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Classe SSP-800 AV Preamp Reviewed

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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.

Additional Resources
• Read more AV preamplifier reviews by HomeTheaterReview.com's staff.
• Find audiophile grade source components to connect to the SSP-800.

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
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.

Performance
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.

Continue on to Page 2 for more about the SSP-800 AV preamp.
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