British Audio Engineering at its best since 1979

Onix and the great tradition

OA 21SA vibrant, exciting time for the British hi-fi industry, the late 1970s and early 1980s saw British equipment gaining ever-greater kudos and respect throughout the world. Many famous brands got started then, with products created by a new generation of brilliant engineers and designers who were inspired above all by a love of music.

One of the finest of these up-and-coming talents was a young electronics engineer and passionate hi-fi enthusiast, Tony Brady. Tony studied electronics at Brighton Technical College and gained valuable industry experience as an apprentice with Thorn Consumer Electronics (later Thorn EMI) before striking out with his own hi-fi designs.

The early history of Onix isn’t too well-known, and there has been some internet misinformation about it. So here’s the true story of this great British brand.

Early days in Brighton

OA21_SOAPLike many other top audio designers, Tony was first driven to design and build a product of his own when he found that currently-available items weren’t good enough.

Onix was born in 1979 as a partnership between Tony Brady and Craig Hill. They met when Tony bought a high-grade turntable from Brighton Cassette & Hi-Fi, a store which was run by Craig and his father. Tony had also bought a moving-coil cartridge, but then, when he chose a well-recommended phono pre-amplifier or ‘head amp’ to go with this, he found it was just too noisy.

So he designed and built his own one-off moving-coil pre-amp. After they’d listened critically to it and made some improvements, Craig and Tony decided to build more units for sale. This high-quality phono stage became the first Onix product.

Encouraged by its success, Craig and Tony started work on a pre-amp and a power-amp, but these were soon combined to become the Onix OA20 integrated amplifier. Introduced in 1981, this used a fully-complementary output stage, with a particularly generous power supply. Plug-in modules provided moving-magnet or moving-coil phono input.

While Tony was responsible for the electronics, Craig, a talented graphic designer, created the stylish ultra-compact aluminium and steel casework. Although at least one other famous brand later had great success with a ‘shoebox-shaped’ integrated amplifier, Onix did it first.

From the start, the OA20 set high standards in sonic performance. Tony Brady was one of the first designers to recognise the need for a power supply that could deliver plenty of current, to drive real-life loudspeakers properly. So, despite its small size, the OA20 contained an unusually large and high-quality power transformer, combined with other good-quality components throughout.

Classic OA21 amp

ONIX ADV 1987Tony and Craig soon came up with an improved version of the OA20, the OA21. It contained the same massive power supply transformer as the OA20, but the case was enlarged from 6 inches wide to a more comfortable 8 inches, and made entirely of aluminium, which gave better cooling.

Launched in 1982, the OA21 created an immediate impact with its combination of great sound and value for money. It was visually striking too, a well-proportioned minimalist design with just two large control knobs and one small power switch on its clean-looking fascia. Over the next few years the OA21 in its various editions would became well-known as the classic Onix amplifier.

Crucially, later versions of the OA21 carried its designer’s high-current power supply philosophy a stage further, with a rear-panel socket that allowed users to connect an optional additional power supply unit called SOAP (Special Onix Audio Power). This brought even better sound.

In the beginning, Tony built the amplifiers at home, while Craig completed the casework at his hi-fi store, but when they needed more space they rented two rooms above a shop in Sydney Street, Brighton.

From 1985, Onix also offered a lower-cost entry-level integrated. The OA20/2 was rated at 30W per channel and it came with moving-magnet input only.

Tuning into success

Onix VintageNext, in 1987, Tony Brady offered his matching tuner, the Onix BWD1, with each unit being built, calibrated and tested by the designer. Even today the BWD1 is often cited as one of the best-ever FM tuners.

In 1989 came the first Onix pre-amplifier, the OA24, and a whole series of power amplifiers including the top-of-the-range 100 watt OA801 monoblock, which had separate regulated power supplies for input and output stages. Meanwhile, the OA21integrated was given a major update to become the OA21S, and there was was a revised SOAP 2 outboard power supply to suit both this and the OA24 pre-amp.

Onix amplifiers were now famous throughout the hi-fi world for their superb sound quality and excellent value. But in spite of the acclaim being won by its products, the company’s trading position worsened in the late 1980s, following some internal changes. Of the original partners,Tony Brady, though continuing to design the electronics, had relinquished his share in 1986. Craig Hill left in 1987, subsequently pursuing his career in graphic design.

In 1990, Onix was in serious financial difficulty and was put up for sale.

Joining forces with Rogers

Happily, a buyer was soon found and this was none other than the respected entrepreneur Michael O’Brien, whose Swisstone Electronics group included the famous British loudspeaker manufacturer Rogers.

So, in 1991, Onix became a sister company to Rogers, which was a major supplier of loudspeakers to the BBC, and of course well-known to audio enthusiasts worldwide as maker of the iconic BBC LS3/5A speaker.

Revitalised under its new ownership and management, Onix continued to manufacture in the UK and, fortunately still under the design aegis of its original co-owner and creator Tony Brady, to develop new products. He was naturally responsible for the company’s first CD player, the CD33, which appeared in 1993. This player used the Philips DAC7 ‘Bitstream’ chipset, but in 1996 Onix followed up with the CD33/3, using a Burr Brown DACs and the Pacific Microsonics PMD100 filter and HDCD decoder.

By the late 1990s, though, many of the UK’s specialist hi-fi brands were moving their production to Far East facilities. In 1997, the Onix company and trade mark were acquired by the Taiwan electronics manufacturer Sound Art, with the intention that production of Onix would re-start in the Far East.

Despite the best intentions of the parties involved, this did not happen, and in 2002, Onix was purchased by the Shanling company of Shenzhen, China. Over the next few years, Onix products were well-known in Asia and the USA, but were not seen in Europe.

Onix today

Then came the true rebirth of Onix, thanks to a partnership with an enthusiastic European distributor (Francesco Pace) who was passionate about the brand. Production of a complete new line of Onix products started in 2008, encompassing amplifiers, pre-amplifiers and phono stages as well as CD players and DACs.

The distinctive black and gold appearance of the best of the earlier Onix models was retained, along with the core values of excellent sound quality and exceptional value for money.

Reflecting the fine heritage of British hi-fi at its best, while catering fully for today’s digital music sources, Onix products are now freely available in the UK and throughout Europe and Asia.

Pacetech is the exclusive dealer for Europe and keeps the brand’s old tradition while continuing the mission of this important brand.

Steve Harris_onixSteve Harris
(hifi world)