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Equipment Review
August 1998

Totem Acoustic Model 1 Signature Loudspeakers: Shoots and Scores!

by Ian White

High Park. A frozen pond on a January morning.

A nine-year-old Ian White, in a brilliant display of skating ability, cuts across the imaginary blue line and dodges the two defensemen clad in the bright red jerseys of the Montreal Canadiens.

White: Turnbull makes his move and sneaks by Robinson! He’s going to score again on Dryden!

Goalie: Dryden moves out of his goal to cut down the angle!

The two Saturday-morning warriors collide, sending the smaller White crashing into the corner where he lands on top of his stick, breaking it into two pieces. A silence overtakes the ice as White desperately tries to put the two pieces back together. His eyes well up with tears....

White: You bastard! You broke my autographed Ian Turnbull hockey stick!

Goalie: Turnbull is a bum! My Dad says that he’s an alcoholic!

An enraged White raises one of the broken sections of the shaft in preparation for the vicious attack that he is about to unleash on this blasphemous heathen. Out of the corner of his eye, he notices something on the shaft that he had never seen before....

"Made in Finland"

Maple Leaf Gardens. Later that evening…

A depressed Ian White sits in the stands watching his valiant Toronto Maple Leafs lose in another defensive struggle to the Montreal Canadiens…9-2! A puck flies out of play and ricochets off of an elderly man’s head and lands in White’s lap.

White: Holy Pierre Trudeau! An official NHL game puck with the Leaf’s logo and everything!

White turns the puck over in his hand, admiring the cold, black surface. His face turns ashen pale when he reads the inscription underneath the NHL crest....

"Made in Czechoslovakia"

I learned at a very early age that most of the things that I held sacred in life (hockey sticks, matzo balls, G.I. Joe, Princess Leia), were not made in Canada. This led me to wonder, Has Canada actually made anything good, that we can distinctly call our own? We Canadians might import 85% of the goods that we use in our daily lives (thank God for free trade), but we have a plethora of really good high-end audio companies to call our own. We don’t make our own hockey pucks, but we make dozens of great audio components. Very strange.

Something special from la belle province!

Montreal-based, Totem Acoustic has been around since 1987, and it was the original Model 1 speaker that helped Totem establish its position in the realm of high-end audio. The Model 1 received a great deal of praise from the audio press for its superb imaging ability, bass response, and quality construction. I have never actually heard a pair of the original Model 1 speakers, so my comments will be directed solely at the newest version of this monitor -- the Signature version, which is Totem’s way of saying, "We can make it sound even better."

The Model 1 Signatures are small two-way monitors (12"H x 6 1/2"W x 9"D) with a level of construction quality that really has to be seen to be believed. I find most audio products boring and uninspired from an aesthetic point of view. The Italian-made Sonus Fabers are my personal favorites in the "most likely to impress a gorgeous woman" category. I think that they set the standard for craftsmanship and elegance. The Totem Model 1 Signatures (available in black, mahogany, golden-brown cherry) are very attractive. They do not look as drop-dead gorgeous as the Sonus Fabers, but they have a certain elegance about them that I really like.

The Model 1 Signature’s cabinet is a very impressive piece of work. It’s veneered on all six sides, and with the exception of the rear panel, it is almost impossible to find any of the seams. All cabinet joints are lock-mitered, and the interior is cross-braced to provide extra rigidity. Totem does something else that I found most unique. The interior walls are not only veneered, but they are also covered with multiple layers of borosilicate damping material (talk about attention to detail). The rear panel has a special "medallion" commemorating the success of the Model 1, a small, beautifully sanded and polished port, and the best binding posts that I have ever used, gold-plated WBTs. The Model 1 Signatures have two sets of these posts per speaker to facilitate biwiring (which I think is a must with this speaker). I applaud Totem for not being cheap in this regard. I have seen far too many expensive amplifiers and speakers that cost over $3000 that come with those awful plastic posts that seem to break very easily. Pay attention audio manufacturers! If you are going to sell expensive products, finish them properly. End of rant. I do have one complaint about the binding posts: They are too thick for some types of spades. My van den Hul speaker cables use smaller spades, and they would not fit around the posts. Fortunately, I have the same cables terminated with banana connectors and they were locked down tighter than a cell block at a Turkish prison (not that I have spent very much time in one).

Technology

Totem’s attention to detail does not end with the cabinetry. The Model 1 Signatures use Totem-modified 5" Dynaudio woofers and 1" SEAS aluminum tweeters. The Dynaudio woofer has a 3" voice coil, and being a sadist, I drove it very hard to see how much abuse it could handle. The Model 1 Signature differs from the Model 1 in that the woofer and tweeter are connected to the crossover with shielded silver Teflon dielectric, and multi-strand oxygen-free copper wiring. The crossover uses larger and higher-grade oil-dielectric capacitors, and metalized polypropylene capacitors. Totem feels that grilles muck up the sound of the Model 1 Signatures, so they are not supplied (although you can buy them for $40 if you need them). I mention this as a warning to people with small children and pesky felines (I’m a dog lover). The tweeter is covered with a metal mesh cap, so I think that you are OK on that front. The Dynaudio woofer seems to be very strong, and I think that it would take something like a solid right from George Foreman or a thrust with a metal object from someone like O - (I’ll restrain myself at this point) to damage the woofer. The Model 1 Signatures’ frequency response is rated from 50Hz to 20kHz +/- 3dB, with a sensitivity rating of 87dB/W/m. They are also a 4-ohm load and in my experience, not the easiest speaker to drive.

You knew that I had to mention the dreaded use of stands at some point…

I like minimonitors. I have heard some very impressive ones of late (Sonus Faber, Reference 3a, JMlab), including the Totem Model 1 Signatures. What I do not like are the outrageously expensive stands that are required to really hear what these speakers are capable of. Spending upwards of $600 for a pair of stands is unfortunately the current state of affairs. Totem supplied me with a pair of 28" stands that, when filled with sand, are a serious pain in the ass to move around. I qualify as a strapping lad (6' 3", 194 pounds), and these stands hurt my back when I schlepped them around. They do, however, make a real difference where it counts. They look like the four-pillar Target or Atlantis stands, but Totem informed me that they are made especially for their speakers and are available for...(get on with it Igor!) $300!

Three hundred dollars is still a lot of money in my book for speaker stands, but the Totem stands do make a real difference in my experience with the Model 1 Signature speakers. The 28" height surprised me because I was expecting a shorter stand (based on Totem reviews that I have read in the past). I asked Totem founder Vince Bruzzese about this and he suggested that stands between 24" and 28" would work just fine. I used Blu-Tak in between the speakers and stands, and it made for a solid grip. The Model 1 Signatures are relatively lightweight (9 pounds) and you’ll need to use Blu-Tak to hold them down if your cables are heavy. The speakers spin around like Linda Blair’s head in The Exorcist if you don’t use some form of adhesive.

The White House equipment room

I listened to the Totem Model 1 Signatures in systems using the Copland CTA-301 Mk II preamplifier, OCM 88 linestage, EAR 834P phonostage, Sonic Frontiers SFP-1 phonostage, and Copland CTA-501 integrated amp. I also drove the Totems with a YBA 2 alpha HC DT power amp, OCM 200 power amp, and a Primare 301P integrated amp (review coming). I compared the Totems to my Martin-Logan Aerius and Meadowlark Kestrel speakers. I used my Copland CDA-288 CD player, Rega Planet CD player, Panasonic DVD-A310 player (review coming in Video Online), and Monarchy Audio DT40A transport and Sonic Frontiers SFD-1 DAC to evaluate the Totems with CDs. My Audiomeca Romance/Wilson Benesch ACT.5/ Benz Micro Glider setup was used to really put the Totems through their paces with some glorious vinyl. Cables included Cardas Golden Cross; van den Hul The First, Second, Revolution; and some really inexpensive French-made Axon cables. I plugged everything into Chang 6400 and 3200 line filters. In an interesting twist, I plugged my CD players into line filters from Foundation Research. The Copland CDA-288 rested on a Townshend CD Sink, and the usual plethora of Black Diamond Racing Cones supported everything else on my Design Progression equipment rack. Mannequins of famous tyrants (Ming the Merciless, Idi Amin, Jean Chretien, George Jefferson) covered with foam and placed in the four corners of my room did wonders soaking up excess bass and treble energy.

Setup

The Totems were very easy to set up. My listening room is 17'L x 15'W x 7'H (a little too close to being a box in my opinion), and I found that a distance of 4' from the wall behind them and 3' from the side walls was the best position. I listened to the Totems pointed straight ahead and with a small degree of toe-in. The Totems are so good at imaging that I decided to leave them pointed straight ahead. I also felt that they sounded fuller in that manner. I was concerned about the height of the stands when I first saw them, and I had to change chairs after the first few days of listening because something just wasn't clicking. The supplied stands placed the tweeter above my ear, and I rectified the problem with a higher chair. Simple as that.

Sound

The Model 1 Signatures need about 50 hours of break-in before they really open up. Once they opened up, however, I was really taken in by their sound. The Totems image superbly. I love Tori Amos (even if she did get married), and her album Under the Pink [East/West CD 82567] sounded so good through the Signatures that I listened to it for close to two hours. The Signature's tweeter is very clean and smooth-sounding (especially for a metal one) and combined with the speaker’s ability to re-create the soundstage (without making the performers sound like they are giants), the Model 1 Signatures really impressed me with their ability to reproduce the female voice. I spent an entire evening (social giant that I am) listening to Tori Amos, Ella Fitzgerald, Janis Ian, Sarah Vaughan and Jewel and at no point did the Model 1 Signatures do anything that heinous to distract me from the music. The Copland CTA-501 drove (with some degree of difficulty) the Model 1 Signatures during this listening session.

A few nights later I switched from tube to solid-state amplification. I used vinyl exclusively and listened to some of the outstanding releases from DCC Compact Classics. Nat King Cole's Love is the thing [DCC Compact Classics LPZ-2029] is such a beautiful recording that even a former headbanger like me has problems turning it off. The Totems are not overly warm in the midrange, and it was while listening to this recording that I began to truly understand these speakers. I would not call the Signature a ruthlessly revealing speaker, but it does lean more towards the accuracy side of the spectrum. Of the three solid-state amplifiers that I had on hand (YBA, Primare, OCM), the YBA 2 alpha HC DT was the best performer. It provided just enough midrange warmth without letting go in the bass region and over emphasizing the treble to satisfy my ears. This combination made the music swing, and held my attention. I pulled out my copy of Elvis is Back! [DCC Compact Classics LPZ-2037] and cued up "Fever." The Signatures are downright spooky in the way that they image. The King has entered the building! There was a lifelike degree of immediacy and richness to Elvis' voice that was really quite impressive. These speakers, with the right recording, disappear before your ears.

Listening to jazz is one of my passions (aside from the other thing...eating Chinese food) and it was the Model 1 Signatures' performance with jazz that impressed me the most. Sonny Rollins' Tenor Madness [DCC Compact Classics LPZ-2022] is a great recording, and the Model 1 Signatures (driven by the YBA amplifier) brought out all of the warmth, intimacy and depth that this recording has to offer. Acoustic bass had real weight behind it without sounding too flabby and slow. I listened to a number of my favorite Eric Dolphy, Stan Getz, and John Coltrane albums, and the Model 1 Signatures were eminently enjoyable to listen to.

At this point, you are probably wondering if I found anything wrong with these speakers. There are a few things about the Model 1 Signatures that I didn’t like. I listen to a lot of rock, alternative, and techno music -- Nirvana, Rush, Prodigy, and Black Flag -- and I do not think that these speakers are the best choice for these types of tunes. The Model 1 Signatures have very potent bass response for a monitor with a 5" woofer, but I found that the bass, at loud levels with the aforementioned music, sounded too bloated for my tastes. Green Day's nimrod [Reprise CDW 46794] had sufficient slam and pace, but it sounded too congested at points for me to really enjoy myself.

In my experience, the Model 1 Signatures are somewhat difficult to drive. I used three solid-state amps that supposedly put out more than 140Wpc into a 4-ohm load, but only the YBA 2 alpha HC DT worked really well. Believe it or not, but the 30Wpc Copland CTA-501 was my favorite amplifier during the review process (even though I had to turn the dial all the way up). The Model 1 Signatures work really well with tubes. I do not think that you have to use "Springfield" power-plant-sized amplifiers to drive these speakers, but I definitely suggest listening to these speakers with more than one brand of amplification should you decide to audition them.

Last minute of play in this period…

Are the Totem Model 1 Signatures worth $1995 (plus $300 for the stands)? I will answer that question two ways. If you are looking for a pair of exquisitely made, small two-way monitors that will draw you into the performance (as long as Black Flag is not being played) and never bore you or melt your ears with a hot treble, then the Totem Model 1 Signatures are a pair of speakers that should be at the top of your audition list. I have listened to floorstanding speakers that were sonically inferior to the Totems (not to mention the Totems’ superior construction quality) and double the price. The Totem Model 1 Signatures are Canadian speakers that shoot and score, and we didn’t even have to import them from Finland or the Czech Republic.

...Ian White
ian@soundstage.com

Totem Acoustic Model 1 Signature Loudspeakers
Price: $1,995 USD

Totem Acoustic
4665 Bonavista Ave
Montreal, Quebec, Canada
H3W 2C6
Phone: 514-259-1062
Fax: 514-259-4968

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