Review by Geoff Stanford
Studio reference monitors. There is no definitive design or one size that fits all. Level of listening experience, room size/shape, speaker location, two-way, three-way, coaxial, ribbon, paper, aluminum, ported, sealed, shape of your ear, cables, type of amp, and on and on and on — all have bearing on what works for you. But do yourself a favor and find a pair of monitors that let you hear what you're working on, in as much detail as your budget will allow.
The Rock MkII is the latest offering from UK-based Unity Audio. It is an updated version of The Rock that was introduced two years ago. Most notably, improvements were made in the low-frequency amplifier section, increasing the bass extension down to 37 Hz, where the response slopes down past -3 dB.. The amplifier is a 100 watt, discrete, bipolar, low-feedback design, courtesy of Tim de Paravicini of Esoteric Audio Research, with custom-wound transformers and dedicated LF/HF sections with overload clip protection. It drives a unique-looking 7'' woofer sourced from ELAC, with a cone made of laminated aluminum and paper, and an ELAC JET (Air Motion Transformer) folded-ribbon tweeter. The sealed cabinets are constructed from 12 mm, 9-ply, Baltic birch plywood, with a Corian baffle bonded to the plywood front. The result is a very solid, heavy monitor with a nice look and feel. There are no EQ features. What you hear is what you get, and high-quality components and meticulous design reveal an accurate picture of the audio they are presenting. In Unity Audio's own words, The Rock MkII is "Brutally Honest."
The name is fitting, because my first thought was that The Rock MkII sounded firm. They held up nicely in the low-end department and never felt saggy or soft. Cue the Bob Seger. I oriented myself to the sound of The Rock MkII by playing some familiar CDs before I moved into a session. The speakers handled songs with big bass well, and known recordings sounded balanced and as expected. No surprises.
I first put them to work while running off stems of a fully mixed project. This was essentially a recall of each mix to create specific submixes for live performance. Things sounded as they should, and that is a nod to both The Rock MkII and the monitors I originally mixed the album on. In other words, things were translating. The center image was strong, sound- field positions were pinpointed, and panning placements were accurate and visual. The sweet spot was reasonably wide, and there were no odd shifts in the sound or image when moving around within that defined space.
My second set of monitors is a Yamaha NS-10 pair, which are also known for their version of "brutal honesty," especially in their transient response, and switching between the two was interesting. The Unity was similar in some ways to the Yamaha in the midrange character, but the Unity's bottom was far more robust and its top-end sweeter by a mile.
This was my first experience with a folded-ribbon tweeter, and I liked it quite a bit. The high-frequency information was accurate and revealing, but not harsh. After a reasonably long listening session, sometimes at appreciably loud levels, I felt no fatigue. A colleague mentioned he can sometimes find it tough to get the snare to crack when working on monitors with folded-ribbon tweeters, but I found no such challenge with The Rock MkII.
I have engineered a number of projects with Seattle-based Tom Eddy (Beat Connection, The Dip). Tom had a batch of songs that he had half-demoed, and he wanted to record drums, bass, and guitar, and generally spice up the tracks. As a full test run for The Rock MkII monitors, I decided to use them on this session, start to finish. These speakers were incredibly easy to listen to all day, and I never felt that I was losing perspective or needed to rethink tone, EQ, or balance choices. I just went about my business. It was a full day with two songs tracked and mixed in a 12 hour stretch, but things never got smeary or mushy, which can sometimes happen at the end of a long session.
I knew the real measure would be my next-day listening, as well as Tom's report back after his car and home stereo checks. The results? Unity for the win. No recalls, no adjustments, and the mixes sounded solid across multiple systems. For monitors new to me, this was a nice surprise. Every monitor I have ever owned or worked on, from budget-priced to high-end, has had some sort of learning curve, but The Rock MkII delivered right out of the box.
This monitor just works. I didn't find it flattering or boring. Not hyped or dull. I worked long days without fatigue, and mixes translated the first time around. I would be happy to walk into any studio and see a pair of Unity Audio Rock MkII monitors.