A Desktop Champion: The Adam Audio F5
Adam Audio F5 (MSRP $550/pair)
ADAM Audio has been around since 1999 making rather expensive monitors for studio applications. Visit a pro-audio site like the aptly-named Gearslutz and you'll most certainly see ADAM come up often as a recommended brand, along with other monitoring heavyweights like Genelec and Neumann (formerly Klein and Hummel). In recent years the company has ventured into "home audio" (read: passive speakers) but even the most affordable of those is priced in the multi-thousand-dollar range.
Things seem to be changing though, as lately the brand has launched several more affordable modelsthe A3X and the ARTist 3 both go for less than a grand per pair, bringing the ADAM heritage to a whole new segment of listeners. Both of those models are highly regarded, but still potentially out of reach for some folksespecially those of us who allocate the lion's share of our budgets to the headphone side of things. How could ADAM go even lower in price, without losing the aural magic they are known for? The answer, it seems, is the new F5.
At $550/pair (sold individually at $275 each), the F5 is the most affordable ADAM yet. The most obvious sign of cost cutting is the relatively plain enclosure, free of the beautiful piano black finish of the ARTist series. Still, it's not ugly by any means, with a nice textured finish and some angular touches on the front panel to keep it from being completely boxy. Aside from that it doesn't seem to cut any corners, and compared to similar priced competitors it looks fairly classy. But more than mere looks, the F5 is packed with time-tested and studio-approved technology that most in this price range can't match.
One of they key ingredients is ADAM's proprietary X-ART tweeter which is described as an evolution of the Heil Air Motion Transformer. The X-ART tweeter gets paired with a 5" woofer of hybrid design, using a glass fibre cone with paper backing for added rigidity. Onboard bi-amplification treats each driver with 25W RMS, making for a healthy 100W total for a pair of F5s. That's more than plenty for the intended nearfield listening. Interestingly, ADAM uses their class AB amp modules across the board here. It is their custom to use class AB amplification for the X-ART tweeter since it extends up to 50kHz and therefore doesn't play nice with class D amplification. But their larger and more expensive models do in fact use PWM amp modules for the woofers. These deliver more power and efficiency, but you have to move to the A5Xdouble the price of the F5before reaching that level.
Aside from that slight change compared to the more ambitious ADAM models, all the expected features of a studio monitor are on display here. Each side gets rear-panel RCA and XLR inputs, a level adjustment knob, and some very helpful tone controls. The high shelf EQ allows for plus or minus 6dB above 5kHz, while the low shelf EQ adds or subtracts the same amount under 300Hz. I found the latter particularly helpful when placing the speakers in a less than ideal environment. The front mounted ports are advantageous in a desktop situation as compared to most competitors with rear porting, but some users may still not have enough breathing room during placement. This results in boomy, overbearing midbass, so having that tone control is mighty useful. I wouldn't mind having even more precise controls, but that's probably asking too much from the most affordable model in the entire stable.
In my review of the Emotiva Airmotiv 5, I mention them pushing the upper limits of what we might reasonably call "desktop speakers". Well, these Adam Audio F5 active monitors are even larger, if only by a very small margin. Surely some people will simply not have room to accommodate them. Still, the popular Audioengine 5+ is nearly identical in size, so I figure there must be a good amount of potential customers out there whose desks these won't overwhelm. If we are to have any hope of a semi-full-range response, a 5" woofer is usually the minimum we can get away with, and designs with 5" drivers don't get much smaller than this anyway. The alternative is a satellite/subwoofer combination which brings placement difficulties of its ownthe sub needs to go somewhere, the extra cabling is a nuisance, and the integration between sat and sub is often problematic. There is no free lunch to be had in desktop audio.
You know what actually comes close to being a free lunch, all things considered? Active amplification. I've said it before but it bears repeatingactive designs can do far more with far less, resulting in big wins in performance and affordability. Stand-alone amplifiers tend to be overbuilt, ready for whatever load comes their way. They have no idea what sort of speaker they might end up being paired with, so they effectively need to be ready for extreme caseseven if all they ever end up driving is a very simple load. What if the amp could be specifically tailored to your particular speaker? It could then be designed with those specific characteristics in mind, being robust enough to do the job without any overkill. Taking it one step furtherwhat if we broke it down to individual drivers? Specific amps for each driver, compartmentalized for maximum efficiency into those specific loads. Then consider the removal of a passive crossoverone of the most critical and expensive aspects of a good passive speaker designto be replaced with an active electronic solution which is by nearly all accounts the better option; both conceptually and in the real world. End result? A better way of doing business, one that sadly doesn't seem to be wanted in the high-end space, for whatever reason. Still, we can take full advantage of these benefits in our desktop systems, as that seems to be the one place a consumer has plenty of choice in this category.