KO Classic : adidas a3 Superstar Ultra
Check out the first shoe to hit the court in the a3 series!
The correct pronunciation of the adidas a3 Superstar Ultra's name may not be immediately apparent, but its quality is. by Professor K, posted March 14, 2004 I have to admit, I was pretty hard on adidas in my review of the T-MAC 3. With the number of shoes I test over the course of a year it's fair to say that I can get jaded pretty quickly. I guess it just seemed to me that everything coming out of adidas was a minor variation on the same theme; an overlasted synthetic upper, some sort of homage to adidas' trademark shell-toe design up front, a CMEVA midsole, and maybe adiPRENE + at the forefoot. The net result of this combination has almost always been good, but after a couple years of the same old, same old, it was getting as tiresome as Omarosa's run on The Apprentice. But like a scene out of an "inspired by true events" sports movie, just when my perception of adidas was at its lowest ebb, they came out of nowhere and dropped one of the hottest looking shoes to hit the market in good long while: the adidas a3 (pronounced a-cubed, not a-three) Superstar Ultra. The shoe simply oozes luxury and elegance out of every pore. Befitting the name, the Superstar Ultra features an ultra simple design, with just one stitch line marking the upper. On the broadly released colorways the outer side of the upper is made of a matte synthetic leather, while the inner side is made of a glossy vinyl-like material with perforations punched through the entirety of its surface (a few, limited edition colorways of the Superstar Ultra were made with all-patent leather-like uppers). figure 1. Here's a look at the outsole of the adidas a3 Superstar Ultra alongside the outsole of the Nike Shox VC III (expect to see a direct, toe-to-toe comparison of the two shoes soon). The design of the Superstar Ultra's carbon rubber outsole is pretty much standard fare, but it provided amazingly good traction. The inner is fairly straightforward, with no bootie or sock-like support sleeve, but seams are kept to an absolute minimum and the few that are exposed are flush with the inner and kept away from any areas where they could chafe against the foot. The toebox seems wider than usual for an adidas shoe, which was a plus as it gave my toes a bit more room to breathe. An extra sweet touch is the material used to line the rearfoot and tongue. adidas calls it a "cat tongue" lining, but I think most people will call it velvety (see figure 4). In addition to giving the inner a luxe feel, the material grabs hold of the heel and prevents it from shifting around within the shoe during wear. adidas seems to have paid particular attention to heel fit in the design of the a3 Superstar Ultra. In addition to the "cat tongue" lining, the shoe features an exceptionally solid internalized heel counter and a unique padded bar that extends up behind the Achilles tendon. Usually, hoops shoes are notched at the peak of the heel to prevent chafing against the Achilles. In the case of the Superstar Ultra, a notch is indeed cut through the rigid part of the heel, but it's filled by the aforementioned bar, which is itself filled with a generous chunk of dense foam. I was initially concerned that this unconventional design would result in me involuntarily parting with some skin, but out on the court, the only thing the padded bar did was to further improve fit by cradling the top of my heel (just to be safe, though, I would make sure to wear socks that extend up above the highest point of the shoe). I have to report that - even with all these measures - I did feel a tiny bit of heel slip during my test wearings, but it was about as close to zero as you could get and side-to-side movement within the shoe was absolutely non-existent. figure 2. This rear view of the a3 Superstar Ultra provides a good look at the large a3 structures located beneath the heel. The densities of the structures are individually tuned to properly guide the foot through heel-strike and into the transition to toe-off. Also visible in the shot above is the chromed full-length TPU support plate. As the name suggests, the plate provides added support around the base of the foot, but it also enhances overall stability by eliminating flex and torque under the midfoot, and helps prevent foot injuries by distributing impact forces across a broader surface area. Another big contributor to the a3 Superstar Ultra's excellent fit at the heel was its full-length thermoplastic urethane (TPU) support plate. The plate acts like an external orthotic, curving up along its perimeter to provide enhanced support around the base of the heel and midfoot. The plate also functions as something adidas calls a TORSION System. A staple of adidas' hoops products, TORSION is basically a rigid structure under the midfoot that, appropriately enough, makes a shoe torsionally rigid. By keeping the fore and aft parts of the foot working in tandem, the system protects the foot from excess torque and helps provide a more stable base for cuts, takeoffs, and landings. The added support and stability provided by the TPU plate was a good thing because the a3 Superstar Ultra provided less than stellar support around the ankle. Though it has a mid-height cut, the malleability of the material around the Superstar Ultra's ankle left the shoe feeling more like a low than a mid. This was a big plus in terms of comfort, but those who like a lot of support at the ankle might find it a bit disconcerting...at first. I say "at first" because the beautifully designed TPU plate and super-solid heel counter will make most players' ankle concerns fade away once the games begin. By barring side-to-side movement at the heel and helping stabilize the entire foot, the TPU support plate makes ankle inversion about as likely as a steroid-free game of Major League Baseball. There is no structure built into the shoe to mitigate the effects of a rolled ankle should you, say, land on another player's foot, but no shoe can fully protect against that. Middling ankle support and all, I was able to play in the adidas a3 Superstar Ultra with supreme confidence. figure 3. This photo reveals the perfed material that runs along the medial side of the adidas a3 Superstar Ultra's upper. The perfs did seem to help dissipate heat, but I wouldn't say ventilation is one of the Superstar Ultra's strong points. Also contributing in a big way to that supreme confidence were the bits sitting under the support plate; namely the latest implementation of adidas' a3 "energy management" system. The idea behind a3 is that it cushions, guides, and drives you through each footstrike - those three functional attributes being the basis of the name a-cubed. The system delivers on this trio by way of a series of highly resilient, polyurethane-based cushioning elements that are shaped and tuned to react and respond in very specific ways. While the basic premise has remained the same, the design of the Superstar Ultra's a3 system differs significantly from the shoes that have come before it. First, the Superstar Ultra's system provides coverage at the forefoot and heel. adidas has had a full-length a3 running shoe on the market for a little while now in the form of the a3 Twin Strike, but the a3 Superstar Ultra marks the first hoops shoe to feature full-length a3. And even here, the design of the Superstar Ultra's full-length system is nothing like that employed in the Twin Strike. For one, the a3 structures in the Superstar Ultra are noticeably less dense, particularly at the heel. For another, they're molded into an entirely new shape, featuring a wide, hour glass-like groove along their midsections instead of the flat-faced, angular forms employed in the Twin Strike (for an example of this angularity see figure 4 of our a3 Electrify review). Finally, the structures are no longer sandwiched between a rigid transition wedge. This is a significant difference, but the explanation of why it's important will take us into the realm of serious shoe geekery, so, if you're not into that sort of thing, feel free to skip the next two paragraphs. figure 4. Note the material used to line the rearfoot of the adidas a3 Superstar Ultra. adidas calls this a "cat tongue" lining, but it's more velvety smooth than cat's tongue rough. It gives the inner a luxurious look and feel, while also helping to improve fit by subtly grabbing hold of the foot during wear. The only downside is that it seems to retain heat. In the first generation of a3-based shoes the transition wedge acted like a springboard, working with the a3 structures to store the energy applied to the system on heel strike, and then releasing that energy up and - by virtue of its wedge shape - forward through the transition to toe-off. It's this forward propulsion that fulfilled the "drives" portion of the a3 equation. In the case of the Superstar Ultra, the a3 structures are bonded directly to the shoe's full-length TPU support plate, with the solid rubber outsole in turn bonded directly to the a3 structures. So there is no transition wedge, but the Superstar Ultra still manages to drive the foot forward. How? Through a tweak to the shape of the a3 structures that's ingenious in its simplicity. Look at the Superstar Ultra in profile (see figure 5 below) and you'll notice that its a3 structures are canted forward, almost like a person walking into a stiff wind. This slant causes the structures to compress and decompress in that forward-biased plane, thereby driving the heel and forefoot up and ahead through the transition from heel-strike to toe-off. So, you get the same drive as in the first generation design, but without the bulk, complexity, or added weight of the transition wedge. Now, I can't say that I noticed any discernible forward propulsion while playing in the a3 Superstar Ultra, but the shoe did provide excellent impact protection along with a buttery smooth heel-to-toe transition feel. And, at 19.1 ounces in a U.S. men's size 11, the Superstar Ultra provided those cushioning benefits in a package 2.7 ounces lighter per shoe than the original a3 Basketball (and the a3 Basketball only featured a3 structures at the heel!). That's a significant weight differential. figure 5. I call this one "Phat Kicks on the Rocks." Note the forward cant designed into the polyurethane-based a3 structures. It might not seem like a big deal, but the angle it creates is integral to the function of adidas' new full-length a3 system (read the full review for an in-depth explanation). Another thing I liked about the a3 system in the Superstar Ultra was that it felt completely natural underfoot. With no rubber sidewall or overlasted upper to stiffen the perimeter of the shoe, the fully exposed a3 structures compressed easily along their outermost edges - particularly at the forefoot. The net result was a feel reminiscent of the original adidas The KOBE, which featured an outsole/ midsole combination that was rounded (or radiused in shoe-speak) along its entire perimeter; there was absolutely no clunkiness and I was able to pivot and explode off the inner edge of the shoe with ease. Reading about how easily the edges of the a3 structures compress might lead some to worry that the lateral edge of the shoe could give way during a hard cut, resulting in a rolled ankle. But that concern would be unfounded. The Superstar Ultra's complete and utter elimination of side-to-side movement at both the forefoot and heel, combined with the stiff TPU plate and the aggregate density of the a3 structures, meant that this was never an issue. In fact, as I mentioned earlier, the Superstar Ultra was exceptionally stable. The only thing I didn't like about the a3 Superstar Ultra's overall cushioning setup was its OrthoLite sockliner (this is the same sockliner used in the T-MAC line and most of adidas' current hoops products). It provided a nice, cushy step-in feel, but its open celled structure was too light to deliver any sort of cushioning response during on-court action. Worse yet, because it sits on top of a much firmer matrix of materials (below the sockliner lies a thin adiPRENE+ midsole, the TPU support plate, and the dense a3 structures), the sockliner at times made the shoe feel as though it was bottoming out when it actually had plenty more cushioning left to give. If I were to wear the Superstar Ultra for an entire season I would definitely replace the built-in sockliner (it's glued in, so you have to be careful if you want to remove it) with a more dense and resilient over-the-counter replacement insole. figure 6. Here's one last look at the adidas a3 Superstar Ultra. It's a terrifically technical shoe, but the folks at adidas have managed to wrap all of the advanced bits up into a design that's modern, but refreshingly simple and elegant. There's one last thing I should touch on before summing up - serving as the perfect complement to the a3 Superstar Ultra's natural feel underfoot was its wickedly good traction. There's nothing fancy about the outsole; it's solid rubber, has flex grooves carved into the standard locations, and is based on the tried-and-true zig-zag herringbone pattern. Sounds pretty basic, but it worked exceptionally well. I was able to stop on a dime and cut so hard I had to hand out band aids. My only concern is that it's quite thin in spots, which is why I wouldn't recommend the a3 Superstar Ultra for outdoor ball. Everything else seems tough enough to handle the abuse of street balling, but the outsole appears as though it'll surrender about as quickly as our escargot eating friends across the pond. Alright then, to sum up, the adidas a3 Superstar Ultra is a rare bird in our fashion over function times; it looks great and performs even better. All-around ballers at any position will love its exceptional comfort & fit, excellent impact protection, excellent stability, wonderfully natural on-court feel, and exceptional traction. Without a doubt, it's the best all-around hoops shoe bearing the three stripes that I've as yet had the pleasure to test. The only downsides I experienced were an overly mushy sockliner and middling support at the ankle. But even if you're big on ankle support, I'd still recommend giving the a3 Superstar Ultra a try on for size. Its solid heel counter, beautifully designed externalized TPU support plate, and full-length a3 cushioning system will do more to protect your ankles than all but a handful of higher cut shoes. Plus, you'll get the added benefits of lighter weight and a higher degree of mobility at the ankle. And don't let the fact that the primary endorsers for the shoe are both tall forwards - namely Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett - lead you into thinking that it's only suited to tall, thin guys. The a3 Superstar Ultra is a great choice for everyone from small, run-and-gun guards to big, "bang first, ask questions later" centers. Just remember that it's pronounced a-cubed, as in ice-cubed, and you'll be cool. Who's Worn It Gil Arenas (G- Washington Wizards), Ron Artest (F- Indiana Pacers), Raja Bell (G- Utah Jazz), Tim Duncan (F/C- San Antonio Spurs), Kevin Garnett (F- Minnesota Timberwolves), Nene Hilario (F/C- Denver Nuggets), Jamaal Magloire (C- New Orleans Hornets), Antonio McDyess (F- Phoenix Suns), Gary Trent (F- Minnesota Timberwolves), and others Read this review in SoleCollector magazine! Read Kicksology.net's review of the adidas a3 Superstar Ultra in issue 4 of Sole Collector, due to the racks in mid-April 2003. The magazine for shoeheads, by shoeheads, every issue of Sole Collector is chock-full-o photos of the hottest kicks, exclusive interviews, and in-depth articles. You can take your chances at the newstands or subscribe today to lock in your issue.