Classe Ssp 800 (£5334)

This DSP-intensive processor may not yet offer on-board Dolby TrueHD or DTS-HD Master Audio decoding, but its HDMI performance is the best yet...

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I love the design of Classé’s Delta series products. The beefy build, curved fascias and contrasting silver and dark colours make for an extremely cool look. Add in a colour LCD screen as a display and source monitor, a remote control handset hewn from an aluminium ingot and Classé’s audiophile heritage, and the new SSP-800 processor is one of the most desirable pieces of multichannel lushness available today. I want one, can you tell?
   Some two years in the making and coming to market with a price tag around the £5000 mark puts this beast up against the Denon AVP-A1HD. It’s a tall order and while the Classé class and style simply shine through in the SSP-800’s industrial design, the features count is a long way south of the bristling Denon. While I admit some of the Denon’s features are questionable, the Classé is sadly bereft of decoding for HD audio formats, automated room-EQ or self set-up, video upscaling, the usual thousands of RCA analogue inputs and any form of Ethernet or USB networking.

Bad news? Well, not when you scratch below the surface. The HD decoding for Dolby TrueHD and DTS Master Audio took a while longer to perfect than anticipated so, rather than delay the launch, this feature will be a free upgrade for current owners and standard fit on SSP-800s built after June this year. There is also an argument to say that allowing a high-end Blu-ray player to do the decoding and send the signal over as LPCM may be better qualitatively anyway...
   Automated set-up and room EQ we can live without as they often do more harm than good. The Classé does have a manual five-band parametric EQ system for the finest of fine tuning if required – assuming you have the time, ears and preferably a PC running RTA software. There are more than enough analogue inputs for most set-ups, including balanced XLR stereo input and ten-channel XLR balanced outputs, and networking is handled by CAN-bus and RS232 for hardcore multi-room installs. For this test the SSP-800 was configured as 5.1 with bi-amped front channels and three subs. Well, it seemed rude not to as the facility is offered.
   Of course the big ‘sell’ for Classé is audio quality and the SSP-800’s mission statement is well documented. The brand is attempting to create not only the best product for the heart of flagship AV systems but the most musically coherent multichannel audio processor available today. I would say they have succeeded too.

With the SSP-800 at its heart, my system achieved a whole new level of effortlessness in sound. It sounded clean, relaxed and sumptuously fluid throughout, casting off any hint of top-end grain for an immensely enjoyable and satisfying listen. The Brandenburg Concertos by the Mozart Orchestra on Medici Arts Blu-ray was simply lush. The 5.1 LPCM recording was allowed to breath into the room, the Classé putting the excellent production and mastering on full display and crafting the hall’s ambience with stunning realism. The top end was gorgeously smooth, despite admirable extension into the upper reaches, and there was a solidity to the bottom end derived from excellent control of the LFE channel.
   At first I thought the Classé may have been a little off-tempo in terms of pace and excitement, as it does lack some of the edgy urgency of the Japanese competition. But the more I listened the more I grew to understand the Classé’s charms and the fact that its refinement doesn’t translate to sluggishness at all. The lead recorders through ‘Concerto No4 in G Major’ were recreated with incredible dexterity, the Classé allowing Petri/Tarasov duo’s magic to lead the orchestra and drive the timing of the work. The spatial positioning was superb and the Classé’s breadth of dynamic range made even my fairly hushed video projector sound noisy through the quiet passages (see box-out, p76).
   But would the Classé’s refinement trip it up when the going got tough? It doesn’t get much tougher or edgier than AC/DC Live at Donington. Recorded back in 1991 on analogue multi-track and remastered into 5.1 LPCM at 48kHz/24bit, the recording is packed with energy, power and warts in equal measure.

Thankfully the Classé is certainly not shy when it comes to rocking the living room. From the opening beat of ‘Back in Black’ the room shook, the atmosphere charged to electrifying levels and the volume went skyward. Running five stereo power amps and a trio of subs all in balanced mode created a scene about as close to the Monsters of Rock experience as you can get without smelling of cigarettes and stale beer. The Classé lets the atmosphere and power tear through. While some amps make a meal of the disc’s rather splashy top end, the SSP-800 keeps the aggressive edge in check without flatting the soundstage.
   Perhaps the best recommendation I can make of the Classé is that the enthralling sound is about as addictive as chocolate Hob-Nobs. With the entire week spent running through my CDs, SACDs and Blu-ray discs to hear what the SSP-800 could do, I was so late writing this copy it nearly missed the issue. Just thinking back to the AC/DC disc has me singing ‘Shoot to Thrill’ in my mind and gently head-banging the keyboard....

The SSP-800’s odd selection of features and intriguing GUI can make it a little tricky to live with but the end-result more than justifies the effort. Incredibly refined yet at the same time revealing, its sound is potent, addictive and boasts a truly masterful top-end. The SSP-800 is the definitive processor for multichannel music. In short, it’s in a Classé of its own.


Originally published in the May 2009 issue.