Big-ticket controllers project power. They bristle with command and control modules while deploying the most advanced audio decoding, video switching, and transcoding enhancements.
They are a virtual launching pad—the A/V counterparts to a modern aircraft carrier. And that kind of strength can be intimidating, even to those who are well versed in the ins and outs of controller-speak. However, you shouldn’t have to attend a home-theater boot camp in order to cue up a DVD of Top Gun. The gear shouldn’t be barking the orders. Rather, the system should be taking orders—your orders, no-questions- asked. The Classé Audio SSP- 600 controller is a first-rate high-performance hunk of hardware. But the real story is not its brainpower but rather a software-filled heart that places you in charge.
The moment I laid eyes on the early prototypes of Classé Audio’s Delta electronics it was a case of lust at first sight. Delta’s curvilinear aluminum front panel was blissfully devoid of lumpy knobs, hidden drop-down panels, or button bedlam. In their stead was a large LCD touchscreen elegantly framed in black. As in the case of the CP-500 linestage preamplifier and CA-2200 power amplifier (reviewed in Issue 154 of The Absolute Sound) I was smitten and looked forward to the opportunity to put on my home-theater hat and evaluate Delta’s controller, the SSP-600, and its CA-5200 multichannel amplifier.
The SSP-600 is a 7.1-channel THX Ultra2 Certified controller. Like its smaller sibling, the SSP-300, the SSP-600 is awash with features. The two also share the same decoding, and audio-and-video circuitry and signal paths. The difference is that the brawny SSP-600 includes a balanced audio signal path with 7.1-channel outputs, and a balanced two-channel preamp input stage (with pure analog bypass) for a CD source component. Digital signal processing (DSP) is courtesy of Motorola 32-bit processors, while eight 24-bit Delta/Sigma DACs convert digital to analog. Video transcoding digitizes any standarddefinition (480i) video signal via 10- bit A-to-D converters, and thus reduces a potential logjam of wires to a single set at the video output. Operating in a separate bypass mode, progressive-video and high-definition signals are steered clear of digital processing or on-screen overlays. HDMI I/Os are not offered in the SSP-600, but Classé’s new CDP-300V DVD player will feature HDMI sourceswitching and will convert analog video to digital at any resolution your display can handle up to 1080p.
All digital control circuitry is isolated on separate boards from the audio signals—and that includes that of the heavily shielded LCD touchscreen display, which Classé reports produces far less noise than the dotmatrix displays it has used in the past. Construction quality resembles that of a limited-production Swiss chronometer—even the special vibration- resistant footers made from Navcom LimbSaver (a popular damping material used in everything from cue sticks to crossbows) are gracefully hidden within aluminum housings. Currently, auto-calibration is the feature du jour—hotter than the caller list from Paris Hilton’s BlackBerry. Classé’s auto-calibration feature is straightforward. With the included microphone and signal generator, the SSP-600 calculates distance and delays and sets speaker levels to the 75dB standard. Consistent with the personalization theme are four POSITION options that allow for speaker setups based on listening position preferences— for example, one mode for movies, another for multichannel music, etc. Bass management offers crossover settings between 40Hz and 140Hz in 10Hz increments. The EBASS setting sends LFE/deep bass information to all speakers selected as LARGE in the speaker configuration.
Out of the box, the touchscreen’s default menus, submenus, and system settings create the dizzying effect of descending into an Idaho silver mine. However, the menu system of the SSP-600 can be personalized in a way that few controllers can. For example there are two PROFILE buttons that, in concert with six COMMAND buttons, create individual “home pages” of sources, modes, and functions.
Additionally, the SSP- 600 provides four programmable function keys that, like macros, permit direct access to commonly used modes or functions that would otherwise be relegated to a submenu because of touchscreen size and legibility issues. This is very convenient for items like center or subwoofer trim settings. Even the volume control is software controlled and can be completely reprogrammed for responsiveness based on rotational speed at select volume levels.
The TFT touchscreen allows you to preview standard-definition video, making it ideal for accessing a DVDAudio menu or otherwise monitoring a program without powering up your bigscreen. The LCD screen can show any standard definition video-component connection. Further, an input source can be defined as both a bypass and an SD source. For those inputs, the ED/HD video is routed directly to the component output while the SD connection is available on the LCD. Kudos: Classé is truly serious about software upgradeability. Two SSP-600 updates have already posted and are available as downloads from www.classeaudio.com. Classé cautions however that, unless you’re handy with a PC and the RS232 port, the job is best left to a knowledgeable dealer. Irks: Touchscreen response-time lags especially when making input or mode changes. While the display is adjustable for brightness, the contrast could be stronger and the labeling crisper. The blue-lit aluminum remote control employs an arbitrary layout and its tiny buttons require a good set of peepers. And, hey, Classé, how about giving the high rollers the option of a hand-held TFT remote? Classé is fully compatible with Creston, AMX, i- Command, Philips Pronto, Universal’s MX-300, and others. Codes are posted on the company’s Web site.
The SSP-600 has a quiet and assured character that makes it eerily similar to the CP-500 preamp. I noted the same pillowy cushion in the upper mids and lower treble that produced a slightly relaxed, non-showy presentation. On a song like “Misty” [One On One, Chesky] I enjoyed the rich, full upper-bass structure that seemed to darken piano in the octaves below middle C, and also the roundedness in the treble that tamed the most aggressive transients. Holly Cole’s seductive vocal on “Take Me Home” [Temptation, Alert] had a burnished, late-night quality that conjured up memories of barstools, Old- Fashioneds, and high heels.
In spite of the shared DNA, an A/V multi-tasker like the SSP-600 can’t quite match the two-channel CP-500 for transparency or preternatural stillness of black, velvety backgrounds. Prime examples are solo voice and piano. During Norah Jones’ “The Nearness of You” [Come Away With Me, Blue Note], transients seemed slower off the mark, lacking the crisp response that bridges silence and song. The window into the layers of the chorus during the Rutter Requiem [Reference Recordings] was not quite as squeegee-clean as it is with my reference Plinius stereo electronics. Expensive AVRs however, beware: Few in my experience can match the channel separation, articulation, and low-level resolving power of the SSP- 600—traits that were exemplified in the murmured conversations following the graphic airport terminal shootout in the newly remastered Bullitt. As McQueen stands over the body of gangland embezzler Johnny Ross, a horrified and enthralled crowd forms around the scene, exchanging theories (“He’s a cop; that’s what he is.”) about what went down. From the tiny oxygen bubbles ascending to the ocean’s surface in Open Water to a shifting wind patterns across the bleak plains in The Missing, the SSP-600 extracted a wealth of weird and wonderful details that added weight and resonance to film-watching.
The Classé Audio SSP-600 is a luxury controller that performs at the highest levels. It combines remarkable multichannel performance with a slinky, seductive user interface. There is, however, a downside to owning this touchscreen sexpot. It’s such a blast letting your fingers do the walking that you’re never going to want to take your hands off it.