Classé SSP 30 MKII AV Preamplifier/Processor 
Home Theater Preamplifiers AV Preamps
Written by Ed Masterson   
Tuesday, 01 April 2003

Classé Audio has been producing high-performance audio/video electronics for more than 20 years. From their factory in Quebec, Canada, they have produced gear that has arguably performed among the absolute best of its kind, oftentimes at a much-reduced price when compared directly to its competition. For many years, I used the Classe’ CA-150 amplifier in my reference system and have long respected Classé for both value, performance and their simple yet tasteful aesthetics and exceptional build quality.

The SSP 30 MKII A/V preamp represents the entry level in preamplification and theater processing from Classé. The original SSP 30 had all of the latest features in theater processing at the time of its release. Since then, several new formats have been developed, so the SSP 30 needed a major update to stay competitive in this quickly evolving market. The SSP 30 MKII is currently available at a price of $3,000. With the MKII, in addition to Dolby Digital, you can now process today’s hottest new DSP modes – DTS, Dolby Digital EX, DTS-ES Matrix, and Dolby Pro Logic II. The MK II also adds 7.1 analog audio inputs to support both SACD and DVD-A formats. For those of you who own the original SSP 30, the MK II upgrade can be purchased for $1,000. This is a factory upgrade and will need to be processed through your retailer. The unit will need to be returned to Classe’ in Canada.

The SSP 30 MK II is designed to support today’s complex multi-room, multi-function home entertainment system installations. It has two independently programmable zones for audio and video. I/O connections include one AES/EBU digital input, two optical digital inputs, four COAX digital inputs, eight line-level inputs, six composite video inputs, six S-video inputs, composite and S-video outputs with or without onscreen display, 7.1 discrete analog inputs and a tape loop. Other features include three remote triggers, remote IR inputs and a RS232 port, all handy in complex custom home entertainment installations. The MKII version has no provisions for switching high-definition sources or component video. The unit measures19 inches wide, 12.75 inches deep, 4.4 inches tall and weighs 25 pounds.

I have always admired the build quality and styling of Classé products. The SSP 30 MK II is no exception. From the moment I opened the box, I got the feeling that I was dealing with a very high-quality piece of hardware. The SSP 30 MK II has a look of modern industrial elegance, with its signature thick-machined front faceplate and clear finish. Classé uses a second piece of machined aluminum with a black anodized finish around the display. Besides being a nice conservative styling touch, the dark finish helps to emphasize the display. The controls on the front of the unit include several smooth round buttons, along with a large machined aluminum multifunction selector knob. The remote is also machined aluminum and is custom designed for the processor. The remote does not have lighting, which is something that makes little sense for a product that can be expected to be operated in the dark, yet the button layout is clean enough to allow you to learn the button locations with a little practice. Every aspect of this product’s construction appears to be a cut above the competition in this price range. As a show of confidence in the quality of their product, Classé includes a five-year warranty with the SSP 30 MK II.

The manual provides thorough and complete instructions for set-up. This is not to say that the average person will have an easy time with the installation of this processor. In fact, the average person will be hard-pressed to hook up any modern theater processor without some help. Fortunately, dealers who sell Classé products should be very knowledgeable and capable of walking you through the installation.

The connections on the back of the unit are clearly marked and the connectors feel solid. Once connected, a small amount of set-up and calibration is required. Each of the inputs must be configured. The speaker distances, levels, and crossover settings must also be adjusted according to the other equipment in the installation and the room in which the system is being installed. The display on the front of the unit is only visible from up to 10 feet away for a person with good vision, making the onscreen display menus the easiest to use. I connected my DirecTV receiver box, DVD player and CD player (transport/DAC combo), using S-video for all of the video connections. I was able to complete the set-up of the system in just a few minutes. As is the case with most modern theater processors, the audio modes were automatically selected based on the signal from the source. The SSP 30 MK II always found the correct mode, so no further interaction was required other than volume control. One minor annoyance that I encountered was with the auto-detect function and the onscreen menu system. Any time that the output signal on the source hiccups, the onscreen display would pop up and remain up until the standard time-out occurred (five seconds or so). This was especially problematic with the satellite receiver. In the worst case, there were periods when the signal would drop out for a moment (less than a second) every 20 seconds. This could be heard as a low-level pop in the speakers, but this was so short in duration and low in level that it would probably go unnoticed if not for the onscreen display also turning on. This eventually led me to disable the onscreen display, which made control a little less convenient because I could not read the display from my seat. I was forced to get up out of my seat to see the display just to turn the onscreen menu back on. A similar temporary loss of signal had occurred with the DVD player a couple of times, but this happened infrequently enough that it was not a problem. This is not unique to the Classe’ product. I have noticed this occurring with other processors’ auto detection function. The difference is that the response of the onscreen display seemed to exacerbate what is really a minor problem.

The Movies
I started my critical evaluation with ‘Austin Powers: Goldmember” (New Line Home Entertainment), the latest Austin Powers adventure. I am entranced by this series; I could watch these movies over and over. Near the beginning of the movie, Austin Powers says that the movie about him is missing “mojo.” He then proceeds to explain with a dance routine. The video switching on the SSP 30 MK II appeared to introduce no apparent degradation when compared to a direct connection to my video source. This is particularly important in today’s world, where there are many necessary inputs, including games and more that need to be switched, often in the surround processor. The soundtrack was open and detailed, with no added sibilance on the voices.

The next movie in line was “Ballistic: Ecks Vs. Sever” (Warner Home Video). This film turned out to be a nice surprise for me. I had no idea what this movie was about when it started, but I soon realized that it primarily concerned secret agents with guns and bombs. Lucy Liu plays Sever, a disgruntled agent out to avenge the death of her child. She is one badass chick as she kills countless people, blows up cars, buildings, trains and just about everything else possible. I watched this flick by myself, which meant that there was nobody to complain about it being too loud. One thing I noticed with the SSP 30 MK II was that I kept increasing the volume. The dynamic range of this processor was as good as I have heard in any processor, regardless of cost. With the voices at a normal level, the action scenes were loud enough to shock me the way that I am certain the director had intended. In one scene, Antonio Banderas as Ecks lights a cigarette just before heading into the next action sequence. The sound of the cigarette lighter was very believable, while the ensuing fight was powerful and exciting. In fact, this is one example where an apartment dweller may wish for a dynamic compression feature that is absent on the SSP 30 MK II. I watch an incredible number of movies and I love surprises.

I rented “Clockstoppers” (Paramount Home Entertainment) so that my kids could watch a movie with me. I was not expecting much, so when I realized that this movie has a great soundtrack, I was stoked. The SSP 30 MK II did great with the pop-rock soundtrack. It was full of songs like “All the Small Things” by Blink 182 and “Never Let You Go” by Third Eye Blind. Once again, I noticed the volume level increasing with each new song that we heard. In case you have not noticed, I generally consider this to be a good sign of the musicality of a piece of equipment. When something sounds wrong, the volume level usually goes down. The SSP 30 MK II proved easy to listen to with just about everything I played on it.

During another of my kids’ movies, “Stuart Little 2” (Columbia TriStar Home Entertainment), I got a good demonstration of the surround performance. In one scene, Stuart accidentally starts a model airplane and ends up flying it around the room. The SSP 30 MK II did a great job of creating seamless transitions from speaker to speaker as the airplane circled.

The Music
In testing musical playback on this unit, I started out with a multi-channel music disc, the Police’s Every Breath You Take (DTS Entertainment). Track One, “Roxanne,” is probably one of the Police’s most famous songs, partially made popular by the movie “48 Hours” with Eddie Murphy. This multi-channel remix is very well done. The surround channels are used only for ambience, as the mains and center create the stage in front of you. The SSP 30 MK II did a great job creating a huge soundstage that extended well beyond the boundaries of the room. The highs were extended, with only a slight hint of grain. This grain was only noticeable when compared to the best two-channel gear that I have heard. In fact, there was nothing noticeable in the sound that really made me think about the equipment. The images were well defined, with good separation, similar to what I have heard from other similarly-priced processors.

Switching over to two-channel mode, I put in On Every Street by Dire Straits (Warner Brothers). Track Four, “Fade to Black,” has long been one of my favorites. With great equipment, the soundstage in this cut can extend over the horizon. Through the SSP 30 MK II, the stage was huge, although not as big as I have heard with the very best two-channel equipment. It performed extremely well for an A/V product in its price range. Track Eight, “Iron Hand,” serves as a great bass definition test. The combination of a well-timed bass guitar and kick drum can become mashed together and sound like one instrument on some equipment. The SSP 30 MK II did a great job defining both instruments. Another very lush and well-recorded piece that I really enjoy is the CD Folk Singer by Muddy Waters (Mobile Fidelity). Track Three features a solo guitar that can sound like it is in the room with you. With low-end equipment, this recording can be pretty ordinary-sounding. The instruments can sound as though they are coming straight out of the speakers. However, the SSP 30 MK II did a great job of creating a complete soundstage in front of me. It did not paint as complete a picture as I like to hear from my two-channel reference gear, but it did as well as other, more expensive theater processors like the Aragon Stage One.

The Downside
The Classe' SSP 30 MK II has a lot of competition. It is missing some critical features that are available from other processors in this price range, one of these being component video switching. All of the newest and best DVD players, as well as HDTV receivers, provide their best picture through their component video output. If you purchase this product, you will have to purchase additional video switching equipment to achieve optimum picture quality.

For just a little more money, you can find processors that have the THX Ultra 2 certification and all of the set-up features that this offers. Some of the set-up features can be helpful in achieving optimum sound in difficult rooms, but again, I was not disappointed with the sound that I was able to obtain through the Classe’ in my room. Additionally, the remote was very well designed and constructed, although it lacked the illumination feature. This is only a minor downside, as many remotes share a similar deficiency.

The Classe’ SSP 30 MK II is an extremely well-built and beautiful-sounding theater processor. It is representative of a company that clearly takes pride in their craftsmanship. The SSP 30 MK II is one of the smaller packages available and has an abundance of features to support a multi-room home entertainment system. Professional installers will love this product with one exception - they might be forced to add separate video switching systems. I would expect that anyone putting together a system of this caliber would require component video switching. Installers who sell Classe’ rave about the line because of its reliability. At one point in AV history, the only thing that mattered was performance. Not today. Entire high-end audio brands have been ruined because of gear that breaks all the time. Reports from the field and my personal testing suggest that Classe’ is extremely durable.

If you already own a SSP 30 and want to run the extra set of rear channels and the newest in SSP modes, the $500 upgrade is hugely worthwhile. If you are in the market for a new theater processor, the SSP 30 MK II is a solid contender that needs to be auditioned. This is a product with exceptional performance and build quality that exceeds its price bracket, resulting in a specific value that will make the music lover and home theater enthusiast drool.
Manufacturer Classe
Model SSP 30 MKII AV Preamplifier/Processor
Reviewer Ed Masterson

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