World Premiere Review by Noam Bronstein
The first time I saw and heard Devine Audio’s Sound Stage III floorstander was at last year’s TAVES show. I sat down, listened, and heard something pretty special. The room setup was bare-bones, and maybe not optimal, but that only piqued my interest further, and so the dialogue with Devine’s owner Rohan Amarasinghe, was underway. We talked about audio, and music, and I let him know that I was keen to review these speakers.
But it was to be a tale of several chapters. The ever-modest Rohan felt that the Sound Stage III (his ‘statement’ speaker, for now) still needed a bit of crossover tweaking, and offered me his large monitors in the interim. Fair enough: he’d been developing the SS III for a long time, and wanted them to be “right” for their first media exposure.
After I finished reviewing Devine’s wonderful Reference Monitors in late 2014 (which far exceeded my expectations), it was time for them to go back, and Rohan brought the SS III’s over to replace them. These are substantial speakers, although their ‘modular’ design is such that the bass cabinets, mid-tweeter panels, and crossovers, are separate units in their own enclosures. Those bass cabinets are heavy! Once set up, the SS III is an impressive speaker to look at: still reasonably domestic (they’re not enormous by high-end audio standards), but they do have a real presence. I’m a full-range kind of guy – I prefer a floorstander to a combination monitor/sub – and for me these Devines really hit the mark beautifully as far as size. In fact, I remember when I was first positioning them, going back and forth to look at them from the sweet spot and thinking, these are going to load my room perfectly.
And that they did.
I initially drove the SS III’s with a parallel single-ended 2A3 amp that put out around 8 watts per channel. And while my initial reaction was “oh.my.god this is fantastic”, after a few discs I felt sure that something wasn’t quite copacetic. There was a noticeable dip in the midrange, maybe right in the 800-1000Hz range, which the human ear is so sensitive to. I confirmed it with a few familiar records, and gave Rohan a call to discuss the possible causes.
When Rohan came back to troubleshoot – he detected ‘the issue’ immediately. I sit fairly far back (about 17 feet from the speaker baffles), and my sofa is somewhat mushy – you sink in, sitting somewhat low and far from the system. Well, in their original guise, the SS III’s mid-tweeter panel sat “free” on top of the bass enclosure. I had an idea where to position them….but by virtue of their design, these panels angled slightly up, as far as sound projection. I felt like an idiot, because Rohan showed me that simply sitting a little closer, and taller, changed the sonic balance dramatically. (heck, I knew that, Rohan. I just forgot!)
Still, perhaps it was serendipity. We were a few days into the new year, and Rohan decided he wanted to try an idea he’d been toying with. Well, back they went to Brantford, leaving me feeling depressed, but pleased that my “discovery” might lead to a great speaker evolving into an even better one. This was “the price” of dealing directly with a passionate designer like Rohan. He really wanted everything to sing, and for the user experience to be top shelf. Fair enough!
(Rohan did some further testing to be sure that what I had heard wasn’t a result of his latest crossover tweaks, but in the end, he confirmed that the only change he wanted to make was in the form of a clever new mounting bracket)
When the Sound Stage III’s came back (and it took a while), they had been fitted with a revamped mounting bracket, both for the mid panel and tweeter panel (these two panels typically remain attached to each other all the time). So now, both the mid panel and tweeter panel could be angled fore and aft, either together or independently of each other, and independent of the bass cabinet. Brilliant!
Sue me for the corny humour, but, with this new found articulation, a very articulate speaker system just got more articulate.
This speaker is a planar/dynamic hybrid that achieves a sensitivity rating of 98dB. Devine utilizes a 15-inch woofer in the very hefty rear-ported bass cabinet, I believe it’s made by Eminence. The cabinet is about 80 lbs., and extremely inert. The mids and highs are handled by the amazing Bohlender Graebener ‘Neo’ planar-magnetic drivers. Now these are some of the most interesting drivers on the market today – they utilize Kaladex for their diaphragm material (a DuPont patent), which is said to be lighter, more sensitive and overall more robust than Mylar. They also use neodynium magnets, prized for their audio capabilties and far less costly than Alnico. The Neo drivers can be run in dipole configuration, but Rohan is using them more or less as monopoles – it’s hard to say what the insides of the panel enclosures look like, but there isn’t much space in there to speak of. As I said, he’s been working on these for a long time, and the sonic results are just out of this world.
These speakers can be bi-amplified; I always ran them with one amp. They were sublime with my Consonance Opera 2A3 push-pull (11wpc) as well as the Triode Labs 2A3PSE I reviewed earlier in 2015 (parallel single-ended, about 8wpc). If you’re hooked on the 2A3 sound, I can vouch that a pair of these tubes per channel will drive these speakers beautifully. I can say the same for the 6L6 pentode – my Melody/Onix SP3 (38wpc) was an excellent match, and provided a little extra drive and firmness in the bottom end. This amp had loads of power as far as the Devine speakers were concerned, and it delivered the power effortlessly. And then, when Elekit’s incredible 300B amp arrived here for review, it was like a match made in heaven. The SSIII’s really don’t need a ton of power, but they will reveal all the goodness (and flaws) that your amp has to offer. Great amps only need apply!
I don’t know how apt the comparison is, but I think of the SSIII as a classic B&W 801 on steroids. I say “on steroids” because unlike the 801 (a great speaker in its day), the Devine is super easy to drive, its driver sections are perfectly integrated, and, well, it sounds like a million dollars. It’s also built beautifully, and priced very reasonably. They do share a vague resemblance physically, but I think the Devine has a stronger presence – it took my wife a little longer to cozy up to their appearance, but she ended up loving the SSIII even more than the Reference Monitor. After a few weeks she was coming up with “creative ideas” of how we might be able to keep them – like hiding them and claiming they were stolen(!). Her typical comments were about how clean and clear they sounded, how “you can hear every note.” I’m serious. When the topic of any other speaker comes up, if it isn’t one of Rohan’s creations, she won’t discuss it!
Like all truly great speakers, the SSIII never showed a prejudice for or against particular genres of music. Everything I threw in was rendered back enjoyably, with amazing focus and musical rightness. From rock to jazz to orchestral music, this speaker does it all superbly well. Devine claims 32Hz low frequency extension. My seat-of-the-pants meter would agree; I was definitely getting mid-30’s in my room with the aforementioned low-power tube amps. If anyone tells you that’s not enough bass for music listening, chances are they’re listening to club music. Really, it’s hard to fathom anyone using a subwoofer with the SSIII. It isn’t needed.
Soundstaging needs to be mentioned here. All my best-recorded classical and jazz discs came out, and in all honesty, I’ve never heard my music play with such a palpable and realistic sonic image. The Deccas and RCA’s, the Blue Notes and Columbias. Scale and spatial effect were so well articulated: but rather than distract, this aspect just augmented the experience, by adding a dramatically real sense of being there. I would put the SSIII up against any speaker in this respect; the stage is deep, wide and tall – and not in an exaggerated or artificial way. Absolutely incredible, even in my less than ideal room (low-ish drop ceiling).
There was truly something remarkable about the Sound Stage III. It plays with authority and precision, yet never sounds etched or fatiguing. It seems this is a speaker that’s almost casual about its approach to presenting complex, visceral music in a believable way. Oxymorons are handled just as casually – so I’ll try to give it a new one: effortless intensity.
Have I gushed enough yet? Seriously, I can’t say enough good things about the Devine SSIII. These speakers are fast, they’re detailed, and they always sound so satisfying to listen to. In terms of their attributes, if I were to attempt a checklist it would be exhaustive. They can be driven with less than 10 watts, check. They look fantastic and even possess moderate WAF, check (YMMV…). They always sound coherent and musical, check. They throw a brilliant soundstage, check. They possess a beautiful midband that never gets fatiguing…check. They have deep, powerful bass…check. If it sounds like an embarrassment of riches, that’s about right. I spent a lot of time with these speakers, and there wasn’t a single occasion where I thought, “I wish I could hear that with..[something else]”. And I’m one of the least monogamous audiophiles I know, so that’s saying a lot! Remember, it isn’t easy to build a superb 3-way speaker, one that performs so well it leaves you wanting nothing; not even with simple first-order crossovers. The Sound Stage III’s not only showed no weaknesses, but they always shone, and always entertained. I honestly can’t think of what more I could ask from a domestic speaker.
If you are in the market for a pair of “forever” speakers, and like the idea of buying local, these are very, very worthy of your consideration. For about $6000 Canadian dollars, Rohan will build you a pair of these speakers in the finish you choose, and in my reckoning, there’s a pretty good chance you’ll never look at another speaker again.
Devine Audio Sound Stage III loudspeakers, $5995 Cdn. per pair