Vortex Screen loudspeaker Page 2

Source material included CDs and LPs from Sheffield Lab, Reference Recordings, Denon, London, Opus 3, Telarc, and my own classical and jazz recordings.

The Sound
The first time I heard the Screens, I was immediately taken with their open, uncolored, and punchy sound. They exhibited an unboxy transparency that made them seem to disappear into the soundstage. This quality gave them a "big" sound that transcended the boundaries of the speakers. In addition to this wide lateral soundstage, front-to-rear definition was superb, the orchestra taking on a three-dimensional representation. This was especially apparent on recordings with much hall reverberation. Instruments toward the rear were reproduced with a convincing spatial resolution. In jazz and popular music, this character was manifested as "space" around each instrument. Each part of the arrangement was separate and distinct from other instruments. This ability to extract depth definition was especially apparent on the track "Lembrando Milton" from the album Cascades by the Brazilian trio Azymuth. This track has multiple layers of percussion, each layer slightly farther back in the soundstage. Each pair of percussion tracks has a more distant reverberation characteristic and is panned closer toward the center. This illusion of a soundstage miles deep was reproduced with exceptional spatial detail by the Screens.

If I had to fault the soundstage, it would be because it was too big. On some recordings, the image extended beyond the horizontal boundary of the speaker, giving an unnatural "bloated" effect. However, this minor fault was far less objectionable than a constricted, pinched soundstage.

Equally as impressive as the soundstage was the Screens' low-frequency performance. The Screens reproduced bass with depth, dynamic impact, and authority. They had a gutsy, forward sound without boominess, sluggishness, or overhang. Bass was taut and crisp, with surprising transient impact or "slam." This speed is most likely the result of using such a small, lightweight woofer. These characteristics gave the Screens a forward, close-up representation of bass. Eddie Gomez's acoustic bass on Elaine Elias's Cross Currents CD (Denon CY-2180) had an involving immediacy. What was most surprising was the deep extension without compromising low-frequency attack. This combination was most evident on some well-recorded popular music and jazz. During recording sessions, much attention is paid to the interaction between the bass guitar and kick drum, both tonally and rhythmically. The Screens had the very satisfying ability to present this musical foundation with solidity and sock.

Sustained low frequencies were equally satisfying. Instruments that tend to have substantial energy in the lowermost octaves were full-bodied without the thinness associated with speakers lacking LF extension. "The Great Gate of Kiev" from Moussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition (Telarc CD-80042) was reproduced with authority. Organ pedal tones subjectively confirmed the stated –3dB point of 27Hz.

The Screens had an overall neutral tonal balance, especially in the midrange. Midrange reproduction tended to be dramatic, rather than laid-back. Despite this forward tendency, the midrange was remarkably uncolored, without a trace of nasality. In addition, the Screens retained this neutrality even at high listening levels. Voice was particularly smooth and uncolored. Dynamic range was extraordinary, with musical peaks reproduced without strain or constriction. This was particularly evident on piano recordings, especially the Chopin Piano Concerto 2 as performed by Ivo Pogorelich (DG 415 123-2). The piano's wide dynamic range was exercised to the fullest without compression or distortion of peaks.

If the Screens have an Achilles' Heel, it is the high end. There was a trace of hardness to the treble that added a glare to the uppermost octaves. I don't know if this is a result of a tilted tonal balance or coloration of the drive units. Violins, rich in upper-order harmonics, took on a strident edge, especially on closely miked recordings. Overly bright jazz and popular recordings (of which there are many) sounded even more so on the Screens. This characteristic, however, was not apparent on all recordings, only ones that tend to be overly bright. The Screens' treble performance leaned toward the cold and clinical, rather than the warm and romantic. Nevertheless, high-frequency detail was superb despite this etched character.

It is possible that this high-frequency zing was a result of my less than state-of-the-art amplification, or, more likely, lack of better front ends. My two sources (an Ortofon MC-200 cartridge in an AR turntable and Sony CDP-520 ES CD player) aren't exactly noted for their high-frequency smoothness. I have yet to hear the Screens in their full glory with a topnotch front end and state-of-the-art amplification; I strongly suspect that they would rise to the occasion and reveal themselves to be an even better speaker than I thought possible.

It should be apparent that I like these speakers. The fact that they have remained in my system through six years of component upgrades (accompanied by my gradually increasing standards of music reproduction) says much for their ability to provide long-term musical satisfaction. There is very little to fault with the Vortex Screens, and much to praise. While not a candidate for the most demanding high-end systems, the Screens' freedom from coloration, convincing soundstage, deep LF extension with punch, and $750/pair price tag added up to the best speaker value I had heard.

When thinking of dynamic speakers in this price range, the competing brands that come to mind most readily are Vandersteen, Thiel, and Snell. Of these, I am most familiar with the Vandersteen 2Cs, probably the best of these three. The Vortex Screens were significantly better in terms of dynamic impact, tonal neutrality, and soundstage. Music through the Screens was exciting and musically involving. After six years, I have yet to grow tired of them. The treble hardness noted has not been sufficiently severe to reduce musical satisfaction. In comparison with another speaker that tends to be overly bright in my opinion, the Thiel CS3.5, listening fatigue was minimal.

One word of caution: buying any product from a one-man garage operation can be a risky business. There is a possibility that they won't be in business when you need service. Although Vortex has a 13-year track record and I was able to obtain warranty service (even after the warranty expired, much to Vortex's credit), this factor must be considered before spending your audio dollars. The Vortex Screens were such a great bargain, however, that this risk was more than compensated for by their spectacularly good value.

The quest for the great speaker under $1000 has become somewhat akin to the search for the Holy Grail. The original Vortex Screens may be as impossible to find, but just as rewarding. Highly recommended.

Vortex Acoustical Engineering
Riverside, CA 92505 (1989)
Company no longer in existence (2020)

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Vandersteen 2Ce is still available ($3,000/pair) :-) ........

jtshaw's picture

This was Robert Harley's first review! All these years later he's the editor of The Absolute Sound. I subscribe to both Stereophile and TAS and have for many years. Now I feel old.....time to go upstairs and rejuvenate with my stereo.

Leif S's picture

Jim Austin and John Atkinson and the rest of Stereophile for re posting this. It means a lot to us here at VSA. You ROCK!

dial's picture

I'm sure they would play well today. For the treble on Ortofon systems, and except perhaps for the SPU, their cartridges are the most neutral and dynamic for the money. I still have a X3,and owned a SL 20Q and a MC 15, don't want to spend more, just perfect for me (my second is a DL 103 for used records, especially 45's).

bglenn's picture

The best speakers ever made and at $1200 a pair nothing till this day nothing comes close and probably Alberts best line/design. To cure the midrange issues I replaced the 5" Audax mid driver with a bass-mid and change the cable with the Cardas 15.5 AWG wire and bingo/magic. At 150-HZ the bass-mid could handle the lower frequencies a lot better than the 5" Audax. My amp Sumo my preamp The famous ARC SPC6-C-1 and a Magnavox cd player cables Nordos red-dawn IC's and Cardas speaker cables and an SR AC Master power cord. Even till today I have not heard any system that can touch it. Totally transparent and rich with vocals right in the room with you and killer bass, scary! If you visit Albert look for the black guy in the picture on his wall with the Vortex Screens that's me.