Meet The Maker - Unity Audio

UNITY AUDIO started out as a successful distribution company, introducing some of the industry's best-loved brands into the UK including Empirical Labs, Thermionic Culture, Chandler, Burl, Telefunken, Adam Audio, Great River, Focal, Elysia, Little Labs, and many more.

2009 saw the introduction of "The Rock" - the first UK-designed and manufactured 2-way active professional monitor wearing the Unity Audio badge. Founder and owner Kevin Walker had a clear vision of the monitor he wanted to produce, with key design parameters and components selected from the outset to achieve the desired result.

Since then, the Unity range of monitors has gone from strength to strength earning great reviews in the press and a loyal following amongst pro users. We caught up with Kevin to chat about how it all started and the latest developments...

What got you into designing speakers?

Unity Audio started out as a distribution company and one the first brands we represented was Dynaudio Acoustics. I've always taken a lot of time and effort over monitors and we were very successful for several years - it was probably 50% of our business alongside the other studio outboard we were supplying. When that distribution changed I got involved with ADAM and Focal, at one point distributing both these brands in the UK. So although we were well-known for supplying great hardware outboard, monitors were also a big part of Unity Audio which I enjoyed and this led me to think about making our own speakers. Everybody thought I was mad, having never done manufacturing before!

So "The Rock" was the first speaker you designed?

Yes, we designed The Rock with acoustician Kevin Van Green and legendary audio engineer Tim de Paravicini from Esoteric Audio Research, who sadly passed away recently. It was quite a coup for us to get Tim to even talk to us - let alone design something! Tim developed two unique custom Class A/B old-school amplifiers with transformer output stages for us which essentially became the 'engine' for the Rock. These same amps went on to be used in subsequent models, and are still in use to this day for the Mini-Boulder and Boulder for powering the coaxial mid/tweeter driver.

How did it develop into the Mk II?

The Rock Mk II was essentially a couple of resistor changes on the SP64 input/crossover - we found that it extended the bottom end nicely and this was probably about a year and a half on and there was a bit of excitement about the speakers already, so when the Mk II came out it was perfect timing.

I remember you offered the option to retrofit updates to the Mk I which surely helped those users who had got behind you from the start?

Yes, there were one or two clients who just said "no, we're happy with the original". We had a similar arrangement for the Boulder MkII. I remember Queens Of The Stone Age were offered an update to their Boulders but they were totally happy with their MkI. But yes, where it was possible to offer upgrade paths we've always tried to take care of existing clients.

What changes have you done for the Rock Mk III?

Very few speaker companies have the facilities to make their own drive units, tweeters, and woofers, so the vast majority of manufacturers like ourselves are reliant on buying drive components from other factories that specialize in that. Unfortunately, the silver coned driver that we had used on The Rock went out of production. So we took the opportunity to look at the whole range to update and consolidate everything we make. This was a pretty big job as we were developing new speakers in parallel as well as upgrading existing models.

It's worked well across the range, hasn't it?

Absolutely, the MK III Crystal Membrane driver has a double magnet, bigger voice coil and greater cone excursion, It's a beefier design all around.

Why did you choose a folded ribbon tweeter?

I just really like the sound of ribbon tweeters and I found a company in Germany called ELAC which manufactures Hi-Fi speakers. They've made their own drivers and tweeters since the 1970s. They are the first company to commercially manufacture folded ribbon tweeters and we often get comments on how non-fatiguing they are. We're regularly asked if this is the same ribbon tweeter that's used in, for example, ADAM monitors but it's a different design - the difference is obvious when you compare the two. It's a very smooth tweeter with an incredibly fast transient response - we're very proud of it!

Can you remember which trade show you launched The Rock at?

We got the whole design together reasonably swiftly in about 6 - 8 months from being a non-manufacturer in 2009 to having a working product that we were happy with. We were at Tim's place - it was 3 am in the morning and he was still finishing off parts and soldering... and then we heard audio through them for the first time - all ready for MusikMesse 2010! We got a lot of positive feedback - I still have the original prototype. We went on to showcase the original Boulder MK I shortly afterwards.

Are all Unity monitors manufactured in the UK?

Yes, the speaker cabinets are made from high-performance Baltic Birch plywood in this country, the custom A/B amps are made in the UK alongside most of the other elements. The Class-D amps and driver units come from Europe, but building and testing in the UK allow us to have quality control all here, in-house.

What made you offer DSP versions?

A lot has changed over the last 10 years with DSP and converters improving, so we've partnered with a small UK manufacturer who has developed that technology for us, and it allows us to offer a different flavour to our range. The DSP's primary role in our monitor is to replace the analogue input crossover board, but there are added benefits like precise EQ, presets, phase adjustment - it doesn't do room correction, it's not for that.

The Avalanche Mk II sub now has DSP as well?

Yes, and it's working really well. It's the same cabinet and the same driver as before but it now has a bigger amp, 700w Class D and, alongside the DSP front end, it's absolutely solid sounding. The Avalanche design is a split cabinet design which is called an Aperiodic Enclosure - so there is a wooden partition with two chambers and then in the middle of that wooden platform, there's a hole with a foam membrane which allows some of those low frequencies to come through, but not all of them, into this second chamber. It's an old BBC thing that sort of tricks the woofer into making it think it's dealing with a much larger cabinet than it is, and that allows much greater LF extension.

Is this something you've used elsewhere?

Yes, we did the same thing with the Mini-Rock so the bass starts to roll off about 80 - 90Hz but because it's a sealed cabinet we've got a gentle roll-off at a 12db slope rather than 24db - it's still doing stuff at 50/40Hz - even though it's attenuated it sounds balanced and really full, which appears to be borne out in all the positive reviews we've received.

What's the power in the Mini-Rock?

So we're now using two different Class D amps, this is a dual 100 watt in the Mini-Rock. We found looking at comparative monitors from other companies they were using around 50w.

Looking to the future, there's currently a lot of excitement around Dolby Atmos - are you seeing much take up?

Yes, the latest Dolby Atmos multi-channel surround format is usually associated with movie releases, but equally with the likes of Apple Music, Dolby, and Sonus we’ve seen it fast establishing itself for dedicated music releases as well. With the extensive range of Unity Audio active monitors available - from the smallest PSNE award-winning Mini-Rock, to the 4 way Boulder/B.A.B.E system - we can specify systems from the smallest editing suite to full on dubbing studios. The entire range of Unity Audio monitors will soon be included on the Dolby DART database for designers and installers to access. Recently supplied Atmos systems include Bath-based Evansson Media with a 7.2.4 system comprising:
  • 7 x Boulder MK-III 3 way monitors (L, C, R, Ls, Lrs, Rs & Rrs channels)
  • 2 x B.A.B.E DSP's (Boulder Active Bass Extender) which have a very powerful 12” woofer with a 1200W Class D amp
  • 4 x Mini-Rocks with our ceiling yoke mounting bracket option
Dolby UK approved this installation and they were suitably impressed with all the monitors passing the Dolby Atmos criteria with ease. Also, Howard Audio in South Africa recently added 4 x Mini-Rocks and ceiling yokes to their existing Rock and Boulder MKI models which they've used everyday for the past 10 years!

You have a lot of established mixers and producers using Unity Audio monitors, that must be a great feeling after all the development you've put into them?

Yes, we're very fortunate to have a lot of incredible artists from every genre who love them and use them every day - I've just seen this morning that four of our endorsement artists have been nominated for MPG awards! We have users such as Royal Blood, Dan Grech-Marguerat, Jonathan Gilmore, John Leckie, David Wrench, Guy Sigsworth, Geoff Foster, Rudimental, Alan Moulder, Mike Crossey, Tom Dalgety, Guy Massey, and more...

for more info on the full range of Unity Audio monitors