March 1999Totem Acoustic Arro Loudspeakers by Todd Warnke
Spend most of your time with all those big, audiophile-approved speakers and you develop disdain for the little ones. Those baby speakers just dont rock like the big ones. Lacking cubic inches, they sure cant do bass. As for loud, maybe -- but only if you set those minimonitors up as free-standing headphones. And, most egregious of all, small speakers, like small trophies, are embarrassing to explain to those who have big ones. Simply put, devoid of spectacular effects and 10-point-buck status, small speakers are too boring to be worthwhile, right? Well, after spending a lot of time with the slim and trim Totem Arros Ive been reminded that not all virtues come wearing XXL shirts.
Little speakers as a group disappear, and the Arros in particular do the disappearing thing better than big speakers. In fact, the Arros disappear better than any speaker Ive had in my room. Set up in my normal location, on the long wall of my listening room, and placed 18" from the back wall, these little speakers vanished in every way but the corporeal. Truly, it was impossible to locate any sounds as originating directly from these 5" x 7" x 33.5" speakers (I told you they were small). And, in the finest minimonitor fashion, the stage these speakers threw was wide, easily placing images outside their width, and also deep enough to reach to new zip codes, but without exaggeration. When playing back standard, poorly recorded, multi-mic and mainstream recordings, the Arros had as confused a stage as any speaker. But fed a high-quality source, such as the Reference Recordings HDCD of Bruckners Ninth Symphony [RR-81 CD], the Arros made the walls of my room disappear.
I know, much of the staging act that high-end speakers do is an artifact of the recording process and not a clone of real life, but then again, if its on the recording, a speaker should recreate it, which the Arros did. But beyond getting the audiophile soundstage right, the Arros also create a sense of musical space. In fact, not just space, but of particular place. Keith Jarretts At The Blue Note [ECM 1577 78118-21575-2] takes place in an intimate NYC jazz club while the aforementioned Bruckner recording happens, unequivocally, in Orchestra Hall, Minneapolis. While the ability to portray a jazz club or a concert hall is a standard one, the Arros gave me the feel of exactly this jazz club and precisely that concert hall. This rare ability to put the listener in more than space, in a specific place -- which is usually the province of stats, planars and the mega-buck dynamic speakers -- is one of the defining graces of the Arros.
Also, like many small speakers, the Arros speak with a refined and sophisticated voice. Acoustic guitar, for example, was so naturally replayed that while I was listening to the Jerry Garcia and David Grisman disc So What [Acoustic Disc ACD-33], the standard leap of faith to believe the recording and ignore the equipment was reduced to a mere baby step. This album of genial playing and nice if not quite reference-quality recording quality was played back with engaging and involving realism, and it further showcased the small-speaker virtues of the Arros. (If not an essential Garcia disc, this is worth at least a listen. I know I enjoy it a lot, as does Robin.)
This refined voice also gave the little Arros a nimble swing and sway. While some big speakers have this skill as well, the Arros have a special case of it. I have a special fondness for chamber orchestra and English string orchestra. Delicate pieces like Elgars Sospiri, Barbers Adagio for Strings, and Vaughan Williams Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis or his The Lark Ascending need a nimble and subtle speaker to sound right. And the Arro did right by them. Delicate, moving and revealing of inner detail, these are perfect little speakers for this type of music.
On the tonal front, the Arros have superb articulation and accuracy across the midband and all the way to the top (Ill get to the bass later). Female vocals are a great example. Ive mentioned in previous reviews my near maniacal devotion to Joni Mitchell, and any speaker that fails to recreate both the pure, young Joni and the older, richer Joni is a washout in my book. Im happy to say that the Arro did right by her (and me).
As for presentation, the Arros are a bit laid-back, with the front of the stage beginning just behind the speaker plane. In addition, their dynamic thrust is also slightly laid-back. Detail is fully revealed, but never etched or thrown at you. Together, this is a combination that can sound sleepy, but I didnt find that here at all. Even when used with all-tube amplification (BAT preamp and Assemblage power amp), the Arros were never too laid-back, but solid-state power did bring them a bit more forward and give them a slightly more engaging personality.
So, after all that, what we have here is a very nice little speaker, one possessed of all the proper minimonitor virtues and affordable at $1100. A good deal, but nothing more, right?
Big strengths too
Wrong. According to Totems literature, the Arro is capable of +/- 3dB from 40Hz to 23kHz, "with proper placement." These are mighty big promises for a two-way that has but a single 4.5" woofer, even if it is in a ported box. Do they get there? In my room, and it really is too wide to set both speakers up in corners in order to maximize bass lift, they dont get to 40Hz, but they do get below 50Hz easily.
An example. Beth Ortons Trailer Park [Dedicated/Heavenly 61702-44007-2] is a weird but soothing amalgamation of singer-songwriter rock and electronica. And, as youd expect from that description, the album is driven by the bass lines, both natural (cello and double-bass) and unnatural. If a speaker cant deliver the bottom-end support, this album falls apart. And the little Totem Arro delivered! It filled my medium-to-large listening room with bottom-end power. What it couldnt do was flex the walls, but up to its limit, it had bouncing, bounteous bass. Am I throwing the Merlins or the Dunlavys aside? No, but in a small to medium-small room, I could live with the bottom-end response of these speakers without a gripe.
As for volume, in the office the Arros had more than enough to satisfy me, and just about any one who cares for their ears. The main room was a story that only slightly differed. The Arros will go loud, but past a certain point (in my room about 96-98dB), they begin to flatten dynamic peaks. This is a level I can live with for 99% of my listening sessions, but whether you can is another question. Still, keep in mind that my room has more than 3100 cubic feet of space, enough to work most speakers into a bit of a lather, much less one with only a 4.5" woofer.
Still, for a small speaker, the Arro has impressive big-speaker powers. To be honest, even though I had been impressed with the bass of the Arros at HI-FI 98, where I first heard them, in a system with SimAudio and playing the Cowboy Junkies (hey, an all Canadian Content system, and one that would make Jean Chretien proud), what I heard at home really did surprise me. No speaker this small should have as robust a bottom end as these ones do. Truly impressive. And while they are moderately insensitive at 86dB, given adequate horses they can fill a medium-sized room with sound.
The obligatory description
I guess the picture can only tell you so much, so heres more physical detail.
One thing I really like about the Arros is the fact that unlike other slim minimonitors, they do not require stands, although unpacking them will cause a bit of consternation. At 20 pounds each, and with such a tiny footprint, they cannot balance on their own. Totem includes a plinth for them to stand on, but even that doesnt offer enough support. Fortunately Totem has included a sand- or shot-fillable chamber (and seals for them as well) that when utilized gives the speakers a firm lease on life. I found that 50 pounds of lead shot fit perfectly (and for about $45, was quite reasonably priced as well). After filling, the 70-pound little guys are quite a substantial speaker.
The speaker is biwireable, which is good, but I do have a criticism. The five-way binding posts are of good quality for the price, but they have a size problem. The posts are made for a larger spade than those on my Cardas Golden Cross speaker wire, and so I was forced to stick one of the legs of the spade through the bare-wire hole and then tighten. Im never confident about the security, much less the sonic integrity, of such a method. In fact, if there is one reason to root for the success of the European Union its in hopes that the CE standards for electrical connections reach a critical mass and force standardization of speaker connections everywhere. Personally, I dont care what the standard is, just so long as it is universal and we never have to send speaker wire back to the manufacturer for re-termination. I guess this more of an issue for reviewer types, but since thats what I am...
As for the looks of the Arro, finished in a ribbon-striped mahogany veneer, they are sleek and substantial-looking. Per the Totem norm, the speakers are grille-less. There are optional, additional-cost grilles available, but because I neither needed nor wanted them, I cant comment on them other than to say that the speakers nude look is fine by me. In fact, here at the Warnke Mountain Lodge and Musical Spa, in the beauty competition, besides the geek vote (mine), the Arros also scored very well with the womenfolk.
I just happen to have one of the Arros natural enemies in house, a pair of Platinum Studio 1 speakers. At $995 (+$175 for stands), the price match is almost exact, which mandated a shootout.
The Studio 1 uses a 5" woofer and a 1" metal-dome tweeter. Their cabinet is 8.5" wide and 13.5" deep. While that is much larger than the tiny Arros, they are slim by full-size-speaker standards. I have always like the bravura of the Studio 1s. They have a powerful and dynamic bottom end, and they are not afraid to show flaws in your system. These are good speakers that I have repeatedly recommended.
Playing one and then the other did not result in a decisive victory for either, but rather a contrasting set of strengths. The Studio 1s play louder, have greater dynamic range, and are a bit forward-sounding. For rock, and in a system that controls its slight tendency to brightness, this is a great circa $1k speaker. Incisive, powerful and eager to play loud, the Studio 1 offers the "big" virtues of big speakers and packages them in a small box.
On the other hand, the Arro is slightly laid-back, both in absolute terms and up against the Studio 1. It has a more refined (and ever so slightly less detailed) top end. While doesnt offer up bass with the same impact as the Studio 1, it goes as deep, and with very good detail. It offers a better stage (and with that awesome sense of place) than the Studio 1. The Arro does work with rock, but it is a far better jazz and classical speaker than the Studio 1. It offers all the virtues of a small speaker and adds big speaker bass in unexpected quantities and quality.
In this match my personal taste favors the Arro. Over the long haul their refinement rewards repeated listening. Their sense of place makes it very easy to fall into the illusion of the real music-making, while they deliver surprising bass, especially for their price and cabinet size.
The big picture
I am very impressed with the combination of small-speaker and big-speaker attributes the Totem Arros possess. They have a refined, slightly laid-back sound, with mid-40s bass. They stage and present space with spooky skill. With an incredibly small footprint, they fit anywhere, and with their good looks, its a shame that they so thoroughly blend in and disappear in a room. I think they will appeal more to listeners of jazz and classical (they even present large-scale classical well) than to you rockers, but they do rock. Its just that they compress dynamic swings when pushed to the top of their limits. A small to medium-small room is best, and also remember that they like to be placed close to the rear wall, but they can work in a larger room if you are willing to give up some bass and some dynamic range. In all, another superb speaker from Totem, one that delivers on all that you would expect from looking at it and that also has some surprises as well. In fact, so much bass comes from these little cabinets that I have to wonder if the laws of physics are different in Canada. I bet youll be surprised too.
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