There are three ways a storied manufacturer of expensive audio components can bring down prices while endeavoring to preserve the sound that made it storied in the first place. The first technique is what I call contraction. This is where a builder of, say, loudspeakers uses the same basic (sometimes identical) building blocks it uses in its big boys to create new models that might be fewer in number and/or or smaller versions of their brethren. In the realm of speakers, this not only reduces driver costs but, inevitably, cabinet costs as well. In electronics, an example of contraction would be an amplifier with identical componentry, but with reduced wattage.
The second way to hit a lower price point is through “trickle-down” technology. In this scheme, some or all of the principles that were developed for flagship offerings are applied to lower-priced models. Constellation’s Inspiration series is an excellent example of this technique. Those models use the same circuits as the company’s far more expensive models, but the circuit boards are populated with less expensive parts to reduce costs.
Finally, there is a third way to reduce costs: integration. Consider an integrated amplifier. As an amp and linestage within a single box, it reduces by half the number of chassis. If the unit can also accommodate a phonostage and/or a DAC, further chassis reductions accrue. This is no small savings; the casework typically found on high-end gear is made of expensive metals and often includes laser-cut design elements. On an electronic component’s bill of materials, the chassis is one of the costliest line items. Also reduced is the number of power supplies. And, though it is not reflected in the price of the integrated unit itself, the buyer also saves on interconnects and power cords—and these days, that isn’t chump change.
Of these cost-cutting techniques, trickle-down faces the greatest challenge in maintaining the sonic characteristics of corresponding costlier models. The reason why is simple: different parts equal different sound. As evidence, look no further than Robert Harley’s thorough review of the aforementioned Constellation Inspiration models. Although Robert enumerates the ways in which the Inspiration models reflect the Constellation flagships’ “house sound,” he also points out several significant areas in which the two diverge. Magico’s S Series is another good example. The S Series applies Magico’s principles of acoustic suspension designs and rigid, aluminum cabinetry—but with less expensive drivers and crossovers than its Q Series models. Unsurprisingly, while the S Series retains many Magico traits, its sound is distinctly different than that of the Q Series from which its technology trickled down.
Please don’t get me wrong. I’m a huge fan of trickle-down products. As the Inspiration and S Series lines both demonstrate, the approach can lead to stellar results. In contrast, though, both contraction and integration use the same principles and parts as their donor products. They therefore have the best chance of preserving the brand’s sonic character.
Which brings us, at last, to the Constellation Argo, an integrated amplifier meant to deliver the classic Constellation sound at a lower price point. To accomplish this, Constellation’s designers employed a canny mix of both integration and contraction. To begin with, the unit integrates an actual Virgo III preamplifier, which is part of Constellation’s Performance Series (one down from its ultimate Reference Series), and an actual Centaur power amp module, also part of the Performance Series. Besides bringing these two components under one roof, so to speak, Constellation will soon be offering USB DAC and phonostage cards that simply slide into the Argo’s modular chassis. This will save additional costs going forward, while making the Argo a more versatile component.
The Argo’s contraction comes primarily from the integrated Centaur stereo amp. The standalone Centaur consists of two 125-watt modules per channel, for a total of 250 watts per channel. The Argo functions with just one of those modules per channel, so its power is exactly half that of the Centaur. Note, however, that the amp modules themselves are identical. At the same time, while the Virgo III’s power supply is an outboard unit, the Argo’s is built into the chassis. Clearly, though, the Argo is far more similar to than different from Constellation’s higher-priced separates, right down to the use of identical parts, circuits, and intricately laser-cut Performance Series casework.
With these combined integration and contraction efforts, the Argo ends up retailing for $25,000. Let’s acknowledge right here that that’s still a whole lot of money, but it is well under half the cost of the parent components. The new Inspiration Series separates come in at very nearly the same price as the Argo and, as Robert indicated in his review, you may even prefer their sound. But the Argo is the least expensive Constellation product aspiring to Performance Series sonics. Assuming it succeeds, it represents a great value.
To refresh your memory on the character of that Series, I need only refer to RH’s Inspiration Series review, which used the aforementioned Performance Series units as a yardstick. Of the Performance Series sound, he noted characteristics such as “see-through quality,” “detail with understated sophistication,” “resolved yet exceedingly delicate and refined” treble, “richly portrayed” timbres, and somewhat “polite” bass performance.
Before delving into how closely the Argo hews to what Robert described, let’s take a quick tour of the unit itself. The Argo is immediately recognizable as a Constellation product. As with all of the company’s higher-end components, its front panel is modern-clean, with but two knobs. The faceplate is dominated by a touchscreen, under which are a series of buttons. Together, these elements enact all operations. Around back are jacks and binding posts of the superb quality you would expect in this price category.