As a brand, T+A always strives for the pinnacle of technically possible and uncompromising sound quality. But what happens when the R&D department is commissioned to design wireless noise-canceling headphones?
With the Solitaire T, T+A Wirless Headphone positions itself in a special segment: wireless luxury headphones with noise reduction. Special, because until recently, this category did not exist at all. The headsets from Bose and Sony ended at 400 euros, with the Apple AirPod Max at the peak at 649 euros. That is slightly less than the 1,300 euros of this T + A.
With Apple, you mainly pay for the technology used. It is well-built but cannot be called luxurious. That is different in the group to which the T+A belongs and includes devices such as the Focal Abyss, Bowers & Wilkins Px8, and the Mark Levinson No.5909. Note that all the brand names mentioned here come from the hi-fi world, not the more general consumer electronics industry. T+A is one of them because the German company has built high-end amplifiers and sources for years. And, of course, speakers; it all started in the eighties. It is from this expertise (and the marketing input of a younger manager, the son of founder Siegfried Amft) that T+A started developing headphones. The Solitaire line that followed initially included wired flagships with planar-magnetic drivers. Self-developed drivers and that is very unusual.
The Solitaire T we are looking at here is a dynamic over-ear headphone. And wireless, of course. However, the brand has something extra to offer in its pursuit of perfection: a hi-res cable mode. All intriguing, but it remains that the T + A Solitaire T, with a price tag of 1,399 euros, is perhaps the most expensive noise-canceling headphones on the market. Can it live up to the expectations that come with this price point?
|What||Bluetooth headphones with noise canceling|
|inputs||USB-C, 2.5mm jack in|
|Bluetooth||Bluetooth 5.1 (SBC, AAC, aptX, and aptX HD)|
|Extras||Case, cables (3.5 and 4.4 mm jack), HQ mode|
Tight and serious
T+A traditionally uses a lot of aluminum in its designs. That is no different with the Solitaire T. The bracket, the connecting piece with three pivot points, and the frame of the driver housing with its line profile are all finished in very fine material. It contrasts nicely with the rest of the headphones, whether you choose the black or white version. The red color on the inside of the cushions makes these very streamlined headphones a little more frivolous. But not very much; it is real German design where sleekness prevails. We heard from the manufacturer that the black version sold very well. Since the white version is bright white, we can imagine that some prefer a color better suits a heavy mobile life.
As you would expect, the build quality is excellent. The hinge system allows you to rest the ear cushions perfectly on your ears, whatever the shape of your head. No matter how you turn this part, it remains completely silent. It’s just like with cars: it’s only when you’ve opened and closed the car door of a German luxury car that you realize you’ve assembled the door of your Renault ‘good enough’. The stitching around the headband and the leather ear cushions also look perfect. The Solitaire T exudes a durability that is missing from cheap NC headphones.
The chosen materials and design result in headphones weighing 326 grams that are light and comfortable on your head. Somehow surprising because the Solitaire T has a large battery that lasts 70 hours in wireless mode.
Combination of chips
There are countless noise-canceling headphones on the market. We have already tested quite a few, but no manufacturer has ever tried to explain the product technically from A to Z. Sometimes, it’s because a brand has bought a ready-made design elsewhere and doesn’t know much about the technical story. In addition, very few companies have the know-how to build noise-canceling chips. Most NC headphones include solutions provided by Qualcomm and Sony.
It was also the latter that we thought of when we tried out the Solitaire T. We immediately found the noise canceling remarkably good, very close to what we know from the WH-1000XM5. So it was better than we expected, just because that noise reduction knowledge is rare.
However, T+A was willing to release the Solitaire T’s schematic. And indeed, the NC chip comes from Sony and is their most expensive model. It is complemented by four Sony microphones, two per side. But the wireless Bluetooth chip comes from Qualcomm because they had better specifications in that area. Among other things, with support for the aptX HD codec, that chip will be replaced with a newer model with a new one that supports aptX Lossless in the long term. But that is still a distant future.
What also became clear in a technical session we attended was that T+A first approached the Solitaire T as passive headphones. Quite a few NC headphones are not ideally designed acoustically, with the idea that things can be straightened out with digital signal processing (DSP). However, that does not always work well. Here it was first ensured that the driver in the housing performs well and is properly damped. Therefore, the headphones should also sound good in full analog mode, where you connect the Solitaire T to a headphone output with an analog cable. You will also notice this when playing with the equalizer in the accompanying app. The T+A headphones handle those adjustments without a murmur and don’t suddenly start sounding unnatural.
More DACs than you expect
We also saw something unusual on the schematic: a separate ESS ES9218P-DAC with an accompanying HQ amplifier. However, such an amplifier is also included in the Sony solution. So two headphone amps in one pair of headphones? Superfluous, right? Except that, T+A wanted to give these wireless headphones a wired option that should deliver better sound quality. The idea is that Bluetooth has inherent limitations; for example, there isn’t the bandwidth or the codec to transfer hi-res material losslessly. This is possible on the Solitaire T if you connect the headphones to your smartphone or laptop with a USB cable. The T+A headphones then appear as an external DAC (you use the ESS DAC, not Sony’s DAC) that can handle (light) hi-res up to 48 kHz / 16-bit PCM. It is an option that you occasionally encounter with wireless headphones, such as the Bang & Olufsen Portal. But mostly, it’s a feature added as an extra. Here it is also really meant to be something that should be good enough to choose this Solitaire T. It is a bit of a paradox that wireless headphones try to convince with a wired option. The DAC and especially the accompanying headphone amplifier push the performance higher. There is an unexpected price attached to it. In wired DAC mode, the battery lasts ‘only’ 35 hours, half of the wireless mode. It is a bit of a paradox that wireless headphones try to convince with a wired option.
Don’t expect frills or an overload of features in the Solitaire app that comes with these headphones. It presents very plainly. The only reason to include the app is to switch between the three NC levels or to enable (wireless) HQ mode. Or if you want to tweak the sound via an equalizer with six presets.
On the right side of the headphones, swipe or tap to change the volume or music. We are not always fond of touch controls on headphones because it often only works halfway or is not useful when using gloves. That is not the case here. It also works fine with gloves on. A physical button is also provided, recessed into the housing. T+A expects the Solitaire T to be used in an office because this button lets you quickly switch on the transparency mode to follow a conversation. You can use it in two ways: press and hold to let voices pass until you release, or short tap to toggle transparency mode on or off. We think Sony has an advantage with its automatic speech detection for this application.
The metal frame on both sides still houses some physical buttons. The left slider controls Bluetooth pairing; the right is the power button. Then there is a button to switch between NC and HQ modes. A final key calls up the digital assistant. It is a pity that you cannot assign this to another function via the app because not everyone uses Google Assistant or Siri. Finally, an LED on the headphones indicates which Bluetooth codec you are listening with. You have to take the headphones off to see it, though. By the way, the music does not stop automatically. That only happens when the ear cushions are rotated ninety degrees so the headphones can lie flat on a table.
A very civilized British-German voice announces what we have changed whenever we change a setting. In your ears, it sounds like ‘ANC On’, spoken like the lord from Downtown Abbey. Important? No, but it differs from the synthetic voices that usually ring in the ears with these NC headphones. With NC on, noise reduction artifacts are very limited, even at the most efficient third position. When music is not playing, there is a very slight hiss. You always have that with these headphones, but it is very limited – and also somewhat less than wireless earplugs. If a song is playing, you won’t notice the noise canceling. If you switch to wireless HQ mode, you will be served almost silence. Incidentally, when switching between NC and HQ modes, you notice that more detail is possible without noise reduction. But that is a quiet environment; you may not notice this on mobile. When we listened to Lady Blackbird’s ‘Black Acid Soul’ via Qobuz, we also got a very successful performance in the fiercest NC mode. These jazz songs are very sparing in composition: voice, double bass, and the occasional piano, guitar, or trumpet. It’s like being in a jazz club late at night. A perfect album to experience every instrument because, for example, you hear those double bass notes being plucked and reverberating.
After we connected the Solitaire T to our Samsung Galaxy Z Fold4, we subjected the noise canceling to our test video of a train ride. It is a synthetic test, but we know from experience that it largely approximates reality. The T+A does very well here, with almost all bass being eliminated. The WH-1000XM5 packs slightly higher frequencies, but this is one of the best results we’ve heard. Outdoor tests confirm this result, and wind did not impact the microphones.
You will immediately notice the differences if you listen to the T+A next to the Sony (which serves as a reference). In itself, the WH-1000XM5 does anything but bad audio quality. It is strongly aimed at mobile use, with thickened, woolly bass. The Solitaire T is immediately a lot more open and natural in sound, which gives a very authentic feeling to Lady Blackbird’s jazz tracks. But more commercial fodder, such as ‘Say It’ by Phantoms or ‘Anti-Hero’ by Taylor Swift, is better represented. It is not only in the correct balance or the better detail but also in, the tighter basses that make music sound more immersive. If we switch to DAC mode, there is an additional step. The real surprise, however, is when we connect the Solitaire T to a Ferrum Wandla and Ear with the supplied cable. This is a fallback option on most NC headphones that you might use on an airplane to watch a movie through the screen in front of you. Here it feels like an adult choice. The Solitaire T uncompromisingly sounds like a good pair of wired headphones. ‘Mettavolution’ by Rodrigo y Gabriela enters politely, but the tension built up is aptly conveyed. Nothing seems to get lost in the story, from the super-fast yet well-defined guitar notes to the thumping of the instrument’s body. It is a very nice result that says a lot about the priorities that were slightly different with these high-end NC headphones than with average devices.
If your first reaction is, “What? I can buy three Sony WH-1000XM5s for one T+A!” these headphones are probably not for you, especially since you can’t just say that the Solitaire T is suddenly three times better. As always, with better audio, you’re paying for a product that’s finished to a high standard and focused on the best sound quality. Those last steps that are necessary for this carry a cost. However, the finish and technology in the Solitaire T are very high.
It all pays off because the Solitaire T sounds like a great pair of wired headphones, unlike a typical noise-canceling copy you pick up in the Mediamarkt. The HQ DAC mode reaches the level of better-wired headphones combined with a decent DAC. Even in that luxury segment, the T+A is exceptional. It aims to deliver hi-fi sound quality and noise canceling that barely falls below that of Sony’s flagship and has an enormous battery life. Therefore, the aim to create headphones that deliver audiophile quality at home and on the road has been determined. Listening to it will quickly reveal what exactly that means.
- Excellent noise canceling
- Class-leading autonomy
- Sounds like better-wired headphones
- HQ DAC mode
- Finishing and building quality at the top level
- Luxury may cost something
- The white version may not be as suitable for mobile use
- No adjustable equalizer