Not surprisingly, given the Arcam’s strict adherence to the standard controller hierarchy, its best sound derives from the multichannel analog input. Compared even to the stereo analogs in bypass mode, this input supplies noticeably meatier bass, a more open top end, and a purer midrange (without a trace of steel in vocals). On orchestral material, such as “Mars” from the EMI LP of Holst’s The Planets, the Arcam proves a bit darker tonally than my reference preamplifier, but no less engaging thanks to a veritable smorgasbord of virtues. Dynamics are a gripping combination of finesse and ferocity; rhythms hold together no matter what else is going on; timbres spill forth in a rainbow of colors; images assume stable positions upon a broad, deep (though not particularly high) soundstage; and neither grain nor glare mars the source’s analog purity. Did I mention the killer bass?
The differences between the Arcam in this mode and my reference preamplifier fall into decidedly subtle territory. Sure, the reference’s incrementally superior resolution allows me to hear more air and longer hall reverberation, and renders transients more snappily. But this is a clear case of diminishing returns. The Arcam’s lovely multichannel input delivers 90% of the reference’s performance at one-fifth the price. Needless to say, I would suggest using this input whenever possible, including to connect your best stereo analog source.
My predilection toward the AV9’s analog inputs is reinforced by its digital performance which, as American Idol’s Randy Jackson might say, is “just alright, man.” The internal Wolfson DAC is very quiet, which nicely sets off the music, and imaging is so good it can sort out even the most complex stage plan. Detail resolution (except at the very lowest levels) and rhythms are likewise excellent. However, both upper frequencies and dynamics feel squashed, leading to an airless, lackluster quality. Tonally, these inputs are skimpy in the bass, rendering them lightweight compared to their analog counterparts. And vocals once again sound slightly metallic, which makes for less relaxing listening. The digital inputs’ transient and imaging prowess do serve movies well, but they simply don’t let music “breathe” in the manner of my reference DAC—or the AV9’s own stellar analog inputs.
The SSP100’s priorities and performance particulars differ not only from the Arcam, but from every other controller I know. Rather than viewing itself as principally an audio component with bareessential video connectivity and switching, the Halcro elevates video to equal-partner status. Witness the scads of digital (four HDMI inputs, one output) and analog video interfaces, coupled with an unusually comprehensive ability to transcode between them. Further, this controller can scale standard-definition video all the way up to HDTV’s maximum resolution of 1080p. So in addition to traditional audio-related duties, the SSP100 can credibly assume the role of an external video processor.
From an audio feature perspective, this controller is equally unconventional. Unlike the preponderance of its competition, the SSP100 simply does not ascribe to an analog-über-alles credo. Digital is its mantra. And so there are no analog bypass provisions for any of the single-ended stereo inputs. Analog purity, for single-ended sources, can be had only by going through the multichannel input. Balanced sources fare slightly better; there are both multichannel and stereo inputs that support pure analog. (Why the balanced stereo input offers an analog bypass while the more common single-ended inputs do not is a puzzle.)
The Halcro’s feature set is not the only thing biased toward digital; so is its sound. Confounding expectations and logic, the SSP100’s multichannel inputs are not its best sounding. Actually, they are its worst. That’s right: Even the non-bypass-able stereo inputs, with all their underlying digital rigmarole, sound better. While this is difficult to understand, it is easy to hear.
The multichannel inputs are sweet sounding but overly restrained. Timbres and dynamics fall into too narrow a range to be engaging, while high frequencies are too restrained to sound open. Nor do the slack rhythms and weak bass help matters. To be sure, the sound is not all bad. Bass may be shy but it’s tight, and transients are clear and clean. Another plus: Background noise and grain are vanishingly low. Overall, though, the negatives outweigh these assets, sabotaging the grand gestures and timbral diversity of large-scale recordings, like the aforementioned Planets LP, as well as the airiness and expressivity of more intimate sessions, such as the Michael Wolf Trio’s 2am [Cabana Boy].