Totem Acoustic Signature One loudspeaker

New York City, 1989: I had a music and audio-guru friend named George, who worked at both Tower Records and Stereo Exchange. Every Saturday I'd slip him a Grant and, over the following week, he would choose $50 worth of used Tower LPs he thought I should own. One midweek afternoon, on my way home from work, I dropped in on George at Stereo Exchange, to chat and maybe see what was new. Grinning, he led me to a back room and pointed to a pair of small speakers mounted on stands. "Tell me what you think of these." He walked out and left me to listen alone.

As soon as he'd left, I jumped up and looked at the back of one of the polished cabinets—I needed to see who made these excellent-looking things. They were playing "Wordy Rappinghood," from Tom Tom Club's first, eponymous album (LP, Sire SRK 3628), and sounding way too big and too overtly lively to be true. They were called the Model 1, and they were made by a new Canadian company, Totem Acoustic, founded by Vince Bruzzese in 1987 in Montreal.

The Model 1s sat on heavy stands about 2' from the room's front wall; I sat in a low, plush chair about 15' away. Amazingly, the Totems' sound felt more solid in the bottom octaves than my similar-sized Rogers LS3/5a minimonitors. The highs seemed more vibrant and extended—the Totems' metal-dome tweeters vs the Rogers's Mylar domes? Detail, soundstage size, and image specificity were equal to those of the LS3/5a's.

The Model 1's obvious quality impressed and annoyed me, in equal measure. Back home, I had two complete stereo rigs: an "intimate" desktop system with LS3/5a's on Rogers's factory wall mounts; and a show-off system comprising 1947 Altec A5s, with 10-cell tar-filled horns, sitting on casters in the middle of a very large space. I'd enjoyed "Wordy Rappinghood" through both setups, but that night at Stereo Exchange the Totem Model 1s were confidently driving a fairly large, highly damped audio showroom, and still sounding quick and clear and spatially adept. How could this be?

Brooklyn, 1999: I visit another audio-guru friend. He's got a pair of speakers, beautifully finished in wood, set up on Sound Anchor stands, and they sound and look a lot like what I remember of those first Totems—but more transparent and dynamic. Turns out they're Totem's new, biwirable Model 1 Signatures. That demo convinced me to buy a pair.

Brooklyn, September 2017: I'm listening to Totem Acoustic's 30th anniversary edition of the Model 1. They've changed the name to Signature One, and the price is now $2650/pair. But it looks—and sounds—like a totally different speaker.


John Atkinson described Totem Acoustic's Model 1 Signature, which was manufactured from 1997 to 2008, as "a little gem, a pur sang minimonitor" (footnote 1). Which is precisely how I feel about the pair I own. The Model 1 measured 12.5" high by 6.5" wide by 9" deep, weighed 9 lbs, and had 5" midrange/woofers. The new Signature One is a bit bigger and more than twice as heavy, at 13.8" by 7.7" by 10.6" and 19 lbs. Its mid/woofer, too, is bigger, at 6.5", and its nominal impedance is higher: 8 vs 4 ohms, which should make it more compatible with the kind of low-powered, low-feedback tubed and solid-state amplifiers I use.

The two-way Signature One is a rear-ported, reflex design; its 6.5" mid/woofer has a cellulose-acrylate cone and a 3" voice-coil, a cast-aluminum frame, and a neodymium magnet. Behind its 1" SEAS tweeter, which has an aluminum-titanium alloy dome, is a rear chamber designed to "correct resonances." Totem says that the circuitry of the Signature One's second-order crossover comprises air-core inductors; resistors from Dale, RCD, and Archromic; 80-20 oxygen-free copper and silver wire; Cornell-Dubilier Orange Drop film capacitors; and ClarityCap high-voltage, paper-in-oil capacitors. The mid/woofer hands off to the tweeter at 2.7kHz.

The veneered cabinet is made of ¾"-thick MDF with lock-miter joints. All internal surfaces are also veneered, then treated with a borosilicate-loaded coating, for damping. Like the Model 1 Signature, the Signature One is biwirable via twin pairs of WBT binding posts attached to an aluminum plate on its rear panel. Grilles are included.

Break-in and Setup
I let the Totems play 'round the clock with their grilles on, for two consecutive days. Then I listened all day long, without grilles, for two weeks. I did all of my critical listening sans grilles, and with the Signature Ones in the same spots where I like my Stirling Broadcast LS3/5a V2s: about 6' apart, and 28" from the speakers' front baffles to the wall behind them (ie, the room's front wall). This worked quite well.

Yesterday, I spent seven straight hours (with snacks) playing digital and analog recordings through a pair of Altec Valencias (not Art Dudley's Valencias). When I got home, Totem Acoustic's little Signature Ones sounded depressingly puny. The Altecs had produced big, palpable sound, remarkable presence, and sturdy, touchable textures. Their transients had strong starts and extended finishes. The sizes of instruments and voices reproduced by the Altecs were conspicuously correct. The new Totems, my KEF LS50s, the Technics SB-C700s, and all of my beloved LS3/5a variations, were simply incapable of providing such horn-speaker pleasures. All of those minimonitors make music small because they are small. Unlike horns or large panel speakers, their little, 5"–6.5" mid/woofers don't move much air. I euphemistically describe their endearingly small sound as intimate.


But the Signature One did something the Altec could not: sound pure, clear, and quiet. The Totem's textures were delicate and discrete, not sturdy and upfront. Unlike any two-way horn speaker I know, the Signature One's frequency response sounded ruler flat and undistorted from about 60Hz to 6kHz—except for a narrow band of noise or confusion somewhere in the middle of the midrange (500–600Hz).

Thinking it was my placement of the Totems that was at fault, I began moving them farther out from the front wall and farther apart. Finally, I played a record that sounded so good, it made me stop and take notice: the complete works for organ of Franáois Couperin performed by Michel Chapui on the organ of Saint-Maximin, in southern France (LP, RCA Victrola VICS-6018). It sounded astoundingly powerful and expansive. The Totems were now 36" from the front wall, 7' apart, and less than 70" from me—but they charged my room's air thickly and forcefully, as church organs do in real life. This force and energy surprised me—it felt like some of the clearest, most exposed, least compressed organ reproduction I had heard from small speakers. So of course I had to play another organ recording: Master Works for Organ: Volume 6, dedicated to works by Dietrich Buxtehude, with Jørgen Ernst Hansen playing the organ of Copenhagen's Church of the Savior (LP, Nonesuch H-71188). It, too, sounded surprisingly full, finely wrought, and genuinely satisfying. The sound, including the bass, was taut, tonally accurate, and all there.

Footnote 1: See Larry Greenhill's review of the Model 1 in the April 1993 issue and JA's review of the Model 1 Signature in the October 2008 issue.
Totem Acoustic
9165 rue Champ D'Eau
Montreal, Quebec H1P 3M3
(514) 259-1062

dalethorn's picture

The LS3/5a's I bought circa 1975-1976, adjusted for inflation, come out to about the same price - mid-$2000's. But those Rogers speakers gave me anxiety, especially given that my loaner pair had a blown woofer. This new Totem reads like a bargain.

Ray in Michigan's picture

Try the Watkins Gen 4
Same tweeter but with a dampener that really makes the hi freq smooth
$1995 for the pair.Made in U.S.A
I have been running a pair for a month now and couldn't be happier