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Unity Audio’s journey from distributor to manufacturer

A company flourishing between a rock and a hard place

Manufacturers, especially their international agents, often become distributors: witness Sennheiser UK, SDUK et al. Rarely does the reverse happen; even more rarely with mission-critical, flagship product types as opposed to handy bits and pieces to glue a system together.

So the marked achievements of Unity Audio as the brains, heart and soul behind the Rock, Boulder and Avalanche range of studio monitors is noteworthy to say the least: Unity was established as a traditional distributor at the heart of the UK recording and mastering industry in 1995 by experienced salesman Kevin Walker. Success is never carved in stone, especially in such a crowded marketplace, but Walker and Unity are managing exactly that.

Unity’s valuable experience with distributed lines of studio monitoring is crucial to the manoeuvre into manufacturing: and by ‘experience’ we mean something that can be as sobering as it is inspiring. The distribution business began with a formative Dynaudio Acoustics deal in the mix, succeeded by another with Berlin’s Adam Audio and, briefly, Focal Engineering in France. All had ‘victims of success’ ramifications, enough to convince Walker that it was time to try a different path…

“We were consistently the second or third best-performing Dynaudio distributor outside the US,” he relates, “but when TC Electronic took on the global distribution of Dynaudio it all changed. We were the last independent standing, but it was only a matter of time. That process more or less repeated with Adam Audio: we elevated their profile considerably and had great success with a relatively new brand, but on the back of that the goalposts moved again. If you under-perform, you’ll lose a distributed brand – but you can also lose it if you do the job too well! They went direct.”

The prospect of navigating this trajectory a third time prompted a major re-think, although few expected such a radical departure into the esoteric world of loudspeaker design and build. “Lots of people thought I was crazy,” admits Walker, “but monitors have been associated with Unity from day one. It’s a fundamental part of our business. It made sense to make our own, as far as I was concerned.”

He was right. Talks with respected studio designer Kevin van Green led to talks with Tim de Paravicini, founder of Cambridgeshire’s hidden consulting gem Esoteric Acoustic Research (EAR), where transducer disciples regularly find the Holy Grail. “He agreed to design the electronics for us,” confirms Walker, “which was a major coup. Not only is he such a respected analogue designer, he’s never done anything like this for anyone else. He doesn’t sell speakers at EAR so there’s no conflict there, so he designed an amplifier exclusively for our range. It’s modular, so it’s adaptable for The Rock, The Boulder, the Avalanche subwoofer and the new Super Rock.”

Despite direct knowledge of the kind of network electronics espoused by Dynaudio’s AIR series, or perhaps because of this acquired wisdom, Unity’s homegrown monitors eschew DSP and concentrate on the basics. They are active, but that’s as far as it goes. “We pretty old school if you like,” smiles Walker. “Less is more for us. Even now I’m a bit sceptical of room correction, despite the advances in converter technology. And it’s amazing how many people have thanked us for not going down that route, and for sticking to first principles. The market seems to be more than happy with straightforward, well-made and traditional active monitors that come from a UK heritage, are transparent and fit anywhere. To be honest, we’ve never even been asked if we have DSP, EQ or anything like that.

“To me, if you find, say, a 4-band parametric EQ on the front of a monitor, that smacks of a manufacturer hedging their bets: it’s like, if you don’t like the sound of what we’ve made, here’s something to fiddle with in the hope of making it better. It’s so wrong.”

Unity’s range – which now includes the cutely titled Pebble and Bam Bam nearfields – include little more than a power switch and a volume control. The 3-way Boulder has a few minor LF tweaks but, according to Walker, “most experienced professionals prefer not to have to deal with tuning their monitors. They want to trust you.”

As well as Avalanche, Unity now offers the BABE (Boulder Active Bass Extender) as a LF solution, as well as meaningful accoutrements such as the Monolith speaker stands and, of course, choice items from the signal processing catalogue like the Lisson Grove AR-1 Tube Compressor. Interestingly, Unity has followed the examples of both Dynaudio and Focal into consumer audio, as has The Professional Monitor Company (PMC). As ambitions go for a small company based in a converted farm building on the Essex-Cambridgeshire border, this is bold – but, if this accomplishment keeps up, they can only get bolder.

Top pic: New Order’s Barney and Stephen Morris. Middle pic: Pebble and Bam-Bam monitors. Last pic: John Leckie