What started as an inventor’s idea for an iPod dock loud enough to hear over tap dancing is now an innovative product from UK hi-fi manufacturer Arcam. It’s also the latest result of a long and fruitful design partnership.
Entrepreneur Bradford Backus knew what he wanted: a portable music device loud enough to make itself heard over the clatter of his tap-dancing. The American with a PHD in acoustics also had a concept in mind. He just didn’t know how to turn it into reality.
His search for expertise led him to Cambridgeshire hi-fi manufacturer Arcam, which until then hadn’t contemplated a move into this segment of the audio market. Two years after meeting MD Charlie Brennan his concept has become Arcam’s rCube, a compact but robust unit that Brennan says has more than enough volume to annoy the neighbours, plus ingenious features and superior sound and build quality to ruffle the competition’s feathers too.
The rCube functions as an iPod (or iPhone) dock, but it can also stream music straight from portable devices or desktop PCs using wireless technology. This opens up a new social aspect to music sharing, says Brennan, describing it as today’s equivalent to ‘going round to a friend’s house with your pile of records’. Groups of rCubes can even be ‘daisy-chained’ to play the same music simultaneously in different rooms. Meanwhile, an efficient lithium battery gives up to eight hours of mains-free listening, and touch sensitive controls make for an easy-clean surface suitable for anywhere in the house, including the kitchen and bathroom, or out in the garden.
The product is the latest step in Arcam’s mission to provide ‘better sound for more people’, as Brennan puts it. For over 35 years it’s produced high quality hi-fi components, starting with the amplifiers created by founders John Dawson and Chris Evans while they were still Cambridge University students and progressing through the CD boom of the 1980s and the home cinema revolution of the 1990s to a new wave of products aiming to remove the ‘experts only’ tag from hi-fi and broaden the appeal of high-end audio.
Design has been central to this evolution.
For the last ten years the business has worked closely with industrial designer Adrian Stokes. Brennan describes it as, ‘one of our most important external relationships’.
First, Stokes developed a new and enduring design language for Arcam’s products, which were suffering in overseas markets because their appearance and materials didn’t reflect their true quality. Ever since, he’s been working closely with Brennan and Arcam’s engineers to reinvent how the company presents high-standard audio technology, making products more appealing to a wider customer base while sacrificing none of the sonic performance expected by the core audiophile market.
In 2005, Arcam took a bold step by launching Solo, a single unit combining CD player, amplifier and radio, and followed up with the Solo Mini (pictured). Solo Neo, launched in 2010, also plays stored music files and adds internet radio to the package. The result is wider distribution that is taking Arcam beyond the specialist hi-fi shops and into mainstream retailers like John Lewis and Harrods.
Now the rCube – at £500, Arcam’s lowest-cost music playing product - promises to accelerate that. ‘It’s a game changer for us,’ says Brennan. ‘Everyone we show it to is saying “I want one”, from our bank manager to people who are usually cynical about audio. I’ve never known a new product get quite such an enthusiastic reaction. A lot of people exclude themselves from conventional hi-fi because they think it’s trouble – it’s got cables, it goes in a big rack and so on - but something like this really captures their imagination.’