Many years ago I discovered that products built for the professional market work well in domestic systems as well. This is especially true for D/A converters and loudspeakers, maybe less so for 19” rack mount amplifiers (except Bryston and ATC). In a studio loudspeakers are often in the walls, however you always find a pair of small speakers on or right behind the mixing console for near field monitoring. This is where the Unity Audio Rock loudspeakers are usually to be found. Having evolved from the Mk I into Mk II, the Hifi version is a Mk II derivate with even closer tolerances and a domesticated finish. But its studio heritage is unmistakable, this is very much a pro monitor.
The Rock Hifi is an active loudspeaker system that only needs a line level amplifier input, preferably with its own volume control (eg a preamplifer). It has a sealed cabinet that’s made out of 12mm Baltic birch plywood with a 12mm Corian front baffle. The cabinet is heavily braced front to back. The Hifi is glossy black, while the professional versions are dark grey with speckled Corian. The drivers are sourced from German loudspeaker manufacturer Elac and include a folded ribbon tweeter that goes up to 50kHz for today’s high resolution digital files. The 180mm woofer has a rigid pulp fibre cone, chemically bonded to thin aluminium foil. This combination of drivers is claimed to deliver a bandwidth of 33Hz to 25Khz within +/- 3dB, with a very smooth 12dB/octave roll off in the lower frequencies. A maximum output of at least 105dB SPL is specified. Unity Audio commissioned Tim de Paravicini of E.A.R. to design the amplifiers, they are bi-polar class A/B types with low feedback and a built in crossover that rolls the tweeter in at 2.7kHz. On the back panel it has a volume control, analogue XLR and RCA inputs normalized for professional and domestic input voltages, a mains switch and mains input. Unfortunately the Rock Hifi has no provision for auto turn on/off. Although at idle they only use 7 to 8 Watts from the mains. The Rock Hifi should be used on decent stands like the Monolith from Unity Audio, I used them on sand filled, four legged 60cm high Target stands. If you need deeper bass Unity Audio has the Avalanche active subwoofer on offer, it’s specified to go down to 22Hz. Since these speakers are normally used in studios for near field monitoring, they should be placed quite close to the listener (between 75cm and 2m) and between 1.5 and 1.8m apart, toed in so that the tweeters face the listening position.
In my small listening room the placement was no problem and I moved my chair forward for optimum results. All I needed was a Bluesound Node connected to a NAD M50/M52 network player and storage over Ethernet, a NAD M51 D/A converter with volume control activated and some decent cables. AudioQuest was kind enough to lend me a pair of their highly praised Water XLR cables from the Elements series to connect the DAC with the speakers. I also tried the Rock Hifi with an Exposure Audio 3010S2 preamp and Crystal Cable RCA interconnects, but I liked the direct connection to the DAC even more. To be honest it took me some time to get used to the way the Rock Hifi plays my music, used as I am to sitting further away from the loudspeakers for a less direct sound. Also I normally play my music at round 80dB but the Unity Audio was happier at a 90dB SPL average or even more. Then I began to understand what near field monitoring all is about. Playing an old Sade album with songs like ‘Smooth Operator’ and ‘Hang On To Your Love’ the loudspeakers disappeared to make room for an intimate soundstage, compact in size, very direct and pulsating. Turning up the volume beyond 90dB lets the soundstage grow in height, width and depth. It doesn’t alter tone, it’s just louder and bigger. The impact of the drums is staggering, punchy and fast, one could say blindingly fast. Detail appears with ease, there’s no sense of over exposure, it just fits nicely into the whole picture. Higher tones are prominent but they don’t tire you even after long session. Midrange is prominent too, giving an inside view of how the music was mixed and mastered. The bass is firm and powerful.
Move backwards too far and you lose impact, you hear more of the room and that partly destroys that tight bass so the performance becomes less engaging. Move forward again and the music snaps into place. The very short signal path, digital source to DAC to amp/speaker probably helps to maintain all the detail in the music. It shows the capabilities of the M51 as well as those of the Rock Hifi. Another oldie is Up Till Now by Janis Ian. I’ve played this over and over on a lot of systems yet it still surprises me how much detail is stored in the FLAC file. For example a small guitar resonance came out of the right channel that I had never noticed before. However, detail is not all that matters, I want to enjoy the music too and this speaker lets me do just that. You simply cannot escape from the stage, which may be a bit too much for listeners that like some distance between them and the music. On the other hand everyone who likes headphones may have finally found their ultimate loudspeaker.
I moved the Unitys from the smaller listening room into my main system. Among the albums I played was a high resolution FLAC file of the Concerti Grossi Opus 6 by Handel performed by the Avison Ensemble. This classical work makes it clear that the Rock Hifi is not only suitable for classical music, it loves it. I played the same piece in my larger room, but sitting close to the speakers in the study adds something extra that you don’t get further away. The directness is striking, violins can sound a little too bright from time to time, yet the power of the ensemble is amazing. No warmth is added, the loudspeakers are very pure and as Unity Audio correctly states they are brutally honest. Returning to modern music, this time from Sam Smith’s album In The Lonely Hour, the Rock Mk II sounds as if it was used for the original mastering. Like a jigsaw puzzle every part fits into the bigger picture. This speaker truly is a universal piece of equipment it.
Let there be love
In my larger listening room I used the same NAD M50/M52 combination, this time feeding a Metrum Pavane DAC directly connected over a digital XLR cable. The whole signal path is balanced from the DAC to Audia Strumento No.1 preamp and into the loudspeakers. The AudioQuest Water cables do an excellent job. The Pavane DAC has no volume control and running to the loudspeakers every time I want to change level is a bit of a chore so I used the preamp with a remote control. In this much larger room the bass is less powerful, especially when sitting further away from the loudspeakers than before. I can hear why Unity Audio makes a subwoofer for the Rock. With the loudspeakers 1.5 metres apart from each other and 2.5 metres away from my ears I played Nina Kinert’s album Let There Be Love. Winding up the volume builds a deep soundstage with firm bass and acoustic guitars that really shine. The voice is very direct and uncoloured, attractive and smooth, as if she were standing right in front of me. Moving the loudspeakers closer to the listening position really helps. The loss of bass mentioned earlier doesn’t seem very important.
The benefit of the sealed enclosure is that the influence of the back wall is less than with a reflex enclosure. A grand piano in a concert hall, the one recorded in Köln with Keith Jarrett playing (The Köln Concert), would benefit from more low end though. My 32m2 room is normally home to large transmission line speakers so as you can imagine a monitor, not even an active one like the Unity, will do the same job. Apart from that deep, deep low end the piano sounds amazingly clear, detailed and most of all natural. Keith’s ‘singing’ is clear when he hits the keys hard as well. But it is not only the power that counts, at subtle moments the piano will sound tender too, this was clear on a Martha Argerich recording of works by Schumann. The Unity Audio Rock Hifi might be more at home in my smaller listening environment, but I like what it does now. Ending the listening session with Emma Pollock’s The Law Of Large Numbers heavy pop music fills the room, leaving no doubt that these speakers can rock when you want them to. Whatever was recorded comes out with great instrument to voice separation, one that would give a sound engineer more than enough inside information.
The statement that a Unity Audio Rock Hifi is ‘brutally honest’ is true, but don’t let that fool you, they don’t treat music as if it were something technical. Sitting close to the speakers is very nice and gives a sort of headphone experience without the music coming from inside your head. Take care not to move too far away if you want to get the full effect, these speakers after all were designed for near field monitoring. Having played a lot of music I never had the feeling that the Rock Hifi likes any type, they rock hard, sound tender, are fast and detailed and sound pretty according to the music you play. They are like chameleons that turn to any colour you feed them. Within the four weeks I had them at home they proved to be fine performers and I will miss them. Unity Audio has done a great job of combining German drive units with British amplifiers and cabinet making. They do not come cheap, cannot come cheap given the parts and engineering. On the other hand where do you get four mono amps, electronic crossovers, drive units and cabinets that perform this well for less? ‘Brutally honest’, I would add ‘value for money” to that statement.