Classé SSP-600 AV Preamplifier/Processor 
Home Theater Preamplifiers AV Preamps
Written by Tim Hart   
Sunday, 01 October 2006

Introduction
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.

Technology
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.

Set-up
For this review, I used the CDP-300 player and CA-5200 multi-channel amplifier in conjunction with the SSP-600 to test the synergy of the Classe gear, integrating with my DirecTV HD receiver, my new Sony 60-inch SXRD KDS-60A2000 RPTV and my Xbox 360 game console.

The SSP-600 is extremely flexible in its set-up. It is advisable that you let your dealer do the set-up integration for you, which comes with the price of admission. But I found that I was able to get the SSP-600 up and running with very little help from the well-laid-out manual, which goes through all of the set-up features on the SSP-600, from component assignments to software navigation. The remote contradicts the sophistication of the SSP-600 by its uncluttered array of blue backlit buttons, which are nicely spaced. The shortcomings are only apparent when you compare it to the newer remote of the CDP-300, which has a superior look and feel, as well as some added functionality. I found that once I had the SSP-600 running, I abandoned its remote entirely, relying on the CDP-300’s remote to run the system.

The initial set-up requires you to push a dedicated set-up button on the left of the TFT screen to enter the system set-up menu and start with configuring your speakers, using the provided microphone and cable to automatically set up the speaker level matching. I started out using the remote with the On Screen Display to navigate to the system set-up menu, only to migrate over to the TFT display on the SSP-600 to finish the set-up. The display endeared itself to me immediately. The touch screen makes way more sense than a dumb display and was easy to read and operate.

As suggested, I plugged in the microphone and cable provided with the SSP-600, placed it the location I would be in while listening or watching, hit the auto-calibrate and waited for the routine to do its stuff. The SSP-600 started with low-level pink noise in each channel, increasing incrementally until reaching a desired SPL level of 75 dB. After a few minutes, it came back with an error message which stated speaker levels were too loud. Hmm, not a good start. Apparently My Definitive Super Cube Reference subwoofer was set too loud. Once I toned it down, I ran the routine again and it worked fine. You can use this feature to capture up to four listening positions and assign these positions to each input of your system – i.e., for movies, gaming or music – and name them as such. I named one for my sweet spot, called “critical listening,” used this setting for all of my inputs, and left it at that. I didn’t feel I needed the added positions. But it’s there if you do. I set the speaker distance and size and was ready to move on to the next step.

The system set-up, which is selected by a dedicated button on the left of the display, brings up six menu selections that get you further into the detail set-up of the SSP-600. Here you can configure your inputs and speaker parameters, program the triggers to operate other aspects of your system, in this case, the CA-5200 and the CDP-300. A novel feature is the programmable volume control knob that can set the maximum volume the SSP-600 can reach. This can also program the response of the volume knob on the SSP-600 for default volume level at start-up or for things like very fine attenuation, fast low-range adjustment, setting maximum volume, or to slow down the response when the knob is twisted extremely fast, protecting your speakers from possible damage. The ability to do this is interesting. I tried several different settings and found that I wanted it to respond to the movement of the knob at the end of the experiment. One setting I had it on would allow you to turn up the volume, but the response lagged, fooling me into thinking I hadn’t turned it up enough, only for it to catch up and be way too loud, so I would prescribe caution when setting up this feature.

Inputs can be named and set up to run your favorite processing scheme, which decoding scheme you want for matrix material, either Dolby PLII or DTS Neo:6, the number of speakers you want to use, if you want it to use analog or digital audio inputs, delay for lip syncing and video input type (like standard-definition TV or bypass for HDTV inputs) and setting up control of the front panel display. You may want the display on all of the time (I did), or have it time out, or set the brightness, or you may want it to display the video you are watching. You can likewise use it to cue said video prior to turning on the main display.

The remote offers four “F” keys that can be assigned as hot buttons for functions that you use frequently but which may be imbedded in the menu structure. Each F key has a list of possible functions that it can perform. Pick the function you like, select it, and the F key will perform that task. Now let’s take the SSP-600 for a spin and see how this baby handles.

Music and Movies
Using the CDP-300 as the digital source component, I appreciated the way the TFT screens could compliment one another. I set the SSP-600 to display the output of the CDP-300, whether it is CD track information, DVD-Audio menu information, or DVD movies, while the CDP-300 displayed operation functions of the current disc format it was playing.

The late Layne Staley is one of my favorite vocalists, who had a signature tone to his sound that was unique and unmistakable. His early demise left behind his story in song that was soulful and disturbing in its deep revelation of inner pain and confusion. Staley did a side project called Mad Season (Columbia Records), with Pearl Jam’s ax man Mike McCreedy, the late John Baker Saunders on bass and Barrett Martin on drums. “Wake Up” is a dreamy tune that highlights Staley’s vocal chops in a different, more effortless way than did his stint with Alice In Chains. The SSP-600 allowed the CDP-300 to render the vocal textures with a no-nonsense presentation, sounding uncolored and natural. The inflection of Staley’s sound is relaxed and easygoing, and that was how the SSP-600 let it through. The sound was neither analytical nor fatiguing in any way. “River Of Deceit” was hauntingly beautiful and insightful to Staley’s state of mind. McCreedy’s guitar work on this tune highlighted the upper-frequency presentation of the SSP-600. The transient information of the strings, while not the most resolute that I’ve heard, was intact and detailed, with a nice space around them. Baker’s lazy bass had presence and authority, underscoring Staley’s wordsmith. Willy Porter’s acoustic guitar work was amazing and sounded very good through the SSP-600. The body of the guitar had a convincing presence and depth to its sound. Porter’s vocals were locked dead center and well back of the speakers. Midrange bloom added a nice musical experience and the quietness of the soundstage brought up details that sometimes get buried in the mix of processors.

The quietness of the SSP-600 and its ability to resolve multi-channel recordings was demonstrated with aplomb with Toy Matinee’s DVD-Audio, recorded both in DTS 5.1 and MLP 5.1. The soundstage on “Last Plane Out” was seamless and pinpoint-accurate, highlighting the processor’s decoding prowess. I’ve only heard it better with the Linn Kisto and Unidisk 1.1 combo, which cost quite a bit more than the CDP-300 and SSP-600. The acoustic guitar and textured bass line, while lacking a bit of energy at the lower end of the spectrum, were resolute and articulate. Kevin Gilbert’s vocals were well laid-back in front, with accompanying backing vocals from the side in an enveloping, detailed sound. “Things She Said” further detailed the decoding ability of the SSP-600 with nice layering and openness to the music.

The SSP-600 accomplished video switching and pass-through very well, and did an excellent job of leaving the image intact. Using my new Sony KDS-60A2000 SXRD RPTV as the display, I ran HD through the SSP-600 on my DirecTV HD receiver, using Cardas component video cables. The results were that nothing noticeable changed, which is a very good thing. All images, whether football or nature shows on HDNet, looked the same through the SSP-600, as though straight out of the HD receiver into the TV. There were no noticeable noise artifacts or idealization, and color rendition, color separation and edge definition all appeared none the worse for wear.

Movie soundtracks are the strong point of the SSP-600. Underworld: Evolution (Columbia/TriStar Home Entertainment) offered the opportunity to experience the SSP-600 under the soundtrack onslaught of the opening chapter, where the vampires are trying to capture the leader of the Lycan werewolves. The LFE decoding detailed the thunder with visceral impact, while the higher-frequency information made it seem that it was coming from all directions in a very convincing way. Lycan swords striking the armor of the vampires sounded at times like it were in the room and eye-blinking in its intensity at loud volumes. Later, when the villain tracked down the heroine, played by Kate Beckinsale, and the ensuing truck escape scene has the flying vampire trying to push the truck with Beckinsale inside into the mountain, with screeching metal and crashing rocks convincing in their intensity.

The Downside
Unless you are savvy about configuring AV gear, it will be problematic for you to add a component or change system parameters. Have your dealer number or tech support (they are very helpful and knowledgeable) handy. When I installed DirecTV, I had a problem getting the video to display. After several attempts of pushing the correct video input for the DirecTV receiver, I finally got it to work, never really understanding why it did eventually work.

The SSP-600 does not provide any video scaling or upconversion, nor DVI or HDMI video switching. If you have a digital display, you will have to run the video signal outside of the SSP-600. Unfortunately, the remote is pretty much limited to Classe products, and therefore not programmable for other components outside Classe product lines. You could use a third-party remote to program your system so that your display will use the DVI or HDMI input. It has to accept the HDMI output from, say, the CDP-300. Otherwise, you have to manually set each input on the component, outside of the video switching of the SSP-600, to make them work.

Conclusion
If you have the means and won’t settle for anything less than superior performance with beautiful aesthetics, the SSP-600 provides both with remarkable audio capability and high bandwidth analog video switching for your system. The TFT screen has raised the interface bar for ease of use and visual elegance. No other system has let me be free of turning on my main display in order to make adjustments or set-up changes like the SSP-600. Because it is software-driven, improvements to the SSP-600’s operability can be made simply by upgrading the software, leaving costly hardware upgrades thankfully out of the picture for the next couple of years. Flexibility and gorgeous sonics stand out on this piece, along with enough inputs to cover most, if not all, home situations. Although the SSP-600 lacks HDMI video connections, it offers a flexible array of component, S-Video and composite video connects that have no noticeable affect on the video signal. Audio for CD and DVD-Audio, as well as DVD-Video, scores high marks. With the SSP-600, you can feel like you have arrived at the top of the heap. It is, in all ways, beautiful.
Manufacturer Classe
Model SSP-600 AV Preamplifier/Processor
Reviewer Tim Hart





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