Arcam AV9 and Halcro SSP100 Multichannel Controllers

Can multichannel controllers satisfy the music lover the way a good preamp can?

But not to worry, because the analog stereo inputs, digitized though they may be, sound inexplicably better. They retain the multichannel inputs’ warm liquid sound and detail resolution, but are more tonally fleshed out and dynamic. So, despite some digital degradation in the form of fuzzy imaging and a loss of the multichannel’s analog ease and lack of grain, the stereo inputs are the more satisfying and involving. Listen to the opening track of Lucinda Williams’ superb Live @ The Fillmore CD [Lost Highway]. The Halcro easily conveys the small textural and timbral details that make this a riveting live recording, and any high-frequency or dynamic reticence is mild enough to only modestly dial back Lucinda’s almost uncomfortably close vocals. This track demonstrates just how little these inputs betray their digital underpinnings, and makes a strong case that an analog-bypass option is superfluous.

In a way, though, all this analog analysis is beside the point. The SSP100 was obviously designed to sound its best with digital inputs, and it delivers the best digital sound I have heard from any controller, at any price. Coming in digitally accords a major uptick in the involvement factor, thanks to greater transient definition, a much more realistically airy high end, and sharper dynamic contrasts. The unparalleled bass performance lends real gravitas to the piano’s lower octaves, as on “The Conversation” from the Michael Wolff disc, and highs and lows are in perfect balance. Nor do the amped-up transients call undue attention to themselves. The plucked mandolin passages on the Nickel Creek CD, for instance, manage to be clean and crystalline without a hint of unnatural hype.

Yet, for me, the most ingratiating element of the SSP100’s digital inputs is their way with musical lines. Here I refer not merely to melodic lines, though they are certainly important. Rather, I am speaking of the wondrous array of movement that music embodies. Aside from melodic lines, there are dynamic lines, and even lines created by the shifting timbres within, say, a classical works’ orchestration. The Halcro makes them all uncommonly lucid. Following them becomes not only easy, but a joy.

The Halcro’s internal DAC, which outperforms my reference unit in several respects, is bound to embarrass whatever is in your CD player. So if you have a digital output on that thing, use it. Ditto your DVD player, for the Halcro’s digital prowess extends to film soundtrack decoding, where it dispenses benchmark-caliber performance.

 

Conclusion

In philosophy, features, and sonic priorities, the Arcam AV9 is all about analog, though its digital performance is respectable. If most of your music sources are analog—including CD and DVD players with analog outputs—the AV9 would make a formidable centerpiece for a combined hometheater/ music system. Contrarily, the Halcro SSP100 prioritizes digital sonics and features above all, and for appropriate sources the result is superb. Of course, none of the SSP100’s digital goodness would be audible if it didn’t also encompass a truly fine analog stage. Sadly, there seems to be no satisfactory way to directly access it. If there were, this controller’s analog source performance would presumably equal or better that of its digital inputs. And that would be quite something. As it stands, those with primarily digital sources, and the requisite cash, should place the SSP100 at the top of their music-minded controller list.

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