When it comes to audio, from many music fans there are two conflicting forces at play: the convenience of wireless audio and the nostalgic appreciation of analog sources like turntables. The Solis SO-8000 is a compact stereo system that tries to play it both ways. It has the convenience of Bluetooth streaming combined with the retro appeal of a vacuum tube amplifier.
Everything You Need, In One Box
Solis includes a complete audio system in the box. That means the amplifier, along with a pair of bookshelf speakers. Also included are speaker wire, a fine brush, and white gloves. The gloves and brush? They’re for handling the glass vacuum tubes (which come preinstalled) and also happen to be dust magnets. So is the glossy, piano black finish on the amp and speakers. They look fantastic, but be prepared for an ongoing battle against dust and fingerprints.
Setup is very straightforward. Position the speakers, connect them with the included speaker wire (with banana plugs), plug in the power cable.
What’s the Deal With the Vacuum Tubes?
I have to admit, my experience with tube amplifiers is minimal. They largely fell out of favor when amplifiers started using transistors, and by the time I was buying my first real stereo system in the ’80s you only really saw vacuum tube amplifiers at garage sales. But many audiophiles and musicians have had a preference for tube amps, which are supposed to have a warmer sound.
After decades of digital audio, a few years ago I began moving back to analog, with a turntable hooked up to a vintage receiver and an ever-expanding record collection. I was anxious to try out the Solis SO-8000 to see if the vacuum tubes really were game changers.
Where things seemed a little dicey to me was the Bluetooth connectivity. In particular, I was curious about the end result of starting with a digital file, compressing it, then running it through a vacuum tube amplifier. Does one cancel out the other, or how does this work, exactly?
Those tubes certainly look cool. Fire up the amp and the two smaller tubes glow a warm orange (throwing off a bit of heat in the process). The cool factor is upped by a third tube holding a VU meter that shows the amplifier output. According to Solis, the tubes are rated for 5,000 hours and a quick look online shows replacements can be found easily enough starting at around $15 each.
The amplifier is also very compact. At 10.24-inches wide, 6.3-inches deep, and 8.7-inches high, it’s a fraction of the size of the Pioneer receiver driving my turntable.
Bluetooth Sounds… Pretty Good
I wasn’t convinced that the audio sounded any “warmer” but it was free from distortion and the Bluetooth connection was solid. The amplifier puts out 17W per channel, which is not a lot, however, it was enough to fill a medium-sized room nicely. The included speakers are bookshelf-style units with 5-inch polymer woofers and 1.25-inch soft dome tweeters. They’re okay. Even with so-so speakers, having two of them makes for a stereo listening experience, which is going to be superior to a single portable speaker. That being said, instead of a warm, retro sound, I found that if anything Bluetooth audio streaming on the SO-8000 sounded brighter than I like and bass response was thin.
And without bass or treble controls on the amp, you’re stuck with that.
Compared to a portable Bluetooth speaker this system sounds pretty good, but there is room for improvement.
To Really Rock, Switch Out the Supplied Speakers, Add a Turntable
The Solis amplifier also has two RCA auxiliary inputs. Using one was the start of the system living up to and then exceeding my expectations. First, I plugged in a turntable that has its own pre-amplifier (there’s no Phono input), a Fluance model I reviewed a few years back. With an analog source, the audio lost some of its brightness and the occasional crackle from a record fit in with those glowing vacuum tubes perfectly.
The SO-8000 made the leap to audio I wanted to keep listening to when I decided to swap out the included speakers for a pair of inexpensive bookshelf speakers I have here for another review. The difference was night and day. The brightness was gone, and the missing low end put in an appearance. There was considerably more energy from music and I could actually get a sense of that warmth I’d been hoping for from the vacuum tubes. Records sounded the way they should and the Bluetooth streaming audio improved dramatically.
Since making that pairing, I’ve had the Solis SO-8000 playing virtually non-stop in my office for the past week. It will be a shame to send the review unit back—I’m going to miss the orange glow of those vacuum tubes…
Should You Buy It?
At the $529.99 MSRP, the Solis SO-8000 isn’t outrageously priced for a compact stereo system. And it has an undeniable cool factor. However, you can currently pick it up for about $370 on Amazon. If it were me, I’d be tempted to do that and also spend $200 on the Fluance bookshelf speakers (also on Amazon) I’ve been using as replacements for the pack-in speakers. That ends up being $40 more than the MSRP and doesn’t have the complete piano black look, but the result is a very cool tube amp along with speakers that can really show off its capabilities.