In Praise of... The Adam S3A!

Few speakers have gathered as much interest as the ADAM S3A. And with taking the unorthodox approach of using a ribbon driver for the tweeter, it’s easy to understand why. But what recognition these speakers have gained has little to do with marketing hype, and everything to do with performance. And with a list price of $5,300 for a pair, the S3A delivers.

The S3A is an active three-way speaker, rated at 360W rms. It has a frequency response of 32Hz to 35kHz (±3dB). Active crossovers feed three class AB 150W amps, powering two 7-inch HexaCone® woofers and an A.R.T. (Accelerated Ribbon Technology) folded ribbon tweeter. The first woofer operates in the 32Hz to 150Hz range. The second woofer operates from 150Hz to 1.8kHz. Sitting directly in between the woofers is the A.R.T. driver. There are two bass ports underneath the ribbon driver, and directly above the driver, ADAM was thoughtful enough to put the equalization controls on the front of the speaker, rather than in the rear. This includes a ±10dB input gain control, a ±4dB high gain control for the ribbon driver, and ±6dB EQ shelves for treble and bass at 6kHz and 150Hz, respectively. Also on this front panel is a power standby switch. All of this is housed in an MDF cabinet that has the front face beveled at the edges, revealing an octagonal design. The rear of the speaker has XLR inputs, an AC power input and the main power switch.

At the heart of what sets the S3As apart from other monitors are the patented ADAM A.R.T. tweeters. Using a “lamella like” folded ribbon, sandwiched in between 28 neodyne magnets, the ribbon moves back and forth with the alternating current, in a manner which ADAM claims is four times as efficient as the standard dynamic voice coil. Additionally, the effective frequency response of this driver is between 300Hz and 35kHz, which is extremely impressive.

When I received the pair of S3As, I A/B’d them against my Genelec 1031s in my Brett Thoeny designed control room at Fox Force Five Recorders. This is a “live front, dead rear” room, which has a reputation for translating very well without any frequency anomalies. What was immediately apparent upon first listen was that the S3As made the crossover range of the Genelecs extremely obtrusive, like a big hole in the 1kHz range. The transparency of the ADAM’s crossover was the best I can remember hearing for some time in a midfield monitor.

With the EQ of both speakers set flat, the Genelecs seemed a great deal brighter and the ADAMs seemed to be missing a lot of bottom end. This was surprising to me, as the S3As were reputed to have superior low end. After a visit from ADAM rep Dave Bryce, I discovered that in my studio at least, the ADAMs needed to be removed from the meter bridge and placed on stands behind the console. As soon as we did this, the powerful low end came into bloom. After speaking with some ADAM owners, I was not the only one who found this necessary for getting the desired low end. However, other owners did not encounter this same issue while using the meter bridge.

In tracking and mixing, the S3As imaged extremely well. There is a great deal of phase coherency between the three elements, and a real lack of time smear between the lows and highs. The stereo image was also extremely reliable as I checked phasing of the drums or any other stereo miked instruments I was tracking. The low end was tighter and more focused than my Genelecs, and the highs were definitely smoother. During the week that I tracked and mixed on the ADAMs, I was doing guitar-based rock. The smoothness was tricky for me to get used to, because I was not getting the same texture I was accustomed to in the 3–5kHz range, I believe also partly due to not having that hole just beneath in the 1kHz range of the Genelec’s crossovers. For myself, I wound up having to boost the high gain control, as well as add some of the 6kHz shelf on the S3A’s EQ controls. My ears have been so trained to the 1031s after 10 years, that I was missing a little bit of that high-end hype. In fact, the mixes I did wound up being a little brittle for my personal taste, as I believe that I overcompensated for the lack of some of the extra highs to which I was accustomed. Everything else about those mixes was spot on, though.

Having to adjust the EQ brings up one complaint I have with the ADAMs: It would be nice if they used stepped attenuators on their EQ panel. Even though there is a center detent, it was hard to match the levels on the left and right side with any level of certainty. Detents on the gain controls would have alleviated my concerns.

One of my other experiences, though not necessarily a complaint, was that I had been anxious to try the ADAMs based on the claim from some users that they mixed faster and experienced less ear fatigue. The last of these claims interested me, because I have been complaining about feeling beat up at the end of some of the rock mixes I had been doing. As for my findings about these claims, I’m not sure that these speakers changed the pace at which I worked. But what might be one of the S3A’s strong points wound up being a problem for me. The rock band that I was tracking kept asking me to turn up the volume, beyond levels that I had previously been using on the Genelecs with them. I believe this might have been because of the lack of hype on the high end. So, with the overall louder volume, I was experiencing ear fatigue anyway!

But overall, I was extremely impressed with the S3As. Aside from having to get used to some of the differences in mixing, I had no problem tracking with confidence. When I remixed on my normal monitoring setup, my tracks were spot on to how I hoped they would have sounded. Even though I was dissatisfied with the timbre of the mixes I did when monitoring on the ADAMS, the levels and balance of all the instruments were exactly where I wanted them. Once accustomed to the S3As, I am certain that given more time, I would have settled my confusion with the high frequency response and would have been able to mix on them without any dissatisfaction.

The bottom line question I think that anybody should be asking with these speakers however is: With the Cadillac price, is it really a Cadillac product you are getting? Well, I have to say, absolutely yes. I was so impressed with the performance of these speakers. And ADAM has a truly great asset in Dave Bryce. After communicating with several ADAM owners and even just potential buyers, I heard stories involving Dave’s assistance that went far beyond the customer support of just about any audio product I’d ever been involved with.

Now, I can vouch for their impeccable quality, but if you are wondering if they are the right speaker for you, that’s hard to answer. Some people like to hear music a certain way. In fact, one famous mixing engineer is known for using a speaker that most of us find unlistenable. But the ADAMs are far from the wrong speaker. I would suggest to anybody in the market for new midfield monitors that they give the S3As a shot. Their reputation as being one of the best is well deserved.