ADAM S3H Near/Midfield Studio Monitors
July 7, 2017
by Jim Daneker
I’ll never forget hearing ADAM monitors for the first time back in 2006. Their ART folded tweeter was revolutionary for me as a film composer/mixer, being able to hear intricate details at an almost forensic level even in complex mixes. I was hooked, and I ended up mixing countless projects on a pair of A7s mated to NHT’s excellent B20 stereo sub rig for over a decade.
Fast forward to 2017: as much as I’ve loved my A7/B20 combo, I’ve moved into a larger studio and I’ve been wanting to investigate some higher-resolution options as I’ve learned the shortcomings of my monitor system and the limitations that puts on my mixes. Knowing this would be a significant upgrade, I took the time to research all the options that would meet my criteria for a high-end monitor system:
1. I want to hear the most minute details even in dense, complex mixes, including distortion, limiting artifacts, etc. while not causing ear fatigue over long days.
2. I want to hear “into” a mix. I want to hear each element as distinctly as possible so I can fix what needs fixing and find the best way to glue everything together myself; I don't want the speaker to do that for me.
3. I want precise, accurate transients balanced across the spectrum, with everything hitting at the same time; nothing smeared or indistinct.
4. I want accuracy, not flattery. I don’t want the speakers to sound good until the mix does.
5. I want a large sweet spot so I can move around to adjust outboard and not have significant image or tonal changes.
6. Last but not least, mixes need to translate well from my monitors to a wide variety of playback systems.
So, I put my shopping list together and went on a listening spree through monitor nirvana, with contenders from ADAM, Amphion, ATC, Barefoot, Focal, Kii, and PMC that might fit my needs. In an effort to keep myself from needless torture and not melt my credit card, I set a budget cap of around $7000. However, I did cave a few times and listened to some monitors up to twice that price just for reference. It was quite an education, with more than a few surprises!
I won’t dwell on what didn’t make the list or why; suffice it to say that it came down to two options for me: ADAM and ATC. I’ve heard about ATC for ages since they are highly regarded by mixing/mastering royalty the world over, and for good reason. They are known for legendary detail, low distortion, excellent translation, and they’re handcrafted and built completely by ATC in England - no OEM parts. ADAM, while a younger company, also has a well-earned reputation for unflinching accuracy (especially with their ART tweeter), razor-sharp imaging, transient detail, innovative design, and German engineering. They also make most (if not all) parts in-house. So, the battle was on; would the Brits unseat the Germans on my monitor stands?
On the ADAM side, the ideal contender was the new S3H (the S3V would have been an option but the horizontal layout of the S3H works much better in my space). On the ATC side, I considered the SCM20 ASL pro mkII, SCM25a/45a and a used pair of their “holy grail” SCM50ASL, only because I found a pair for half of their usual $15,000 price. Having spent a lot of time on ATCs lately, I really felt like I was heading in that direction; they are stunningly good monitors and met all my criteria above. After a lot of listening to the ATC options, I actually felt like their smallest model (the SCM20s) would be the best fit for my studio since I still use my NHT B20 sub rig (I really need that support in the bottom octave for the kind of work I do). An important side note: those “little” ATCs are actually more powerful than their mid-level brothers (SCM25a and SCM45a) - so the SCM20s are more like SCM50s in many ways than the 25a/45a. Anyway, being so used to that ADAM detail, I knew I needed to compare them side by side in my own space. With kind assistance from ADAM Nashville who loaned me an evaluation pair of new S3Hs, I also borrowed some ATCs and set about comparing.
Both the S3H and the SCM20 are absolutely remarkable. Both are highly detailed with great imaging, plenty powerful, and both meet all my criteria. It was clear either one would do the job for me, so it was time for a final test that would tip the scales for me. I have a list of random tracks that are great for evaluating high-resolution monitors; these will quickly reveal a monitor's ability to resolve the kind of fine detail I need for my work. After all, if you can’t hear a problem, you can’t fix it. Not all of these examples are problems of course, but they are details that are easy to miss on lesser monitors:
- John Williams: You Are The Pan (Hook) - 3 glockenspiel notes at 0:46 (only the last note is audible on some monitors)
- John Williams: The Scavenger (The Force Awakens) - oboe noises, other misc. noises at 0:52
- Immediate Music: Prologue to a Conquest (Trailerhead Nu Epiq) - limiting, distortion at 2:50
- John Powell: Boat Chase (Italian Job) - light perc, synth details at 2:50, 3:08
- James Newton Howard: London (Blood Diamond) - vocal isolation at 1:34
- Toto: Rosanna - subtle synth layer under piano at 1:47
- Duran Duran: Notorious - overall separation, stereo spread and imaging; also left side synth layer at 0:12, 0:39
- MuteMath: Changes - finger snaps, overall imaging; vocal sibilance @ 0:52
- Kelly Clarkson: Breakaway - aggressive vocal de-essing
Those examples (and many others) tilted the scales toward the ADAMs for me. The ATCs are absolutely gorgeous-sounding speakers when a mix is right, and their midrange is truly something special. However, their ability to resolve fine detail just didn’t feel as balanced to me across the spectrum. Everything I liked about them, I got from the ADAMs, and then some. Many of the examples above were harder to hear on the ATCs, if I could hear them at all. For example, the first 2 glockenspiel notes at 0:46 in “You Are The Pan” disappeared almost entirely but were easily discernible on the ADAMs. Same with the distortion on the Immediate Music piece - it was kind of glossed over on the ATCs but jumped out on the ADAMs. Ultimately, there are details I could discern on the ADAMs that I couldn’t hear on other monitors anywhere near their price. And the real miracle to me is that the ADAMs provide all that detail without being at all harsh, “forward” or fatiguing at all - they are exceptionally well balanced all across the spectrum. By the way, I did all my testing with monitors level-matched and all DSP settings flat on the ADAMs.
Being able to clearly hear that kind of detail (not to mention issues like distortion and limiting artifacts) is a big deal to me and the S3H is like a giant magnifying glass in that regard. Considering the time they will save me getting things right the first time, they will pay for themselves in short order. As if that weren’t enough, there are a few other things worth mentioning:
- Headroom for days. The S3H’s are incredibly powerful, with 1350 watts available across the 4 drivers: 500 for each woofer, 300 to the mid dome, and 50 to the ART tweeter for a max SPL of 126 dB at 1 meter. That’s kind of insane, but it means ridiculously abundant headroom and effortless transient response.
- Extended high-end frequency response. The S3H plays out relatively flat out to 50 kHz, so working on high-res/high sample rate projects is no problem and allows extreme detail in the audible band.
- Three-way design keeps crossover frequencies out of the crucial vocal range (250 Hz and 3 kHz). No “black holes” like I often hear on lesser 2-way designs.
- New waveguides for the mid dome & tweeter milled out of solid blocks of aluminum. That explains the killer dispersion and super-wide sweet spot, something my old A7s lacked quite a bit. I can now freely move around my console and the image doesn’t shift at all - that’s a HUGE upgrade for me.
- On-board DSP with AES digital inputs. A once-expensive add-on is now standard, and it seems like this will be really well-implemented (I’m currently borrowing a pre-production pair so I can’t test the shipping version yet). 6 fully parametric EQ bands plus low & hi shelving, factory & user presets, delay compensation, connection to your computer via USB for editing/storage/recall (see screen shot of control software below)… it’s all here and allows quite a bit of flexibility. I was a little concerned about an additional AD-DA round trip when using the analog inputs, but given the amount of detail I heard in my tests while using them, any concerns quickly evaporated. I’m told the sample rate is 96k, so resolution is great and there’s no appreciable latency. I look forward to testing them via AES input when I get a chance to reconfigure my studio a bit!
- Built like German tanks. At 58.6 lbs (26.6 kg), these things feel like they’re carved out of stone. Tapping on the cabinets yielded no ringing or resonance whatsoever. The new port design is much improved too - no chuffing or port noise even at high volumes. ADAM backs these up with a generous 5-year warranty upon registration.
The new S3H simply left my jaw on the floor. It takes everything I’ve loved about ADAM’s approach - especially that spacious and exquisitely detailed soundstage - and refines it to a whole new level of quality, craftsmanship and performance. It also gives me what I love about some truly stellar competitors, which incidentally are up to twice the price: a wide open and highly detailed midrange and solid, built-like-a-tank hardware. It’s really the best of both worlds, and considering the price, the S3H is a stunning value. I can’t wait for my own pair to arrive… I’ll be watching for that FedEx truck like a hawk. Oh, one last bit of icing on the cake: if Bruce Wayne and Darth Vader ever got into speaker design, this is what they would look like. That's a win in my book.
PROS: Forensic-level detail without being fatiguing; precise imaging; effortless transients & headroom; accuracy over flattery; well balanced across the entire spectrum; DSP allows for a lot of flexibility to fit your environment. Extremely well-built hardware. Excellent value!
CONS: DSP is controlled via a knob on the back panel unless you opt for direct computer control via USB (as yet untested). It's quite an investment to get into this level of performance, but that’s a universal truth. Hey, you don’t necessarily need two kidneys, but you do need two monitors...
Jim Daneker is a Nashville-based composer, producer & arranger. His latest project is an epic instrumental album called “AD ALTA” featuring live orchestra, A-list rhythm section & notable instrumentalists from around the world. Available on iTunes and here at www.jimdaneker.com.