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From The Editor: Albert Von Schweikert and Me

From The Editor: Albert Von Schweikert and Me

In 1981 I was finishing college, had just built a recording studio, and was a part-time salesman at the stereo store where I’d been working for the past four years while attending school. The stereo store income helped while I was growing the nascent recording studio business. After transferring to another of the stereo chain’s locations, I learned that one of the salesmen there made speakers in his garage on the side. This guy was different from the other salesmen—he was clearly very bright, highly eccentric, disdained the mid-fi gear we sold, and was completely obsessed with audio. His name was Albert Von Schweikert.

Albert began work on his speaker, which he called the Vortex Screen, in the early 1970s, enlisting the help of Dr. Richard Heyser at the nearby California Institute of Technology. Richard Heyser worked on spacecraft communications systems for the Jet Propulsion Lab, but his real passion was audio. He maintained a private acoustics laboratory for his own interest, and there invented Time Delay Spectrometry, a groundbreaking technique for measuring a speaker’s frequency response without an anechoic chamber.

The Screen was a big rectangular slab that looked like a truncated version of the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey. The bottom half was an MDF enclosure that housed the transmission-line-loaded woofer, and the top half was an open baffle with the midrange driver and tweeter mounted in the middle. All this was hidden by a fabric sock (available in black or “desert sand”) that covered the entire contraption. The shallow enclosure was supported by a base that, if I recall correctly, was made from Formica-laminated MDF.

One of the store’s salesmen, who owned the Vortex Screen, invited me to his place to hear the speaker. It was one of those demos in which seconds after it starts you know that you have to have that sound in your home. The music was totally “out of the box,” with spectacular soundstaging. The tonal balance was smooth and uncolored, and the transmission-line bass was surprisingly deep and well defined.

Back at the store I spoke with Albert about buying a pair, but he told me that I’d have to wait until he built the next batch. Albert built the Vortex Screen in runs of about four to eight pairs once he had accumulated enough orders. He’d been operating like this for many years before I met him—building a small batch, waiting for more orders, and then building another small batch. There was no marketing; it was all word of mouth.

I owned a pair of ADS L810s at the time, but I had recently built them into my studio’s control-room walls for monitors. I needed a speaker in my house for listening pleasure as well as for checking the mixes from my studio. Several months after I placed my order (price: $750 per pair) Albert delivered the Vortex Screen to my home. Shortly after that, I left the stereo store, ran the recording studio for nearly four years, and then went to work in a CD mastering lab. I completely lost touch with Albert.

Fast-forward to early 1989, when I saw a small announcement in Stereophile that the magazine was looking for a technical editor. I, along with 52 other people, applied. After receiving my resume and interviewing me for the job, editor John Atkinson told me that he had narrowed down the candidates to just three, of which I was one. To determine the three candidates’ reviewing abilities, he asked each of us to write a review of any product we wanted. The sample review would be used purely to assess our writing skills and would not be published. I chose to review the Vortex Screen, which I still owned and had been enjoying for the previous eight years.

I got the job, but John decided to publish my Vortex Screen piece in Stereophile as my first review. When the issue hit the streets, all hell broke loose. Albert’s home phone, which was listed in the review (he had no business, and thus no business phone), rang off the hook with more than a thousand inquiries about this unusual speaker. Based on that interest, Albert partnered with an investor to build 100 pairs of Vortex Screens in one shot. Fifteen years after Albert began hand-making speakers in a garage, Von Schweikert Research (later Von Schweikert Audio) was born. And I was now a high-end audio reviewer. 

As Albert said to me at a recent audio show, “That review launched both our careers.” 

By Robert Harley

My older brother Stephen introduced me to music when I was about 12 years old. Stephen was a prodigious musical talent (he went on to get a degree in Composition) who generously shared his records and passion for music with his little brother.

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