Totem Acoustic Forest loudspeaker Erick Lichte, January 2010
One of the unalloyed pleasures of being an audiophile is helping friends put together their systems. In a hobby often obsessed with getting the sound perfect in your room, in your chair, where only you can park your fanny, helping a friend buy audio gear is a way to make the sweet spot a little bigger.
Last year, I helped my friend Kurt buy speakers. Wanting something that would work in the small space near his new flat-screen TV while matching his tasteful décor, he asked if I knew of a speaker that might fit the bill while not running up too large a one. After some thought, I sent him some links to speakers made by Totem Acoustic, namely the Arro. I had heard the Arro and other Totem models in various stores and homes over the years, and thought they offered very pleasant, no-nonsense sound. Kurt loved the Arro's beautiful cherry finish, and his wife liked how elegant and slender it was. Kurt bought a pair, and now enjoys great sound with his TVand a much better living-room music system than he might have otherwise had. Through my help with this successful purchase, I've been officially designated Kurt's Audiophile Friend.
When John Atkinson asked me to write a Follow-Up to his September 2005 Follow-Up to Larry Greenhill's original review, in April 2001, of the Totem Forest speaker (now $3495/pair in black ash or mahogany), I immediately said yes, based on my positive experience with Kurt's Arros. I'm not sure how many Follow-Follow-Ups have appeared in the pages of Stereophile. I'm also not sure how many speaker companies keep a model in production with no major changes for close to a decade. I contacted Totem, and they sent me a pair of Forests in a lovely mahogany finish, along with some Beaks, Totem's proprietary resonance-managing tweak. I unpacked everything, installed the Clawsthe Totem's feet, which couple the speaker to the floor via large ball bearingsplopped the speakers in the room where my Revel F30s sound best, hooked them up to my Pass Lab Aleph 3 amplifier, and gave a listen.
At first, I was disappointed and confused. While Kurt's Arros sound smooth, balanced, and unassuming, the Forests had loose, overbearing bass, a recessed midrange, and a prominent treble. What the heck? I moved the Forests around the room and tried all the amplifiers I had on hand. The sound stayed pretty much the same. This just can't be right.
The nice part about writing a Follow-Up to a Follow-Up is that more than one other reviewer has gone before you. I checked the Stereophile website to see what LG and JA had learned during their time with the Forest. JA had experimented with filling the Forest's bottom cavity with sand and lead shot to help damp the vibrations of the cabinet. So I took the speakers outside and filled each with about 12 lbs of pure, dry sand, then brought them back inside, hooked them up to my system again, and gave another listen. What a difference! I'd assumed that only the bass would get better, but filling the Forest with sand improved every aspect of its sound. Though Totem says filling its speakers with ballast is optional, I'd say it's mandatory, if you want to hear the Forest at its best.
The Forests stand only 36" tall, and threw an image that's closer to the floor than I'm used to. After a few days of listening I'd adjusted to the new, lower soundstage, and it wasn't a big deal. Through my reference Revel F30s ($3500/pair when last available), I get an open, detailed, and, some might say, prominent midrange that blends evenly into the treble region. The Totem's overall balance was quite different. As I listened to the rollicking "Don't You Worry 'Bout a Thing," from Stevie Wonder's Innervisions (CD, Motown 012157355-2), the Forests presented a darker, less articulate rendering of voices, while the sparkling Latin percussion sat slightly forward in the soundstage. Aggressively and poorly recorded music, such as the Smiths' "There Is a Light that Never Goes Out," from The Sound of the Smiths (CD, Rhino R2 516015), was an even tougher listen due to the Forest's slightly forward treble (footnote 1). The quality of the Totem's treble was lovely: airy, grain-free, and with no hint of harshness or lower-treble emphasis. However, I feel the Forest's tweeter, like those of so many speakers currently on the market, is dialed in about 12dB too high.
On naturally recorded music such as one of my own recordings, All Is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914 (CD, Cantus CTS-1209), the added treble sparkle was a plus. All Is Calm is a radio drama that tells the story of the World War I "Christmas truce" between German and Allied forces through old trench songs, Christmas carols, and the actual words of soldiers who witnessed this miraculous event. The cast includes a male choir and three actors. As I produced and mixed this album, I consciously tried to create a recording that would adhere to audiophile standards while still sounding like a professionally produced, commercial recording. I think I did pretty well, but had I taken the disc to a Hollywood mastering studio, I know they would have boosted the treble to give it more bite, air, and definition, to make the album sound better in a car or on a boom box. Listening to All Is Calm through the Forests gave the whole production that added detail and air without adding harshness or grain; it sounded like a Hollywood soundtrack done right, if I say so myself.
With the Forests loaded with sand, the bass was remarkably tight and well extended for a speaker this size. The Forest's bass had a tendency to emphasize the fundamental pitches of bass instruments while giving shorter shrift to each note's upper harmonics. The sound of Reid Anderson's deft bass playing on The Bad Plus's "Everywhere You Turn," from These Are the Vistas (CD, Columbia CK 87040), had nice weight through the Forest, but was a little plunkier than I'm used to. I believe this is partly due to the Forest's laid-back midrange, which will come across as smooth and pleasant to some ears, and as less colorful to others.
One aspect of the Forests that LG commented on in his original review was their ability to throw a large soundstage. But while the Forests' imaging greatly improved with the addition of ballast, I never got them to create the truly holographic soundstages LG wrote of. Sound tended to lump up around each speaker instead of being spread evenly between them. When I touched the cabinet of a Forest while playing them at even moderate volumes, I felt a whole lotta shakin' goin' on; those cabinets "sang along" with the music more than I'm used to. I can't help but think that the Forests' lively cabinets impede their ability to image as well as they otherwise might.
During his listening in 2005, JA set bags of lead shot atop the Forests in hopes of taming that liveliness. Looking for a solution less obtrusive and toxic, I placed two BeaksTotem's computer-designed aluminum bulletsin various spots atop each Forest. Beaks on or off, I could hear no difference in any aspect of the sound. For fun, I also tried the Beaks with all the other speakers I had on hand, and heard no difference with them either. At least the Beaks look kinda cool.
The Totem Acoustic Forest offers a smooth midrange, airy treble, and well-extended bass in an attractive, compact package. If you audition them or already own a pair, make sure their bottom cavities have been filled with sand and/or shot. If my friend Kurt gets the itch to upgrade from his Totem Arros, would I recommend the Forests? They're worth a listen, and he might really like them. However, $3495 is a fair chunk of change for a pair of speakers, and there are many fine contenders at or near this price listed in Stereophile's "Recommended Components." Before he made any purchase, I would advise Kurt to listen to a wide variety of speakersincluding the Forest. I'd even accompany him to dealers to help him navigate the crazy world of high-end audioit's my duty to keep Kurt happy so that I can retain my designation of Audiophile Friend.Erick Lichte
Footnote 1: Some (JA especially) will find this song a tough listen no matter what system they use; Morrissey's crooning is an acquired taste.