Classé Delta Series CDP-300 Universal Player 
Home Theater Video Players DVD Players
Written by Tim Hart   
Friday, 01 September 2006

With so much media focus on the recent releases of HD DVD and Blu-ray, one could possibly see the demise of the current DVD hardware set just on the horizon. But early adopters beware: HD DVD is suffering from some brutal (perhaps even fatal) growing pains to overcome maladies such as painfully slow load times, frequent and amazingly frustrating reboots and excruciating integration issues with existing home theater systems, thanks to the fact that movie studios have forced HD DVD players to constantly have an HDCP handshake, which is at the root of most of people’s connectivity and switching issues. Blu-ray is better, but still suffers from many problems, including a lack of RS232 control, reported and admitted problems with the video output (even though it looks pretty good) and the fact that HDMI 1.3 offers as much as twice the video bandwidth going to your set. At this point, who could blame anyone for holding off from these potentially tempting yet definitely frustrating formats? But that doesn’t solve the issue of the need for a top-performing video source, especially one that can play back music that is true to the master tapes.

Enter the CDP-300, which is the latest Delta series DVD player from Classé, the CDP-300 ($6,500), which takes performance, a little bit of art and a lot of reliable interface, and wraps it up in one sexy package. The CDP-300 is 17.50 inches wide, 17 inches deep, and four-and-three-quarters inches tall. The rigid 26-pound chassis sits on four sound vibration-damped feet to further isolate resonances from ancillary equipment. The CDP-300 will play most of the non-HD disc formats out there, with the exception of SACD. DVD-Video, DVD-Audio, Dual Discs, Video-CD, S-VCD, MP3, AAC and WMA formats all cue up on this Classe product.

The CDP-300’s distinctive styling catches the eye, with large corner radiuses and silver brushed aluminum side panels that meet in the front with a black aluminum bezel that is consistent with other Delta products. Within this resides the three-inch by two-inch touch screen, the first I’ve seen on a DVD player, which allows you to preview the credits of a movie prior to starting up your main display or cuing up a DVD-Audio disk without having to turn on your display. To the left of the display on the black bezel is a menu button that gets you into the system set-up display; there is another standby button to left of the display button. The slot loading mechanism on the right of the display was a bit of a surprise to me, as this was the first application of this type that I have seen on high-end gear. At first, I wasn’t sure I liked it, but it grew on me. Gone is the possibility of bending or breaking the tray (done that), which is cantilevered out of harm’s way. A glowing blue light illuminates the slot when there is not a disc present in the player, so if there isn’t a light, don’t try to feed it another disc.

On the back panel, you will find a spacious and well laid-out arrangement of the connections necessary to integrate the player with the rest of your equipment. A stereo pair of balanced outputs and six single-ended RCA outputs for DVD-Audio occupies the upper left of the panel. The lower left has three types of digital outputs: AES/EBU, SPDIF coaxial and Toslink optical, which all output the same signal. The upper right side of the rear panel is for video output and is comprised of one composite, one S-Video and one set of component video outputs, as well as an HDMI connector for digital displays. The lower center portion of the rear panel is reserved for interface to system controls and other components, which includes an IR “in” and “out” that is really an electrical switch to control IR receivers, emitters and other components within your system. There is also a 12-volt trigger with one input and two outputs to control other components within your system. I used these to connect the Classé SSP-600 preamp/processor and the CA-5200 five-channel amp, which I will be reviewing in the coming months. There are also RJ-45 connectors (in and out) for future system control of other Classé products. No word yet on when this option will become available, but if it works anything like Linn’s system, ease of use will be greatly improved, especially when dealing with different formats and speaker configurations. Also, the requisite RS-232 port is present and facilitates connection to your home automation control. Last are a power switch and an IEC AC connector. The CDP-300 stays in standby mode unless you turn this switch off.

A great amount of attention was paid to the reduction of jitter. Classé’s approach funnels all things digital through a CPLD (Complex Programmable Logic Device) and sample rate converter to de-correlate them from the MPEG decoder (video) clock. In other words, all of the digital signals are up-converted to 24-bit/192kHz signals and re-clocked before being output to the D-to-A converters. The D to A conversion is achieved by the use of 8X digital filters on each of the three stereo DACs for six channels of analog, which are connected by six RCA connections, and a fully balanced stereo pair of XLR connectors for the main speakers.

The CDP-300 has a powerful processor that delivers sharp, clear images that are free from jagged edges, reduces video noise and provides better contrast and color rendition, improved chroma transients, and has the added benefit of internal scaling and de-interlacing capability for up to 1080p resolutions.

The remote is as special as the CDP-300 itself. The housing of the remote is created from two clear anodized grained aluminum extruded parts of different shapes that form the upper and lower half of the unit. The business end has a red Lexan cover for the IR port and the aft end has a black anodized end cap with tiny screws that you have to remove in order to put in two batteries. Classé thoughtfully provided the right Allen wrench for the task. It fits in the hand with a nice heft to it. The large, blue backlit buttons are well organized and lend themselves to easy familiarity. The volume and disc control buttons have a unique shape and are easy to find and the backlighting can either be activated by depressing any button on the unit, or by depressing a dedicated button on the upper left part of the unit. If you own a projection system, you’ll love this.

All of the system set-up menus can be accessed through the touch screen menu on the front panel or through the onscreen display. I found that using the touch screen worked well for system tweaking. Without even looking through the manual for the initial set-up, I was able to navigate easily and understand the menu structure for most of the system’s set-up, only consulting the manual on a few details.

Pushing the main menu button on the CDP-300 will display six menu picks for getting further into the player set-up. These include system set-up, trigger set-up, teach IR, display set-up, remote F key programming and system status. The teach IR allows your programmable remote to get the right control keys for each function of the CDP-300, so that you can set up system macros for flexible operation with your existing hardware. The display set-up customizes the brightness of the screen, how long it remains on after it is activated, a preview mode where you can cue up a movie before running it through your main display device or a DVD-Audio menu for selecting different tracks or other options without having to use you main display, and volume in absolute (0 being the lowest) or relative, which is a calibrated, reference volume (as played in movie theaters). Triggers can be set up basically as a zero voltage switch to turn other components on or as a 12-volt signal for accessories like screens, lighting, or curtains. F keys, which are labeled F1-F4, can be used as macros for functions that are often used a few layers down in the menu structure. Each F key has assigned operations that can be used for each common operation.

The display menu adjusts brightness, temporary display timeout values and other display options for further customizing the operation of the CDP-300. Don’t fear. The cost of admission gives you, the new owner, total support and installation into your unique system requirements.

Let the Games Begin
Because the CDP-300 up-samples to 192 kHz, I looked forward to seeing how well red book CDs benefited. The production on Tool’s latest project 10,000 Days (Volcano Entertainment) is not what you normally expect from any heavy metal band. Imaging and sound-staging is surprisingly good. Low and mid bass textures, which Tool uses a lot of, exhibit a very detailed structure to them, even more so with the CDP-300, where depth and layers are unveiled in a delicate and complex pallet. “Intension” opens with spectral guitar notes underscored by piles of junk being moved around. Maynard James Keenan’s disembodied voice floats around the soundstage with pinpoint location laid back behind the speakers. The joining kick drum is tight and well defined, sounding liquidly smooth and taut. The non-linear roller coaster bass line that Justin Chancellor creates comes in at this point and oozes holographic detail of the vibration of the strings, the body of the bass and the harmonics as he changes notes. I’ve only heard it slightly better with my current reference, the Linn Unidisk 1.1, which is nearly double the price. “Right in Two” has Keenan’s vocals back dead center between the speakers, while Adam Jones’ single-string plucking seems to come alive within the soundstage they are portraying. Nothing is simple with Tool’s playing and song structure. The CDP-300 uncovers a tremendous amount of soul and nuance from this recording with a straight-up natural and neutral presentation.

Shawn Mullins is one of my favorites to use as an evaluating tool, because the production qualities of his recordings are topnotch and he is a great singer/songwriter. His vocals are captivating and powerful with a wonderful timbre and range. “Drumming Clown” off of The First Ten Years (Sony Entertainment) is a good example of Mullins’ talent. The CDP-300 captured this tune with all of the detail spread out before the listener with Mullins’ vocals dead center and slightly in back of the main speakers. Transients had a nice defined edge that allowed the pick striking the strings to sound more three-dimensional with a nice space around it, which was duly noted when I first installed the CDP-300 in my system. The CDP-300 compelled me to listen to “This Time/Last Time” as I was warming up my system, with the opening piano and the ensuing body of the tune grabbing my full attention and demonstrating how musical this player can be. It truly rejuvenates the CD format and the up-sampling adds more dimension and depth to the older format. At this point, the CDP-300 is doing its job of endearing me to this marvelous Classe product.

Another endearing feature that proved that it is not just a gimmicky light show but a very functional tool was the touch screen. Remember the frustration of cuing up a DVD-Audio without firing up the projector or big screen to see the menu? Yup, it was a pain, which is easily avoided with the CDP-300. There are some DVD-Audio discs that are authored in such a way that you must turn on your video display device, but those are rare.

So how did the CDP-300 sound with DVD-Audio? I go back to this disc often, but sometimes I get another angle on a familiar tune. The surround mix of The Grateful Dead’s American Beauty heard on the CDP-300 did just that. The presentation put me Dead center, with Jerry Garcia right in front of me, accompanied by vocals on the left and right sides, with some of the piano and rhythm guitar in the rear surround speakers. The mix was very well done. I felt Jerry as the focal point and the rest of the band joining in around me in a way that enveloped me. I’ve heard this disc on lower-performance universal players that don’t provide the effect that the CDP-300 gives you.

“Sugar Magnolia” was another example of a song that enveloped me with a layered and detailed sound. Bob Weir’s vocals were suspended in front with plenty of space around the backing vocals and instruments. Jerry’s guitar soared through the mix with a well-sculpted presence that could mesmerize the listener. I noted that this DVD-Audio didn’t jump right out with tons more information, but subtle aspects of the tunes had added nuance and texture that became more apparent the more I listened. This recording was both stereo PCM and surround at 48 kHz/24 bit, so there was added information, but not at, say, the level of a disc that was recorded in two-channel at 96 kHz/24-bit, like Metallica’s Black album.

REM’s Automatic for the People in DVD-Audio was also recorded at 48 kHz/24-bit in stereo and surround, but the production values on this recording were warmer-sounding than American Beauty, treating me to a great soundstage that was airy and detailed. This format stripped most of the keyboards from the mix, which gave the tunes an earthier feel to them. The melancholy is teased out of “Ignoreland” by the CDP-300 while giving the sense of depth and scope more tangibility. “Man on the Moon” and “Night Swimming” sounded very articulate and musical. Low-frequency information was tight and deep, as were the bass lines with the added fleshed-out vibration of the strings on the bass and acoustic guitars. “Find the River” stood out sonically with beautiful acoustic guitar, a tight bass line, wonderful harmonies and some of the purest Michael Stipe vocals I’ve heard. The biggest compliment I can give the CDP-300 is that it got out of the way and let the music do the rest.

So how well does the internal video processor and up-converting work? I turned to my new Sony KDS-60A2000 60” SXRD RPTV which will accept a 1080p 60 Hz signal to test drive the internal processor. I started off using a Monster two meter HDMI connection and ran the CDP-300 at 1080p. At first my impression was “wow”, then after I got over the initial response noticed a fair amount of pixelization on fast moving images. Just for grins a changed to Cardas component video cables and was stunned to see most of the issues disappear. Either the cable was not up to the task or the current version of the HDMI is not quite ready for primetime yet.

I was hard pressed to pick between standard definition material at 480i from decent HD material from my Directv source. Better produced HD material uncovered some of the upconverted image issues. Background clarity suffered a bit, and edge definition wasn’t as detailed, but over all a vast improvement over 480i. DVDs faired even better, providing a smoother, more detailed image. The DVD collection just got and extended stay of execution thanks to the CDP-300.

The immediate reaction I had with the CDP-300 in my system was that the image was sharper and noticeably brighter. Video noise was somewhat reduced, though not as dramatic as the other improvements. There was improvement with the de-interlacing of edges and the stair-stepping I’ve seen on color boundaries and image edges. In Gladiator (DreamWorks SKG), there is a scene in the opening chapter where the solders with pikes are aligned on the battlefield waiting to attack the Germanians. The pikes have exhibited a jagged appearance on other players, like the Denon 2900. The CDP-300 took most of that away and produced a more coherent image. This scene is also a little on the dark side and the CDP-300 brought better image detail and a more three-dimensional look to the video. Grain improved slightly over the Linn 1.1 I use as my reference. Also, at the very beginning, as Maximus is walking through a field of grain with his hand extended, the detail of the actual grain and the structure of the other parts of the plants were vivid, with great color rendition and balance.

Vivid landscapes and colorful costumes seemed like a good test for the CDP-300, so I pulled out the cinematic masterpiece Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Sony Pictures Classics) to shake the cobwebs off of the retinas. In Chapter 18, bandits overtake the wagon train of the banker’s daughter, Jen, played by Zhang Ziyi. Lo (Chang Chen), the bandit leader, steals Jen’s comb. She wants it back with a vengeance. The ensuing horse chase takes you through some beautiful steppes and expansive desert scenery. The CDP-300 processed the fast-moving scenery with dexterity, keeping motion artifacts to a minimum and giving the picture better depth. For fun I connected my older Sony projector to the CDP-300 via component video connections, i.e., a 30-foot run of Transparent’s High Performance Component Video cable. My seven-inch Sony is only capable of 720p, so I wasn’t able to get the benefit of the full resolution. But I did get a tremendous benefit from the CDP-300. I ran it at 1080p and 720p to see if there was any difference between the two and felt there was no noticeable improvement in running it at 1080p. Even the edge of the scenes, which is a weak link on the Sony projector and has always had a bit of blurriness to the image, was improved.

The Downside
The Classé CDP-300 certainly feeds the need of the videophile with impressive playback of legacy movies on the most successful video format of all time, DVD. In terms of sound, I don’t think you will be disappointed with a CDP-300 as a source component, but hardcore audiophiles will long for SACD. Considering the format is basically dead, with DVD-Audio not that far behind, one can understand why Classe’ didn’t move Heaven and Earth to add SACD, as there are only 2,000 or so titles in the format.

The lack of any kind of upgrade path to HD DVD and Blu-ray could be something to discuss when you consider that you are bucking up for $6,500, but trust me – you don’t really want such formats in a high-end player yet. Until these formats are worked out, the fact that the CDP-300 is missing HD DVD and Blu-ray is a blessing. This unit works. It doesn’t need rebooting after switching from a DVD to TiVo and back. It connects reliably and is backed by a true high-end company that knows and appreciates audio and video playback.

The outcome of the current format war is far from certain. How the average consumer is expected to know the right course of action when considering moving to the latest display technology is beyond me. Working in the industry and having access to the latest information and technology roadmaps on where things are headed still doesn’t give me the advantage on making a buying decision. I labored for months before buying a Sony 60-inch rear-projection SXRD display, which won’t have the 1.3 version of HDMI to accept a native 1080p signal, and I still don’t feel like it was the best decision at this time. However, if you wait to invest in video you will never actually own an HDTV, because something new is always coming down the pike.

For an early adopter, there are lots of possible pitfalls to the new formats. It would seem that the CDP-300 is an island of sanity for those who are unsure when to make the move but still want high-performance video and audio and are willing to put there wallets on the firing line. You will not be disappointed. The beautiful build quality and slick touch screen interface is unparalleled in the industry. The high-performance circuit design and purist approach to the system architecture provide the buyer with pride of ownership that few products can equal. Video is the best I’ve seen at this price point and the added ability of superb playback of CDs, DVD-Audio and other formats seal the deal. When working with other Classe’ components, such as the SSP-600, which I’ll be reviewing in the next month or two, the synergy is remarkable. The amount of customization available for integration into your home entertainment system provides good flexibility. Don’t audition one until your ready to plunk down the cash, because if you hear and see the CDP-300, you’re unlikely to leave the dealer empty-handed. You’ve been warned.
Manufacturer Classe
Model Delta Series CDP-300 Universal Player
Reviewer Tim Hart

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