I have always been a sucker for Constellation Audio, before I even heard one I was smitten. There are many ultra fi electronics brands in the high end omniverse but none makes products that look as good as a Constellation. The Integrated 1.0 is the most affordable complete amplifier in the range yet it still features the fading creases and offset opening side cheeks found on the top models. You get more fancy aluminium work on the bigger models but the standard of design, fit and finish is the same; exemplary.
Constellation is an unusual company even by Californian high end standards, its products are designed by a ‘dream team’ of highly regarded professionals who were commissioned by company founders Murali Murugasu and David Payes to produce the very best work they could. The cost no object ideal must have been very appealing because they managed to harness the talents of John Curl (Vendetta Research, Parasound), Bascom King (PS Audio), Peter Madnick (Audio Alchemy), and streaming pioneer Demian Martin (Auraliti). Most audio companies have one chief engineer and only a few are in the same class as these guys, usually the company was started by the same guy, Constellation was created in a much more modern way and has proved that this is a very effective approach over for over ten years.
The only integrated amplifier it makes is in the Inspiration range and based on the Preamp 1.0 and Stereo 1.0 from that range, in fact it’s built with half of the power amplifier section found in the Stereo 1.0. Which means it offers 100 Watts per channel and doubles that into half the impedance, indicating a pretty serious power supply. The preamp section has both balanced and single ended inputs alongside an AV bypass and a headphone amp with a full size quarter inch socket on the back panel. Apart from the matte finish aluminium a signature of Constellation amps is the custom made binding posts for speaker cables, these are substantial and dedicated to spade or bare wire connections, cables with banana plugs require an adaptor. Another distinctive feature is the LCD touch screen that displays the selected input, volume level and balance. The display lets you know that each input remembers the level it was last used at, so switching inputs changes volume. This is the cleverest way of dealing with variations in source volume I have encountered, requiring no set up and being totally intuitive, I wish more amps had this facility. Less expected is that the left hand knob is only for balance, I ended up tweaking it a few times before realising that input switching is done via the touch screen and buttons hidden underneath the control panel.
All of this can be done with the beautiful remote of course and the large serif font on the screen is easy to read at a distance so that is definitely the way to go, unless you want rapid volume change. In which case the right hand knob is the quickest way, alternatively use the mute button on remote or case and all is calm.
With PMC fact.8 floorstanders on the end of Townshend Fractal speaker cable the Constellation sounded refined and revealing, it doesn’t dress to impress, it’s not a first impression product, rather it gradually becomes apparent that you can hear a lot more musical detail and a lot less in the way of amplifier characteristics. It’s silky smooth but is also extremely revealing, some amps have what can be called an exposed sound which usually means that they have a mid forward balance. This can sound very detailed but only shows you what’s happening in that part of the audio band, the Integrated 1.0 is transparent across the band and has an evenness that means everything from dynamics to image solidity and timing are given equal billing. The easiest was to appreciate this is to listen to a wide variety of musical styles and discover that they all sound good in their own way, you get all the character of the recording because there is so little character in the amp to get in the way. It’s so good that it’s distracting in fact, especially when you play Mississippi John Hurt on vinyl, who sounds so real that despite the 50 years since its recording it’s almost uncanny. Then you turn it up and discover that the Constellation doesn’t seem to change character with level, something that the vast majority of amplifiers and speakers do, this probably does too if you push it hard enough but within the realms of sustainable listening levels it’s remarkably even handed. In some respects the extra distortion that usually creeps in with increased volume can be a useful indicator that you’d better steady on if you want your ears to last. Here, you have to be a bit more careful.
The PMC pairing was good but just a hint on the lean side so I brought in some Q Acoustics Concept 500 floorstanders, which with their reflex loading proved a rather happier match. In fact I got truly fabulous results with this combo, the extra warmth from the speaker balancing the strict neutrality of the Constellation perfectly. Voices projected exceptionally well and the scale available with good recordings was properly room filling. The bass took on a juicy character that was very pleasing indeed, at least it did with ZZ Top’s ‘Waiting for the Bus’. On the live version of ‘Big Yellow Taxi’ (Joni Mitchell, Miles of Aisles) the bass was a little too thick but that is in the nature of that recording. You can even it out by moving the speakers away from the wall but that leaves most other pieces sounding a bit lean. So I put on Gwenifer Raymond’s ‘Requiem for John Fahey’, which is a sublime bit of finger picking that sounded crisp and vital and features a snippet of ‘Bron Y Aur’ (Led Zeppelin), that made me wonder if that particular phrase was a Fahey creation in the first place.
I love the way that this Constellation remains so calm under fire, no matter now intense or dense the composition everything remains coherent and clear, you can hear right into pretty well every mix thanks to the genuine clarity it delivers. There is no sense of masking, with many amps the loudest instrument or voice in a mix can obscure what the quieter elements are contributing, you get a general idea but can’t follow them easily. Here all you have to do is focus on that instrument or voice and its precise contribution to the overall sound is there to be appreciated. This could also be described as separation, and was immediately evident when playing Joe Walsh’s ‘Happy Ways’ and made John Lurie’s I’m a Doggy almost hyperreal thanks in part to the tube setting on the iFi DAC I was using.
As I had the opportunity I lugged the Bowers & Wilkins 802 D3s onto a pair of Seismic Bases to see what sort of match they would make with the Constellation. An incredibly revealing one is the short answer but that doesn’t begin to tell you how compelling the music was with this pairing, timing was excellent and separation in the same league, which meant that many layered studio creations like Radiohead’s A Moon Shaped Poolbecame all the more fascinating, giving greater insight into the creative powers of the band and producer Nigel Godrich. They really are the Pink Floyd of the modern era. More straightforward recordings like Vivaldi’s ‘Bellezza Crudel’ (Tone Wik, Barokkanerne, 2L)are impressive because of the depth of tone and vibrancy of the performance. With a fabulous recording like this an amplifier as clean and revealing as this Constellation lets you hear so much of the original sound that it’s entrancing.
I continued to get inspiring results with a range of music and even cables, comparing a few alternatives speaker cables was made a lot easier thanks to the minimal character of the amplifier, yet the result was very similar to that achieved with my regular ATC power amp. Both amps have a neutral, wide band presentation but the Constellation both lets more through and adds less of its own character to the signal, which partly explains the dramatic difference in price, that and the fancy casework. You do pay for the fabulous aesthetic and build quality that you get with an amplifier like this but it’s hard to find an alternative of equal musical and resolving powers in a more affordable box, quite often you have to pay more. It’s not a power thing of course, it’s clarity, transparency and vanishing distortion, that’s what makes a great amplifier. Qualities that are hard to quantify but very easy to hear and enjoy. Even if you can’t afford the entry price I recommend you audition this or one of the Constellation pre/power amps, it’s better to have loved and lost as they say and a brief glimpse of audio nirvana is better than none.