Every now and then a component comes along that makes you reevaluate many of the values you bring to assessing audio equipment. Some personal examples include Quad ESL (of every vintage), Harbeth Monitor 40, and Spendor SP1/2 speakers; the Linn-Sondek (at a crucial moment in time, anyhow) and the SOTA turntables with vacuum hold- down; the Ortofon Windfeld pickup; the Basis Vector 4/2200 arm-turntable combination; the Super Audio Compact Disc; the late (very much lamented) Sigtech DSP device. These designs are not so much revolutionary as radical in the sense of returning you to origins or basics, reminding you of certain fundamental values that it’s too easy to take for granted or forget about as review products come and go.
Zesto Audio’s new Andros PS1 vacuum-tube phono preamplifier may be one such design, at least in the area of vinyl reproduction. It’s one of the loveliest-sounding electronic components I’ve ever had the pleasure of reviewing. Almost miraculously, it seems to exhibit virtually no discernable electro-mechanical artifacts. Its sound is unbelievably smooth and velvety; harmonically rich, full, and vividly textured; marvelously rounded, tactile, and dimensional, with great body and solidity; and completely natural in its musicality and freedom from any of the usual sonic hype, audiophile style. There is also an extraordinary homogeneity to the presentation, although a better word here might be “integrality,” as I wouldn’t want to suggest the Andros is in any way thick or undifferentiated. I mean, rather, to call attention to the way it reproduces musical events as organic, seamless wholes. There are, I believe, solid technical reasons why it sounds as it does, which I’ll get to later.
With well-recorded orchestral sources—I am now listening to the classic Stokowski recording of Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 [Classic Records reissue]—the orchestra is spread across the front of the listening room, though by necessity restricted in size and volume. Regardless of what optimistic designers and starry-eyed copyrighters tell you, the literal scale and dynamics of a full symphony orchestra cannot be replicated in any domestic setting that remotely falls within the range of normal or typical. That said, however, the ease with which disbelief is here suspended is quite uncanny: the strings are set slightly behind the plane of the speakers with the rest of the ensemble stretching back behind them, all appearing as a cohesive group deployed in a setting that seems to be a real (as opposed to virtual) space. Yes, there is spot-miking and the top end is a little bright (whether owing to the mikes or the engineers’ equalization or both I cannot say), characteristics the Andros reveals, but not distractingly so, for this is a muscular recording of truly fabulous performances.
Perhaps more to the point is the sheer beauty of the sound, the richness of the orchestra, the texture of the instruments both individually and as an ensemble, the power of the brass, percussion, and low strings, the warmth of the cellos, the brilliance of the violins, the color of the winds. And despite his age, how rhythmically vital that old wizard Stokowski was! Interpretively, it’s a wildly imaginative, even willful ride, but realized with such style, virtuosity, and panache as to be irresistible, adjectives that also apply to the companion rhapsody, Enesco’s First Roumanian.
It being the season to be jolly, I hauled out a thirty-year favorite, the Hodie by Ralph Vaughan Williams in its first recording, conducted by David Willcocks. Vaughan Williams had long wanted to write a big Christmas piece, and this one has the feel of a dream realized. The forces, including full orchestra, two choirs, soloists, and organ, are huge, starting with a jubilant brass fanfare with choral interjections of “Nowell, Nowell” and ending with a spectacularly triumphant setting of Milton’s Ode on the Morning of Christ’s Nativity. The Andros did not disappoint, bringing this vintage EMI recording magnificently to life. Yet for all the size of the forces, it may be the intimate numbers that are the most deeply felt, in particular the meltingly beautiful “Lullaby” for children’s chorus and mezzo-soprano, here the incomparable Janet Baker. Notice, to take one small but telling example, how, almost imperceptibly, Baker’s voice emerges from the texture of the children’s voices.