David Mitchell


Audiovector SR Series speakers NOVO magazine

Setting up a quality two channel audio system for a beginner is an exciting prospect. There are many different options and directions a budding audiophile can choose to follow. It can be a very rewarding experience, and something that can be enjoyed for a lifetime. This guide will offer the newcomer to the audio hobby some food for thought and present a myriad of choices that are available. It should also prove useful to the seasoned audiophile.

Set a budget, but be prepared to go over it. Setting a budget will provide a general idea of what class of gear you should be looking at. Of course, when looking online or visiting your local dealer, it’s very easy to start lusting over the really high end stuff and justify spending more money. This may not be a bad thing. If you outlay more cash in the beginning, it can help mitigate the disappointment factor in the future, as well as the compulsive desire to upgrade that afflicts almost all audiophiles. Buying quality also helps ensure, but does not guarantee, that your investment will not malfunction or come to an early or untimely demise. In the end, the most important thing is, how does it sound to you? Conversely, more money does not necessarily equate to better sound. I have spent a lot of money to realize you don’t need to spend a lot of money.

A good friend of mine, who sold audio gear for over twenty years once offered me a piece of advice that has always stuck with me: Identify your audio priorities before buying. There are certain adjectives that come to mind with HiFi. “Bright”, “warm”, “laid-back”. There are also attributes that can be used to describe how a system sounds. Words such as “soundstage”, “image”, “deep bass”, “glorious midrange”, etc. No system is going to deliver every adjective and attribute perfectly. Decide which of these matter to you most and design your system around that. For example, some listeners value resolution and precision over all else, but this results in a bright, eventually fatiguing listen for some. Other listeners prefer a more rolled off, less precise sound that can provide many hours of listening. Different genres of music naturally lend themselves to certain priorities. For those into “heavier” music such as Iron Maiden, Black Sabbath or Metallica, a wall of sound approach is usually preferred. A system that can throw a huge soundstage would be ideal for this type of music. For those who prefer lighter fare, such as Jazz, different priorities come into play. For example, a Jazz aficionado may prefer a system that emphasizes the mid-range. This could explain why a lot of Jazz systems feature low wattage tube amps and single driver, full range speakers, which are known for their mid-range.

Decide how to divide your budget between components (speakers, amplifier, sources, cables, power conditioner and component stand). There is no absolute formula for this, but the general consensus seems to be that spending money on speakers will offer you the biggest bang for your buck since they have the most influence on how the system will sound.

The internet is the ultimate resource for researching new gear, but consider it as just a starting point. There is no replacement for actually hearing a piece of gear for yourself. But as a starting point, internet forums are a good place to ask for advice. It’s a good idea to take advantage of the knowledge and experience of seasoned audiophiles. Reviews are also a very good resource, such as the ones found here in NOVO magazine. Be wary of products that have no reviews. The lack of reviews could be simply because the product is obscure or too new and no publication has reviewed it yet, or it could indicate something more problematic. Generally reviewers don’t write about products that don’t perform well.

These days it very easy to do all of your research and subsequent purchases online but you will lose out on the advantages of having a good relationship with a local dealer. This is advantageous to you four-fold. First of all, once you have a established a relationship with a dealer, they generally won’t mind taking time to let you audition gear in-store that you are interested in (with your own music!). Secondly, a good dealer will allow you to borrow gear to take home and try in your own environment. Third, you gain the vast experience and knowledge that your dealer has of their product line. Fourth, and perhaps most advantageous, is that once you establish a good relationship (i.e. spend enough money at their store), you will generally be given preferred pricing on future purchases.

Totem SKY Bookshelf Speaker Review 01

Totem began speaker building in 1987 in Montreal Canada, starting off with just one model, the now legendary Model-1 monitor, which eventually was upgraded to the Signature version. Founded by Vince Bruzzese, a retired high-school math and physics teacher, and now Totem’s chief designer.  All Totem products are manufactured in Canada, except for KIN units and some architectural speaker models.  The cabinets are constructed at another manufacturing site in Quebec, and the machine shop where all metal and ancillary components are made is also located in Montreal. Since the Model-1, Totem has expanded into at least forty plus various bookshelf, floorstanding speakers (what Totem cleverly calls “columns”), on wall speakers, center channels, architectural (“in wall”) and subwoofers. The Totem vision is to give the listener music, and nothing but the music. According to Totem, building speakers goes beyond math and engineering, it is instead an intuitive and instinctive science.

Within the line-up of the Totem bookshelfs the SKY is positioned between the Rainmaker, and the much more expensive Element speakers, specifically the Element Ember. The SKY’s retail for $1,850/pair (USD).

It may appear at first glance that the SKY speaker is positioned to replace the now discontinued Model-1, however I don’t believe that is the case. The sonic signatures of the two speakers are vastly different. The Model-1’s feature a metal dome tweeter that can run a little “hot” sometimes, whereas the Sky has a large, soft dome tweeter (more below). The two speakers are remarkably similar in appearance, though they both exhibit almost the same dimensions. The SKY’s measure in at 6.35” wide, 12” high, and 9” deep. The SKY is available in three different finishes. A white satin finish, as well as black ash and mahogany veneers. The review sample provided to me was mahogany and was quite striking. The Totem cabinetry was, of course, up to its usual high-quality standards. Joints were practically invisible, and the knuckle rap test indicated the product is incredibly inert. The SKY features a 5” woofer, with a 3” voice coil, and interestingly enough, a 1.3” soft dome tweeter, which actually appears to be a unique to Totem, Wavcor neodymium unit. This is a departure from the metal dome tweeter that was featured in the Model-1. The oversized 3” voice coil allows the SKY to be driven to astoundingly high levels, with the peak power level topping out at 500 watts.

The SKY’s have an impedance rating of 8 ohms, as opposed to the harder 4 ohm load of the Model-1’s, and are rated at 87 db/w/m efficiency. The SKY’s are rated to go down to 48 Hz, but “real world” in room frequency response can be in the low 30’s and linear up to 29,500 Hz. Pretty amazing for such a small speaker. They played at a much louder volume than my Model-1’s did, I would have to turn my McIntosh amp significantly louder with the Model-1’s to achieve the same level of volume as the SKY’s. I would only have to have to turn the volume on my McIntosh MA66600 to 24 with the SKY’s to achieve the same level of volume with the Model-1’s. According to the meters on my McIntosh, I was using between 0.2 and 2.0 watts in both cases. Granted, the Model-1’s were wired to the 4 ohm taps on the McIntosh, and the Model-1’s were wired to the 8 ohm taps, so that could have accounted for some of the volume discrepancy. There is little doubt, however, that the SKY’s are relatively easy speakers to drive.

As with all Totem speakers, the inner cabinets are dampened with borosilicate to control energy, but yet still allow the musicality of the fine cabinetry to shine through. As a departure from the usual Totem philosophy, the SKY speakers come included with magnetic grills.

If you are used to the Model-1, there are also some other cosmetic and functional differences between the two speakers. The Model-1 had dual WBT binding posts that were flush mounted on the back of the cabinet, and were of obviously high quality. The binding posts on the SKY speakers are ABS plastic plate mounted, much like the binding post arrangement on the Sttafs. The SKY’s are bi-wireable and the binding posts are gold plated. The edges and corners of the SKY’s seem a little more rounded than did the ones on the Model-1. Aesthetically, they are beautiful speakers. Similar to the Model-1’s, the SKY’s have a small port near the top at the back of the speaker.