Zesto Audio Andros 1.2 Phonostage Vs Manley Labs Chinook Phonostage - Part II
I’ve seen Zesto Audio gear close up, specifically at the 2019 Capital Audiofest, and I find its appearance to be visually quite stunning. That said I was a tad disappointed in the standard of build when I unpacked my Zesto Andros 1.2. To be fair, there’s only really one complaint and that’s relating to the polished chrome plate that looks like an elongated ‘S’ and sits behind the tubes – it’s rather thin and tacky and looks out of place on a $4700 component. The swirly plate hasn’t been designed or formed in a way that doesn’t leave gaps around it, so it fits rather like the body panels on a 1970’s Ford Cortina.
Zesto needs to understand that we audiophiles judge the sound of our gear largely by how heavy it is, and at 20 lbs the Andros is a little on the light side. Beefing up the chassis could easily have added an additional 10 lbs to the unit, placing it into the ‘respectably heavy’ camp and earning it many more admirers.
Other than those little niggles the unit is a dream. Except for the absence of a remote!
Again, I’m going to drive you to the manufacturer’s website for specs, there’s no point in listing everything here. But here’s a condensed version of the Zesto Audio Andros’ features with my pertinent comments to boot:
KEY FEATURES OF THE ZESTO AUDIO ANDROS 1.2 PHONOSTAGE
- There’s plenty of gain for most LOMC cartridges, my 0.24v ZYX works fine, just.
- Each unit is hand built “Made in the USA” – MAGA fans can unite behind Zesto.
- 50 hour factory burn in on all circuits and vacuum tubes – buyer’s remorse will be instant, if you don’t like it out of the box, it ain’t going to get any better.
- A low Noise level of -75 dBu below maximum output allows the quietest passages of your music to be heard – it didn’t sound quite as quiet or ‘black’ as the Manley Chinook.
- Isolated ground and a Ground On/Off switch will allow you to choose the best ground configuration – this worked like a charm.
- All switches and knobs are easily accessible, nothing hidden inside to adjust – yes, easily accessible around the back of the unit! One only has to maneuver it from its 3 brass isolation cones, unplug the mains cable and RCA’s then twist it awkwardly on the shelf/rack to get to the back of it. Oh, and then do the same in reverse. Oh for one of those cheap plastic things with batteries.
- Two position MM switch 47K and 15K Ohms to accommodate more cartridges.
- 10 position MC load switch from 20 to 1000 Ohms – adjustable 1000, 800, 600, 500, 400, 300, 200, 100, 50, 20 Ohms
- Accommodates both high and low MC output cartridges
- MC Internal step up transformers
- MC High/Low switch with ~ -3dB gain for high output MC cartridges
- Four (4) Gold pin JJ ECC83S/12AX7 vacuum tubes with high quality gold pin ceramic sockets
- 1% metal film resisters throughout
- Polypropylene capacitors throughout the audio path
- Elegantly designed 16 gauge steel enclosure to help isolate the electronic “chatter” from nearby equipment – elegant maybe, it’s still a little tacky though.
- On/Off power switch conveniently mounted on front side panel – yay!
- Easy to read large type on back panel – agreed. It couldn’t be laid out more simply and more clear.
Setup and Component Matching
I set the Zesto Audio Andros 1.2 atop three AudioPoints as I had with the Chinook, and also tried it directly with the supplied feet. Neither seemed to make a difference at first, when I ran the unit for several days using the Music Hall MMF 11 as source. Later, switching to the Dr. Feickert Volare / Origin Live Silver, and then the excellent Origin Live Resolution / Illustrious / ZYX combo, I was able to elicit more of a difference when switching in and out different isolation devices.
As with the Chinook, cabling choices varied from the hard-wired phono cables on the Dr. Feickert Volare Turntable to cables from Analysis Plus, Harmonic Technology (Pro-Silway), Anti-Cables and several others I have laying around. In this case I found that the silver/copper hybrids worked well, but pure copper cables worked better. I’ll expand on this further on in the review. The ESP Reference worked fine as a power cord as always, and that’s what I continued to work with throughout.
Setup was quick and easy. I screwed up with understanding the grounding switches on the rear of the unit and became agitated by quite a loud case of tube rush. My (mis) understanding of the ground switch function was remedied by a quick read of the owner’s manual. Oh the shame in having to ask for directions.
The Sound Of Zesto
The Zesto proved to be something of a chameleon in my system. While I’ve previously described the Manley Chinook as “big and meaty and gregarious, like an over-filled plate of mama’s best lasagna”, my initial take on the Zesto was that of a complete polar opposite. It sounded leaner, more agile, more dynamic and snappy, more focused, but less fleshy. In a sense, and again reverting back to my Chinook comments, it was like switching from tubes to solid-state, to use a worn amplifier analogy. The manual suggested a pair of tubes from the quad would make the most difference to the sound so out came the JJ’s and in went a couple of NOS Amperex 12AX7’s. The change was positive, pulling the Harmonic Technology ProSilway and throwing in a handy set of pure copper Anti-Cables helped a little more.
For a while I was frustrated with the Zesto Andros, it wasn’t plucking my strings with the same appeal as the Chinook had. So out went the Zesto and in came the Chinook.
And that’s how things remained for a couple of weeks.
Then a few things happened in very close proximity:
- I’d been tracking a package winging its way from the UK over the Christmas Holiday period via DHL. The Origin Live deck and arm arrived, kitted out to the extreme with Origin’s recommended upgrades.
- In came a nice little ZYX Ultimate 100 LOMC, complete with a sweet little canvas purse and a box that required an axe to pry apart.
- Out went the Tyler Acoustics Mastering speakers (off to a new and happy owner) and back came the excellent Dunlavy SC-III’s.
- In came a platform from Symposium along with additional Isolation equipment.
- A custom made wall-mounted turntable platform was added, to get both the TT and Phonostage off the floorstanding rack and away from the negative affects of a bouncy wooden floor.
After a few days with the review system put back together and the new TT/Arm/cartridge beginning to open up nicely, I pulled the Chinook out and switched back to the Zesto Andros phono. With the entirely revamped front-end, the Zesto Andros 1.2 just stepped out from the shadow of the Chinook and entered into a whole other league of performance. With a little tweak of VTA and VTF just to tip the tonal balance a hair, the Andros just blew apart my previous perception of what a good sub $10K phono preamplifier could do. The first thing to strike me was the expansiveness of the soundstage. The speakers completely disappear and the front of the room behind the speakers just opened up into a new and bigger space. Images stood solidly in their own space and the spatial relationships between performers became crystal clear.
Next in my notes: the dynamics from plucked guitar strings were simply astonishing. My well worn copy of the John McLaughlin, Paco de Lucia and Al Di Meola – “Friday Night In San Francisco” album on 180g vinyl came to life like I’ve never heard it before. The spatial relationship and delineation between performers on the stage was excellent, but now the space was further illuminated and the performers snapped into focus with the vibrant attack of notes bursting outward from each of their instruments, followed by the decay of one note reverberating through the hall space to be replaced quickly by another.
Returning to the Duke Ellington’s ‘Blues In Orbit’ on 200 gram, brass was even more brassy, the upright bass had more tone, clarity and presence in the mix (previously a little subdued) and Ellington’s percussive piano notes leapt out with greater transient speed and impact. There wasn’t a hint of thinness or lack of body, no excessive brashness from horns or annoying bloat from the plucked upright, just clear, natural, neutral sound.
Ry Cooder’s “Crossroads” (the original movie soundtrack) is an excellent album, classic Cooder in the vein of “Paris, Texas” and “The Long Riders”. With Cooder, Arlen Roth and Steve Vai on guitars the album invokes a trip through the Mississippi Delta via it’s earthy mix of traditional, gospel, acoustic and electric blues. I wasn’t surprised to see Bernie Grundman listed as Mastering Engineer when I first listened to this album a decade or so ago, since the sound quality is excellent. The tracks “Cotton Needs Pickin'” and “Feelin’ Bad Blues” are the highlights for me on this album, and the Origin Live / Zesto combo brings them to life like no other front-end I’ve heard. The three-dimensionality was pretty incredible, and again with a bounty of air and space around all performers.
Tripping through a few quick comparisons –
- The Chinook is undoubtedly warmer and fleshier but the Zesto Andros 1.2 is more accurate and less colored by the typical sound of tubes.
- The Zesto is more extended both top and bottom. The top end is rarely harsh and the bass is extended and taught. Again, it’s more accurate and faithful to the recording.
- The sense of holography and dimensionality is more profound with the Zesto and there’s more air and space around performers than with the Chinook.
- With the Chinook’s warmth and solidity it does give the music more of a ‘live’ feel, but the trade-offs are less detail, air and sparkle and a detour from sonic accuracy and neutrality.
I suppose in a sense it’s what you’d expect when comparing two components with a $2000 price differential. Well actually no, it isn’t, at least not in my experience. I’ve spent a lot more when replacing one component with another and heard far subtler improvements. Don’t get me wrong, I think the Manley is an excellent phono and competitive at the $2-3K price point. in fact with a less dialed-in front-end you might even prefer the Chinook over the Zesto, as I did for a while. But a more revealing front-end captured the obvious difference in quality between these two components, stepping up to a higher quality turntable, arm and cartridge, (Origin Live Resolution / Illustrious / ZYX Ulti) the Zesto Andros 1.2 is able to open up an insurmountable gap between itself and the less expensive Manley Chinook.
I should reiterate that the style of presentation between these two units is quite different, with the Manley making a fuller representation of the classic tube sound and the Zesto preferring to remain more neutral. Yes you can close the gap in the different styles of presentation with some tube rolling, but you won’t turn one into the other. So for someone who loves their Chinook but wants to step up the ladder, the Zesto Andros may not be a logical next step. But for me, in my system, with my musical tastes, it represents a significant step up in performance over the Chinook and it’s well worth the extra dollars.
Components Used For this review
Music Hall MMF-11 / Project carbon 9cc with oracle audio damping kit upgrade / Goldring 2200 mm
Dr. Feickert Volare / Origin Live Silver / Ortofon Cadenza Bronze
Origin Live Resolution / Origin Live Illustrious / ZYX Ultimate 100
Thor TA 1000 MKII Preamp
Thor TPA 60 Monoblock EL34’s
Edge NL10.2 Power Amp
Tyler Acoustic D20 Speakers
Dunlavy Audio SC-III Speakers
HSU VTF-2 / VTF-3 Custom Modified Subs
ESP The Reference PC
Interconnects from Anti-Cables / Tara Labs / Harmonic Technology / Straightwire Maestro
Speaker Cables from Tara Labs / Anti-Cables.
Platforms And Isolation from Symposium / Audio Points / Mapleshade Heavy Brass Footers / Custom Platforms and Racks
We have an Edge NL 10.2 in the house! Review coming up soon – this is quite the amp!
We have a Conrad Johnson ET-5 Linestge in the house! Review coming as soon as we can tear ourselves away from the Thor TA-1000 linestage!.
We have a pair of Thor Audio TPA-60 Monoblocks and a Thor TA-1000 MKII linestage in the house!. Watch out for an upcoming review of these mind-blowing amps!
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