The Preamp 1.0’s front panel, for example, is flat rather than sculpted, and the aluminum case is smooth instead of rippled. The same is true for the visual difference between the Centaur power amplifier and the Stereo 1.0. Yes, the Performance Series has a more upscale look, but if you didn’t see the Inspiration side-by-side with it, you could easily believe that the Inspiration preamp and amplifier carried Performance Series price tags.
I’m in the fortunate position of having had Reference, Performance, and now Inspiration electronics in my home for extended auditions. Although the Reference Series was returned a long time ago, I still have the Virgo II preamp and Centaur monoblocks on-hand for direct comparison with Inspiration. It’s been fascinating to hear how Constellation has taken that original groundbreaking design and translated it into products that cost a fraction of the originals. Consider that the Inspiration Stereo 1.0 is just 7% of the Hercules’ price. But how much of what made the Reference Series so special ended up in Inspiration?
Quite a bit, it turns out. For starters, the fundamental “Constellation sound” survives intact down the line. By “Constellation sound” I don’t mean a set of easily identifiable colorations. Rather, I’m referring to the brand’s most salient and salubrious sonic qualities. First among these is the extraordinary transparency—the impression of hearing back through the playback and recording chains to the original musical event. The Constellation electronics have so little opacity that it’s as though I could sense the air in the room in which the music was performed. The second defining character of Constellation electronics has been a treble presentation that’s unique among amplifiers, in my experience—exceedingly highly resolved yet exceedingly delicate and refined.
This combination of transparency and resolution without etch that defines the brand was readily apparent in all three Inspiration products. I have so much experience with Constellation that there was no mistaking the Inspiration’s crystalline transparency and openness for anything else. This see-through quality didn’t just allow me to hear instruments in the back of the hall or deep into a multitrack mix; it also conveyed an impression of immediacy, of the air in which the instruments exist being “charged” with the life and vitality of the hall or studio. Many otherwise excellent electronics overlay the presentation with a kind of electronic haze that dilutes this impression of “aliveness,” but the Preamp 1.0 and both Inspiration power amplifiers produced a sound that made me feel as though I were in the presence of the original music-makers. This quality goes a long way toward promoting deep immersion in the music.
The Inspiration’s resolution was far beyond what I expected at this price. The treble, in particular, had that unmistakable delicacy and inner detail that most electronics smear. Think brushes on snares, hi-hat, tambourine, and other percussion instruments with very fine micro-dynamic structures. Many electronics are resolving, but not in the same way as Constellation’s products are. What makes this brand special is the subtlety and refinement with which treble detail is presented. This isn’t detail for the sake of detail, but rather an understated sophistication that provides all the cues that make instruments sound lifelike. Consequently, the top end is silky smooth and perfectly integrated into the musical fabric without any metallic edge. The Virgo and Centaur are, not unexpectedly, smoother in the top end than the Inspiration electronics, but that doesn’t take anything away from the Inspiration’s achievement.
There’s another Constellation quality that the Inspiration preamp and amp embody, and that’s a lack of tonal and spatial homogenization. Even compared with mega-buck amplifiers, the Inspiration is superb at defining individual instruments within an ensemble. The Inspiration’s ability to differentiate tonal color, even among the individual brass and woodwind instruments in a big band playing unison phrases, is up there with the best amplifiers I’ve heard. Speaking of tone color, the Inspiration comes very close to maintaining the richness and saturation I’ve heard in the Performance and Reference Series. The Preamp 1.0, however, doesn’t have quite the textural density and timbral warmth of the Virgo II. Timbres are more richly portrayed through the Virgo II—more “meat on the bone.” The Preamp 1.0 is a little leaner by contrast with less apparent density in the lower mids. Nonetheless, we’re talking about reference-level tonal quality in the Virgo II, a level to which the Preamp 1.0 comes very close. In fact, the Inspiration’s tonal beauty may be unprecedented at this price.
Incidentally, I found the “preamp bypass test” a useful tool in hearing exactly how each preamplifier affected the signal passing through it. I first drove the Stereo 1.0 with the output from the Berkeley Alpha DAC Reference with no preamp in the signal path. I then inserted into the signal path the Virgo II set at unity gain (the input level was the same as the output level). I repeated this comparison, this time with the Preamp 1.0 in the signal path. The bypass test allows you to compare the preamplifier under evaluation with no preamplifier.
Soundstaging is outstanding for a preamplifier and amplifier of any price. Inspiration has a huge, open, and airy presentation that easily makes the loudspeakers disappear. Soundstage dimensionality is also sensational, and among the best of the amplifiers I’ve heard. Just like its antecedents, the Inspiration excels at portraying the bloom around instrumental outlines. The Virgo II and Centaur monoblocks are a touch wider and deeper, but this essential characteristic remains intact.
There’s one area in which the Inspiration power amplifiers depart from the sound of the original Reference Series and of the Centaur amplifiers—the bass performance. In my previous reviews of Reference and Performance I’ve noted that both tend toward a more polite, rather than visceral, bottom end. In my Reference Series review I wrote that the bass “favored articulation and pitch definition rather than weight and warmth.” In my Centaur review I noted: “The Centaur’s bottom end is full and satisfying, but not the last word in weight and heft.” You bought Constellation for qualities other than bottom-end slam.