What I categorize as mainstream, dealer-based, fancy-pants streamers and big-speakers audio is actually only the gold-plated tip of a gigantic asteroid-like monolith that extends (underground) from New York to Hong Kong, from the Arctic Circle to Antarctica.
This immense audio-social mass is mostly invisible to the Madison Avenue mainstream, but simple Google searches expose millions of proletarian audio-gear constructers (DIY’ers) working in shops, basements, and garages, scratch-building everything from turntables to tonearms to phono cartridges, to capacitors and vacuum tubes, to amplifiers, headphones, ribbon and electrostatic speakers.
Other Google searches turn over massive intergalactic rocks, exposing worlds teeming with triode-tube tribesmen, DAC-chip hoarders, FET collectors, ham-fest stalkers, OTL activists, irradiated flat-earthers, horn-speaker engineering societies, Klipschorn cults, Western Electric worshippers, Altec-ology converts, Harbeth clubs, PrimaLuna tube-rollers, Japanese receiver restorers, and transformer-winder guilds.
One really large group that was once, not long ago, invisible to the dealer-based mainstream has emerged from student dorm rooms to small gatherings in VFW halls and on to big-city Hotel CanJams and full suites at international audio shows: headphone devotees.
Today’s headphone devotees come in all types, from long-coated cyberpunk hackers to nerdy teens to retired sun-belters to remastering engineers and on to big-banking mahogany-desked CEOs. They all share a common desire for sound signals entering their brain directly, in their purest forms.
One consequence of so many headphone aficionados entering the mainstream is the increasing numbers of traditional power-amp manufacturers now selling dedicated headphone amplifiers. Pass Labs, Krell, Rogue, Bryston, Quad, Benchmark, Manley Labs, Naim, Cary, and PS Audio come easily to mind.
More recently, a slew of traditional loudspeaker manufacturers including Focal, Quad, Bowers & Wilkins, Klipsch, and KEF have put their brand on new luxury headphones. One of the latest and (to me) most interesting of these manufacturing excursions is venerated German amplifier and loudspeaker manufacturer T+A Elektroakustik (footnote 1). Their first headphone productsthe new Solitaire P “magnetostat” (planar-magnetic) open-back headphone ($6400) and HA 200 DAC/headphone amplifier ($8999)enter the mainstream audio market at its gold-tipped peak.
Theorie und Anwendung
James Shannon of T+A’s export sales/marketing team explained to me via email:
“T+A was founded in 1978 and is still directed by its CEO-founder, Siggi Amft. Siggi has created the core directions of the company, and his wife Editha has managed the finances since the beginning. The Amfts have one son, Conradin Amft, who has followed his father’s educational path in engineering and added a Master’s Degree in Business with the goal of being groomed to lead T+A in the coming years. Conradin (now serving as Marketing Director) has already shown that he can bring the interests and concerns of the next generation of music lovers to T+A products.
“As one example, Conradin was the motivation for T+A’s very early embrace of streaming audio, now in our fourth generation of T+A streaming technology. Conradin also provided the impetus for the several-year development project that brought the Solitaire P and HA 200 into being. He recognized that the new generation of music lovers are finding more interest in very high-performance headphones and associated products.
“T+A evolved from a single, modest building to today’s three-building campus, with approximately 100 full-time employees including one of high-end audio’s most serious engineering teams, which includes full-time, graduate-level engineers with expertise in analog design, circuit board design, mechanical design, digital processing, software design, and speaker/driver designa full-time engineering team of 13 inhouse engineers (and a few external consulting experts), all managed and directed by Lothar Wiemann.”
In pricing their Solitaire P at $6400, T+A has pitted it against leading-edge products from HiFiMan (Susvara), Audeze (LCD-4), JPS Labs (Abyss AB-1266 Phi TC), Focal (Utopia), RAAL (RAAL-requisite SR1a), ZMF (Vérité), and Stax (SR-009S).
The probability of a new-from-scratch headphone standing out in a crowd like that is slim. Nevertheless, my initial auditions suggested that the 80 ohm impedance 101dB/V (92dB/mW)sensitive Solitaire P’s are definitely in the best-of-the-best headphone game.
Solitaire P headphones
The Solitaire P’s are intriguing because they are not designed from an OEM’s “menu” and manufactured in China. T+A’s first headphone is engineered and manufactured in-house, in Herford, Germany.
T+A’s Solitaire P headphone incorporates a relatively large, oval planar-magnet diaphragm made of “structurally stable High-Tech polymer,” which their website says is only a “few µm thick.” This diaphragm “bears an array of very light conductorsalso only µm thickwhich are applied in a sophisticated, highly precise photo-chemical process.” The Solitaire P’s specs indicate that the transducer is linear out to 54kHz and capable of 120dB peak SPLs. Remarkably, T+A specifies distortion as <0.015% @ 100dB. Impedance is specified as 80 ohms with a sensitivity of 92dB/mW.
The Solitaire P’s activating magnet structure, which is situated on the outside plane only (that is, the magnet assembly drives the diaphragm from behind as it faces the ear), consists of a grid of strategically arranged, aerodynamically profiled, “Toblerone-shaped” neodymium magnet rods. “These magnets are held in a precise, accurately manufactured mount which guarantees the positioning of the magnetic poles to an accuracy of a few hundredths of a millimeter,” says the T+A website.
The Solitaire P’s adjustable headband is made of thin stainless steel, while the yokes and cups are machined from a single block of aluminum. The foam headband and earcup pads are covered with synthetic leather and brushed microfiber suede.
The Solitaire P’s come with two 3m silver-plated OFC copper cables. One uses a standard ¼” plug; the other features a balanced (four-conductor) 4.4mm Pentaconn plug. (4-pin XLR is optional.)
As I began my review, Jim Shannon reminded me, “While the initial design of the Solitaire P was intended to generate the most accurate and linear response for each listener, our design team realized that some headphone listeners prefer a sound that is a bit brighter and more detailed. For this reason, we have created an alternative set of headphone pads (which we call the UWE earpads) that elevate the high frequencies just enough to add sparkle and detail for those who prefer that type of sound.” The UWE earpads come in their own fancy separate box with glossy printed instructions including a link to a video demonstrating how to remove and install Solitaire P earpads.
Despite the video, my first earpad switchover was tricky. But it gave me a chance to appreciate the extreme build quality of the Solitaire P. Materials, finish, and workmanship exceeded anything I’ve encountered, except perhaps Sennheiser’s HE 1, to which it bears more than a passing resemblance. Looking inside the earcup, I noticed that the magnetostatic drivers were mounted on an oblique angle to the ear, presumably to enhance the illusion of 3-D spatiality and move the stereo imaging toward the outside front of the listener’s head.
Footnote 1: T+A Elektroakustik, Planckstrasse 9-11, D 32052 Herford. Germany. Tel: +49-5221-7676-0. Web: ta-hifi.com. US/Canada sales: David Schultz firstname.lastname@example.org. Tel: (207) 251-8129.
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