A beautiful home cinema amp is a rare thing. Quite why that should be so is hard to define: possibly it's because, as home cinema kit is intended for use in a darkened room, looks matter less than flexibility and power.
Whatever, it means that most modern AV amps exude a stark, slab-fronted brutalism, with all traces of a curve ruthlessly expunged.
Not so the Classé Delta Series kit on test here. If ever a stack of multichannel muscle can merit the epithet ‘sexy', it's this one.
Viewed in isolation, each Classé component's fascia, its front panel formed from a single, machine-curved slab of aluminium, is simply delectable: put all three items together and they become positively alluring.
Of course, it takes more than good looks to make a great system, but in this instance, the style on show is directly relevant to Classé's design priorities.
According to the company's executive vice-president Dave Nauber, “Our sonic evaluations always focus on music playback: if you can get music right, the emotional involvement comes naturally with movies as well.” In other words, this is hi-fi that also does home cinema, rather than the other way around.
Hence the need for some nod at living-room acceptability: you'll be using this system as much in stereo as in surround sound. Given that it costs £17,350, perhaps that's just as well.
Of the three products, two are familiar: we've looked at the CA-5200 and CA-2200 power amplifiers a while ago, and remain hugely impressed.
The CA-5200 power amplifier, which weighs 55kg, consumes 1056W in use and outputs a prodigious 5 x 200W, rising to 370W per channel into 4 ohm speakers (such as the Monitor Audio Platinum models we used for our test). It runs very hot, but usefully features an extensive range of inputs, with both XLR and RCA sockets included.
The new element in the test is the SSP-800, an HD-Audio-friendly surround processor able to perform equally well as a stereo preamplifier.
At first glance, it's similar to the SSP-600 model that preceded it, but internally the SSP-800 is fully equipped to decode and process every key form of surround audio, including the latest HD formats.
Enough features to satisfy
True, it's still not quite as well-specified as many cheaper amps – but given the SSP-800's target audience, the absence of 9.1-channel processing isn't likely to be a deal-breaker, and the fact the Classé can't switch 3D through its four HDMI inputs isn't terminal either: if 3D support is really what you lust after, a twin-output Blu-ray player such as Panasonic's BDT-300 is a must-buy.
Then again, this Classé trio sounds so good that there's every chance you won't be thinking about video – 3D or not – for quite some time.
Listening to CD, it's simply brilliant: the presentation is perhaps little languid next to, say, a Naim amplifier, but it's transparent to the source, as rhythmic as many purist hi-fi alternatives and, thanks to the provision of powerful, high-quality DACs within the processor, well suited to use with a range of digital sources, including our Olive media server.
Natural and intoxicating warmth
Switch to movie listening, and the first thing to strike you is the smooth, natural and intoxicating warmth of the Classé sound: it's neither overly soft nor excessively cloying, but it's still such a contrast to the balance favoured by most AV kit.
Here, the presentation exudes imperious finesse, with the SSP-800's supreme detail-resolution brilliantly complemented by the grip of the CA-5200 and CA-2200 power amps.
Even when you crank the volume up, the Classé combination deftly injects just the right degree of bite to the sound, and no more.
It's this completeness – of sound, if not of spec – that makes this Classé kit so impressive. It's far from cheap, but little can match its all-round ability.