TESTED: Totem Acoustic The One Loudspeaker

Equipment report
Totem Acoustic The One Loudspeaker
TESTED: Totem Acoustic The One Loudspeaker

Though it may not rank with true blood sports—such as politics and filmmaking—specialty audio manufacturing is nevertheless one rough game. Knowing this, however, has never discouraged hopeful newcomers, who, despite the high end’s marginalized status in the U.S., a dearth of quality dealers, and an aging customer base, seem only to grow with each new Consumer Electronics Show. And because this risky business has such a high casualty rate, it’s all the more impressive when a company lives to celebrate a milestone anniversary, as Montreal’s Totem Acoustic has done with its twentieth.

Founded by a lanky and extremely amiable fellow named Vince Bruzzese, who is also the company’s CEO and chief designer (see Back Page this issue), Totem first released a notably fine sounding mini-monitor called the Model 1. That speaker would eventually evolve into the Model 1 Signature (which is still in production), with improvements that included higher-quality cabinetwork, costly exotic crossover parts, tighter-tolerance drivers, bi-wiring capability, and a more refined as well as dynamic sonic presentation.

Although Totem’s line has grown to include larger floorstanding models, home-theater packages, subwoofers, and a new range of potentially fine-sounding in-wall and in-ceiling speakers, one senses when speaking with Bruzzese that tiny two-way monitors are where his passion truly lies.

In a fitting tribute to Totem’s two decades, Bruzzese decided to take all he’s learned about speaker design over the past 20 years and apply it to his original Model 1. The result is The One—a special anniversary edition limited to just 2000 pairs, and priced at $3595.

But celebrating 20 years of hard work was not the only motivation behind The One. “I set out to make the Porsche Speedster of little speakers,” Bruzzese told me. “And frankly, I was a bit perturbed at shows where I was hearing $15k to $25k minis that all have their pluses and minuses, but what about value? So I decided to revisit the Model 1.”

Unlike that design, which had a detachable back in order to more easily access the cabinet’s limited internal space, The One’s enclosure utilizes more rigid and costly monocoque construction. The One is manufactured using three different densities of MDF; all joints are lock mitered, glued on all six faces, and pressed into place before being veneered both outside and in. Rather unusually, Totem maintains its own woodshop, which is certainly expensive in an industry that sources so many of its speaker enclosures from China. “We make our cabinets to be harmonically expressive,” Vince said, “which means creating synergy between veneers, stains, and lacquers.” When I asked if this meant he didn’t prize inertness above all in a cabinet, Bruzzese replied, “Well, that’s a pretty dead little box, but it still creates a lot of energy. The speaker has usable output to around 40Hz, even into the mid-thirties, so it’s important for the drivers, cabinet, and crossover to work synergistically.” Because of this “synergy”—a word that frequently pops up in conversations with Bruzzese—and because the materials used to internally damp speaker cabinets either degrade or change over the years, Totem’s enclosures have either very little or no internal damping materials, which Bruzzese says results in better transient response.

The One comes in but a single finish, which Totem calls “root brown.” To me, the lovely veneers suggest a rich espresso-like patina. The front baffle does not include a grille, which sounds better and arguably looks better, too; the cabinet is rear-ported, and two glittering sets of the finest WBT connectors await single- or bi-wiring. Totem sometimes build its own drivers and sometimes enters into collaborative relationships with driver manufacturers that build to Totem’s specs (often using Totem-supplied tooling). Although Bruzzese told me he could make a musical speaker using “any two drivers and a cardboard box,” he likes to have a lot of drivers on hand. “There is no advantage to limiting my choice,” he said.

The two-way The One uses a 5.5" Dynaudio-sourced mid/bass driver boasting a 3" diameter voice-coil; the tweeter is a 1" aluminum chambered-dome from SEAS. In addition to the sophisticated measurement tools Totem uses to match its drivers, Totem also “ear-matches” them. “There are subtle qualitative differences measurements just can’t catch,” says Vince.

For those who flee from metal dome tweeters the way Republicans are currently fleeing from the Bush Administration, don’t assume that The One’s aluminum dome sounds bright. It is extended and quite defined, but it is very natural and airy whether reproducing triangle or cymbal, or the upper ranges of trumpet, violin, or guitar.

These qualities were consistently evident over a wide range of recordings I auditioned during my weeks with The One, from the singing, sweet, yet naturally steely rasp of Nathan Milstein’s Strad in an unaccompanied Bach Partita to Lee Morgan’s piercing yet lyrical trumpet on Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers’ A Night in Tunisia [Music Matters/Blue Note 45rpm LP], or, on the same record, Art Blakey’s shimmering ride cymbal. I came away feeling that The One’s tweeter is voiced to just the right balance of extension, bite—when needed—and sweet airiness.

And while that little 5.5" main driver packs a surprising wallop and rarely leaves you feeling like the speaker lacks bass—just listen to the Gutter Twins fine sounding Saturnalia [Sub Pop], where The One’s superb clarity and dynamic liveliness survived an arsenal of guitars, synths, organ, bass, lap steel, and drums—it is naturally going to lack the sheer robustness and weight of larger cones. I’ll again cite Music Matters’ superb reissue of A Night in Tunisia, where Blakey’s playing was beautifully defined, with remarkable transient speed, rhythmic precision, and textural definition, though lacking the sheer physical power heard from beefier designs.

But then, this is hardly news to fans of mini-monitors. We love them for their strengths, and can usually live without the bottom octave and paint-peeling volume levels that are the undisputed realms of larger drivers and multi-way systems. Of course, these designs typically lack the seamless overall coherence and ability to disappear the way the best two-ways can. Yes, alas, even in the high-end, we’re forced to make choices.

Of course, it isn’t only the drivers that create this illusion of speaking with a single voice. Well-designed crossovers with excellent parts play an equally important role. To this end, Totem has spared no expense with The One’s crossover, which contain very-high-quality gold/silver-foil and paper-and-oil capacitors. “Our goal is to make excellent speakers that will perform consistently over 20 years, so we use no electrolytics,” said Bruzzese, who also mentioned that Totem stocks parts for every speaker the company has yet produced.

I gleaned many other interesting bits of information from Bruzzese, such as the fact that he voices his speakers in mono and tunes them to sound as uniform as possible wherever they’re placed in his design room. “It’s like the human voice,” he said. “No matter where a singer may stand in a room, they sing straight ahead and you still get a beautiful sound. We want our speakers to involve everybody in a room.” As such, excellent off-axis dispersion is a Totem design goal.

Indeed, while setting up The One, I read Totem’s advice not to toe-in the speakers. Naturally, I ignored it and began by placing The Ones (on their dedicated and hefty T4S stands) in roughly the same spot I’ve found works well for most speakers in my room—with a bit of toe-in. They sounded fine, but after a few days of listening I had this nagging feeling that imaging, soundstaging, and openness weren’t all they could be. So I began experimenting and found that no toe-in did produce the best results. Lesson learned: Owner’s manuals are occasionally worth reading, after all.

Thus settled, like many small monitors, The One is capable of recreating quite a large and holographic soundfield. Listening to a vinyl copy of Bernstein’s Carmen [DG], graciously sent by my colleague Paul Seydor, it struck me again why I love superb two-way speakers like Totem’s The One, the Magico Mini, and the Kharma 3.2 and Mini Exquisites that have been my references these past few years. In addition to that magical, “you-are-there” feeling of being transported to the venue, or, perhaps more accurately in this case, of having the venue transported to you, the seamless bottom-to-top coherence mentioned above was dramatically displayed. This is especially difficult to achieve (and hence, all the more rewarding) with a score like this one, where Bizet employed full orchestral forces ranging from timpani to triangle, a rich cast of vocal soloists, as well as adult and children’s choruses. The One effortlessly, convincingly, and thrillingly recreated the performance, with all its harmonic complexity, bold dynamic swings, and dramatic tension. Moreover, the soundstage I mentioned at the start of this paragraph opened like the evening sky on a brilliantly clear night, creating that rare but hoped for illusion that sound isn’t really coming from speakers at all.

It should come as no surprise that The One is a knockout with smaller-scale vocal music. Both male and female voices emerge as easy, warm, and natural, with essentially no trace of boxiness or other overt coloration. This was true with Cynthia Gooding’s creamy, slightly smoky alto on A Treasury of Spanish and Mexican Folk Song [Elektra], as well as the incomparable baritone of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau on Songs of the New Vienna School [DG].

So does Totem’s The One compete with the far costlier models mentioned above? Yes and no. While it doesn’t have the weight, bass extension, sheer dynamic punch, and nth-degree of resolution I’ve heard in a Magico or Kharma design, The One pulls a similarly magical disappearing act. I should add for those who may not be familiar with them that these speakers range from something like six-to-twelve times the cost of Totem’s little design. Which makes this Twentieth Anniversary design a bargain to celebrate. Most importantly, Totem’s limited edition The One is a speaker that grabs your emotions, making it difficult to stop listening.