Ah! Spring is in the air. Even up here in New Hampshire where we can get a blizzard in May, this has been a great winter with very little snow and relatively warm days. I'm writing this mid February and its 48 degrees outside. Hurray for global warming! Of course it's been going on for at least 12,000 years with intermittent times of rapid heating followed by cooling. Where I'm standing was less than 5000 feet of ice back then and the shoreline was about 100 miles out to sea and 300 feet lower, so I'm not concerned about a 1 to 3 foot increase in the ocean's levels over the next hundred years.
At worst it means that some people living 100
feet back from the shore now will have a significant increase in their property
value and the at present rich seafront owners will be out of their investment.
Plus every great leap in mankind's learning has happened during warming times
and every reversal has occurred during the cold epics. Give me the warmth! So
clear your conscience and keep those tube amps glowing brightly and to hell with
If you've been following this column over the past few months you already know that my system has had a greater improvement in sound than over the past 25 years. I owe this to fellow audiophiles who've lead me to make the changes. My reviewing problem lay with trying to figure out which change caused which improvement. Thus I've been experimenting with removing and replacing each in turn and noting the difference.
First was Roman Bessnow, alias Romy the Cat at Good Sound Club who guided me to his find, the PurePower PP2000 power supplies, three of which have cleaned up the ac entering my system to the point where it is listenable 24 hours a day rather than just at midnight.
Second, was Steve Klein, owner of Sounds Of Silence, who lead me to Steven Mrock, who has developed his Perfect Path Technologies system of scrubbing clean all electrical contacts from the house's service entrance to the system, then coating all contacts with his proprietary silver paste. Over the past two months, this has allowed the soundstage to deepen, widen and coalesce to the point where on the best recordings one can actually feel that one is at the recording venue. Veils haven't just been lifted but completely removed.
Third was Walter Swanborn, owner of Fidelis
AV, who brought the Stein Harmonizers, which further strengthened the
imaging and allowed the recording venue to not only extend beyond my listening
room's boundaries, but also to allow a feeling of image height above the
speakers extending almost to my room's ceiling.
Second, was a sort of sameness to the sound on all recordings. I was oblivious to this until it was noted by Romy several months ago, but, like all things audio, once I became aware of it, has driven me bonkers.
While the problem could have been caused by
the two above mentioned possibilities, on evaluating my system, the weakest link
in the chain was probably my Integra 9.8 preamplifier/processor, a 7.1 channel
Onkyo unit which was the best available three years ago, was a mid-fi product at
best, and is now three generations behind the mid-fi units available now. So
I decided to delve into what's available now, and went up to the avsforum
site where they had a thread on pre-pros.
I first thought of the Marantz AV7005 which
appears to be a bargain at $1499 compared to the other mid-fi products such as
the update to my Integra, the 80.2, but felt that as the pre-pro was the weak
point in my system I wanted to go much better. Then I looked at the specs for
the Cary and Anthem units at $5-8000, but both were becoming somewhat dated with
the Anthem having only HDMI 1.3 pass-through and with video processing which was
not needed and could only detract from the value of the audio. That left only
two high end processors which could handle HDMI 1.4 processing, one the $15000
ATI Casablanca unit, which was out of my price range.
Audio CT –SSP Preamp-Processor
I wanted the first unit available, don't really care for esthetics, just quality
of sound as you could tell by looking at my sound room, and wanted a first
review flag on my article from our fearless leader, I went for the CT-SSP as the
electronics are identical, the cabinet was built with cooling of the innards in
mind which should extend its life, and most important, it was available.
Unhappily, as their first production run was completely sold out and their
dealers were waiting for product, a reviewer must wait in line for a unit to be
freed up. Thus it took almost three months to receive one for review. Was the
wait worth it? Hell yes!
The unit comes doubly boxed and padded for the
worst UPS delivery man. Included are the IEC power cord and side panels for rack
mounting, cords, remote with batteries, and a USB thumb drive. It weighs about
the same as an expensive amplifier. The front is somewhat utilitarian but
elegant. Unlike other pre-pros that have fifty different buttons on the front,
this one has a large volume knob, two small push buttons for mute and menu, a
power standby pad and a large touch screen. The touch screen functions as the
buttons for the unit allowing very quick setup with the various menu screens
which can also be projected onto your video monitor. The touch screen can also
act as a mini monitor giving a nice clear picture of the video going out. Thus
one doesn't need to have the possibly noisy television monitor on while
programming it or listening to music.
The lighted remote is also built like a brick
outhouse with all of the necessary buttons. It also has the ability to set up
four function and two profiles for quickly changing how the music is played
Instead of a written manual, a USB thumb drive
with the manual onboard is included. One can therefore plug it into your
computer, go up to Classé Audio's site and download the latest update of the
manual and the unit's software to the thumb drive, thus saving reams of paper.
This is certainly a plus for the tree huggers out there but must be a minus for
the Canadian Forestry industry.
back has multiples of every type of analog, and digital audio and video input
known to man, with five HDMI 1.4a inputs and two outputs, 10 both single ended
RCA and true balanced XLR outputs with the programming set for a maximum of a
7.1 channel system. At present, the extra two outputs can be used to either bi-amplify
the front loudspeakers, drive two extra subwoofers independently with separate
crossovers and frequency adjustments, or a set of stereo speakers in a separate
room. The unit at present does not have the ability to run overhead or front
side speakers available with the new Dolby and DTS super codecs which are not
included with this unit.
There's the possibility to set up 20 different
inputs in such a way that any audio input can be mixed or matched with any video
input. Thus the HDMI video input can be used with all of the S/PDIF, and analog
inputs from the same piece of equipment, or one can watch the video from your
cable input while listening to music from your Blu-ray player. Unlike other
processors, all of the analog inputs can either be directly passed through like
the 7.1 analog input, or digitized for processing.
Unlike most of the low, mid and even some
audiophile processors, Classé Audio has put all of their and your money into
the audio side of the media equation. This unit is really made for the high-end
audiophile who listens only to the best of the best.
Also missing compared to other processors are the
1. FM or AM tuner. This is no great loss as most
of us either have FM tuners, or a computer with one, or don't listen to FM much
anyway. Computers connected to the internet can pick up several thousand
worldwide stations and transmit the signals to the Classé through HDMI, S/PDIF
or analog inputs. So no loss there.
2. USB in and output. While it does have a USB
input, it at present is only able to download updates to the processors software
and not audio files. This can be overcome by using a computer's S/PDIF output or
purchasing one of the asynchronous USB to S/PDIF units being sold now. This is a
minor problem, as an asynchronous USB input would allow connection to computers
or ipads which don't have any S/PDIF outputs. On the other hand, the CT-SSP is
geared toward the high end audiophile who probably doesn't listen to low-fi
3. Ethernet connectivity. This is the one big
mistake I think Classe made. The ability to reprogram the unit's CPU through the
internet rather than through a computer should be available in every digital
unit available today. Plus, it would allow one's server audio storage to be
available to the unit without having to go through a computer, and with the
proper programming open up the unit directly to the thousands of FM stations
available on the web Even my OPPO BDP 95 Blu-ray Player has one.
4. Any video adjusting. The unit has no built in video processing. So what comes in goes out to the monitor. As all monitors and most sources today have their own processing which is usually better than that in most pre-pro's, this is not a problem and definitely decreases the possibilities for screwing up the signal.
There's one more thing missing that even some of
the very low priced audio-video receivers have available to you that I didn't
mention above. That's one of the room and speaker automatic setup programs such
on to the important stuff, and I don't mean the audio and video specifications,
which are by the way phenomenal. My discussion will be minus the room correction
routine as I've previously been able to perform this with my setup using four
way active crossovers with the ability to control most of my room's positive
modes. Plus, that will be part of the setup procedure the dealer will be
responsible for. If I find a need to do this in the future I'll report on it.
First, and most important to me, it is solved the
two problems discussed above, which must have been caused by the Integra
pre-pro. Gone are both the glariness and sameness to the sound, replaced by, in
the best sense, tube-like quality to the mid-range, but with tight bass and
clean and smooth highs that remind me of the best of the solid-state
preamplifiers. The sameness mentioned above, has been replaced by each recording
presenting a quality difference which I can't describe but that must be heard to
be appreciated. And that's for two channel recordings. I'd have to compare the
unit to the best preamps I've had the chance to evaluate over the past 30 plus
In addition, the surround field on the best Dolby and DTS HD recordings has become more coalesced into a whole. For instance, I have a recording from AIX Records of the group Zephyr on a 24/96/ 5.1 channel DVD-A Video disc, where it can be set up as if one is sitting in the audience or in the middle of the group on the stage. Until now, with the stage presentation each voice was found coming from a separate speaker and sounded as if they were in different spaces. Now the space is more of a whole with one voice's sound-space blending into the next seamlessly.
Unhappily the unit has not been able to clear up
what I find to be the most annoying aspect of the classical Blu-ray recordings
emanating from European television; their lack of a cohesive soundstage.
That isn't the fault of the unit,
but the recording technique used by the engineers, using a huge number of
microphones to highlight each soloist, thus ruining any semblance of ambiance.
Happily this has not been a problem with those recording coming from the Boston, and
Francisco Symphony Orchestras, on this side of the ocean and those from
Russia, where more judicious use of spot mikes is being used, and they sound
fantastic with this unit.
On the video side, even though the unit does no
processing and passes the signal through intact, the picture is significantly
cleaner than what I was getting out of the Integra. Whether this was due to the
Integra muddying the signal or the CT's just keeping it cleaner is an unanswered
question, but, like with audio, the less processing the better. Thus the unit's
not having any processing may be a significant improvement over having more than
one unit adjusting the video signal, especially if one already has a good video
processor as a separate component or a monitor with great processing.
Believe it or not, this unit's asking price of $9500 falls in the middle of the price range for pre-pro's. Considering you can get a good pre-pro for $2000 and a very good one for $5000 to 6000, the CT-SSP's $9500 list price is sort of at the bottom of the range for the super high end units such as those from Krell and those from Harmon Corporation including Lexicon and Mark Levinson. Unhappily I've not been able to listen to any of the super expensive units lately so I can't comment on a comparison with the Classé, but compared to those in the bottom and middle rung, the sound is superb.
Considering that the sound in two channel from
this unit compares favorably with preamps in the $10,000 to $20,000 range that I've
evaluated, I'd say the unit is actually a steal, as, if you can bargain,
it could also include, or should, the dealer installing it and doing a thorough
room evaluation and correction, and speaker and input configuration.
How can I prove this to you the skeptical reader?
After swearing to my wife that I was done purchasing expensive high end audio
gear, I put down my pension plan dollars, bought the unit and it now sits
proudly front and center in my listening room. Even though I may have to work an
extra year to replenish my retirement fund, it was worth every penny of the
purchase price. With about 100 dealers in the United States alone, there should
be one nearby where you can do your own evaluation. Unhappily, with the run on
the units that seems to be occurring now, you may have to wait a while to get
one, so don't dawdle.
Now if they can only add DTS Neo X 11.1 channel
processing, I'd be a truly happy camper for years to come.