By Brent Butterworth
We're movin' on up/To the East Side/To a dee-luxe apartment in the sky-yi-yi!
Remember that great line out of the theme from the Jeffersons TV show? Well, baby, I'm livin' it! I finally got out of that little studio I lived in for five years while working for what must have been the cheapest publishing company in America, and I've moved on up. Not to the East Side, actually, but only a short bus ride away. And not to an apartment in the sky, either-this one's on the ground floor, which is perfect for a guy who swaps speakers on a regular basis. Now the only problem is, what preamp/processor do I use? I must've tried 50 or 60 of them by now, but I've yet to find one deluxe enough to do absolutely everything I want it to. This month, though,
I came pretty close.
What a preamp/processor does is perform practically all the control functions in your system. It switches between your video and audio source devices. It performs surround sound decoding-Dolby Pro Logic at the least, and on better pre/pros, Dolby Digital and its new competitor, DTS. And the pre/pro also controls the volume of your system.
That's the basics, anyway. But for a guy like me, who demands sound all around the house, whose system is so complicated that some sort of unified remote control is necessary, and who uses a huge stack of state-of-the-art (and some way-outdated) source devices, practically every preamp/processor falls short somewhere.
Not Audio Design Associates' SSD-66, though. ADA's been building A/V gear for custom installation for many years, so they're used to guys demanding all sorts of weird features. That's why they design their gear to meet practically any demand or desire. The SSD-66 is the perfect example-it's been around in one version or another since the early '90s, yet ADA has adapted the same basic chassis to every new technology that has come along. In fact, those who bought an SSD-66 years ago can have their old pre/pro upgraded to Dolby Digital.
When ADA converted the SSD-66 for Dolby Digital, they scrapped most of the audio circuitry, moving from an analog Pro Logic chip to full digital signal processing. They also added composite video switching (the original SSD-66 relied on an external video switcher) to make the SSD-66 a more full-function device, and digital audio inputs to take better advantage of the DSP circuitry. However, they relegated the demodulation circuitry necessary for playing Dolby Digital laserdiscs to a separate, rack-mount box. Although a few other Dolby Digital pre/pros use external demodulators, most Dolby Digital pre/pros and receivers have demodulation built in. The DTS decoding circuitry also comes in a separate rack-mount chassis.
Like many other ADA components, the SSD-66 employs the ADA Bus, a jack on the back through which the SSD-66 interfaces with other components. The ADA Bus lets you use ADA's PCT-8 controller, which in turn allows you to use a variety of custom remote controls. It also allows you to connect a separate switcher or a multiroom controller.
The main chassis' front panel has an alphanumeric LED display that tells you the number and the name of the source you've selected; you can program in any name you wish, such as "Pioneer LD" or "DTS Video" or "Bob's VCR." Next, there's buttons for mute/off, input selector/on, surround mode, delay, setup, volume preset, test tone, volume up/down, and individual buttons to access level adjustments for each channel. Last, there's the coolest display ever to be put on a pre/pro: ADA's six-quadrant vectorscope, a spectrum analyzer that works on left, right, center, and surround channels. Useful? Not at all. Cool to watch? YEAH!!!
On the back, there's four analog stereo audio inputs, three digital audio inputs (two coax, one Toslink), four composite video inputs, and a six-channel input on a computer-type DB-25 (this takes the multichannel signal from the DTS processor). The video inputs can be linked to any of the audio inputs. The digital audio inputs double as Dolby Digital inputs; thus, if you do as we did and connect your laserdisc player for both Dolby Digital and PCM digital sound (using the laserdisc player's PCM digital output), you'll use up two digital inputs for just the LD player, and you'll only have one more left. So basically, you can hook up probably six source devices to the SSD-66. For a high-end processor, that's not a lot (eight's more the norm), and there are no recording outputs for use with a VCR or cassette deck. Guys like me will need to add ADA's eight-input VS-3 switcher. The SSD-66's display actually accommodates 14 devices, which makes it the first pre/pro that will actually accommodate all my stuff.
The SSD-66's back panel also has outputs for all six channels: left, center, right, left surround, right surround, and subwoofer. Last, there's the IEC connector for the AC cord, a 12-volt output (for triggering accessories like a projector screen or room lights), and the ADA Bus connector.
The unit comes with a universal remote that's pretty simplified; after all, most of the setup's done from the front panel, anyway. But this isn't the remote I'd recommend you use with the SSD-66....
For $995, ADA offers the MC-3800, a beautiful metal control with an LED display identical to the one on the front of the SSD-66. This wired remote offers the same controls you find on the SSD-66, as well as controls for other devices. If you also add the PCT-8 controller, you'll then be able to control the entire system from the MC-3800 remote. The PCT-8 acts like a super-sophisticated universal remote control. To set it up, you or your installer teaches the codes from your existing remotes to the PCT-8. When you select your laserdisc player as a source on the MC-3800, then hit the remote's play button, the remote sends a command to the PCT-8, which converts that command into the play command for your brand of laserdisc player, then sends that code out to the LD player through a wired infrared emitter attached to the face of the LD player. The PCT-8 controls up to eight components. Its only downside is that it doesn't do macros; in other words, you can't set it to fire up your whole system at the touch of a single button.
I really dug using the MC-3800, for several reasons. First, I loved having the display on the front panel to tell me what's going on with my system. Second, having a nice, heavy remote on the end table is a lot more convenient than having to find your infrared remote and point it at your system. Third, it's so exclusive and classy- looking that it makes your home theater seem like something special and out of the ordinary. By the way, the MC-3800's available in the brass finish pictured, as well as in chrome and black, and ADA can also do custom finishes.
Still More Boxes...
If you want to use the SSD-66 for Dolby Digital, you'll need the RFD-1 demodulator, a simple black box that converts the AC-3 signal from your laserdisc player to a baseband AC-3 signal that the SSD-66 can use. There's not much to this one-just RCA jacks for input and output.
For DTS, you need the DTS-1 DTS decoder. It's also a plain black box, but it's not so simple: Inside, there's a Motorola digital signal processor and six channels worth of Crystal D/A converters. The DTS-1 connects to your laserdisc or CD player through either a Toslink or coaxial digital cable. It has a DB-25 multipin output that interfaces with the SSD-66's DB-25 input.
The last box in the chain is the OSD-1, a device that gives the SSD-66 onscreen display capability. It's pretty straightforward-just connect it to the ADA Bus, then run a cable from the SSD-66's video output to the OSD-1, and another cable from the OSD-1 to your TV.
It may sound like this stuff's a real pain to set up. Well, it is. I was able to get the SSD-66, OSD-1, DTS-1, and RFD-1 hooked up without too much trouble, but from there things got confusing. The SSD-66's functions are concealed in cryptic menus that appear on the LCD readout; you'll need the manual at your side to do the setup. And the PCT-8 is even more complicated. But this stuff's really designed for custom installation, anyway, and if you hire an installer, you won't have to worry about any of it. And ADA offers free technical assistance on an 800 number, too.
What's It Sound Like?
I had a chance to listen to the ADA components in two systems: one using Definitive Technology BP-2002 speakers, ADA's PTM-6150 six-channel amp, and Yamaha's CDV-W901 LD player; the other with a Sunfire Cinema Grand amp, NHT VT-2 speakers, and a Pioneer CLD-99. In both systems, the SSD-66 produced great sound-and a couple of major surprises.
In Pro Logic and stereo, the SSD-66 reminded me a lot of the Lexicon DC-1 (reviewed in the July '96 issue). I had a chance to compare the two, using the digital inputs of both, and both sounded pretty great. The SSD-66 sounded just a touch brighter than the Lexicon, with a slightly emphasized upper midrange. Otherwise, I didn't find any noteworthy differences-in terms of resolution, soundstaging, clarity, and surround sound ambience, I feel they're basically equal. I also got a fairly comparable level of sound quality from the analog Rotel RSP-980 (reviewed last month) and the Theta Chroma D/A converter that won this month's Face Off; the Rotel/ Theta rig sounded a little softer in the highs, but had a slightly smoother midrange.
Most of these digital pre/pros sound a lot better through their digital inputs; using these inputs bypasses your laserdisc player's D/A converter, and the pre/pro's A/D converter. But the ADA SSD-66 is one of only two pre/pros I've tried whose analog inputs sound really clean (the Angstrom 200 being the other). Associate editor Brian Clark and I were both very surprised to find that the differences between feeding the SSD-66 with digital and analog signals from the Pioneer CLD-99 LD player were marginal, just a slight loss of detail and a mild emphasis on the treble when we switched to the analog inputs. That's great news for guys like me who use analog sources like turntables and cassette decks.
With Dolby Digital soundtracks, the SSD-66 sounded pretty much like the Marantz DP-870 decoder I've been using. I noticed only a small increase in fidelity with the SSD-66-a touch more detail, and a slightly greater sense of ambience. No big deal. What is a big deal, though, is what happened when we switched in the DTS-1 DTS decoder: The sound took a major leap up in quality. To me, Dolby Digital has never sounded as good as CD; I've always noticed a slight edge and unnaturalness in the upper midrange and highs. But when I played the new DTS Apollo 13 laserdisc, I noticed none of this. In fact, it sounded like five channels of CD-very smooth, very natural, and very dynamic. Brian and photographer Randy Cordero-both experienced Dolby Digital listeners-were blown away by the DTS sound quality.
Does this mean DTS is better than Dolby Digital? I don't know. Given that there's no piece of software available in both formats, we had no way to make a direct comparison. And DTS is recorded on the laserdisc in such a way that it has about four times as much bandwidth to work with as Dolby Digital does, so it ought to be better.
What we've got here is the most versatile preamp/processor I've ever tried, and it's clearly one of the best sounding, too. The full package costs a bundle and pretty much requires professional installation, but there's simply nothing else on the market like it.
Audio Design Associates, Inc - www.ada-usa.com - 1-800-43-AUDIO or (914) 946-9595