Totem Acoustic Tabù loudspeaker

I first heard the Totem Acoustic Tabù loudspeakers at HI-FI '96, Stereophile's Home Theater & Specialty Audio Show at the Waldorf=Astoria in New York City last June. A startlingly realistic vocal recording drew me to Totem's sixth-floor demo room. Vincent Bruzzese, the speaker's designer, was playing Michael Jonasz singing "Si si si le ciel" from la fabuleuse histoire de Mister Swing (WEA 2292-42338-2, imported by May Audio Marketing). The small, two-way Tabù cast a holographic, palpable musical image with clear highs and sizzling dynamic pace. I was bitten, and set things in motion for this review. And two other things drew me to the Tabù: its capacitor-less crossover and its similarity to Totem's Model 1.

Why should such factors matter? First, I had high expectations of any system that had evolved from Totem's Model 1. I'd been pleasantly surprised by this diminutive minimonitor's excellent low-frequency response, smooth, sweet highs, and well-focused imaging (see Stereophile, April 1993, Vol.16 No.4, p.227). The larger Tabù promised to deliver more bass extension and better power-handling, a necessity for my large listening room. Second, I was curious about the effects of the capacitor-less crossover. I'd been very impressed with another capacitor-less two-way, the Sonus Faber Extrema, because of its speed, transparency, imaging accuracy, and midrange richness (June '92, Vol.15 No.6, p.133).

I was fired up by these expectations—were these loudspeakers "baby Extremas," and could I re-create my Show experience?

The Tabù's minimonitor profile helps reduce diffraction effects. Bruzzese also claims that small, rigid enclosures are less apt to store energy and radiate it later, thus causing interference and blurring. On the other hand, small minimonitor enclosures lack the capacity for playing deep, subwooferish bass, and can be limited in headroom.

Bruzzese designed the $2995/pair Tabù to sit at the midpoint of Totem Acoustic's product line, smack between the Model 1 ($1595/pair) and the top-of-the-line Mani-2 ($3995/pair). The Tabù is more than twice the Model 1's weight (22 vs 9 lbs) and volume (15.5 vs 7.2 liters), and differs from the tiny Model 1 in other obvious ways: It features an additional pair of WBT speaker terminals to facilitate speaker-cable bi-wiring, for example. The Tabù's two-way reflex design features a 6" woofer, a 1.25" silk-dome Dynaudio tweeter, and a very rigid enclosure—the Tabù felt very solid when I tapped it. Joints are lock-mitered. An internal full-plane crossbrace further strengthens the cabinet, and the sidewalls are made of a material that quickly dissipates energy. Gaskets that remain in a fluid state are used around the drivers to ensure both damping and decoupling. Vince Bruzzese has further damped the entire structure by hand-painting the insides with a thick, multilayer borosilicate paste. The borosilicate is also used on the reflex tube, this made of a damped acrylic material and set into place with an anti-resonant glue.

The silk-dome tweeter is modified before it's installed in the Tabù. Totem Acoustic disassembles and rebuilds the OEM unit, reinforcing the suspension and replacing the internal felt and foam with borosilicate damping. Because silk-dome tweeters are said to be subject to mechanical deterioration, eight additional months of research and development were required to make the tweeter rugged enough to meet its specifications throughout the Tabù's five-year warranty period. Although Bruzzese doesn't use the stiff, convex woofer dustcap found in the company's other loudspeakers, he included the same mechanical damping found in the Model 1 to prevent the Tabù's woofer from bottoming under extreme dynamic musical peaks. The Tabù has no grille; Bruzzese is concerned that any unnecessary air resistance could lead to mechanical compression of the woofer.

The quasi–second-order crossover uses no capacitors, performing its function at 1.5kHz by using only a Solen air-core Litz inductor coil inside the enclosure, and multiple metal-oxide resistors mounted in a ventilated gray box on the rear of the enclosure just above the four WBT speaker terminals. These resistors had to be placed outside the enclosure to dissipate the heat generated when the speaker is driven at full volume. Bruzzese claims that paralleling these resistors results in 0.1% tolerances and phase-correct alignment across the speaker's bandwidth. All wiring employs specially wound, solid-core, oxygen-free copper wire coated in silver and sheathed in an extruded Teflon shield. WBT silver solder is used where appropriate. Twin pairs of gold-plated WBT speaker cable terminals easily accommodate the four spade lugs per speaker required for bi-wiring. Fit and finish in the Tabù are first-rate.

Totem recommends a lengthy break-in period for the Tabù. This was accomplished by tuning in a local classical-music station, WQXR FM, and playing the speakers at low volume continuously for seven days. The Tabù has a much lower sensitivity than the other loudspeakers I had to hand, requiring a higher gain setting on the preamplifier volume control (matched during comparison tests, of course). Totem's instructions recommend placing the Tabùs 2–3' from side walls and 2–6' from the rear walls. After some listening, I set the Tabùs 8' apart, 2' from the rear walls, and 6' from the sides. Extremely solid 45-lb May Audio TB-888 stands, 23.5" tall without spikes, were used to support the Tabùs. The supplied spikes were used in Room 2, but not on Room 1's bleached-wood floor. I used 3/16"-thick Navcom tiles to isolate the speakers from the stands.

The Tabùs passed all my subjective pink-noise listening tests. There were no colorations evident, and the sound was natural over a wide listening area. This was confirmed by the sit-down, stand-up, walk-around test. The sound's character changed only when I stood right above the speaker.

After my experience with the Totem Model 1's healthy bass response, I was not surprised to find that the Tabù's 6" woofer produced extended and powerful bass. Pure test tones on Stereophile's Test CD 2 revealed that the Tabù produced clean bass down to 40Hz in my room, with no traces of doubling. The Tabù outpaced and outperformed the Model 1 on rock and pipe organ music, as heard on Jean Guillou's transcription of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition (Dorian DOR-90117). On "Gnomus," the deep pedal notes from the Kleuker-Seinmeyer Organ of the Zurich Tonhalle filled the room, even though the Tabù couldn't rattle my gizzard, as the Snell Type A Reference subwoofers did. However, it did capture the punch and drive of the explosive drum opening of the Eagles' "Hotel California" (from Hell Freezes Over, Geffen GEFD-24725). The Tabù also conveyed the snappy, dynamic kickdrum without overload or strain on "Something's Wrong," from Randy Edelman's soundtrack for My Cousin Vinny (Varèse Sarabande VSD-5364).

My large listening room and the Tabù's relatively low sensitivity encouraged me to lean heavily on the volume control, and this sometimes caused speaker overload. This never happened in the smaller Room 2, where the Tabù played at very high volumes without harshness.

The Tabù's midrange was uncolored and grainless. On Badi Assad's Rhythms album (Chesky JD137), the Tabùs captured what WP has described as the guitar's "mellow nylon-strong tone...reinforced with brilliant color in the overtone registers" (September '96, p.189). Suzanne Vega's startling acappella "Tom's Diner" (from Solitude Standing, A&M CD 5136) was lifelike and very, very involving.

The Tabù's highs were pristine, crystal-clear, and more open than those produced by the smaller Model 1. Vibes and keyboards, in particular, were very liquid and transparent, even when other instruments were playing at high volumes—as heard on "Ne garde rien" from la fabuleuse histoire de Mister Swing, and on Oregon's "The Silence of a Candle" (from Beyond Words, Chesky JD130). The Tabù's ability to resolve complex mixtures of midrange and highs permitted the organ, harp, and choirs to be easily differentiated on the HDCD recording of John Rutter's "A Gaelic Blessing" (from Requiem, Reference Recordings RR-56CD). However, the Tabù did not reproduce cymbals with quite the transparency and silver sheen heard over the Quad ESL-63s when playing Wynton Marsalis's Standard Time Vol.3: The Resolution of Romance (Columbia CK 46143).

The Tabù's dynamics were quite good; despite the speaker's low sensitivity, it delivered all the startling transients, sudden bass notes, sinister rhythms, and explosive synthesizer chords on "Monkey Mayhem" from James Horner's Jumanji soundtrack (Epic Soundtrax EK 67424). The Tabù was not particularly amplifier-sensitive, sounding equally clean, open, and dynamic with the Krell and the two Mark Levinson amplifiers. The KSA-250's substantial power reserves produced tremendous kickdrum slam while playing Oregon's "Pepe Linque" from Beyond Words.

Imaging was quite good, as revealed by the Tabùs' ability to place Richard Thompson's acoustic guitar to the extreme right of the soundstage during the instrumental finish of "Why Must I Plead" (from Rumor and Sigh, Capitol CDP 7 95713 2). Like the smaller Model 1s, they created a panoramic sonic image of the chorus spread across a soundstage behind José Carreras singing the "Kyrie" of Misa Criolla (Philips 420 955-2). Voices and strings floated free of the speaker positions, the Tabùs seeming to disappear. Their accurate depiction of spatial positions allowed me to better delineate distinct voices and instruments.

The Tabù did not always sound smooth and mellow. On first listen, David Bowie singing "Putting Out Fire" (from the Cat People soundtrack, MCA MCAD-1498) seemed to have exaggerated clarity and presence. As JA found to be true of Totem Acoustic's Mani-2 (February '96, p.163), the Tabù somewhat exaggerated analog hiss compared with the other speakers. This edge diminished over time, confirming the wisdom of Totem's suggestion of a lengthy break-in period. Treble hiss was also not so prominent in Room 2, which is much more damped than Room 1. However, some of the Tabù's analytic quality continued after break-in, making them less forgiving than the Model 1. Although the Tabùs picked up the live audience ambience on Clifford Jordan's performance of "Lush Life" on Live at Ethell's (Mapleshade MHS 512629A), they also revealed the recording's mike overload, distortion, feedback, and harshness.

The Tabù's asking price—almost $3000 for a pair of minimonitors, and an additional $549 for the TB-888 stands—raises questions about their cost-effectiveness and value. However, the Tabù plays with a clear, open treble response, a transparent midrange, a solid, extended bass, wide dynamic range, and palpable, three-dimensional sonic imaging, all of which result in a highly involving musical experience.

Whether or not the Tabù's very high resolution and clarity are the result of its capacitor-less crossover and silk-dome tweeter design is not clear. Although the Tabù's analytic abilities—like putting on a newly cleaned pair of glasses—are most likely to please a reviewer like me, some listeners may not enjoy such pristine clarity, preferring instead a more forgiving speaker. A healthy break-in period led to a more balanced tonal picture, however, and the Tabù is best suited for small to moderate-sized listening environments. The Tabù loudspeaker system definitely belongs in Stereophile's "Recommended Components."

Totem Acoustic
9165 rue Champ D'Eau
Montreal, Quebec H1P 3M3
(514) 259-1062