George and Carolyn Counnas, proprietors of Zesto Audio, probably are pinching themselves frequently these days. For a small maker of tube gear that’s not much more than six years old, Zesto seems to be turning a lot of heads and pleasing quite a few ears.
It’s not a dream, though. In the last two months alone, Zesto has appeared on the cover of Stereophile and the Absolute Sound, and garnered Best of Show honors at Audio Expo North America from Part-Time Audiophile.
“I know, it’s amazing,” Carolyn Counass said to me at the Los Angeles Audio Show, pointing to two of the publications sitting on a table in Zesto’s demo room.
In LA, Zesto was showing several of its units with Marten loudspeakers. It had the same pairing at AXPONA. In that show, however, Marten’s Coltrane Tenor ($80,000 USD/pair) floor-standers were featured. This time, Zesto chose the much more modest Marten Django L ($9,000 USD/pair).
Few high-end exhibitors would risk substituting an associated product so dramatically at the opposite end of a line’s price ladder. The move, however, only illustrated how Zesto – which produces gear that certainly is not cheap, but is not in the stratosphere, either – can make a consistent sound without every other link in the system being cost-no-object.
And it’s the sound George and Carolyn get that’s drawing so much attention.
I auditioned their monoblocks, preamp and phono stage at AXPONA and again in LA. With either set of Marten speakers, Zesto managed the impressive feat of blending tube emotion and texture with the kind of resolution and control that are normally more associated with solid state.
George Counnas, who designs Zesto’s circuits, believes the RCA engineers who worked in the golden era of tubes — around the 1930s — really knew what they were doing. He’s gone back and studied their methods, while adding modern measuring techniques as well as trusting his own ears.
In LA, Zesto was highlighting its new Andros Tessera phono stage ($12,000 USD), an innovative unit that accommodates up to four different tonearms. (Yes, that’s correct. Four. Some audiophiles – me not included, alas – switch cartridges depending on the record being played).
Feeding the Tessera was a Merrill-Williams Audio REAL 101.2 turntable ($7,200 USD), outfitted with two Tri-Planar U2 tonearms ($7,200 USD each). Cartridges were a Benz Micro Gullwing SLR MC ($3,600 USD) and an Ortofon Cadenza Mono MC ($1,280 USD).
The other Zesto gear in the rig was unchanged from Chicago: the Leto 1.5 preamp ($7,500 USD) and Eros 300 monoblocks ($19,900 USD/pair).
Cable was Cardas Audio Clear Beyond (speaker, $4,085 USD for 2 meters; interconnect, $1,875 USD for 1 meter; phono, $573 USD for 1 meter; and power cords, $522 USD for 1.5 meters).
For my LA demo, George Counnas started by cueing up a recent acquisition; a vinyl reissue of Henry Mancini’s Pink Panther film music. The memorable hook in the theme song, played on vibes by Larry Bunker, rang with great clarity, while the system also captured the jaunty swing of the track.
Counnas switched to Steely Dan’s “Babylon Sisters” from Gaucho. Again, the Zesto-Marten combo excelled at reproducing the song’s shuffle beat, while Donald Fagen’s voice was appropriately dripping with sarcasm and disgust.
Compared with the Coltrane rig, the Djangos had a bit less weight and a tad less refinement in the highs. But, hey, that’s why you pay the extra $71,000 USD.
The Zesto gear, meanwhile, seemed determined to not do its job any less heroically, no matter what the transducers. The word “finicky” does not appear to apply to George’s circuits.
Whereas certain other tube electronics tend to look like my shop-class soldering project from the eighth grade, Zesto’s gear is all curved lines and stunning workmanship. For that, we can thank Carolyn Counnas, an artist, and industrial designer Musky Mistry. Well done.
Something tells me Zesto has many more accolades yet to come.