Classe SSP-800 AV Preamp Reviewed

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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 "chink" 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.

Competition and Comparison
You can compare the Classe SSP-800 preamp to its competition by reading our reviews for the
McIntosh MX-120 preamp and the Anthem Statement D2V preamp.  You can also get more information by visiting our AV Preamp Section and our Classe brand page.

The Downside
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.

Conclusion
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.

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