Classé SSP-60 Preamplifier-Processor Page 2

I'm in the Mode for Love
The Classé SSP-60 was only my second exposure to a processor with Dolby Pro Logic II, and I have to admit that, all the hype about discrete multichannel sound aside, I was more amazed at PLII's ability to take the 2-channel analog output from a DVD player and turn the Quidditch game in Harry Potter and the The Chamber of Secrets (Warner Bros. 23592) into a multichannel extravaganza. The Bludger and Golden Snitch hurled and whirled by, overhead, underfoot, even Diagon Alley. When originally implemented, Pro Logic was never capable of anything approaching this amount of channel separation, and the surround signal was strictly monophonic, with a purposely restricted frequency range in the rear channel. Now, even standard 2-channel programs from satellite became more exciting when I remembered to switch to PLII or DTS Neo:6.

As for differences between PLII or DTS Neo:6, they were subtle at best. Each algorithm offers Movie and Music modes, and although the choice with music seems obvious, with movies or TV shows I sometimes preferred the Music mode for a wider view of the soundscape. There are no right or wrong answers here, just a world of fun where none existed before.

The SSP-60 is certified THX Ultra2 and offers Dolby Digital EX as well as discrete and matrix DTS ES to get the most out of those extra channels, if you have them. I didn't, but there was still plenty going on in the rear channels. Other surround modes are available as well, including the very unsurrounding but quite useful Mono and Stereo modes.

I have one complaint: A true analog bypass for analog audio, such as from a phono preamplifier or a favorite old CD player, is available only with the balanced or multichannel inputs. As most folks don't have XLR-equipped phono stages or CD players, it would have been nice had Classé made other arrangements. As it stands, all analog inputs, except those mentioned, are converted to digital and back before you can hear them. The fact that the SSP-60 did an excellent job of this is good news, but not the ultimate solution.

Music and the Movies
The SSP-60 projected a pleasingly natural degree of resolution at all times. The overall feeling was very relaxed and unforced. This is not to say that musical pace was not driven rhythmically or softened tonally. The Classé's dynamics offered that elusive "jump factor" that can make reproduced sound thrillingly reminiscent of a live event. The timbre in general was not so much warm as seductively inviting.

Too often, turning up the volume when watching a movie in order to make the experience more powerful tends only to make the experience more noticeable. When I turned up the SSP-60's gain, it seemed to increase the dynamic range and the excitement, but not at the expense of purity. A new and noteworthy SACD of Stravinsky works, with Neeme Jrvi conducting the Cincinnati Symphony (Telarc SACD-60587), illustrated the point. During the "Infernal Dance of King Katschei," from the Firebird Suite, details in the music weren't buried in the building cacophony of strings, horns, and percussion; the feeling of compression arrived only when my small Polk LSi9 speakers reached their natural limit.

At the very end of this review, I replaced the Polks with a new speaker system from Dynaudio: the Contour S5.4 L/Rs, S1.4 rears, and SC center. Although I'd had no previous experience with these speakers, even at hi-fi shows, the large, floorstanding Contour 5.4 didn't look as it would have any of the dynamic limitations exhibited by the bargain-priced but stellar-performing Polk LSi9.

It was a good move—the dynamic range opened up considerably. Listening to the Stravinsky again, there was a huge increase in both micro- and macrodynamics. Smaller details, such as the almost imperceptible vibrato of the massed strings in the "Berceuse," blossomed. The breaths of the woodwinds were warm yet harmonically extended. Finally, Telarc's trademark deep, thundering bass drum was relayed through the SSP-60 with unrestricted abandon and power. Granted, the Dynaudios were proving their worth—but if the Classé couldn't have passed on the details, I wouldn't have heard them.

I watched many DVDs with the Classé, including Standing in the Shadow of Motown (Artisan 13780), which challenged the SSP-60 with its juxtapositions of intimate dialog and concert footage. This film's production values are high, and the uncompressed dynamics of the live performances via the DTS soundtrack sounded wonderful through the Classé. The movie inspired me to track down some of Joan Osborne's latest recordings. On Righteous Love (CD, Interscope 0694907372), "Love is Alive" relies on a highly defined rhythmic structure to propel the song from toe-tapping to hip-swinging. The Classé got the timing cues right, even as the recording walks the line between pristine and dirty.

Running Harry Potter around the room again on his Nimbus 2000 broomstick, the SSP-60 proved magical on its own. More than any receiver I've heard at shows and retailers, the Classé processor, along with the finest competition, excelled at channel separation. With the dozens of movies I watched, the SSP-60 projected a sparklingly detailed soundscape describing a holistic, not a homogenized, panorama.

The decision to go with a separate surround processor, rather than springing for one of the many competent receivers now available, is the defining moment when an enthusiast turns into a 'phile. There are differences, electrical and philosophical, in how your audio gets treated, and the Classé is an excellent example of what the high end ought to be. On the other hand, the few bugs I encountered seem to be the norm for how the high-end often is.

Still, if you want to suspend disbelief and take part in the movie experience rather than just look at it, you might be ready for a standalone processor such as the Classé, funds permitting. At five large, the SSP-60 is only a bargain only when measured against some of the equally worthy competitors in its (forgive the pun) class.