Classe SSP-800 AV Preamp Review
By: Jerry Del Colliano
The Classe SSP-800 is one of the most highly anticipated specialty audio/video products to come to market in the last two or three years. With the advent of HDMI, many specialty AV manufacturers known for audiophile-grade products have been slow to market with the kind of AV preamp that will sooth your audiophile music playback requirements, while also reliably managing your HDMI and other video inputs in ways that all high-definition home theaters need today. For those of us who want to stay cutting edge with the performance of our home theater systems, the cost and frustrations have been astronomically high.
Priced at $8,000, the Classe SSP-800 competes directly with the likes of the Anthem D2V ($7,000) and the just-released Krell 1200 preamp ($10,000 to $12,000) and packs just as much audiophile gravitas if not more. The unit is nothing short of stunning in terms of industrial design with its curved, softly brushed silver lines and glowing touch screen video control. The three rack-high SSP-800 looks as much at home in a modern art gallery as it does in an equipment rack, but then again, when was the last time your Warhol "Mao" tried to decode DTS Master Audio?
The Classe SSP-800 has a bevy of inputs for today's modern home theater system, including most importantly four HDMI 1.3b inputs, two component video ins (two out), two S-video and composite inputs and more. The Classe SSP-800 can decode all of today's best surround sound codex like Dolby TrueHD and DTS Master Audio in HD 7.1 surround sound via PCM output from your Blu-ray player on HDMI. The AV preamp also can decode all of the legacy surround sound modes, such as DTS, DTS ES, Dolby Digital, etc. For the HD formats like Dolby TrueHD and DTS Master Audio, you must connect your Blu-ray player using the PCM output. There is a free DSP upgrade coming in the next few weeks that will allow the SSP-800 to decode these features via Bitstream. The Classe SSP-800 has a five-band parametric EQ for up to 10 channels of audio, which is only one of the tricks the SSP-800 can do with its Texas Instruments 64-bit chipset. One of the reasons an AV preamp on the high end costs what it does is because of the processors. AV preamps are much more computers than analog devices today. The cheaper units skimp on processing power, leaving your preamp hungry for more bandwidth. The Classe SSP-800 doesn't skimp on anything, which is only right for an $8,000 preamp, allowing you to fully rock a 7.1 surround sound mix from a Blu-ray disc without worrying about running out of processor power or bandwidth, which is the secret killer of sound quality. While there are cheaper alternatives to the SSP-800, they just don't pack the audiophile soul that music enthusiasts love. The Classe SSP-800, as James Brown might have said, "Has soul and it's super-bad."
Set-up of any high-end home theater system with an AV preamp has its challenges and the Classe SSP-800 was no different for me and the staff of Simply Home Entertainment. Plugging in all the HDMI sources and having them all work was just too much to ask for. There were firmware issues with my DVDO VP50 Pro video processor. Some of the older HDMI inputs, like the HD DVD player, were giving us issues. Getting the SSP-800 to automatically default to the "stereo+sub" speaker option required me to have the Crestron programmer require the system to specify this. I wouldn't blame the Classe for any of these issues, but I won't mislead you, either - no AV preamp currently in the high end-market today is plug and play-simple via HDMI. Issues related to HDMI and the HDCP copy protection, which likely can't be blamed on the SSP-800 directly, makes set-up somewhat touch and go even for the best, most experienced installers. Fear not as, thanks to the use of a little labor, a few hard restarts and some programming so my Crestron does what I need it to do, we got the system jumping through hoops. It did this far better than any preamp I have ever owned and I have owned a lot of AV preamps in my day, including Meridian's 861, the Mark Levinson No. 40 and even the Classe SSP-600, which is the predecessor to this unit in my system.
It didn't take 30 minutes after installation before I could hear that the Classe SSP-800 sonically kicks the snot out of its predecessor, the SSP-600. Without my Meyer Sound equalizers engaged to tune the room to the system specifically for my Revel Salon II speakers, you could hear the Classe SSP-800 was much more like an audiophile preamp for movies than some feature-queen preamp without any substance. Acoustician Bob Hodas spun up a one-off master of "Hella Good" by pop superstar Gwen Stefani as one of his reference tracks, mixed by one of his best record producer clients. Using my Classe CDP-502 reference disc player as a source into the Classe SSP-800 and with the "stereo+sub" speaker configuration engaged, I could quickly hear a fully coherent front image. The mix sounded ultra-tight and together. On the deep bass hits, you could hear the synth bass hit low and extend to depths that most audiophile systems never experience, but with total control and no bloat whatsoever.
On "You'd Be So Nice To Come Home To" from the 24-bit 192 kHz DVD-Audio disc (Japanese import), the level of micro-detail that you can hear through the Classe SSP-800 rivals that of the best audiophile two-channel preamps, my former Meridian 861 and some of the $30,000 AV preamps on the market today. You can hear cymbal high-frequency decay with a lively resolution that shows off the true potential of an audiophile system. On "Imagination," the walking bassline is taut and controlled, while not as bombastic as the Bob Hodas reference track played earlier (I highly doubt they were using Roland 808 synths back in 1957), letting you hear and in many ways feel the texture of the bass. This level of musical suability is simply not evident on lesser AV preamps and even in many lesser audiophile stereo preamps.
On "Show Me How to Live" from Audioslave's 20-bit stereo DualDisc (Epic Records - DualDisc), I was just floored by what the SSP-800 could do sonically. While this hard-to-get disc is one of my all-time favorite demo discs (check eBay and pay a premium for it if you like hard rock and need a good new demo) for its incredibly deep, grumbly bass guitar and drum intro, coupled with Chris Cornell's brooding vocals, my criticism is that in every system I have ever owned, including the one with the Classe SSP-600, the sound stage collapsed at the chorus. With Kevin Voecks from Revel and Bob Hodas in the room with me, we all heard at easily 105 dB how the Classe SSP-800 held up under pressure. Unlike every other preamp I have ever tested, the Classe SSP-800 reproduced the chorus of "Show Me How to Live" with space and control. The soundstage never collapsed, as I have complained about in the past. While I blamed the mix for this audio malady, I was wrong - it was the other AV preamps. With the Classe SSP-800 in the loop, the problem was solved. The value proposition of this preamp was becoming more and more clear.
On traditional compact disc material, the SSP-800 showed more of its signature control and colorless sound. On Barry White's "There It Is," from his The Icon is Love record (A&M Records Compact Disc), you can hear the programming and high-frequency excitement without any hash or annoyance. The track sounded crystal clear and open. Compared to the Meridian 861, the Classe SSP-800 might not sound as liquid, but it was quite resolute and applied no sonic flavor of its own.
Moving to movies, the Classe SSP-800 is able to rock the best in Dolby TrueHD and DTS Master audio. While The Dark Knight (Warner Brothers Blu-ray) is becoming somewhat of a demo material cliché, the surround effects in my 7.1 system during the opening scene were far less effects-like, offering more detail and clarity. Where traditional DTS and Dolby Digital especially fail is during high-impact audio events like car crashes and explosions with high dynamics, lots of speakers involved and lots of action. The new format, especially when using the Classe SSP-800, sounded notably better. Critics say "effects are effects," but I say these critics sound like people who don't have DTS Master Audio and Dolby TrueHD in their systems. HDMI comes with its issues and the new HD audio formats are your reward for making it all work right. Trust me, you will be blown away.
On April Showers (Pure +Motive - Apple iTunes), the movie directed by HomeTheaterReview.com managing editor Andrew Robinson, I was shocked to hear how good a simple stereo soundtrack could sound via Apple TV. Because this is standard-definition 480i film, available by download, most people don't expect much from the audio. I have heard the native audio files and the details sounded absolutely great running into the DACs of the Classe SSP-800 AV preamp. During the school shooting scene, you could hear the emergency bell ringing with an attack and sheen that sounded truly realistic and emotionally jarring. The "*****" and "clink" sounds of a few dozen kids knocking down a fence with a picnic bench had the type of depth you would expect to hear from a higher-resolution Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound mix. Switching around to some of the matrix surround modes provided interesting faux surround. However, I often reverted back to stereo + sub mode for some reason. The Dominic Rausch soundtrack sounded musically lush. While it's not John Williams, it's convincing and emotional and, from a standard-definition downloaded movie, that ain't half bad.
I fired up the depth charge scene from U-571 (Universal D-VHS) on D-VHS. Yes, I still have a D-VHS player, despite the fact that many of my tapes like Moulin Rouge are worn out and getting distorted in some spots. Nothing tests the bass power of a system better than this track and, while it doesn't pack DTS Master Audio and or Dolby TrueHD, I have never heard more detail and power from my system than with the Classe SSP-800 in the rig. The creaking of pipes seemed to be more three-dimensional. The "plunk" sound of the depth charges being dropped into the water had authority. The explosions absolutely rocked the upper level of my stadium seating in ways I have never heard before. It started to dawn on me that this preamp is good. Really good.
You'll notice that I didn't mention video processing. That's because the Classe SSP-800 doesn't do video processing. For some, this could be a killer. However, if you think about it, the Classe SSP-800 is for systems using mostly HD sources like mine (and likely yours). Most of the legacy standard-definition sources you have are successfully video-up-converted in, say, a Blu-ray or DVD-Video player. In my case, my video passes through the Classe SSP-800 to a DVDO VP50 Pro (make sure you have the latest firmware installed in the DVDO) and then to my JVC three-chip D-ILA projector, which covers my bases. Other AV preamps for less money offer video processing. That's a fact I can't deny. I am just questioning if you really need it in today's modern high-definition home theater. I don't.
The 10-band EQ isn't as sophisticated as some of the other room correction systems in other competing AV preamps. In fact, in the lower-end AV preamps on the market, many make it easier to use room correction. For my system, I simply didn't get to play with the 10-band EQ that much, but it's nice that it is there. I would leave the audio calibration to a professional, who shouldn't be hard to find, as Classe is only sold at A-list AV dealers and installers. They will know what to do to squeeze the last few drops of audio performance from your system in your room. That's what you pay the premium price for, as this preamp isn't going to be a DIY install for 80-plus percent of its owners, despite the fact that the Classe SSP-800 is far easier for the end user to operate in terms of menus, set-up and onscreen access than the highly popular Anthem D2V.
The Classe SSP-800 looks great in the rack, but the sucker can run hot, even with lots of fan cooling. It's not the end of the world, but it's worth mentioning. I didn't spend much time with the remote, as I had the SSP-800 programmed into my Crestron system right from the get-go. I am not sure everyone will go to the extreme of using a Crestron touch panel. However, most people likely will use a beefier system control than the included remote. Classe could have provided a more full-service remote, but that might have added significantly to the cost of the unit, which is specifically designed for a certain price point.
The Classe SSP 800 is an easy to use, intuitive, audiophile-grade AV preamp that, while not "cheap" by any standard, is a great value when considering the short list of audiophile-grade AV preamps on the market today. Sonics is where the SSP-800 shines the most. My system has never sounded better than with the Classe SSP-800 in the loop. The operation is now rock-solid after we upgraded firmware, changed out a few cables and dealt with a number of non-Classe issues during installation. The video pass-through is flawless, without any signs of coloration. The internal DACs are excellent, with an overall sonic performance that is worth every penny of $8,000. You can get more features for less money in other AV preamps. What you can't get is this level of industrial design, system control and overall sound. The Classe SSP-800 is an audiophile winner, with home theater skills that can keep up with the most sophisticated AV systems anywhere in the world. Consider the Classe SSP-800 AV preamp a true breakthrough high-end AV product. I consider it a keeper, as I am going to write the check and make the Classe SSP-800 my new reference AV preamp.