For those aware of such things, the development of the DeVore Fidelity Gibbon X has been a captivating ride for years. Chief engineer and company namesake John DeVore works out of a warehouse nicknamed the ‘The Monkeyhaus’ in New York’s Brooklyn Navy Yards. The X are built as a modern three-way with a linear frequency response and a uniquely benign impedance curve with an eye to easy system matching. Translation: A state-of-the-art loudspeaker which can be driven by lower-powered tube amps.
Not an easy recipe to cook up in hi-fi unless you’re dealing with a single driver or wide-baffled two-way, nonetheless one that DeVore tasked himself with, and then delivered on.
Having separately reviewed DeVore’s Orangutan Line comprised of the O/96 and O/93 models (wide-baffle, 96dB and 93dB two-way designs), I was interested to hear DeVore’s flagship Gibbon outside the context of an audio show (the line consists of the X, the Super Nine and the 3XL). Built to offer more Reuleaux triangle in the Venn diagram of audiophile loudspeakers, the Gibbon series strives for pinpoint imaging, sound stage depth and scale, whereas the Orangutans focus on dynamic impact and room energization.
The X come superbly – if enormously – packed and double-boxed. Fit and finish is commensurate price-wise with obvious attention to the smallest detail; from the perfect alignment of the magnetic grilles to the adjustable bronze footer spikes which I set with a level before final tightening. The review pair came in a deep gloss ‘cherry bamboo’ finish that was flawless.
Relatively straightforward to set up in a room – I always use a measuring tape to keep placement symmetrical from the front and side walls when possible – experimentation revealed the speaker preferred more distance from room boundaries for optimum sound, as the bass and lower-midrange suffered when shoved into a corner, issues that disappeared as they came away from the walls and further into the open.
Final placement in my space for the first round of listening sessions had them firing lengthwise down an approximately 10-foot by 22-foot room, 24 inches from the front wall and 16 inches from a left side wall (the right side opens up onto another room for the first eight feet). The second round had them placed about 24 inches from the sidewall and 52 inches from the front wall. Each time the X were approximately 74 inches apart. Imaging and sound staging continued to improve the farther away from walls they were positioned.
The X exhibited greater spatial accuracy to instrument/vocal placement in the mix with roughly three degrees of toe-in – ‘snapping’ or ‘locking’ the stereo image holographically into place. Less or more toe-in and the imaging seemed to drift out of alignment like the focus-overlay in a rangefinder camera. With the toe-in barely there, the speakers disappeared completely.
I tried the DeVore with both valve and solid-state amplifiers ranging from 20–600 watts (The Audio Note Soro Phono SE Signature and McIntosh C2600 Tube Preamplifer/MC611 mono blocs). Changes in tonality, timbral shading, imaging, attack on leading edges of notes, perceived speed/reaction time to dynamic swings were all instantly translated by the X. This confirmed their sensitivity – much like the Orangutans I’ve heard previously – to any upstream changes in hardware or cabling. Also like the ‘O’ series, their sonic DNA – when combined with an appropriately resolution-oriented source and capable amplification – exudes a preternatural ability at placing human performers upon the stage of your listening space, with realistic scale and unwavering pitch reproduction to vocals and instruments – piano in particular.
Speaking with the individual responsible for a product can shed light on other aspects of the design, so I caught up with DeVore via e-mail at his home in New York for an in-depth Q&A on the X, included below.
Rafe Arnott: John, we’ve known each other for several years, and this is the third review of your loudspeakers that I’ve undertaken. We’ve talked chassis/enclosures, cabinet dimensions/volume, transducer magnet types, driver arrays/materials and of all those conversations, we’ve been discussing the Gibbon X longer than any other of your designs. The X, like the long-lived Silverback/Reference (10 years) it replaced, is quite a departure from your Orangutan model line in that the bass drivers fire sideways from the chassis, and the X is possessed of a narrow cabinet silhouette compared to the O/93 or O/96 models. Can you talk about the X and what it is about this design that drove you to work so long and hard to perfect it?
John DeVore: “Yes, we have been talking about the X longest. It’s development lasted a good five years. Some of that time was due to a shift in what I wanted the speaker to be. It evolved from a replacement for The Nines to a replacement for the Silverback Reference. By 2011 I had decided it would be a full three-way speaker, like the Silverback. From that point the Gibbon X's development became more public, in January 2012 I showed a pair of prototypes at CES. These had all four drivers on the front baffle, and this layout lasted through several iterations up to CES 2014. Between CES in January and RMAF in October of 2014 the layout morphed to the woofers-on-the-sides that ended up in the production version. This was that last part of the move from The Nines replacement to Silverback replacement, as the woofers grew from 6.5-inches to 8.5-inches. Like with the Silverbacks a decade before, migrating the woofers to the sides was the only way to increase their size and still maintain the slim profile of the cabinet. The last hurdle was the new tweeter. It took another year to get it perfected and ready for production.
“By 2014 I had set my eyes on the Silverback as the speaker I needed to beat with the new design. While, as a Gibbon model, there was always a priority put on transparency, focus and delicacy, when the target moved from The Nines to the Silverbacks – the bar was raised. Many of the cabinet and construction techniques from the Silverbacks were employed such as a separate, rigid-mounting frame for the two woofers, a cabinet divided into five tuned chambers, and an isolated, suspended tweeter, but at the same time I didn't want the price to change significantly from what the Silverbacks sold for at the end of their run.
“The overall design was dictated by the rest of the Gibbon-series speakers. When I knew these were going to be Silverback replacements, I knew I could adapt much of the cabinet layout of the older speaker to the newer one. A big challenge was trying to keep the price of the new model similar to that of the older model. If we were to put the Silverback into production now it would be far more expensive – easily over $20,000 USD. So I had a sonic target, and a price target. Certain things were removed right away – the engraved, polished stainless-steel badges and aluminum back-plate were very expensive and didn't contribute to the sound. The non-parallel cabinet walls were out and the cabinet was reengineered with varying materials and thickness to achieve similar resonance results. Overall, equal parts modeling and listening to get all the tuning finished.”
RA: The crossover of the X is more complicated than an O/96, for example, because it’s a three-way design vs. a two-way design. Crossover designs follow an order (1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th,) with a 6dB increase in slope per octave, per increase in order, which means the higher the the order, the more sharp frequency rolloff is. Crossover networks can be simple or complex depending on what the designer wants – and how many drivers are being implemented – but in the tuning, are almost always about tradeoffs. How critical is crossover design to your process and how much tuning by ear is involved specifically?
JD: “You are absolutely right, a three-way crossover will be at least twice as complex as a similar two-way circuit. Getting it right though is more than twice as difficult, as you now have far more complex interaction of drivers – adjustments to the mid/high crossover will effect things in the bass/mid part of the circuit as well as affecting overall driver and system behavior. Add to that my design brief that the speaker system be very easy to drive, with an even eight-Ohm impedance and yes, the complexity adds way up! The final tuning is all done by ear, then checked with measurement. It's a slow back-and-forth process.”
RA: We’ve discussed using Blutak (or similar) between the cabinet and stands of the O/96, and how business cards under the stand legs on hardwood can even affect the sound from the big Orangutans, but on the X you’ve eschewed your tuned wooden stands from the ’96 for screw-in metal spikes. Why not wooden feet?
JD: “The difference between how the Gibbons and Orangutans sit on the floor is a mix of tuning and necessity. The Gibbons (and Silverbacks) are all taller and have a much smaller footprint than the Orangutans. The adjustability for leveling and solid-footing is more important for the tall, narrow cabinets. And the ability to precisely adjust the angle of the speaker towards the listing position ensures the user can dial in the best integration of the drivers, regardless of the height. With the Orangutan speakers I came at the listening axis issue from another angle (Ha!), and designed the speakers with an upwards polar tilt, then kept them short. This way they are generally lower than the listener, and the drivers align without any fuss. Also, the tuning of the O cabinets is very different, and the wooden feet keep things right. The Gibbons, especially the Gibbon X (and Silverback), benefit from VERY careful adjustment, and are specifically tuned for our machined bronze, nickel-plated locking cones.”
RA: The Orangutan and X models seem to both target different areas of loudspeaker design. It’s my understanding that the idea behind the Orangutan series is dynamic impact, and room energization, whereas the X is about pinpoint imaging, sound-stage depth and scale. Why these two approaches in design?
JD: “You're basically right, though that wasn't the initial intent. A little over 10 years ago, at the beginning of the Orangutan project, my intent was to make a speaker with all the qualities of our Gibbon and Silverback models, but more optimized for very low-powered tube amps. As the designs progressed it became clear that the large two-way design had additional strengths, namely dynamics and room energy, as you mention. It wasn't my intention to have the two different speaker series diverge. In fact I think the more recent Gibbon X and Super Nine speakers have a healthy helping of that Orangutan sound in them, and now with the O/Reference, there is no longer any need to choose – the O/Ref is more dynamic, easier to drive and will fill a room with realistic sound better than any other O model, and they are more transparent, focused, image better and have more accurate scale than any Gibbon model.”
RA: Of the entire arc of the X project, from inital sketches on napkins to completing the final prototype, what was the most difficult aspect of design/construction that you had to overcome for success?
JD: “This is an interesting question. The real answer was to keep the overall balance through to the end. By this I mean to be careful not to chase one design parameter or goal down a rabbit hole at the expense of others. While this will inevitably happen over the course of designing a new model, it's crucial to be able to step back and see how far out of balance a system has become, and set a course back to having everything in harmony. These rabbit holes can often have benefits beyond just exercises, pushing the performance of one specific element of a design will force me to examine all the other aspects and see what can be done to bring them up to this new level. Often it's not entirely possible, because the gains are often the result of the imbalance itself, but it is certainly a great way to really dive deep into the capabilities of a speaker system.”
By 2014 I had set my eyes on the Silverback as the speaker I needed to beat with the new design. While, as a Gibbon model, there was always a priority put on transparency, focus and delicacy, when the target moved from The Nines to the Silverbacks – the bar was raised.
Critical listening was performed with McIntosh MC611 mono bloc amplifiers and C2600 tubed preamplifier (and also with an Audio Note Soro Phono SE Signature integrated amplifier – 18 watts in the first round), an Aurender W20 music server feeding a totaldac d1-direct and a Naim ND555 music server/DAC with PS555 power supply. Analog duties were handled by a Rega P3 w/Exact 2 MM cartridge, interconnect, preamp/amplifier and speaker cabling was TelluriumQ with an PS Audio P20 and PS Audio cables handling AC delivery.
Listening to the X, two of the qualities noticed first are the scale of the reproduced recording and an effortlessness support quality to the foundation on which the music is layered. Whether playing dense/complex multi-instrument passages or solo acoustic pieces, there is a solidity to the placement of performers which sets everything on concrete pilings: seemingly immovable. This footing allowed deep, realistic projection of every performance into the room.
The growl of feedback and reverb from singer-songwriter Angel Olsen’s guitar on 2017’s Phases has more bite and edge, heft and weight through the X than heard previously through a pair of Harbeth M40.1 also on hand. The covers, B-sides and demo tracks that make up the LP were culled from five years worth of work and as such don’t make it a concept album, but it is a window into the creative process of Olsen. The ragged, electric six-string chords she favours and the percussive slam of the kick drum on “Fly on your Wall” impact with more texture and definition than the big British monitors. The less sparse and more layered synth and orchestral arrangements of “All Mirrors” rises from a basement of bass that Olsen builds her house of intimate lyrics upon, and the X translates her emotional investment in every cut, be it plaintive, restless, heartfelt or imbued with disquiet.
The Scroggins sisters – Valerie, Renee, Marie and Deborah – better known as Emerald, Sapphire & Gold (ESG), know a thing or two about locking down a groove. The dance-punk, no-wave debut album Come Away with ESG which hit the NYC music scene like an asteroid in 1983 following both critical journalistic and dancefloor/street success of their EPs ESG in ’81 and ESG Says Dance to the Beat of Moody in ’82, is an abject lesson in how speed and dynamic swings translate musically on a system. Cuts like “Moody (Spaced Out)” where the driving rubberband bassline of Deborah’s fret slaps and finger work alternates with the machine gunning of Tito Libran’s conga playing to hurtle the track forward – driving the big long-throw side-firing woofers to excursion limits. Percussive details off Libran’s rim work/change-ups on the congas is crystalline as is the high hat and splash cymbal finesse of Valerie, which floats almost freeform in the mix with both alloy and drum skin (floor tom, tom-tom) timbre clearly defined within each subset.
The air and space reverberating around Holly Lapsley Fletcher’s voice on the opening track “Heartless” and follow-up “Hurt Me” of her 2016 album Long Way Home seems to envelope the various melodic keyboard/synth/piano flourishes and vocodered/sampled background vocals supporting her in a convincing reproduction of a cavernous auditorium through 3D-imaging. This sense of spatial scale allowed the recording to project past the seating position into the room setting up a ‘sonic wrap’ encompassing the listener. Programmed drums, electronic effects and vocals are mixed seamlessly on the album, and while sparse in it’s presentation at times, there is a lot of subtle complexity to the layering of instrument tracks taking place. This, the DeVore unravels effortlessly, with nuance, harmonic texture, and without artifice or fatigue, easily delineating the various instruments from one another in the X, Y and Z axis of the sound stage. It does this while removing itself from the equation: all you are aware of hearing is the recording, not the box freeing the analog signal from its hi-fi confines.
A full-range reference loudspeaker that delivers upon the design précis of imaging, sound-stage depth and scale. The DeVore X easily energizes a large room with exceedingly powerful midrange and bass, and the transducer speed necessary to deliver startling stop-and-go dynamics, all the while giving up none of its delicate, wide-open top end and exquisite resolution throughout the frequency range. When paired with transparent sources and insightful, refined amplification the X breathes the real tonal colours of human life into recordings without a hint of effort, edge or fatigue. Despite a somewhat imposing, angular and muscular aesthetic, it performs that most satisfying trick of completely disappearing from the room once the music starts. Fans of the Orangutan series will find a lot to be happy about with the voicing of the X, with its wide-open sonic signature, timbral realism, authoritative bottom end, and articulate translation abilities.
Gibbon X: Three-way design with 0.75-inch ultra-low-mass textile dome tweeter suspended in an inert chamber/seven-inch midrange driver, phase-plug and inverted natural rubber surround in a sealed enclosure/two long-throw nine-inch woofers in a tuned four-chamber enclosure.