of technicalities like variations in customers’ chosen speaker cables, variations in the actual drive units themselves’, which surely must exist.
Dumont said the way the technology is applied, these factors would not cause a material deviation from the intended sonic results from the application of SAM to the customer’s same model loudspeaker in his particular system.
Has the technology ever failed in the field, or customers just plain choose not to use their SAM option, and have the amps ever “taken out” anyone’s loudspeakers?
A smile, with a hint of a “man, you’re really grilling me” look, comes to Dumont’s face, together with a firm negative response to the last question, and he goes on to explain the protection features which are a deliberate part of SAM.
While virtually nothing is ever perfect the first time round, and they have been refining the technology as they go along, they firmly believe in the correctness and stability in the core of the technology, which now has been tried and tested in the field.
Further, the beauty of SAM is it has a measure of user adjustability, and of course the option exists for one to just plain turn it off to listen to one’s Devialet amp in “native” mode if preferred with any given music, but he does not have experience with customers being overtly negative about the technology.
How does Devialet see itself? In the market targeting the hardcore sound-quality-is-everything purist audiophile or in the premier lifestyle (but still high sound-quality driven) discerning-client market?
I asked this as I was aware of the several change of distributors and retailers in Malaysia since the D-Premier model (which I had heard and was impressed with) was first launched. It looked to me that, with the company itself directly having reps in SoutheEast Asia (and I was not aware that this was the case previously), some change of direction must have been needed along the way. So what, if anything, went wrong – why has the product not yet better caught on with the more traditional hardcore audiophiles, who surely would have been the expected early-adopters?
I sensed that the responses became a little more guarded here. Perhaps they were newer in the company and not experienced with what had been before, possibly. The company, however, is convinced that it does have a superior technology which will eventually catch on and prevail to become a, if not the, market leader in the field. Dumont gave the analogy (and he gently emphasised it was an analogy) of how Apple had changed the face of the telecommunications user market with its class-leading products, and while there are other similar products in the market, theirs’ would still be considered by many as the product to have.
Being in a more specialist market, the marketing and consumer education and exposure process would, of course, not be the same league as Apple, but Devialet has firm plans to reach for becoming a user first-choice option.
As to how to convince/educate potential customers among the more hardcore hobbyist segment of the market of the merits of its product and somehow entice them away from the fun of multiple big boxes, I understood the responses to convey that while the continued proliferation of this segment will continue for the foreseeable future, and that there was nothing unhealthy about this, the merits of Devialet’s products, given that the company firmly believes in the level of sound quality its amps achieve, will work to win at least some of these potential users over. I admitted to them I myself did feel jaded at times and had considered switching over to something like its amps (oh money, where art thou?).
Do they worry about copycat products coming into the market? What did those in the company think when they saw the Micromega M-One, for example? They have seen it, right? (I wasn’t cheeky enough to ask if they had acquired one and taken it apart.)
A broad smile comes to Dumont’s face, this time with an almost “oh boy, you just had to go ask me that” look. Obviously, there was a sense of surprise for the company to see that it was a fellow French rival being one of the first to take a copy out of its playbook but in the end, it does show it is on the right track if others were to want to seek to follow.
Dumont emphasised that the rival product, while one can see it as a sincere form of flattery, is indeed different. The core amplifying technology is more traditional and SAM and room-correction are not the same thing. Devialet still sees itself as still having a unique product proposition in the market, certain similarities from any other products they are aware of notwithstanding.
I asked if so far the company has yet to face more questionable forms of flattery where it needed to seek the help of its intellectual property lawyers. The patents are out in the public to see and this will give ideas to would-be rivals who may not be careful enough to “adequately” work around them. I gave the example of certain French products where one could readily buy replica circuit boards of their wares in a certain populous Asian country.
The collective responses were to the effect that, while there were no specific cases at hand, even if this were to happen, the market in which they see themselves (obviously implicitly referring to more affluent clientele), and again, drawing the analogy with Apple placing the company’s products to be the ones which the potential clients have aspiration to own, they would probably not be a successful intrusion or disruption by other parties to the company’s segment of the market.
Now that it has been mentioned SAM is different from room correction, will Devialet next emphasise room correction as an add-on technology to their amplifiers?
Dumont sought to be clear that SAM worked on the amp-loudspeaker interface factor and should not be confused with any room acoustics specific corrections. That being so, while I did not perceive him to be outright saying “no”, he stated that Devialet would only introduce something it saw as innovative, unique and class leading. The technological capability was there, but it had to reach something quite beyond what is extant before the company would consider seeking to bring something to the market for which solutions may already exist.
What’s Devialet’s biggest market, outside France, of course?
Asia is significant, with China-Hongkong being a leader and Singapore catching up. I asked how they were doing in the US/North American market – the duo stated that sales were healthy but as it was a market with significant already-dominant local manufacturers, the company would be working hard to do even better.
My allotted time with the lovely duo ended, but on my way out of the shop’s premises, I spotted some really tasty vinyl replay gear. The question formed in my mind: now that I have heard SAM, when isDevialet sending someone round to talk about RAM? (another of its technologies described in acronym, this time more up my alley – related to vinyl LPs!)