Audio Valve Solaris DAC
That was my first thought as I unboxed the beautiful yet Industrial Audio Valve Solaris Headphone Amp/DAC. If you like your Audio equipment to be bland and understated, look elsewhere. This is big, funky, beautifully built, black metal, glass and chrome. An Audio Harley Davidson. If ever a piece of kit was oddly named, this was it.
It's actually a fully featured Integrated Amp, 12w per channel, with 5 unbalanced and 2 balanced inputs, balanced pre-outs, 4 headphone outputs and a single USB input. Due to the complexity of my speakers, I'm only using the pre-outs and USB features for the main body of the review. The pre -outs are feeding my Audiomanufacture 4 channel DSP power amp.
I approached this review with a degree of scepticism. I've been seduced by valves before, their lush siren like mids with shimmering tops, but eventually return to the sturm und drang of Solid State.
I'm a drummer and a bass player, so the rhythm section and how the system keeps this tight and coherent is paramount to me.
After tracking down and installing the drivers, I let the Amp warm up for a couple of hours before starting any listening. Last month I spent 3 days at High End Munich, and was disappointed by the choice of music of many of the manufacturers, playing it safe with female vocals, at one point it was like an Eva Cassidy fest.....it sounded good but doesn't challenge the system.
I started with the built in USB DAC with more challenging female vocals, early Joni Mitchell whose high register could break a glass and Aimee Mann, who with an inferior system can sound like she's got the worst head cold ever. And then a firm favourite, "Inconsolable" off the Jonatha Brooke and The Story "Plumb", where it can all fall apart when the piano and big kick drum come together in the final minutes.
I'm pleased to say it was a thumbs up, vocals were lively but not strident, huge, lush but not with overblown mids, with deep tuneful bass. As a drummer, tight and dynamic snares and sizzling cymbals are something I always demand from my system. So 2 choices seemed appropriate, "Trampoline" off the Joe Henry disc of the same name and the title track off the Ben Harper "Fight for your Mind". The latter having not only drums with real snap but tight, punchy bass and sleigh bells....bring it on :-)
Another win, it had almost all the snap of my solid state but without any doubt better mids.
I decided to finish off the digital test with a bit of speaker blowing Rock, the fab four, no....not The Beatles, Jimmy , Robert, John-Paul and Bonzo, the mighty Zepp.
I have a High Res 24/96 version of one of their greatest albums, 1975's "Physical Graffiti" . Warming up with "Kashmir" Bonzo's almost metronomic drumming unpinning what is actually a North African chord progression, the guitar and strings all well separated but gelling , with Percy giving it his trademark Yeas and Woos, quite a journey.
And to finish, may I recommend one of their under-rated but brilliant tracks, " In my time of Dying". It opens with Jimmy's shimmering but edgy almost threatening slide guitar and then we are joined by Robert, quite subtle but with detail and nuance. It builds into speaker shredding crescendos, the slide cuts through like a chain saw, Robert howling like a Banshee, Bonzo is attempting to turn his Ludwigs into firewood and as always JPJ keeps it all together with fleet fingered nimble but tight and punchy bass.
This track has been the nemesis of many a system......but it rocked and never lost its grip and timing.
Mightily impressed for valves......
On to Vinyl, my OL TT/Arm , Shelter M/C and Perreaux phono stage linked via balanced cables into the Solaris. This can be a bit lean but not a bit of it here. The pre wrung out detail on LPs I'd not heard in 30 years. The debut LP from Joan Armatrading , suddenly Kenny Jones's drums had a new dynamic and cymbal and snare drums, deep in the mix, would magically appear.
I must have got through 20 or 30 well-loved LPs and was bowled over by the new level of detail I was hearing. I'm close to thinking that the Solaris pre works better with my vinyl rig than my current solid state pre and that's quite a statement.
There is one criticism, and it's not audio based really.....the remote is truly awful. It's basically a clicker you get with electric garage doors, button A for down, button B for up. It's clunky, noisy and the steps are too big. I'm amazed that a company who spends so much time and effort on aesthetics would supply, possibly as an afterthought , such an awful remote.
I've been living with the Solaris for a week or so now and I am loving its detail, soundstage, and just sheer musicality. You start off listening to the HiFi but very quickly get drawn in and are soon just loving the music. This is an excellent and very well featured amplifier. It sounds and looks marvellous.
I'm extremely impressed by this valve amplifier and if Elite Audio were to ask me to try a standalone pre, I'd be very very happy !
This is available through Elite Audio at £4827.