I get more reader letters complaining about the prices of some of the products we review than on any other topic. Six-figure amplifiers are bound to offend many sensibilities. But I’m about to demonstrate how the development of those cost-no-object components can benefit music lovers of more modest means.
Exhibit A is the new and relatively affordable Inspiration Series electronics from Constellation Audio. You may recall that back in 2008 this newly formed company launched a no-holds-barred assault on the state of the art in solid-state amplification by assembling a team of the world’s greatest electronics designers—a “constellation” of audio stars, if you will, that included Peter Madnick, Bascom King, the late James Bongiorno, John Curl, and Demian Martin. They were given a mandate to do the best work of their illustrious careers without regard for time or cost. No idea, design, or implementation, however expensive or exotic, was off the table.
The result of that effort was the $65,000 Altair preamplifier and $140,000-per-pair Hercules monoblock power amplifiers. The design and execution of these electronics were beyond heroic. To give you but a single example, the Altair’s volume control attenuated the signal by inserting in the signal path a single resistor—without any mechanical connections or relays. This feat was achieved with an elaborate circuit that involved 48 pairs of light-dependent resistors, corresponding LEDs, and a DAC, all under software control. (I could have cited any number of additional cutting-edge circuits developed for the Reference Series—this was clearly a landmark effort.)
So how did the Reference Series sound? In my review in Issue 215, I concluded, “Constellation has established a benchmark against which all other linestages and power amplifiers can be compared.”
Constellation followed that success with the Performance Series that included the $24,000 Virgo preamplifier and Centaur power amplifier ($24,000 stereo, $54,000 monoblocks). The Virgo and Centaur employed the same circuitry as the Altair and Hercules, but in less elaborate implementations. The Performance Series delivered a surprising degree of the Reference Series’ magic at a still high, but less-than-stratospheric price. The Virgo II and Centaur monoblocks sound so good that I’ve used them in my system for most of the past year driving the Magico Q7s.
Looking back now, I can see that the development of the Altair and Hercules wasn’t purely intended to sell $65,000 preamps and $140,000 power amps. Rather, Constellation wanted to create platforms for discovering optimum circuit topologies and to establish a performance benchmark. Once created, the reference-level products would inform more affordable implementations that would be accessible to a wider audience. In my view, the ultimate goal of the Altair and Hercules design project was the Inspiration Series reviewed here.
It sounds simple in theory, but creating a successful trickle-down model is easier said than done. It requires that the initial development effort produce components that are truly world-class—which is far from a given. Then the reference-level products must sell in sufficient numbers to sustain the company. Finally, the firm’s founders must possess long-term vision, not to mention adequate capitalization. But when it works, trickle-down engineering can bring to mid-priced products the essential DNA of cost-no-object components.
The three products in the Inspiration Series are the Preamp 1.0 linestage ($9000), Stereo 1.0 stereo power amplifier (200Wpc, $10,000), and Mono 1.0 monoblock power amplifiers (400W, $20,000 per pair). Although not budget-priced by any stretch, Constellation products at these prices represent quite a breakthrough. This is particularly true when you consider that the Inspiration Series uses exactly the same audio circuits designed for the Altair and Hercules. The $9000 Preamp 1.0’s schematic (and even the audio circuit-board layout) is identical to that of the $65,000 Altair (and to the Virgo). The Stereo 1.0 and Mono 1.0 amplifiers employ the identical topology as the Hercules, along with many of the same components, including the transistors in the input, driver, and output stages. The cost savings are realized with simpler implementations of the same fundamental platforms. The circuit design isn’t what’s expensive in an audio component (after the R&D has been amortized), so why not use the best topology at every price level? I don’t think I’ve encountered an example of trickle-down engineering in which the progeny hews as closely to the parent as it does here (see sidebar for details).
Even the Inspiration’s styling, build, and visual aesthetic come close to those of the Performance and Reference Series. I had the $24,000 Virgo II and $9000 Preamp 1.0 in my rack at the same time, and sometimes had to do a double-take to know which was which. A closer look, however, reveals some clever techniques for saving money on the casework without diluting the aesthetic.