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Review: DeVore Fidelity O/96 loudspeakers

Introduction and background

There’s a mid-2000’s British television series I became addicted to watching called Life on Mars  (not to be confused with the dreadful U.S. adaptation of the same name), and I loved it for many reasons, not the least of which was its ability to provide me with the oft sought suspension of disbelief.

LIFE ON MARS

Sam Tyler, played by the talented John Simm (center) in Life on Mars

The show has a fantastically original premise which details the breathtaking, and disorienting temporal jumps suffered by present-day Manchester Police Detective Chief Inspector Sam Tyler. Tyler’s life is turned upside down following a car accident that sees him wake in hospital to find himself no longer in the Manchester of 2005, but rather, in the Manchester of 1973. He is discharged from the hospital, and discovers he works in the same police detachment, with almost the same job (just “Detective Inspector” now), except with completely different co-workers and it’s 32 years back in time. Tyler desperately struggles to come to grips with his situation and keeps trying to act like he’s not a man from three decades in the future, but always fails miserably, finding himself in ever more vexing circumstances with those around him constantly, and openly, questioning his sanity.

The reason I bring this up at the start of my review of the DeVore Fidelity Orangutan O/96 loudspeakers is because, like the character Sam Tyler in Life on Mars, my life was turned upside down, I was experiencing disorienting temporal jumps, and I had people constantly questioning my sanity. Except unlike Sam Tyler, it wasn’t brought on by a car accident, but rather, a pair of loudspeakers built on a fantastically original premise.

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A mate of mine really getting into the sound of the O/96.

In the several months these speakers were with me, I was taken on a sonic journey that saw me place them in all matter of positioning, I finally reached a tipping point that saw me completely tear apart my listening/living room set-up to accommodate them. The following photos illustrate the changes involved:

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Original room layout with modular sofa and combined TV/hi-fi setup.

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TV is gone, low mid-century media stand replaced with unit capable of holding records as well as components, different sofa with smaller footprint in place, and O/96s replace Harbeth M30.1s.

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The basic room layout was like this for years, but the DeVores made me realize change had to come, and it was for the better.

Changing the room around 90 degrees clockwise was a lot of work, but it was worth it to hear what these loudspeakers are really capable of reproducing in my space. It also made the most of a room now designed around the idea of a listening/lifestyle space rather than one centered around a television/lifestyle space. Getting the TV out of the room completely changed the entire dynamic of how my small family interacts in it. Again, it was the sonic properties of the O/96s that made this all happen, which is a testament in, and of itself, of how strongly I felt about what these loudspeakers are capable of.

So we’re clear, I can’t gush about gear so much anymore, which is not to say I don’t get excited, it’s just I’ve found that I can’t sincerely assign so much ‘HUZZAH!’ to every piece of high-quality kit I get exposed to thanks to my work here at Part-time Audiophile. My ears are starting to get comfortable with differentiating between that last five/ten percent that separates great-sounding gear from gear I must own myself (funds permitting), but I’m going to say right off the top that the O/96s would have stayed with me if not for practical space limitations (in my set up) that occur when you share a space with children. These speakers in my system, in my room, proved to be supremely musical, and it is this quality I value above all else in my listening. They project rich, organic, tonal hues and suffuse performances with real drama and emotion.

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The first day I swapped everything around… an enormous sonic improvement.

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What proved to be final positioning; credenza on rollers for equipment, and easy access to cables, and wide-band acoustic room treatments placed in back-wall corners.

In my experience, the O/96s really do require some breathing space in a room to sound their best. As I mentioned, these speakers functioned as time machines for me, and if you are one of those people who value being transported back to the moment when the music was made, then I feel that these DeVores will speak to you, too.

As time went on, and my listening room evolved, and after much moving, and placing of the speakers on tiles, or on hardwood (always with a shim or two of folded paper business cards to keep them level) or finally, on a rug, I was able to get the O/96s positioned where I really felt they sounded their very best in my space. This turned out to be just under seven feet apart (driver mid-line to driver mid-line),  58″ from the inner-side baffle fronts to the wall behind, and 32″ from outer-baffle fronts to side walls, with about 15 degrees of toe-in. My listening position switched between 11 feet back (seated on sofa) to 15 feet back, sitting on a stool centered behind the sofa, and book/record stand. These speakers are capable of creating an enormous, and very deep sound stage, with lightning-fast transients and huge dynamic swings handled with ease. They quickly pressurized my (approximately) 14′ x 26′ room, and consistently reproduced recordings with instruments and vocals of life-like dimensions. A palpable sense of intimacy was created that drew me into the playback, and put the performers squarely in the room.

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The O/96s sounded best to my ears on this Persian rug, as opposed to hardwood.

The O/96s made their way to me courtesy of Soundhounds in Victoria, B.C., where Terry Crabbe and Don Thorne thought the speakers would be an excellent match with my new reference tube amplification (Audio Note Oto Line SE, and Audio Note M1 RIAA Phono stage) and helped me arrange a long-term review.

Before picking up the O/96s, I got in contact with John DeVore in Brooklyn to touch base and ask him a few questions regarding placement, positioning and interfacing the speakers with my listening room. He was precise in his recommendations, but said ultimately, it was whatever worked best for me in my space, and he encouraged experimentation. We discussed placing the speakers on hardwood vs. tile, carpet vs. rug on hardwood, and why he felt using plain business cards as shims rather than anything else was preferred.

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A simple, effective, and seemingly harmonically sympathetic speaker/stand interface. The stand is solid Maple, and slots perfectly between two wooden rails on the speaker’s base.

When it came to the speaker/stand interface, DeVore chose a very straightforward approach: A white flavor of Blu Tack is included with each speaker pair, with a small balled-up glob to be placed at each corner of the stand before mounting the speakers. I listened to the O/96s initially without this white-putty interface, and after a couple days of acclimatizing myself to their sound, was impressed at the difference in bass/mid-bass extension, and depth, and treble/high-frequency smoothing that its inclusion between the cabinet and stands made. In the end, I found that adding one more putty square midway along each long beam of the stand produced the best balance of bottom-end oomph, while maintaining bass speed, and tightness.

DeVore: “The interface between the cabinets and stands is very critical, and is an integral part of the speaker system. The shape, materials and construction of the stands all contribute to the end result. A great deal of work went into that part of the design and the putty and business card solution was the best combination of effectiveness and ease of use for the customer: It does just what I need it to do, and it’s pretty hard to get it wrong.”

John DeVore and Gibbon X

John DeVore and his latest creation – an almost four-year project – the Gibbon X loudspeaker at RMAF 2015.

I caught up with DeVore in Denver at The Rocky Mountain Audio Festival in October, and we discussed the O/96 further. He said the ’96 was put together with all his knowledge of loudspeaker design up to that point, but in its execution, he declared he wasn’t beholden to any of that knowledge. He said he designed these speakers with a blank sheet, starting from scratch. With every aspect open to consideration, even the grilles were given his full attention with the material used specific for its sonic properties.

DeVore: “Classic grille cloth, if you look at it under a microscope, its threads, are very furry, hairy, it’s what you’d expect to see from a thread of cloth. On the Orangutan grilles, it’s made of incredibly thin fiberglass strands wrapped in vinyl, so if you look at it through a microscope, they’re smooth. There’s no high-frequency attenuation caused by all that fluff. So you look at it and say to yourself “How can that possibly be acoustically transparent?” But it is an order of magnitude more transparent than the classic grilles – which are way cheaper.”

Some of the tenets of the design precis included making a loudspeaker that presented an easy load to amplifiers, and to make the design one of high-efficiency without sacrificing looks, and the tone that can sometimes haunt those designs (the O/96 is nominally, a 10 Ohm design, but in fact never dips below eight Ohms across the frequency range). DeVore has said he wanted it to look great in any home, even one that was inclined to a more modern design aesthetic. The O/96s aesthetics are a nod to mid-century speaker looks, albeit capable of thoroughly modern imaging properties.

These are not what I would describe as conventional speakers other than perhaps in physical size. The O/96s (in my experience, and talking with a number of hi-fi pros at shows) don’t fit in among many preconceived notions of what high-fidelity speakers are supposed to look like. The two-way design uses simple (and high-quality) crossovers, the design incorporates large front baffles (more on this shortly), and gorgeously handmade wooden enclosures, with specific attention paid to both port tuning and incorporating cabinet resonance for tone and harmonics, much like a musical instrument would. The O/96s are in the company of other present-day production speaker designs that to me, can probably be counted on one hand.

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The DeVores enjoying a steady diet of vinyl.

DeVore: “When I initially brought the O/96s to market, I had a couple dealers who grabbed them up instantly. These were dealers who also carried Shindo or Audio Note and were all “Wow! We’ve been waiting for another kind of speaker that we can sell with our amps.” But, most of my dealers took one look at the pictures, and said “Our customers will never buy these.”

DeVore persevered, and shipped out pairs to dealers despite their concerns, telling them he’d take the speakers back at full credit if they didn’t sell.

“None of them came back. Most [dealers] got orders immediately, and they were blown away.”

According to DeVore, a scenario was usually playing out where the husband was coming in and listening to the Orangutans and loving them, but lamenting the way the speaker looked because they thought that their wives would never go for them.

“What happened is the husband would come back with his wife, and (show her several different speakers he had heard), and be all “Here’s the Wilson I heard and I think we can get into this color,” and the wife would look at the O/96 and go “What’s that?” And the husband is all “Those sounded great, but we could never put those in our room.” And the wife says, “No. That’s the one.”

The Orangutan 96 became DeVore’s #1 selling speaker within eight months.

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Two chamfer-edged rear ports that DeVore said are tuned in the mid-30Hz range, are designed to work as one. Attention to detail is second to none, with the luster of the deep, high-gloss finish, and the beautiful stained-wood grain changing subtly in sunlight.

I found the O/96 similar in some aspects of its sonic signature to my reference Audio Note AN-E/SPe HE loudspeakers – which are designed for corner loading – although DeVore told me he specifically designed the big Orangutans to not use corner or wall loading.

DeVore: “[The concern was] having corner-loading be practical in a wide range of rooms. Obviously one can make a corner-loaded system work in any room, but it’s a matter of… [placement] flexibility in a more conventional-style setup. Also, a wall-loaded or corner-loaded speaker, that is really about tonality. There are certain things it doesn’t do as well, and there’s certain things it does more easily. In terms of room loading, it’s easier, it loads the room more evenly as you walk around the room. It’s not so much about moving the speaker an inch this way or that way, and “BOOM” we got it. It eliminates what a lot of people call the step response. Which is where the speaker goes from broadcasting its sound[wave] forward in a hemisphere because the baffle has a certain width, to broadcasting into the room as a sphere because the sound wave becomes double the width of the front baffle, and generally speaking, at that point, whatever frequency that is, the power response in the room will drop.”

As an example of what he was driving at, DeVore chose the sound qualities many covet in stand mounted mini-monitors like the traditional BBC LS3/5a. Which, while they perform the neat trick of disappearing, ultimately cannot have the low-frequency response a larger driver and cabinet can produce.

DeVore: “The classic mini-monitor sound of “Wow, mini-monitors image like, better than anything I’ve ever heard!” Part of it is the tonality, part of it is the resonance – the cabinet is smaller – but the tonality is such that it’s emphasizing the upper mid-range, that clarity and speed. The perception is that all have increased.”

DeVore said one way to get a large speaker to image like a small one is through camouflage.

“Hide the fact that there is a baffle by moving the speaker close to a wall boundary so that the wall boundary essentially catches what’s left and everything is coming forward in a hemisphere no matter what the frequency. The other way to do it is to move the frequency so that the step response happens by changing the dimensions of the front baffle, and that’s what we did with the ’96. The ’96 has a wide front baffle and is a very specific dimension in its height and width, so I could tune exactly where that step response happened to coincide with the frequency response of where the woofer was tuned. Which is why it has a tonality like corner, or wall-loaded speakers. It has that rich tonality, its got lots of great mid-bass and timbre, and instruments have a woodiness. All those descriptive words are generally talking about the tonality where the step response is better taken care of. That’s why Snell Type As are so famous for symphonic music because you get this richness in instrumentation.  I want people to be able to use [my speakers] anywhere, rather than [be limited to one] specific spot, but also bring some of those (corner/wall loading) qualities … to the speaker.”

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Beauty in minimalism.

When I asked DeVore about his approach to speaker design, and whether he was influenced by a more Japanese minimalist aesthetic (which, to my eyes, the O/96s exude in their fit and finish, meticulous attention to detail, and simple lines, and stands), he nodded his head vigorously.

“The Gibbons, or the Orangutans, there’s no superfluous details, there’s no little styling touch. Everything that is there, while obviously I’m trying to make them look beautiful and acceptable in any room, everything that is there is intentional. The edge of the O/96 shows the plywood – I’m not hiding materials – it’s clear what the front baffle is made from. I used it as a design element because it breaks up the silhouette.”

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Hand sanded, veneered, and lacquered plywood baffle.

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DeVore said he took a lot of heat from the audiophile community when he released the O/96s. People wondered if he’d lost his mind, trying to get a two-way design – using a 10″ untreated-paper woofer – to ever be cohesive.

“If you look at the [online] forums, [people were writing] that I was an idiot and I needed [my head examined]. You should have seen the emails I got. People were seriously concerned about me; “Somebody needs to talk to Mr. DeVore and tell him how speakers really work…”

“It was kind of amazing.”

OrangDrivers

Choosing a driver to match the tweeter was no easy feat. Photo courtesy John DeVore.

DeVore: “If I had to pick one element, in all of the stuff that went into designing the ’96, it was getting that woofer to do what it needs to do, to reach that tweeter. That said, the tweeter is gently horn-loaded… and people said that horn-loading is a joke, there’s no way that it’s horn-loading down to where it would need to be crossing over. And that’s right. The horn-loading is boosting the higher frequencies specifically so we could concentrate on making that tweeter robust in the lower end of its range so that people could play it nice and loud, and we wouldn’t have to worry about getting really high harmonic distortion from the tweeter. So it was both of those drivers, and tons, and tons of experimentation.”

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Gently horn load my 1″ silk-dome tweeter please. Beep-beep.

DeVore said in all his speaker designs, it’s the crossovers that usually take up the most time getting right. With countless hours of intense listening, and intense measuring to ensure the driver handshake is as perfect as he can make it.

“It’s a circle that keeps on going, and keeps on going. Sometimes I’m sitting there late at night – I’ll do an all-night session – and I’m sitting there with the crossover just out on the floor, and listening, and then soldering, then listening, then soldering… doing a (frequency) sweep and going “Oh, I missed that,” then more listening, and soldering. You get into this mode, and that is by far the longest, the most energy, and labor-intensive part of all of the speakers design. It’s key.”

Sources

I ran a number of sources into the big Orangutans, including vinyl, CD, and FLAC played through a third-generation iPod Touch. “iPod Touch!” you snigger, but yes, I did. Because in the real world, which is where I live, people use iPods to listen to music, people like my children, and I wanted anyone who came to visit or stay with me, but who might be intimidated by a turntable with a $9,000 USD cartridge on it, to be able to experience music through the DeVores. The Touch allowed that to happen with great results for more than a few people who stayed with me.

Koetsu and SME do their thing

Koetsu Onyx Platinum MC cartridge.

The bulk of my listening was analog through two vastly different vinyl rigs. The first being a Transrotor Fat Bob Reference with a Transrotor-modified SME 5009 tonearm and Koetsu Onyx Platinum moving-coil cartridge (combo review HERE), through a Cinemag 3440A step-up transformer (SUT). The second a slightly hopped-up Rega RP6 with the venerable Denon DL-103 running into an Auditorium 23 Standard SUT. In the end, I used the A23 SUT with the Koetsu as well, just because it imbued music with a much more palpable sonic presence in the room.

Denon103-Rega

Threatening cartridges ten times its price with the right SUT: Denon DL-103

An Amplifier Aside

Power for the review was taken care of by two very capable integrated amplifiers; my mid-level budget reference 10 wpc Audio Note UK Oto Line SE (a single-ended integrated with four Sovtek EL84 tubes running in parallel, and two ’62 NOS Amperex 12AX7s handling input duties), and the 22 wpc Air Tight Acoustic Masterpiece 201H (a point-to-point wired Parallel Push-Pull integrated featuring eight EL84 output tubes, with a pair of 12AX7s and two 12AU7s up front). None of the Air Tight’s tubes had any markings on them that I could see, so I have no idea what brand they were, that Edward Ku of Element Acoustics brought over for me to listen to with the O/96s, as he felt it would be a complimentary pairing (which it was, thanks Edward!).

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Dramatic, moody, and always emotionally engaging with four EL84 power tubes run in parallel, and NOS ’62 Amperex 12AX7 input tubes: The Oto Line SE

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The Acoustic Masterpiece 201H is a beautiful amplifier with incredible attention to detail in its construction (enclosure screws all have nylon washers so as to mark the casework or resonate), that I think would respond very well to NOS tube rolling.

I want to talk a little about these two amps, while both are EL84 tube-based integrateds, their sound differs demonstrably from one another, and the O/96 does a phenomenal job of translating each amp’s ability to portray the emotional disposition of the music being played through them.

AirTight-5

AirTight-3

Eight EL84 output tubes create an enormous amount of heat, and the 201H needs lots of space above it for proper ventilation or you will start fires. For real.

Audio cognoscenti, reviewers, and sweaty audiophiles in hotel elevators, all lick their lips when talking about “sonic transparency” given the slightest provocation in a conversation involving hi-fi. I’m going to describe the O/96 in terms of transparency to power source; bear with me.

I probably listened to more than a hundred LPs, a dozen or so CDs, and a lot of FLAC files, while listening to the O/96s and I can tell you in no uncertain terms that these speakers instantly translate the slightest change to source. Whether it was a swap in AC cables or interconnects, a SUT, a different cartridge, switching turntables, any change to source isolation (Vibrapods, Maple amp stands, marble placed under an amp, etc.), a change to what the speakers themselves were sitting on… everything came through right away. If you have any issues in your audio-playback chain preceding the speaker’s Cardas binding posts, the DeVores will let you know, and consequently, help you isolate and address the issue.

I’m not going to get into how every change I made affected the sound in this way, or that way, but I am going to touch on how the two amplifiers sonic characters were so completely, utterly, and uniquely brought forth by the big DeVores.

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High quality gold-plated RCA jacks, and binding posts compliment the rear of the 201H.

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Weighing in at a not un-hefty 35lbs+, the 201H is no sonic lightweight either.

The O/96s being juiced by the Acoustic Masterpiece sounded so smooth you’d think every note played, or chord struck was being massaged, and rubbed down by a bevy of masseurs. This amp has a beautiful touch with every type of music I put through it, regardless of source. The 201H reminded me of a Koetsu cartridge in some ways; it plays everything staggeringly well, but to my ears there is a certain sameness to everything played through it. It is definitely midrange-centric in its presentation, with a hint of roll-off in the upper registers and in bottom-end output. If this was your day-to-day integrated amplifier, you’d be very hard pressed to do better in this price range, and to be honest you wouldn’t notice the less -than-stygian bass unless you A/B’d it like I did against the Oto with its much larger output transformers. Having the 201H in place for several weeks I came to adore it. It put a smile on my face every time I heard it through the DeVores.

Mezzanine

Dark UK, ’90s Electronica at its finest.

The following is a mix of written notes I took at the time, and my memory of the day:

I’d been playing Massive Attack’s Mezzanine (2×33 rpm LP, 2013 limited-edition re-issue), and the O/96s were laying out a huge deep-V sound stage that was pushing well-past room boundaries. The Koetsu and Transrotor combo I was using were cutting through the congestion of analog, and digital instruments, effects, and textures, and the DeVores were giving each note space, separation, and clarity without a hint of smearing, blending or hash on any of the electronically-produced Pro Tools wizardry attendant on vocals, guitar, keyboard, and bass: No small feat on a song like Angel, which is layered with complex rhythmic, and tonal harmonics that I’ve heard other speakers in the O/96’s price range (or significantly more) unable to articulate, and give up on, instead pumping out a slurry of synth-tinged vocal inflection that lacked the clearly delineated, guttural punch the O/96s were effortlessly pouring into my listening room. Deep, authentic, pluck inflection was present on every bass note, and the bassline reproduction itself never let other instrument’s detailed playback  get overwhelmed or embedded in it. The song sounded ascendant, and I was grinning.

While I was listening, and scratching out my illegible notes, I swapped in the long-ignored Oto which had been languishing in a corner of the room – so enamored had I become with the 201H – which I’d plugged in, and had warming up on the dining table for the previous hour.

Oto-FatBob

Oto back in the mix

I reconnected everything, and cued-up Angel again, dropping the Onyx Platinum onto the lead-in groove. Angel had changed dramatically. No longer was my attention being drawn in by the sound stage, or how well instruments, and vocals were being articulated (all of which they still were, with the Oto providing power). Instead, what I was now perceiving through the O/96s went from an analytical viewpoint to an emotional one. I shifted uneasily on the sofa as Horace Andy’s vocals took on a disturbing, sinister lilt. The hair on my arms steadily rose as the song’s viscous bass line started a pressurized creep up my back that felt like a cold catheter being inserted into my spine. The DeVores were revealing what an emotional clairvoyant the Oto was compared to the Air Tight, and the speakers never skipped a beat in the transition between the two amplifiers. It’s this level of emotional entanglement, this window into the passionate viscera of the music that propels me forward in my best listening experiences, this is what keeps me spinning albums.

The difference in sonic presentation of Massive Attack between the two amplifiers that the speakers revealed was impressive. The Acoustic Masterpiece looked to have generic tubes installed (Russian, Chinese?), and I feel that NOS input tubes (Amperex, Mullard, Telefunken) would benefit this amp’s level of emotional engagement, and that while in the end it seemed rather continuously upbeat in comparison to the Audio Note, many listeners out there might far, and away prefer the 201H’s sound with the stock tubes left in place, as I had until the A/B between the two amplifiers. I can only speak to what turns me on. I highly recommend the 201H as-is, but I will add the caveat that with proper attention paid to the input tubes, this amplifier would possess the far more attractive (to me) ability of storytelling. Or put another way, that old trick where my brain fools my heart into beating a little faster when the music starts.

The reason I bring all this up, on top of alluding to sonic transparency of the O/96s to power source, is because I believe system synergy is incredibly important, and choosing the right amp to pair with the DeVores is essential in my opinion. I would be hard pressed to use anything other than a low-powered Push-Pull or Single-Ended tube amplifier with them. One listening session with a friend also included an Audio Note Meishu Silver, and the Orangutans responded very well to that amplifier’s amazing, delicate, and large spatial bloom of decay around piano, and string instrument notes that the 300 B tube is famous for.

Organic and earthy … these speakers are not afraid to get dirty. And I say that with the utmost respect, I’ve heard very few loudspeakers be able to really handle beautiful, clean, remastered LPs like the Analogue Productions 45rpm Prestige series, or Mobile Fidelity’s Original Master Recordings as well as a lot of the original ’70s and ’80s punk, prog-rock, post-punk, and ’60s rock, jazz and classical LPs I’ve managed to unearth over  years of crate digging. It didn’t matter what I threw at them, they just always sounded right. No two LPs ever sounded the same, the DeVores let each album’s unique sonic signature pour forth effortlessly.

Back on Track: Extended Listening

The bulk of the following listening notes were made with the Oto Line SE in play, and a mix of the Denon/Rega and Transrotor/Koetsu as a source.

Sonny Rollins, Saxophone Colossus

Saxophone-Colossus

Saxophone Colossus, 1956

Analogue Productions, 2013, 200-gram Kevin Gray remaster, pressed by Quality Records. Out of print (other versions are here).

Once again, a wide, deep, tall sound stage knocks out the wall behind the Orangutans by a good five feet, with Tommy Flanagan, Doug Watkins, Max Roach, and Sonny Rollins presented fully-formed, and human-sized. The sheer speed of attack, and impact of Rollins’ blaring, texture-infused notes is slightly disconcerting if you’re not used to the SET/high-efficiency speaker sound or familiar with big horns. This mono remaster of the legendary 1956 Van Gelder studio session highlights all the performers, but to me it’s Roach’s drumming alongside Rollins that is a real standout on this pressing, and on this song in particular. Every rim-hit concusses the air between the speakers with large, life-size bloom, and decay. Ditto for cymbals, which are reproduced with lingering, ethereal sparkle, and hyper-realism. Have you ever pushed your way to the front of the stage for a live show? Felt the visceral impact of a floor tom, and bass drum in your chest, or the way the snare or the ride/crash cymbal, and high hat shimmers in time, and space? The compression in your eardrum as the cymbal’s alloy crushes under a drum stick’s strike? If you have then you’ll be right at home with what the O/96s are capable of reproducing. For me it’s all about the recorded performance: the emotional reaction the music creates within me. The temporal bridge between 1956, and my living room simply vanished. Separation of Rollins’ saxophone, and Flanagan’s piano playing coming through Watkin’s bass in the mix regardless of complexity in the song was of particular note on this cut.

Mike Oldfield, Crises

Crises

Oldfield’s opus to the difficulties of songwriting.

Virgin Records, 1983 original UK pressing, bought as NOS (various versions available here).

This is an LP I have a real soft spot for. My father, and various uncles have been playing Mike Oldfield albums for as long as I can remember listening to music. While I love Oldfield’s earlier work, it’s his ’80s albums that strike the strongest chord within me. This is an LP with a lot of textured, sonic complexity, and instrument layers interspersed with analog, and early synth effects (Oldfield plays the legendary Fairlight CMi along with the Roland Strings all over this LP, which has great production throughout). Maggie Reilly’s vocals figure predominantly on this, and other ’80s Oldfield classics such as Five Miles Out. “Foreign Affair” is the third track on side one, and it’s my favorite cut on the album. It may not be the best known track off the LP – “Moonlight Shadow,” and “In High Places,” featuring Jon Anderson on vocals probably have that honor (Anderson’s vocals on “In High Places” were later sampled by Kanye West for the track “Dark Fantasy) – but “Foreign Affair” features  deceptively fast, authoritative drumming courtesy of Simon Phillips which is the track’s hallmark for me, and puts me back to my teen years when this LP was being pumped into my family’s stereo room at club-level SPLs. When the song started, Phillips’ initial kick drum was so forceful through the DeVores that it caught me off guard, and my head involuntarily snapped back, making me laugh out loud at my reaction. The song’s bass line never gets lost in the tight weave of Phillips’ backbeat, with every nuance of Phil Spalding’s fingers on the fretless bass guitar for chord changes clearly coming through the wash of synth strings that Oldfield layers throughout the song. Phillips was placed well back , and up on the sound stage, with the O/96s capturing all the spatial cues given off the gated mics used to record Reilly’s voice, which was far forward in the 3D-stage, situated well in front of all the instrumentation in the mix. These speakers become imaging monsters with proper placement.

Billie Holiday, Music for Torching

Billie-Holiday-Torching

Not a Roman Holiday.

Speakers Corner, 2008. 180-gram remaster. Pressed by Pallas in Germany. Out of print (various versions available here).

If classic mono LPs are your thing, than I’m going to say this would be a great addition for your collection. Recorded over two days in August 1955, this album captures all the poignancy, sadness, and melancholy-laden charm of Holiday during one of her finest recorded moments. Clef founder Norman Granz oversaw the production which features some incredible talent throwing in with Holiday; Barney Kessel on guitar, Jimmy Rowles on piano, Benny Carter plays alto sax, Harry “Sweets” Edison on trumpet, Larry Bunker setting pace on drums, and John Simmons on bass. Reviewers say things like “in the room,” when describing the ability of some speakers to portray the ambiance of the recorded session. Signaling – in my mind anyway – the complete aural signature of the space used to capture the performance.

I’m guilty of invoking this over-used metaphor, and I’m struggling to not use it in describing this LP, but to be honest, that’s exactly what this album sounds like through the DeVores. Rowles little piano flourishes on “Come Rain or Come Shine” suddenly sparkling into existence 10 feet behind the O/96s constantly freaked me out because they just came out of nowhere; suddenly there was a studio grand floating outside my apartment. Same goes for Kessel, whose guitar played with all the body, and timbre of a life-sized instrument in my room on “A Fine Romance,” and “Ghost of a Chance.” Space in, and around every instrument, and performer was so clearly demarcated that it was impossible not to assign them their own space in front of me and between the speakers. I cannot stress enough what a palpable, organic, and visceral experience it is to hear a performance which was recorded with such astounding spatial cues reproduced by these speakers. Detail to die for? Yes. The wet click of Holiday’s lips parting, the frisson of the fret of Simmons’ bass with every pluck of a string, Carter’s brassy rumble pressurizing his sax, and the sublime, and perfectly formed ‘blat’ of Edison’s trumpet as he raises, and lowers it in front of him while playing is clearly articulated. But it’s the sheer musicality, the sum total of all these legendary players coming together that floors me. They’re speaking to me, they’re saying something that’s there for me to take away from them: life is sad, and wonderful all at once, and the DeVores echoed that sentiment to me more than 60 years after the song was recorded.

Terry Callier, What Color is Love?

Cadet Records, 1972. 2000 U.S. re-issue. Out of print (various versions available here).

Callier-LP

Not easy to find an original pressing in great condition online, but the 2000 re-issue can be had for reasonable dosh.

A somewhat rambling, self-exploratory journey on the complexities of love seen through the soul, funk, blues, and folk-tinted lens that Chicago singer-songwriter Terry Callier focused his talents on in this 1972 opus. What Color is Love? saw him teamed up with psychedelic soul conductor/arranger Charles Stepney. The production on this album is outstanding, and suffused with hypnotic bass lines, powerful, driving percussion, and always Callier’s voice, and guitar playing floating over a mix awash with lush, dramatic, and sweeping arrangements of layered strings, and electric piano. It’s a great test album (IMO) to see how well a speaker can keep instruments, and vocals clearly delineated, and not allow any smearing or bleed-through between competing notes on complex passages. “Dancing Girl” opens up the LP, and there’s several sections featuring a dense stratum of strings, keyboards, bass, percussion, tambourine, guitar, horns, and drum flourishes that Callier scats over. The O/96s never lose their composure through the song’s nine minutes of hot mess. Instead, they construct a crescendo of tension. The title track comes in with beautifully articulated guitar strumming that the DeVores place just behind, and below Callier’s achy vocals, while the instrument, and vocal imaging is pinpoint, it’s the sum of the parts of this song, rather than the pieces, that draws me in. “You Goin’ Miss Your Candyman” starts with Callier’s sweet guitar picking and immediately has a Louis Satterfield hard-plucked bass line dropped liked an A-bomb on it. BOOM. Alfred Nalls then launches a conga-drum attack on Callier’s still-vibrating guitar strings that the drums of Donald Simmons then try to interrupt with a cacophonous crashing, with cymbals splashing around my head like shrapnel. Cohesion is the key to every presentation of a recording played through these speakers. Yes, it’s easy to get all pointy-faced over individual instrument’s clarity, timbre, tone, and spatial placement on the sound stage, but it’s the hooks, the rhythm, the rightness of the presentation to my ears, that allow the big Orangutans to stand head, and shoulders above so many other speakers in the $10,000 ~ $30,000+ USD price range that I’ve heard. The sound is the comfort food you crave with a great bottle of wine to bring every nuance, and texture of flavor from the meal.

O96-4

Just park here for a while, and listen.

Conclusions

A transparency to source that will challenge the preconceptions of many listeners, timbral accuracy that often left me shaking my head at its realism, and astoundingly deep, powerful bass: these are some of the hallmarks of John DeVore’s O/96 loudspeakers in my opinion. Immediacy, impact, slam, visceral, organic, natural, musical, and realistic. These are the words that came again, and again throughout more than 20 pages of notes over four months of living with the big DeVores. These are loudspeakers that respond exceedingly well to the sonic implications of tube amplification, so if the translation of artistic intent through the coloration of tubes (to my mind: the realistic enrichment of instruments) is appealing to you, then these speakers will undoubtedly speak to you. They will make you rush home every day, like I did, to warm up amplifiers, and take care of mundane chores so you can sink into your sofa, and take the evening off to be transported again, and again through time. Do you want to flip through LP after LP, looking for this album, then that album, because you don’t just want to hear it, but rather, you need to hear it? These DeVores will do that for you. They did for me, and they possess that far too uncommon trait of giving a most human touch to music.

Editor's Choice: BMC UltraDAC

Listening to these speakers I found  my attention was always on the musicians’ performance. The emphasis was on the whole, rather than the parts. The minutiae of detail of every individual instrument or voice was there if I chose to focus in on it – and I could follow each instrument’s notes threaded through a song with ease – but it was always the feeling the song in question was eliciting within me that stood out. Listening through the O/96s was a constant emotional experience, that for me, spanned decades of hi-fi speaker design, technology, and sound that I’ve become familiar with over the past few years. The Orangutans are more than capable of pulling off the mini-monitor trick of vanishing into a room. Yet, as if welded into their DNA matrix, they are able to play with ’50s-era tone while they disappear. Not an easy feat in my experience, but one of the many feats that John DeVore has pulled off with his O/96 design.

This is a loudspeaker for both music lovers, and imaging/detail fetishists. I cannot recommend it highly enough to those with room to do the design, and performance, justice. With careful amplification matching these are end-game speakers that will stay with you for decades, and like a mid-sixties Altec Valencia, or other bespoke classics of mid-century design such as an Eames lounger, or Omega Speedmaster, the O/96s should be passed on to your children.

General Info

DeVore O/96 loudspeaker, Approx. $12,000 USD

DeVore Fidelity
63 Flushing Ave., Unit 259
Bld 280, Ste 510
Brooklyn, NY 11205

Telephone: +1 (718) 855-9999

info@devorefidelity.com

About the Author

Rafe-Arnott-profile-picRafe got his start listening to music young thanks to his father’s love of vinyl and big speakers. He was finally able to start down the audiophile path in the last several years and hasn’t looked back.

A passion for music, high-end gear, clean vinyl records and its ability to transport the listener through time to the jazz studios of the ‘50s and ‘60s is what helps drive his tube gear fetish and recent lust for large horn speakers.

Akira Kurosawa films, ’80s teen comedies, two crazy children, crate digging, craft beer and frequent road trips to Portland helps keep him sane.

An award-winning photojournalist for over a decade, Rafe now finances his audio-hardware sickness as a news videographer in Vancouver, B.C.

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About Rafe Arnott (307 Articles)
Editor and Creative Director for Part-Time Audiophile & The Occasional Magazine.

6 Comments on Review: DeVore Fidelity O/96 loudspeakers

  1. Jerry belben // March 7, 2016 at 11:34 AM //

    Hi

    I only recently became aware of Devore loudspeakers and totally enjoyed your review. Tell me, have you ever auditioned the PSB Image Tower 3 loudspeakers. Paul Barton’s philosophy appears to be similar to that Of Devore and he/ his products continually receive rave reviews. I would be most appreciative if you or one of your colleagues were to review his latest offering.

    Thanks

    Jerry from Halifax

  2. The Sevy butcher blocks as isolation devices are a nice touch! Much better looking than the Ikea ones and a lot cheaper than Mapleshade and just as effective in my book.

  3. One of the best written reviews I’ve recently come across. Kudos to the author!

  4. Rafe Arnott // February 14, 2016 at 3:08 AM //

    Thanks for the kind words! Hope you enjoyed the review too 🙂

  5. Man, these are good looking speakers, including size and shape. All you see is tall and skinny nowadays. Come on, already. Someone come up with a $2500 knock off and I’m in. Wide Baffle, baby.

  6. I stopped to post this immediately after seeing the first image of his system turned 90 degrees in the room (and after having ditched the video display-hurrah!). To say that the room looks utterly transformed for the better is an extreme understatement. It went from looking so, well, blah! to looking like the product of a summa cum laude graduate of the world’s most exclusive high end finishing school (for that space).

    Very well done! And don’t you dare replace that horrid video display!

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