Totem Acoustic Model 1 loudspeaker John Atkinson, October 2008

John Atkinson reviewed the Totem Model 1 Signature in October 2008 (Vol.31 No.10):

The focus of review magazines, in any genre, is inevitably on the new and perhaps the outrageous. Great-performing products that have been on the market for a long time, with little change other than a small parts upgrade as the designer decides on an incremental improvement in production, therefore tend to get short shrift. We try to return to such products in Stereophile's review schedule, but it is all too easy to lose attention.

Such was the case with the Model 1 loudspeaker from Canadian manufacturer Totem Acoustic.3 This two-way, stand-mounted speaker has remained in continuous production since its introduction at the end of the 1980s. Larry Greenhill reviewed the Model 1 in April 1993 (Vol.16 No.4), with Follow-Ups on the Model 1 Signature in January 1998 (Vol.21 No.1) and April 2003 (Vol.26 No.4); both reports are included in the online reprint of the Model 1 review.

It was during an overnight visit to Montreal in September 2007, to help celebrate Totem's 20th anniversary by drinking some of their excellent wine, that I realized two things: Stereophile had reviewed the Model 1 every five years since 1993, and the fifth anniversary of our most recent coverage was fast approaching. Accordingly, before the bus had returned me from the party to my hotel, I asked Totem's marketing director, Lucy Lentini, to send me review samples from current production.

At 12.5" high by 6.5" wide by 9" deep and weighing 9 lbs, the Model 1 is a relatively small speaker. The original design married a 1" aluminum-dome tweeter from SEAS with a 6.5" plastic-cone Dynaudio woofer that had a 3" voice-coil and an oversized dustcap that actually radiated much of the sound. (Current production still uses the latest versions of those drive-units.) The woofer was reflex-loaded with a small-diameter port on the rear panel behind the tweeter. The Signature version, launched at the 1997 Winter Consumer Electronics Show, replaced the single pair of binding posts with two pairs of WBT terminals to allow biwiring and upgraded the crossover, while the 2002 revision upgraded the internal wiring to an encapsulated silver type and used physically larger, polypropylene-bypassed capacitors. It also added to the rear panel, between the port and the binding posts, a copper medallion embossed with the Totem Acoustic logo and designer Vince Bruzzese's signature.

Totem's original Model 1 cost $1495/pair in 1992, the Model 1 Signature $1995/pair in 1997. Plugging these prices into an inflation calculator gives a 2007 price of $2250/pair for the Model 1 and $2611.89 for the Model 1 Signature. The current price of $2295/pair (footnote 1) is thus equivalent to that of the original speaker, with no charge for the evolutionary improvements—when compared with the price of the first Signature version, a considerable reduction in real terms.


I initially set up the Totems where the floorstanding Esoteric MG-20s I reviewed in August had worked well in my room, on 24"-tall single-pillar stands by Celestion, which placed my ears on the tweeter axes—as long as I didn't sit up straight. If I sat so that my ears were level with or above the tops of the cabinets, the tonal balance sounded a little hollow. Very little adjustment was required to optimize the speakers' relationship with my room's acoustics, though I did toe the Totems in a little, until I could just see their outer edges.

Naturally recorded piano was a little overwarm in the lower midrange, and soprano female voices acquired some contralto-ish weight. However, the Totem's sound was otherwise clear and clean. Larry Greenhill had remarked on how involving the Model 1 Signature's reproduction of vocal music was, and I had a similarly positive experience. Heidi Grant Murphy's bell-like soprano on Marc Neikrug's sparely scored Pueblo Songs, for example, from the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival's Bravo! (CD, Stereophile STPH014-2), sounded naturally pure, with no upper-frequency emphasis. The Model 1 Signature's highs indeed sounded very sweet, perhaps even a bit too mellow with the toe-in I preferred in my room.

I had close-miked Ms. Murphy for this recording with a single DPA omni, and the image of her voice was palpably placed midway between the speakers, the space filled by a reverberant bloom. Speakers that are no more or less wide than the human head always seem to image well, and the Totems indeed performed well in this area. Again, this was something LG had remarked on in his earlier reviews, though I didn't find that the Model 1 Signatures threw as much soundstage depth as he had experienced with them. Even so, the Totems' imaging allowed me to easily distinguish small details in the recorded stage that might otherwise have been smeared over by lesser speakers.

For example, I am writing this review having just mastered a new CD for Minnesotan male-voice choir Cantus. While You Are Alive (CD, Cantus CTS-1208) features contemporary works, including some commissioned by the group. One of these, Edie Hill's A Sound Like This, comprises settings of six poems by the Indian mystic Kabir, translated by poet Robert Bly. Rather than typical choral music, this is a chamber work for nine individual voices, each of which Hill has woven into an ever-changing sonic tapestry. Through the Totems, I could hear each voice clearly delineated in both space and timbre. But where a composer did wish the voices to blend as one, as in Eric Whitacre's glorious Lux Aurumque on this CD, the Totems didn't pop any voice out of the mix.

This combination of clarity and stable, well-defined imaging led me to dig around for recordings I hadn't played in a long while. The second album from Yes, Time and a Word, was reissued on CD in 2003 (Rhino R2 73787), and though I'd bought the CD when it came out, I'd never played it. The original LP, released on Atlantic in 1970, had been a longtime favorite, not least because Tony Cox, who had written the orchestral arrangements, was later to produce two LPs by bands I played in in the mid-1970s. I used to blow hot and cold on the contributions Tony's arrangements made to Yes's sound. The band's first, eponymous album (CD, Rhino R2 73786) had been audiophile-worthy in the clarity of its individual sounds, with no need for more than the sound of a rock band firing on all cylinders. Did Yes really need an orchestra on Time and a Word? Played over the Totems, the answer had to be, um, "Yes." The speakers' clarity let me hear how the orchestral arrangements supported and built upon Tony Kaye's Hammond organ and Peter Banks' Rickenbacker guitar figurings, while their soundstaging spatially differentiated the rock-band instruments from the orchestral ones, to the benefit of both.

The layout of my room doesn't allow speakers to be placed close to the boundaries, so I was at first concerned that the Totems might sound a little light in weight. I needn't have worried. Larry Greenhill had commented on the Model One's impressive bass performance in all three of his earlier reviews, and I, too, found the minimonitor's bass satisfying. Objectively, its low-frequency extension was fairly modest, as you might expect. The half-step–spaced tonebursts on Editor's Choice (CD, Stereophile STPH016-2) revealed good bass output in-room down to the 50Hz band. But on music, it really did sound at times as if a much larger speaker were playing.

I first heard Flanger's version of Miles Davis' "So What?," from Midnight Sound (CD, Ntone B00004YLGQ), in the Dynaudio-Simaudio room at the April 2008 Festival Son & Image, in Montreal. A Fender Rhodes replaces Bill Evans' piano, while the first solo is taken on vibes instead of trumpet. But the star of this track is the synth bass line, which occasionally rests on a low D (36Hz). The Totems managed to light up the room with this note to satisfying effect, aided by my room's lowest-frequency resonant mode in the same region—but I'm certainly not going to complain about that.

This larger-than-life sleight of hand will work only as long as the Model 1 Signature is not pushed too hard. But instruments with strong mid/upper-bass content—Dave Holland's acoustic bass on Joni Mitchell's "A Case of You," from Herbie Hancock's River: The Joni Letters (CD, Verve B0010063-02); or Chris Jones' fretless electric bass on Attention Screen's Live at Merkin Hall (CD, Stereophile STPH018-2)—were reproduced with a satisfying purring quality.

Summing Up

No doubt about it: Totem's Model 1 Signature is a little gem, a pur sang minimonitor. As long as it is used in a room that offers it sufficient low-frequency support, it will provide long-lasting satisfaction. It joins the Harbeth HL-P3ES2 ($1850/pair) and the AAD Silver One ($1550/pair) in the list of my favorite minis. Highly recommended—again!—John Atkinson

Footnote 1: Totem Model 1 Signature: $2295/pair in Black or Mahogany; add $200/pair for Cherry or Maple. Optional grilles: $50/pair. Recommended stand: Totem T4S; 24" H, metal, 4 pillars; $575/pair.

Footnote 2: Serial numbers M1SC2968, M1SC2969.