T+A’s electronic offerings should be well known to most audiophiles by now. The Absolute Sound has reviewed several of its digital components and amplifiers over the past couple of years, and all have garnered impressively positive reviews. But until I looked on its website, I didn’t know T+A also made loudspeakers and one headphone, aptly named the Solitaire P. According to T+A, the Solitaire P is a “corded over-ear planar-magnetostatic headphone hand-built in Germany that combines minimalist styling and the finest materials with class-leading research and development.” Like T+A’s electronics, the Solitaire P is a sleek, silver, premium ($6400) affair aimed at putting T+A into the reference headphone game. How well does its first-time offering fare? Read on.
That term “magnetostatic” (in the first paragraph of T+A’s product fact sheet) deserves further explanation. It’s not the same as an electrostatic driver, which requires an outside power source to polarize the membrane, and therefore needs special powered amplification and additional cabling. The Solitaire P can be driven with any conventional headphone connection. Magnetostatic refers to the Solitaire P’s diaphragm, which utilizes a specially shaped conductor array that is vapor-deposited on the surface. According to T + A, “it is only by means of accurate calculation that the full area of the diaphragm can be exploited, and it is this which brings the theoretical advantages of the planar-magnetostatic system to full fruition.” The Solitaire P sports nineteen high-performance neodymium magnets to drive its diaphragm through precisely calculated magnetic field lines. The combination of retaining rings and the magnet mount accurately maintains the diaphragm’s position in the linear part of the magnetic field so it can generate high sound pressures with low distortion.
The Solitaire P’s enclosures and yokes are made from a solid piece of very hard high-grade aluminum (if you plan to carve your initials into them, good luck). They are finished in the same satin gloss found on some T+A’s electronics. Like most current-generation premium headphones, the Solitaire P has no crossover components, since it utilizes a single full-range driver to cover its entire frequency range.
The Solitaire P is an open-enclosure design that ranks among the most open I’ve seen. The entire backside of the Solitaire P’s enclosure is a fine black metal mesh except for the opening for the headphone cable, which extends up into the enclosure via a barrel. It makes for an extremely sure connection combined with a nearly unbreakable and flexible exit point from the headphones. Speaking of unbreakable, I must commend T+A for arriving at a clever physical form for long-term durability. While I would never be so barbaric as to actually try it, I can imagine that the Solitaire Ps could survive multiple drops, throws, and even accidental step-ons, with more damage occurring to the other surface than to the Solitaire Ps themselves. They are probably the toughest headphones I’ve ever seen. Maybe if an elephant stepped on them you could break a gimbal, but otherwise these cans will outlive you or me.
T+A supplied two of three possible cables with the Solitaire P. All are made from high-purity copper with a “carefully defined” silver layer. One cable has a 6.3mm (¼”) standard single-ended stereo connection. The second is a 4.4mm Pentaconn balanced connection. The third is a 4-pin Neutrik XLR connection. Customers choose two of the three options upon placing the order for a pair of Solitaire P phones. Each standard cable is 3 meters in length, but 5-meter lengths can be custom ordered.
T+A also offers two different earpad options. The original pads that came with the Solitaire P delivered a more balanced harmonic rendition that the second earpad option that arrived about a month into my review. The second set of earpads was designed to accentuate high frequencies with a bit less midrange and bass emphasis, effectively “tilting” the presentation a bit more to the brighter side, which, T + A claims, “many listeners like a bit better than the strictly neutral presentation of the standard earpads.” I prefer a more balanced presentation, so the second set of earpads saw minimal use.
The Solitaire Ps are easy to drive due to their 80-ohm impedance and 101dB sensitivity. Although my iPhone 6SE has been replaced by the headphone-jackless iPhone 8, I mated the Solitaire P with my wimpiest portable player, a HiDiz AP80, and found that I rarely had to up the volume past halfway. While better, beefier amplification offers advantages in bass control and overall dynamic ease, even a smartphone’s headphone output (if your phone still has a wired output) should be sufficient for the Solitaire Ps.
Because of all its machined metal parts, the Solitaire Ps are not a super-lightweight pair of earphones at 530 grams (1.17 pounds), but due to their elegant shape they will still rest quite comfortably on most heads. My only quibble with the design is that the click-stops on the headband were not as firm as I would have liked. They were not as set-and-forget as those on the Abyss Diana Phi, for instance. The Solitaire’s headband adjustments are quite similar in design to those of the Sennheiser HD600, but the 600s will not need to be readjusted before each use as the Solitaires will.
If you have a small head, you may need to do “the baseball cap mod” for an ideal fit with the Solitaire Ps. I wear a 7 hat size and had the band set to its shortest setting and still needed to use a cap to raise the headphones up a bit; without the cap the Ps sat a bit too low on my head. Folks with bigger heads will find the side-pressure extremely comfortable; even on my small pointy head it was adequate for a secure fit.
With any headphone regardless of price, the primary factor in their frequency of use is their overall long-term comfort. Wearing my baseball cap, I had no issues and needed to make no adjustments during extended listening sessions through the Solitaire Ps. Without the cap I did have to periodically readjust the headband location since it tended to move from its ideal position. Comparing the comfort of the Solitaire P with my other reference earphones, I would give them an 8, while the Sony MDR Z-1R and ZMR Verité Cs rate a 9, and the Abyss Diana Phi gets a 7. In my comfort ratings, no earphones rate a 10.
A good reference transducer should call as little attention to itself as possible. Ideally, a listener should hear all the shortcomings of the recording without additional distortion or non-linearities emanating from phones (or loudspeakers) to confuse the sonic picture. Perhaps because headphone listening is so intimate and immediate, any deviations or quirks caused by the transducers are more obvious than with a room-based loudspeaker, where the room’s harmonic additions and subtractions can be far more severe than those of the transducer itself. With earphones, obviously, there is no “room” to affect the sound; instead we have our own integral and idiosyncratic openings called ear canals, which can alter what you hear in equally radical ways, but with fewer correction options. Sure, you can change earpads to alter the sound somewhat, but if you do not like the intrinsic presentation of a pair of earphones, you can’t alter its environment as you can with loudspeakers. Unless you call in the big guns and resort to corrective EQ curves, your only option at a certain point is a different pair of earphones.
Comparing the Solitaire P with the reference earphones I mentioned in the previous paragraphs proved enlightening. The most obvious characteristic shared by all these reference phones was how easy it was to get sucked in by their sound. The harmonic and spatial differences between them were far less marked than the similarities with which they fully elucidated the musical event.
Given what I have just written, were there still noticeable differences between the P’s and my current reference headphones? Yes, there were. The Solitaire P’s precise low end and midbass were only equaled by the Abyss Diana Phi. The Sony MDR Z-1R had equal amounts of bass but without quite the detail and precision of the Abyss and T+A, while the ZMF simply had slightly less low bass overall, albeit with detail equal to that of the Solitaire Ps. Another characteristic of the Solitaire P’s bass response worthy of note was how dynamically unencumbered it was. This reminded me of the LSA 10 Statement loudspeakers I reviewed in Issue 304. Listening to the newest remastering of the Grateful Dead’s classic Workingman’s Dead, which was corrected for intermodulation distortion and flutter and wow via the Plangent Process, Phil Lesh’s bass had a dynamic freedom that let the bouncy exuberance of his playing come through in a way I had never heard before.
The Solitaire Ps’ spatial precision was remarkable. While the Sony MDR Z-1R and ZMF Verité C both have clearly defined soundstages, neither had ones quite as large or spacious in overall size as those of the Solitaire Ps. With volume levels matched as closely as possible, the Solitaires produced a soundstage that sounded as if I were closer to the event, as if I had moved up three rows closer in a concert hall. The Abyss Diana Phi was the only headphone that matched the Solitaire’s soundstage size and specificity.
I’ve often seen the term “open” applied to a soundstage. With the Solitaire Ps this feeling of “openness” translates to a soundstage that is limited by the source material, not the headphone. Some recordings are substantially wider than others, which is usually affected more by the headphones themselves than the musical source, but through the Solitaire Ps each particular soundstage rendition was created by the music, not as a result of the headphones’ own way of recreating spatial relationships.
Another area where the Solitaire Ps excelled was midrange purity, without additive or subtractive colorations. I was especially aware of this on vocals, be they male or female. Male voices did not have any added chestiness, weight, or bloom; instead they just sounded right. Same with female vocals, where nothing was added or subtracted from their native harmonic balance. My current hair length allows me to use Jerry Garcia, Bob Weir, and Pigpen’s vocals on the Workingman’s Dead reissue I mentioned earlier as sonic examples. Through the Solitaire Ps, each vocalist sounded more natural because each was unaltered by any audible transducer-induced colorations.
While the goal of any loudspeaker is to be as even and flat throughout its frequency range as possible, headphones, due to the vagaries of the human ear, are equalized or voiced to compensate for the twists and turns of the human ear canal. Each manufacturer has its own proprietary “target curve,” which is what it’s determined will translate as the most pleasing frequency response for a particular design. Given the subjective nature of different manufacturers’ “room curves” and “ideal frequency-response curves,” which are not based on being “flat” like a loudspeaker but on the company’s own listening tests, neutrality as defined in the wo3rld of room-based audio doesn’t really exist in the headphone world. So, with headphones it comes down to how neutral or natural a headphone sounds to you. After that longwinded preface, I will say that to my ears the Solitaire P delivers the most neutral, balanced, and accurate harmonic rendition of any headphone I’ve experienced. The Abyss is the most similar harmonically, but it adds a wee bit of midbass warmth. As to which you prefer, that comes down to the squirrelly little subject of personal taste.
The T+A Solitaire P headphones rank among the best, easiest-to-drive, most completely portable reference headphones I have had the pleasure of reviewing. Their superlatives include physical resilience, elegant looks, build-quality, comfort level, and, of course, sound.
The Solitaire Ps fulfills all the requirements to be considered references. Are they perfect? Not quite. The headband’s click-stop adjustment system, while perhaps adequate for a sub-$300 headphone, doesn’t offer the high level of engineering you would expect, especially considering the refinement found in the rest of the headphone’s physical design. But the Solitaire Ps do everything else so well that it’s easy to work around the headband; I’d simply gaffer-tape it in place.
So, if you are in the hunt for a pair of headphones that you can keep using for ten or twenty years, and you’re hard on headphones, I would strongly recommend trying the Solitaire Ps on for size. They can take it, and they sure can dish it out.
Specs & Pricing
Type: Open-back, over ear, planar-magnetostatic headphones
Impedance: 80 ohms
Frequency response: 5Hz–54kHz
Distortion: < 0.015 % @ 100dB
Maximum sound pressure level: >130dB
Sensitivity: 101dB @ 1kHz, 1V
Weight: 530g excluding cable