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.
In operation, the Argo is cutting-edge. All manner of settings can be tailored to the listener’s preferences via on-screen menus. Software runs the show, and it’s upgradeable over the Internet. There’s even a built-in headphone amp. (That’s right, the Argo can serve as a $25k can amp!)
Personally, I found the touchscreen’s text too small for these tired eyes. Also, the volume control changed values too slowly for me. Fortunately, all is resolved by using the well-conceived and predictably substantive remote. With it, volume changes are a swift and precise affair. You can even adjust balance from your seat, a detail for which Constellation deserves extra kudos.
Once I started listening to the Argo, it didn’t take long to confirm that Robert’s Performance Series impressions applied fully to this new model. I would only add a one-word summary to his observations: seductive. Despite my current reference electronics being blindingly fast, infinitely extended, and exceedingly dynamic CH Precision components, the Argo completely seduced me. The main reason: a midrange overflowing with beautiful tonality and textural details. For instance, on Charles Mingus’ “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat,” from the classic Mingus Ah Um, the Argo captures the horn’s spit, polish, and mellifluous tone. On another classic, Belafonte at Carnegie Hall, the Argo pours out the singer’s voice as pure honey. And any orchestral or chamber recording will confirm that the Argo has a special way with strings. From upright bass to pizzicato violins, this amp’s string tone is more than a little reminiscent of the real thing.
Another of the Argo’s seductive qualities is its forgiving nature. Indeed, the first thing that may strike you about its sound is the lack of rough edges. Lately I’ve been traipsing around audio shows with Beck’s Song Reader compilation, mostly because I’m enthralled with the opening track, “Title of this Song.” This is an exquisite recording, but one that can nonetheless become hard in the second half. Not through the Argo. Even on iffy material, this amp will never pierce your ears.
Happily, this roundedness and forgiveness does not extend to rhythms; they are as tight as you could want. Prepare to tap your toes—or to start dancing around the room. Similarly, and not coincidentally, the Argo’s bass has no slop whatsoever, and like the rest of the aural spectrum, it’s full of beautifully complex timbres.
Compared to my reference linestage and power amps, which tote up to about five Argos, the Argo falls short in just a few areas. The integrated amp has less upper-end extension, which you hear as a smaller pillow of air around instruments. (The balanced inputs, by the way, are more open and resolved than the single-ended.) Mind you, the Argo never sounds closed-in or truncated, and rolling off those highs at less than megahertz territory undoubtedly contributes to the amp’s forgiving character. So this is a trade-off. But if you haven’t been exposed to the sense of infinite air that megahertz-bandwidth components convey, then I suspect you won’t feel like you’re missing a thing.
As for dynamics, the Argo is generally very accomplished. To be sure, it cannot match my reference system in terms of “jump,” but it comes surprisingly close. On that dynamic torture-test chestnut, Flim and the BB’s Tricycle (title cut), the Argo’s sudden dynamic bursts evoke nearly the same sense of surprise and impact as my reference setup. On the live Belafonte, the amp also does an exceptional job of conveying the singer’s considerable dynamic range, which he uses to great expressive effect.
Bass is the one area where the Argo trails its otherwise impressive dynamic performance. A timpani strike through the Argo, for instance, won’t deliver the kind of stomach-punch I get from my more powerful reference setup—or that one can reap from Constellation’s own Reference Series. Finally, while the Argo is stellar at imaging and conjuring a wide soundstage, it is less accomplished at portraying depth.
Frankly, I doubt any of these deficiencies will matter to the Argo admirer. After all, they haven’t mattered to fans of the hugely successful Performance Series, with which the Argo shares these traits. Rather, prospective Argo buyers will likely be seduced, as I was, by its gorgeous tone and easy presentation that nonetheless passes along important musical details. These are priceless, classic Constellation qualities and, at $25k, the Argo is now by far the least expensive way to gain access to them.
SPECS & PRICING
Inputs: Two XLR, two RCA, USB (for service and control systems), 3.5mm jack for 12-volt trigger
Outputs: Argento Clamps speaker cable connectors, XLR balanced line-level, ¼”/6.2mm headphone jack
Power output: 125Wpc into 8 ohms
Input impedance: 20k ohms single-ended, 40k ohms balanced
Output impedance: 0.08 ohms
THD: 0.005 percent
Frequency response: 10Hz–200kHz +.5/-.25dB
Dimensions: 17″ x 5.5″ 15.75″
Weight: 40 lbs.
3533 Old Conejo Road
Newbury Park, CA 91320
By Alan Taffel
I can thank my parents for introducing me to both good music and good sound at an early age. Their extensive classical music collection, played through an enviable system, continually filled our house. When I was two, my parents gave me one of those all-in-one changers, which I played to death.More articles from this editor