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.
Low-frequency performance was in the solid-state tradition—clean, accurate in pitch, forceful. Its focus and grip can lull you into thinking that its ultimate extension is deficient, but to my mind it’s a lack of artifacts or colorations that’s making the bass-range difference. To allay concerns, just put on program material with authentic low-frequency material like the M&K direct-to-disc LP The Power and The Glory and you’ll hear the seismic rush of tuneful pipe organ bass and the exhale of ambient cues that any experienced concertgoer will instantly intuit as musical truth.
Only towards the end of this evaluation did it occur to me that I’d listened to more vinyl than I normally do. This was for a couple of reasons, but primarily because the Integrated 1.0 invites the listener to play the best analog. Such was the tonal honesty and transparency of this integrated that I just couldn’t stop myself from grabbing one vinyl favorite after another and in a sense rediscovering sonic charms and, in some instances, catching a tiny musical revelation that I’d heretofore missed. That’s what great equipment can do to an otherwise familiar audio system. It reignites a passion for the hobby that even on the best days can wane just a bit. The secondary reason was because I had Parasound’s new JC 3 Jr. phonostage on hand for a forthcoming review. I was eager not only to hear its overall performance but to compare it with my current reference phonostage, the superb John-Curl-designed Paraound JC 3+. And yes, Junior is definitely a chip off the old block.
With the ATC SCM19A active towers available to me I spent some time listening to the Inspiration preamp section. These two-way floorstanders were connected to the Inspiration’s preamp outputs via Analysis Plus Micro Golden Oval XLR interconnects, a superb high-contrast wire that brings forth memories of Shirley Bassey singing the theme from Goldfinger, “He loves only gold…He loves GOLD!” Isolating the preamp section confirmed what I had already surmised. The preamp might be an even bigger star than the amp section. The ATC’s bloomed and boomed like never before with tighter midbass action and images growing ever more focused within the deepening acoustic space. Finally, I would be remiss not to mention that the headphone amp’s performance was equally transparent, noise-free, and dynamic. It’s a little awkward accessing the jack from the tight confines of the back panel but otherwise I have nothing but praise for the headphone circuit.
And how does the Inspiration stack up against some of the top integrated amps that I’ve had the pleasure to review? The Pass Labs INT-250 remains the impeccably balanced pile-driver of the group with low-frequency weight and dynamic impact akin to someone dropping a boulder on your chest. The MBL Corona C51 has the velvety mids, the dark, sexy and glorious lower mids, the resolution, and the grip. And then there’s the unearthly Ypsilon Phaethon, as absurdly transparent and highly resolved as the Constellation but with a mastery of harmonic density and midrange color saturation that cocks heads when first encountered. It has an ability to delicately hold and caress notes, almost as if it had more wind in its sails at the end of the race than at the beginning. The Constellation on the other hand, is a maestro of speed and control offering musicality that breaks from the starting blocks like an Olympian with a gold medal on the line. Further encapsulating these temperaments isn’t easy, but in a nutshell, the sensual Phaethon suggests a touch more heart over head, while the analytical Constellation intimates a bit more head over heart. Philosophies equally valid and equally arresting.
The Integrated 1.0 calls to mind the Paul Simon song “One Man’s Ceiling Is Another Man’s Floor,” a sentiment that pretty much describes the wide range in high-end offerings that TAS reports on every month. Given its relatively approachable cost, the 1.0 is a rarity inasmuch as its performance so closely aligns with the company’s stellar, though for many, unapproachably high-priced flagships. If you haven’t guessed, I’m very taken with this amp. To my way of thinking it’s nothing short of a new high for the bottom of the line.
Specs & Pricing
Power: 100Wpc into 8 ohms, 400Wpc into 4 ohms
Inputs: Two XLR stereo, two RCA stereo, USB/RS-232 (for service and control)
Outputs: XLR pre-out
Dimensions: 17″ x 5.5″ x 19″
Weight: 43 lbs.
Suite 1, Level 6
580 St. Kilda Road
Melbourne, Vic 3004
Sota Cosmos Series IV turntable; SME V tonearm; Sumiko Palo Santos cartridge, Ortofon Quintet Black, Ortofon 2M Black; Parasound JC 3+; dCS Puccini; Lumin S1 Music Player; Synology NAS; MacBook Pro/Pure Music; ATC SCM19A (SCM20SL) loudspeakers; Audience Au24SX cables and power cords, Synergistic Atmosphere Level Four, Nordost Frey 2 & Audience Ohno; & Kimber Palladian power cords. Audience USB, AudioQuest Carbon firewire; Wireworld Starlight Cat 8 Ethernet, VooDoo Cable Iso-Pod; Audience aR-6 TSSOX