T+A Solitaire P Headphone Review
Behold the headphone debut from a famous German hi-fi marque. Jay Garrett tests this most premium of planar products…
Solitaire P Planar Magnetic Headphones
Theory and Application elektroakustik – or T+A to its friends and family – has spent its forty-plus years designing and manufacturing high-end hi-fi. However, it wasn't until earlier this year that it announced the Solitaire P. This was exciting for two reasons – firstly, it was the German company's first-ever headphone design. Secondly, the Solitaire denomination marks it out as something special in the world of T+A. You see, this name has always been reserved for the manufacturer's no-compromise range of loudspeakers. So already, the Solitaire P has something to live up to – that and the fact that T+A want you to hand over £5,000!
The project wasn't something that T+A took on lightheartedly. A relative newcomer to the company, designer Max Kirschke felt that a great set of headphones using the knowledge of electrostatic transducers gained by the Herford-based company's experience could be something that consumers would welcome. Also, Max is very passionate about developing headphones that truly perform; he says he has put much “heart blood” into the project. Speaking of which, the team behind it worked for over a year to bring it from concept to production and – in the meantime – formed T+A's new Headphone Division.
At the heart of the Solitaire P, you will find special diaphragms that carry a sophisticated array of electrical conductors. T+A uses nineteen high-performance neodymium magnets as the driving force to vibrate the diaphragm through accurately calculated magnetic field lines. Naturally, the company designed the neodymium magnets specifically for the job. They're rounded on one face and pointed on the other, the upshot of which is that one side forms a very linear magnet field, while the other acts almost like mini-horn waveguides. T+A also designed the diaphragms, which are created by Britain's Micro Precision; Lothar Wiemann, T+A's Head of R&D, says this is the best specialist at producing the incredibly thin foil transducers. Everything is assembled by T+A, of course.
To ensure maximum airflow without any unwanted turbulence, the unique shape of the magnets and an acoustic resistance filter come together to create the brand's 'Draft Control System'. The specially designed annular mounts and magnet supports are used to continually maintain the diaphragm within the linear part of the magnetic driver field. The result is a quoted frequency response of 5Hz to 54kHz, with THD coming in at < 0.015% (1kHz, 100dB).
Anyone familiar with T+A's equipment will expect the Solitaire P to be well constructed. The headphone yoke is milled from a chunk of military-grade aluminium, as are the aluminium cups which take more than two hours to machine alone. Furthermore, all metal parts are exquisitely finished in anodised matte silver/grey with the T+A logo laser-etched, naturally. The backs of the earcups are covered in an elegant black aluminium mesh. The nice touch here is that you can see the rear of the transducers and assembly, and it's a very pretty sight.
Ensuring long-lasting comfort while wearing this 545g (excluding cables) pair of headphones – along with the smart aluminium yoke design – is the well-cushioned Alcantara covered headband with embossed faux leather on top; the earpads follow the same layout. These are luxuriously soft and fitted well around my ears, adding some passive isolation while they're at it.
The presentation box that the Solitare P arrived in is sturdy, well laid out and functional – but not the exotic wood and satin-lined exuberance of some other brands. That's not to say you miss out on the feeling of exclusivity, as you have the option to call upon T+A's Fresh-Up-Service. This concierge-level amenity will pick up your Solitaire P, take it back to the factory and replace all the soft furnishings as well as giving the interior a thorough spring clean. After that your prized pair of headphones is given a final check, and duly returned back to you pretty much as good as new.
The Solitaire P comes bundled with a 6.35 mm unbalanced stereo jack terminated lead, and another terminated with a Pentaconn balanced 4.4 mm jack. The latter is T+A's recommended choice, as the connections have a lower impedance than a 4-pin XLR and, says Lothar, better connecting force. That said, you can request balanced XLR-4 plugs if that's your preference.
The Solitaire P proved incredibly comfortable to wear during my test period. Clamping force for my narrow noggin isn't the tightest that I've experienced, but I'm not sure this will be an issue for most users given that they're unlikely to commute with them on a daily basis.
Over the past month or so, the T+A Solitaire P has had a tour of everything in my home that sports a headphone socket. The roll-call includes my Oppo UDP-205 Blu-ray player, Naim NAIT XS3 integrated amp, iFi xDSD portable DAC/headphone amp and Chord Hugo 2 and Mojo DAC portables. T+A offers the HA-200 headphone amplifier as a purpose-designed product to complement the Solitaire P. Yet, I found that this design wasn't as sniffy about pairing as I'd initially expected, despite the high 80 ohm impedance rating.
Nor is this pair of headphones especially particular about the genre of music being played, either. I found it even-handed in welcoming everything from grunge to Gershwin; it presents the listener with a perfectly balanced, nuanced and transparent experience. For example, Henry Mancini's Pink Panther was given so much space to work with, the entire big band being laid out in a soundstage generous both in height and depth. Closing my eyes, I could practically point out where the musicians were sat as they played this much-loved classic nineteen sixties instrumental.
The T+A's refinement and precision were underlined when testing the Solitaire P with more generous bass. Lorde's Royals came through with vast dollops of bottom end that, even at its subterranean best, was not enough to shake these sure-footed cans. However, tracks such as Two Tribes by Frankie Goes to Hollywood and Alice from Lady Gaga's latest opus, Chromatica, really showed how much low-frequency eloquence the Solitaire P has when compared to Oppo's PM-1, for example. That bass also proved extremely musical, with the timpani strikes in Stravinski's Rite of Spring showing incredible weight and presence.
That prodigious bass never muscles in on the talented midband, however. Different Strings by Rush opens up with Alex Lifeson's guitar wet with chorus as Geddy Lee's unmistakable vocals are layered above. Soon, the frontman's thick, warm bassline joins in with occasionally plucked harmonics punctuating the piece. Again, the Solitaire P carefully placed all the parts of the mix in their own space, while keeping the feel of these great musicians playing with one another in the same room.
Planar headphones are famous for their speed and accuracy, and I was reminded of this in no uncertain terms as Pearl Jam's Go hit my ears. This is a foot-to-the-floor assault where everyone in the band is driving forward at breakneck speed. The Solitaire P not only kept up but was also able to deftly unpick the individual threads of the recording, allowing the band members equality of ear time!
Moving down to a somewhat more relaxed tempo, the cymbal hits and tasteful rimshots on the backing of Randy Crawford's One Day I'll Fly Away came through with immense clarity, but with an un-planar-like expressiveness and sparkle too. I also noted a lack of sibilance that can sometimes plague vocals and high register instruments, but the strings here were warm with a natural leading edge. The result was really rather lovely.
We are up in rarified air with the T+A Solitaire P. However, it doesn't cost that much more than Focal's Utopia, and it's about £30,000 less than Sennheiser's Orpheus if that's any consolation. Personally, I prefer the build and feel of the Solitaire P over the flagship Focal, but understand that this is a matter of taste.
What's less subjective is the sound, and I genuinely believe that the Solitaire P has now set the benchmark for planar magnetic headphones. It has incredible speed, insight and dynamic range – plus musicality in abundance. Factor in the almost supernatural comfort and this is a seriously special product that performs impeccably across so many areas.
For those who can't afford the not inconsiderable asking price, there is good news as I am told that we can expect more headphones at different price points to follow – including dynamic and electrostatic designs, as well as more head-fi electronics. Meanwhile, there's always the National Lottery…
StereoNET UK’s Editor, bass player, and resident rock star! Jay’s passion for gadgets and Hi-Fi is second only to being a touring musician.
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