What is the T+A Solitaire P?
The T+A Solitaire Solitaire P is an open back, over ear planar magnetic headphone. Call it reviewer’s intuition but I’m guessing that more than a few of you have some questions about it, many of which will involve the price, which you’ll have noticed is well within eyeshot of where this sentence will sit. I will do my best to explain this and other similar concerns in due course.
As I noted in my review of the DAC 8 - which also served as an introduction to the brand for AVForums, T+A builds a huge range of Hi-Fi equipment and it rarely goes in for any approach other than completely bespoke. One category absent up to now has been headphones but T+A has made the decision to enter the segment. In doing so, they’ve decided to do so ‘top down.’ Rather than testing the water with an affordable model to tussle with the dozens of brands competing at more terrestrial points, the Solitaire P is a statement of intent. Future models (and T+A makes it clear there will be future models) will be have the advantage of having this halo product up there in the pricing stratosphere that allows dealers to say “they do have some idea of what they’re doing.”
Of course, for that to work, the Solitaire has to be good. And, to torture a Micky Flanagan line to breaking point, they have to be ‘good good.’ This is a huge sum of money for a pair of headphones and for someone to spend it on a company who has never made a pair of them up to this point, they need to be 'transcendently good good.' No pressure then.
Specification and design
Key to understanding the Solitaire P is that this isn’t a branding exercise or something purchased from a design consultancy as a ‘turnkey’ product to which you add some tactical branding when they’re done. T+A doesn’t build every component that makes up the headphones; features like the alcantara pads (more of which later) are supplied by a third party company as T+A has no requirement for the material in anything else they make. The design of the headphone and the key components though are bespoke and made in house.
With many clean sheets of paper and a significant budget at their disposal, T+A has taken the decision to go for a planar magnetic driver. We have looked at headphones that use this functionality before - the dearly departed Oppo PM-1 and PM-3 used this technology and it is something that a few brands are keen advocates of. Combining a large radiating area with low mass, planar magnetic drivers achieve this feat by effectively printing a voice coil onto the driver itself.
The Solitaire P takes this idea and runs with it. Instead of printing a driver via a series of tracks on the surface (much the same as a PCB), the Solitaire P coats the entire driver in conductive material via a process called vapour desposition. The result is that the driver and coil are the same effective surface and the behaviour of that surface is completely consistent. To drive it, no less than nineteen neodymium magnets are arranged in a manner that precisely controls the magnetic field that acts on the coil. Effectively, what results is a planar driver with a perfectly distributed voice coil that is excited via a perfect magnetic field. It’s a planar driver that has been thoroughly T+A’d.
The drivers themselves are then placed in an open backed enclosure that has the bulk of the mass of the headphone in the driver mounts which comprise two rings with a pivot for axial movement and that hold the driver and magnet assembly in place. On the inward side, the Solitaire has a material cover over the driver and a set of relatively deep alcantara covered pads. On the outside, there is essentially nothing. A hard mesh outer protects the driver mechanics and this has about as much attenuation on the driver activity as you would expect. The T+A leaks noise at a rate of two small speakers running in the room so they’re a source of noise attenuation only so far as that they won’t be audible in other room. This is far from unusual at this of price point though. It is best to view the T+A as a device that allows for discrete listening from the perspective of your neighbours rather than your immediate housemates.
One other function of the rear section of the housing is as the location for the cable connections. The Solitaire is a wired design and ships with a pair of cables, one with a 6.35mm connection and one with a 4.4mm balanced connection. The 4.4mm socket is a fairly new one in industry terms but it is fully balanced and usefully compact. An XLR cable is available to order and various adapters are available from aftermarket suppliers to go from 4.4 to 2.5mm or vice versa, or indeed connect a 4.4mm cable to an XLR arrangement.
The more visual among you will have been poring over the pictures of the Solitaire P in order to work out where the money has gone. I am going to state right now that if you’re looking for grand flourishes, the T+A is going to disappoint. This is not a collection of unobtainium, adamantium and melange, somehow bonded together via arcane magic. The Solitaire is constructed from recognisable bits of the periodic table via processes that are broadly understandable, even to people who haven’t worked in aerospace.
If that feels underwhelming, it really shouldn’t because the Solitaire really is an exquisite device, it’s just one that relies on superlative attention to detail rather than shock and awe. Every part of them is perfectly assembled. The finish is flawless and they have clearly been designed by people who are utterly invested in the project and the desire to make a truly great pair of headphones. This has an immediate ramification in that they are wonderfully comfortable to wear.
This sounds like a statement of the blindingly obvious; who would spend out on such a device if it wasn’t a joy to wear? The reality is that some high end headphones have some limitations on the comfort front. They weigh a ton and some of the more spectacular arrangements simply don’t wind up being that comfortable to use. The T+A avoids every pitfall. It is fairly heavy but that weight is perfectly distributed over the full dimensions of the headphones themselves. The cables don’t interfere with the face or neck while you wear them and the cord is long enough to ensure that you don’t have to be that near your headphone amp. Those alcantara pads ensure that even on hot days (and during testing, there were plenty of those), there isn’t the sweaty sensation that can result from leather. It’s animal free too. The longest stint I’ve done is five hours and that was curtailed by a need to leave the house, not a desire to turn them off.
It does mean that there is an element of calculated risk to the Solitaire P. Pick them up the first time and they won’t necessarily bowl you over. There’s the assumption that any dealer will have left you to your own devices for the purposes of auditioning them and, by the time they come back, you’ll have realised that this is in the ‘functional brilliance’ category of design rather than the aforementioned shock and awe. Of course, if you are looking for shock and awe, the chances are that the T+A isn’t going to be for you.
Effectively, what results is a planar driver with a perfectly distributed voice coil that is excited via a perfect magnetic field. It’s a planar driver that has been thoroughly T+A’d.
How was the Solitaire P tested?
There has been rather less chopping and changing when testing the T+A over other equipment, simply because there is less equipment here up to the task of seeing what they can do. They have exclusively been used with a Chord Electronics Hugo Mscaler and TT2 combination, taking a signal from an SOtM SMS-200 Neo acting as a Roon endpoint from a Roon Nucleus. Material used has been FLAC, AIFF DSD and on demand material.
More: Audio Formats
Before we go any further, let’s stroke the trunk of the elephant in the room who materialised when we started talking about a five thousand pound headphone. For the price of the Solitaire P, you could have a pair of the viceless Sennheiser HD800S, an Auralic Altair G1 with which to run them, a high quality SSD to sit inside it with your music library on it, annual subscriptions to Tidal and Qobuz and an iPad Pro to run it all. They are nearly twice the price of the Grado PS-2000e, hitherto, the most expensive headphone we’ve tested. The T+A is an order of magnitude more expensive than devices that are comfortably ‘high end.’ For the avoidance of all doubt, it is not twice as good either; that’s a physical impossibility in itself. To want to take your headphone listening to this point, you have to be very, very keen on the idea of headphones.
To be no less candid though, this part of the market is not a figment of people’s imagination and neither will most of them be added to systems with high end speakers already present. There are people, usually resident in some of the pricier cities on Earth, who have the disposable income for a serious audio system but none of the space. Sure, speaker companies have been getting their heads around small high end speakers of late but many spaces won’t even stand for that. The Solitaire P exists to be a high end speaker in a constrained space.
Let me save you any further suspense by saying that this design brief is filled absolutely. Listening to the 25th anniversary re-release of Alanis Morrisette’s Jagged Little Pill on the T+A is other worldly. It’s the first time I’ve ever heard the little intake of breath before the harmonica in All I really want begins. It’s the first time that the awkward silence in the track hit me like a slammed door and it’s the first time that the track has pushed past the slightly discordant edge it generally presents.
What is clever about this is that at no stage are you focusing on the technical attributes of the Solitaire P. You don’t sit there going, “blimey, that vapour deposition process really does the business” because that would be a conscious thought taking you out of the music. Instead, you are loosely aware that the Solitaire P has the transient response of an electrostatic but the sort of bass response that would require an electrostatic panel the size of a fence to get anywhere near. This is - by a huge margin - the best planar magnetic driver implementation I’ve ever heard and the first that manages to deliver on the promise of the technology with very few of the downsides.
Most notable is that this really isn’t a hard headphone to drive. The Hugo TT2 is not exactly short of grunt but I’ve not had to switch it to high output mode for any aspect of testing the Solitaire P. Provided that your equipment is able to contend with the reality that the T+A will lay bare every facet of its performance, it need not be hugely powerful. With the Chord duo; still the best digital source I’ve had the privilege of spending any time around, the T+A is simply outstanding.
Getting a handle on how good it really is requires you to step outside the incredibly cossetting bubble it generates and make comparisons elsewhere. Listening to the Audio Technica ATH-A2000Z, a headphone that judged by any terrestrial standard is seriously capable. Reverting to it after the Solitaire is cruel on both yourself and the Audio Technica. In an entirely unshowy way, the Solitaire P does things with tonality, detail and three dimensionality that are simply beyond most headphones. The open back nature of the design does help here, imbuing the Solitaire P with the ability to handle even huge scale material without constraint (and, naturally, means that it leaks a huge amounts of noise while it does so).
Many of these attributes can be experienced to a great extent at less rarified price points. What has truly set the Solitaire P aside from almost any other headphone I’ve ever tested is how little it asks of you in return. It partners those exceptional comfort levels with the ability to turn its hand to playing whatever you fancy without ripping it to shreds at the same time. It is a piece of seriously high end equipment that doesn’t get sniffy when you want to give it large to Bug Powder Dust by Bomb the Bass. It manages the exceptionally tricky balance of ensuring that it tells you what is happening at any given moment without ripping things to shreds as it does so. Even the Grado PS2000e had points where it effectively had little choice but to point out what you were hearing is flawed. I honestly haven’t had one of those with the T+A. It might even rank as a more forgiving transducer than the Kudos Titan 505 - and that’s a masterpiece in this regard.
What has truly set the Solitaire P aside from almost any other headphone I’ve ever tested is how little it asks of you in return..
- Simply incredible sonic performance
- Exceptionally well made
- Comfortably and surprisingly practical
- Leak a great deal of noise
- Need decent partnering equipment
- They cost £5,000...
T+A Solitaire P Over Ear Headphone Review
Let’s cut to the chase. On their first attempt at making a headphone, T+A has nailed almost every aspect of technology, design and construction. I’d have been impressed if they’d turned up wearing Sennheiser badges - it would have allowed me to write about how they were the culmination of all that experience. Instead, T+A has hit the ground running. This is the best headphone I’ve ever tested and it has a depth of talent that is almost unprecedented in terms of how it balances its talents and capabilities.
So, it falls to worth. ‘Worth’ is almost meaningless out of context and every single person reading this will have to make a call based on their finances and requirements so all I can do is break down my own balance of needs. The T+A is £500 more than the supremely capable Focal Kanta No1. I am fortunate that I live in a property that has the space, neighbours and layout to ensure that I can use the Focal to levels I consider sufficient. If I were to choose between them here and now, the Focal would make more sense - I’d even have £500 over to pick up a pair of headphones for really late night (read very early morning) listening. If my choice was between using the Focal at a fraction of its output and not set up to allow it to do what it really can, that decision would be reversed in a heartbeat. The T+A creates a high end listening experience where speakers cannot. It does so while being an absolute joy to use. If your pockets are deep enough, this is as good as headphone listening gets and for this reason, the Solitaire P is the Best in Class.
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