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- Written by Jason Thorpe Jason Thorpe
- Category: Full-Length Equipment Reviews Full-Length Equipment Reviews
- Created: 01 April 2018 01 April 2018
Note: Measurements taken in the anechoic chamber at Canada's National Research Council can be found through this link.
Man, what a run.
I first read about Totem Acoustic’s Model 1 loudspeaker in a 1988 issue of Andrew Marshall’s Audio Ideas Guide. “That sounds like a cool speaker!” I remember thinking. Sure enough, I ended up with a pair about seven years later. The Model 1 was my first real audiophile speaker, and it began an obsession with audio, and a journey that led me on the path to becoming a writer for the SoundStage! Network. (I also still have that issue of AIG, stored in the under-sink cabinet of my upstairs bathroom.)
I hadn’t heard a Model 1 in years, but the speaker remained in production for decades, keeping a low profile in Totem’s product line, content to let newcomers to the brand steal the limelight. Just knowing that it was still being made was a gentle reassurance that kept my audio world grounded.
So when a Totem Acoustic press release announced the launch of their Signature One ($2650 USD per pair) and intimated that the Model 1 was no more, I sat up and took notice. I also put my name down for a pair of review samples.
Totem delivered the Signature Ones in the only finish that makes any sense to me: a Mahogany veneer identical to what I remember of my original Model 1s. Although the speaker is also available in Black Ash veneer or Satin White, seriously -- if you’re buying a Ferrari, you don’t get a green one. Mahogany was a no-brainer.
Deep down, I know that the Signature One is a redesign of the Model 1 -- obviously, it’s going to look and sound different from that 30-year-old speaker. But a part of me misses the extremely small size of the Model 1. There was something cool about the deep bass that emanated from those tiny cabinets and their tinier, 5” woofers.
The Signature One more closely approximates the size of the ideal minimonitor. Its woofer is bigger than the Model 1’s, at 6.5”, and so is its cabinet: a still-petite 13.77”H x 7.67”W x 10.62”. There are other changes, some of them improvements, some just differences. The tweeter remains a hard aluminum dome, but this one occupies its own sealed chamber. Unlike the Model 1, the Signature One is biwirable -- its two pairs of terminals are mounted on a nice plate of solid aluminum. Since the original Model 1 came to market, Totem has been painting the interiors of their speaker cabinets with a borosilicate compound that, they claim, optimally damps the panels, and the Signature One is no exception. They also veneer the interiors of the cabinets to improve the long-term stability of the panels. The enclosure is also significantly cross-braced, with lock-mitered corners; the result is a very solid-feeling box. Totem doesn’t publish a weight for the Signature One, but it’s a chunky little guy.
Whereas the Model 1’s drivers were left naked and unprotected, the Signature One comes with a natty, magnetically attached grille that covers the speaker’s entire front surface. I’m a grilles-off kind of guy, preferring to see what’s making the noise, but I have to admit that the Signature One takes on an NSA-like stealth when fully dressed, especially given that no Totem logo mars that satin-black grille. In this logo-obsessed world, the sterile look of the grilled Signature One is refreshing.
Setup and break-in
Totem’s owner’s manual says that the optimal distance of the Signature Ones from the wall behind them is from 1’ to 3’. Because my main system includes a long equipment rack that spreads across the room’s entire front wall, I went for the maximum distance.
I placed the Totems on my 24”-tall, four-post Foundation stands, which are filled with a mixture of sand and lead shot. Those stands are as dead as Socrates. The speaker cables were single runs of Nordost Tyr 2, used with the supplied solid-wire jumpers connecting each speaker’s two pairs of terminals to each other.
My first few weeks with the Signature Ones were unsatisfying. They sounded thin and abrasive, with little bass and a scratchy, irritating treble. I consulted the manual and discovered that Totem recommends 150 hours of break-in. So I persevered, using the speakers mainly for watching video and noncritical listening (whatever that is). It took longer than I’d have imagined to break in the Signature Ones -- longer than any other speaker of my experience.
When they finally loosened up, they did so all at once. One evening I sat down to listen, prepared, as usual, to not enjoy myself much. But the sound was radically different. The Totems had a newfound silkiness, and a lithe, top-to-bottom sinuousness. I’ve always been a skeptic regarding speaker break-in. I know from my own experience that high-end audio gear doesn’t like being shipped long distances -- it sulks for a day or so until it realizes that my room is its new home -- but the level of change I heard in the Signature One’s sound was new to me.
I began to pay attention. Now that the long break-in period was over, I had to essentially start from scratch, to get acquainted with the Signature Ones’ new sound -- kind of like rinsing with mouthwash to remove a bad taste from my mouth. The tail end of this exorcism coincided with the arrival of remasterings of two Brian Eno albums I’d ordered the week before. These are half-speed-mastered, 45rpm LPs, and are so deluxe as to render all other versions I’ve encountered as hopelessly broken. I’m of two minds about 12” 45s -- I don’t enjoy the short sides, but man oh man, am I ever down with the sound.
I’m not enough of a completist to feel the need to buy Eno’s Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy) and Here Come the Warm Jets, but I’ve listened to his Before and After Science (2 LPs, Virgin ENO2LP4) and Another Green World (2 LPs, Virgin ENO2LP3) for half a lifetime now, and they’re old friends. For me, the highlight of these albums is Percy Jones’s playing on fretless electric bass. Jones is a monstrous bassist. He plays the bass as a lead instrument, rapidly picking and popping without ever losing sight of the melody. “Over Fire Island” seems written to be a backdrop for Jones’s incredibly melodic, mesmerizing acrobatics. As I listened through the Totems, I was transfixed by how nimbly the speakers captured the almost endless harmonics of each note. Jones is no show-off -- his bass is mixed at a fairly low level -- but the Totems dragged out a ton of dynamics; I could almost see the music slithering out of the speakers.
The lithe character of the Signature One extended throughout its claimed frequency response of 45Hz-22kHz, +/-3dB. In some ways, it was what defined the speaker’s sound: From the very bottom of the Totem’s bass reach, there was a quick agility to its sound. Case in point: Laurie Anderson’s miraculous, haunting Mister Heartbreak (LP, Warner Bros. 25077-1) is awash with restrained emotion that’s tightly coiled up, poised to escape and murder anyone in the room. Oceans of tight, rich bass underlie many of its seven tracks, adding a layer of thunderstorm menace to Anderson’s often deadpan speech -- and it sounded to me as if the Signature Ones were digging deeper than their specified 45Hz. My room is a black hole for bass -- it’s never sounded overloaded, even with two 18” subs playing at once. The Totems didn’t put me under water, but they did an admirable job of exceeding the limited bass I’d expected from speakers so small.
Remember that Totem recommends placing the Signature Ones from 1’ to 3’ from the front wall? At my configuration-mandated 3’, their bass was further down in level than I prefer, as was the lower midrange. Moving some furniture out of the way and pushing the Signature Ones back to 2’ from the wall sorted that out.
But the front-page news was the quality of their bass. Anderson’s “Gravity’s Angel” is a disconcerting song loaded with dispassionate malice. That’s Bill Laswell on bass, bringing the song into sharper focus. Crisp slap bass alternates with long, low-E rumbles, and from their 2’ sweet spots the Totems gave me a good feeling of room lock while helping me “see” Laswell’s fingers brushing the strings. It’s a slinky bass line, and this slinky little speaker gave me the inside scoop on its intent.
There’s so much going on in Mister Heartbreak. The opening of “Gravity’s Angel” features singing bowls, and their delicate sound, drenched in harmonics, perfectly frames Anderson’s voice. The Signature Ones’ reproduction of these odd instruments was most instructive, giving me the opportunity to hear how they distinctly imaged instruments behind the plane described by their baffles. Anderson’s voice is fairly up-front in the mix, but the Totems placed her head slightly back. The singing bowls were even farther back, giving me the feeling that an immense space had opened up in my listening room.
Although there was no lack of top-end extension -- indeed, the highs seemed to go on forever -- the Signature One’s treble was elegant and exceedingly well behaved, even downright silky. I got no sense that there was anything missing. No sir, I’d wager that the Signature One will measure exceedingly flat in the highs. Those singing bowls in “Gravity’s Angel,” for instance, can easily cross the line and sound abrasive, as I’ve heard them do through other speakers. But through the Signature Ones I could feel their gentle overtones ring out smoothly into my room with a complete lack of grit or distortion.
This bore further investigation. The most abrasive-sounding album I own is Neil Young’s Greatest Hits (LP, Reprise/Classic 48935-1). In “Cowgirl in the Sand,” right up through the treble to the highest notes, as the overtones of Ralph Molina’s ride cymbal interlaced with the nastiest, raunchiest distortion on Young’s steam-powered electric guitar, there was a feeling of relaxed sophistication utterly at odds with the huge amounts of extension. It didn’t feel like a hi-fi sound, with detail leading the way. Instead, the focus was musicality, but with the reproduction of detail undiminished.
There was a bit of midrange trickery going on here. I clearly recall how my old Model 1s sounded slightly recessed through the midrange, which made their soundstages deeper. The Signature Ones felt as if they were up to the same shenanigans. Men’s voices were pushed back a little, as were instruments that reach up into the upper midrange, and that gave a delightful sense of ambience to the overtones of those crazy singing bowls. The upshot was that the Signature Ones were absolute masters at portraying soundstage depth. Moving on to Bad as Me: Limited Deluxe Edition, Tom Waits’s most recent studio album (LP, Anti- 87151-1), this awful man’s voice sounded, yes, just a touch farther away than I’m used to hearing it, but nonetheless remained fully formed, and chock full of spit and attitude.
Bad as Me is a barn burner of an album anchored by Marc Ribot’s buzz-saw guitar. It’s abrasive, this guitar, and that’s the point. In “After You Die” there’s no shortage of grit in Ribot’s snarky machine-gun tone, and -- for the most part -- the Signature Ones didn’t editorialize. That said, the Signature Ones’ sound was smoooooth. Totem has done an absolutely exemplary job with their reproduction of the upper midrange through the treble, with tons of extension and no shortage of air. In fact, the Totem’s treble leaned very slightly toward the tipped-up, but its tweeter is such a sweetheart that it cohered into an unbelievably refined top end. These characteristics, along with the very slightly recessed midrange, helped the Ones project a far deeper, more detailed soundstage than I’ve come to expect from a $2650/pair speaker.
Back to Ribot’s guitar in “After You Die”: Waits’s voice vies for the listener’s attention with Ribot’s chunka-chunka, and though they share the same soundstage, the Signature Ones placed voice and guitar at different depths and positions on that stage: Waits at center front, Ribot to the left and slightly back. Image sizes, too, were nearly perfect. The slightly recessed midrange rendered Waits’s head just a teensy bit smaller than I’m used to, but his voice still had tons of power. I could almost see the guitar strings as Ribot plucked them, and could shift my auditory gaze with ease between guitarist and singer.
The Signature One was fast on its feet no matter the listening level. While at the very lowest volumes it lost some of its sparkle (as do most speakers), at reasonable late-night, don’t-wake-the-family levels these condo-friendly speakers projected satisfying levels of dynamics. Then, when I jacked up the juice, the Totems woke right up and came alive. As I raised the volume, the bass tightened up and the highs gained presence, and that didn’t stop even as I pushed the speakers further, up past my usual comfort level for a stand-mounted two-way. The Totems are ideal for a small room, but I wouldn’t hesitate to use them in larger spaces.
When my family recently went off to the country to visit the in-laws (God bless ’em), I took the opportunity presented by their absence to unwrap some bottom-of-the-pile Christmas gifts and throttle up the system. One standout was a deluxe edition of Radiohead’s OK Computer, issued under the expanded title of OK Computer OKNOTOK 1997 2017 (3 LPs, XL XLLP 868). In the past I’ve run hot and cold about this album, but “Exit Music (For a Film)” begins with an eerily real-sounding acoustic guitar and reverb-drenched voice, and through the Totems it immediately drew me in. I cranked up the system and bathed in the huge, realistic-sounding soundscape that filled the entire front of my room. There’s playground ambiance down low here -- sounds of children playing -- and I imagined my daughter out in the country, doing whatever rustic crafts my wife and in-laws had planned for her. I could “see” deep into the music, and as the track rose in volume I stuck with it, the already enveloping acoustic rendered clearly and gently by the Signature One’s sophisticated top end.
Turning up OK Computer with the house empty and my laptop clicking busily away as I wrote this review was one of those working moments that felt effortless. Already having a great day, I cracked a beer and, in a fit of retrograde nerdiness, decided to do an A/B comparison of the 2017 reissue of Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here (LP, Pink Floyd PFRLP9) with my trusty, 1980 half-speed-mastered edition (LP, Columbia APH (C)-5000). Sadly -- and I say this because I want those reissues to be the definitive copies in which we can all revel -- the Canadian half-speed version just smokes the new one. My old one sounded open, clean, warm, and detailed, whereas the new, deluxe version made me feel I was listening while immersed in muddy, catfish-infested water. Via the Signature Ones I could easily distinguish differences in tonal balance, detail, and general out-and-out goodness -- but more important, I was able to enjoy the music on both editions. Considering that I had to listen to Wish You Were Here twice in a bloody row, this was extremely good news.
Totem Acoustic’s Signature One accomplishes a number of tasks very well. First, it’s eminently enjoyable to listen to -- for obvious reasons, a speaker’s primary (and some would say only) task. But some speakers don’t do this job as well as others do. The Totem is a winner in large part due to its extremely refined treble, which strokes the ear rather than poking at it in the name of detail. Add in the million-mile depth of the Signature Ones’ soundstages, their tight and authoritative bass, and their disappearing-act imaging, and your $2650 buys you a lot of speaker in two little boxes.
I’m still mourning the demise of Totem’s Model 1, but their Signature One is a worthy successor.
. . . Jason Thorpe
- Analog sources -- Pro-Ject RPM 10 turntable; Ortofon Quintet Blue, Roksan Shiraz cartridges; VPI Cyclone record-cleaning machine
- Digital source -- Logitech Squeezebox Touch
- Phono stages -- Aqvox Phono 2 CI, EAT E-Glo S, JE Audio HP10
- Preamplifier -- Sonic Frontiers SFL-2
- Power amplifier -- Bryston 4B3
- Speakers -- Definitive Technology Mythos ST-L, Focus Audio FP60 BE
- Speaker cables -- Nordost Tyr 2
- Interconnects -- Nordost Tyr 2
- Power cords -- Nordost Vishnu
- Power conditioner -- Quantum QBase QB8 Mk.II
Totem Acoustic Signature One Loudspeaker
Price: $2650 USD per pair.
Warranty: Five years parts and labor.
9165 rue Champ D’Eau
Montreal, Quebec H1P 3M3
Phone: (514) 259-1062
Fax: (514) 259-4968