Review: Totem Acoustics Model 1 Monitor

Category: Speakers

Totem Model One biwires.

In the beginning, there was the book by Laura Dearborn. Then, extensive reading of TAS and Stereophile. Then came the purchase of Spica TC-50’s. These were great speakers, replacing Celestion Ditton 100’s (which I still use in the bedroom with a Marantz thinline receiver). Small group jazz and chamber music sounded wonderful. In those early days, the rest of my system was NAD separates (with monitor series preamp), to which a rega Planar 3 was added at some point. My early CD player, an Nakamichi OMS-1, was awful. Just unlistenable (at home), and I made the mistake of buying from a local dealer who held a moving sale with no returns, and who played it through some highly euphonic speakers in the shop.

But, what happened to my life? Was I just getting old? I found I didn’t like rock and roll any more. At home.

Time went by. I added a Genesis servo 10 subwoofer. This helped a lot, but integration with the Spicas was not perfect (they were run full range). I lusted after the Kinergetics SW-100 (or was it 200) stereo subs with amp, based on what I had read. When I went to a bar or a club, I seemed to like that Rock stuff still, but never at home. The thrill was gone. So I enjoyed my jazz and chamber music, but felt a growing black hole in my soul.

Hence, the upgrade chain took on a life of its own. I tried a new Dyanaco stereo 70, which sounded great but arc-ed and burnt up while listening to a Cardinals game. Local dealer gave me my money back (score one for the Speaker and Stereo Store, Kirkwood MO). Then I found a used Acurus A250 at Flip’s Stereo, and that is still in my system. The Spicas developed more dynamism (they certainly were not rated for 350 watts/channel into 4 ohms, but they never sounded anything but better than before). Music was good, unless I wanted to hear the Stones, roots rock, Led Zep, Tull. Maybe my tastes were maturing, but, if so, how come I liked playing Rock and blues on my guitar, and how come I couldn’t stand listening to them on my stereo. Even with the subwoofer tweaked painfully for hours with test tones and music. Actually, primitive measurements showed a great suckout around 90 Hz or so (I can’t remember exactly), no matter what I tried with the sub crossover; room ergonomics played some role in speaker placement and probably in creating the suckout.

Then came the Rega Planet. I like this CD player. A lot. Then the Golden Tube SEP-1 preamp. This sounded good, and seemed a textbook-perfect foil for my transistor amp. Hmm. The good stuff kept sounding better, but I had really outgrown Rock? There goes that foot twitching when I walk into the local music bar (Blueberry Hill; Chuck Berry’s signed guitar, great jukebox, etc.) What is my foot thinking, I ask myself? The answer, of course, was “nothing”: my foot was FEELING!

Plus, I kept buying rock that I remembered liking, and finding out I hated it when I put in on the stereo. So I bought the Totems. Maybe 3 years ago. Just another toy upgrade for my ego, you ask (especially perhaps you significant others)? Well, I had heard them at a local dealer who unfortunately went out of business, and had been impressed. And I needed a small speaker size because my rooms are small (if Totems on 24 inch Target HJ stands are small, which they seem to be). Yada Yada, the excuses are asy to come by.

So? The Totems are magical. They rock. I rock. The jazz still cooks, the strings still emote in chamber music, orchestral works sound great. Blues is the best. Much of this after a long hiatis with just not enough seamless low end (and laking a bit at the high end, although I have no proof I can hear it).

But, is life simple? Well, of course the preamp died, the company was out of business, and 6 months of searching for schematics brought nothing. Nothing the local dealer (Flip’s) could do, although they tried hard. So I bought a used Audio Research SP-9 hybrid preamp, and one day realized that I don’t even read stereo mag’s anymore. I sent all the back issues to recycling (I used to love reading them all (Fi, the Listener, Sensible Sound, etc., even the Audio Critic!), but they also gave me a headache and a heck of a streak of conspicuous consumption, which is almost as bad as TB). I will, however, never forget monkey-picked tea (thank you, Sam Tellig; it was you, wasn’t it, Sam, or was it J-10? They are all fading into a pleasant but distant memory).

I don’t care anymore about the latest speaker design (although I applaud the pioneers and those who keep them in business). I do routinely find that visitors (including a number of professional musicians) are often sure that I have live music in the house. “No honey, that’s not me, that’s Graham Parsons, but thanks for the compliment."

I have reached Nirvana, the end of the (upgrade) trail. I am in 2-channel heaven. The bass extension of the monitors (still run full range) allows for easy integration with the sub, I’m not asking the sub to extend sigificant volume up to 45-50 Hz, and everybody is happier. My wife loves the system. We listen to flamenco guitar at dinner with the kids, or Edgar Meyer, or SRV or Lonnie Brooks or Lonnie Mack or the Byrds or Neil Young or Horace Silver or Coltrane or the Stones or Wynton (OK, he is very right wing. I love Std time volume 3, the resolution of Romance"), or Charlie Haden/Quartet West. The ball games still come over the airwaves when appropriate; have burnt up any equipment lately. The speakers are probably “too close” to the back wall, but I’m finished analyzing it. Done. Kaput. This system handles my whole range of musical tastes, and even regenerated my taste for rock. This is a good thing, you ask? heck yes. My 9-year old plays guitar, and loves blues, but also loves Sunshine of Your Love, and we play it together: that is heaven on earth. I had added an HK HDCD changer for laziness, and a JVC dubbing deck (to keep my venerable Yamaha KX500 company). They get used now and then.

OK, so I have a small room (10 by 12), but it does open up to two similarly sized rooms, and the whole ground floor fills with music. If you have a bigger room, you may need more air moving. I really can’t say for sure. I can say that this system cured my of the upgrade bug (notoriously resistant to attempted cures) and left me with no self-doubt. I trust it, I love it, I don’t want change a thing. I don’t want to change a thing. I just say no when walking by Stereophile or TAS, etc. at the news stand (subscriptions were long since cancelled). I don’t care about multichannel (I have my Denon receiver/TV/surround system for that, and remember, my room is small).

Bottom line: whatever you musical tastes, a Totem Model 1 could make you find a new hobby (I took up golf) and bring music, sweet music everywhere. There will be people swaying, I guarantee it.

Associated gear
Genesis Servo 10 subwoofer, Acurus A250, Rega Planet and Planar 3, NAD tuner, ARC sp-9 hybrid preamp, HK HDCD changer, Adcom ACE-515, Target HJ24 speaker stands (sand-filled).

Similar products
Spica TC-50, TC-60, NHT (most models; I use super zeros and super ones in my home theater setup), PSB alpha, B&W 805 and 804, Thiel 1.5, 2.2, Vandersteen 2Ce, I'm starting to forget the others.
Nice review. Unusual approach. I relate to the problem enjoying rock on home audiophile systems. I'd be curious to hear your reaction to the Thiel 1.6 though.
Art and Tw1, thanks for the kind words. Sorry about the typos.

Art: I have heard Thiel's in shops, including the 1.5 and 2.2. I never heard a Thiel I didn't like. In fact, when I bought the (demo) Totems through an Audiogon dealer, I was simulaneously searching for used Thiel 1.5's; I just couldn't find any that I could afford/justify, and ended up extremely happy with my choice of Totems. I would recommend Thiel's in a heartbeat.
i also enjoyed reading your review. I used to be a drummer playing Cream, Jimi Hendrix, etc... material in the 70's and have since switched over to Jazz, Blues, and New Age. I have a small room (13 x13 x 9) that I use for my 2 channel music system. I used to have the NHT 2.9's and the KEF Reference 2 speakers but since have gone the Totem Model 1 (bi-wire) route. The quality of sound you get from this small mini-monitor is amazing. I am just starting to look into a musical type subwoofer to go along with the Model 1's. I have heard that subs are hard to match to these speakers because the model 1's are so fast that you also want to get a fast subwoofer, so i am limiting my choices to 10" or less in woofer size (Totem, REL, etc..). Since I like my Model 1's so much, I just purchased a pair of Totem Arro's for my den. Very nice little floorstanding speaker.
As for the Thiel 1.6, they were a little too bright for me and not as smooth as the Totem's. My dealer has the Thiel, Joseph, and Totem speaker lines. I liked the Thiels the least. I also liked the Joseph speakers I listened to but the Totems had a smoother sound to me.
I assume this review is for the model 1, not the signature version? Has anyone compared the signature to the original (besides the review update in Stereophile)? If so, please enlighten us. Thanks.
Peter S
See the last issue of UHF magazine for a compelling review of the Model 1 Signature.