The Halcro SSP-100 is one of the most technologically advanced, full-featured audio video preamp-processors in the world. At $9,900, it is a relative bargain compared to other lofty competitors such as the Meridian 800 or Theta Casablanca, but it costs significantly more than the vast majority of processors currently on the market. The SSP-100 does everything you would expect of a full-featured audio/video processor and adds a video scaler, making it one of a few units in the world with this range of capabilities. I am not surprised that Halcro is one of the first manufacturers to offer this combination of features. Halcro, an Australian company, has long been known for their excellent amplifiers and cutting-edge digital amplification circuits.
The SSP-100 shares industrial design cues that run throughout the Halcro line, namely the use of ovals. If you view the unit from above, there is a prominent oval cap that extends approximately a half an inch past the front panel and three-quarters of the unit’s depth. This accent is about three inches from the left side of the unit. The front of the unit is a thick, satin-finished aluminum panel with the front of the oval creating a vertical line toward the left edge of its facade. To the left of the oval is the power button, LED power status light and IR receiver window. To the right of the accent line, the front panel is dominated by a large LCD screen that both displays menus and acts as a video monitor (for 480i sources). The screen has seven small buttons underneath and a large volume knob to the right. The bottom center of the front panel drops down to reveal headphone, microphone, USB and RS-232 connections. Overall, the front panel is clean and stylish; its simplicity hides the complexity and power of the SSP-100.
The rear panel hints at the SSP-100’s capabilities, with connections for 10 sources (six audio/video, four audio) as follows: four HDMI and component video inputs, six S-Video and six composite video inputs, four coaxial, two optical and AES/EBU digital inputs, 7.1 balanced and single-ended inputs and outputs, 10 pairs of stereo analog inputs, tape loop, record output, second zone output and auxiliary channel outputs. There are also IR inputs, remote trigger outputs, RS-232 and USB connections. In short, the SSP-100 has more connectivity options than any other processor I am aware of and should be able to handle the most complex of systems.
As you may have surmised by now, the SSP-100 is a powerful, full-featured processor with an array of both audio and video capabilities. The audio capabilities include automatic level and distance calibration, DTS (including Neo:6, ES-Matrix), Dolby Digital EX, Dolby Pro Logic (II and IIx), THX (Cinema, Ultra 2 Cinema, Music, Games, Surround EX), THX Ultra certification, analog bypass on the 7.1 balanced input, preset trim options, “High Dynamic Bass” circuit, down-mixing, auxiliary channel management and adjustable lip sync. While that is definitely full-featured, it is the SSP-100’s slew of video capabilities that sets it apart in its feature set.
The Halcro’s video features are impressive; there are only a handful of other processors in the world that have a similar video feature set. The Halcro is one of the first processors to incorporate HDMI switching and processing with four HDMI inputs. The Halcro also has four component video inputs. With the plethora of component video sources out there today, I am surprised by how few processors have more than three component video inputs. There are six S-Video and composite video inputs included with the Halcro as well. Outputs include HDMI, component, two S-Video and a composite video without onscreen display, and one S-Video and composite video with onscreen display. Lastly, the Halcro incorporates a single composite video output for a second zone.
The SSP-100 can up-convert composite and S-Video to component video and HDMI and component video to HDMI; it can also perform de-interlacing and scaling up to 1080p. Halcro’s literature also states that the SSP-100 has brightness, hue and saturation control, luminance transition improvement, chrominance transition improvement and frame rate conversion.
Setting up a surround sound processor in a complex home theater is rarely simple. The SSP-100’s HDMI capabilities should reduce the number of cables necessary. Unfortunately, to fully utilize the SSP-100’s features, extra video cables need to be utilized. The front panel display accepts only 480 i/p signals, so unless your component and HDMI sources are set to one of those resolutions, you will need to run a separate S-Video or composite video cable to utilize the front panel display.
I will note here that I had two samples of the Halcro SSP-100. The first sample had the original firmware; the second sample had the newer, current firmware. The new firmware worked better with HDMI but was still glitchy. I have discussed this issue with Halcro and several other manufacturers and the general consensus seems to be that there is much variability within the HDMI standards. The still-developing HDMI standards let manufacturers say that their components meet the HDMI specifications, but unfortunately, this does not mean that they will all work together as they are supposed to do. Until the HDMI standards group gets their act together, HDMI will continue to be a hit or miss proposition. If you haven’t guessed already, the HDMI interface didn’t always work as intended. I give Halcro credit for releasing firmware updates, as HDMI continues to mature the firmware updates should increase reliability. HDMI 1.3, which will require new chip sets, new connectors, new cables and likely new firmware, promises a more reliable solution for HDMI in the future. For now, your HD sources are best run into your Halcro or any top-performing AV preamp via component video. Yes, this keeps you from 1080p, but that is only found on Blu-ray, and virtually every HDTV and projector that can do 1080p actually scales from 1080i to 1080p internally.
I connected the following sources to the SSP-100: Kenwood DV-5900 DVD jukebox, via component video and coaxial digital audio; Escient E2-300 music server, via S-Video, coaxial digital audio and analog stereo; DirecTV HD Tivo, via component video and optical digital audio; Velodyne SMS-1 via S-Video; Marantz DV-9600 and Toshiba HD DVD via HDMI, component and S-Video (so I could get it on the front screen). The cables I used were from Monster Cable and Accell.
I connected the SSP-100 via balanced cables to Halcro’s MC-50 five-channel amplifier. Krell’s Theater Amplifier Standard was also used to drive either Canton’s Ergo series or Monster’s THX speakers. I utilized the auxiliary channels to set up stereo subwoofers.
Music and Movies
I had difficulty with the HDMI connections. With the first sample, I could not get the SSP-100 to lock on either the audio or video signals coming from my HD Tivo; it and would only lock onto the audio signal from my Marantz DV-9600. The second sample worked flawlessly with the Marantz, but only sporadically with my Toshiba HD DVD player. I ended up running the Toshiba’s HDMI output directly to my Marantz VP-11S1 1080p projector and connected the Toshiba to the SSP-100 via digital coaxial cable.
I watched Phantom of the Opera (Warner Home Video) and experimented with various cable arrangements. In addition to running the video directly to the projector via HDMI, I ran component cables from the player to the projector, both directly and through the SSP-100. The combination of the HD DVD player and VP-11S1 can produce some of the most detailed and accurate images available in a home theater. While the direct component video connection was not quite as sharp as the direct HDMI connection, it was identical to the component video connection being switched through the SSP-100. What this means is that the Halcro was capable of switching a 1080i component video signal with no visible degradation, which is all I can ask for from a switcher.
In addition to watching Phantom of the Opera, I also listened to it; after all, it is a musical. (I have seen at least four live productions of Phantom and am quite familiar with its music.) Many of the scenes are sonically complex, with multiple vocal tracks and numerous instruments. The Halcro was able to reproduce each portion of the soundtrack with astounding amounts of clarity and detail. The vocals were all clear, full-bodied and powerful, while remaining distinct from one another. The instruments, particularly the organ, were also reproduced with clarity and great weight, but without any signs of over-emphasis.
Being impressed with the Halcro’s ability to wring the most out of a musical soundtrack, I wanted to see how it did with a fast-paced action flick, so I played the gun battle from Heat (Warner Home Video). The SSP-100’s ability to clearly reproduce the individual sounds was quite good, but what really blew me away were the dynamics. Many of the better processors possess the ability and clarity to distinguish at least most of the sonic cues, but the Halcro also had an ease and resolution that was eye-opening.
The first sample of the SSP-100 had a slightly higher noise floor than the second sample. With the first sample, when the volume was turned up, I could hear noise coming from speakers that were not active, such as the center or surround channels, when the SSP-100 is set to stereo. I could only hear the noise when I was within two or three feet of the speakers. When I got the second sample, I also received Monster Cable’s HTS 5100 MKII power conditioner around the same time. When I plugged the second SSP-100 into the HTS 5100 MKII, the noise floor dropped dramatically and the dynamic range increased from good to great. I highly recommend experimenting with power conditioners if you have any background noise in your system; in this case, the improvement was substantial.
Continuing with movies, I watched The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe (Walt Disney Home Entertainment). Again, the complexities of the battle scenes were cleanly resolved, with a convincing amount of detail. The weight of the various impacts was palpable. Fights and explosions are fun, but dialogue remains the glue that holds it together. The SSP-100 did not disappoint with dialogue reproduction – the various voices were reproduced distinctly from one another and with clarity and presence making them believable.
Moving on to music, I wanted to see how the Halcro’s DACs held up. Using the Marantz DV-9600 as a transport, I connected it to the Halcro with a digital coaxial cable and also through my reference Perpetual Technologies DSP/DAC combination. I played Crystal Method’s Vegas (Outpost Records) and went straight to one of my favorite tracks, “Busy Child.” The deep and powerful synthesizer soundtrack has slightly more weight with the Halcro DACs. Listening to Shawn Mullins’ album Soul’s Core (Sony), I found the vocals to have slightly more warmth through the Perpetual Technologies DACs and slightly sharper imaging. The Halcro DACs seemed to be a bit more detailed and are extremely good, which will save users from needing to buy external DACs for their digital sources.
Moving on to 5.1 music, I listened to the Eagles’ Hell Freezes Over (DTS), which I have had in heavy rotation. I listened to it several times through both samples and both the Monster THX Select speaker system and my reference Canton Ergo system. The drum beat on “Hotel California” was solid and detailed. The guitar notes were reproduced with good timbre accuracy and were well balanced, making for a believable presentation. The vocal harmonies were likewise clean and palpable, with a good deal of presence.
As you should know by now, the SSP-100’s sonic capabilities are extraordinary. The unit’s video capabilities are what makes its feature set unique. The difference in video performance between the units was vast when it comes it HDMI. The first sample couldn’t lock onto HDMI signals from either the HD TiVo or Marantz DV-9600.With the Marantz, the Halcro would acknowledge only the audio signal. The second sample with the new firmware locked onto both the video and audio signals. I tried it with the Toshiba HD DVD player, known for its finicky HDMI connection, and could only get it to work a fraction of the time.
The Halcro’s video scaler did indeed work up to 1080p. Scaling S-Video or component video signals to a component video output yielded a good watchable image. When compared to the scaler in my VP-11S1, the Halcro’s scaler was softer. The Halcro literature references adjustments that I could not find access to or information about in the manual. Perhaps these adjustments, if they are indeed functional, would even further increase the picture quality. My only real complaint about audio or video quality is with the quality of the Halcro’s HDMI video outputs for signals that have been scaled or up-converted. These images had numerous distracting artifacts including pixilation and false contouring. I would not be surprised if these artifacts were connected to the general problems I described above with the HDMI format. Accordingly, I suspect that as future firmware updates become available and as the HDMI standards evolve, the Halcro’s HDMI video performance will greatly improve. Perhaps it is even wrong to fully blame Halcro for HDMI problems, because everyone is currently having problems with HDMI. After wiring his entire theater using a different AV preamp and switcher(s) with HDMI, AVRev.com’s publisher Jerry Del Colliano reverted back to component video in order to have better reliability and easier switching. Clearly, HDMI is the cutting edge of technology. For many, it is too sharp to touch but, luckily for Halcro clients, you have options that leave HDMI for the early adopters who have the patience to deal with the bumps in the road.
This unit, like other advanced audio video preamp-processors, is incredibly powerful and complicated to set up. In order to realize the maximum potential of this unit, a professional installation by someone familiar with it is in order. The owner’s manual comes in a nice leather binder and is fairly well-written, but it does not go far enough. For example, the Halcro literature refers to video processing features that I could not find anywhere in the manual. Halcro has fixed things like this before, as is evidenced by downloads available on the website, which provide additional guidance. I recommend that, with any purchase like this, you pay the retail price and expect the full service and support of an authorized dealer. Halcro’s dealers are very strong and can help you make your system jump through hoops without you actually having to worry about HDMI or firmware. That is for installers to worry about. You should be focused on the music and the movies.
On the audio side of things, I would have like to have seen some equalization or room correction available. As recently as a year ago, equalization usually meant degraded sound quality, but recent advances have made it a benefit in many situations. I find it particularly useful to be able to employ it with subwoofers, which is why I utilized the Velodyne SMS-1 in this system.
The Halcro SSP-100 is one of the best-sounding AV preamps available. There may be a few other processors that have the chops to vastly improve upon what Halcro brings to the table at less than $10,000, but these other suitors would be looking for more than that. The SSP-100’s feature set, detail and dynamics are extremely strong. The physical presence of the piece is artful. The ease of use is why we all love high-end audio/video gear. If you’ve got the coin and you want to treat yourself to something special, seek out a Halcro dealer for an audition. You will not be disappointed – I promise.