For consumers, one of the best trends in the specialty audio-video business is the fact that the good stuff keeps getting less and less expensive. Glaring proof of that is Classe's new $5,000 Sigma SSP AV preamp, which is built to the same audiophile standards as previous Classe offerings but offered for a much lower price. The Sigma SSP features state-of-the-art digital-to-analog conversion, seven HDMI inputs, USB and Ethernet connections, and provisions for both balanced and single-ended use. It also has an internal nine-band parametric equalizer and a tone control; for my system, that allows me to remove my trusty old Meyer Sound analog EQ and keep the room tuning in the digital domain, right in my AV preamp where it belongs.
The fit and finish of the Classe Sigma SSP are very nice, although not as over-the-top fantastic as the nearly double-the-cost Classe SSP-800--which looks like it belongs in the Museum of Modern Art instead of an audiophile showroom or somebody's Middle Atlantic rack. The Sigma SSP's back layout packs in tons of inputs and outputs in a way that is logical and neat. My installer, Simply Home Entertainment, did the audiophile-unthinkable, which was to custom cut nearly all of the cables to the Classe Sigma SSP. That includes using a custom power chord and very short HDMI cables in many cases. The result is gorgeous and perfectly tied-down.
The Classe Sigma SSP is refreshingly easy to set up for a device that's capable of so many advanced tasks. The tiny, non-backlit remote allows you quick access to the various menus, which remind me of a more logical version of the menu system on Meridian preamps that I have owned in the past. You can access many but not all of the functions of the Classe Sigma preamp from its nifty, black faceplate.
One of the features that initially drove me up a wall with the Sigma was the fact that it automatically goes into power-saving mode when it's muted for more than 15 or 20 minutes. Imagine the phone rings, you yap for a while, then return and un-pause your favorite show ... but no sound. In my case, that means a walk across the entire house to power up the Sigma again. The cause of this isn't bad design by Classe. Not at all. It's European standards for power saving, and there is good news. You can shut off the feature using the Classe remote by hitting: menu, F1, F2, and F3. Boom, the problem is solved.
Assigning and naming inputs isn't that different from any other AV preamp or AV receiver. For 4K users, it is important to note that the HDMI inputs are not yet HDMI 2.0 with HDCP 2.2; thus, if you want to pass a signal from a new Ultra HD Blu-ray player or a Roku 4 to your UHD set, you will, in the short term, need to split the audio and video. I use a little Swedish component that splits the signal, but there are other options. To connect a Roku 4 to his Classe Sigma setup, Dr. Ken Taraszka ran an HDMI cable directly from the player to his display and fed the player's optical digital output to the Sigma SSP. Samsung's new UHD-K8500 player has two HDMI outputs--one for UHD video and one for audio. Classe reportedly has an upgrade coming in June or July 2016 that will bring the preamp up to HDMI 2.0 and HDCP 2.2 standards, as well as add Dolby Atmos and DTS:X. All current units will be upgradable for $1,000, and new units will logically see a price increase of $1,000.
In terms of matching equipment, I use a Crestron 8x8 4K switcher for video distribution, which is a pricey unit (about $10,000 as I have it configured) but works like a charm. Connected AV sources include a Kalidescape Blu-ray server, an Oppo BDP-103, two DirecTV DVRs, an Autonomic music streaming component (for Pandora, Tidal, Spotify, Sirius, and much more), a Gen3 Apple TV, a Roku 4 (for UHD), and a few other tricks. The Classe Sigma eats up such sources without a burp--ever. Seriously, the unit runs ice cold and never needs a restart. It's rock solid in terms of reliability in a category that is known for dicey performance. I use the matching Classe AMP2 and AMP5 amplifiers and a sexy, new pair of Focal Sopra 2 speakers with an SVS 13-inch sub, all connected via Transparent Audio cables.
Calibrating speakers through the Sigma SSP is pretty standard fare. Classe doesn't include Audyssey or any other automated setup, so you have to manually enter the distances to your speakers, select their size, choose a crossover point, and balance all your speakers using an SPL meter. The Sigma SSP allows for several different calibration sets; you can program up to six completely different speaker configurations and levels to be used as needed.
Click over to Page Two for Performance, The Downside, Comparison & Competition, and Conclusion...