Classé SSP-60 Preamplifier-Processor
The Ins and Outs
You might accept the limitation of only two coaxial digital inputs from the $800 Outlaw 950 surround processor, but for $4995, you have the right to expect nothing short of full flexibility from the Classé SSP-60. That's exactly what you get. The two low-rent TosLink optical inputs and the highbred AES/EBU digital input (XLR connector) are joined by four coaxial digital connections—which should be enough for a full complement of boy's toys. In the digital realm, the only shortcoming (if you want to call it that) is the lack of an RF/AC-3 input for demodulating any Dolby Digital tracks encoded in your laserdisc collection. For that, you'll have to go with an external demodulator, which will then provide a Dolby Digital bitstream that the Classé can accept.
Around back, the SSP-60 offers 10 pairs of single-ended, 2-channel analog inputs. Four of these are labeled Audio, the remainder Audio/Video. The six A/V inputs have corresponding S-video and composite-video inputs as well. An additional 2-channel analog input is provided for the appropriate half of a tape loop, though it's unconventionally labeled Play instead of Tape In. The remote has individual buttons for selecting any of these 11 inputs directly, or you can scroll through them on the front panel.
While a 5.1 multichannel analog input is the only requirement for enjoying surround recordings from your SACD and/or DVD-Audio player, Classé and others have chosen to up the ante to 7.1 channels. I'd rather see the real estate required for those two extra channels, which are likely never to be used, instead dedicated to something more useful—such as a second 5.1-channel input, for people with separate SACD and DVD-A players. Finally, a single balanced (XLR) stereo input is provided. Outside the 7.1 inputs, the balanced stereo input is the only route through the processor that can be configured to remain entirely in the analog domain. Plan wisely, vinyl hounds.
Besides the six composite and six S-video inputs, the SSP-60 has three component-video inputs. Although the manual doesn't say whether the component video is of sufficient quality to pass a high-definition signal, the Classé website's claim of a bandwidth of more than 100MHz confirms that it is. There's only one component-video output on the processor, and it is, thankfully, devoid of the onscreen display (OSD) signal. For the most critical signals, most videophiles, me included, prefer the video path that's straightest and least susceptible to interference.
Composite- and S-video signals are entirely another matter, however, and the processor provides both With OSD and Without OSD outputs in each flavor. In both the S- and composite-video output banks is a third output classification, marked Rec, for permanent connection to your VCR or DVD recorder. Finally, the composite bank has a fourth output, for routing video signals to a TV in another zone. If the source you want to watch in Zone 2 happens to be on S-video, you needn't worry—the SSP-60 will automatically make all incoming S-video signals simultaneously available on all S-video and composite-video outputs.
I requested a second sample of the SSP-60 because of a few problems with the first's composite-video OSD output, as well as an occasional loss of sound. These problems did not appear immediately, but after about three weeks of use, the satellite picture from my Zenith set-top box became dark and oversaturated when routed through the Classé, and it exhibited severe video noise. Also, on at least three occasions, when the processor had been left on for a long time without an audio signal present, the sound wouldn't come on.
The second sample seemed fine for the first few weeks, but then the video problem recurred, to be followed shortly by the audio glitch. The problems weren't consistent or vexing—with both samples, they were cured nicely by turning the processor off from the back (the power switch in the front is just a standby control), waiting 10 seconds, then turning everything back on. When I requested the second sample, Classé mentioned that there might be a problem with the first unit's OSD circuit. So when Sample No. 2 acted up, I tried its non-OSD output, which turned out to be completely dead, and hopefully a problem only with that specific unit.
The SSP-60 has four 2-channel analog outputs: three labeled Rec, for recording loops, and a fourth designated for the remote zone. Even though there is only one "return" specifically labeled for a tape loop (the Play input), you could easily use other tape decks and send their outputs back to one of the other 10 analog stereo inputs. For connection to your amplifiers, the SSP-60 has both single-ended and balanced outputs that are simultaneously active, allowing you to run your subwoofer via the single-ended output while the rest of your audio might pass to a balanced multichannel amplifier. Four surround outputs are available (L/R surround, L/R rear) for home theaters that can accommodate two rear-channel speakers in a 7.1 setup.
Once I'd set the SSP-60 on my equipment rack, I activated the setup menu to configure my system. The process was a breeze and, for the most part, I didn't need the manual, referring to it only to ascertain the correct order of and procedure for setting channel levels. For this purpose, Classé provides a substantial microphone with a long cable that plugs into the back of the processor. I sat in my chair with the remote in my right hand and the microphone in my left, and the SSP-60 did most of the work.
First, however, I had to tell it whether my speakers, by group, were Large (full-range) or Small (bass-limited). At that time, I could have picked a crossover frequency for all those Small speakers, from 40 to 140Hz in 10Hz increments, but that frequency cannot be varied by speaker group. I used the 80Hz setting, which is labeled "THX." After that, the SSP-60 provided the pink noise and clicks required to set the levels and calculate the distance from each speaker to the listening seat. The only problem I ran into was the subwoofer distance, which the program calculated as being almost twice as far from my listening seat as it actually was. You can easily override any of the Classé's determinations. I did.
The rest of the setup options—assigning names to inputs, selecting which (if any) digital audio input is appropriate for the input, modifying THX settings, etc.—are just a few clicks away. Naturally, the onscreen menu is preferable to the front-panel LED screen when you're configuring the system, but even the front panel is easy to understand. If you need an explanation, the 36-page manual is detailed enough to be helpful, but sufficiently succinct to not intimidate the novice.
The remote is a big, black, easy-to-memorize chunk of unbacklit iron that can barely be read in bright sunlight, much less in a darkened theater. Its considerable heft will keep it glued to your armchair in the event of an earthquake, but will likely cripple you if you drop it on your toe.