Rightly or wrongly, Germans have a reputation for being an exacting bunch—often concerned more with function than form. For this car-loving reviewer, automobiles are a prime example of what fuels this stereotype. If you want a high-end sports car that you can run ragged day in and day out, buy a Porsche 911 GT3. This car’s beauty has been honed through decades of refinement of the underlying 911 body shape. If, on the Freudian continuum, you tilt less towards the ego and more towards the id, and tend to forego Teutonic pragmatism in favor of more primal urges, then the sensual lines of a new Ferrari F8 Tributo would be a better choice. While significant engineering resources have been poured into each of these automobiles, the German model is the dedicated workhorse compared to the Italian show pony.
Enter T+A Elektroakustik. Founded in 1978 and operating out of a small campus of buildings in Herford, Germany, the audio company has built a reputation in European markets for producing electronics and loudspeakers with no-nonsense aesthetics and superior performance. I became acquainted with T+A (short for Theory and Application) when I reviewed their PA 2000 R integrated amplifier back in 2016 on sister-site SoundStage! Hi-Fi. I came away mightily impressed. The PA 2000 R was tonally neutral, dead silent, and incredibly clear sounding. I concluded my review with this observation: “From top to bottom of the audioband, it is a complete integrated amplifier, whose sound quality is matched by its impressively solid aluminum build. For a reviewer prone to cast a skeptical eye on everything that comes through his listening room, I’m at a loss. This thing is faultless.”
But an audio component can be faultless and still not stir the emotional cauldron. T+A cares not. They don’t have a house sound and they’re uninterested in catering to a particular audiophile audience. Their concern, first and foremost, is producing gear with the highest possible level of performance and impeccable levels of fit and finish. To that end, they employ roughly 85 people at any given time, including 14 full-time graduate-level engineers who specialize in loudspeaker driver design, digital circuit design, and analog circuit design. I say “roughly 85 people” because T+A has work-study relationships with several local technical schools to provide an employment pathway for technical and engineering talent. There are precious few hi-fi brands that can boast anywhere near as much technical expertise. It’s also a family-owned affair, with no investment firm or silent partner pulling marionette strings on product development, pricing, and margins. As you might expect, T+A designs and builds all its components from scratch with the help of several longstanding technical partners. Precious little of what goes into the company’s products is “off the shelf.”
The subject of this review is T+A’s Solitaire S 530 loudspeaker ($44,900 per pair, all prices in USD). It’s the middle child of the company’s new flagship Solitaire loudspeaker line, flanked by the smaller S 430 ($29,900 per pair) and line-leading S 540 ($54,900 per pair). Whereas T+A’s other loudspeaker lines, together with the Solitaire line’s S 430 model, are traditional dynamic designs, the S 530 and S 540 are derived from a long line of electrostatic loudspeakers. They replace the outgoing CWT (Cylinder Wave Technology) models that were in production for more than a decade.
Standing 50.4″H × 10.3″W × 17.7″D including base, and weighing 117 pounds, the S 530 is a big loudspeaker, fashioned from alternating layers of MDF and HDF with an average thickness of just under 1.5″, partnered with a half-inch-thick machined-aluminum front baffle. There’s a healthy amount of internal bracing, as evidenced by the dull thud I heard while rapping my knuckle against the cabinet. One glance at the S 530’s Highgloss Macassar veneered finish (Highgloss Black and Highgloss Arctic Silver are also available) reveals T+A’s fanatical attention to detail. The wood is alluringly dark; it looks almost black until you get up close and personal. The finish isn’t quite mirror-perfect, but it’s certainly a step up from the more affordable high-gloss finishes I’ve seen in recent years on which there’s a clear orange-peel effect. Twenty-five layers of lacquer applied to the veneer lend the finish a lovely richness. The cabinet has a mildly raked appearance, with sides that subtly curve towards the rear, lending some softness to the relatively wide stance of its boxy design. Given its driver complement, the S 530 is a good-looking speaker.
That driver complement deserves some explanation. The front baffle is dominated by the 33.5″-long Mag850 planar-magnetic tweeter. The genesis of the tweeter goes back five years, to a time when T+A was experimenting with diaphragms for its Solitaire line of high-end headphones. The company was already exploring a departure from its longstanding use of traditional electrostatic tweeters, in which a thin, electrically charged plastic membrane is sandwiched between perforated electrodes, or stators. T+A discovered this design wasn’t the most robust in very hot, humid climates, so they pivoted to a magnetostatic design. In T+A’s magnetostatic design, the stators are replaced with 64 bar magnets that sit behind the tweeter’s membrane, and the membrane is precisely and evenly coated with a conductive material.
The Mag850 driver takes up more than three liters of internal volume in the S 530’s big cabinet. The benefit of using this type of driver over a traditional dome tweeter is a dramatic reduction in moving mass, and it allows for greater driver control if executed well. The challenge is in integrating such a unique driver with traditional midrange and bass cones—which they’ve done in the S 530—to produce perfectly coherent sound across the entire audioband.
T+A tackled this by crossing over the Mag850 line source to a line array of seven unusual-looking midrange drivers at 1.8kHz using second-order (12dB/octave) slopes. The bespoke T+A midrange driver is oval-shaped, measuring roughly 3.6″H × 2.4″W. It leverages what T+A calls CWT, or Cylinder Wave Technology, which creates planar-like dispersion that focuses sound forward toward the listening position and minimizes vertical dispersion. One major benefit is that each driver handles one-seventh the output (and associated excursion) of a loudspeaker with a single midrange cone, meaning distortion levels are minuscule by comparison. Consequently, the S 530 can play extraordinarily loudly without any meaningful distortion. However, in practice the speaker’s highly focused radiation pattern means that when you’re standing above the tweeter and midrange arrays, mid- and high-frequency levels drop precipitously, rendering the S 530s more or less unlistenable, even for casual listening. Potential buyers—and hi-fi showgoers for that matter—need to understand this going in, as the effect is dramatic. The S 530 is for the dedicated listener who sits in or very near the speakers’ sweet spot. By contrast, the smaller Solitaire S 430 model is intended for listeners who want a taste of magnetostatic flavor—it uses a 2″ version of the magnetostatic tweeter vertically flanked by a pair of 5.9″ midrange drivers—in a more traditional, non-line-source, non-line-array configuration.
Finally, the three-way S 530 uses a pair of 8.7″ side-mounted woofers that are connected back-to-back using multiple steel rods to eliminate cabinet resonances. They’re crossed over to the midrange array at 180Hz through third-order (18dB/octave) slopes. Both the midrange and bass drivers are crafted from aluminum and feature a “StarStabilizer” imprint in the center. T+A claims this strengthens the diaphragm and helps resist physical distortion at higher output. I should mention that each finished speaker pair from the Solitaire line is measured in the company’s full-size anechoic chamber to confirm that they’re operating to spec. For an in-depth look at the various drive units in the Solitaire models, check out our video profile.
The bass-reflex design is ported downwards, allowing for much more consistent performance than the more common rear-ported approach, which interacts far more with room boundaries. Out back are three rocker switches for bass, midrange, and treble frequency adjustment to ±1.5dB. Crucially, the tone controls do not compromise signal integrity, as they function through resistors that operate in parallel with the signal path. I adjusted these controls to confirm that they operated as advertised, but left them in the default center position throughout my listening. Lastly, there are two pairs of binding posts at the back of each tower for those who prefer biwiring.
The S 530 boasts a frequency response of 29Hz–45kHz (no deviation spec is provided), a nominal power rating of 200W with dynamic peaks to 250W, and a sensitivity of 86dB (1W/m). A solid-state amplifier isn’t strictly necessary, but a partnering amp with at least 100Wpc and good current delivery is probably a wise idea. The T+A loudspeakers come with a five-year warranty that does not require registration.
My samples arrived in one big crate on a shipping pallet. T+A has thoughtfully produced a helpful video to guide you through unboxing the speakers. I enlisted the help of my brothers, and in relatively short order we were able to maneuver the floorstanders, still in their boxes, out of my garage, down my basement steps, and into my dedicated listening room. Despite my waifish build, I was able to unbox the speakers and set them up without so much as a rogue fingerprint, thanks to the included gloves. The associated hardware—foot arms, floor spikes, and protective footers for wood floors—are bespoke and high quality. T+A thoughtfully includes casters in the box. This made wheeling the S 530s into position a nonevent. I placed them roughly 10′ apart, 11′ from my listening position, and about 22″ from my front wall, canting them inwards ever so slightly; T+A recommends a mere 10 degrees. And here’s a heads-up that the mirrored pair should be placed with the line-source tweeters towards the outside.
I did about 30 minutes of listening on the fresh pair and heard a pronounced “cupped-hands” presentation, so I ran them continuously at lower volume for a couple of days to loosen them up. While some manufacturers would have you believe that hundreds of hours are needed to break in a set of speakers, I find that an hour or two is usually all that’s needed. That said, the S 530s clearly needed more than that.
Accompanying gear included my reference Hegel Music Systems H590 integrated amplifier-DAC and Luxman L-507Z integrated amplifier, each of which I paired with Hegel’s HD30 DAC. I began my listening with the Luxman wired up. My KEF Reference 3 loudspeakers sat idle during my time with the German towers. My old Intel NUC running Roon with Tidal HiFi was connected to the Hegels via USB, with all cabling courtesy of Siltech’s Classic Legend range (details below in the associated-equipment endnote).
I’ve never reviewed a line-source or line-array loudspeaker before, so I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. Nor had I reviewed a product as pricy as T+A’s Solitaire S 530, which is about 50 percent more expensive than the $30,000-per-pair Vivid Audio Giya G4 that I reviewed back in 2014.
The entire presentation of this loudspeaker is fundamentally different than traditional dynamic designs. The sweet spot between the T+As is not as millimetric as I’ve experienced with dipole speakers in the past, i.e., a beamy mess where the entire illusion goes to hell in a hurry if you move your head an inch or two in any direction. I could move laterally six inches or so and up or down a foot, and the stereo image remained coherent. Still, I found the S 530s more directional, even within my ordinary sitting position, than my KEF Reference 3s. It took me a few cuts to reorient my ears so I could pick up what the T+A speakers were throwing down. I liked what I heard, but I was also multitasking, answering some emails, when I threw on an acoustic standby I’ve come to love over the years: The Lumineers’ “Cleopatra (Acoustic Demo)” from the deluxe version of their second album, Cleopatra (16-bit/44.1kHz FLAC, Dualtone / Tidal).
I instantly looked up from my laptop, attention fully focused on the Macassar-clad S 530s as they proceeded to deliver one of the finest and most memorable musical experiences I’ve had in my decade-plus of reviewing hi-fi gear. Whereas your average dynamic speaker projects a wall of sound for you—the listener, who’s assumed to be sitting in front of the performance to take it in—the T+As seemed to project sound much more directly towards me, individually, sitting on my well-worn couch. They also created an unusual wraparound effect akin to listening to high-end headphones—but in open space. The soundstage was as rock-solid and well-defined as I’ve heard. Every musical detail was laid bare with effortless authenticity. Lead singer Wesley Schultz’s acoustic guitar strokes were reach-out-and-touch-’em convincing in their tonality. Attempting to describe their quality is difficult, as I couldn’t make out any coloration, and the ripe abundance of organic detail was almost jarring. Schultz’s simple vocal was rendered in gorgeous, three-dimensional stereo glory. Describing the sound as “forward” doesn’t capture the experience because that implies the listener is seated further forward in a hypothetical orchestra audience. The S 530 was more cerebral in its dispersion characteristics. It was as if Schultz were singing to me alone, rather than to an audience. This type of sound won’t appeal to everyone, and I admit that I found it a bit disorienting at first. But it’s also utterly engrossing.
Gavin Mikhail’s rendition of Goo Goo Dolls’ “Iris” on Acoustic Sessions, Vol. 1 (16/44.1 FLAC, Tower Window Records / Tidal) proved even more compelling. The soft piano chords that open the track are diffuse and stretch across the soundstage in an unnoteworthy fashion. But 15 seconds in, Mikhail’s voice emerged, fixed in space directly in front of me, with staggering clarity. The minimalism associated with acoustic recordings showcased the T+A’s multitude of talents. I heard incredible amounts of low-level detail, with the S 530 exhibiting a transparency to the source material that I haven’t heard outside Magico or Vivid Audio loudspeakers. From the subtle inflections of his mournful delivery to the sibilants of various words, the focus was microscopic. The stereo image was very well defined, but what struck me most was the seeming lack of effort by the large floorstanding speakers on either side of Mikhail to generate this eggshell-delicate vocal before me. From my sweet spot, the S 530s’ disappearing act was close to complete.
After drafting the Hegel H590 into service in place of the Luxman L-507Z, I pivoted to more dynamic fare in the form of “The Battle,” the most epic of many epic tracks on Hans Zimmer’s original soundtrack for Ridley Scott’s Gladiator (16/44.1 AIFF, Decca). It’s a swelling monster of a cut that demands to be played through full-range speakers at high volume, and I was happy to oblige. The soundstage was totally coherent, though not as airy as I expected. With high-end dynamic loudspeakers, I’m used to an orchestral soundstage that extends well beyond my front wall. But the T+As seemed to zoom in on the “The Battle” in a way that lessened the spatiality of the track. Otherwise, the S 530s were monumental on this Zimmer classic. The 8.7″ woofers moved subwoofer levels of air on the thunderous drums during the intro, with equal helpings of concussive pace and raw power. The Solitaire line’s middle child wasn’t quite full range to my ears, but in my large room the pair seemed to deliver meaningful extension down to the mid-20-cycle region.
Once again, the T+As seemed to disappear from my room, so convincing was the Lyndhurst Orchestra before me. The gentle strumming of Heitor Pereira’s guitar at the 1:25 mark belied the orchestral violence that backed him, starting with the string section. At the 3:20 mark, when the solo trumpet pops to the fore, it was incredible to hear how well articulated the instrument was among the rest of the performers, who continued to paddle the melody along. “Uncanny” is the word that jumps to mind, such was the jump in perceived two-dimensional and three-dimensional resolution over any other pair of loudspeakers I’ve heard in recent memory. I was awestruck as the track crescendoed into a manic frenzy and my Hegel’s volume readout hit 75—nearly as high as it has ever been—and the S 530s remained nonplussed. There is colossal deep bass energy on the track, and the T+As kept the rhythm without any hint of compression or chuffing. Dead Can Dance’s Lisa Gerrard is heavily featured on the album. Her weighty contralto closed out proceedings on “Now We are Free,” seemingly mourning those lost during the film’s major battle scene. Her voice was supremely supple and present with the Hegel on the conductor’s podium. The big floorstanders’ handling of this dynamic and complicated recording was perhaps the most impressive I’ve ever heard.
Moving up-tempo, I polished off my listening with AC/DC’s “Thunderstruck” from The Razors Edge (16/44.1 MQA, Columbia / Tidal) to hear if these PhD-level German loudspeakers could let their hair down and rock out. They very much could, with to-die-for layering on the intro—the iconic electric guitar solo and hi-hat popping with sublime clarity towards the right of the soundstage as the chorus rises in level behind it. Chris Slade’s kick drum was nice and tight, but it was lead singer Brian Johnson’s insane vocal that dominated the center of the soundstage, amply supported on the left and right by Malcom Young and his younger brother Angus on guitars. It was a masterpiece, as convincing and holographic as anything I’ve ever heard. I instinctively consulted my checking account balance to confirm that, yep, I couldn’t afford the S 530s’ steep entry price.
Shifting the T+As out of my system and my KEF Reference 3s (discontinued, $13,999.99 per pair when available) back into position was not as disorienting as the initial loudspeakers swap had been. Straightaway, the KEFs sounded flatter—gone was the wraparound effect that the T+As conjured—but also slightly wider. Although this big KEF tower was replaced in 2022 with the newer Meta version, the original remains a textbook loudspeaker design, with frequency response as ruler flat as anyone could want. KEF includes the frequency response window for each pair in the box, so I have the measurements to prove it.
I heard subtle changes on “Thunderstruck”; the KEFs rendered Chris Slade’s hi-hats with a greater sense of air and space than the T+As. Indeed, the KEFs’ interpretation of the track was less dense and palpable in three dimensions, but with greater width from side to side and more emphatic instrument separation within the soundstage. And while the impact of Slade’s kick drum was as tight as it had been through the T+As, it fell a touch short on the S 530s’ weight and slam. While the KEFs were hardly embarrassed by the far more expensive T+As, the Solitaire S 530s’ ability to project Brian Johnson’s wail into my room, into my body and mind, quickly placed the big German floorstanders in another dimension of realism. It wasn’t subtle.
It was a similar story with Gavin Mikhail’s take on “Iris.” Objectively, the KEFs came fairly close to matching the T+As’ transparency and detail retrieval. But subjectively, Mikhail was placed further away from me, and crucially, sounded two-dimensional, less rounded, and less real.
The KEFs somewhat redeemed themselves when replaying “The Battle” from the Gladiator soundtrack, as their more spacious sound allowed me to better hear and explore the recording space. There was greater depth for sure, and spatially, the KEFs were in their element. But as soon as Heitor Pereira’s guitar took center stage around the 1:30 mark, it became quickly apparent that the Reference 3s didn’t have the chops to match the S 530s’ holographic trump card; instead, the sound was stuck in space and on either side of the two KEF speakers.
From one track to the next, I found myself discovering aspects of a musical performance where the KEFs could hold their own and where I even thought I preferred their more “traditional” dispersion pattern. But time and again, the Solitaire S 530s would grab hold of me through a vocal, an instrumental solo, or a subtle detail that I’d never before discerned on tracks I’d listened to hundreds of times, and pull me back in.
T+A’s Solitaire S 530 is different than any other loudspeaker I’ve heard in more than a decade of reviewing high-end gear. It looks different, what with its 33.5”-long magnetostatic line-source tweeter and seven midrange drivers aligned in a line array next to it. And it sounds different, projecting sound in such a focused and concentrated fashion that it takes some getting used to. But the results are profoundly, stupefyingly good. The borderline full-range design is able to conjure a more convincing, coherent, and realistic musical experience than any other loudspeaker I’ve reviewed over the years. In fact, T+A’s Solitaire S 530 is the best loudspeaker I’ve ever heard. Sadly, my review samples are going back to T+A, but I can assure you they will live long in my memory.
. . . Hans Wetzel
- Speakers: KEF LS50 and Reference 3.
- Integrated amplifier: Hegel Music Systems H590; Luxman L-507Z.
- Digital-to-analog converter: Hegel Music Systems HD30.
- Sources: Intel NUC computer running Roon, Tidal HiFi.
- Speaker cables: DH Labs Q-10 Signature; Siltech Classic Legend 680L.
- Analog interconnect cables: Dynamique Audio Shadow (RCA), Siltech Classic Legend 680i (XLR).
- Power cords: Siltech Classic Legend 680P.
- Digital interconnect: Siltech Classic Legend 380 USB.
T+A Elektroakustik Solitaire S 530 Loudspeaker
Price: $44,900 per pair.
Warranty: Five years parts and labor.
T+A Elektroakustik GmbH & Co. KG
Phone: +49 (0) 5221-7676-0
Fax: +49 (0) 5221-7676-76