|Classé SSP-600 AV Preamplifier/Processor|
|Home Theater Preamplifiers AV Preamps|
|Written by Tim Hart|
|Sunday, 01 October 2006|
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The idea of having it all is something the world of audiophiles never seemed to understand. You could have the warmth of tubes, but not get the impact and power of a great solid state amp. Stereo preamps offered the best sound, but couldn’t control the increasing number of inputs, most of which also were attached to video components. From now on, no matter how hardcore an audiophile you are or may have been, I want you to know – after extensive testing, listening, watching and drooling, you can in fact have it all. Thus begins the review of the Classe SSP-600 Delta Series preamp/processor ($6,500), which offers even the most critical listener the ability to have the control and flexibility that you need to run, manage and enjoy the most sophisticated of today’s surround sound audio and home theater systems.
The Classe SSP-600 is built with striking corners and the vertical black anodized panel in which resides the three-inch by two-inch TFT screen that immediately sets this product apart from other preamps of its genre. Stealth comes to mind when looking at the packaging, where the only prominent feature on the front panel is a two-inch volume knob. All of the set-up features for the SSP-600 are handled and accessed by the TFT display, freeing the front panel of the myriad buttons and knobs that populate most other prepros today. The SSP-600 relies on a powerful, upgradeable software suite accessed by a svelte GUI to control this very flexible and customizable preamp/processor so that it will integrate with almost any possible system. The 45-pound chassis is 17.5 inches wide, six-and three-quarters inches high, and 16.5 inches deep. Like all of the Delta series products, the SSP-600 sports vibration-absorbing feet to support the rigid steel and aluminum enclosure and isolate most of the unwanted resonances that can affect its performance. Before you even plug the SSP-600 in or even once glance at it in a rack, you can tell it is one serious audio/video component.
The audio side of the SSP-600 is similar to its smaller sibling, the SSP-300 ($4,500), trumping it by having a fully balanced analog side, staying true to its high-end two-channel roots, and ups the bar by the meticulous use of discrete circuitry for accurately handling all of the digital signals, both audio and high-bandwidth high-definition video. The SSP-600 can decode a full array of Dolby Digital and DTS surround modes and also incorporates THX Ultra and all of its trappings, which can take soundtracks that were originally recorded for movie houses and translates them into a more home-friendly presentation, correcting spatial and tonal cues for a more enveloping home experience.
The digital signal processing is handled by Motorola 32-bit processors, while the digital to analog conversion is taken care of by differential 24-bit multi-bit delta-sigma DACs (eight of them), said to provide extremely low-level linearity while maintaining the integrity of the resolution through the conversion process. The transcoding of video connections is a major plus for the SSP-600, allowing you to have a single video output to your display and allowing the SSP-600 to control all aspects of your video. The only notable omission is the lack of DVI or HDMI connections, which can be found on many of today’s top receivers and AV preamps. But perhaps Classe was ahead of an ugly market trend, because as much potential as HDMI has, its implementation at the current version (1.2) is questionable at best. The format provides for high-resolution video, but unreliable connections can often be the cause of great disappointment. Recently, AVRev.com’s publisher Jerry Del Colliano literally abandoned HDMI for all five of his HD sources in the AVR Reference Theater for component video. When HDMI 1.3 hits the market in Sony’s Playstation 3, expect to see improvements to the format. As of right now, many of the best dealers still use component video for high-resolution HD (1080i) video. You need HDMI to transmit 1080p, but you also need to get your HD DVD player to actually synch to your video display.
Speaking of integration, the back panel of the SSP-600 has an ample supply of inputs and outputs to satisfy just about any conceivable scenario. Aiding the set-up is the use of color coding: white background for inputs and black for outputs. The top of the rear panel is an analog lover’s dream, consisting of a discrete stereo pair of balanced analog audio inputs with its own balanced two-channel preamplifier for connecting that audiophile source and two options for getting the signal to your amplifier: 7.1 RCA and XLR balanced analog outputs to an XLR capable amplifier. For digital, there are three Toslink optical inputs, four coaxial connections and an AES/EBU balanced digital connection. For real audio flexibility, the SSP-600 is equipped with 11 assignable line-level RCA inputs, including an assigned tape input, three pairs of recording RCA outputs and one pair of second zone line-level outputs. Last on the audio front is a 7.1 set of RCA inputs for DVD-Audio and SACD.
Video is well represented with two pairs of composite inputs and outputs, five S-Video inputs and three outputs. Three sets of component video inputs and one set for output will handle not only standard-definition but also high-definition as well. Setting the SSP-600 in bypass mode for any of these connections assures a clean pass-through without any noticeable degradation to the signal. The SSP-600 will transcode all video signals, up or down, in all formats, simultaneously, to all video outputs. Please note: this is a big deal. No longer do you have to maintain the same connection throughout the connection chain, further simplifying the display interface. Bravo, Classe!
The SSP-600 is designed with system control in mind. For dialing in your room, Classe has provided a microphone and calibration software to set your speaker level matching and distance automatically. Plug in the provided microphone and place it in your listening position (actually, the SSP-600 allows four programmable listening positions using this set-up; more about this in a minute), push the set-up button and sit back.
There is an IR input for main and zone, which is basically a toggle that can be used for a variety of installations. Two 12-volt triggers are also available to either connect to other Classe gear, such as the CA-5200 amplifier or the CDP-300 CD/DVD player, or to operate screens, curtains or lighting. The SSP-600 has an RS-232 for system software updates for the surround processor or integration with the rest of your home automation, such as a Creston or AMX system controller.
The last control feature that was not operational at the time of the review is the CAN (Controller Area Network) via a RJ-45 connection. CAN is a network bus that was initially derived from the auto industry for high-speed communication between microcontrollers. I could hypothesize that this will allow intelligent communication from, say, the CDP-300 player to the SSP-600, with information such as video and favorite audio processing formats, speaker set-up, the number of speakers to use for each format, component levels and listening position, to name a few possibilities. The network implies seamless integration within the Classe Delta product line. Outside the Classe realm, I doubt there will be much benefit, as I don’t know of any other consumer level control products using this standard. CAN will interface with PCI or PCMCIA, so if you’re clever, you could access and program through your PC, but it is definitely outside the expertise of most consumers and should be left to the professionals.