I spent a few hours last night and the night before running the Classe SSP-800 prepro through its paces with some compilation CDs I put together for my speaker auditions.
Fresh out the box on day one, the sound was certainly smoother than my Lexicon MC12HD prepro and much of the edgy / grainy quality in the upper mids that I heard on my reference recordings was greatly reduced. However, the overall presentation of the SSP-800, while clean and smooth, was also somewhat lean, and mid forward. Frankly, this was not what I was expecting, nor was it what I really wanted.
Prior to the SSP-800, most Classe gear has been regarded as having a smooth, relaxed and slightly warm sound and this was a large part of my reasoning for buying it. The leaner, more mid-forward presentation still sounded good, but it was not the presentation I was after.
I should note that Classe specifically states in the user’s manual that there is a 300 hour break-in period for the SSP-800. I’m not one that believes in extended break in periods and despite my efforts, I haven’t heard significant differences in front end gear up to this point. However last night was a bit of an eye opener.
Unlike the night before, where I had basically plugged the 800 in and a threw some music at it, last night the 800 and the amp had been running for several hours before I put some music on. I don’t know if it was just that the 800 needs to reach a proper operating temp, or if there was some “settling in” of the prepro due to “break-in”, but the results were much, much better. Make that fantastic!
Over the years I have become rather leery when ever someone refers to a component as sounding “detailed”. In my experience, this can also mean “bright, lean, dry, and analytical”. So when I read some early reports from new owners of the SSP-800 that the sound was detailed and transparent, I was a bit apprehensive. And that first night with it seemed to confirm that the SSP-800 might not be a good fit for me.
What I heard from the SSP-800 last night, however, changed both my opinion of the 800 and what it means for a component to be “detailed”. Frankly, it is a bit hard to comprehend (but much easier to enjoy). The sound of the 800 is smooth, yet at the same time more detailed than I have heard before. It is dynamic, but not peaky or aggressive. It sounds vivid in its presentation, yet everything seems to be in balance. It *is* transparent, it *is* detailed, and it *is* neutral, but not in any negative sense of these terms.
Smooth yet detailed: Two of my pet peeves have always been grain and sibilance, and I was ready to give up “detail” in favor of a smoother more listenable sound if it meant that the grain would be reduced and sibilance didn’t feel like it was piercing my eardrums. Both of these things had been minimized with the Revel Speakers, but there was still enough grain to the sound that I felt like I was constantly being reminded that I was listening to a recording through a hi-fi system rather than achieving some semblance of reality. With the 800, the grain I used hear in many vocal tracks has been replaced with natural vocal texture. Woot! The detail provided by the 800 actually reminds me a lot of the sound you get from a ribbon tweeter. You can easily hear all of the low level details that were previously obscured—all of the delicate, twinkley sounds come to the surface but without sounding forced or etched. I can only imagine what you would hear with the SSP-800 paired up with a ribbon tweeter. I don’t know how many times I’ve read a review of this or that speaker or component and the reviewer says that they “heard things in their favorite music that they had never heard before”. I think a lot of this simply has to do with that new component’s frequency response being different than the reviewer’s reference system. Where there once was a dip in the response, there is now a hump, so of course the sounds that fall into that range are going to stand out now. But what I hear from the SSP-800 is different than that. It’s an overall improvement in resolution. You don’t just hear things you hadn’t before, you hear more of everything. It is fascinating how much detail and texture there is to the sounds that compose most music that you just don’t realize were there. And those sibilant recordings I had written off as hot recordings, well, they are still sibilant but the somewhat harsh “sssssttt” sound of sibilance is a more pleasant “sssshhhh” sound. No loss of detail, just a smoother more natural sound.
Dynamic but not peaky or fatiguing: A dynamic sounding system can be a lot of fun, but it can also wear on you as your ears are constantly assaulted by the dynamic peaks. Fun for a short period, but wearing in the long run. I’m not sure how to put this, but one of my first thoughts when listening to the SSP-800 last night was that the sound was very dynamic but that it never sounded aggressive. It just seems to handle transients with more finesse and in a more natural way. All of the dynamic oomph and jump are there, but without the peaky quality I often associate with dynamically voiced systems.
If I had to sum it up, I would say that the SSP-800 sounds balanced, smooth, and natural, yet also vivid, dynamic and detailed. This may still not be everyone’s cup-o-tea, especially if you like a more easy going, euphonic sound, or if your speakers depend on some character in the front-end to bring balance to the sound of your system, but the SSP-800 has shown me that you can have a detailed, transparent sound that is still "musical".
I no longer have the Lex gear to compare to the Classe, but in the near future I want to compare the sound of the SSP-800 to the HK AVR I use in my video game room. When I did this same comparison between the Lex and the HK, there was surprisingly little difference between the two.
I’ll be sure post any addition impressions I have as I get closer to the 300 hour mark.