Note: Measurements taken in the anechoic chamber at Canada's National Research Council can be found through this link.
In November 2018, I concluded my review of Totem Acoustic’s Sky Tower loudspeaker with this: “It’s taken me 15 years to properly experience a pair of Totem Acoustic speakers. Having spent the last few weeks with the Sky Towers, I hope I won’t have to wait nearly that long to hear the next pair.”
My hope was fulfilled far sooner than I’d anticipated. A few months later I was sent a pair of Totem’s newest floorstanding speaker, the Tribe Tower. Maybe I should start issuing more public hopes and wishes for audio gear I’d like to review. I had no idea it could be so easy.
Totem Acoustic loudspeakers aren’t giants that arrive in wooden crates and require you to invite over a friend or two to help you set them up. Although Totem does make a few large floorstanding speakers, such as their Wind and Element models, they’re best known for their minimonitor and slender tower designs. There’s no better example of this than the Arrow, a slim pillar 33.5”H and only 5.1”W x 7.1”D.
The Tribe Tower belongs to the smaller-is-better design philosophy and was introduced at about the same time as the Sky Tower and the Signature One, to celebrate Totem’s 30th anniversary. Much like the Sky, the Tribe Tower is about as room-friendly a floorstander as one could hope for in terms of placement flexibility and unobtrusiveness. At 36.8”H x 7”W x 7.9”D and weighing only 31 pounds, it manages a rare feat: svelte and diminutive, its appearance nonetheless immediately draws one’s attention to it.
The speaker is available in a choice of four colors: standard Satin White or Satin Black ($5300 USD/pair), or one of two multi-coat polyester finishes, Dusk or Ice (add $500/pair). My review samples arrived in Dusk, and their cabinets and finishes were flawless. From base to top, all four sides of the Tribe taper gently inward, the front baffle raked to achieve what Totem calls a phase-perfected angle. The rear panel is slightly shorter than the front, which means that the small top panel slopes gently down from front to rear. Presumably, this helps prevent standing waves from forming inside the cabinet, but it also results in a more interesting shape than the conventional rectilinear box, and immediately bestows on the Tribe Tower an unmistakable look that is entirely its own. I’ve spent considerable time with a few pairs of speakers during my tenure as a reviewer for the SoundStage! Network, and none has captured my eye as these have. I loved their appearance -- and for someone living in a modern condominium, particularly with a smaller listening space, they’d look stunning.
In keeping with its modest dimensions, the two-way Tribe Tower has just three small drive-units: two of Totem’s 4” Torrent midrange-woofers, and a 1.3” soft-dome tweeter of laser-etched textile, mounted on a 0.5”-thick metal faceplate. The tweeter is crossed over to the midrange-woofers at an unspecified frequency via a first-order slope (i.e., 6dB/octave); the two Torrents operate within the same bandwidth and are run full range. The Tribe Tower’s specified frequency range is 30Hz-30kHz.
Totem originally developed the 4” Torrent drivers in 2006 for the Tribe III on-wall speaker. One of the goals set for the Torrents was to avoid the use of a crossover altogether, so that their outputs would remain perfectly in phase both on and off axis. The Torrents’ voice-coils are made using multiple layers of square-section copper wire, to eliminate air gaps, increase the magnetic strength, and reduce resonances. Per Totem, a Torrent’s magnet structure is designed to keep the voice-coil continuously immersed in the magnetic field, to better control the cone’s excursions. The drivers’ chassis and parts are made of selected “hi-tech” alloys, and machined with what Totem describes as “watchmaker’s precision.” Each driver requires three hours of machining, followed by more than four hours of assembly and testing. I have no idea how this compares with other speaker companies that make their own drivers, but Totem seems to take great pride in their process.
Totem favors building cabinets with locking mitered joints; however, the Tribe Tower’s angular construction dictates the use of heavy-duty bracing, which the company claims is equally effective. The speaker’s solid structure is designed to reduce unwanted resonances introduced by the motions of the drivers, this damping aided by a layer of borosilicate painted on the interior walls. As each speaker weighs only 31 pounds, I found them easy to move around as I experimented with positioning them in my room.
The Tribe Tower’s sensitivity is specified as 89dB/W/m, which is quite efficient. However, the Tribe’s specified impedance of 4 ohms means that you’ll need a power amplifier that meets Totem’s recommended range of 50-200Wpc into that resistance -- my Bryston B135 SST2 integrated amp, which is specified to output 180Wpc into 4 ohms, had no problem driving them.
A Tribe Tower with the standard black or white satin finish receives power through two pairs of gold-plated terminals -- they can be biwired or even biamped. Each Tribe finished in the premium Dusk or Ice has two pairs of WBT terminals. As is my normal practice, I connected the two pairs of terminals with the supplied jumpers and connected the Bryston to just one pair of posts.
Digital signals were provided by an Apple MacBook computer running Audirvana software, feeding a Bryston BDA-2 DAC through an AudioQuest Forest USB link. The BDA-2 fed my Bryston B135 SST2 integrated amp via Kimber Kable Tonik interconnects (RCA), and the amp drove the Tribe Towers via AudioQuest Comet speaker cables. Vinyl was played on a Thorens TD 160HD turntable with a Rega Research RB250 tonearm and a Dynavector DV-10X5 high-output moving-coil cartridge, in conjunction with a Lehmannaudio Black Cube phono stage. All electronics were plugged into an ExactPower EP15A power conditioner-regenerator.
By most standards, the Totem Tribe Tower would be considered a relatively tiny floorstander, but the pair of them sounded big in my mid-size room. Having heard what their similar sibling, the Sky Tower, could do here less than a year before, I wasn’t completely surprised, but unsuspecting listeners might be at first caught off guard, then quite pleased -- this speaker should be of interest to anyone who wants room-filling sound but who doesn’t have the space for a pair of big boxes.
At first I thought I’d prefer setting up the Tribe Towers closer to the front of the room, to make better use of the front and sidewalls to help reinforce the bass -- indeed, Totem recommends placing them as little as 4” from the front wall. While I was never going to do that -- I’ve never been happy with the sound of speakers from that close to the wall behind them -- I did try pulling them out just over 12” from the front wall. Unsurprisingly, the Tribes benefited from room gain -- the bass was fuller, the overall output greater. However, even with 2’ between the wall and the speakers’ rear panels, I was still more than satisfied with their low-end performance, while preferring the greater three-dimensionality of soundstage I experienced with them farther out from the wall. Ultimately, they ended up very near the positions where most speakers tend to work best in my room.
As I’d done with the Sky Towers, I listened to Tori Amos’s Boys for Pele (16-bit/44.1kHz AIFF, Eastwest A2 82862) through the Tribe Towers. Like the Skys, the Tribes performed that trick of producing a far grander soundstage than one might imagine possible from merely looking at them. It extended past my front wall and the speakers’ outer sidewalls, to create the illusion of a huge space. Despite each having only two 4” drivers, the Tribes behaved like much larger speakers in delivering a powerful sound. If I were subjected to a blind listening test, I’d likely guess I was hearing a pair of much larger enclosures. They also played loudly with ease -- in my medium-size room, I couldn’t reach their volume limits.
That’s not to say that those limits don’t exist. I’ve heard other, albeit larger, speakers reproduce the percussion in Amos’s “Caught a Lite Sneeze” with greater weight and impact. Furthermore, the Tribes might not satisfy your needs if you’ve got a large room and tend to listen with the volume set to 11. In that case you’d be better served by speakers capable of moving more air, and Totem makes a few of these. But don’t be fooled by the Tribe’s small size.
Looking like David but acting like Goliath wasn’t the Tribe Tower’s only strength. Amos’s voice in “Muhammad My Friend” sounded exceedingly clear and open, with much detail revealed. The alto sax at the end was clean and extended, soaring above my ceiling while remaining nicely balanced with the vocal. Of course, anyone familiar with Amos’s catalogue knows that the focal point of her albums is typically her voice, so intimately miked as to sound almost as if she’s singing right into your ears. That voice is captivating, so I appreciate the immediacy with which it’s recorded. With “Way Down,” the Tribes got Amos’s voice just right, their natural-sounding midrange presenting it with pinpoint clarity and openness. However, it was the voices of the backing choir, and of one baritone chorister in particular, that most grabbed my attention. The choir is well back on the stage, and the Tribes were superb at reproducing this depth in my room. The baritone has the final note, and as his voice descends, I was impressed by the clarity of his tone. The Tribe’s transparency let me appreciate levels of detail not always fully revealed by lesser speakers.
Listening through the Tribe Towers to one of my favorite test tracks, the War Dance from Respighi’s Belkis, Queen of Sheba Suite (16/44.1 AIFF, Reference RR-95CD), was a pleasure. They provided a good wallop of the explosive dynamics of the Minnesota Orchestra’s pounding percussion at conductor Eiji Oue’s driving tempo. The musicians were spread wide across the front of my room, each section clearly delineated. War Dance is fierce music, and the Tribes easily conveyed the energy and vivacity Respighi clearly intended. Again, if you have a big room and you want to be really bowled over by such a piece, you’ll likely need to consider getting bigger speakers or adding a subwoofer. But I’d bet that most people would be more than satisfied by the Tribes’ sheer output even in fairly large rooms. You just don’t expect such slim boxes to do so much, and therein lies much of their allure.
Turning to more pared-down acoustic music, I played “Louis Collins,” from Jerry Garcia and David Grisman’s Shady Grove (16/44.1 AIFF, Acoustic Disc ACD-21). The assortment of stringed instruments in this bluegrass track were spread from wall to wall across the front of my room. The Tribe Towers displayed commendable transient speed -- the strings sounded crisp and incisive. Again, the Totems reproduced a high level of detail, helping to create the illusion of musicians performing in the same room. These speakers’ ability to seem to “disappear” from the room, leaving only the music, should keep many happy listeners coming back to them.
I no longer had the Sky Towers when the Tribe Towers arrived, so I reviewed the listening notes I’d made for last year’s review. First, at $2250/pair, the Sky costs only 42% of the Tribe’s price. The Sky’s cabinet is far more conventional, though that’s no criticism -- they looked stunning in the mahogany veneer of my review pair. The two-way Sky has a 1.3”, laser-etched, fabric soft-dome tweeter, crossed over to a 5.75” midrange-woofer at 2.5kHz via a first-order slope. Measuring 33.5”H x 6.4”W x 9.1”D, the Sky is similar in size to the Tribe, but so vastly different in appearance I doubt that many people will find both designs appealing. If I were buying for looks alone, I’d buy the Tribe -- as much as I admire the Sky’s handsome cabinetry and classy appearance, the Tribe is more striking, with a sophisticated panache that I really appreciated.
Sonically, however, the two speakers have much in common. The Tribe Tower’s grandly huge sound and commendable composure at high volumes completely belied its size, as was equally true of the Sky Tower. I’m not sure if one model has greater output than the other, but I doubt this would be a deciding factor in choosing between them. Each had a natural-sounding midrange, and with both I found myself listening to a lot of vocal tracks. There’s a fullness to these two models’ overall sounds that really captured my attention, and despite the fact that both deliver good amounts of detail, that full-bodiedness ensures that neither can ever be accused of sounding analytical.
Finally, much like minimonitors, both pairs of floorstanders excelled at imaging, producing at the front of my room soundscapes that were not only large but precise. I listened to many of the same albums through both, and was impressed with their ability to clearly lay out the Minnesota Orchestra in the Respighi recording and the broad soundstage of the Tori Amos album, while also articulating what was happening on those stages. Had I been able to listen to them side by side, I’m sure differences would have emerged, but my listening notes for the Sky incline me to say that its sound shared many of the strengths and had a strong resemblance to the Tribe’s.
If I were able to afford either model, without question I’d buy the Tribe Towers. As handsome as the Sky Towers are, I prefer the Tribes’ more striking appearance -- they look like no other speakers I’ve had in my listening room. But I’d especially choose the Tribes for their sound (I’ve become a fan of how Totem voices their speakers). However, if I were making the decision based on sound alone, I’d buy the Skys -- they offer much of what the Tribes do at far less than half the price, and they’re visually attractive in their own right.
No matter how enticing, at a base price of $5300/pair the Tribe Tower faces a lot of competition. Depending on the size of your room and your listening habits, there are a number of other excellent options. Most of these might not offer the striking visual appeal of the Tribe Towers, but for many that won’t be the deciding factor. As always, taste is highly personal, and constrained by budget.
In the past year or so I’ve listened to two pairs of speakers from Totem Acoustic. I’ll gladly accept a third. As I worked on this review, I was going through a hectic period in my life that involved some fairly big changes, and at the end of some of those busy days I was grateful to be able to sit down and listen to some music through the Tribe Towers -- they served as conduits to help me escape it all for a little while. Totem Acoustic likes to talk about the cathartic experience of listening to cherished music, and such catharses are exactly what I experienced during my time with these speakers. Very good speakers can seem to “disappear” as factors in the listening equation and let one focus on the music itself. That is what the Tribe Towers did for me. I’m not sure I could offer much higher praise.
. . . Philip Beaudette
- Speakers -- Revel Performa3 F206
- Integrated amplifier -- Bryston B135 SST2
- Digital sources -- Panasonic DMP-BDT210 DVD player (as transport), Bryston BDA-2 DAC, Apple MacBook computer running Audirvana
- Analog sources -- Thorens TD 160HD turntable, Rega Research RB250 tonearm, Dynavector DV-10X5 high-output MC cartridge, Lehmannaudio Black Cube phono stage
- Speaker cables -- AudioQuest Comet
- Interconnects -- Kimber Kable Tonik (RCA)
- Digital links -- AudioQuest Forest (USB), NexxTech optical (TosLink)
- Power conditioner -- ExactPower EP15A
Totem Acoustic Tribe Tower Loudspeakers
Price: $5300 USD per pair; add $500 USD per pair for premium finishes.
Warranty: Five years parts and labor.
9165 rue Champ D’Eau
Montreal, Quebec H1P 3M3
Phone: (514) 259-1062
Fax: (514) 259-4968