Constellation Performance Centaur II 500 power amplifier

I am finding hard to grasp that it is almost 50 years since I first went to a hi-fi show. That show, held at London's Olympia exhibition center, was notable both for Yamaha's launch of a loudspeaker with a speaker diaphragm shaped like a human ear, and for being the first time I saw the drop-dead gorgeous Transcriptors Hydraulic Reference turntable, which was later featured in the film A Clockwork Orange. The most recent show I attended was AXPONA, held last April in the Chicago suburb of Schaumburg. There I saw no ear-shaped drive-units, but the final room I visited featured sound that the 1969 me could have only fantasized about (footnote 1). MartinLogan's Renaissance ESL 15A speakers, which we reviewed in January 2017, were being driven by Constellation source components and amplification, and I chatted with the latter company's Irv Gross about my reviewing a Constellation amplifier, which are made in the USA.

Gross suggested that he send me the new Centaur II 500 stereo amplifier from their Performance Series, which costs $55,000. I gulped at the price—Michael Fremer and Jason Victor Serinus hardly break a sweat reviewing amplifiers in this price range, but I'm made of cheaper stuff. But hey, nothing ventured, nothing gained.

The Performance Centaur II 500
Larry Greenhill reviewed Constellation's Inspiration Stereo 1.0 power amplifier in April 2018. The Inspiration Stereo costs $11,000, delivers 200Wpc into 8 ohms (23dBW), and on the surface looks very similar to the Performance Centaur II 500. Both are rectangular boxes of brushed aluminum with Constellation's distinctive perforated side panels concealing the heatsinks, and a long horizontal control bar on the front. I asked Irv Gross what the audiophile gets for five times the price. His primary answers were: more power—the amplifier I review here is specified as delivering 500Wpc into 8 ohms (27dBW), 1kWpc into 4 ohms (27dBW), or 1600Wpc into 2 ohms (26dBW)—and more weight. The Centaur II 500 weighs almost three times as much as the Inspiration Stereo: 150 vs 55 lb.

Like all Constellation amplifiers, the Centaur II 500 is based on the company's Balanced Bridged topology, which combines single-ended output modules, each of which uses eight N-channel MOSFETs to produce the desired output power. These modules nominally output 125W into 8 ohms; as each channel of the Centaur II 500, like the Centaur II, uses two modules, that suggests an output power of 250Wpc rather than the specified 500Wpc. (The Centaur II 500 is specified as offering 250Wpc into 8 ohms.)

That's where that back-breaking weight comes in: Squatting at the center of the chassis, behind the front panel, is a massive toroidal power transformer. The story goes that when Constellation's engineering team was working on upgrading the original Centaur amplifiers to the Centaur II models, they tried installing one of the higher-voltage transformers from Constellation's Reference Series Hercules II amplifier in a Centaur II Stereo chassis. The result—after upgrading the power-supply reservoir capacitors to ones with a high voltage rating, to cope with the higher rail voltages—was a stereo amplifier with the same 500W output power for each channel as a Centaur II monoblock.

918conste.bac.jpg

Operation
On the rear panel of the Performance Centaur II 500, close to the corners, are four rectangular aluminum blocks; each of these conceals two fuses, one pair per output module. There are two pairs of heavy-duty Mundorf binding posts for hooking up the speaker cables. Two inset panels, one per channel and positioned one above the other, carry the input jacks. Each panel has two XLR jacks and an RCA jack, respectively labeled BAL (balanced), Direct, and RCA. A three-way toggle switch on the uppermost panel, which is for the left channel, allows you to select the input you wish to use for both channels. I used balanced connections (switch in the left position). The central switch position selects the Constellation Direct input, which bypasses the input voltage-gain module and should be used only with Constellation preamplifiers, which have their own voltage-gain module, rendering the one in the amplifier redundant.

After connecting the Centaur II 500 to the wall socket with its 20A IEC cable, you turn it on with the rear-panel Master power switch, which resets an internal circuit breaker. The LED in the center of the front panel glows red, indicating that the amplifier is in standby mode. Pressing the left side of the front-panel control bar for three seconds brings the amplifier out of standby—the LED flashes green, to indicate that the amplifier is warming up. A minute later, the LED glows steady blue: the amp is ready to play music.

The first time I followed this procedure, I got no sound. A quick glance at the manual informed me that a second switch on the upper input panel is used to mute or unmute the amplifier's output. Toggling this switch brought forth my music.

918conste.2.jpg

Sound Quality
From the first track I played with the Constellation amplifier driving the Wilson Alexia Series 2 speakers I reviewed in the July 2018 issue, I was impressed by the sweep of sound produced by the combination. In a Rachmaninoff mood, I'd cued up the reconstruction of the composer's Symphony 1 performed by the Concertgebouw Orchestra under Vladimir Ashkenazy (16-bit/44.1kHz FLAC ripped from CD, Decca 411 657-2). At the beginning of the final movement, Allegro con fuoco, when the big tune that follows the trumpet fanfare is propelled with blows on the bass drum, the Performance Centaur II 500 seemed to have no problem coping with the Wilsons' rather demanding impedance at low frequencies. And though this is a very early digital recording, the high frequencies were clean and clear.

And the stereo imaging—oh, the imaging! I was reminded of the very first high-end amplifier I bought, a Krell KSA-50, back in 1983—when, for the very first time, I could appreciate the ability of my system to throw a sonic picture in which acoustic objects were unambiguously and precisely positioned on a two-dimensional soundstage with width and depth. The image of the solo clarinet introducing the theme a minute after the start of the first movement was stable and suitably small compared with the size of the orchestral forces. The Wilson speakers, driven by the Constellation amplifier, were a transparent window on the acoustic of the Amsterdam hall where the recording was made.



Footnote 1: Jason Victor Serinus and Jana Dagdagan shot a binaural video in this room; you can listen to the sound of this room for yourself (headphones recommended) here.
COMPANY INFO
Constellation Audio
Suite 1, Level 6, 580 Street, Kilda Road
Melbourne, Vic 3004
Australia
ARTICLE CONTENTS

COMMENTS
Bogolu Haranath's picture

"Centaur" .......... Buck 65 :-) .........

georgehifi's picture

This amp far from doubles it power which the maker wants you to belive, in fact it actually goes backwards in the 2ohms!!!

Published
500Wpc 8 ohms
1000Wpc 4 ohms
1600Wpc 2 ohms

Actual
550Wpc 8 ohms
880Wpc 4 ohms
700Wpc 2 ohms

When are amp manufacturers going to wake up and tell the truth.

Cheers George

dalethorn's picture

There must be something skewing that 2-ohms number, since the lower resistance/impedance should increase the wattage. I wonder what that something is.

slcaudiophile's picture

agreed ... i was shocked when i read that too. but i guess at the same time, who needs 500 Watts anymore? but i agree, manufactures should always be conservative with power ratings.

Anton's picture

Anybody remember the Chord SPM 14000 Ultimate monoblock power amplifier?

https://www.stereophile.com/solidpoweramps/306chord/index.html

"Accurate performance specs? We don't need no accurate performance specs."

_

"And you may ask yourself, well how did I get here?"

Same as it ever was.

Bogolu Haranath's picture

It is not like 3 strikes .......... One measurement was (close to) a hit (for Constellation) :-) .........

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Think about this ......... When the new Centaur III comes out this one can be sold for 1/3rd the original price in the used market :-) ..........

dalethorn's picture

"The diamond dogs are poachers and they hide behind trees...."

And this amp will sell for double its original price, as a heater on cold winter nights in the post-apocalyptic city.

Ortofan's picture

...which costs only $9K for a pair of monoblocks.
https://www.stereophile.com/content/parasound-halo-jc-1-monoblock-power-...

Published
400W 8 ohms
800W 4 ohms
1200W 2 ohms

Actual
586W 8 ohms
1154W 4 ohms
2255W 2 ohms
(4200W 1 ohm)

Also, for $55K, you'd think that Constellation could do a better job than this rat's nest of wiring:
https://www.stereophile.com/images/918conste.ins.jpg

Anton's picture

I have it on good authority from a fellow local Hi Fi Club member that if it costs more, it must be better.

That trumps Parasound, soundly.

;-D

Bogolu Haranath's picture

All those internal wires are cryogenically treated with a "secret sauce" ........... So, they acquire all that musicality ......... It is a very expensive process, and hence the enormous total price tag :-) ........

Bogolu Haranath's picture

If we match-up the recently reviewed $45,000 CD player with this amp, the sound is sure gonna be "heavenly" :-) ............

Ortofan's picture

... your local Hi-Fi Club member.
From their Reference series product line comes the Hercules II stereo amp. Priced at $90,000, it must be almost twice as good as the Centaur II 500.
https://www.constellationaudio.com/reference/hercules-ii-stereo
http://www.theaudiobeat.com/ces2014/ces2014_constellation.htm

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Hercules II does not weigh 300 pounds ......... So, it can't be twice as good :-) ............

Ortofan's picture
georgehifi's picture

Not if the current's not up to it, either the powersupply or output stage.

Cheers George

ok's picture

any amplifier equipped with "some" 3000w power transformer could ever provide continuous output of 1600w simultaneously per channel – or anything close for that matter since there is always more to be stably fed in a power amp than merely output transistors. Curious thing is that Constellation Hercules II stereo amplifier that sports twice the aforementioned transformer and presumably larger output stages comes along with more conservative specifications which most probably will be exceeded by the actual measurements at the test bench.

tonykaz's picture

doesn't that phrase have to do with a "Bubble-Gum" daughter of a "Captain of Industry" describing the desirability of a $5,000 Fendi Purse?

Isn't our age group already too close to Oakwood Cemetery's Waiting List to consider our next Amp as one to "die for" ? Phew, maybe I should hunt down a vintage conrad-johnson MV-45a whilst hoping for another 3 Decades.

or

maybe we should consider this Amp's imaging as something: To Live For !!!

Dear Editor JA,

Your wonderful yet quirky reviewing twins have discovered 16 ohm output resistors. It seems that Nelson Pass has been informing your Staff. Steve & Herb are "to live for" .

Tony in Michigan

dalethorn's picture

No, it has to do with the hypocrisy of selling expensive gear and then decrying others who also like to enjoy the finer things of life.

Bogolu Haranath's picture

They tried twice and still couldn't get the measurements right ......... Let us wait another year or two and they may come out with Centaur III with better measurements :-) ...........

dalethorn's picture

Maybe we're missing the real quality here, blinded by "measurement". For example, what if the amp has a secret technology that reduces the power value in direct proportion to how it produces a purer cleaner more musical signal, but does so in such a way that the sense of dynamics is even more breathtaking than indicated in the review? That, or I just wrote the best ad copy this year.

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Constellation Audio thanks you for your support and free promotion. Centaur III is gonna be even better (sounding). They want repeat buyers :-) ..........

Anton's picture

Perhaps we are simply seeing the current paradigm of making up "alternative facts" and people being OK with that, and it's leaking into Hi Fi.

Constellation should call it a 2,000 watt per channel amp, the most powerful amplifier, ever. It is such a winning amp that audiophiles will get tired from all the sonic winning it does?

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Thank you JA for the measurements .......... Stereophile is the only hi-end magazine providing comprehensive measurements for audio equipment (so far) :-) ............

Axiom05's picture

A $55K amp and they can't warrant it for more than 3 years? Bryston gives a 20 year warranty, should be an industry standard.

tonykaz's picture

... Schiit outfit in California that makes all their gear in the USA! Phew!!

Tony in Michigan

ps. Zippo lighters all have a "Lifetime" warranty ( for gods sake ) and they seem to appreciate in Value as they get older.

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Those lighter guys know that those smokers don't live for long ......... So, no problem :-) ............

dalethorn's picture

I think Koss has a lifetime warranty on their headphones, and the plan seems to be that you eventually get tired of sending them in and just buy a replacement.

dalethorn's picture

Here the longest person who ever lived (to 122) smoked until she was 117. The reason she lived so long smoking is because she smoked Centaur cigarettes (rebranded Chesterfields actually), although due to copyright issues, Guinness doesn't mention the brand.

http://www.guinnessworldrecords.com/world-records/oldest-person

Herb Reichert's picture

In the 1990s, when I represented Kondo/AN Japan, their amps came with a lifetime parts and labor warranty - except tubes. We usually sold these amps with a back up set of NOS tubes. After 20 years, most owners have not touched the back up tubes.

steverman's picture

I wonder if those making the remarks have actually heard this amp. I heard it at a friends place and it sounded absolutely sublime. It didn't run hot actually. I thought it sounded like a Class A amp, but it never got hot. He was using it with a tube preamp, but it was the best amp I have heard at his home, and he's owned alot!

Anton's picture

It may sound great, so why lie?

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