Classé SSP-300 Surround-Sound Preamp-Processor Page 2
The SSP-300's operational logic was not entirely free of quirks. If I touched Volume Up or Volume Down while Mute was engaged, the system volume reset to zero. This has been changed in a recent update. You can now tell the unit to either mute completely, go to a specific level (say, 40dB) or mute by a specific amount, such as 20dB. If you then change the volume while muted, the volume will increase or decrease from this chosen muted level, not from zero.
The SSP-300's Mute button on the remote is also located between the Volume Up and Volume Down buttons, and I often found myself accidentally pressing one of the latter, which resulted in having to turn up the volume from zero.
The most convenient aspect of the SSP-300's setup is the Autocalibration feature, employed through the use of the included microphone. Before doing Autocalibration, you have to specify the number and type of speakers (small or large) and whether a subwoofer is used. The setting "sub enabled" sends bass information to the sub, and the "e-bass" setting sends bass to both the sub and the large speakers in the system. You are then ready to do the Autocalibration. First, you plug the microphone cable into the "mic" input on the back panel, hold the microphone in the seating area, and press the button for Auto-Levels. This circulates the appropriate signal to all the speakers (including the subwoofer) and sets the volume for each. Once that's done, you press the button for Auto-Delays, which sends a different set of calibration signals to each speaker and sets the delays. Manual calibration of levels and setting of distances is possible, but Autocalibration works like a charm, so I wouldn't bother unless there is some obvious problem with the sound balance set up by Autocalibration. The SSP-300 also allows setting up to four different "Positions," calibrating the speaker levels and delays with the microphone in different positions, optimizing the sound for seating in each of those microphone positions. With some DVD sources, I preferred the sound with the surrounds (and sometimes the subwoofer) turned up a bit, but I find that to be the case after manual calibration as well.
Listening and Watching
The strength of high-end audio manufacturers like Classé lies in sound quality. And the SSP-300 certainly delivered on this promise. Used as a two-channel preamp—the toughest test for a device that has many other functions—the SSP-300 was smooth, detailed, and virtually free of the electronic "haze" that characterizes lesser products. About ten years ago, I had loan of a Classé preamp for a few weeks, and while memory spanning that many years is perhaps not the most reliable, I remember it as having much the same sort of sound.
Using the multichannel inputs in bypass mode avoids all digital processing and has the SSP-300 functioning essentially as a multichannel analog line-stage, which made transparency of the SSP-300's line stage performance even more evident. Normally, I listen to music mostly in two-channel—I'm fortunate in having a separate high-end two-channel system in an another room—but listening to multichannel SACDs and DVD-As in the system with the Classé equipment made me think that I really should listen more to recordings in these formats. I was particularly impressed by DVD-A releases on the AIX label (www.aixrecords.com), which I've had around for a while but had given only a cursory listen. The sound was really quite spectacular, with clarity and dynamic punch to spare, and a very convincing spatial presentation. In view of the advent of Blu-ray and/or HD DVD the future of both SACD and DVD-A is at best uncertain (SACD's DSD coding is not currently spec'd for HD DVD or Blu-ray, but DVD-A's MLP lossless coding is officially spec'd for both HD DVD and Blu-ray- Ed.), but the SSP-300's excellent 7.1-channel inputs/outputs ensures that it's ready to handle whatever comes down the pike in the way of audio from these new formats.
Although the SSP-300's 7.1-channel analog bypass mode is an important function, I venture to say that the major use of the SSP-300 is likely to be in watching movies on DVD, satellite, and cable, which involves conversion of the digital audio signals from these sources and presenting them in multichannel sound (Dolby Digital and DTS in all variants). You then add in THX (which, as most UAV readers know, is both a certification standard and a set of sonic post-processing options) and you have the makings of a very complicated system, in which the various DSP chips are only a starting point for potentially good sound.
And good—no, make that outstandingly good--multichannel movie sound is exactly what the SSP-300 delivers. Whether the source was Dolby or DTS, the sound had much the same clarity as the SSP-300's analog line stage, but with the surround-sound effects added. There was a convincing sense of envelopment, with no sensation of the sound jumping from front to back (and vice verse) that used to characterize surround sound systems. There was a lot of detail, with background sounds on familiar movies (like the lab scene in Dark City) clearly revealed. The tonal balance was perhaps very slightly on the bright side, at least when combined with my Dunlavy SC-I speakers, which are not particularly forgiving in the treble range (and, of course, the soundtracks of many movies are known to be overbright themselves.) The SSP-300/CA-5200 was also very quiet, so that with the system turned on but nothing playing there was no hum, buzz, or hiss evident even if I put my ear to within a few inches of any of the speakers.
For the standard 5.1-channel soundtracks, the SSP-300 offers straight Dolby Digital decoding or added THX enhancements. The SSP-300 has no treble control or high frequency filter, so if the soundtrack is overbright, THX post-processing is the only way to deal with this. THX has Re-EQ, which does the job well when it's needed. However, one of the SSP-300's operational quirks is how it handles THX engagement/disengagement. If THX is not already set up in the Mode menu, it can be engaged by pressing the THX button on the remote. That's fine, but pressing the THX button does not disengage THX; for that you have to go back to the Mode menu and select Multichannel without THX.
I generally preferred the sound with THX enhancement, but at times the top sounded too rolled-off, and then I wanted to change back to plain-vanilla Dolby Digital. (Some other pre-pros, like the Anthem AVM-20, allow selective engagement of the Re-EQ function within THX.)
Classé has not neglected the SSP-300's video capability, adding video format "transcoding" (conversion from composite and s-video to component video, or the other way around) to wide-bandwidth switching. This is certainly to be applauded, and according to the non-technical tests I performed the video functions worked very well indeed. Comparing the image routed directly from the Marantz DV-8400 player to the Marantz VP-12S3 projector vs. routing the signal through the SSP-300, I could see no degradation of picture quality. To preserve optimal signal quality of component signals, no OSD is available in this format. (This is common practice among processor/preamp manufacturers, but DVD players have OSD in all formats, presumably without signal degradation, so I wonder why it can't be done with pre-pros.)
However, the SSP-300 is just a step behind current video interface technology: all new high-end DVD players, projectors and TV sets come with DVI or HDMI connections, generally considered to be superior to the analog component video connections. I use DVI for the DVD-player connection and RGB for satellite HDTV, with S-Video used only for the VCR. This means that in order to get the OSD of the SSP-300's settings, in addition to the DVI and RGB cables going from each source to the projector, I had to run an S-Video cable from each source to the SSP-300, and then from the SSP-300 to the projector, switching the projector input to S-Video. Then, to get optimal video quality, I had to remember to switch the projector's input from S-Video back to DVI or RGB. (Or you simply run one composite or S-Video cable from the SSP-300 to the projector, switching to and from that input on the projector only for the brief moments when you want or need the SSP-300's OSD instead of the front panel LCD screen to make an adjustment. -Ed.)
(The ideal combination if HDMI switching with video conversion was not possible when the SP-300 was designed. Classé will offer a special version of the new CDP-300 DVD player called the CDP-300V which will not only provide HDMI switching, but also convert analog video to digital video and provide de-interlacing and scaling up to 1080p.—Ed.)
And then there's that LCD: it functions as a touchscreen control center, but it can also be used in "video preview" mode, displaying video sources as long as they're not progressive scan DVD or HDTV. The screen size is 3.78" diagonal, with a resolution of 320x240. While the display itself, like the one featured in the Mark Levinson prototype of years ago, is not particularly sharp and the contrast is on the low side (my Sony Clié PDA screen has higher resolution and contrast), visitors were invariably impressed with it, and I found it handy to view the video information that's part of DVD-As, and which otherwise would require turning on the projector even if I just wanted to listen to music. And when you consider that the LCD is also a touch-sensitive control, it becomes obvious that this feature, which some might consider a gimmick, is actually quite useful.
Although not without some operational idiosyncrasies, the Classé SSP-300 offers relatively easy set up and a great deal of flexibility in use, combined with sound quality that fully lives up to its high-end pedigree. The touchscreen LCD display offers not only the obvious "cool" factor, but turns out to be a surprisingly useful feature. At $4500, the SSP-300 is certainly not cheap, but it's also not prohibitively expensive, and might be considered something of a bargain compared to its stablemate, the $6500 SSP-600, which has substantially the same circuitry, only with balanced connections. I understand there's an even higher-end model (SSP-900) in the works, with all new digital and analog circuitry, HDMI inputs/outputs, video scaling, etc., with a projected price between $15,000 and $20,000. While I have no doubt that it will be a superb product, I suspect that a major improvement in sound quality over the SSP-300 will not be among its characteristics.
Highs and Lows
• Superb sound for both music and movies
• Effective and flexible autocalibration
• Excellent and useful touchscreen display
• No DVI or HDMI switching
• Owner's manual could be better organized
• Odd mute control operation