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A French Speaker Company Just Set Up Shop in a 19th Century Opera House

Devialet's most popular speaker is aptly called the Phantom.

by Susannah Edelbaum
Dec 19 2017, 2:30pm

Image: Susannah Edelbaum

The 19th century Palais Garnier, one of the Opéra de Paris’ two homes, is a stone building with a steel core, like the Eiffel Tower. There is an underground lake five stories beneath the stage, in case of fire. The water is changed twice a year, with local firemen called in to remove and safely put back its enormous fish. Back aboveground, you’ll find a massive vestibule of stone staircases and observation balconies, a gold leaf-coated salon reminiscent of Versailles, and an equally opulent 1,900 seat theater.

“The Opéra Garnier was designed by a maverick—[Charles] Garnier was a very independent guy, inventing a new kind of Baroque 19th century architecture,” Quentin Sannié told me.

Sannié, who founded the cutting-edge French audio brand Devialet with two partners in 2007, has his company offices housed down the street. After Apple opened a store adjacent to the Palais Garnier in 2011, however, he was determined that his own products would gain a retail foothold in the Opéra. At the beginning of the month, Devialet opened its doors inside the 142-year-old institution, which had never previously housed a shop of any kind.

The shop set up. Image: Susannah Edelbaum

Sannié is unequivocal that for him, this is an appropriate home for Devialet’s audio components, in which Jay-Z and the European luxury mega-conglomerate LVMH are invested: “Devialet is not a speaker company or an amplifier company. Devialet is a tech company in sound,” he told me.

It is a company of firsts. Devialet’s proprietary analog digital hybrid technology (ADH), invented by Sannié’s partner, Pierre-Emmanuel Calmel, is the only chip of its kind in the world. Devialet’s amplifiers, “for audio-geeks,” and somewhat more accessibly priced Wi-Fi/bluetooth-connected speaker, the Phantom, are made entirely in France. These products have netted the company $100 million in funding (not common for a Europe-based hardware business), from Foxconn and Andy Rubin, Android’s founder, in addition to Jay-Z.

The space is as grand as the rest of the building

So far, Devialet has sold about 60,000 Phantoms—Karl Lagerfeld supposedly owns 20—and the speaker is carried by Apple. (Search YouTube and you come across various videos testing “the most expensive speaker in the Apple Store,” although unless you yourself are listening to the video on a Phantom, the point is mostly moot.) The Phantom will also include livestreamed performances from the opera house to its customers an hour before the curtain.

Curiously, the grand space Devialet moved into at the Opéra was once used for ticket sales, until those moved mostly online, after which it was briefly an overflow coat check. Despite its humble recent past, the space is as grand as the rest of the building, and the company worked with Opéra management not to remotely disturb the historic locale’s marble floors and enormous wall sconces. The whole shop is modular, although it looks, literally, set in stone. A couple dozen compact Phantoms blast symphonies at visitors from low, carved wooden perches, which can be easily moved out at any time, as could the bespoke red velvet listening sofa, which was made to match the seat covers inside the opera house’s auditorium.

One of Devialet’s problems is its customers’ complaining neighbors, of which the company seems determined to create more. Far more ubiquitous connected speakers, such as Google Home and Amazon Echo, offer “wonderful, exciting experiences,” says Sannié, but listening to music with them sounds poor. So, “we are fixing the problem,” he declares, “and we are going to fix it everywhere, in your TV, in your car”—just not tomorrow. The company, however, is already on its way to another first. The day the Palais Garnier store opened its doors, a new Phantom debuted, not at the Opéra, but as a native sound system for an electric, entirely autonomous car from Renault.

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