Constellation electronics really need no introduction in these pages. With lofty innovative standards, exemplary construction quality, and unimpeachable sonic results, Constellation exemplifies audio at its finest. So, the idea of producing a component of modest means such as an integrated amplifier might strike many as being akin to nobility slumming with the commoners. But to its credit, Constellation stood firm and took up the single-chassis challenge with the Inspiration Series Integrated 1.0, and the high-end audio world is all the better for it. And so says this commoner.
The third entry in Constellation’s Inspiration Series, the Integrated 1.0 represents the firm’s most affordable component, although at a list price of $13,500 the term “affordable” is, at the least, relative to your stock portfolio. In conversation with Constellation the talk has always spun around shared family technologies—the trickle-down effect. In this instance Constellation uses the analogy that the Integrated 1.0 is to the Inspiration Series as the Argo integrated amp is to the Performance Series. Whereas the circuit topology of Argo is essentially a Virgo plus one-half of a Centaur stereo amplifier, the Inspiration Integrated 1.0 uses the Inspiration Preamp section and couples it to one-half of an Inspiration Stereo amplifier (see Robert Harley’s review of the Inspiration separates in Issue 249). Many components, and these include transistors in the input, driver, and output stages, are virtually identical to those in Constellation’s more upscale models. Even the audio circuit boards are the same design implemented in the $80k Altair II preamp and (gulp) $190k Hercules II amps. Indeed this is trickle-down tech of a formidable class.
The Integrated 1.0 offers plenty of solid-state power. On tap is 100Wpc into 8 ohms (doubling into 4 ohms). My seat-of-the-pants observations found this to be a very conservative number. Additionally, there’s a full array of balanced and single-ended inputs and outputs, plus a home-theater bypass and a headphone amp. Around back, the custom-designed Argento binding posts will look familiar to anyone who’s hung around the Performance Series Centaur and Reference Series Hercules amplifiers—they are identical. The preamp output is handy for users on the upgrade path to a more powerful amplifier looking to enjoy the benefits of the preamp section and headphone amp.
Visually the Integrated 1.0 is unmistakably Constellation with its elegant, matte-finish aluminum casework and distinctive cross-drilled holes along the side panels to vent output stage heat. Predictably, the look has been simplified somewhat in order to corral costs. The curvilinear and angular details and tactile flourishes have been replaced by more, er, “common” square and smooth panels, although the look remains refined and classy. To my eye, no scrimping on quality—top-drawer construction stem to stern. The aluminum-bodied remote control is straightforward and nicely laid out, but its volume up/down was at times, weirdly unreactive until, hello, it suddenly reacted. RH had a similar experience with the Inspiration 1.0 preamp. It’s a quirk that would be excusable in a budget product, but Constellation, really?
In referring to the sonic nature of the Integrated 1.0, the expression that kept popping into my head was “unshakably confident.” This was a control amp in the most exacting and incisive sense of the word “control.” Leaving nothing unexplored, it latches onto an audio signal with a death grip, not letting go until it reveals and resolves every sliver and shred of the program material. As I listened to classic Dire Straits tracks like “Telegraph Road” and “Private Investigations,” cuts laden with macro- and micro-dynamic information, cavernous soundstaging and imaging cues, it was marvelous to experience afresh the nuance and scale buried in these grooves. During the Copland “Fanfare for the Common Man” [Reference], a high-energy recording that can cause lesser amps to grow a little weak in the knees, the Integrated 1.0 merely skated along, its reserves seemingly untapped (although its enclosure did get a little warmer to the touch).
While the 1.0 conveyed a general tonal signature that was dead-on neutral, its personality was ever-so-slightly shaded to the cooler side of the spectrum, as befits a solid-state amp that doesn’t give an inch to suppress dynamics or soften transients or cop out under high-stress bass demands. Treble performance was equally exacting but open, with hints of air and sweetness and not a trace of grain. String sections and chorus responded particularly well to its ministrations and not just tonally but in terms of layering and placement. I’m not sure I’ve heard another integrated amp that resolves individual image detail and arrays of complex images with the precision that the 1.0 conveys. As I listened to the close-miked recording of violinist Arturo Delmoni from Songs My Mother Taught Me [Water Lily], the 1.0 captured what to my ears was the correct amount of transient intensity off the bow and soundboard along with the trailing richness and resonance that followed.