Review by Noam Bronstein
“Oh My God” were the first words Bonnie spoke when she came downstairs, upon seeing and hearing Devine Audio’s Reference Monitors for the first time. It wasn’t an embellished or exaggerated observation, with a jaw-drop face like you’d see from a typical male audiophile. Bonnie isn’t an audiophile, nor even “at risk” of becoming one, as far as I can tell.
Her actual sentence was, roughly, “Oh My God, why can’t we just have THESE speakers? I love how they look, and they sound really good.”
There ya have it, fellas. Not a word of a lie. Naturally, her enthusiasm was slightly more deflated than a first-half Bradyball when I mentioned that they retail at $3000 (plus their stands), as this is not in our budget, but neither her opinion of the Devines, nor mine, ever changed in the month and a half that we had them here. If anything, we both enjoyed them more and more, and were sad to see them go back. They went back a while ago, and just yesterday as we were perusing pictures on my phone, she saw them again, and sighed something about “my babies”.
Devine Audio is the brainchild of Rohan Amarasinghe, whose workshop is based in Brantford, Ontario – just a few kilometers down the road from us. I first met Rohan at the recent TAVES show in Toronto, but he’s no newcomer to the speaker business. Rohan’s shop has been turning out beautifully-built and finished speakers for years, on contract for some well-known, very high-end speaker companies. Devine Audio is his effort to bring his own high-end designs direct-to-market at a much more attractive price. And judging by these Monitors, and the floorstanding Sound Stage III’s (review to come), he is succeeding admirably. Wall Of Sound is very pleased to be the first audio journal to do a full review of one of Devine’s offerings.
So, on to the review!
Devine’s Reference Monitor is a fairly large, heavy, stand-mounted speaker. It can be used with other stands, but Devine’s own matching stands are its’ perfect companions. The RM measures 14″ High, 11″ Wide, and 13.5″ Deep. Weighing a hefty 34 lbs., this speaker may not look imposing, especially in photos – but moving it, and especially positioning it on its’ three small spiked ‘feet’ (toes really), is challenging. To put it more crudely: it’s a pain in the ass. Much of this has to do with the choice to use only three feet. My own feeling on this, is that any sonic benefit of using three feet over four, be it from ease of levelling or some golden-formula supposition, is negated by the cardio stress and potential damage of this type of arrangement. While I get the concept and enjoy uncompromising design as much as the next guy, with large, heavy components like this, it’s a bit of a nightmare, and you never feel the Reference Monitor is completely secure on its’ stand, especially when children are around it.
And really, that’s just about the most critical thing I can say about the Ref Mon. And it’s something that can be very easily addressed, if you share the concern.
No, this isn’t a perfect speaker, but….
From the very first needledrop, the RM rendered nothing but beautiful, dramatic, truthful performances of music. It disappeared and allowed the scale of the music to be presented superbly – the music was always “larger” than the speaker. Soundstage was so wide, deep and realistic, it seemed unlimited by any physical space or other constraint. An enveloping experience. The Devine’s also have an immediacy that’s hard to put into words. They don’t seem to favour one kind of music over another; though to be fair, pop, rock and electronic music aren’t generally part of my at-home listening. To put that “immediacy” statement into context: over the years I’ve used many different speakers, and often found myself wavering between speakers with a more aggressive, lively sound and those with a more refined, restrained approach. I generally prefer the latter, but often miss the liveliness. The Reference Monitor strikes a great balance. This isn’t the most refined speaker ever made, nor is it the liveliest – but somehow, it does both signatures very well indeed. Perhaps you could say it tips 60/40 in the “lively” direction. So it’s far from polite, yet rarely is it overly raw or edgy (unless pushed too hard by an amp with inadequate power).
Let me assure the reader that this “middle balance” is far from middle of the road! I don’t recall a single occasion when I felt bored by the RM’s sound. On the contrary, these speakers just seem to get out of the way and allow the music to pour through them. From Bill Evans to Respighi to M.Ward, they consistently enthralled us with their music-making ability. These Monitors loaded my room exceptionally well – they had outstanding presence, while never exerting themselves too forcefully, or sounding overwhelming. They are not “dark”, or polite-sounding. The frequency extremes aren’t shelved down. And yet, the critical midband is glorious, open and rich – with flesh and blood realism. As I said, a great sonic balancing act.
The Ref Mon is based around a Volt Loudspeakers 8-inch full range coaxial driver. It has a unique shaped tweeter flange, an integral crossover, and the dome tweeter is liquid-cooled and features a neodynium magnet. Devine uses the 8 Ohm version, and quotes a sensitivity of 92dB. I favour low power tube amplifiers, and my 11-watt Opera 2A3-PP had no issue driving the RM’s. Triode Lab’s new 2A3-PSE (8-9 watts) was here for review during this period, and was an outstanding match for the Devines. But my 2-watt 45 SET amp wasn’t up to the task. So they don’t need a lot of power to shine, within reason. I think a typical 7-8 watt 300B SET amp would work perfectly well, in most situations.
Now I know, 3 grand is still a lot of money for a pair of monitors. I’m a huge skeptic of the high-end, and of our consumer economy in general. Typically, you can expect an item like this to sell at over ten times its’ parts cost. And it’ll likely be made in China.
So how does Devine’s value equation measure up? Well, for starters, buying a pair of Volt drivers like this will set you back around eight hundred bucks. Add binding posts, wire, spikes, ports, damping material, glue, and and MDF, i.e. all the rest of the build materials, and I’d estimate total parts/materials will be pushing close to $1400. That’s already 47% of the retail price. Wait, we aren’t done! These speakers are lovingly and painstakingly hand-crafted right here in Canada. And they are beautifully finished. Once you tally all the labour time, and some marketing costs are factored in, the Reference Monitors actually start to look like a real bargain. This is an honest product, and that is saying a lot in our times.
The real question, of course, is “do they sound like a $3k speaker”. And my answer is a resounding YES. Now, there are probably hundreds of speakers in this price range, and I’ve only listened to a fraction of them. So I can’t say with 100% certainty if Devine’s Reference Monitors will outperform Brand Z in depicting the second row of violins on your favourite Pastorale, or if it can render Jacintha‘s voice more seductively than a hybrid planar, or if they represent a better bang for buck than Joey 3-Way. What I can say is this: the Ref Mon’s performed brilliantly here in my home. They played with verve and gusto, they played with scale, they made music. I give the Reference Monitors my highest recommendation, and for the reasons already noted, I’m pleased to give them our Gold Star Award for outstanding performance and value.
Devine Audio Reference Monitors
$3000 CDN per pair MSRP
$4000 CDN as tested, with Devine’s 25-inch solid stands
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