Product Review - Totem Acoustics Model 1 Signature Mini-Monitor Speakers - October, 2001
Drivers: One 1" Metal Dome Tweeter, One 5 1/2" Mid-Range/Woofer
MFR: 50 Hz - 20 kHz ± 3 dB
Nominal Impedance: 4 Ohms
Power Handling: 120 Watts
Sensitivity: 87 dB/W/M
Size: 12 1/2" H x 6 1/2" W x 9" D
Weight: 9 Pounds Each
MSRP: $1,995/Pair USA; Cherry, Mahogany, Black Ash, Clear Ash Wood Veneer
Third in my series of mini-monitor reviews, I have chosen this highly reputed unit from Montreal, Canada. I have been curious about it for a long time, because of all the raves, and really needed to find out for myself.
The origins of Totem Acoustics began in 1985 when Vince Bruzzese started research on designing and building speakers in Montreal, Canada. Originally, he pursued speakers of a flat configuration, suitable for wall mounting. During collaborations with another manufacturer, Totem was taken by surprise when the other company suddenly launched a line of wall mounted speakers. Vince decided not to fight, and instead go in another direction. The majority of the work already done was easily transferable to small enclosure designs, and thus in 1988 Totem Acoustics was founded in Montreal, and the Model 1 was launched.
All research and design was done without the benefit of the National Research Council in Ottawa that is used as a test and design facility by most of Canada's world-renowned brands. Vince felt all speakers built using those facilities had a similar sound, and he wanted to try something different.
Vince graduated from Montreal's McGill University, with a major in Sciences and for awhile taught Math and Physics in high-school and Junior college. He was always interested in music and liked the sound of electrostatics; but was frustrated by their off-axis response, dynamic limitations, and lack of mechanical reliability. Basically, it was his love for sound and frustration with current technology that led him to create Totem.
As you can already tell, Vince does not care to go down the path well traveled; he insists to follow the path that he believes is the best. Most speaker manufacturers offer several lines of product, and within a line you would have several sizes and configurations that share drivers, components, design and tonality. Not so with Totem. Vince feels that when he has an inspiration for a new product, he needs to focus that energy in a single product that completely answers that call. So you could view each speaker as a line of its own, with just one model each. This philosophy is perfectly reflected in the name of the company.
Vince choose the name Totem in consultation and permission from the Native American tribes at Kahnawake, Quebec. In Native American philosophy, a Totem is an entity that you seek, and when found it guides you through your life. In the same vein, Vince feels that each of us will choose a speaker (or be chosen by it) that suits us in overall terms, given our room, choice of media, associated equipment and so on. Totem speakers are not necessarily made to be sound homogeneous or have the same drivers, design or components between models. Each model is made to fully satisfy the need that inspired it, without having to allow for compromises that may be introduced by trying to commonize parts, design, or skimping on quality. The result is a no-compromise speaker.
The original Model 1 was the first product introduced by Totem. According to Vince, it was the first ever to feature Dynaudio woofers and WBT connectors. The goal was to build a speaker with quickness of response, fairly efficient, and enough bass to sound musical all in a small enclosure.
The original Model 1 was immediately hailed as a success and was the basis for the popularity that Totem quickly gained. The Signature version was introduced with several refinements, namely, two sets of binding posts for bi-wire capability, tighter tolerances on drivers and components, paper-oil capacitors and other more expensive components in the crossover. Internal wiring is done with six different types of wires, and all are custom annealed, silver-coated copper with a Teflon jacket.
In essence, the Signature is the cost-no-object version of the original Model 1.
My listening room is 16' by 16' by 8'. For casual listening, the speakers were placed so that they were 70" between the tweeters, and 128" from the tweeters to the listening position. For critical listening sessions, all three points were about 80" from each other, and well away from room boundaries.
The rear wall was about 5' away initially, but this really compromises the bass reinforcement from the rear port. A distance of about 2' to 3' seems to work best. This was confirmed by Vince to be the recommended distance from the rear wall. He also strongly suggests you stay away from side walls and use very little or no toe-in. Staying away from side walls is true for all speakers I have encountered, with a varying degree of impact. Although you may not always be able to place speakers away from a side wall, you could mitigate the effect with acoustic treatments and toe-in. In the case of the Model 1, toe-in may result in a brighter sound, so you may only be left with acoustic absorption panels as a remedy.
I burned-in the samples for over 200 hours before any serious listening was done. The speakers were placed on 24" stands. The recommended height is between 20" and 28". Totem sells two stands that can be filled with sand: a 2-pillar PVC model for $150 and a 4-pillar steel model for $550.
Bi-amping or bi-wiring were suggested as better but not necessary. Vince suggests to use a better quality of single run instead two runs of mediocre quality.
These are beautiful looking speakers indeed, and are as small as I have seen a mini-monitor get without compromising sound quality. This speaker is sure to score very high on the Spousal Acceptance Factor, as it did in my house. The review sample was furnished in a Mahogany veneer; other finishes available are Cherry, Black Ash, Clear Ash and Maple.
The sides of the front baffle are curved to reduce diffraction of sound waves from the speaker front. However, the top and bottom are not curved. According to Vince, this combination proved to be the best sounding for this particular model. The quality of the workmanship is exemplary on the front, and you would think it was fashioned from a single block of wood. On the rear I was able to tell that veneer laminates have been applied, but this was the only place that the speaker did not measure up to its price tag. To put it into perspective, this is only a minor cosmetic issue, and it is on the rear.
These speakers do not come with grilles either. You would have to compromise the integrity of the front baffle to allow for plug holes, and that is not an acceptable compromise to Vince. Moreover, I think they look very nice without grilles, since the front baffle is mahogany too, and I am not in favor of spending money to cover beautiful things. The tweeter does have a mesh grille on it to protect from accidents. If you really must have grilles, they are available as a $20 option with tack on Velcro. Vince is determined not to compromise his cabinets, and I can only agree wholeheartedly.
The rear sports four WBT binding posts, a port and plate with the serial number, and Vince's signature. The serial number on the back helps identify the matching pairs.
The tweeter is a 1" aluminum dome sourced from SEAS. Vince strongly prefers metal to cloth for two reasons. One, he feels that the backwaves will reflect in the rear chamber and return through the cloth out of phase, resulting in a smearing effect. Second, cloth will fatigue over time and change its tonality. The tweeters from SEAS are specially made to Totem's specification, and then further modified at the Totem factory. Vince would only say that the modifications have to do with damping and the rear chamber. My natural response to this was, why not just make your own drivers, instead of buying OEM and modifying it? Vince answered that it would require a lot of investment to develop and build a driver, and then the temptation would be to use it in all or most models in order to spread the development cost. He would not want to feel committed to use a driver for a new model if he did not think it was best suited. A quick survey of some of Totem's other models verifies that Vince employs a wide range of components and designs in his speakers. As you can see, this is certainly a unique approach to building speakers.
The midrange/bass driver is a 5.5" polypropylene Dynaudio unit, with their famous oversized voice-coil at 3". This coil is said to have greater control and power. An interesting fact about these Dynaudio drivers is that the mechanical resistance increases the further the cone is pushed back, when more power is applied. As a result it is nearly impossible (never, say never) to damage the woofer with too much power. The woofer is designed to simply stop going back further instead of slamming into the rear assembly and damaging the coil. You must be a real masochist to want to find out what those limits are. Moreover, the hearing loss after repeated exposure to those decibels will certainly preclude you from enjoying the refinements of high-end gear.
The internal components are also matched to be of the same caliber, including over-sized paper/oil capacitors, WBT silver solder, and six types of wire (all silver coated copper with Teflon jackets). It takes 1.5 hours to hand assemble each crossover, and even the number of turns on a connection is standardized.
The cabinet is made with premium furniture-making techniques such as mitered corners and interlocking panels. This is done to ensure longevity of the unit and to allow the box to expand and contract over the years as needed. The inside is also veneered the same as the outside, and this is said to help equalize the stress and increase cabinet life. The inside is extensively cross-braced and coated with a borosilicate damping material. But, it is not stuffed with fiber-glass or any such sound absorbing materials. The overall goal is to control resonance but not absorb and store energy, so this is done with a very rigid box that focuses more on diffracting and not absorbing rear waves. And indeed this is a fairly light unit, even for its size.
The crossover is set at 2.5 kHz, with a second order slope (12 db/octave). Frequency response is rated at 50 Hz to 20 kHz, ± 3 dB, and at 40 Hz the bass response is down 6 dB. Impedance is a minimum of 3.9 ohms and a max of about 17, the nominal value being 4 ohms.
There currently are several hundred brands of loudspeakers available in the North American market. One of the questions that has always perplexed me is, if I buy brand A for $100, then is there a brand B offering the same quality for less, or brand C offering better sound for about the same price? I guess we all want to avoid 'buyer's regret', but the answer to that question is not simple.
First it would be almost impossible to compare each new speaker to all existing ones and rank them somehow. And even if someone had the time and money to do this, the real question is how exactly would we define better sound? Some basic factors are measurable (e.g., frequency response, cabinet resonance, dispersion, loudness, etc), but they do not always predict if the speaker will necessarily sound better just because they measure better. I believe that the reason for this is that we just do not know enough about all the factors that affect the human perception of sound. Will we ever really know everything about the human brain and its functions? Till then, we are stuck with sifting through the various attempts of reviewers to try and convey the sum of what someone has manufactured.
In the course of this review I was able to do something I have wanted to do for a long time, namely compare several speakers at one time in the exact same setup. In addition to the Totem Model 1 ($1,995), I also had samples of the Dynaudio Contour 1.1 ($1,695), Triangle Titus XS ($495), Monitor Audio GR10 ($1,899) and Silverline SR15 ($1,799). I tested each with a 'pink noise' reference track and marked the point on my volume dial where each registered at 70 dB ± 1dB. I then repeatedly listened to a single track on each speaker and noted the differences. Before I get into the details, let me say they all sounded closer to each other than one might imagine. Of course, these are all pretty good speakers too. The differences I note below are apparent in a critical listening setup, i.e. I heard the differences only because I was specifically listening for some. In a casual listening session, most of these differences would have been unnoticed. Here is what I heard on some select tracks:
"Come on in This House" (Junior Wells, Come on in this house, Telarc, CD83395) revealed the most obvious distinction of the Model 1: its forward soundstage. I cannot say this is a good or bad thing, just one of personal preference. The reviewer in me says I should prefer neither forward nor laid back and side with neutral, but the listener in me leans towards the forward soundstage. It simply involves me more in the music. This is a fairly complex track with a lot going on. All five speakers did very well with rendering detail and separation of instruments. The Model 1 did not give enough weight to the kick-drum if placed 5' from the back wall like the rest of the speakers, and it needed to be 2'-3' away to benefit from the rear wall reinforcement.
"Acoustic Drum Solo" (Russ Henry, Stereophile test CD 2, Stereophile, STPH 004-2) is an excellent minimalist recording done at the former Manley Labs with their reference microphone. Again the Totem came out sounding as the most forward of the five speakers. The Totem also had the largest soundstage with the speakers facing straight forward, occupying the entire space between the speakers. It required a slight toe-in to get a correct sized image, one that seemed to replicate the recording studio in my listening room. Vince recommends little or no toe-in, and your choosing will reflect if you want the largest possible image or a realistic one. The Model 1 easily accommodated both in my room. The tonality of each drum in the kit was superior to all but the Dynaudio Contour 1.1, and this is a very telling recording for judging this aspect. The depth of image was also extremely precise, allowing me to picture which drums were placed towards the rear of the kit and which ones in front.
"Yesterdays" (Dave Brubeck, Nightshift, Telarc, CD-83351) is perhaps the best recording I have ever heard of a live performance, complete with ambient sounds from the audience. Combined with the MSB Gold Link III DAC, I believe I have experienced a new standard for detail. The Totem and Dynaudio were tied at first place for their amazing ability to render detail.
"All or Nothing at All" (Diana Krall, Love Scenes, Impulse, IMPD233) is my favorite test for a double bass, and the dynamic range in Diana's voice is also a test I often use. The Totem again needed to be placed close to the rear wall to get enough bass reinforcement. In either position, pairing my trusty Velodyne subwoofer did add the final layer to the bottom end. The Model 1 was again tied for first place in its ability to keep up with changes in the loudness of her voice. This time it tied with the exceptionally fast Triangle Titus, whose treated paper cones allow for a very nimble performance. I suspect the speed of the Model 1 is due to Vince's intentional lack of overdamping the cabinet.
"Girl From Ipanema" and "Para Machuchar Meu Coracao" (Stan Getz and Joao Gilberto, Getz/Gilberto, Verve 314521414-2) are well recorded classics, except for the slight chestiness in the male vocals. Speakers weak in this area tend to magnify the problem with these tracks, and thus they have become a standard test in my reviews. The Totem and Dynaudio again tied for first place, with the problem being revealed only to the extent that it exists in the recording itself. Both speakers have well braced, rigid cabinets that do not resonate, and probably are the reason for this level of performance.
"O Grande Amor" (Stan Getz and Joao Gilberto, Getz/Gilberto, Verve 314521414-2) is one of the few older pieces I can think of that makes me appreciate an analogue master tape, from which this album was remastered. The microphone puts you right in the mouth of the tenor sax to the point you can hear the horn chuffing. The Totem sounded more forward compared to all the other speakers and revealed at least as much detail as any other speaker. Only the Silverline SR15 sounded different from the others, with a little more depth yielding a very pleasant albeit unnatural sound.
"Pawn Shop" (Sublime, Sublime, Gasoline Alley, GASD-11413) is a surefire test for testing dynamics and power handling. The electric bass was both deep and fast on the Totem and Dynaudio, while the Silverline SR15 and Triangle Titus both were deeper and louder at the cost of speed and tightness. The tonality of the tight snare seemed very lifelike on the Monitor Audio, Totem, and Dynaudio. The Silverline was distinctly poor in this aspect, the snare sounded like a much larger drum, one with a deeper and slower sound.
Finally, "'Mar Azul" (Cesaria Evora, Mar Azul, Nonesuch, 79533-2) is a must for female vocals. The hands-down winner here was the Dynaudio with a very natural sound and rendering of the dynamic range, especially the small changes in loudness. The Totem was a close second, with a more forward image and enough detail to be able to detect reverb added to the vocals.
Overall, the Totem Model 1 performed at the top of the heap in terms of detail, imaging, tonality, bass control, and speed. It was the weakest in bass extension, unless placed 2' to 3' from the back wall. You really have to consider a good subwoofer with a mini-monitor if you want the lowest octave and a half. The Model 1 placed close to a back wall will suffice for most music listening, but will need help for home theater.
If at all possible, do make sure you listen to this speaker in your lifetime. It indeed is a marvel of performance. It has very high quality components, design, and craftsmanship. Considering the size of the box, it is a near miracle.
If you are in the market for mini-monitors in this price range, you have to check it out. The price tag is a touch higher than comparable products, but for that little difference you might as well get what you really want. And it is really difficult not to lust after these little gems once you have heard them.
Speakers: Dynaudio Contour 1.1; Triangle Titus XS; Monitor Audio GR10; Silverline SR15
Amplifiers: Bryston 4B Pro; NAD 317 (Integrated)
Preamplifiers: PS Audio IV
Digital Source: Panasonic A320; Pioneer D414
Outboard DAC: MSB Gold Link III with P1000 Powerbase
Power Conditioner: PS Audio P300
Connectors: Self designed.
- Arvind Kohli -
© Copyright 2001 Secrets of Home Theater & High Fidelity
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