We enjoyed a leisurely visit to Ruark Audio a few years back, including a good chat with founder and MD Alan O’Rourke, in the company of Ruark mascot Archie, and Sales Director Richard McKinney. We were particularly interested how Ruark made the transition from traditional speakers to more lifestyle products like the R1.
Alan O’Rourke: So it was about 2004 we decided to develop the R1. DAB [digital radio] had really taken off here in the UK, and nowhere else in the world. And in 2001 we’d had the UK distributorship of Tivoli, and that took off really quickly, but then the BBC announced DAB, and Imagination Technologies [with Digital One, the first commercial DAB multiplex licensee] went to the BBC and said we will build you a radio, and they said, well it’s got to sell for a hundred pounds. And they just couldn’t — those first receivers, the Arcam DAB tuner was like a thousand pounds. But they said we will back you, and they did. And with the backing they gave it, it really helped to launch digital radio in the UK, because there was this radio you could buy.
So there we were with a £99 analogue radio against a £99 digital radio, and it’s like trying to tell most people than a turntable sounds as good as a CD player – ‘but it’s digital!’ they say. And it was the same telling people analogue radio sounded better… we were doing very well in John Lewis, say, but you got fed up to the teeth with people saying ‘We love the radio, is it digital?’
And we thought that £99 digital radio didn’t sound great – it was good, but we thought we could build a proper-sounding little radio, thinking back to your grandmother’s radio, you know, in the Bakelite cases and you’d switch it on and wait for the valves to warm up – my Uncle Bill had a really big radiogram with turntable, sections for the amplifier and tuner, and I think playing around with that as a kid got me into sound quality… this warm rich sound, you can listen to it all day long. So we wanted an element of that — there had to be clarity to it, but also this nice comfortable sound. And we preferred doing our own thing anyway, so we came up with the R1, that was the original, which we launched in 2006.
In design terms we’re very much of the belief that our speakers had a look about them — you would know that’s a Ruark, concave and so on, and we wanted a design that worked the same way for the radio. So when we were developing it, when I was looking at the Tivoli, it just had the speaker and dial on the front, which was lovely, simple. But when you had to put a display on the front as well, it got cluttered, and I wanted something elegant. So I had this idea to make it more like a speaker, ported down the bottom, good little amplifier, good little drive unit, but put the controls on the top and rather than massive buttons — I hate individual buttons — we laid them out with all the buttons round the side. We call it the Rotodial, and we will always use this in one way or another, it’s our trademark, part of the design. And it’s evolving – so on the R7 we lose the buttons, you turn and push to select. The curved edges too – that’s our look, that’s a Ruark. I don’t think there’s anyone else, us and Tivoli.
Richard McKinney: Everyone liked the look – and one of the first reviews was the Sunday Telegraph and they said the R1 was the Aston Martin of digital radios…
Alan: Yes we’ll use that forever!… No, so we launched the R1, and the plan initially was to keep on going with the speakers, we launched a Mark III version of the Sabre, Talisman and Crusader, and there were plans to do more. But it was so much easier selling the R1 at £160. What I enjoyed was you could walk into a shop and be out in half an hour with a nice little order, whereas you walk in with a £160 pair of speakers and you’ll be there all morning, demonstrating them, comparing them to every other speaker in the shop… So we started getting into lifestyle and we saw the bigger market-place really. Even now, we have so much to do, so much room to grow.
Interview Jez Ford