If you don’t want to be tempted by one of the greatest audiophile bargains I have ever encountered, stop reading now.
Model-1, the first speaker from Montreal’s Totem Acoustic made an awfully big impression, especially for such a small speaker. Released back in 1987, it has now been superseded by not one but two replacements – the Totem Model-1 Signature and a no-holds-barred limited edition version, The One, which we are looking at in this review.
Let’s go back and take a look at the original Model-1 before we examine its replacements. The diminutive Model-1 measures 12.5-inches tall by 6.5-inches wide and 9-inches deep. The main driver is a 5.5-inch Dynaudio 15W75 design with a large dust cap concealing a large 3-inch voice coil. As in most small speakers this driver is reflex-loaded to a small port on the rear of the speaker. The tweeter is a heavily breathed-on aluminum dome 1-inch driver from SEAS, crossing over from the woofer at 2.7 kHz using a quasi second-order design. The cabinet is impeccably made and there are no grills to protect the drivers or impede the sound. A lot of ingenuity went into the complex cabinet structure, including lock-mitered joints, internal cross-bracing and energy dissipating sidewalls. At the rear, the connectors are gold plated WBT devices. Sonically, the Model-1 is accurate and surprisingly well extended for its size. Small speakers often image superbly, and the Model-1 excels in that direction while keeping distortion well in check. Its success over the years is no surprise to anyone who has taken the time to audition it.
In the late nineties designer Vince Bruzzese introduced the Model-1 Signature, using more expensive crossover components, upgraded silver wiring and two sets of binding posts instead of the original single set. This model went on sale alongside the original Model-1. The benefits of the upgrades include increased speed, improved imaging and better off-axis performance. Further refinements a few years later included the use of encapsulated silver wire and upgraded capacitors, leading to a further opening up of the image and increased power handling leading to improved dynamics.
For the 20th anniversary of Totem in 2007, Bruzzese pulled out all the stops to create a limited edition version of the Model-1, to be called simply “The One”. This is a cost-no-object implementation of the original design, and it builds on the Model-1 Signature in several directions. The wiring is upgraded again, and the crossover is redesigned using ultra high performance and correspondingly expensive components. The cabinet no longer has a detachable back but is now of monocoque construction for improved rigidity and it includes additional internal cross bracing for extra rigidity. Where before the rear panel was attached after the crossover was installed, now all six sides are glued and interlocked with mitered joints before the second order crossover is installed through a rectangular opening in the back panel. The box is then sealed by a WBT back-plate which holds four platinum coated binding posts. This compound back of the enclosure is carefully tuned into the system. The cabinet sides are internally veneered and built relatively thin, for rapid energy dissipation. Totem uses a borosilicate damping material but hardly any filler inside the box. The drivers are the latest versions of the original designs, hand selected and carefully matched by the MLSSA Acoustic Measurement System for both level and tone. Bruzzese really likes the 15W75 driver, and over the years has developed an understanding of its properties second to none, allowing an undistorted bass response which extends well below the claimed 50 Hz. In fact it produces clean output down to 30 Hz in this application and interfaces very well with the tweeter for a very flat frequency response across a very wide bandwidth. This enables a close approach to the optimal point source due to the proximity of the woofer and tweeter. The combination is designed not just for excellent imaging, but also to provide a very wide range of listening positions by avoiding the directionality that afflicts so many competitors.
The result looks much the same as before, except for the handsome plaque on the rear and the attractive dark brown wood finish. The only difference in the published specification from the Model-1 Signature is a couple of extra millimeters in each dimension. The price tag for The One is $3595, while the Model-1 Signature runs from $2500 to $2600 according to finish.
I wired up the Totems with Atlas bi-wire Mavros cables to my Perreaux R200i amplifier which I fed with the outstanding EMM Labs CDSA SE player. All power cables are Nordost Valhalla and the balanced interconnects are the exceptional Royal Signature cables from Dutch manufacturer Siltech. This makes for one high resolution system, especially when playing SACDs. I placed the speakers atop 24-inch Target metal stands, six feet apart and about two feet from the rear wall. I sat at a distance of about eight feet from the line joining the two speakers, with the speakers angled just slightly in, although this didn’t seem to be a critical factor. They are fussy about the stands they sit on. Stands should be very rigid, and high enough to bring the tweeters to ear level, and directly coupled to the floor – in my case with spikes. Avoid the use of any decoupling devices – I made that mistake and the speakers came nowhere near their full potential when set up that way. They are also fussy about the electronics you use to feed them and the cabling throughout the system. That’s because they are extremely revealing. They will reward every improvement you make in your system, and punish you for every subpar component you may have. They are not the least forgiving – in fact they are brutally honest. You need high bandwidth, high resolution, low distortion equipment to accompany them, and you need equipment that can reveal the image depth and all the other special cues of the music you are playing. While this applies to most high end speakers, it seems to be especially true in this case, since they are so lively and forward in presentation. Finally, give them plenty of time to burn in. They were completely different and much less attractive a proposition before I put a couple of hundred hours on the clock.
Once all these considerations have been made, the speakers make an immediate impression. They completely belie their size. They sound like big powerful speakers, but with the wonderful imaging most large speakers can only dream about. Unless you are playing organ music you are unlikely to miss the lowest notes, and they clearly exceed the specified bandwidth of 50Hz to 20,000Hz ±3dB. In layman’s terms, that means you have fundamental solidity down to the lowest notes of almost all instruments.
One of their best features is to completely disappear sonically. The image they throw is large and hard to associate with the little box producing it. The sound may not be to everyone’s taste, since they are firm, authoritative, masculine where some may treasure subtlety and refinement. But this may be more a function of my powerful transistor amplifier. A tube amplifier may produce a warmer, sweeter sound to better suit that constituency. The Totems are reasonably efficient at 87 dB and relish being driven hard, so a wide range of amplifiers should match them well.
For the last hour or so I’ve been enjoying one of the most breathtaking listening sessions I can remember, playing The Beatles Love album from start to finish. I’ve heard it several times, and on truly great speakers and a variety of fine headphones at the end of a remarkable chain of electronics, but this time is a revelation. Everything clicks into focus, every voice, instrument and even bird sound is projected with the greatest clarity and impact. There is magic going on here, a coherence and dynamism that makes the listening sheer pleasure. These are not the only speakers to produce this effect, but they are the only ones at this price and they join the ranks of my all star list, alongside various TADs, Revels, Hansens and Magicos, the Klimt Series speakers from Vienna Acoustics, Reference 3A’s Grand Veena, Wilson Benesch’s Act 1 and KEF’s exotic Muon. The least expensive of these is around twice the price and the next one up twice that again, with the KEF running into six figures.
What does The One do that most speakers don’t?
We can talk about imaging, and The One does very well here, although not as well as my Act 1’s or several other speakers I have reviewed, so that isn’t what sets them apart. Resolution is also strong but no stronger than a whole bunch of contenders. It can’t be just the wide flat bandwidth, because many bigger speakers with three of more drivers can beat it on that score. I greatly appreciate a sense of relaxation – the feeling that the motor is barely running and there is a ton of headroom in reserve. But I don’t get that here. In fact I’m always expecting something to trip up these little devils – it hasn’t happened yet but these things are far from relaxed – they’re wired!
The reasons must lie elsewhere. I will give you three.
The first key attribute is dynamics. Most speakers compress as they get louder even at regular listening levels. These will compress too, but not until you get to a surprisingly high volume level. They do amazingly well on this score.
Then comes speed. There is no overhang here and full immediacy to all transients. What the Totems do here needs no special description – they reproduce a simple facet of live music which is a must if music is to sound realistic. Many, if not most, speakers show weakness here and do not satisfy me. Sure they can do well on the high notes, sudden cymbal crashes or maybe even gentle brush strokes on the drums, but most fall down by being sluggish and vague in the bass. I have no idea how Totem has managed such a fast and pitch-secure bass but I know it when I hear it, and this is a key feature in making the music feel alive, exciting and interesting.
Finally we have tonal colour. Instruments sound like real instruments here – pianos, flutes, violins, you name it. Voices are as good as I’ve ever heard, especially John, Paul, George and Ringo’s.
I’ve thrown every kind of music at these speakers – Jazz, classical, folk, Klezmer, rock. Well okay – no country and western – I don’t have any. But the story is the same whatever you play. Big, bold, brawny and beautiful.
These speakers should not be compared to other speakers in the same price range – they are actually designed to compete with speakers at much higher prices, and will put almost anything else under $5000 to shame. If they are too expensive for your budget, try the Model-1 Reference instead – it doesn’t lag far behind. If you can afford the asking price, and you have a great system needed to feed them properly, they will carry my highest recommendation – both in absolute terms and as value for money. Better hurry – they won’t be making any more pairs.
Totem Acoustic The One
Price: $3,595 CAD