Totem Acoustic Forest loudspeaker Follow-Up, September 2005

John Atkinson wrote about the Totem Forest in September 2005 (Vol.28 No.9):

One of the problems with a magazine like Stereophile, whose review focus is of necessity on the new, is that long-standing, well-designed models can get short shrift. We do try to give second and even third listens to products that have impressed us in the past, but even then, much of quality can get overlooked. So when Totem Acoustic's Lucy Lentini suggested at the 2004 CEDIA Expo that it was high time I gave room in my home to a pair of the Canadian manufacturer's Forest speakers, which Larry Greenhill had raved about in our April 2001 issue, I had no choice but to say yes.

The floorstanding Forest cost $3000/pair when it was reviewed four years ago, and its price has increased by just $195/pair in that time. Commendable. It combines a 1" aluminum-dome tweeter from SEAS with an Acoustic Technology International 6.5" midrange/bass driver, both mounted in a 3'-tall cabinet less than a foot wide and a foot deep. The woofer is reflex-loaded with a 1.35"-diameter port on the cabinet's rear. A second hole near the base allows the lower part of the cabinet to be filled with sand. I auditioned the speaker on and off for about seven months, using the Totem Claws, which support the speaker on three ball bearings.

My system comprised my long-term reference amplifiers, Mark Levinson No.33H monoblocks, hooked up to the Forests with AudioQuest's battery-polarized Kilimanjaro speaker cable (the smoothest-sounding cables I have ever used, but don't ask to me to explain why). Preamp was the new Mark Levinson No.326S, connected to the power amps with 15' runs of Madrigal CZ Gel-1 balanced interconnects. Digital source was either a Mark Levinson No.31.5 CD transport or a Technics DVD-A10 DVD player, hooked up to my No.30.6 D/A processor via Kimber Kable Orchid AES/EBU or AudioQuest SVD-4 S/PDIF datalinks, respectively. The No.30.6 was connected to the preamp with balanced 1m lengths of AudioQuest Cheetah. I also used my Apple PowerBook to play back uncompressed 16-bit AIF files via an Apple AirPort feeding the Levinson DAC. And for a regrettably brief period of time I used the sample of Ayre's new C-5xe universal player that Wes Phillips reviewed for Stereophile in July.

Among Larry Greenhill's positive comments in April 2001, I noted the following: "The Forest's highs were transparent and beguiling, with no brightness, steeliness, or metallic edge. The Forest's dynamics were remarkable. . . . I can't think of any other speakers for $3000 or less that image as well." To which, back then, I had added the conjecture, based on my measurements, that "This speaker should be decidedly easy on the ear."

Listening to Ivo Janssen's exploration of Bach's English Suites on piano (CD, Nederland Bach Collegium VOID 9806), I must confess that at first I had nothing to add to LG's summary. Putting on the G-minor fugue that opens Suite 3, a favorite of mine for more than 30 years, I could hear a stable piano image well defined between the speaker positions. The sound of the piano was uncolored, and yes, there was a beguiling ease to the high frequencies.

I then dropped into the CD transport Vernon Handley and the Royal Philharmonic's recording of Sir Granville Bantock's A Celtic Symphony (CD, Hyperion CDA66540). I heard nothing amiss or unbalanced: upper strings were silky smooth, double basses rich and full. And again, the soundstage was wide, deep, and stable. Of course, this work may be richly scored, but it doesn't have brass or woodwind, so might not reveal any problems a speaker might have in the low treble.

Accordingly, I played the definitive Decca recording of Benjamin Britten's The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra (XRCD, JVC JVCXR-0226-2), with the English Chamber Orchestra conducted by the composer. As much as I love this 1963 Kingsway Hall recording, I have to admit its highs are a bit "chromium-plated." And that's what the Totem Forests told me, with perhaps a slight exaggeration. The cymbals and other HF-rich percussion instruments, as well as the flute and piccolo, were all projected a bit forward in the soundstage. This speaker's treble balance is definitely on the forward side, alleviated by its smoothness and lack of grain in this region.

Despite its small stature, the speaker's bass balance was generous, even a bit too much so. The double basses on the Britten sounded more gruff than I was expecting, for example. LF extension was impressive, the 32Hz, 1/3-octave band on Stereophile's Editor's Choice CD (Stereophile STPH016-2) being clearly audible, though the bands in the upper bass sounded softer than I was used to, and the lower midrange occasionally lacked a bit of clarity. Listening to the cabinet walls with a stethoscope while I played the stepped toneburst track from Editor's Choice revealed some lively cabinet resonances in the two octaves between 250Hz and 1kHz.

In our original review, I had found a number of high-Q resonances in the midrange that seemed to be due both to panel resonances and internal air-space resonances. Because they are of high Q (quality factor), such resonances can easily "fall between the notes" in Western music and thus not be excited. And they were not anything like as severe as those I had found in the Tetra 505LTD in August—Richard Lehnert's speaking voice on Editor's Choice, for example, did not sound colored, as it had done with the Tetra. Even so, I wondered if the Forest's cabinet modes were the cause of the lack of clarity I was noting, so I tried something I had not had time to do back in 2001: fill the speaker's lower compartment with a damping material.

I loaded up the cavity in the base of each enclosure with 30 lbs of a mixture of dry sand and lead shot, which almost doubled the speaker's mass. I then placed a 20-lb bag of lead shot atop each cabinet. Wow. Now the softness in the low frequencies was replaced by definition and authority. The basses in the Britten had full weight and well-defined leading edges. Jerome Harris's acoustic bass guitar on Rendezvous (CD, Stereophile STPH013-2) sounded about as good as I have heard it, combining excellent pitch definition with good weight. Yes, the treble was still a bit forward, but this was offset by the gain in clarity. Time for some hard rock.

"Clarity," the first track on John Mayer's Heavier Things (DualDisc, Aware/Columbia CH 93903), starts with an underdamped kick drum that sounds more like a decaying sinewave oscillator. Before I added the ballast and played the disc on the Technics DVD-Audio player feeding a 48kHz datastream from the DVD side to my Mark Levinson No.30.6 D/A processor, the drum sounded indistinct and boomy. With the sand and shot weighing down the speakers, the sound could now be definitely identified as a kick drum, overlaid with a hoot probably due to the sound being processed with a narrow bandpass filter. And the newfound low-frequency clarity of the Forests allowed to me to decide definitively that J.J. Johnson's more traditional pat'n'purr kick-drum sound, which begins "Only Heart" on this disc, accompanied by a tightly tuned snare that sounds more like timbales, is an object lesson in how these drums should be recorded.

The Mayer album, which I bought strictly to see how compatible the DualDisc medium was with all the players I have around the house, has been growing on me ever since, due partly to Mayer's tasteful Fender Stratocaster chops, but also to the intelligent arrangements. "Come to Bed," for example, combines a waltz-time chorus with some Stax-styled horns, all underpinned by a sweeping bass-guitar line that was given full measure by the mass-loaded Forests.

The Forest was superb at differentiating between similarly toned bass instruments. From the distinctive tone of Flim Johnson's five-string Alembic backing up James Taylor on "Copperline" to John Mayer's bassist's Precision Bass on "City Love"—more great J.J. Johnson drumwork—to Nathan East's acoustic five-string on Eric Clapton's "Rollin' and Tumblin'" to Duck Dunn's different Fender P-Bass behind David Hidalgo's "Neighborhood" and Joe Walsh's classic "Rocky Mountain Way"—and yes, that is Booker T. and the MG's backing up East L.A.'s and Cleveland's favorite sons!—all from Eric Clapton Crossroads Festival (DVD-Video, Reprise R2 970378), were all reproduced as being unambiguously different. Which is just how a speaker is supposed to perform, right.

You just can't play "Rocky Mountain Way" at anything less than head-banging SPLs, and I'm pleased to report that the Forests didn't crap out, even with my wife yelling at me from her office down the hall to turn it down. Yes, that all this was coming from a pair of 6" woofer cones was evident from the furring-up of the low frequencies at high levels. But with what sounded like a predominance of second harmonic, this didn't interfere with the Forest's ability to sound convincing in the bass. This, of course, was in my moderate-sized room (approximately 26' by 16'). In a larger room, the Forests would have to work hard too much of the time.

Summing Up: I very much enjoyed my time with Totem's Forest. It may look unprepossessing, but its sonic performance is simply superb. Its lack of grain, its excellent dynamics (within the limitations mentioned earlier), its extended low frequencies and well-defined stereo imaging, as well as its small footprint, make it a contender for audiophiles with smaller listening rooms. Very highly recommended.—John Atkinson