Audio Valve Solaris Headphone amplifier
A funny thing happened on the way to the Forum! I’m speaking of CanJam 2019, the market for headphones and headphone amplifiers. Then again at the Chicago Axpona held this past spring, it was a rare occurrence that a piece of equipment would call out to me again and again.
There is no shortage of headphone amplifiers and headphone DACs. The redundancy is overwhelming and yet one such unit stood up above the throng of this crowded and exponentially growing market. With this growth comes even greater growth in the headphone market. I sat down at tables with young and old enthusiasts with not one pair of headphones but several pairs. I had no idea of the popularity of this market, i felt like I might have been living under a rock because I was searching for the Holy Grail of stereo system components. I think Stereo Times’ founder, Clement Perry has come so close to the Holy Grail in his system that it doesn’t even matter. After a few hours of listening in his dedicated room I refuse to turn on my system for ten or more days. On more than one occasion there I felt totally immersed in a holographic and palpable soundstage that felt so real, at times I felt overwhelmed!
As there is no shortage of loudspeakers, there is also no shortage of headphones. There is a large array of different head phone, noise canceling, wireless, IEM’s, over the ear, open and closed back earphones. All the major platers are vying for a piece of this market including Focal, Sony, Sennheiser, Bowers & Wilkins, Stax and Beyerdynamic ETC.
I came back to the table that had the AudioValve Solaris headphone amplifier DAC preamp amplifier and MM phono amplifier; isn’t that a mouthful? They had a different approach than anyone else at the show and they sported the superlative HIFIMAN HE1000SE and the Shangri-La’s at a staggering $3,499.00 and $18,000.00 respectively I found out that Solaris is the word for From the sun. but I’d say it’s from another dimension as well.
The first day of the show was packed with patrons of all ages and walks of life. It was a spectacle for which I was NOT prepared.
This being a subjective matter I wondered around and listened to as many vender’s gear as I could. This was a show too big to cover in a day. At the end of the final day I asked Audio Valve’s chief designer Helmut Becker if he would ship me the Solaris for an extended listening session and review. In addition, I asked the U.S. VP, Roger Fortier for his card with the intent of having a undisturbed reenactment and evaluation of the show.
Fast forward to their arrival and now I’m staring through the see-through faceplate of the Audio Valve Solaris headphone amplifier. I must say it’s the some of premium parts, engineering, beautiful craftsmanship, that is so well thoughtout that nothing hasn’t been covered. The engineering of Mr. Becker’s genius is unmistakably a part of the German heritage and intrinsic to Audio Valve’s design formula. When looking through the beautiful front plexiglass that glows a mystic green when powered on one can discern the glow of two banks PCL805 vacuum tubes (or you may use the equivalent of ECL85, and 6F5P in their place). There are four jacks provided for the headphones, two are standard ¼ inch jacks the other two are dedicated to an XLR connection and the last is a six pin connection specifically dedicated to electrostatic headphone. The Solaris is by no means a portable headphone DAC and measures approximately 16″X14″x7″ and will easily drive your highly efficient Tekton loudspeakers
The Audio Valve Solaris is able to drive all standard headphones dynamic loads be it planar and electrostatic as well. There’s a selection knob under the four headphone jacks which corresponds to each of the corresponding kinds of headphone. The in OTL mode is set to 32 Ohm up to 2000 Ohm The IMP Mode on the dial is for headphones between 4 up to 64 ohms and the STAX are for electrostatic headphones. Next to the selection knob Mr. Becker has provided an 8dB gain control. There’s a large volume knob in the middle and balance knob as well. If that wasn’t enough there’s a phono preamp for MM cartridge’s an internal DAC, and a preamp to top things off. The Solaris uses the AKM 4396 chip with a sample rate of 44 to 384kHz.
Going to the back of the Audio Valve Solaris you’ll find a set of speaker binding post for very efficient speakers as the Audio Valve Solaris will push an average of 8 to 12 Watt maximum. So, if you have some speaker with a sensitivity of 94dB or higher, you’ll love this unit. If not there’s are a pair of XLR and RCA outputs for your amplifier, a USB for your Computer, a pair of RCA’s for your Turntable and two pair of XLR and RCA inputs. So I heard two people call this the Swiss knife of headphone amps but I’d say it was more a kin to the kitchen sink.
For fun I started out a generic USB cord to my Apple MacBook Air and plugged in my Nordost Valhalla into my Audio Valve Baldur 70’s monoblocks. Those power a pair of Avance Century 100 loudspeakers and the sound was like nothing I have ever heard in my system. it was much more detailed which in no way meant the preamplifier section is analytical, cause it is not. Think musicality over pure analytics, but always with great clarity. If female vocals are your thing (they are for me), then you will love the Audio Valve Solaris as preamp DAC combination. In general the voices are exceptionally good, natural, sweet and romantic. The Solaris does everything so effortless, it is a pure pleasure to listen to. It’s musicality, and richness completely took me over, there was a passion, persuasiveness in ever instrument.
The Solaris presented a deep dark soundstage with an uncanny sense of immediacy and clarity I hadn’t heard in my system. I decided to put the Solaris through its paces by turning up the volume while playing the soundtrack of “A Star is Born” featuring Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper. I’ve never been a fan of musicals or for that matter I’ve never been a fan of movie sound tracks either, but the Audio Valve Solaris had me thinking twice, three times and than again. You see if I hadn’t opened iTunes to play some of my own music from the cloud, I would have never even made it a consideration, my go to music when considering serious listening is an extensive collection of classic Jazz al la Thelonious Monk, Jon Coltrane, Miles Davis, Sonny Rolland, Horace Silver, and Charles Mingus but there it was staring me in me face, a soundtrack that was recorded as a series of live music performances and concerts. I listened to a good part of this soundtrack and was extremely pleased decided it was time to marry the Solaris back with the HIFIMAN HE100SE and have a go at that dynamic duo.
What makes a headphone worth $3,499.00? Well it’s not the beautiful leather box with a metal top plate where HFFI MAN is etched or its metal latch. Nor the black plush silk that encasing these HE1000SE’s or the three provided cables with crystalline copper and silver of the ¼ inch balanced connector, a 4.4mm, and the a convenient ninety degree 3.5mm. These are Planer driven Headphones with a patented membrane so thin it’s measured down to the nano level (and is said to be so thin that when viewed perpendicular to the line of vision it becomes invisible). The thinner the materials used, the lower the mass and the faster the impulse time. This all adds up to a incredibly detailed sound that is both natural and coherent. The magnets of any planner driver is the life force that activate the membrane’s of these headphones and the size and shape are what make them special. It is this combination that gives the HIFIMAN it signature sound. So I decided to slip into the HE1000SE and see what everyone was so excited about during the headphone forums, both here in New York City and in Chicago. I selected the track I saw and heard on the performed on the Oscars by the Title “Shallow.” And I was actually blown away. The shear dynamics and depth of this track was telling me that this new piece of equipment that I just introduced into my system was screaming at me “CHECK ME OUT”!
I was up for the challenge and the more I listened to this sound track, the more I wanted the Solaris in my system along with the HE1000’s. It was authoritative and yet so smooth. The intro to this song starts with some finger picking on Cooper’s steel strings acoustic guitar that was simply palpable. They seemed to just hang in the air and Bradley Cooper shows off his chops with some great heart wrenching vocals. The bass was dynamic and more articulate with these headphones. My next selection was non other than, Thelonious Monk, from the album title “It’s Monk Time” and was it ever! This is one of Monks quintessential masterpieces, hard driving, fast paced and demanding from all four musicians. Shuffle Boil runs for over seven minutes and bassist Butch Warren comes through with depth and the power of steady stream of fast thunder from his stand up fiddle. Surprisingly, his efforts were matched by the fire and force from of Ben Riley on the drums. The interplay between Monk and his musicians is remarkable including Charlie Rouse who often loaded up on tenor sax and kept this torrid musical pace moving in a way only Monk is known for.
These headphones had me sitting right in the thick of it and at one point I thought I heard Monks piano behind me. Yes, I now understood what these people were talking about. I had heard repeatedly that this combination was the best of the show and I was getting a good taste of it. Drums were crisp, symbols, sparkled, bass was articulate and the finger up and down the frets were very pronounces. Monk’s piano took a life of its own. Piano is never that easy to reproduce but with the Solaris and the HIFIMAN HE1000SE sitting on my ears I felt this 1964 recording could have been press yesterday and at high resolution. I just love it when music is render so well that it fools you in thinking that it’s coming behind you or a place that’s just impossible.
In closing, the Audio Valve Solaris especially when accompanied with the HIFIMANHE1000SE presented a fully believable 3D image with a harmonic richness that I’ve always admired. There was more air between the instruments and each of them sounded cleaner and more authoritative without being heavy or dominating. This sophisticated headphone amplifier brought a new sense of focus and clarity to the music that I hadn’t heard before through a pair of headphones. I’ve heard planner loudspeakers before and loved them, but this was an animal of a different color. Based on my experience this is a winning combination headphone amplifier and set of headphones if I ever heard one. I’ve a new appreciation for CanJam and all those in pursuits of personal gear for either their desktop or by their bedside. I am hereby smitten! Highly recommended!
Audio Valve Solaris has a sticker price of $4,600
– OTL – Output Transformer Less tube amplifier (design 1982)
– double mono construction
– power output: each channel 12 watt sin at 220R load in OTL mode
– bandwidth: 15 – 100,000 hz
– damping 3600
– s/n ratio 100 dB
– distortion 0.002 % at 1 watt – 200 Ohm load
– max. OTL – mode: output 120 VAC eff
– max. STAX – mode: output 480 VAC
– gain: OTL mode 34dB, STAX +12dB by output transformer ratio
– gain switch for all modes: +8dB
– input sensitifty. 0dBm, resistance 47k
– bias voltage: 300 + 580 VDC
– IC – full autom. – controlled bias – Class-A mode
– patented full automatic servo tube biasing
– power consumption min. 100 watt
– size 360 depth x 320 width x 140 height mm
– weight 10kg
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