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...
I don't have my trusty Classe SSP-800 anymore, so I couldn't do a direct A/B comparison. However, based on my memory after many years with the SSP-800, the Sigma SSP is pretty damn close in performance on all of the formats with which I tested it. Given that the SSP-800 is double the money, that makes the Sigma SSP a real value for me. For larger systems with multiple subwoofers and for those who run full balanced connections to their amplifiers, the SSP-800 is the way to go and earns its higher price tag.
For stereo music, I fired up "Misty Mountain Hop" ripped in 1440 AIFF via my Kaleidscape server and bumped the volume to levels that are appropriate (meaning: loud) for Led Zeppelin. I focused on John Bonham's brutal back beat and how accurately you could hear the snap of the snare drum. The cymbal crashes were beaming but not glary at all--just very resolute. By the end of the track, I caught myself completely wrapped up in the music, tapping my fingers and following along with the syncopation of the song.
In music school, I saved my ass in the difficult recording-arts classes designed to train mastering engineers by excelling at deconstructing complicated music, track by track. I learned quickly that, if you pander to the musical tastes of the hard-ass professor, you could do even better on such highly valued tests. That meant dialing in some Earth Wind and Fire. In honor of the passing of Earth Wind and Fire singer and co-founder Maurice White a few months ago, a rich track like "September" seemed the perfect demo to see how the Sigma SSP AV preamp could resolve complicated music in a format that we all own (1440 AIFF, meaning Compact Disc resolution). Sliding into the first chorus, the richly layered vocal harmonies of one of the slickest pop-R&B bands to ever don sequence jumpsuits sounded musically enveloping. I kept reaching for my Crestron MLX remote to bump up the volume. By the second chorus, I found myself atonally singing along like a fool. Thankfully, I was home alone in the middle of the day, and TMZ didn't have me under surveillance--otherwise, you all would have one hell of a laugh at my expense. Don't act like you don't sing along to Earth Wind and Fire, too.
I'm going to have to ask for your forgiveness for this next example. Ever since I set up my new system with the Autonomic server, I've been listening to more low-resolution Pandora than anything else, including higher-resolution sources like Tidal. Pandora's better-than-radio programming is the draw for me. For the uninitiated, all you need to do to build a custom channel is type in a few songs from your favorite artists. I made an 80s rock channel for my four-year-old, as his new favorite song is "I Love Rock and Roll" by Joan Jett and the Blackhearts. Toss a few more songs into the playlist, and Pandora's impressive algorithm will pick other songs from the genre. If you don't like said song, hit the thumbs-down button, and the service moves on to the next song and makes note of the fact that perhaps Cyndi Lauper isn't a good match for your 80s rock playlist. It works really well, but the resolution of the tracks is barely better than MP3.
Most of my Pandora listening is done in the kitchen and/or dining room through Sonance in-ceiling speakers--as opposed to the $15,000 Focals. Still, when I dialed in "I Love Rock and Roll" (I couldn't help myself), it didn't sound half bad. I compared the track to the 1440 AIFF versions on my Kaleidscape and Apple TV, and of course those sources sounded better. However, even when being fed crap files, the SSP's internal DACs did a very nice job turning lemons into lemonade.
Next it was time for some TV demos. Recently, my wife and I have been binge-watching the Showtime detective show Ray Donovan in HD resolution from the Apple Store using our Apple TV. The storylines are ripped straight from the newspapers, since the lead character is based on Hollywood private investigator Ray Pellicano. The show is very well shot and produced, and it's quite entertaining--if you can stomach some sex and violence. I don't want to spoil the series for you, but there are scenes shot in Ray's "Fite Club" that the Classe made sound realistically echoey and grungy in Dolby 5.1 surround. Car chase scenes in season one and two allow you to clearly hear Ray peeling out in his Mercedes CL 550 coupe, with screeching tires and a roaring engine. The video is wonderfully shot, but the audio when played through the Classe Sigma preamp is equally up to the task.
If you don't have kids, you may have missed The Lego Movie, which is a mistake. I don't know what kind of solvent the writers were sniffing when they put this script on paper, but it was strong. It's a fast-paced, star-studded (for voice-overs) film that is super fun even for people who don't have kids. The surround sound in the "train scene" is an all-over-the-place, crazy-fun mix. Batman shows up. They nearly crash into the sun. They have to navigate around Lego-brick smoke from the train that's about to crash. With all of that going on, the Classe dealt with the tricky surround sound tasks without breaking a sweat. The steering is tight, and you can hear the swirling effects clearly in the rears.
I spooled up my Kaleidscape server to watch the Blu-ray version of American Sniper and the "Don't Do It" sniper scene. Talk about tense cinema? To start the scene, Bradley Cooper's character takes out the terrorist with an RPG, and you can clearly hear the sharp yet powerful blast of his sniper rifle. It's crisp yet resolute for a blast in an otherwise quiet scene. Later in the same scene, you can hear Bradley Cooper's raspy but quiet voice with tremendous texture, even at low volumes as he's muttering for the kid NOT to pick up the grenade launcher. You can sense the breaths of relief when the little kid drops the heavy gun to the sidewalk.
I've already addressed the two key issues bugging the Sigma SSP AV preamp, which are its lack of advanced surround sound formats like Dolby Atmos and DTS:X and its lack of HDMI 2.0 with HDCP 2.2. Both will be solved with a pending $1,000 upgrade coming in the next few months, so it's hard to ding the unit too hard for these issues.
The look and feel of the Classe Sigma is nice but not to the standard of other Classe products like the more expensive Classe SSP-800. By no means is the Sigma SSP ugly; it's just not stunning like the SSP-800, which is a compromise you will have to make if you want to save a cool $4,500 on your high-end AV preamp.
The remote for the Classe Sigma SSP isn't trying to rule the world. I personally leave it in my remote drawer and have only touched the thing twice--and once was to solve the aforementioned power-saving issue. The stock remote isn't backlit, which sucks if you aren't using an aftermarket remote solution. It's also very small, so it could get lost in the cracks of your sofa if you leave it sitting around. Dr. Taraszka notes that, when setting up sources, you need to switch between using the remote's trackpad and using a keypad on the front panel of the unit itself. The remote also has poor interaction with the preamp. For example, if you are off-angle by much at all, the commands won't work. The no-frills remote keeps the overall cost of the Classe Sigma SSP down, but you likely will want to factor in some form of aftermarket remote for a premium user experience.
Comparison and Competition
Things have changed a lot in the AV preamp marketplace over the past few years. Classe is clearly a leader in the high-end portion of the AV electronics market, but even well-funded companies like Classe struggle to keep up with the ever-changing high-end technologies. No high-end AV company has the sales volume to keep up with companies that sell cheaper AV receivers in higher volumes. One of those companies is Marantz, and they make one hell of a preamp for $3,995 in the AV8802. This AV preamp has it all in the features department, and Brian Kahn says it performs really well in the audio department compared with its predecessor, which I tested versus the Krell Foundation a few years back.
Speaking of Krell, that's a very sad story these days. When I reviewed the Foundation AV preamp, the company's foundation was much, much stronger. Acrimoniously gone is the company founder Dan D'agostino, and recently gone is the company's long-time president (Bill McKiegan). Gone is the company's top designer (to Harman), and what remains today isn't very impressive. The current 4K-switching version of the Foundation AV preamp is basically the same thing as before with 4K switching for $2,500 more than the Classe. The Classe sounds smoother in the high end and has a clearer path for upgrade to HDMI 2.0, HDCP 2.2, Dolby Atmos, and DTS:X than the Krell does. I've advised my writers and friends to sell short on Krell; it pains me to do it, but from what I am hearing, they might not be long for the world, let alone a leader in AV preamp design. Nobody ever wanted to see such an outcome. The situation is truly sad, but it's also important to know about before you invest. Maybe things will change. I sure as hell hope so for Krell's sake.
Anthem has a hot AV preamp coming out at $2,999 called the AVM 60. It's a much more affordable spin-off of the Anthem Statement D2V, which costs about $10,000 retail. We will have the new Anthem in for review later in the summer. Anthem's room correction (ARC) is pretty darn good and a different, more automated way of looking at room EQ than the Classe.
I have to compare the Sigma SSP with the SSP-800, which is a gorgeous-looking and wonderful-sounding AV preamp that I was lucky enough to own in my last reference system. You pay a lot of money for a modest upgrade in performance between the Sigma SSP and the SSP-800, but it costs a lot of money to be really cool, right? Again, the Classe SSP-800 runs balanced outputs for all channels and allows for two independently adjustable subs, which is a meaningful performance upgrade for many advanced home theater enthusiasts.
Others in the market that could be considered include offerings from Datasat, Meridian, Theta, and beyond.
Classe has both raised the bar and lowered the cost of entry for high-end audiophile performance from your system's AV preamp. By no means is the Classe Sigma SSP the lowest priced unit on the market, but it's very capable of being the heart and soul of your AV rig, now and for years to come. Yes, there are ways to do more for less, but you will sacrifice sound quality. Classe builds about the best, most forward-thinking electronics out there today. Considering the modest delta between performance of the $9,500 SSP-800 and the $5,000 Classe Sigma SSP, I consider the latter to be a fantastic value...but more important than value is its overall performance. The Classe Sigma SSP is an ass-kicker of an AV preamp at a world-beater of a price. I can easily recommend that you buy one because I did, too.
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