Turning to popular voices, I went through several of the new Mobile Fidelity reissues of classic Sinatra, starting with Sinatra at the Sands. Hardly a great recording qua recording, it nevertheless does capture Sinatra at the peak of the Reprise years in a nightclub setting, the focus on the voice razor-sharp but still very attractive in a flesh-and-blood way, even if far too close up to be “realistic” (as with most live recordings in clubs, the perspectives are weird, with the audience appearing behind the performer). But so beautifully does the Andros reproduce The Voice that it’s easy to forget about all that audiophile stuff and just enjoy Sinatra, who is in great form even if the instrument is obviously no longer in the shape it was ten years earlier at Capitol (compare this “Angel Eyes” to the one on Only the Lonely).
A different baritone in Belafonte at Carnegie Hall [Classic Records reissue], that legendary voice at once husky and honeyed, likewise beautifully clean, clear, present, and superbly projected. The same for Julie London in Boxstar’s superlative reissue of Julie Is Her Name, reproduced with all the purity of pitch for which she is renowned. Soon I found myself bringing out records I hadn’t heard in much too long a time and wondering why I hadn’t: Growing Up in Hollywood Town, for example, Amanda McBroom’s first outing for Sheffield. I had all but forgotten the fantastic presence and immediacy of these direct-to-discs, to say nothing of their wide dynamic envelope (try the opening of “Amanda”). I was lucky enough once to hear McBroom at or near her prime in a small club in Santa Monica, doing her heart-wrenching “The Portrait,” the first cut on this Sheffield. Rarely have I heard a singer lay herself out so openly, with such raw and unflinching emotion. I’ve replayed that performance—more intense than the one on this Sheffield—in the theatre of my mind many times, but the recorded rendition is certainly intense enough so as not to suffer in the comparison.
Voices to instruments and Ben Webster’s glorious “How Long Has This Been Going On?” from the classic Ben and Sweets [Classic Records reissue], the same adjectives keep cropping up: smooth, velvety, yet Webster’s tenor sax still big, expansive, and voluptuous. Another sax, Sonny Rollins’ on Way Out West [Acoustic Sounds reissue], is vibrantly present. You could argue that the Andros is maybe a little too smooth here, because even when Rollins is relaxed and enjoying himself, as on this album, he’s still got a bit of bite to his tone, and so it is through the PS1, if ever so slightly ma non troppo. But turn to the Juilliard’s great sixties album of the Bartók quartets and you’ll find the Third reproduced with all the severity and acidity of tone for which this thorny piece is either famous or notorious. And despite the closeness of the recording, it nevertheless opens out with a surprising bloom and, perhaps owing to its very closeness, puts the performers in the room rather startlingly (especially if you get the playback levels just right, which doesn’t necessarily mean very loud). Regis Pasquier’s violin in his Harmonia Mundi set of the Bach Unaccompanied Partitas and Sonatas has the requisite warmth of tone and, where called for, brilliance.
If it seems that I have been talking mostly about the music and relatively little about the component, then you are on to my strategy. I’ve rarely auditioned a piece of equipment that has from the get-go made it harder for me to stay in reviewer mode as opposed to just plain music lover mode, causing me to scribble fewer (illegible) notes than I have in I can’t remember when. And I must confess that no one could be more surprised than myself by this, because, to put it frankly, I do not quite “get” the use of tubes for amplifying very low-level signals such as those from low-output moving coils. I make this admission not to my credit, only to put my bias out there as a context for my enthusiasm.
The Andros is the first product from Zesto Audio, a new firm, based in Southern California, owned by George and Carolyn Counnas. George grew up in Great Britain where as a young man he designed vacuum-tube circuits and worked for DECCA Navigator, one of Britain’s largest electronics companies, as part of a research and development team designing airborne navigational systems for the Royal Air Force. But music was an abiding passion and he long wanted to design his own products, electing to begin with a phonostage. Despite what he freely acknowledges as the many advantages of digital, vinyl long ago won and still holds his heart. The same is true for vacuum-tube technology. “I started doing research on past phonostage designs going back to the original RCA circuits of the 1930s,” he says.