Audacious start-up assembles a veteran "dream team."
By Michael Fremer
Posted: March 19, 2010
When the groundbreaking $150,000 Caliburn turntable is your first venture into high-end-audio manufacturing, what do you do for an encore? This question must have crossed the minds of Continuum founders David Payes and Murali Murugasu even before the first Mark Doehmann-designed Caliburn sold.
The less expensive but no less ambitious Criterion turntable followed, but both Payes, an outgoing Australian businessman and attorney, and Murugasu, a Glasgow-trained physician who became an audio importer when Australian law prevented him from practicing medicine, saw greater opportunity in products with wider appeal among audiophiles.
So two years ago, with Continuum firmly established in the world audio marketplace, Payes, Murugasu and a third, unnamed partner established Constellation Audio to produce a "state of the art" line of high-performance electronics intended to be every bit as innovative and distinctive as the products from Continuum.
Had I never heard of Continuum and had I simply wandered into the Constellation room at the Consumer Electronics Show, I'm sure the products would have sufficiently impressed me to write about them in a show report, but I doubt I would have requested an interview with two of the company's founders, just as I hadn't after first encountering the Caliburn at the 2005 CES.
However, after reviewing and purchasing the Caliburn, I got to know the team behind the company and the products. The Caliburn is easily my favorite material possession. The musical information it pulls from record grooves never fails to astonish. Yes, there was some risk involved in the purchase. Continuum was a brand-new company. Would it survive? Who would support the product if the company folded? Would such a complex piece of machinery be reliable under normal consumer use, never mind in a reviewer's system, where it would be used with far greater intensity and be subject to repeated abuse?
Five years later, the Caliburn has proved 100% reliable. Nothing has gone wrong with it -- not even the O-ring drive belt that was changed after three years "just because". The company survives and continues selling turntables around the world to satisfied, mostly wealthy customers. In America (and elsewhere), a qualified technician is on-call should a Continuum turntable require service.
In other words, these guys are for real and their products are too. Over the years I've become friendly with Payes, Murugasu and designer Doehmann, while maintaining a safe distance in the interest of dispassionate reviewing. My respect for them has grown because they've always kept their word. Every product claim made has been verified. Every promise has been kept. You will not meet nicer or more honest people in the audio business, or in any business.
Hercules power amplifier
However, prior to this past year's CES, Dr. Murugasu called from Australia and in a concerned, heavy tone asked if I might meet with him for breakfast the first day of the show. His tone was strangely ominous. "Is everything okay at Continuum?" I asked.
"No, don't worry, nothing like that. We just need to talk", he replied, not modulating his mysterious tone. What was he going to tell me, I wondered, that Continuum was switching to CD players?
CES couldn't come soon enough. Finally, there we were at breakfast: Dr. Murugasu, David Payes and me. We ordered and I awaited the news, good or bad.
Fortunately it was good. Continuum was not folding. In fact, Dr. Murugasu told me, the company was going to announce the first major Caliburn upgrade.
So then what was going on? "Well, Michael", he said in his very proper British accent, (and now I'm paraphrasing), "We have started a new company and today will introduce a complete line of high-performance electronics at the show, designed and built in America."
You cannot imagine my surprise. I have spoken with, shared meals with and spent a great deal of time with these folks, and they'd managed to keep Constellation Audio under wraps for more than two years. That takes some discipline, but not as much as is required to conceive, organize and fund a new company and an entire line of products. When Payes and Murugasu identified the design team behind these products, I almost fell off my chair! But I'm getting ahead of myself.
With that announcement, out came a brochure containing detailed one-sheets for the various products along with computer-simulated images.
"So when do you think you'll have actual finished products to show?" I naively asked Murugasu and Payes, thinking they'd say "CES 2011".
"They're upstairs and playing", they replied.
I would have bolted from breakfast and headed to the Venetian Towers were it not rude and were I not hungry. Instead, I leafed through the one-sheets and read about (in far greater detail than it is possible to provide here): The shapely, fully balanced Altair line stage (over 100 pounds, including the separate power supply) with full-color touchscreen remote panel that looks like a Frank Gehry design;
The 1000-watt (1.1kW into 8 ohms, 2kW into 2 ohms) Hercules monoblock amplifier, the design of which allows for "near class-A operation for a substantial portion of the total output power"; The 500Wpc (600Wpc into 8 ohms, 1kWpc into 2 ohms) Pegasus stereo amplifier; and The Sirius built-from-the-ground-up DAC (no op-amps, no "off the shelf" chips) and CD/SACD/DVD-A player, utilizing Esoteric's NEO VRDS transport that outputs native DSD to the DAC, which can decode up to 192kHz/24-bit PCM via AES/EBU and S/PDIF inputs, up to 192kHz/24-bit via TosLink, and 48kKz/16-bit via USB. The two-box design features transport and power supplies in one chassis and DAC and audio circuitry in the other.
If you have to ask about price, you can't afford these products. However, they are anything but off-the-shelf parts packed into pretty boxes. My experience with Continuum tells me that in all likelihood they will deliver performance, both sonic and measured, as promised. The sound in the small room was promising, but there were channel-imbalance issues in these early pre-production prototypes, and the TAD Compact Reference speakers, while superb, were not full range. You can be sure most people considering these products will have larger rooms and full-range speakers. That said, the level of textural purity and tonal finesse marked these as exceptional performers, even in their pre-production form.
Though Payes and Murugasu co-founded both Continuum and Constellation, the two companies will remain independent. That much was clear when Continuum's Mark Doehmann borrowed a Ypsilon VPS-100 phono stage from down the hall and, suitably impressed (as well he should have been!), declared he might use the entire Ypsilon electronics line at CES next year. That could very well change, especially if the Constellation phono stage is ready by then.