Totem El­e­ment Em­ber Com­pact Speak­ers


I have al­ready re­ported on the phe­nom­e­nal Totem Fire bookshelf speaker ($5,995) in the pages of CANADA HiFi. When I re­viewed it last year it sat as the small­est of­fer­ing in the El­e­ment range which ex­tends to the Earth oor­stander ($8,995) and the big­ger Metal oor­stander ($12,995). I liked the Fire so much that I jumped at the chance to re­view the lat­est of­fer­ing in the El­e­ment se­ries, the even smaller Em­ber ($4,200). I didn’t know what fun I was in for.

I expected a punchy lit­tle speaker, pro­ject­ing a smaller im­age and of­fer­ing re­duced de ni­tion, fre­quency range and dy­nam­ics, but still a con­tender against speak­ers of its own size. How small is it? Just 18.7cm wide, 24.8cm deep and 35.8cm high. That makes the Em­ber a full 40 per­cent smaller than the al­ready com­pact Fire. Totem’s rst speaker, the Model 1, now in its Sig­na­ture Edition is 40 per­cent smaller again, so you may as­sume de­signer Vince Bruzzese knows a thing or two about get­ting the best out of small speak­ers. You’d be ab­so­lutely right to do so, and I think he has con­sis­tently demon­strated he is sec­ond to none in this art.

What I found sim­ply knocked my socks off. This was no scaled down Fire. This is a su­perb in­stru­ment in its own right. Play it in a dark room and I don’t think you could tell the dif­fer­ence. It sounds like a big speaker, pro­ject­ing a huge im­age across the room. The bass ex­tends down to 43 Hz on pa­per, com­pared to 40 Hz for the Fire. While I’m sure it can’t go quite as loud as the Fire, it re­tains all of the Fire’s ex­plo­sive dy­nam­ics, which is part of what makes it sound like a much big­ger speaker.

Mr. Bruzzese must be us­ing some se­cret sauce in both of these minia­ture mar­vels. What’s the story? If you want to know the full story of what makes the Fire tick, you’d bet­ter read my ear­lier re­view from the Au­gust/Septem­ber 2011 is­sue, now avail­able on www.canadahi .com or on your tablet. I’ll sum it up by say­ing Totem makes its own driv­ers in­cor­po­rat­ing its own unique magnetic topol­ogy in the 7 inch Tor­rent woofer. This woofer op­er­ates with a di­rect con­nec­tion to the am­pli er rather than through the tra­di­tional cross- over with its ac­com­pa­ny­ing losses and dis­tor­tions. The un­burstable dome tweeter is de­signed with ex­cep­tional air ow and cool­ing ns to al­low it to dis­pense with the more com­mon ferro uid cool­ing. Ex­tremely high qual­ity com­po­nents are used throughout, in­clud­ing four WBT plat­inum coated bind­ing posts. The box ta­pers to-

wards the top and the back leav­ing no par­al­lel sides in an ef­fort to avoid in­te­rior stand­ing waves with­out need­ing to use stuf ng ma­te­rial. The cab­i­net ma­te­rial uses a graded mix of dif­fer­ent den­si­ties of bre­board to con­trol and spread the res­o­nant fre­quen­cies. A four layer high gloss nish (black or white), mag­net­i­cally at­tached grills and ex­ten­sive use of alu­minum com­plete the pic­ture. Totem of­fers a ve year parts and labour war­ranty on the speak­ers and is keen to point out that it still has the parts for any speaker the com­pany has ever made.

The Em­ber rep­re­sents an ef­fort to bring the Fire’s sound qual­ity and looks down to a lower price point, $1795 lower in fact. In the smaller cab­i­net it is of course eas­ier to con­trol vi­bra­tions, so there are cer­tainly some sav­ings in the cab­i­netry. For this ap­pli­ca­tion Vince Bruzzese de­vel­oped a new hand as­sem­bled 6 inch Tor­rent driver. This woofer does not have the multi-seg­mented struc­ture of the 7 inch driver in the Fire, be­cause it doesn’t need it to de­velop the 9500 Gauss magnetic eld re­quired in the smaller driver. So the geom­e­try has been al­tered. It uses in­stead a ring mag­net with three dif­fer­ent types of ma­te­rial to stretch the magnetic eld con­sid­er­ably. The square cross sec­tion wire is re­tained with a stain­less vana­dium al­loy for­mer. The 6 inch cone does not need rear damp­ing and the ex­tended up­per fre­quency re­sponse (4500 Hertz) of this slightly smaller driver al­lows Totem to spec­ify a smaller tweeter. The 6 inch Tor­rent woofer takes 4.5 hours to build, down from 7.5 hours for the 7 inch woofer in the Fire. The 3/4 inch tweeter is a silk dome de­sign with an alu­minum face­plate shared with the Fire but the tweeter it­self is a dif­fer­ent de­sign bet­ter suited to the char­ac­ter­is­tics of the smaller cab­i­net and woofer of the Em­ber. It does not have the pro­tec­tive wire mesh of its big­ger brother so if you have kids or pets it may be bet­ter to keep the magnetic grills in place.

So much for the vi­su­als. The chief magic is on the inside. Fol­low­ing the lead of an­other highly re­spected Cana­dian speaker man­u­fac­turer, Ref­er­ence 3A, de­signer Vince Bruzzese has de­vel­oped a crossover­less speaker. Strictly speak­ing that doesn’t mean there’s no cross­over inside. Rather, the am­pli er makes di­rect con­nec­tion with the midrange/woofer, with no in­ter­ven­ing ca­pac­i­tors, in­duc­tors or re­sis­tors. There is still a sim­ple cross­over in­clud­ing two very ex­otic ca­pac­i­tors to mate the tweeter level and re­sponse curve to the main driver’s char­ac­ter­is­tics. This woofer main­tains a signi cant out­put level up to around 5kHz be­fore smoothly rolling off, but its out­put is smooth and dis­tor­tion free in this range, un­like con­ven­tional woofers.

I put in a lot of lis­ten­ing time with the Em­ber. It needs a good 50 hours to sound its best, but it is very happy with just about any high qual­ity am­pli er. At 88dB ef - ciency and an 8ohm load you don’t need a pow­er­house. Totem sug­gests a range of 30 to 175 watts. The 150 watt Modwright KWA 150 SE solid state amp and the 90 watt Co­p­land CTA506 tube amp were both ex­cel­lent part­ners, and ex­tracted sim­i­lar lev­els of per­for­mance from the Em­ber. On the Co­p­land you do need to se­lect the 8 ohm tap to get the best out of the Em­ber or you’ll get some­thing rather re­duced in dy­nam­ics.

Where I thought I might trip up the Em­ber was full scale sym­phonic ma­te­rial or some heavy rock. But I failed to ruf e the Totem on ei­ther trap. It was sim­ply out­stand­ing in Shostakovich’s 10th Sym­phony, which gets as dra­matic and com­plex as you’ll nd. I could hear all the de­tail with im­pres­sive weight and out­stand­ing imag­ing. My ref­er­ence YG speak­ers have a greater sense of ease in this reper­toire and dig a lit­tle deeper, but the dif­fer­ences are sur­pris­ingly small. You are sup­posed to turn up the vol­ume when you play the Stones. “Love in Vain” sounded great with

a strong at­tack from the steel gui­tar and an im­age pre­cisely lo­cated in a wide stage. I could hear ev­ery in­stru­ment in­di­vid­u­ally with­out los­ing track of the per­for­mance as a whole. While the Carmel is faster and more dy­namic still, notice that I’m com­par­ing this $4,200 speaker to an $18,000 speaker, be­cause it’s re­ally that good.

When it comes to smaller scale mu­sic the Em­ber is ab­so­lutely in its el­e­ment (par­don the pun). Jen­nifer Warnes is at her very best in “Too Late Love Comes”. You get the full im­pact of her rich voice, along with the steadily grow­ing in­stru­men­tal ac­com­pa­ni­ment, all in­fused with nat­u­ral colour and strong de­tail. The pre­sen­ta­tion is for­ward, but not ag­gres­sive. What makes it so suc­cess­ful is the low level of dis­tor­tion, the pin­point imag­ing, the fast re exes and more than any­thing, the ab­sence of the usual com­pres­sion of dy­nam­ics which most speak­ers suf­fer from. Once you’ve heard this level of alive­ness, it’s hard to go back. Mu­sic sounds like mu­sic, not like a record­ing any­more. Totem does not have a mo­nop­oly in this, but it is some­thing I’ll give up deep bass ex­ten­sion, ul­ti­mate res­o­lu­tion or max­i­mum sound pres­sure for any day.

The El­e­ment se­ries is a state­ment prod­uct line from Totem. As such it will not sell in the same vol­ume as the other less ex­pen­sive mod­els on of­fer. I imag­ine many peo­ple will feel $4,200 is a lot to pay for small bookshelf speak­ers and may not pay much at­ten­tion to the Em­ber. That will be their loss. I’d sug­gest you for­get about the dol­lars per cu­bic inch cal­cu­la­tion and sim­ply com­pare the sound of this pair of $4,200 speak­ers with any­thing else you can get for this much money. I think they stand up re­ally well in this con­text.

In my re­view of the Fire I wrote “Noth­ing this small has sounded this good to me.” I can re­peat that now for the Em­ber! If you are look­ing for some­thing re­ally small (even smaller than the Fire), rea­son­ably ef cient and very easy to drive, but you de­mand a true audiophile sound, then look no fur­ther. This is it. My high­est rec­om­men­da­tion.

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