Classé SSP-300 Surround-Sound Preamp-Processor

I have to admit that what first attracted me to the SSP-300 was not the fact that it's made by Classé, one of the top names in high-end audio, nor its sleek, elegant appearance, wide range of features, or even its THX Ultra II certification. No, it was that most superficial of features: the front panel LCD display!

The first surround preamp-processor with an LCD display that I saw was at the Las Vegas Consumer Electronics Show in 1998. Tom Norton and I were checking out the new products from Mark Levinson (then Madrigal, now part of the Harman Specialty Group), and after we had a look at the equipment and picked up the press releases, we were ushered into a small room adjoining the main product demonstration room and told in hushed tones that we were about to see something we could not write about yet. It was the prototype of what was to be the Mark Levinson No. 40 preamp-processor, and it had a front panel LCD screen on which there was a movie playing. The screen was small and the picture was not all that sharp, but it was showing a movie! Is that cool or what? The projected price of the No. 40 was $30,000, and I remember joking afterwards that having spent so much money on the processor, some consumers would have no money left for a video display, so they'd have to watch movies on the processor's screen!

As it turns out, among the people who were then with Mark Levinson was Dave Nauber, now Classé's Vice President for Brand Development. He says that the one thing that always bothered him about that Mark Levinson processor was that the LCD display was only to display a source; it had no menu/control functions. (By the time it came to market, as the No.40, it did.) When he joined Classé he made sure that their surround pre-pros would not only have an LCD display, but that it would be touch sensitive, allowing control of functionality as well as displaying program material. There are now other pre-pros with LCD displays on the market, but Classé's are the only ones in which the displays also function as a touchscreen control center.

Description and Design
The SSP-300 ($4,500) is one of two current surround preamp-processors from Classé; the more expensive SSP-600 ($6,500) has the same digital audio and video processing circuits, the same single-ended audio paths, and the same features, but differs from the SSP-300 in having balanced as well as single-ended audio inputs and outputs. It also has an additional analog circuit board and power supply. I tend to prefer products that are at the "sweet spot" in the line rather than the cutting edge, and I have found no great benefit to balanced connections, so I requested the SSP-300 rather than the SSP-600 for review.

The SSP-300 has Classé's distinctive industrial design, with rounded front corners and a brushed aluminum finish. The front panel is dominated by the touchscreen LCD panel and a giant volume control. Classé recognizes the importance of vibration control; the chassis is extremely solid, made of both steel and aluminum, and the feet incorporate compliant NavcomTM material. The overall appearance is a kind of understated elegance, and the quality of the fit and finish is first-rate. The back panel has a wide array of inputs and outputs, including 7.1-channel analog inputs/outputs, AES/EBU as well as coaxial and TosLink digital inputs, various control ports, including DC trigger, Classé CAN bus control ports (future control and communication applications), and RS-232 (for updating with future software-based features and adding external control accessories such as large touchscreen remotes) . One input jack present on the SSP-300 that you don't see on too many surround preamp-processors is a microphone input. No, it's not for Karaoke, but part of an autocalibration system for which a microphone is supplied.

The remote control is heavy, finished in brushed aluminum, with a refreshingly uncluttered array of buttons, including one that turns on backlighting for the buttons. These are logically laid out, with one exception: both the input selection up/down and volume up/down buttons are triangular, almost the same size, and quite close to each other, so if you're doing it by feel it's easy to press one of the input buttons when what you wanted to do is change the volume. I like volume buttons to be the largest on the remote control and clearly separated from all others. There are four Function buttons that can be programmed to control aspects of the SSP-300's functioning not covered by other buttons on the remote (eg, call up a specific sub-menu).

The SSP-300's surround processing functions include Dolby Digital EX, Dolby Pro Logic II (but not the latest Pro Logic IIx), DTS-ES Matrix, Discrete, and Neo:6, as well as THX Ultra II Music and Ultra II Movie. All digital processing functions are handled by a 32-bit Motorola 56367 DSP, with A/D conversion by AKM AK4524s and D/A conversion by AKM 4394s, all converters operating at 24-bit/96kHz. Classé points out that, more than the choice of DSP, A/D and D/A chips, the sonic performance of a product like the SSP-300 depends on many small refinements—use of a slightly higher or lower voltage in a certain part of the circuit, selecting one of a half dozen 0.1% film resistors of the same value, all of with the same measured performance—validated by extensive listening tests.

On the video side, the SSP-300 boasts wide-bandwidth switching (150MHz, 100dB isolation from crosstalk) using Analog Devices AD8185s. The SSP-300 also features video transcoding, so that all standard definition video sources (composite, S-video, or component) are processed by 10-bit video decoders/encoders to produce outputs in all formats.

After I received the SSP-300, but before I had a chance to hook it up, Classé's Dave Nauber made a visit to help with the setup and go over the various functions. This is equivalent to having a dealer set up the equipment, so it's not a matter of a reviewer getting special treatment not available to the consumer, but I'm ambivalent about the practice. Yes, having someone highly experienced with the equipment do the hookup can save time and potential aggravation, but it also leaves the user less knowledgeable and less able to make later changes that may be necessary. Somehow the Owner's Manual seems even more obscure if you didn't set up the equipment yourself. More than once, I was puzzled by some aspect of the SSP-300's functionality and had trouble finding the relevant information. The Owner's Manual is actually pretty good as such things go, but as with many other documents of this sort, I found the sequencing of topics illogical at times. For example, information on input setup--which is required to specify which audio (eg, coax digital, AES/EBU, TosLink) and video (composite, S-Video, component) sources are associated with each input, and must be in place before using these sources—is on p.45, near the end of the Owner's Manual.