August 2012

Totem EmberThere’s little sense of showmanship and panache in the world of high-end hi-fi. At audio shows, manufacturers plonk their products down with little fanfare and less style. Walk through room after room, and you’ll see the same sterile exhibits with a few rows of chairs and racks of equipment. If you’re lucky, you’ll see a potted plant or two.

But you may find yourself drawn into a swish grotto resembling a cross between a New York City penthouse as seen in Better Homes and Gardens, a sci-fi movie set, and an opium den. You’ll duck under huge tropical plants, settle into a sleek leather sofa, and gaze all stupid-like at giant murals featuring waif-like models draping themselves over equally sleek speakers. There will be music playing. Someone might slip a freshly made espresso into your hand.

You may think that all this frippery is a mere matter of style over substance, that they’re flogging [gasp! horror!] lifestyle speakers. You’d be wrong. You’ve just entered the world of Totem Acoustic -- a world of serious, hardcore audiophiles. 

Totem Acoustic has been designing and manufacturing speakers in Canada for over 20 years, and the fact that they’re still building high-end speakers to very high standards and making money at it probably means that they’re doing something very right. 

I mentioned lifestyle speakers just a minute ago, but I don’t want you getting all holier-than-thou on me. Lifestyle speakers have gotten a bad name. Many audiophiles feel that a speaker can’t look good and sound good at the same time -- as if speakers need to be boxy and ugly in order to work well.

Totem has realized that if they make their products sound good, and make them visually beautiful at the same time, they’ll sell not only to audiophiles who couldn’t care less about décor, but also to those who want to surround themselves with beauty. And by building this big-ass room with all sorts of mod, snappy furnishings, they’re working really, really hard to appeal to all the significant others who were probably dragged to this godawful hi-fi show when they could be out shopping . . .

It’s brilliant.

So here I sit, listening to and admiring a pair of Totem’s newest minimonitor speaker, the stunning Element Ember ($4200 USD per pair), which sits just below the slightly larger Element Fire. The Element line also includes one center-channel and two floorstanding models. 

While $4200/pair may seem a large chunk of change for a speaker measuring only 14.125”H x 7.375”W x 9.75”D, the Ember is built to a very high standard, and is elegant in profile. Nor was its shape chosen merely for show. A close inspection of the cabinet reveals that no two of the Ember’s surfaces are parallel: The top slopes down toward the back, the side panels taper to the rear, and the rear panel leans in as it ascends. This absence of parallel surfaces reduces internal standing waves and, along with the internal damping provided by a thin, painted-on coat of the borosilicate used in all Totem speakers, and the use of lock mitering throughout, points toward a very inert cabinet. 

The Ember is available in gloss black or gloss white. Gloss lacquer has become more common in the last few years, but I haven’t seen any examples finished to a higher standard than this. The white lacquer of my pair was immaculate, with no ripple or flaw. I spent some time talking to Vince Bruzzese, owner of Totem Acoustic, who said that each Ember receives at least four coats of lacquer, and most likely many more. It takes a full week to layer up and rub out the lacquer on a pair of Embers. This type of labor is expensive; Bruzzese said that he could have the cabinets built overseas for one-fifteenth the cost, but that wouldn’t satisfy the perfectionist (and, as a fellow Canadian, I’d hope the nationalist) in him.

Bolted to the cabinet are two seriously beautiful pairs of WBT Signature Platinum binding posts. Have you priced those things out? “Platinum” isn’t just a model name; these posts are actually plated with the element. The port is machined of aluminum and adds a very elegant touch to the rear of the speaker. 

The real surprises are inside. Totem Acoustic has designed and built their own 6” midrange-woofer. Making your own drivers is not for the faint of heart, as evidenced by the many speaker companies -- some quite large and well respected -- that are content to buy their drivers off someone else’s shelf. Totem’s Torrent drive-unit was originally introduced as a 7” model, a version that can be found in the slightly larger Element Fire ($5995/pair). Both sizes are built on a CNC-machined basket and chassis. Most driver baskets are cast or stamped; CNC machining permits the use of higher-quality materials worked to far closer tolerances.

On that chassis Totem mounts what they describe as a “revolutionary” new magnet structure. The 7” version includes a cradle that houses finger-shaped magnets, each individually magnetized. These magnets alone cost Totem over $300 for each Element Fire. The 6” driver, designed to meet a more restrictive build budget, has a more conventional magnet structure. Still, Totem’s cost for each 6” Torrent driver is over $500. Totem says that the 6” version has a free-air resonance of 26Hz. 

The 6” Torrent runs comfortably without a crossover, which means that it reproduces frequencies up to 5000Hz, at which point Totem says it rolls off in a well-behaved manner at a first-order rate. Because the Torrent plays up so high, Totem was able to mate it to an exceptionally high-quality 0.75” soft-dome tweeter, one that they say works synergistically with the midrange-woofer. While Totem doesn’t build the tweeter from scratch, they mount it on a 1/4”-thick metal plate they make specifically for the Ember.

Totem’s literature states that the Ember presents the partnering amplifier with an easy load of 8 ohms and is 88dB efficient. According to Totem, their speakers are designed to have good off-axis dispersion, and so should be reasonably easy to position. I plunked them down in my usual spots, where they seemed quite comfortable. This put them about 9’ from my listening position, the same distance apart, and 3’ from the front wall. Just a little bit of toe-in firmed up the imaging nicely. 

In keeping with the elegance they’re shooting for, Totem supplies the Ember with a set of slinky grilles that attach with magnets; there are no wonky-looking holes in the fronts of the cabinets. I used the Embers without the grilles, mounted on stands of my own design that I built from 8” x 8” x 22” beams of vintage pine.

I listened to the Embers in my main system, which plays only LPs.


Totem Acoustic’s Element Ember was one seriously juicy-sounding loudspeaker. This is the first time I’ve used that descriptor, but it seems appropriate here. Although there was nothing obvious in the way the Ember manipulated the sound and resultant music, my last few months of toe tapping and head nodding tell me that this speaker was doing something distinctly different from those that preceded it.

I’ve sat down with my computer before me a dozen times since the Embers landed, and at the end of each of those listening sessions have found that I’ve taken no notes. At this very moment, I’m forcing myself to write this up. I’m having a lot of difficulty concentrating. I’d much rather just listen.

The “look up” factor is one of my indicators of how good a component is. If I can’t concentrate on a task -- writing, reading, napping -- because I find myself looking up, gazing all lost-like at a blank spot between the speakers, then that means something good is going on in the system. The Embers made me look up. Why?

First, the Totem was extremely expressive through the midrange. Although the pair of them presented images with the appropriate dose of depth, in some ways the Embers pushed the midrange out at me. These speakers had just a tiny amount of midrange strut, and man, oh man, did it serve the music. Right now I’m listening to Up, Bustle and Out’s Master Sessions Vol.2: Calle 23, Havana, Cuba (LP, Ninja Tune ZENCD58), which is seriously groove-oriented, Cuban-flavored jazz mixed with sampled hip-hop. It works much, much better than you’d think. I rediscovered this album after a few years, and I’ve been listening to it incessantly. On the “Tribe” side (they’re not numbered), track 2 (they’re not named, for crying out loud) features someone speaking; it sounds so present, rich, and three-dimensional that it can’t be strictly accurate, but it serves the music in an intimate, proper manner. 

I owned a pair of Totem Model 1s for a few years. They were, in fact, my first real high-end speakers. When I bought them, I was blown away by their trickery. The Model 1s recessed the midrange, which made voices sound as if they were a million miles away. The Element Embers didn’t do that. They didn’t make me lean forward, trying to get closer to the music. Nope, these speakers were right there, an active part of my listening experience. They’re jam-filled, human, organic speakers. 

Totem Ember

Listen to any music with a rhythmic bounce and I guarantee you’ll sit there tapping your feet, a big smile on your face. In my opinion, Johnny Cash’s American IV: The Man Comes Around (LP, Lost Highway 633361) is dramatically overproduced, but that’s just me. The title track has a splendid train kept a-rollin’ vibe to it, and the Ember just captivated me with how it presented the song’s swagger and bounce, which lies in stark relief to its creepy Revelation-inspired lyrics.

And they could play loud. In fact, the Embers almost demanded such punishment. This can be looked at from a couple of different angles. I’ve found that many speakers prefer to have some juice slammed through them, and can sound closed in and uninspiring when played at lower volumes. While I don’t see this specifically as a flaw, it’s not exactly a selling feature. I want to be able to listen at low and high volumes. The Embers sounded just fine at lower volumes, with good retrieval of detail and even better imaging. But when I cranked them up they unfolded like flowers, sounding better and better as the SPL rose. Basically, the little Element Ember could crank out as high a volume as I would ever care to hear.

We have a friend who lives in the country, and stays with us when he’s working in Toronto. Marc’s a musical encyclopedia, and it’s always fun to sit and listen with him; he’s bound to reveal a few prurient tidbits about the band members’ sexual deviations and drug predilections. Marc had just picked up a Kyuss album, Blues for the Red Sun (LP, Dali 3705-61340-1), and though I’m not a metal fan, I sat down, keenly interested to hear how the Totems would manage with some violent, blood-and-thunder rock. Color me surprised! Blues for the Red Sun is aggressive metal at its best and worst. I’m good for only a couple of tracks of this stuff, but I must admit that it’s rather fun. On “Freedom Run” (I think), the crackling guitars sizzled out of the Embers. I could easily differentiate each rapid-fire bass-drum whack, and there was absolutely no speaker-produced compression, even though we were playing it quite loud.

That 0.75” tweeter really did a wonderful job of riding the fine line between detail and sweetness. Too much detail and things get etched in a hurry. Too much euphonic sweetening and the music descends into mush. The Totem’s tweeter reminded me in some ways of a Scan-Speak Revelator, but without quite as much syrup between the notes. There was none of the bite that many monitor speakers have -- those that try just too darn hard to impress with their retrieval of detail. The only time the top began to sound a little ragged was when the SPLs got very high -- the treble got crispy, and at that point there was no real point in turning up the volume any further.

But perhaps the most surprising tonal aspect of the Ember was in the upper midrange and lower treble. I was expecting some of my old Totem Model 1s’ bite in the upper mids, and I didn’t get it. Not a scrap. In fact, the Ember was almost uncannily smooth -- quite a feat, considering the Ember had plenty of detail and articulation in this region. Even when cranking out Kyuss to ungodly levels, the Embers refused to harden up in this critical range. Perhaps this trait is what truly endeared me to the little Totems; I like to listen loud, but I don’t like having my head bitten off.

“He’s listening to metal,” I hear you say. “What next -- Rush?”

Yep. I dug out two different pressings of Permanent Waves and let my inner geek run loose. The Embers had plenty enough resolution to let me hear the differences between my Canadian end-of-the-run cutout (LP, Anthem ANR-1-1021) and a jazzed-up reissue on 180gm vinyl (LP, Island/Mercury/Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab MFSL 1-302). Listening to “Tide Pools” (God help me), I could clearly hear how the MoFi spread a far more realistic, well-proportioned soundstage, with each smack of Neil Peart’s drums clearly delineated in space, compared to the Canadian pressing’s conglomeration of homogenized noises.

Big deal, right? A pair of speakers that’ll tell you two pressings don’t sound the same. Is that worth $4200? I know that a set of one-tenth-the-price Paradigm Atoms will do that for you, no problem. The Embers earned their keep by letting me enjoy crap pressings and bad recordings without glossing over the scabby parts. That Canadian pressing of Permanent Waves sounded quite wretched, but I was still content to listen to it. I go back to the Ember’s lack of grain in the upper midrange and lower treble -- but there are two more reasons this speaker was so much fun to listen to. 

Compared to floorstanding models, minimonitors almost always lack bass. It’s a physical thing: Their small volume means they just can’t move that much air. The designer needs to determine what parameter he’s going to sacrifice: deep bass (a 6” driver can move only so much air), bass tightness, or bass volume? The limiting factor in this equation is the quality of the driver, but the Ember’s Torrent midrange-woofer seems to me a pretty damn good unit, so let’s just look in a bit more detail at that calculation and how it applies to the Element Ember. 

While a pair of Embers won’t fool anyone into thinking there’s a subwoofer in the room, within the limitations of its size, this speaker just sang down low. What has Totem done? I get the feeling that they left the lower end a little loose, sacrificing some bass tightness for extension, and added just an eensy bit of lower-midrange bloom -- no way the Ember could ever be accused of flab or thickening in the low end. Revisiting The Man Comes Around, it was immediately apparent that the Embers were adding no richness to Cash’s voice. “Desperado” is performed by Cash, a backing singer, and an acoustic guitar; through the Embers, Cash’s voice was a smooth, realistic, well-defined presence. 

But when I slapped something with serious bottom end on the ’table, things got fun. The kick drum in “New York, New York,” from Cat Power’s Jukebox (LP, Matador) straddles the frequency where the Embers started to roll off in my room, but there’s still sufficient bass to keep the fundamentals intact. This studio-processed track is deeply cool, with a rich, lilting feel; the Embers somehow dug out enough bass from their innards, and kept it distinct and well balanced. There was a touch of that additional gravy I mentioned earlier, but I’d way rather have that than dry, clinical bass any day of the week. 

What was most important about the Ember’s bass was that it was supple and quick -- which sounds like a contradiction, considering that just a minute ago I said that it could also sound a bit loose. But those don’t have to be mutually exclusive properties. Give a listen to “The Ocean Is the Ultimate Solution,” from Frank Zappa’s Sleep Dirt (LP, Discreet DSK-2292). There’s some incredibly articulate bass playing from Patrick O’Hearn going on in there, and the Embers kept each note distinct while imbuing the instrument’s overtones with a ripeness that was totally in character. Same went for Terry Bozzio’s kick drum, which sounded snappy yet full. Well done! 

So far, I haven’t mentioned how the Embers imaged, and for good reason. They shot out such a natural, well-fleshed-out soundstage that it generally floated under my radar. But whenever I consciously paid attention to it, I found myself delighted by how the Embers portrayed instruments and voices in a life-size, organic manner. “Las Amarillas,” from Los Lobos’ La Pistola y el Corazón (LP, Slash/Warner 9 25790 1), is a busy traditional Mexican mashup, and it’s an imaging challenge for any system. Several guitars, a scratchy violin, and all sorts of odd percussion instruments jockey for position. The Embers didn’t demand that my attention be diverted by pop-up images, as do some minimonitors. Instead, they just spread out a realistic re-creation of a big-ass mariachi band, with each instrument aligned exactly where it should be.

Should we wrap it or will you wear it home?

Now you know that the Totem Acoustic Element Ember is a snazzy speaker. Should you buy a pair? 

That depends. Totem builds speakers for the long haul, and here they’ve put a long ton of engineering and quality components into a superbly built chassis. Totem doesn’t change their products for the sake of change -- the Model 1 is still available 20 years after I bought my pair. The Embers could well be heirloom speakers that will still also be current in 2032. There’s no doubt in my mind that they’re worth the $4200 Totem asks for them. If you buy a pair, you’ll be getting your money’s worth, in terms of both build and sound quality. 

But I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t tell you that you can get a pair of damn fine floorstanders for $4200, and they’d give you more bass. But I doubt you could find a floorstander at this price that’s even close to being this well built. The Element Ember is a handmade speaker that sounds fantastic, and does some things better than speakers I’ve heard at four times the price. 

If you’re looking for a loudspeaker that’s elegantly designed, beautifully built, and sounds great, I highly recommend you check out Totem’s Element Ember. 

. . . Jason Thorpe

Associated Equipment 

  • Analog source -- Pro-Ject RPM 10 turntable, Roksan Shiraz cartridge
  • Digital source -- Logitech Squeezebox Touch
  • Phono stage -- Aqvox Phono 2 CI
  • Preamplifier -- Sonic Frontiers SFL-2
  • Power amplifier -- Audio Research VT100
  • Integrated amplifier -- Peachtree Audio decco2
  • Speakers -- Definitive Technology Mythos STS, MartinLogan Ethos
  • Speaker cables -- Nordost Frey, Analysis Plus Solo Crystal Oval 8
  • Interconnects -- Nordost Frey, Analysis Plus
  • Power cords -- Nordost Vishnu, Shunyata Research Taipan
  • Power conditioners -- Quantum QBASE QB8, Shunyata Research Hydra Model-6

Totem Acoustic Element Ember Loudspeakers
Price: $4200 USD per pair.
Warranty: Five years parts and labor.

Totem Acoustic Inc.
9165 rue Champ d’Eau
Montreal, Quebec H1P 3M3
Phone: (514) 259-1062
Fax: (514) 259-4968