AXPONA 2017: Zesto takes tubes to the next level

George and Carolyn Counnas are two of the nicest people in the high-end. A visit to the couple’s exhibit room at a show always results in interesting conversations about the tubed gear they produce under their charmingly named Zesto Audio brand.

But, as pleasant as those visits are, I wouldn’t stay nearly as long if the music coming out of those components didn’t sound great. But, it consistently does — spectacular even, depending on the associated equipment.

The latter was the case at AXPONA, where Zesto teamed up with Marten, Merrill-Williams Audio, Tri-Planar and Cardas Audio.

Zesto was showing its Leto 1.5 preamp ($7,500), Eros 300 monoblocks ($19,900 a pair) and its new Andros Tessera phono stage ($12,000).

Vinyl was played on a Merrill-Williams REAL 101.2 turntable ($7,200), outfitted with two Tri-Planar U2 tonearms ($7,200 each). Cartidges were a Benz Micro Gullwing SLR MC ($3,600) and an Ortofon Cadenza Mono MC ($1,280).

Speakers were Marten’s Coltrane Tenor floor-standers ($80,000). Cable was Cardas Clear Beyond (speaker, $4,085 for 2 meters; interconnect, $1,875 for 1 meter; phono, $573 for 1 meter; and power cords, $522 for 1.5 meters).

Zesto’s phono unit, introduced in October, looks to be an impressive achievement.

“The name Tessera means the number four in Greek,” Carolyn Counnas told me. “It can handle four separate tonearms. You can save the settings.”

This feature could be attractive to enthusiasts who like to switch between cartridges depending on the record they want to play. But even if you somehow get by with just a single arm, there’s still a good reason to audition the Tessera: It sounds wonderful.

I listened to a number of cuts on the system, including Stevie Ray Vaughan’s “Tin Pan Alley,” which also was getting a lot of play elsewhere at AXPONA. The Zesto room, though, presented the best playback of the track that I encountered.

The song revealed what makes Zesto components so appealing. George Counnas’ designs offer an unusually neutral sound for tubed gear, but still retain the full body and slight warmth valve fans love. And the intangible emotional connection to the music is there in spades.

“Tin Pan Alley” offered digital-like clarity and dynamics, with analog’s rich tonal palette and 3-D layering of instruments. The drum whacks near the end seemed louder than on other systems, with the reverb trails lingering until the needle finished the last groove.

The Martens were the perfect match for the Tessera and other Zesto components, as I have found the speakers to be very well-balanced across the frequency range. Their ceramic midrange and diamond tweeter, especially, provide unusual speed and clarity.

Zesto, meanwhile, works its magic through a mix of old-school and new tech. George Counnas claims to have learned a lot from studying 1930’s tube circuits, which were created with slide rules and listening tests, and then adapting them to computer-aided, modern designs.

“The Tessera has 100 percent tube circuitry,” Carolyn Counnas pointed out. “There are no solid-state devices in the signal path.”

The phono stage contains four gold-pin JJ ECC83S/12AX7 tubes and two gold-pin JJ ECC82/12AU7 tubes. All the sockets are gold-plated.

The Tessera also has balanced outputs and high-quality transformers.

Thousand Oaks, Calif.-based Zesto has only been in business since 2011, but it already has made quite a name, both in the U.S. and overseas. Its latest products leave me eagerly anticipating what will come next.

AXPONA coverage generously provided by NOBLE AUDIO.

About John Stancavage 196 Articles
Contributing Editor for Part-Time Audiophile