ADAM Audio STUDIO PRO SP-5 by Arthur Stone
Into the Pleasure-dome: ADAM's new STUDIO PRO SP-5 closed-back headphones aim to replicate the sound of their studio monitors and after reviewing the S3V monitors and now the SP5's I think they do share character. This is ADAM's first headphone and they've introduced S-LOGIC tech from Ultrasone.
The SP5's are circumaural (cirum=around; aural=ear) meaning they surround the outer ear (called pinnae).
There was a point in my audio engineering journey when I realised that theory didn't always hold fast and true in practise. Specifications are a useful guide but different gear behaves in unpredictable ways if measured by some universal yardstick. Headphones can be unpredictable if used with different amps/interfaces particularly the ohm rating. Amp-specific.
The ADAM SP5's have been designed to produce a consistent sound and operate with an extended range of headphone amps and interfaces; the consistency of the SP5's character is reinforced by it's acoustic design which is seen in the frequency response/sensitivity curve. The character draws parallels with the Yamaha NS10 studio monitor – but not acoustically, in tone or sonic character – but as a reliable reference particularly for the mid-range. Unlike the NS10's the ADAM SP5's are well-balanced in terms of a general reference; although the mid-range is clear and present in high-resolution, this doesn't come at the expense of general balance across the full bandwidth.
Like the ADAM S3V studio monitors reviewed here, there is a smooth segue into the 'air band' and a smooth deep punchy bass; and ADAM designed the SP5's this way, to be a reliable counterpart to studio monitors. To share a similar sonic character.
Whereas some mid-focussed monitors can be harsh or forward the SP5's are fresh and expand the mid-region rather than actively highlight it. Effortless. In comparison, the AKG K702's were a bit more laid back, easy-listening, hi-fi, and less suited to mixing than the SP5's. Whereas the K702's felt like a comfy pair of old slippers the SP5's felt like those hi-tech wooden sandals that keep your back straight – they look a bit savage but feel just as good as the old slippers.
In the S3V review a comparison was made between monitors using paintings as a metaphor and the same is true here; the SP5's have greater resolution and less colouration than the K702's yet this isn't displeasing to the ear. Mistakes are heard but the listener is not punished by them. A pleasant non-fatiguing experience.
Into the Ultrasone: Bavarian headphone specialists Ultrasone have brought a quarter century of know-how to their co-project with ADAM in the form of S-LOGIC Plus sound transducers: the use of indirect sound (as opposed to headphones or buds that project sound directly into the ear canal). The SP5 'speakers' are decentralised and the sound echoes through the outer ear and then into the auditory canal. This arrangement also reduces the sound pressure level (SPL) on the eardrum by up to 40% (3-4 dB) and this is healthier for the ear and in practice is pleasant and non-fatiguing.
Closed back, circumaural dynamic headphone with detachable cable
Gold plated 40 mm transducer
Impedance: 70 Ohm
Frequency Response: 8 Hz - 38 kHz
Sensitivity @ 1 mW per ear: 95 dB
S-LOGIC ® Plus technology
Weight: 0.64 lbs (0.29 kg)
Warranty: 5 years (2 years warranty plus 3 years optional with product registration)
Comes with: 3 m spiral cable with gold-plated 6.3 mm jack, 1.2 m straight cable with gold-plated 3.5 mm jack, design case, manual.
One point of note is that each side of the headphone has the L or R legend embossed in Braille-style, so it's possible to feel the left and right with fingertips! Neat.
Price: £499 UK; Euro 549; $499 US
Let's immediately dispense with cost/value concerns; if the SP5's do as promised then the price is worth it. Professional gear is relatively expensive usually due to design/production considerations e.g. exotic manufacturing processes and materials; novelty; R&D; support/serviceability/reliability; and consistency across a product range. Any professional tool has this distinction from everyday tools e.g. medical equipment.
In Use: The first thing I noticed when putting on the SP5's was that despite initially feeling 'new' and 'awkward' within 2 minutes this impression disappeared and the headphones felt equally as comfortable as my existing hi-end cans; the difference being a degree or two of extra heat and this perhaps an indication that more rest breaks would be needed than with the 'breathable' open-back design. The isolation from environmental and ambient noise was increased significantly over the open-backed AKG K702's.
The second point of note is the importance of the headphone amp in shaping the sound: the SP5's will tell you if your headphone amp is (relatively) 'cheap' – I'd prefer to know this rather than hear a headphone which glosses-over or dominates character over the source signal.
It would be wrong to blame the SP5's for shortcomings in amp design and I'm sure anyone serious enough to pay £500 for phones would want to match this with a good quality headphone amp.
Of course, one can be lucky or fortunate in finding a cheaper headphone amp which by chance works well with the SP5 (e.g. sharing a particular impedance sweet-spot) but the bottom-line (as with high-end studio monitors) is that for the best SP5 performance they need to be paired with a solid amp. I tested the review SP5's with several headphone amps: Focusrite Saffire; KRK Ergo; Sound Devices 702; Moog SubPhatty; Mackie Big Knob Studio+
Call me superstitious but I decided to allow the SP5's some 'run-in time' or 'break-in period' – the idea being that any mechanical parts have an opportunity to flex and rest to achieve an optimum range of travel and dynamic. Concurrently I was adapting to the SP5 'sound' - in effect a new frequency response benchmark.
I did think the SP5's soundstage began to open-up within 20 minutes of use giving the impression of a room of increasing size – from a closet to a medium large room like a lounge or proper studio control room.
I was still missing the bass so I listened to the awesome 'Be Thankful For What You Got' by William De Vaughn. I heard great separation between the vocal and the bass and drums; and also a good mid-side separation with a wide image and solid centre.
Then I switched to Rebecca Pidgeons 'Spanish Harlem' to listen to the low bass as recommended by Bob Katz and which we used to test the flagship ADAM S3V 3-way studio monitors. The SP5's began to show their capabilities here: deep tight bass (like the S3V's) and Rebecca's voice sounded divine.
OK. So much for YouTube audio: as with the S3V's the deficiencies and limitations of the poor quality streaming format were clearly heard. Cheaper headphones might miss some of the imperfections of the streaming audio and gloss them over but whilst that may be good for compromised listening-for-pleasure the SP5's have a different purpose and intention: sometimes you need to hear clearly what is happening in the music even if that sounds un-musical. Similarly to the S3V monitors, the SP5 headphones do not punish the listener in their truthfulness – bad music doesn't hurt the ears or sensibility but you are aware something is not right and clearly what that something is.
I can see two main reasons for using good-quality cans: one, for listening to media and mixing/editing/'mastering' music; two, for performance pleasure e.g. playing synths in high-quality in an environment where noise must be kept-in.
For the first purpose, there must be accuracy, for the second, mojo.
Testing: Mojo. I plugged the SP5's into a Moog SubPhatty mono synth. I set-up a single oscillator on 16' octave (a reference to the length of pipe in an organ – the first synthesizer). The sound was very clear and detailed and I could clearly hear aspects of harmonics and filter – fine detail – that I hadn't been aware of before. Everything was there – the sub bass, nice punchy bass and mids, smooth top end. Plenty of air and awareness of white/pink/coloured noise.
This was enjoyable listening to; the SP5's directly connected to another professional instrument.
Next, I wanted to listen to a known known reference track; vinyl; Bowie Ziggy Stardust. Scratches n'all.
Then some digital tracks in HD:
Finally onto tracking and mixing a song.
After Use: After a few weeks into the review I needed to listen to 3 short vocal takes, to discern the subtle effects of different pop-filters, and I instinctively reached for the SP-5's and, honestly, I felt a sense of relief that the SP-5 were there to do the job.
I did notice that if I left my main monitors on whilst listening to the SP-5's there was phase cancellation in the bass; as I turned down the mains the bass emerged in the SP-5's. Perhaps a point worth noting when testing these – despite being closed-backed, they seem to work best in quiet, controlled studio ambience.
The only issue was that mechanical noise (e.g. friction on the cable from clothing or studio furniture/instruments/gear) is transmitted along the cable and into the left cup of the headphone casing. This can be heard as a scraping noise in the left ear shell (to which the cable is attached) and spoils the illusion of the soundstage. It's worse with the curly cable but even with the straight cable I could hear my open shirt collar rubbing if I turned my head or moved position. I am listening in a very quiet environment but still I thinkADAM should look into decoupling the cable socket from the headphone shell.
After a few weeks of use the SP-5's started to sound more 'relaxed' – the bass appeared more easily, the treble was smoother, the air and separation more apparent in the soundstage. I appreciate these are subjective opinions but that was the impression even if it were myself adjusting to the new headphones. The SP-5's lost the coldness and impersonal nature of a brand new product and became comfy slippers. I started listening to them more and more. I enjoy hearing music in such depth. The SP-5's have become a valuable engineering/mixing and mastering tool; a secret weapon of sorts.
Conclusion: After listening to the Youtube/streaming, the mp3's. WAV's and HD audio it was apparent that the SP5's are clear where other headphones are distorted. I have respect for ADAM's decision to voice the SP5's this way; rather than produce a headphones which will make everything sound good (leisure listening) the SP5's make everything clear in high resolution (professional listening).
Professional tools like the SP5's need to be comfortable, healthy, ergonomic and to not interfere or be distracting for workflow; ideally they should be invisible, unfelt and the user unable to tell if they are listening on headphones or studio monitors.
I think audio engineers will recognise the value of the SP5's as tool and reference; a comparison to NS10's as a standard is perhaps too far but these do really let you know what's going on.
I applaud ADAM's decision to make these headphones for audio engineers, as opposed to a perhaps more lucrative market, which would require a different sonic character and profile. This decision marks the SP-5's as an effective, professional tool.
Sound quality: 5/5 Perfect for it's role. Fine resolution. Good soundstage. Excellent tone and dynamic representation.
Ease of use: 4/5 Not much to say here. Physically they felt comfortable from the start; nothing hurts, very light. Relatively non-fatiguing for closed-back. Sonically it took a couple of hours use to acclimatise to the ear environment and it's effect on the mental representation of sound. The cable and connector is well-suited and keeps out of the way but mechanical noise from the cable e.g. friction against clothing or desk, can be transmitted to the left headphone shell.
Features: 5/5 Good form-fitting hardware. Seems good for eons of use. The case is handy and the SP5's fold horizontally so they'll fit easily (and safely) into a bag for portability, which is also assisted by the low weight.
Bang-for-buck: 5/5 Pro tools cost. ADAM are a bona fide gearslut company and there's a lot of careful design and thought for the user experience. Analytically the SP5's are a valuable tool; you hear what you need to know without it being an unpleasant sonic experience. The build-quality and components are good and, with care, the SP5's look good for years if not decades of use IMO. As with all gear of good quality it's helpful to think about the cost over the projected period of use. I think the main cost/benefit is that I would have confidence in the SP5's ability to be a reliable reference.
Links and references:
ADAM Audio - STUDIO PRO SP-5 Closed Dynamic Studio Headphones
ULTRASONE S-Logic(R) Plus | Kopfhorer Performance aus Bayern
ADAM Audio S3V