If the Halcro SSP100 were a traditional controller, it would switch and transcode video, but would leave the scaling to an external device. HDMI inputs, if any, would be few. On the audio side, it would have consistent sonic characteristics, whether playing music or movies. And the best sound would be elicited from the multichannel or stereo analog inputs in bypass mode, the worst from digital or digitally-processed analog inputs. Operationally, it would be ergonomically solid and glitch-free.
But the $9,990 SSP100 is not a traditional controller. It has a different agenda, and an expanded role in mind. In particular, this controller aims to subsume the functions of an outboard video processor/scaler. To that end, it includes four—count ’em—HDMI inputs. That’s more than most dedicated HD switchers provide. And there are a plethora of analog video interfaces as well. Halcro backs up all this connectivity with the ability to scale video from 480i all the way up to HD’s max of 1080p. In my experience, the SSP100 is the first controller designed from inception to incorporate equally advanced audio and video features. (See Randy Tomlinson’s sidebar for an evaluation of the SSP100’s video performance.)
The Halcro is the first controller I’ve encountered whose performance between music and film is so divergent. With music, the SSP100 is sweet-natured and a tad restrained in high frequency extension and dynamics. Detail resolution is excellent, but imaging is a bit fuzzy. Pull up a chair to Lucinda Williams’ Live @ The Filmore [Lost Highway] CD for a demonstration. The Halcro does a great job of conveying the small textural details that make this a riveting live recording. Bass, too, is anvil solid, and instruments are timbrally differentiated. But that mild top-end and dynamic reticence dials back the almost uncomfortably close quality of Lucinda’s voice that this disc can convey. I mention this not so much as a strong criticism, for the Halcro sacrifices only a smidgen in terms of musical involvement. Indeed, that missing last ounce of realism is evident only in comparison to top-grade analog gear. My point, instead, is that “sweet” and “reticent” are about the last words I’d use to describe the SSP’s sound when playing movies.
You see, with films, this controller’s dynamics are absolutely staggering. The Halcro literally had me checking to see if my reference controller was inadvertently set to some compressed “night” mode. The SSP100’s dynamics, in cahoots with its crisp detail, renders action scenes entrancingly visceral. On the “Bamboo Forest” chapter of House of Flying Daggers, for instance, trees should rustle above the listener, bamboo flying past should cause heads to flinch, and the crack of bamboo and clang of swords should be palpable. The Halcro’s score: check, check, and check. Furthermore, convincing 3-D spatiality and crackerjack transients firmly place the viewer in the scene. And dialog is perfectly clear without being edgy or hyped. When it all comes together, “Bamboo Forest” should be as frightening as it is riveting. Through the SSP100, it is.
The Halcro is equally impressive with drama and music-oriented film fare. As an example of the latter, the opening percussive teases on Fleetwood Mac’s The Dance are perfectly clean. They may lack the suspended- in-air quality I’ve heard from a (very) few other controllers, and the bass is overly thick and wobbly, but the SSP can reveal things—like the startling dynamic contrast when the vocals enter on “The Chain”—that remain hidden through other controllers. And when voices are clustered, as on “Close Your Eyes” from James Taylor’s Live at the Beacon Theater, the Halcro depicts both the merged sonority and the individual quality of each vocal part. The vocals are everything on this track, and through the Halcro, they are exquisitely lovely.
Perhaps I can best sum up the moviewatching experience with the SSP100 by relating my obligatory viewing of The Fifth Element’s test chapters (you know which ones they are). Having seen them a hundred times, they no longer hold the slightest surprise or allure, but that same familiarity makes them particularly quick and useful references. So I reluctantly cued up the taxi crash scene and…. couldn’t bring myself to press STOP until the film’s end! It’s hard to nitpick any component that makes such shopworn material feel fresh.
Now come the caveats. First, based on controller norms, you might well expect to achieve the best CD or highresolution audio sound by way of the multichannel inputs. Think again. These inputs are: missing bottom end oomph, rhythmically loose, and drained, as if by a vampire, of juicy timbral and transient detail. Use the digital inputs and all is restored. Even the stereo analog inputs—which, save for one balanced set, do not offer an analog bypass option and are therefore about as pure as month-old snow—fare respectably well. Bass gets a little muddy and tempos become sluggish, but otherwise these inputs are surprisingly listenable. Moreover, they prove superior overall to the ostensibly purer multichannel alternative. As a result, what at first seems a grievous oversight—the SSP100’s scarcity of analog bypass options—is actually a moot point.