Your Phone Could Soon Sound as Good as a $15,000 Hi-Fi

Backed by Jay Z and the Qatari wealth fund, a French inventor wants to squeeze the technology of his Devialet audiophile amplifier into your mobile phone.

By Simon Parkin

Shortly after lunch on Sept. 3, 2010, UPS Airlines Flight 6 left Dubai International Airport for Germany. Among the boxes of lithium batteries tightly packed in the hold was a crate of 50, two-foot-long, gleaming aluminium cases built in China and destined for France. These were the first shells for a revolutionary—if arrestingly expensive—stereo amplifier three decades in the making. Inventor Pierre-Emmanuel Calmel had staked everything on them.

Twenty-two minutes later, the flight captain, 48-year-old Douglas Lampe, and his first officer, 38-year-old Matthew Bell, called Bahrain’s air traffic control to report a cockpit fire. Lampe headed back to Dubai. As the cabin filled with noxious fumes, Lampe and Bell pulled on their oxygen masks. Lampe’s failed and he left to get a back-up, never to return. On the approach to the runway, Bell, now alone in control of the plane, came in too steeply. The landing gear didn’t extend. He overshot the runaway. Less than 30 minutes after the fire had started, the plane slammed into the ground. Lampe and Bell were killed. The cargo was scorched.

For Calmel, the crash was devastating. Two men had died in what appeared to be a terrorist attack. (Two months later, the Yemen-based arm of al-Qaeda would claim responsibility for the crash; eventually, black box evidence showed the fire had been started by the lithium batteries). So, too, had Calmel’s dreams crashed: The shipment, worth more than €50,000 ($53,000), was uninsured.

Calmel, who had quit his comfortable job building 3G systems for Nortel Networks in 2004, had since spent almost all of his savings. The sense of bewildering frustration was compounded when, that same day, Calmel heard that a prototype of the amplifier housed in a mock-up of the casings had won a prestigious award at the IFA consumer electronics fair in Berlin. “To hear this amplifier is to enjoy stereo music like never before,” wrote the judges in their verdict. “Hi-fi will never be the same again.”

Although Calmel and two co-founders of Devialet had taken in significant investment the week before the crash, the company couldn't afford replacements. Calmel called the factory with a plea: They would pay half the bill now and the rest after they sold some product. It was a brash request from an unproven startup that had, to date, sold nothing at all. Nevertheless, the factory manager agreed.

The call paid off. The first 50 Devialet D-Premier amplifiers retailed at $12,000. Within 12 months, Devialet had sold 250 of them.

The market for amplifiers that cost thousands of dollars is vanishingly small. But in recent months, makers of cars, TVs, smartphones and headphones have grown increasingly eager to ally with the boutique firms that produce them. By placing audiophile-grade technology in ubiquitous products, the idea is to improve sound quality while adding a frisson of luxury. What's more, the utilitarian need for high-quality audio systems is building as engineers deepen interaction between mankind and machine. Autonomous cars require powerful, dynamic audio systems to communicate to drivers with faultless (and legally defensible) clarity.

Futurologists and investors from Seoul to Silicon Valley seem to agree. Korean tech giant Samsung agreed in November to pay $8 billion for Harman International, whose high-end equipment is installed in more than 30 million cars around the world, angling to grab a share of the connected-car market. A Chinese billionaire, Qi Jianhong, spent months pursuing a takeover of Denmark’s tastefully inventive hi-fi leader Bang & Olufsen before the effort fell apart. He remains a shareholder.

Engineers work in the lab at the Devialet SAS headquarters in Paris.
Photographer: Marlene Awaad/Bloomberg

And then there's Devialet. In November the Paris-based company, which now employs 250 staff and generated €60 million in sales last year, raised $106 million from a suite of investors that ranged from rapper Jay Z to the Qatari sovereign wealth fund. While the company’s products are among the most expensive on the market, they are also, many agree, peerless. “What Devialet has created is measurably superior, from technical function to design,” Andy Rubin, the co-creator of Android and a major investor in Devialet, told me. “The result delights my senses and reminds me that there is always room for innovation in our lives.”

Rubin and the others are betting that within five years, Devialet, a company that started serving the aging hi-fi market, will democratize this innovation, finding a way to put its technology into products that most of the world’s population touch every day.

Calmel, a wunderkind inventor who grew up in the Parisian suburbs, made his first audio amplifier at 14 years old. With the help of the plainly titled French book, “How to Design Your First Audio Amplifier,” paired with the unlikely Christmas gifts of an oscillator and alternator and backed by guidance from his grandfather, an engineer who pioneered train signalling systems, the teenager made the unit out of off-the-shelf parts from a local electronics store. “It is still working today,” Calmel, now 46, told me on a cold January morning as we met in the cavernous office that his company, Devialet, now shares with Facebook in central Paris. “My kids use it for parties.”

A hobby blossomed. Calmel’s friends began to commission him to make audio equipment for them. But when Calmel joined Nortel Networks in the mid-1990s, he was able to use state-of-the-art technologies in his day job. “My electronic itch was fulfilled at work,” he told me. When the dot-com bubble burst in the early 2000s, most of Calmel’s projects were cancelled. He filled a diary with research and development that focused on audio. It was during this time that Calmel developed the technology that features in all of Devialet’s products: the Analogue Digital Hybrid.

Pierre-Emmanuel Calmel, co-founder of Devialet SAS, speaks at the company's headquarters.
Marlene Awaad/Bloomberg

While it went against all the electronics advice he’d ever read, Calmel wanted to find a way to harness the warmth and finesse of analogue amplifiers with the power and efficiency of digital technology. He did this by creating an amplifier that used both, running in parallel: “By running digital circuitry alongside analog circuitry, driving a huge loudspeaker becomes like driving a small headphone, without any loss of power, control or finesse.” Calmel, an electrical engineer by training, likens this to adding power steering to an 18-wheel truck, making for an effortless drive without any loss in power or load.

Calmel offered his invention to Nortel, but the Canadian telecom company thought it too far outside the core business. So in 2004, Calmel quit to build a working prototype. It took three years, alongside occasional odd jobs to pay the bills. It was while working on one of these projects that he met Emmanuel Nardin. Calmel mentioned his project to Nardin. “He told me that he’d wanted to create an audio company ever since he was a kid,” Calmel said. Nardin then introduced Calmel to his cousin Quentin Sannié, a crack marketer.

Calmel, recognizing his deficiencies, saw in the pair a solution. “Since the beginning, I knew that I didn't want to be the genius in the garage, building creative, inventive, disruptive technologies that turned into commercial failures,” he told me. He invited the pair to his workshop to listen to the prototype amplifier. Calmel chose Mozart’s 23rd Concerto, a tender piece of piano playing. Sannié, now 54, told me he wept. “If we can bring this to the world, we will sweep everything,” he said in French to the group.

Today, Sannié minutely adjusts my chair. We are in the listening room in Devialet’s expansive, expensive flagship store, close to the company’s Paris office. On the sideboard are two of the company’s top-line $15,000 amplifiers, each one driving a separate speaker. When Sannié is finally satisfied with my sitting position, he nods for the staff to begin. The room falls quiet and the first, mournful notes of the Mozart Concerto strike. The moment is extraordinary. It sounds not like recorded music, but like live music. I can hear the creak of the pianist’s pedalling. I can hear the sharp intakes of breath after each percussive flurry of notes. It’s arresting. I’m not alone in being stirred by the machine’s performance. The evening that Sannié first played this piece of music to a roomful of investors, much as he’s playing it now, he was asking for half-a-million euros. He took in €1.3 million.

After the music trails off, Sannié turns and says: “This is what we want to achieve with our technology: to deliver this emotion to all of humanity.” It’s a vision proclaimed by the company name itself (pronounced: duv’-ē-a-lay), named after Guillaume Vialet, an obscure 18th century French intellectual who co-compiled the “L’Encyclopédie Française,” a project that attempted to catalog every aspect of French life and culture. The goal was to democratize knowledge. Sannié picked the name because he wants to democratize high-quality recorded music.


Quentin Sannié, co-founder of Devialet SAS, at the company's Paris showroom.
Marlene Awaad/Bloomberg

But there are risks for any luxury brand that longs for ubiquity. Devialet recently printed a run of records of a recently rediscovered 1975 concert by the jazz singer Sarah Vaugun. These are so-called laquer recordings, 12-inch records made of aluminium and coated with nitrocellulose lacquer, which wears off after one or two listenings. It is the ultimate audio medium, wincingly expensive, cruelly disposable. For about $8,000, you can buy a set of four laquers from Devialet, which can be listened to, perhaps, once a decade for the remainder of a middle-aged person’s life. With Devialet, as with Dom Perignon or Rolls-Royce, the exclusivity is the core of the appeal. As soon as anyone can have one, nobody wants one. “We know that it is a big tension,” Sannié says.

These are men who enjoy the finer things. And wealth introduces blind spots of privilege for those who run consumer product companies. Critics argue that better sound can be had for half the price Devialet charges. Simon Lucas, the editor of "What Hi-Fi?" magazine, agrees. “It’s hard to argue with that assertion,” he told me. “Then again, you can buy a Jaguar SUV for a quarter of the price of a Bentley equivalent, and it’s pretty much as capable across the board, but people who want the Bentley won't touch the Jag. Hi-fi companies rarely achieve the cachet of Bentley, but Devialet is giving it a bloody good go.”

In the end, investors like those behind Devialet are less interested in prestige than they are in volume. “The total high-end audio market consists of about 100,000 units a year,” Sannié says. “The market for sound bars, hi-fi systems, connected speakers, is 100 million units a year. But the global market for all sound—headphones, TVs, cars, smartphones and all the rest? Three billion.”

To fit Calmel’s luxurious technology into those tightly packed devices, where making music is not the primary function, the inventor had to drastically reduce its size. He did this by creating a chip that shrank the amplifier's size from 200 square centimeters to just 1 square centimeter. The chip, which Calmel carries around in a credit card-size display case in the pocket of his suit jacket, is Devialet’s ticket to ubiquity. Rather than outsource development of the microchip, Calmel drew on his experience at Nortel to hire a brilliant, young engineer. Together, over the course of just one year, the pair completed the microchip’s design.

It is, he says, Devialet’s golden ticket to reaching the masses. “It will be a step-by-step path,” Calmel tells me. “We’ll start with the car, then move to the TV. And finally, the smartphone.” It’s a logical plan, and Devialet has the right backers: Sharp for TVs, Renault for autonomous cars, Foxconn for smartphones. The company, it seems, has the chance to become the next Dolby. It might even manage to hold onto some of that exclusive allure while doing so.

The Devialet boutique is half-full when I go to leave. One couple is playing a Beyoncé track at a tinnitus-baiting volume. Another man in the corner bends over in curiosity, checking a price tag. I shake Sannié’s hand goodbye. He says, with a smile: “One day, everyone will own a Devialet.”