First Listen: Constellation Audio Performance Series Centaur Amp, Virgo Linestage, Perseus Phonostage--The Best For Less

Solid-state power amplifiers,
Constellation Centaur
First Listen: Constellation Audio Performance Series Centaur Amp, Virgo Linestage, Perseus Phonostage--The Best For Less

 Those of you who’ve read Robert Harley’s review of Constellation Audio’s Reference Series Altair linestage preamp and Hercules monoblock power amps in our September issue already know that our Mr. H.—a man not given to superlatives—considers both to be “benchmark” products to which all other aspirants for the title of “Best Electronics” must be compared. Designed by a constellation of high-end-audio engineering “stars” (including Bascom King, John Curl, Demian Martin, and Peter Madnick), who were given blank sheets of paper and unlimited budgets to create the best circuits they could devise, the Altair and Hercules set new standards “in transparency, resolution, absence of grain, and sheer realism” according to Robert. Of course, they damn well should set standards, given what they cost—$60k for the preamp and $140k for a pair of the monoblocks.

Let’s face it: At those prices very few of us are going to be buying the Altair and Hercules no matter how wonderful they are. But what if I were to tell you that you can now buy these same circuits (and about 90% of this same “benchmark” sound) for the kind of money that you’d typically spend on Spectral, top-line Pass, mid-line Boulder, and new-gen Rowland gear? Well, folks, say hello to Constellation Audio’s littler friends—the Performance Series electronics, comprising the $24k Centaur amplifier, the $19k Virgo linestage, and the $19k Perseus phonostage (with the $24k Cygnus file player/DAC soon to come). No, they aren’t completely identical to the Reference Series gear. You won’t get that ultra-cool Pyxis “system controller” with built-in touchscreen display (although you will get a massive back-lit conventional remote and touchscreen panels built into the faceplates of preamp and phonostage), and you won’t get those 275-pound, room-dehumidifier-sized 1000W monoblocks (you’ll have to settle for a strikingly handsome 100-pound stereo amp that puts out a mere 250Wpc into 8 ohms, 500Wpc into 4 ohms, and 800Wpc into 2 ohms, with the first 10 to 15 of those watts running in Class A), and you won’t get all of the cost-no-object resistors, capacitors, and hand-tweaked LDRs (Light Dependent Resistors) that you’ll find populating the Altair and Hercules circuit boards (though the circuits themselves are exactly the same). What you will get are the highest-resolution electronics I’ve yet heard.

After wonderful showings in Munich last year and at CES this, I expected the Centaur, Virgo, and the Perseus to be very, very good. But quite honestly I didn’t expect them to be this good. From the moment I turned them on and started playing back familiar LPs—first on my reference speakers, the Magico Q5s, and then on the newly-arrived Raidho C1.1 stand-mount two-ways from Denmark (which themselves have to be the highest-resolution mini-monitors I’ve ever had in my home, at least with Constellation’s Performance Series electronics driving them)—I not only heard a tidal wave of details I’ve never heard before on every single album I listened to; I also heard a density of tone color, a three-dimensional solidity of imaging, a complete absence of grit and grain in the upper midrange and treble, and yes, an overall realism (with realistic LPs) that is unexcelled in my previous experience of ultra-high-end solid-state electronics.

Take, for instance, the great Hungaroton recording of Attila Bozay’s “Improvisations for Zither” (about which I’ve written often and at length). This is a fabulous test record because the zither, by its nature and by virtue of the way it is here played (plucked, strummed, rubbed, knocked), is extraordinarily rich in transient and timbral detail. Since the instrument is closely and artfully miked, you can hear every little thing that Bozay—who, as I’ve said before, is rather like the Jimi Hendrix of zitherist—is doing, from pizzicatos that set the whole instrument ringing like a bell (and Bozay often doesn’t sound the next note until that wash of overtones slowly bends into weird, wispy stopping transients and then decays into silence) to strummed legato chords that swirl through the large wooden body of the zither like powerful cross currents in a tide pool.

Now I’ve listened to this record on a lot of very fine, very-high-resolution playback systems, both in my home and at trade shows, and thought I’d heard everything there was to hear. But through the Constellation Performance gear, the resolution of pitches, colors, intensities, and decays was so fine that even the tiniest performance-and-instrument-related details immediately became more comprehensible. For instance, although I could hear through other great preamps and amps that Bozay was on occasion using his fingernails to make various queasy glissandos, through the Constellation components I could tell precisely how he was doing what he was doing—how he was deliberately letting his fingernail catch against the “bumpy” high-friction surface of the zither’s roundwound strings to produce those sibilant squeaks and shushes. And, as I just noted, I could hear this without the forwardness and brightness than often accompanies the recovery of such ultra-fine details.

What was true on a micro-level held just as true on a macro one. Take the RCA LP Venice (actually a Decca recording made in Kingsway Hall). The record is famous for the beautiful tone of its string sections, and, once again, through other great systems those strings have always sounded dense in number and gorgeous in timbre. But not as individuated or as unflaggingly lovely as they do through the Constellation gear, where you can not only count the heads of the first and second violins; you can also hear their spectacular ensemble playing (and that of the violas, cellos, and basses) much more clearly by virtue of hearing their individual contributions to that ensemble much more clearly.

The sense of ensemble is just as obvious in the explosively dynamic moments for which Venice is also famous, where the Constellation Performers clarify exactly who is doing what in the midst of what can often sound like a dark murky roar of low-pitched voices—separating the wall-shaking strikes of bass drum and tymp, doubled by the blasts of brasses and winds, from the churning ostinatos of doublebass and cello choirs.

The way I’m describing the Constellation Performance Series electronics may lead you to think that they are primarily analytical components. But once again let me emphasize that this considerably higher resolution of detail is not being purchased at the cost of density of tone color or added presence/brilliance. On the contrary, with the right recordings the Constellation’s timbral palette is so rich and full that, on first listen, you may think that you’re hearing a latter-day descendant of one of those gorgeous-sounding 50s/60s era tube amps and preamps, like the great Marantz 9 and 7C, that have somehow been blessed with the resolution and transparency of great contemporary solid-state amplifiers and preamps, such as the Technical Brain TBP-Zero and TBC-Zero or the Soulution 700 and 720.

Engineering by committee isn’t always a great idea. Here, the results have proved to be uniformly sensational. All three of these Performance Series components—amp, linestage, and phonostage—share the same sonic “character” (and, I’m told, the same sonic character as the Reference Series components, with which they can be freely mixed and matched). All three are a little dark in balance, a little recessed (as opposed to forward) in the upper midrange and treble. All three are incredibly high in resolution, top to bottom, and (because of this) in transparency to the sources ahead of them. All three of them are (once again with the right sources) exceptionally beautiful in tone color—and yet, magically, that rich timbre doesn’t seem to get in the way of the clear reproduction of fine textures or small-scale dynamics or, for that matter, large-scale dynamics. It's like getting a Class A triode amp and preamp with the bandwidth and low distortion of a Soulution and almost (but not quite) the same speed of attack as a Technical Brain. Frankly, I’ve never heard electronics quite like these, which might have been designed to appeal equally to all three of my different kinds of listeners— “fidelity to mastertapes” listeners because of their resolution and transparency, “as you like it” listeners because of their timbral beauty and dynamic range, and “absolute sound” listeners because of the way that these virtues combine to enhance realism.

I will have a great deal more to say about the Constellation Audio Performance Series when I review them in Issue 223 (and am expecting new electronics from Soulution, Ypsilon, Technical Brain—if it gets its act together on import—and Audio Research that may give the Performers a run for the money). Be that as it may, these are truly superb electronics, competitive with and in many regards superior to anything I’ve yet heard at any price, tube or solid-state. For the money that is being asked for them, they are also incredibly good deals. Which is precisely why I’m going into print about them so quickly and enthusiastically. Naturally, Constellation Audio’s Virgo, Centaur, and Perseus get my highest recommendation. Until and unless you hear differently, they are my new reference electronics.