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Exit 11A
Today we're making our way eastbound across the Manhattan Bridge to the DeVore Fidelity factory located in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. We'll get to browse around, chat and even do a little listening in the cavernous spaces that John DeVore calls his home away from home.

This is Part 1 of a 2-part report. Part 2 will include some listening impressions of actual owners' systems. We'll travel deep into the heart of NYC to hear gibbons and gorillas in the midst.

*I've interspersed some quotes throughout this write-up and unless otherwise noted, they are from John DeVore.

The Brooklyn Navy Yard
A truly historic place, the Brooklyn Navy Yard is also a place you can't just wander into. There's a manned guard booth at the entrance and you have to state your business to get in. "Moons. 6moons. Road Tour," I said to the congenial guard. "Of course, Sir. Please carry on," was his reply.

Dating back to the 17th century when the Yard was originally 'purchased' in yet another stunningly profitable land deal with the countries' original owners, it was 1801 when it became the property of the US Government. In 1820, the Ohio was the first Navy ship to be built and launched from its docks. The first professional Navy publication, the Navy Magazine, left its presses in 1833. The Yard housed confederate prisoners of war and as many as 18,000 workers during WWI. Those numbers bulged to 70,000 during WWII. Aircraft super carriers USS Saratoga, Constellation and Independence were built here during the Korean War. The Navy Yard was closed in 1966 and sold to NYC the following year for $24M. It reopened its doors and docks to private enterprise in 1971.

When you drive or walk around the Brooklyn Navy Yard, you can't help but be impressed by man power. Industry. Or better yet, the war effort as the big war saw active duty from men and women alike. Bricks by the billions, granite dry docks large enough to hold air force super carriers and cranes standing stories high waiting for the next tall order. I have to admit to sensing a certain eeriness that hovers above this place as it transforms itself from purveyor of brute force to more creative endeavors. Today the Yard has about 4,500 workers working for 200 companies in nearly as many industries. Them thar times, they have a-changed.
For another view of the yard and DeVore Fidelity's place in it, I'd highly recommend checking out Stephen Mejias' blog over on Stereophile. Beyond some great photos of this very photogenic place, Stephen has an interesting and wide-open perspective that I find refreshing.

DeVore Fidelity & The Factory
DeVore Fidelity first took up residence in the Yard in 2002. They moved into their current digs in 2004 which totals 6,000 square feet of lofty space. DeVore shares some square footage with Anthony Abbate Custom Furniture. Beyond building DeVore Fidelity cabinets, Anthony makes custom cabinets and furniture for architects and designers as well as beautiful Shoji screens. A visual stocktaking reads like wood-lovers' porno there.

In some ways, DeVore Fidelity began back in the 1980s when John designed his first speakers while attending the Rhode Island School of Design. Post-college saw about fifteen years of part-time work in the hifi retail business including NYC's Stereo Exchange and Sound by Singer. Scattered throughout these years was a sojourn to LA combined with stints as a painter, illustrator and/or drummer in various combinations. The first official DeVore Fidelity speaker to hit the stores was the Gibbon 3 monitor, released in 2001. The floorstanding Gibbon 8 followed a few months later.

Srajan reviewed the Gibbon 8 way back in 2002 and declared it a sound success. "Its true nature is more one of non-doing. Descriptors that point at it -- but, by themselves, still fall short -- include the following: Ease. Naturalness. Relaxation. An absence of anything mechanical, tense or charged. The tacit presence of an organically unfolding dialogue between you and the music." I know I'm getting ahead myself but as an owner of the DeVore Gibbon Super 8s, I'd say Srajan nailed that description so well, it sticks even after 5 years.

Today, the DeVore Fidelity lineup includes the Gibbon 3, the Gibbon 7.1, the Gibbon 8, the Gibbon Super 8 and the king of this jungle, the Silverback Reference. And the spark for today's visit, the newly christened The Nines. For a preview of The Nines, check out Srajan's write-up. In brief, The Nines are a two and half way, modestly sized floorstander and are an easy load at 8ohms and a rated efficiency of 91dB.

There are factories and then there was The Factory. Industry and Andy Warhol. Manufacturing and Art. The DeVore factory seems to fit comfortably between the two; the raw materials and tools of the trade combine ultimately with the creative process in the service of Art. And while Andy didn't make a lot of what he made, John DeVore does. That's not to say he's alone. There's a very colorful crew of artists and craftsman that add their own creative energy to the process. But in the end, it's John DeVore's stamp and vision that goes on and into every pair of DeVore Fidelity speakers.

This factory is filled with stuff; raw materials, finished product and nearly every stage of evolution in between. There are also prototypes like a solid bamboo pair of Gibbon 3s and some even rarer species. I spied a pair of aluminum-clad mini towers sporting a Koala DeF logo and was surprised to learn of the Koala line. Introduced at T.H.E. Show 2004, this Koala was meant to hang on walls flanking your plasma TV. There are plans for a whole surround setup including some equally sleek floorstanders and other vertical and horizontal wall-mounted speakers including conversion kits to allow for in-wall placement. But the Koala's simian siblings have muscled this poor marsupial out of production for the time being. Based on an impromptu listening session with the Koalas, I'd suggest a resurrection is in order.

Factory listening is through one of many pieces of classic audio gear scattered throughout the shelves. On the day of my visit, a pair of Gibbon Super 8s was getting the burn-in treatment on a Yamaha integrated amp from the 70s, a Luxman tuner from the same period and a Sony Playstation for spinning disks.

If you look around, you're sure to find many an historic piece from companies like Bogen, Fisher (that's John's grandma's Fisher Series 40 FM tuner and Grandpa's bronze bust keeping a stern and watchful eye over the goings-on), Sherwood, Pioneer, Sansui and Garrard. There's some newer old stuff from companies including Audio Research (the classic VT-130SE), the elegant Ensemble Tiger integrated, California Audio Labs Delta transport, Meridian and more.

Hiding in another corner -- and this place seems to have many more than 4 which is odd for any rectangle -- there's a largely home-made bass and drum kit nearly ready for play. A plastic-covered table is actually a vacuum sealer used for veneering. The next table over is the crossover station where all the hand-wired crossovers get hand-wired. Then there's the workstation where virtual stuff happens - computer modeling on the PC while the MAC handles emails, web surfing and some graphic design. Weather permitting, you can peer through an open window at the NYC skyline at the exact building where one of the great apes of all time made his last stand.

The Process
"The first time we build a new model in production (that is, when we build it in quantity, after all preproduction units are built), it takes between 50 and 100 percent longer than it does the next time. Because it's the first time, everything is carefully tracked, new templates have to be made (that are then used for subsequent production runs) and all the little annoyances that cropped up during the preproduction builds are ironed out.

Gibbon 3s and 8s are very quick now, as the 3s are fairly simple and the complex parts inside the 8s all get machined in bulk, since they are not veneered and don't have to match the cabinets. A normal production run of 40-60 pairs takes around 3 weeks to finish.

Super 8s and Nines take longer because of the more complex cabinet, and because of the curved edges. Each pair of Super 8s or Nines must start out as a pair of 7-8 foot blanks with curved edges that get a pair of book-matched veneer pressed on to it. These are then mitered and each section must be tracked through the production process before they're all glued up into a pair of cabinets. Super 8s might take 4-5 weeks for a 40 pair run.

The Silverback Reference takes longer because of the extreme complexity of the cabinets, the exotic materials that have to be machined, and because of the difficulty of getting a perfect finish on all the different material surfaces. They average about 8 weeks."

My factory visit coincided with sanding day. I just missed glue day by a hair. After sanding comes CNC day for all the front baffles. You can see the ready carcasses of 3s, 8s and Nines scattered around the shop amid palette-fulls of front baffles waiting for the router trip. Final construction and finishing is done by hand. And John's hands are in every pair. Not literally mind you. Having grown up in a family full of carpenters, I am used to the less than full five finger handshake. But John's is - um, complete.

If I told you the step-by-step process of building a DeVore Fidelity speaker and gave you the parts list, you could build your own, right? How many times have you read a post on a forum that made the claim "I can make that for less. It's just a pair of xyz drivers and you can buy 'em for xyz $ from Madisound." Even if we discount the 20+ years of speaker design experience that goes into each DeVore, all the drivers in the DeVore line are proprietary. While they're manufactured by other companies, they are done to DeVore specs. So you can't buy 'em. And what about that cabinet-making expertise? Anthony Abbate is a true craftsman and this fact comes through in every DeVore cabinet. The crossovers in all DeVores are proprietary as well and no one except the man himself knows anything more about them than that. Well, there was one other guy but... There's actually a picture included in this write-up of the table where John hand-wires every crossover. So the careful eye may be able to pick out a few secrets.

Does looking at something really tell the whole story? Can you tell from the pictures that the Brooklyn Navy
Yard has ties to Herman Melville's Billy Budd? Can you tell from the pictures that all the DeVore cabinets use different kinds of glue depending on part, joint and function? This little detail allows the cabinets to breathe, resonate or stay more or less rigid which directly affects the music you hear through them. For the would-be copyist, details can indeed be devilish.

For me -- and I know this is a personal thing -- I appreciate the story. Or perhaps more accurately, the context. I've heard one of John's bands play at the Knitting Factory. I know his family is full of musicians and he grew up listening to music played in his house. He still attends his sister's cello performances. This musical interest also manifests itself in an ever-expanding record collection of 4,000+ LPs. Add that to a Fine Arts education and a decade plus in the hifi retail business and you've got an interesting recipe. It's also worth pointing out that back in the 80s, hifi shops were the main source of 2nd hand gear. Before eBay and AudiogoN (we're talking pre-Internet), you actually went to your local hifi shop to find used gear. Even brands they didn't carry. Hifi sales guys got to hear tons more gear back in the day. All this stuff goes into what makes a DeVore Fidelity speaker a DeVore Fidelity speaker. It's more than the sum of the parts. This holds for any original builder of course. Sensibility is a very personal thing.

"There is no HiFi hierarchy inscribed in stone somewhere that defines the traits that are most important to good music playback. Everyone has their own preference as to what brings them closer to the music, be it tonality, bass punch, ethereal airiness, macro or micro dynamics, scale, midrange resolution, even imaging. It was my goal, in designing the Silverbacks, to balance all of these traits and others so that a listener didn't have to choose."

In terms of a basic design goal for The Nines, John talks about them as "a universal Super 8". The Super 8s take a bit of proper care and feeding to sing their fullest song. As an owner I can say that while the effort is well worth the ends obtained, John wanted to build a speaker that could better handle a wider variety of real-world environments. We talked a bit about the design process over some Chimay Ale in a favored East Village watering hole. One scenario I've come to expect when I meet with John DeVore is lots of talking about lots of things over lots of Chimay. And this time was no exception. Even though we tried to stay on topic, we covered some favorite films, art, music and more.

Eventually we did get around to speakers but I'm not so sure we ever really left. In this kind of factory, the creative process is guided by experience and ultimately sensibility. With over 20 years of hands-in-speakers experience, the mechanical aspects of the process are second nature. And working adjacent to Anthony Abbate affords John direct access to a playground worth of woods and all the tools and skills needed to mock up prototype after prototype. On demand. Where things get interesting is in finding a speaker's voice that embodies that elusive musically balanced beast. And the means toward that end are driven by listening. To music in case you were wondering - but I'm inclined to believe that the ability to listen is aided by the ability to do so with an open mind as well as open ears.

"Recorded music is not really the same as live music, nor will the two experiences ever be the same. All we can hope for is an intimate connection to the musical performance."

The Nines on Tour
In addition to all the factory work and many hours of factory listening, John likes to take prototypes out into real-world listening rooms. All of these stops are current DeVore owners and John has become familiar with the ways these rooms handle his speakers (or vice versa). In addition to the variety of listening conditions -- from NYC lofts to more modestly sized apartments to single family homes -- these tours also introduce prototypes to an equally wide variety of associated gear. And lastly but certainly not leastly, to a very wide variety of music.

I've been fortunate enough to become one stop on this voicing tour so I got to hear three prototype versions of The Nines in my listening room. The main difference between these versions was in the physical implementation of that third driver used for handling bass duties. One version was rear-firing, another down-firing and the last side-firing. There were other differences beyond these and the physical cabinet changes necessary to accommodate driver placement. But essentially we were listening to the same speaker with a different woofer mounting. And I have to say I was surprised at the differences.

I was surprised by the scope of very apparent sonic changes achieved by simply moving that 6" driver around. It didn't merely affect bass quantity or quality. It changed the entire presentation. In some ways, the down-firing version made the additional driver's bass response most evident. At the same time, this seemed to intellectualize the listening experience. By making the bass stand out, sounds moved to the foreground while the music moved to the background. This may be personal preference to some extent but I find when systems highlight the frequency extremes, I lose the music to the sounds. On the other hand, when bass is more prevalent, you want to reach for 'those' recordings. Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture, Bach's Preludes and Fugues, maybe even a soundtrack or two. There's an undeniable fun factor when things can go low and loud and I've heard speakers that were content to exit the design phase with this type of balance.

The rear-firing prototype threw a larger sound picture with a tremendous sense of scale. Soundstage lovers could stroll into a soundscape as vast as an abandoned warehouse and roam around hunting for ghosts. A huge billowy sound sculpture can be a lovely place to cohabitate. Ambient lovers, drone junkies and single-mike mixers can revel and frolic. Again, I've heard some speakers that are perfectly happy with this presentation - space, the final frontier. On the flip side, you seem to give up some impact, some of that visceral jump factor that turns 4/4 into more on the floor.

The side-firing and final version of The Nines has that. And while bass extension may not be as stand-outish as in the down-firing version, it is more a part of the whole musical piece as opposed to being apart. And while the vastness isn't quit as vast as the rear-firing version, it's more palpable. To my ears, the side-firing version rolled all the strong points of the others up into a more musical package. From the first few notes heard through what turned out to be The Nines, I was captivated by the music, by the beat, the flow and the musicianship. There weren't any sonic pieces. Things were whole. When deciding what to cue up next, there was a distinct and important difference between "I wonder what this will sound like" and "I've got to hear this". Sound versus music. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Facts, Forgetting and Anechoic Chambermaids
It should be obvious by now that I know John DeVore. And for those who feel that if you know someone (heaven forbid you even enjoy their company!), you cannot possibly be objective... well, you're safe. That's because I'm not doing a formal review of The Nines. And we all know a formal review is where writers tell readers what to do. Or so I've come to learn. Apparently our job as reviewers lies in getting at all the facts hiding in all the corners and sweeping them up into one tidy point - "Buy this" or, "Don't buy this". Something is either Good or it is Bad. Isn't it?

Would you be surprised or even offended if I told you that I don't think there's any room in hifi writing for these kinds of distinctions? Outside of the non-functioning and obviously broke, there lies a vast land of possibilities. A desert for some, a playground for others. Meanwhile, a delicate balancing act plays itself out to some logical and highly personal conclusion in hifi factories. The designer's dance. The classical ballerina turned modern dancer Sylvie Guillem said, "I respect the classical repertoire, of course, for the perfection it might touch, but it can close your mind." And I think there's something to this idea that applies to hifi. The thing is, it's ultimately not the music that does the touching and it's not the gear. It's both. To appreciate this balance, this dance, we need an open mind. And we need to listen for music, not perfection.

During our Chimay'd conversation, John told me that one prototype (and there were a number of prototypes I did not get to hear) nearly became The Nines. It fared very well in a number of rooms, in a number of different systems for a number of different people. People John trusts. This success nearly ended the prototyping until one listening session with an old friend and Duke Ellington. Listening to "Mood Indigo" from Masterpieces by Ellington, John noticed Wendell Marshall's walking bass line didn't sound right - it didn't hold the line. It didn't follow the bass player's walk. It wandered. And this very small but for John DeVore very unacceptable crack created the opportunity to take things even farther along this path toward what John calls an effortless balance.

"There is no actual string quartet on that CD, no grizzled blues singer on that slab of vinyl. It's all artificial, and it's my job, along with my cohorts, to make you forget that."

I'll be doing a lot more listening, writing about listening and forgetting in Part 2 of this Tour where we'll travel to some owners' homes. We'll get to hear some Super 8s, The Nines and the Silverbacks in their natural habitat and perhaps come to some kind of road map about the DeVore lineup and what more money buys you from model to model.