In high-end audio, overnight successes are extraordinarily rare. Almost every successful audio company I can think of took years, even decades, to establish itself as a globally recognized household name. Moreover, the great majority of these firms can trace their lineage back to one or two passionate engineers working in a garage, armed with little more than ingenuity and ambition. But every once in a great while, a company still in its infancy will introduce one or more pioneering products so different in design and so advanced in performance that those responsible for their inception quickly find themselves leading the market.
Constellation Audio is such a company. In 2008, under the direction of audiophile entrepreneurs David Payes and Murali Murugasu, audio engineer Peter Madnick was tasked with building what the three thought would be the finest audio components money could buy. Madnick’s solution, in part, was to assemble what Constellation Audio fondly refers to today as its Dream Team, consisting of such world-renowned electronics engineers and designers as John Curl, Demian Martin, Bascom King, Keith Allsop, and the late James Bongiorno, to name a few. This constellation of audio stars not only inspired the company’s name, it culminated in Constellation Audio’s revered Reference series.
When the Reference series debuted, it comprised two products: a two-box line stage, the Altair ($65,000 USD); and a huge, 220-pound monoblock amplifier capable of outputting 1.1kW into 8 ohms and aptly named the Hercules ($140,000/pair). Even at their divorce-inducing prices, these products won such high praise that, almost overnight, Constellation found itself competing with such blue-chip audio institutions as McIntosh Laboratory, Krell, Mark Levinson, and Pass Labs.
Constellation then released their financially more approachable Performance models, most of them derived from Reference-series counterparts: nearly identical circuitry, less elaborate bodywork. The Performance series also won raves, and later grew to include the Argo integrated amplifier and the Cygnus media server-DAC. But Payes and Murugasu weren’t done. When they’d conceived Constellation Audio, their vision had been to eventually offer three product lines. As the Performance models were derived from the References, so the Inspirations descended from both. These least-expensive members of the Constellation family currently number four: the Inspiration Stereo 1.0 power amplifier ($11,000), the Inspiration Mono 1.0 monoblock ($22,000/pair), the Inspiration Integrated 1.0 integrated amplifier ($13,500), and the subject of this review, the Inspiration Preamp 1.0 line stage ($9900). Two more Inspirations are in the works: a phono stage and a media player-DAC, prices and release dates to be announced. All Constellation products, including the Inspiration series, are built in the USA.
Out of the box, the Inspiration Preamp 1.0 is as handsome as it is hefty at 25 pounds, and measuring a stout 16.8”W x 5.2”H x 14.9”D. Industrial designer Alex Rasmussen has commendably carried forward the unmistakable Constellation Audio aesthetic while minimizing overall construction costs. Whereas the cases of the Performance and the even more elaborate Reference models are hewn from thick billets of aluminum and boast various textures and curves, the Preamp 1.0 is built of thinner, flat, nontextured slabs of CNC-milled aluminum supported by a steel chassis. The front of the Inspiration 1.0, like its more expensive brethren, is a model of simplicity: On it are just a Balance and a Volume knob, between them a backlit touchscreen. All three are mounted on a protruding aluminum slab, which adds a bit of depth to the otherwise flat faceplate.
The touchscreen is easily read from across a room and is very responsive to touch. However, as I recently reviewed Classé’s Sigma SSP, and got used to what might be the best touchscreen in the industry, I have to rant a bit about the Preamp 1.0’s ergonomics. Seemingly obviating the purpose of a touchscreen, a series of buttons hidden directly below the Constellation’s screen correspond with a series of small, non-touch icons on the screen. These buttons are the only way of accessing the Preamp 1.0’s three menus: Input Selection, Input Setup, and Screen Setup. With each screen, the functions of some of these buttons change, adding to the nonintuitive operation, which takes more time than it should to get used to.
Once a menu is selected, its screen is simply and more intuitively organized, though a few functions I found a bit odd. For example, when you configure the screen to go dark after a set time (a welcome feature), the Volume and Balance knobs and the screen itself are rendered nonresponsive -- until you press one of the hidden buttons, or a button on the remote control. As the screen is intended to be the primary method of control, a “wake on touch” feature would be a help. Next, there is an option to set a minimum and/or maximum volume level for each input, including home-theater bypass; while this may be useful for standard inputs, it seems odd that anyone would have to do this for a unity-gain device. On the other hand, leaving the unity gain set to maximum resulted in a very high noise floor, so I ended up glad that I had the option of reducing the maximum volume output while in this mode.
On the topic of volume: The rotary-encoded volume control was both touchy when I made small adjustments and slow when I tried to make larger ones. Using the remote is much faster, but was often too fast -- repeated taps of the volume buttons often resulted in my overshooting the desired level, and pressing either volume button longer than five seconds resulted in an additional two to three seconds of run-on after I’d released the button. The remote-control handset itself is a well-built, minimalist design of solid aluminum that feels chunky in the hand. It’s well laid out, and responded perfectly to all commands (volume excepted). I particularly appreciated the handy phase toggle, which lets you invert phase on the fly.
The rear panel of the Preamp 1.0, like the front, is a model of simplicity: As you look directly at the rear panel, two recesses in its upper left and right halves, respectively corresponding to the right and left channels, hint at the model’s true balanced design. At the far left and right are three balanced (XLR) inputs, and directly below them three unbalanced (RCA) inputs; toward the center of the panel are two balanced (XLR) outputs, below them two unbalanced (RCA) outputs. At lower left are RS-232, USB Type B (for control), and trigger inputs, and at lower right an IEC inlet and main power rocker switch. While the Preamp 1.0’s case may have been simplified to reduce cost, little details have not been overlooked; all of the edges, for example, have been subtly chamfered and smoothed, adding a measure of luxury when touched. There are no visible seams, screws, or signs of assembly, emphasizing the high level of quality and craftsmanship.
As I poked around under the Preamp 1.0’s hood, I found more evidence of that attention to detail. It was immediately apparent that the Preamp 1.0 has the same FET-based, fully balanced, dual-mono design; the same line-stage gain module; and the same mirrored, mechanically suspended circuitry found in Constellation’s much more costly Performance Virgo III and Reference Altair II line stages. The design topology of the power supplies used in those Performance models are also found in the Inspiration Preamp 1.0, evidenced by the use of three independent transformers, here built-in rather than in a separate enclosure. Of the three transformers, two are R-core, one per channel. The third transformer, an EI design, is dedicated to feeding power to the control circuitry. Each channel also has its own bank of 12 storage capacitors for filtering and smoothing DC power, while Constellation says that voltages for all audio circuitry are highly regulated. The thick aluminum shield bisecting the case’s entire interior is intended to isolate and shield the analog circuitry from the electromagnetic energy generated by the power supplies.
Installing the Inspiration Preamp 1.0 was a snap: I simply removed from my system my Simaudio Moon Evolution P-8 preamp, and connected the Preamp 1.0 to my Simaudio Moon Evolution W-7M monoblocks using Analysis Plus Silver Oval-In balanced interconnects. My Marantz AV8801 surround-sound processor and a Simaudio Moon Evolution 780D streaming DAC were connected using the same. All components were fed power from a Torus Power AVR2 20A power conditioner via Cardas Clear power cords. I left my Rockport Technologies Atria speakers and Kimber Kable Select 6063 speaker cables right where they were.
Firing up the Inspiration Preamp 1.0 for the first time brought to light a few more idiosyncrasies. First, the Constellation took 30 seconds to fully turn on -- much like a tube amplifier. When I asked Irv Gross, Constellation Audio’s VP of sales, about this, he told me that it was a power-quality check that the Preamp 1.0 performs to ensure that proper power is being delivered, and that there are no shorts or power-delivery anomalies. Fair enough.
When the Preamp 1.0 had completed its check and was fully powered up, it presented me with another surprise: noise. Although much quieter than what I heard with the Constellation’s home-theater bypass at full tilt, I could still hear a faint hiss from my speakers from almost 3’ away. Gross told me that the Preamp 1.0 is most quiet when paired with a Constellation power amp that includes Constellation’s Direct connectivity option. This essentially bypasses one of the proprietary J-FET line-stage modules in the Constellation amplifier, and uses the Preamp 1.0’s high-voltage output to directly drive the power amp’s gain stage. Luckily, I had an Inspiration Stereo 1.0 amplifier on hand (I’ll be reviewing it directly after the Preamp 1.0) and was able to test this unique approach. Using the Direct connection resulted in a significantly lower noise floor on all inputs, especially via home-theater bypass -- the Constellation combo of Preamp 1.0 and Stereo 1.0 was almost as quiet as my Simaudio Moon Evolution combo of P-8 and W-7Ms. However, this review focuses strictly on the Preamp 1.0 and doesn’t include the Stereo 1.0 -- so back in went my W-7Ms, and on went my listening.
The noise was inaudible from my listening seat. What was abundantly audible, regardless of the recording played, was how transparent the Preamp 1.0 was even when not paired with a Constellation amp. Microlevel details consistently flowed out of my speakers with ease, as if sucked out of the drivers by my room rather than pushed out by an amp. Listening to “Sleep Away,” from The Cavalcade of Music Foundation Presents Bob Acri (16-bit/44.1kHz FLAC, Blujazz), I marveled at the shimmer of brass each time one of Ed Thigpen’s sticks hit a cymbal. Each tap resulted in light, airy, yet palpable and lingering decays so seductive in subtle nuances that they almost had me forgetting about everything else on stage as I tried to follow them into the silent dark. Dark is a good word to describe, however incompletely, the overall sound of the Preamp 1.0. At first I thought I might be hearing a hint of warmth, laid over everything like a soothing blanket -- but as I listened more closely to the richness, density, and texture of Acri’s piano notes against the weighty thrums of George Mraz’s double bass firmly planted at center stage, I realized that the shapes of the instruments being played were being intricately sketched at their positions on the stage, those sketches then filled in with their tonal qualities -- and nothing more. There was no golden hue, no texture-filling syrup, and assuredly no fatness to bass notes. Instead, I heard refinement, solidity, and a sense of dimensionality, all so well communicated that I could now tell that the stage on which this trio was playing was only about 20’ wide. Even more uncanny was how easily I could pinpoint the players’ exact locations; I could now tell how far I was from them, and how far they were from the wall behind them.
“Keith Don’t Go,” from Nils Lofgren’s Acoustic Live (16/44.1 FLAC, Vision Music), simply reinforced what I’d heard with “Sleep Away.” Lofgren’s guitar strings were presented with crystalline imagery, dead center stage, with a weightiness that I could easily get used to. String plucks had bite, and the dynamic contrasts between harder and softer plucks were easily audible. I also noted that the Preamp 1.0 consistently presented objects, in this case Lofgren, a bit farther back on stage, as if I were sitting in Row 5, rather than the Row 1 sound I’ve grown accustomed to with my Simaudio P-8.
As I rummaged through my collection, listening to music of various genres from various decades, I found myself gravitating toward classic rock -- there was something alluring about how this music sounded through the Preamp 1.0. The title track of the 2011 limited edition of Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here (24/176.4 FLAC, EMI) proved a particularly good example of just how much information high-quality gear can retrieve from a high-quality recording. I’ve listened to this track countless times through myriad components, including my Simaudios, and while I heard nothing I hadn’t heard before, there was a difference in the way that familiar content was conveyed. Specifically, in the first seconds of this track, it sounds as if, in the right channel, someone is searching through stations on an AM radio. I’ve always been able to easily hear the static, voices, high-frequency noise, and, of course, the announcer, but now I was also being drawn toward the high-pitched squelch subtly yet consistently floating around in the background. Captivated by this and other little details in the broadcast, I completely forgot to anticipate the entrance of David Gilmour’s acoustic guitar. Gilmour’s strings sounded invitingly dimensional and properly scaled. The extra little bit of weight the Preamp 1.0 bestowed on the strings seemed to only contribute to this palpability.
This was one of the realest reproductions of those first few notes that I’ve heard from my system. The subtle slides of pick between notes, the sounds of the strings vibrating the millisecond Gilmour’s pick releases them, the woodiness of the guitar body -- all were cleanly reproduced. Then, when Gilmour’s voice enters at the center of the stage, I was impressed by its solidity and his intimacy with the microphone. The spatial contrast between how openly and freely notes emanated from the strings against the depth and density of Gilmour’s voice immediately made me aware that this was not a live but a studio recording, and a good one at that.
Later, as I focused on little details in “Stairway to Heaven,” from Led Zeppelin’s IV (16/44.1 FLAC, Atlantic) -- such as Jimmy Page’s acoustic guitar in the track’s opening seconds -- I wasn’t able to hear the slight echo of Page’s strings in the right channel, as I can through my P-8. I suspect that this rarely heard detail was buried in the Preamp 1.0’s noise floor -- I’ll be listening for it when the Stereo 1.0 goes back in the system. I did, however, appreciate the bit of extra weight behind John Paul Jones’s bass, and the slam of John Bonham’s drums. That extra hint of bass bloom helped anchor this track where it can sometimes float in space, and Bonham’s drums had grin-inducing fortitude, especially with the volume cranked to a level appropriate for such a standout track. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t comment on how air-guitar-inducing Page’s electric guitar sounded in this track’s final minutes. The Preamp 1.0 seemed to do all the right things here, removing some of the sharper edges of Page’s guitar while presenting the bass and drums with more convincing mass.
While I wanted to stay with classic rock, I realized that focusing on this genre could take me only so far -- I weaned myself off it by cueing up “Save a Prayer,” from Duran Duran’s Greatest (16/44.1 FLAC, EMI). Within seconds, the Inspiration Preamp 1.0 had me once again hearing deep into the recording, appreciating inner details that are so often glazed over or buried in the mix by lesser gear: the decays of wood blocks, the shimmer of wind chimes. The transparent lens through which the Inspiration Preamp 1.0 consistently focused aural images not only let me hear and appreciate the nuances of these percussion instruments, but also let me hear and feel the kick of Roger Taylor’s drums and the consistency of Nick Rhodes’s keyboards throughout the track.
Later, as I listened through the Constellation Preamp 1.0 to “Spanish Harlem,” from Rebecca Pidgeon’s The Raven (24/88.2 FLAC, Chesky), her voice was locked dead center between the speakers, with the reach-out-and-touch-her solidity I’ve come to expect with my reference Simaudio P-8. I heard more of the same with the double bass, percussion, piano, and violins. The Constellation was clearly punching way above its price -- so I turned up the volume a bit, dimmed the lights, closed my eyes, and got down to a serious comparison of it and the P-8 ($11,000, discontinued years ago).
After a few repetitions, I realized that, while similar, the sounds of the two line stages were not identical. First and most obvious, the Moon Evolution P-8 was, by far, the quieter. Also clearly different was where the Constellation placed each instrument or voice on the stage. Through the Preamp 1.0, David Finch’s double bass was a bit farther behind Pidgeon; through the Simaudio, its image was closer, larger, more intimate, allowing me to hear and focus more on the thrum of the instrument’s strings and body. Joel Diamond’s acoustic piano sounded more natural and refined through the Constellation; notes had a wisp more color density and, as a result, sounded slightly richer. The piano’s size also sounded a touch more accurate, as did the violins -- but, through the P-8, the violins had a bit more life and vibrancy. When I focused on just the percussion instruments at the right of the soundstage, again, they sounded slightly exaggerated in size and a bit easier to hear -- but the Constellation did a bit better job of letting me know exactly how far back and to the right the sticks were, and gave a better sense of what the instruments were made of: wood. Both line stages exhibited similar levels of transient control, but the Simaudio had the overall edge in slam and dynamic attack.
Constellation Audio’s Inspiration Preamp 1.0 is an exceedingly well-engineered audio component. At $9900, its qualities of sound and build are exemplary, and complemented by a unique balance of solid-state fortitude and tube-like refinement. While it may not be the quietest preamp I’ve heard, and its operation is less than intuitive, the Inspiration Preamp 1.0 redefines what $9900 can buy in terms of transparency, refinement, sophistication, inner detail, color saturation, and overall fidelity to the original recording. In fact, considering that the Inspiration Preamp 1.0 has the same circuit topology found at the very top of the Constellation line at a fraction of the price, it may be one of the best values in the market today.
. . . Aron Garrecht
- Speakers -- Rockport Technologies Atria
- Subwoofers -- JL Audio Fathom f112 (2)
- Amplifiers -- Rotel RMB-1585, Simaudio Moon Evolution W-7M (monoblocks)
- Preamplifiers -- Marantz AV8801, Simaudio Moon Evolution P-8
- Sources -- Oppo Digital BDP-103 universal BD player, Dell E7440 Ultrabook laptop computer running Windows, JRiver Media Center 20
- Digital-to-analog converters -- Simaudio Moon Evolution 780D, Wadia di322
- Cables -- Clarus Crimson S/PDIF and USB, Analysis Plus Silver Oval-In interconnects; Kimber Kable Select KS-6063 speaker cables; Cardas Clear Blue Beyond power cords
- Power conditioner -- Torus Power AVR2 20A
Constellation Audio Inspiration Preamp 1.0 Preamplifier
Price: $9900 USD.
Warranty: Three years parts and labor.
Suite 1, Level 6
580 St. Kilda Road
Melbourne Vic 3004