Totem Acoustic Rainmaker loudspeaker
Lounging around the house on a recent weekend, sipping wine and listening to music, the total experience of grape-infused musical involvement got me a bit teary-eyed, and I counted up my blessings. I have a perfect wife, two fantastic kids, and a job I enjoy that pays me more money than I need. (And no, I'm not stupid; my boss doesn't read Stereophile.) I have my health, and have enough musical talent that I can create my own music (though I wish I had more time to do so).
I'm also grateful that I can relax and listen to original vinyl pressings of great vintage jazz on speakers such as the Totem Rainmakers. I had just struck the mother lode at Jeff Barr's All Jazz Records (footnote 1), and was working my way through the shipping box while getting accustomed to the Totems. I first grabbed Thelonious Monk's We See (Prestige 7245), and succumbed to the rich midrange of Monk's piano and the delicate transients of his solo articulations. Then I spun a Columbia "six-eye" of Miles Davis' In Person at the Blackhawk (Columbia CS 8469), and was transfixed by Davis' phrasing, a delicate blend of spitty and blatty brashness combined with liquid sweetness. Next I grabbed Dizzy Gillespie's Dizzy In Greece (Verve MGV-8017), and was impressed by how the Totems blurted out the brass tuttis with the forcefulness of much larger speakers but without harshness or strain, and also rendered the delicate "drop two," five-voice lower-midrange sax blend like silky butter. As I sauntered into the kitchen to refill my glass, I noticed that the Totems passed another test: They could occasionally fool me into thinking there was a jazz band playing in the next room.
Then I snapped out of it and thought I'd better review the speaker.
The Totem Rainmaker
At every one of our Home Entertainment shows, I'm on a quest. I seek out the one pair of affordable speakers that impresses me to the point that I must have it in my house for review. At HE2004 East, in New York last May, that speaker was the Totem Rainmaker. At $950/pair, the Rainmaker was producing one the most realistic and enticing sounds at the New York Hilton. (Why is it that the trend at our HE shows seems increasingly to be that the best sound tends to come from rooms with affordable gear?)
The Rainmaker is a small, attractive, two-way bookshelf speaker built with labor-intensive techniques. Each cabinet panel is individually cut and individually shaped to be lock-mitered to the adjoining panels. The cabinets sport internal borosilicate damping and full-plane vertical cross-bracing to increase rigidity. Each cabinet requires 2 hours and 15 minutes of labor. According to Totem, veneers are selected that have "life" to them. My pair were finished in an attractive cherry; black ash, maple, and mahogany are also available.
Each biwirable speaker has a 1" chambered, aluminum-dome tweeter and a 5½" woofer with a cone formed from four-layered paper. The crossover doesn't use ferrite-cored inductors, electrolytic caps, or printed-circuit boards. The point-to-point wiring is all oxygen-free, solid-core silver insulated with trilaminated Teflon extrusion.
The Rainmaker is available with two types of stand: the cast-iron T4S ($475/pair) or the P2 ($199/pair). Normally, I review bookshelf speakers using my trusty but long-discontinued Celestion Si stands, which combine an aluminum center pillar with steel top and bottom plates. I made an exception in this case, using both the Celestions and the T4S stands. The T4S is the most impressive stand to have been supplied with loudspeaker review samples since I've been writing for Stereophile. Its size and construction are very similar to the old Celestion stands, although it is more attractive. The Rainmaker's performance with T4S and Celestion stands was comparable; I recommend using the T4S with any bookshelf speaker of similar size and shape to the Rainmaker.
One of the reasons I was distracted and hooked by the sounds of those old LPs from All Jazz Records was the way in which the Rainmaker rendered the lower midrange: with extraordinary detail, transparency, and lack of coloration. I kept digging out all sorts of classical and jazz recordings, looking for woodwinds and brass. Composer Louis Andriessen is fond of creating startling textural colors with his woodwind and brass orchestration. In a lengthy passage of De Staat (CD, Nonesuch 79251-2), nothing but bassoons, oboes, and clarinets weave around each other in their lower registers. They sounded incredibly lifelike through the Totem. Then, out of nowhere, full-throated trombone tuttis break the mood at a volume level that would strain large floorstanding speakers. Through the Rainmaker I heard the bite, the burnished bells, the full level of dynamic rush, without a hint of strain.
The detail resolution in the midrange and high frequencies, as well as the lightning-fast articulation of transients at all dynamic levels, made the Totem an ideal companion for classical percussion recordings. With another Andriessen work, De Tijd (CD, Nonesuch 79291-2), all manner of percussive accents popped out of thin air on a wide, deep soundstage with perfect transient reproduction.
On a more delicate note, Jim Hall and Basses (CD, Telarc CD-83506) features the jazz guitar master in duets with a panoply of renowned jazz four-stringers. Hall rotates through much of his guitar collection on this disc; I was particularly taken by the 12-string flattop acoustic he used on "End the Beguine," which was rendered steely and woody without a trace of coloration or lack of clarity.
The Rainmaker's mid- and upper-bass reproduction was impressive. On the Hall disc, George Mraz's solo on "All the Things You Are" was warm, natural, and woody, with great presence and body. Similarly, Reggie Workman's soloing on the New York Art Quartet's 35th Reunion (CD, DIW Records DIW-936) was as natural a rendering of the upper register of a string bass as I've heard. In the lower-midbass region, however, the Totem's bass took on a warmish quality. The lower registers of Jerome Harris' bass on "The Mooche," from Editor's Choice (CD, Stereophile STPH016-2), was a bit rounder than I've heard through other speakers. Similarly, the electronic synth bass from Sade's Love Deluxe (CD, Epic EK 53178) was very prominent, but linear and fast, and without a trace of overhang.
The Totem's rendering of the organ-pedal notes in John Rutter's Requiem (CD, Reference RR-57CD) was as realistic as I've heard from such a small bookshelf speaker, moving a convincing amount of air. I look forward to seeing John Atkinson's measurements of the Rainmaker's bass extension.
At higher volume levels, the Rainmaker's transient and dynamic capabilities created dramatic effects with the right recordings. My notes on the New York Art Quartet's 35th Reunion: "explosive dynamics emerged from delicate silence as the speakers 'disappeared.' " Eberhard Weber's bass is the melody instrument on his Endless Days (CD, ECM 1748), the bottom end of the recording anchored by bass-synth continuo and bass drum. Through the Totems, this created a sense of high-level dynamic drama without a sense of coloration or strain—"just like a floorstander," according to my notes.
The Rainmaker also partied merrily with high-level rock music. Cranked up to 95dB, the drum machines and synths of Café Tacuba's hip-hop rendition of "Cilangas Banda," from Avalancha de Exitos (CD, Warner Bros. 16178-2), shook my walls. At similar volume levels, the Mahavishnu Orchestra's Trident Sessions (CD, Columbia/Legacy CK 54959) re-created the "wall of sound" I fondly recall from the old Mahavishnu concerts, but without a trace of compression. I was still able to follow the minutiae of Billy Cobham's drumming amid the densely arranged bombast.
On well-recorded vocals, such as Madeleine Peyroux's Dreamland (CD, Atlantic 82946-2), vocals were natural and detailed, with body and crisp sibilants but nary a trace of brightness. However, on certain recordings of female vocals that have a slightly forward and highly processed quality, such as Aimee Mann's Bachelor No.2, or The Last Remains of the Dodo (CD, Super Ego SE 002), or Jonatha Brooke's Steady Pull (CD, Bad Dog BDR-60801-2), the vocals tended to take on a slightly nasal quality, though only in the singers' upper registers. I'd be curious to see if JA's measurements uncover any artifact that can explain this effect.
I don't want to imply that I heard any high-frequency anomalies—all well-recorded classical and jazz instrumental recordings coaxed extended, detailed, natural high frequencies from the Rainmaker. On JA's recording of Kohjiba's Transmigration of the Soul, from Festival (CD, Stereophile STPH007-2), the reproduction of the flute was extended and detailed throughout its range, and the massed violins were prominent and immediate without being steely or bright.
The Alón Li'l Rascal Mk.II had a richer, more liquid lower midrange, but was similarly detailed and natural in the mid to upper midrange. The Alón, however, exhibited less high-frequency detail and less sophisticated high frequencies when compared with the Rainmaker. The Totem was a bit warmer in the midbass than the Li'l Rascal, but a bit cleaner in the upper bass. The dynamic performances of the two speakers were very similar.
The NHT SB-3 was warmer, richer, and less detailed than the Totem, with less detailed highs as well, but sounded very well balanced. The NHT was forgiving and subtractive at the frequency extremes compared with the Totem, but had a similarly rich and natural midrange, though with much less detail than the Rainmaker.
The Alón Petite had the most detailed and sophisticated high frequencies of the bunch, with an upper bass and midrange that were as natural and detailed as the Totem's. Bass extension and high-level dynamic performance were inferior, however, to the Rainmaker's.
The Totem Rainmaker is an impressive speaker with a wide range of strengths, many of them unusual for a bookshelf model of its size and price. I was also impressed with the T4S stands, which are expensive but provide good value. My hat's off to designer Vincent Bruzzese, who has designed and built a beautiful and sophisticated loudspeaker that should blend with a wide range of equipment, musical programming, and décor. I have not seen such attention to detail in an inexpensive speaker from any other manufacturer; I commend Totem Acoustic on its commitment to this level of quality of both design and manufacturing.
Footnote 1: Jeff Barr's All Jazz Records, PO Box 3851, Granada Hills, CA 91394, deals in used jazz vinyl, specializing in mint-condition original pressings from the 1950s and '60s that, for the most part, are surprisingly affordable.