Sine I read about the new Orion phonostage I was thinking about the whole story behind it. The whole Constellation Audio as the company that started 2-3 years back strike me as some kind of combined efforts of a group of dealer and distributors to create a fictional audio awareness and trade it using unadulterated high-snobbism marketing. Some things that they do looks like very showy, not that any manufacturer does not want to be showy, but something does bother me in that whole story. Let look at the Orion phonostage as an example.
Constellation commission John Curl to made for them a phonostage. They commission him or juts paid him off to use his name is never will be know but as a result a new $70K phonostage out there and promoted by Robb Reports as the only phonostage that you have to use on your luxury yacht while you are being blown by Cosmopolitan model. Why that phonostage is such special? Because it has .4nV per square root hertz, a twice better then contemporary ultra low op-amps. Well, on surface it is for sure is very commendable to have such a phenomenally low noise phonostage but let look at the meaning behind the glossy covers of superficiality.
Constellation did not write the noise numbers in dB per gain that still would be impressive but they use nanovolts per square root hertz. For sure the nanovolts is impressive but it makes absolutely no since. Voltage per frequency is the scale that is used to portray noise projected to bandwidth. In the Constellation case the bandwidth is known – it is the RIAA corrector. It is not that one devise has 20-20K bandwidth and another run into gigahertz region and we try to compare the noise levels. All RIAA correctors have the same bandwidth that is described by the RIAA standards and therefore to use the noise per hertz measurement is juts to do a cheap showing off.
However, there is a bigger fish to fry. I question how much noise is sensible to have in phonostage? The regular good design methods allow having 75-80dB noise that is very good number and totally not detectable. Do not forget that we deal with analog records that have incomparably higher noise than that. In addition it is analog noise, something that is not modulated by amplitude as digital noise is and something that has no harmonic structure of any kind, so the subjective tolerance to this kind of noise is very very high and I would not be surprise that minus 20-30dB of noise is not truly a big deal, after all that what we have with reel tape hiss…
Well, the Constellation and John Curl went good 20-30dB lower in noise then anything out there. It is truly a great engineering accomplishment but do we really need it? As a husband of a physician who believes that chemotherapy is a universal cure from anything I always think about the side effects. So, how Constellation-Curl got their great noise numbers? The quality of construction and use of low nose elements is unquestionably estimable but your do not go with 70dB RIAA gain into the realm of over 100dB with FET transistors and extruded aluminum encapsulation. To go there Curl most likely used a lot of FET paralleling in the gain stages and run a lot of global feedback. I do not insist that feedback and active paralleling are bad but they are questionable. The most important however is that they are questionable but necessary ONLY to benefit the marketing people to scream about the ultra low noise number. I absolutely insist that there is no person in the face of planet who would distinct the noise between two phonostage that play a real life record in one phonostage has -80dB noise and another has -100dB of analog noise.
I would certainly not discard the Constellation phonostage juts because the stupidly-low noise. The low noise is not bad at all but I would like to hear from Constellation about the sound of that thing. Neither Constellation nor John Curl are known as people who care about sound too much. Well, they might do but for them sound is mostly a byproduct of design efforts or a tradable commodity. So, I do not feel that there is anything human in the Constellation phonostage, or even in the whole Constellation Company. They look like were formed as marketing alliance and they look like conducting the life as marketing entry. So far all that I know about them is the metaphor about that “Constellation noise”…
Romy the Cat
"I wish I could score everything for horns." - Richard Wagner. "Our writing equipment takes part in the forming of our thoughts." - Friedrich Nietzsche