It’s not imperative for me that an audio component be visually flashy or fancy. I still love the clean, classic simplicity of, say, the basic burnished metal faceplate of a vintage Conrad-Johnson or Audio Research model—no knobs or buttons other than a power switch. That said, there’s something about watching the myriad meters of my reference system of McIntosh Laboratory amplification components dancing in a blue glow—my experience of the sound is enhanced by the system’s visual appeal.
Zesto Audio’s Andros Deluxe II phono stage ($7500, all prices USD) is such a component. From the moment I unboxed it, I was enthralled by its sleek, sexy, Italian design. Its curved surfaces, its four vacuum tubes conspicuously displayed, make for a visually stunning experience. The Andros is named for a Greek island that is the ancestral home of one side of the family of designer George Counnas, who, with his wife, Carolyn, founded and operate Zesto. George, an engineer, musician, and record producer, has designed audio circuits since his youth. Carolyn, an artist, helped design the sleek case housing George’s circuits. Their goal was to design an elegant, well-built component whose circuitry was as quiet and efficient as possible.
Well, the Andros Deluxe II sure is pretty—but can it sing?
The Andros Deluxe II (17″W x 12″D x 5″H, 21 pounds) is the middle model of Zesto’s three phono stages, improving on the earlier Andros 1.2 by implementing some of the advances featured in the top model, the Téssera.
All controls are on the rear panel—this makes access a bit awkward, depending on how your system is set up, but their use is straightforward, and this placement leaves the Andros’s elegant faceplate clean and uncluttered. All switches and knobs are accessible on the exterior, with no DIP switches hidden inside the case. Each unit is hand-built in the US, and all circuits and tubes are burned in for 50 hours at the Zesto factory in Thousand Oaks, California, to ensure best sound right out of the box.
The Andros Deluxe II’s circuitry is all-tube—no solid-state devices are used. The output circuit includes two gold-pin, high-current, low-noise JJ ECC832/12DW7 tubes. Counnas experimented with various circuits, but found that the use of this tube—essentially half a 12AX7 combined with half a 12AU7—resulted in high current with low noise, which allowed the finest details to rise above the noise floor. Using 12DW7s also eliminated the need for two additional tubes—the Andros Deluxe II has only four output tubes instead of six, resulting in fewer devices in the circuit path—always a good thing in audio, all else being equal. The two other tubes used are a pair of gold-pin, high-gain, low-noise 12AX7s.
The Andros also includes the same substantial, moving-coil step-up transformers, designed to maximize phase linearity, as are found in the Téssera—they’re big enough to accommodate all the extra windings and the Mu-metal shielding that reduce noise. Zesto claims that this results in better stereo imaging. A pair of Ground On/Off switches, one each for the left and right channels, apply to both the moving-coil balanced (XLR) and single-ended (RCA) inputs and the moving-magnet (RCA) inputs, to reduce or eliminate hum by breaking pesky ground loops. The single-ended outputs (RCA) have a floating ground, while the balanced outs (XLR) are grounded to, again, reduce ground loops. The MM input RCA jacks are always grounded to reduce the noise produced by the cartridge. And Zesto claims that the Andros Deluxe II’s case of 16-gauge zinc-plated steel isolates it from electronic chatter from nearby audio gear.
Balanced transformers, as implemented in the Andros Deluxe II, reduce noise in two ways: by providing a true differential signal, and by allowing the ground to float. The dedicated output transformers are driven by the 12DW7 output tubes, to provide an accurate balanced signal to your preamp. A low noise level of -80dBV below maximum output allows the quietest passages of your music to be heard. The MC loading can be set to 1000, 800, 700, 600, 500, 400, 300, 200, 100, or 50 ohms, to let you dial in the best match for your cartridge. This can be done on the fly, without pause or pops—you can hear the change, if any, in real time. A gain switch with High and Low settings applies to both the MC and MM inputs, again to better match your cartridge’s output.
All RCA and XLR connectors are gold-plated for higher conductance and lower corrosion, and the recessed RCAs look durable enough to survive abuse by audiophiles who frequently swap out interconnects. The Andros Deluxe II includes Zesto’s new Energy Source Power (ESP) supply, designed to increase dynamic headroom, improve efficiency, and operate 10dBV quieter than the previous version.
I did all of my listening using my all-Clearaudio record player: an Innovation Wood turntable ($11,000), a Universal tonearm ($5000), and a Stradivari V2 cartridge ($4500). After experimenting with various loadings for the Stradivari V2, I settled on 500 ohms.
Most immediately apparent was the Zesto Andros Deluxe II’s powers of resolution. Most decent phono stages, and even some relatively inexpensive ones, can decode an LP well enough that the recording’s analog quality is readily apparent—that is, the sound has a natural, pleasant, harmonically imbued quality. A great phono stage ups the ante, reproducing the textures and dynamics of instruments and voices with a verisimilitude far beyond the capabilities of most digital reproduction. I’ve heard some very fine recordings through über-esoteric digital rigs whose sound can closely approach this experience for me, but there’s something about a properly set-up analog rig that transcends the mathematical approximation attempted by digital conversion to an analog signal. You Nyquist theorists can argue the math with me—I’ve engaged in such debates ad nauseam—but my heart and the cilia in my ears say otherwise.
The Andros Deluxe II elicited all of the ambient information from the grooves of my LPs, and might do the same for yours—assuming the rest of your system is of similar quality. In “Malletoba Spank,” from Duke Ellington’s Jazz Party in Stereo (200gm LP, Columbia/Analogue Productions AAPJ-8127), the sound of the mallet striking the bells saturated the air most convincingly. This reference track is a great test of a component’s or system’s resolution. Lesser phono stages will blunt some of the sparkle and decay, but through the Zesto, these fine details were presented virtually unobscured.
Another reference disc of long standing, Arne Domnérus’s Jazz at the Pawnshop (LP, Proprius PRLP7778), further demonstrated the Andros’s mettle. In my favorite track, “Limehouse Blues,” the energy and ambiance preserved on this recording greatly contribute to its live quality. All of the background noises—clinked glasses, audience chatter—were faithfully reproduced. Of course, the music is what matters, but certain recordings, and especially good live ones, contain nonmusical cues that add a great deal to the overall sense of liveness by subtly indicating the size and nature of the performing venue. In a decent digital setup, these cues can feel more detached from the performance, and thus more sterile. The background atmosphere of Jazz at the Pawnshop contributes to my overall appreciation of the interplay between Domnérus’s alto saxophone and the other instruments. Rather than detract from the music, the chatter was and is part of the overall musical event. Revealing such gestalts is often reserved for really good analog gear—like the Zesto Andros Deluxe II. The sound of brushes on cymbal and the resonance of the bass-drum thwacks had as much attack and truth as I’ve heard from this album, which I’ve played for many years and in several formats. And, as on the Ellington LP, the bells were perfectly reproduced, with delicious roundness and warmth. This album’s bass can be a bit light and recessed through lesser gear; through the Andros, it provided the music with an appropriately firm and meaty foundation.
The Andros was also adept at letting vocalists sound like real people singing in real spaces. Most decent phono stages are able to capture the typically pleasant midrange quality of a good singer. A really good phono stage can do better than that, more convincingly placing that singer in a specific room, and an excellent reissue of Patricia Barber’s Modern Cool provided an example (two 45rpm LPs, Premonition/Blue Note/Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab MFSL 3-45005). Barber’s sultry voice cut through the mix vividly, with an intimacy rarely heard outside a live performance. Some critics have described this album’s sound as hot or sibilant, and I used to agree. But as my system has evolved—and, I hope, not as a result of hearing loss—I’ve been able to better appreciate this album. Played through a less revealing system, Barber’s shadings can sound somewhat bright or edgy, but the Andros fully revealed the delicate tonality of her attractive voice. The textures and breathiness made it easier to suspend my disbelief, and the atmosphere of the small, intimate venue was reproduced palpably. This illustrated how fully Zesto has achieved their design goal of ultra-low levels of noise.
We audiophiles often speak of “black” backgrounds and the silences between notes. These vague concepts aren’t difficult to comprehend, but hearing them actually reproduced reminds us of the true appeal of analog playback. The decay of the finger snaps in Barber’s cover of the Doors’ “Light My Fire” softly floated through my room, naturally evincing just how quiet and resolving the Andros was. It was this low noise floor that let me better “see” into the soundstage, to better perceive the positions of instruments and performers on that stage, on which the palate of sonic colors bloomed more fully. And the reverberations of notes provided subtle data that I could use to extrapolate how that stage was populated. Great analog, such as that achieved by the Andros, provides that more immersive experience that most digital rarely conveys. The Andros was resolving enough to hold up its end, assuming the rest of the system is capable of similar resolution.
My reference preamplifier, a McIntosh C1100 ($12,000), contains an excellent tubed phono stage that I feel is competitive with outboard phono stages costing $3000-$5000. It’s a solid performer, preserving most of the hallmarks of fine analog playback, but the Andros brought me more than a couple steps closer to the real thing. I look at the camera roll on my iPhone 6 and find the pictures sharp and clear—until I view the same images on my newer iPad. Listening to the same music tracks first through my McIntosh C1100 and then through the Zesto Andros Deluxe II was like that.
In March 2020 I reviewed Merrill Audio’s incredible Jens phono stage ($15,449), which redefined for me the state of the art of phono preamplification, and sealed its place in the audio-component hierarchy. The Jens produced succulent images with meat on the bone like nothing I’ve heard—even poor recordings benefited. The Andros was similarly involving if slightly less resolving—but at less than half the price. Had I not experienced the Jens, I’m not sure I’d want much more. Both models were remarkably quiet, the Jens getting a slight nod for its lower noise floor and its reduction of LP surface noise. The fact that the sound of the Andros came within whispering distance of that of the Jens is a testament to Zesto’s painstaking design and execution. This is even more intriguing because the Jens’s circuitry is 100% solid-state, the Andros’s 100% tubed. These two fine products together prove that there’s more than one way to skin a cat.
The vinyl renaissance shows no signs of stopping, and audio designers continue to push the boundaries of what’s possible with the venerable format. Today’s best analog gear is quieter, more dynamic, and better able to resolve the fine details and harmonics that make LPs so appealing. Zesto Audio’s Andros Deluxe II succeeds admirably in decoding the wealth of information hidden in those vinyl grooves. Assuming the rest of your system is up to the task, the Andros will more than uphold its end of the bargain. It’s not inexpensive at $7500, but the level of sound quality it achieves usually costs much more. Add in its ease of use, solid engineering and build, and great looks, and it’s very competitively priced indeed—maybe even a bargain.
Now, I’ve just got to hear Zesto’s Téssera . . .
. . . Jeff Sirody
- Speakers: Tannoy Westminster Royal GR
- Amplifiers: McIntosh Laboratory MC2301 (monoblocks)
- Preamplifier: McIntosh Laboratory C1100
- Analog source: Clearaudio: Innovation Wood turntable, Universal tonearm, Stradivari V2 cartridge
- Speaker cables: Wireworld Platinum Eclipse 6
- Interconnects: Wireworld Platinum Eclipse 6 and 7
- Power cords: Electraglide Ultra Khan, Purist Audio Design Dominus and Aqueous Aureus
Zesto Audio Andros Deluxe II Phono Stage
Price: $7500 USD.
Warranty: Two years, limited; six months, tubes.
3138 Calle Estepa
Thousand Oaks, CA 91360
Phone: (805) 807-1840