Von Schweikert VR-22.

Audio Electronics Constellation Preamplifier; Audio Electronics Hercules Power Amplifier.

Digital: TEAC UD-501 USB D/A Converter; Oppo BDP-105 Universal Audiophile 3D Blu-ray Disc Player.
Analog: SOTA Series II Moonbeam Turntable.

Sennheiser HD650 Headphones.

Interconnects by Audience, Jena Labs. Speaker cables by Audience. Power cables by Audience.

Furutech Flow-28 Inline Power Filter; VansEvers Clean Line Reference Series High-Performance Line Conditioner.


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Positive Feedback ISSUE 70
november/december 2013


audio electronics

Constellation Preamplifier and Hercules Amplifier - Fidelity and Grace

as reviewed by Timothy Roth


 audio electronics hercules and constellation

Like all good audiophile amps, Audio Electronic's (a Cary Audio brand) Constellation preamp and Hercules power amp combo doesn't waste your time with crap like "Hall" pre-settings, an EQ bar so you can make your own personal screw up of the sound, any sort of proprietary sonic enhancement gimmicks, and definitely no "Loudness" or "Bass Boost" buttons. I seen enough of that crap. Now I know you're thinking, "well duh". But see I grew up in the age of this madness being foisted upon me, although I have always hated it and never used it. But many of my peers think this garbage is normal, so it's worth repeating here that it's still a joy to see an amp that keeps it nice and simple and doesn't waste my time. It's supposed to amplify the signal. That's it. Amplify it.

Having said that, we all know different amplifiers affect the sound in different ways for all kinds of who knows what reasons. Actually, I know of many reasons why amps never merely amplify the signal without some sort of coloration, no matter how minimal. And I like no coloration. I like an end product (the output signal) that is as true to the input as possible, that's transparent. I don't want to hear the friggin' amp, I want to hear the music. That's why I was skeptical when asked to write a review of tube amps. I was afraid they were going to be too "musical", which, as far as I can tell, is audiophile speak for coloration, slow transient response, and a nice sonic bubblebath that doesn't truthfully relate the information encoded on the finished work of art the artist made. See, there's this conception among some circles that a sepia-tinted print is best viewed wearing sepia-tinted glasses. If your music is musical, you want to listen to it on a system that's musical. Here's the problem, though, only music can be musical. If your system is faithful and transparent, what you will hear is music that is musical. If you are listening to a recording that doesn't sound very musical, no amount of "musical" equipment is going to restore information that simply doesn't exist, and what it does "restore" is merely an illusion. I don't like components that give me a back rub. I'd rather see a sepia-toned print without glasses. I'd rather hear the harsh truth, and tube amps are notorious for adding coloration.

audio electronics hercules and constellation

Thankfully, impressively, astonishingly, the Constellation and Hercules pair have an ultra-tight precision that exceeds most solid state amps. My skepticism vanished, left only with wonder at how they achieved this. These amps represent true "high-fidelity" (i.e., faithfulness). Yes, the warmth, voluptuousness, richness, lushness, and depth you expect from tubes are all there. But they are also ruthlessly accurate precision instruments. This is the ideal balance, friends.

audio electronics hercules and constellation

As I oft do, I went for my test CD, Radiohead's Kid A. This CD will kick your system's ass. It's loaded with sounds at the outer edges of human hearing, including some that are merely pinpricks in time. If you have a sloppy, lazy, musical system that can't handle bass or smooths out the high end, this CD will reveal it. The Hercules and Constellation passed this test with flying colors. The clean channel separation was there, the tightly controlled and subsonic bass was there, the gritty robot sounds were there, the pinpricks were there, the punchy dynamic range was there, all the details were there. Heck, even the digital Redbook hash was there. And all of this combined was supremely listenable. In fact, I had to show it off to some friends.

audio electronics hercules and constellation

For vinyl, I gave the Beach Boy's masterpiece SMiLE a spin. SMiLE is the album that only took Brian Wilson 45 years to complete, being finally released as a box set in 2011. The vinyl double album contained the finished SMiLE album on the first three sides and completely ignorable session outtakes on the fourth side. The album was mixed in mono, which is pretty much unheard of in the 21st century, but it was how Brian Wilson envisioned the sound. Although I'm not old enough to be a mono fan, listening to SMiLE through the Hercules and Constellation gave the album a dimensionality I'd never heard before. Is it possible to hear instrument separation and depth of image in a mono recording? That's what I heard. So add richness of presentation to these amps' accuracy.

audio electronics hercules and constellation

Brawn likes to turn it up.

One of the most important aspects of these amps is that they're build like battleships, with enough power output to destroy your neighborhood, but without maxing themselves out or overheating. In other words, they over-designed these amps to ensure years of flawless use. I rarely had the volume knob past the 9 o'clock position. But despite their industrial build, they are elegant and sleek, retro and futuristic looking. They use a shiny black finish on the body that is typically used for high-end cars. I got some nice comments about how handsome these amps are.

At $1895 for the Hercules and $1495 for the Constellation, this combo is a very reasonable option for impressing your friends and spreading the word about what a good amplifier is capable of achieving. Timothy Roth

Audio Electronics