Constellation Altair II Linestage and Hercules II Monoblock Power Amplifiers

A Landmark Refined

Equipment report
Solid-state power amplifiers,
Solid-state preamplifiers
Constellation Altair II,
Constellation Hercules II
Constellation Altair II Linestage and Hercules II Monoblock Power Amplifiers

I’ve had extensive experience with the Constellation line, from the Inspiration Series (Issue 249) all the way to the flagship Altair and Hercules in the Reference Series (Issue 215). The family shares many common sonic attributes, which isn’t surprising since all the linestages and power amplifiers feature the same circuit topologies, and in some cases the same parts (the output transistors, for example). The differences are in the level of execution, parts-quality, chassis work, and power-supply sophistication.

I’ll refer you to my review of the Altair and Hercules in Issue 215 for a detailed sonic description of the originals. The new Mk.2 versions sound very similar, with one notable exception, which I’ll describe later.

The common thread in all Constellation products, which reaches its zenith in the Altair II and Hercules II, is truly astonishing transparency to sources. These electronics are as colorless as you’re likely to find. The word “crystalline” comes to mind when I think of the Altair II and Hercules II, like a perfectly colorless and flawless diamond. They impose so little of their own character on the music that listening to them is like hearing directly through the amplification to the music-making. With an outstanding source like the Basis Inspiration and Superarm 9, and highly resolving loudspeakers such as the Magico Q7 Mk.II or MartinLogan Neolith, the effect is quite startling. The system produces a frisson of lifelike immediacy and vividness. Some listeners may prefer a bit of added midrange warmth, or a slight softening of transient detail, or a subtle darkening of timbres. Although, amplifiers that sound richer and more voluptuous can have a certain appeal, ultimately I think that they are less musically engaging and rewarding than electronics that tell you everything that’s on a recording.

In addition to this transparency to sources, the Altair II and Hercules II exhibit two other qualities that vault them into state-of-the-art territory. The first is resolution, and the second is their treble performance. These qualities are directly related, working together in a synergy that is truly extraordinary.

In this issue’s From The Editor I posit that a hi-fi system can never have too much resolution of detail. Those who argue that past a certain point resolution becomes amusical clinical analysis, or isn’t important to musical communication, haven’t heard the kind of resolution delivered by the Constellation electronics driving a first-rate loudspeaker. The Altair II and Hercules II are stunningly dense in the amount of information presented to the listener. The finest microstructures of how sounds are created are gloriously revealed. Take a simple instrument such as wood blocks. How hard could they be to reproduce? Through the vast majority of amplifiers, wood blocks and similar percussion instruments sound like transient pops without much texture or inner detail. Through the Constellation electronics, they unmistakably become two pieces of wood striking each other. I’ll give you another example: On the wonderful Analogue Productions 45rpm reissue of Phoebe Snow’s 1974 self-titled album, the track “Poetry Man” includes maracas played very gently underneath other instruments. Through the Constellation electronics, I could clearly hear beads moving within hollow wooden spheres. The maracas add an almost hypnotic quality to the track.

I use these examples not because I listen to music with an ear to how natural wood blocks or maracas sound, but to convey the realism with which these electronics reproduce the timbre and transient detail of all instruments. Greater realism in tone color and dynamic shading translates directly into a more lifelike rendering of the sound and deeper musical involvement. This resolution isn’t limited to the micro-level; the Altair II and Hercules II allow me, to an unprecedented extent, to hear individual instruments and voices even within dense musical passages with startling clarity.

The second quality that sets the Constellation electronics apart is their reproduction of the treble. If the level of resolution I’ve just described is accompanied by the slightest bit of glare, etch, grain, hardness, emphasized transient zip, or forwardness, the sound quickly becomes annoying and fatiguing. Rather than fostering musical intimacy, such brightness precludes it. And here’s where the resolution of the Altair II and Hercules II becomes so magical; all that wonderful detail is presented in a supremely subtle, refined, suave, and sophisticated way that never calls attention to itself. There’s no need to soften the presentation of the Altair II and Hercules II to mitigate an electronic patina because there is no electronic patina. Moreover, the treble has a delicate filigreed quality that is unique in my experience. Although the top end has a full measure of energy and life, it’s also rendered with a sweetness and grace that are departures from the stereotype of a big solid-state amplifier. The combination of resolution with ease is, in my view, what distinguishes a really great hi-fi system from one that becomes transcendental. That quality is also what makes the Mk.II upgrade to the Magico Q7 such a triumph; it delivers more information and a more relaxed sound. One quality isn’t sacrificed to advance the other. In both the Q7 Mk.II and the Constellation electronics, resolution combines synergistically with ease to foster total musical involvement. The presentation is musically vivid without being sonically vivid.

The Altair II and Hercules II’s overall character is one of lightness, illumination, clarity, and transparency. Many years ago, before I worked in the industry, I read in The Absolute Sound a description of a component as having a “deep chocolate midrange.” I thought it humorous at the time, but the phrase comes to mind here because the Altair II and Hercules II do not have a “deep chocolate midrange.” Rather, they have a lighter, fresher, and more radiant quality that is at the other end of the spectrum from “deep chocolate.” The Constellation pair is harmonically rich and dense, but not in a way that dilutes realism by rendering textures as slightly darker than life. In fact, their reproduction of instrumental timbre has a kind of effervescence that is simply sensational. Listening to ensembles with woodwinds and brass, I can hear each instrument’s individual timbre with vivid clarity, and the combinations of those instruments’ tone colors take on a new sense of organic wholeness.

My only reservation about the original Hercules was a slight lack of weight and authority in the bottom end. Constellation has addressed this issue with the Hercules II, tripling the power-supply filter capacitance and adding additional power-supply regulation in the amplifier’s front end. (These techniques have now been implemented throughout the Constellation line.) I’m pleased to report that the Hercules II’s bass now has much more weight, power, and dynamic authority. The improved low end gives the music a more solid tonal and rhythmic foundation. The sense of lightness and illumination described above is still a hallmark of the design, but in the new amplifier that character is supported by richer and fuller bottom octaves.