Apex Company Profile
Making innovation and quality its highest priorities, Apex has identified niche applications and won loyal users for more than 20 years – and its appeal to Asian markets has never been stronger
‘At the time of its release, our ParaGraphic equaliser was an absolute first in the market.’ In a commercial world drowning in unwarranted self promotion, it would be easy to cast this aside as just another example of marketing hype, but in the case of audio innovator Apex it’s all just a matter of record… The reasoning behind the company was the fact that in those days – the tail end of the 1980s – there were very few good, reliable analogue graphic equalisers available, and a couple of tech-savvy Belgians reckoned that they had something to offer. ‘We definitely felt that there was a place for quality designed and professionally manufactured signal processing equipment,’ recalls Paul van Hees, Apex co-founder and current managing director. The first product to be launched was the PE-133 ParaGraphic equaliser.
The company was established in 1988 by Mr van Hees and Eddy Bergers in the east of Belgium, with the PE-series of ParaGraphic equalisers representing its first output in 1990. Designed for use in sound reinforcement applications, as well as studio use, this offers 30 constant-Q band-pass filters. The DLT-technology offers a very high degree of accuracy and ‘optimally controlled phase and amplitude response’, while its constant-Q design preserves filter bandwidth independent of the amplitude control settings. Along with the graphic EQ, the PE-series features factory calibrated full parametric filters with unprecedented fine frequency tuning using Vernier controls. It was ahead of its time, and is success can be most readily judged by the fact that it is still part of the company’s catalogue – and it’s only undergone one revision to become the ‘Mk.II’ version.
With product to market and a customer base eager for more, things moved very quickly for Apex. ‘We started in an old mill in Munsterbilzen but after a year we had already come to the conclusion that our premises were too small, and we moved to a 150m² accommodation in Hasselt,’ Mr van Hees recalls. ‘Soon, we started hiring people for assembly and testing.’
Prior to setting up Apex, Mr van Hees established his commercial background as sales manager at EML Sales – then a distribution company of professional audio equipment – while Mr Bergers had been working as a development engineer for Philips in Hasselt at its centre for CD development.
‘From day one, our philosophy was to create innovative and original products,’ Mr van Hees begins. ‘At the time we created the ParaGraphic Equaliser Series, graphic equalisers were available but few of them met the standards asked for by professionals in our industry. The PE-Series had a clear design philosophy – graphic equalisers were easy to operate, but the fact that the whole audio spectrum was limited to 30 or 31 bands clearly set a limit to their problem-solving capacity. Our idea to complete the constant-Q graphic section with a three-band fully-parametric (PE-133) and a two-band (PE-232) parametric section. Even today, the ParaGraphic concept is unique in analogue equalisers.’
With the PE-133 and PE-232 putting Apex on the map, the next move came in the form of the GX-Series, which was derived from the PE-Series as a line of graphic-only equalisers. ‘The GX-230 was a first milestone for our company with thousands of units sold worldwide,’ Mr van Hees says. ‘In order to be loyal to our design philosophy, we introduced the DLT-technology to our graphics section. The heart of all PE- and GX-Series became a bank of 15 or 30 constant-Q band-pass filters equipped with Dynamically Laser Trimmed hybrid circuits. The accuracy of these filters is still unequalled.’
The initial take-up came from sound reinforcement, fixed install and broadcast customers, including Brit Row in the UK, Eurodisney and Belgian public broadcaster VRT but further innovations in the Apex equipment line were soon to build on this considerably with a move away from analogue and into the emergent digital arena. ‘Apex had a good connection to the Philips Hasselt plant,’ says Mr van Hees. ‘Hasselt was a knowledge centre for CD applications, and by 1992 we had learned that Philips had been developing a standalone audio CD recorder. This machine was in no way comparable to the CD-writers found in your PC or laptop today and Philips did not see much of a market for it in its traditional customer base, since it retailed for €4,000 to €5,000. Blank discs were selling for as much as €30/piece in those early days. However, at Apex we felt that this technology would be strongly appreciated in the professional audio market, so we OEM-ed the Philips CDR into the Apex CDR30 and CDR40. We still have customers calling us for spare parts, so these are still in service – the drive mechanism of those first units was of exceptionally good quality.’
And there was more to come. During the mid- to late-1990s, environmental issues became a hot topic – one of these was excessive sound levels and how to control them. ‘Many standard cheap limiters were installed, dramatically deteriorating the sound quality of an expensive sound system so we introduced the SL-Series of limiters – Argos and the Hera in 1998, later on completed by the Leto,’ Mr van Hees recounts. ‘The main idea was to control sound levels and keep the original sound quality. In the late 1990s, noise level control systems were a very hot topic in Europe. Now we see it becoming an issue in Asian countries like Singapore. In fact, we expect growth in South Asia for this product range.’
The early years of the decade also saw the first Apex digital products arrive on the market, the Intelli-Series with Intelli-Q 22 two-channel dynamic and equalising processor and Intelli-X 48 real-time loudspeaker management system. Both products were designed for the sound reinforcement market and the fixed install market. Mr van Hees describes the IX 48 as a ‘digital powerhouse’, as a result of the DSP power it has onboard. Again, these units remain part of the company’s catalogue. ‘Our Intelli-X 48 – four-input/eight-output speaker management system became a cornerstone for our company,’ Mr van Hees says.
To this point, Apex had built its reputation through high-end products, but this too was about to change. ‘We felt that our technology could be applied to a budget range of quality products,’ Mr van Hees explains. ‘By 2002, the first product of the dB-Series – the dBQ-zero – was introduced to the market. In the meantime the dB range has been extended with dBG-8, an eight-channel gate, and dBC-8, an eight-channel compressor in 2007, and dBZ-48 and dBZ-48d, four-zone mixers the following year. Most recently, the dBDI-2 dual active DI box has been winning converts around the world. ‘Apex’s philosophy has always been to create original products that create an added value for our customer base,’ Mr van Hees asserts. ‘From our first range of products in the early 1990s up to the dBDI-2 DI-box, we have created original “non-existing” products. We definitely feel the urge to go the extra mile for our customers.’
Since 2008 the man behind Apex products has been Renaud Schoonbroodt. Having been with Apex since 2000, he started as service engineer, moved on to project engineering and now he is technical director. ‘All the nice new products seen at trade shows in 2009 and the products we will be showing later on this year are the work of Renaud and his small team of dedicated developers,’ says Mr van Hees. ‘At this moment we are working on our future, which we feel is a mixture of analogue and digital products. It is our aim to develop Apex to become a worldwide force in signal processing. With the introduction of signal processing both in digital consoles and in amplifiers, we realise we have to be inventive and creative in our future product range, but we are convinced however that our attention to detail and ease-of-use will be key elements to future success.
‘High-end signal processing is definitely digital,’ he continues. ‘The power of DSP processors is ever increasing and the sound quality of a well-designed digital processor is absolutely comparable to the best analogue equipment. The challenge is how to combine the functionalities and GUI so that the customer feels comfortable. In the lower end of the market, analogue equipment is still very wanted.’
It is clear that Apex’s original approach to its designs and the features it devises are key to the appeal of its products. With competition from Asian companies growing almost daily, the lower end of the market is becoming acutely competitive and unfavourable to many Western companies. ‘We do not want to compete purely on price,’ Mr van Hees offers, ‘however, the dB-Series offers our customers an incredible price-quality performance.
‘Apex is aware of competition, of course,’ he continues. ‘However, during the development cycle of a product we always look to create an original product with features that will create interest within our customer base. So far, we have had little to fear from Chinese companies. However, we do realise that this might change in the future. Proof has been given that Chinese manufacturers are capable of extremely efficient manufacturing – and in that respect, we can definitely learn from them.’
The Asia-Pacific region is a hot topic with the company, having appointed Yokohama-based Audio Brains to handle its distribution in Japan and made a significant sale into South Korea recently. ‘It’s about building up brand awareness and it’s nice to be doing that with a young company,’ said international sales director Craig Lovell, who set up the arrangement with Audio Brains at the tail end of 2009. ‘Figures suggest the Japanese market is picking up now and we are looking at a long-term arrangement,’ he says.
The company’s new dBDI-2 dual active direct DI box has attracted strong interest from the live, broadcast, recording and A/V markets around the world, and certainly in Asia, with Korea Seoul Sound among the most recent takers. ‘The Asia-Pacific market is a growing one for Apex,’ Mr van Hees confirms. ‘We want to be very present in that market. Craig has been taking care of the region for us for a couple of years – he has a lot of experience working in these markets and knows the culture very well. We are really pleased to have him onboard.’
Away from its technical expertise, personal relationships have been key to the acceptance of its products – an observation that carries particular significance with Asian and Middle Eastern clients, but which extends throughout the pro audio industry. ‘The characters you meet in our business make it a real pleasure to be in this industry,’ Mr van Hees closes. ‘Recently, a junior colleague in our company made the remark that in his first year working in our company, he had never before come across so many “special people”. The pro audio business is a niche market and it seems to have a high degree of attraction to passionate people. I can only confirm that.’
Published in PAA May-June 2010