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We know that not all Totem speakers are bookshelf-size anymore. This new one gets the most out of its size.
You'd think it would be difficult, after so many years, to remember the first time we had ever heard a Totem speaker. Yet the memory lingers. A small box, but a sound many times larger, an image you could lead a platoon into, music that made you want to hear more, much more.
The new Forest, in some ways, looks a little like that Model One (which is of course still made). It has the same Dynaudio woofer, the same tweeter (as far as one can tell), the same rounded cabinet in superb mahogany, and when you listen to it...
But we're getting ahead of ourselves.
If you actually measure the Forest cabinet, you discover that it is slightly larger in both width and depth than the Model One, and slightly smaller in those two dimensions than the Mani-2, which it also resembles. In other respects the similarity is considerable. The outer finish is identical, and so is the inside finish (Totem panels are veneered on both sides to prevent warping, and damping is done by the application of borosilicate, a material that will be familiar to aerospace engineers). The cabinets have no braces and need none, because bracing is built right into the impressively rigid monococque structure. It has been designed not to store energy. At the rear are twin pairs of WBT binding posts (our favorite, as you probably know).
Like other Totem speakers, the Forest comes without a grille, simply because designer Vincent Bruzzese doesn't believe in grilles (nor do we). Some users have young children with inquisitive fingers, however, and a grille kit is available as an extra-cost option. The foam grilles are held on with Velcro, and we presume all traces of them can be expunged once the children attain the age of reason (or leave home, whichever comes first).
There is one way in which the Forests are different from all previous models, and you can easily see it in the picture: the feet. They are three rounded pyramids, permanently attached to the bottom sides of the cabinet, replacing the spikes that are common on high end loudspeakers. Each foot has a hollow indentation on its bottom, and instead of spikes you insert large ball bearings that looks like the "steelies" used by the guy who won all your marbles when you were in the sixth grade.
What's going on here? There's one obvious advantage: because the feet are not under the actual cabinet, the speaker is much less tippy than it would be with conventional spikes. What the steel balls can't do, however, is anchor the speaker mechanically, as spikes can, and that's especially true if you place them on carpets. A properly-anchored speaker is important, because if the speaker can move it will waste energy that should be going into producing sound.
We're not sure the external feet are an æsthetic coup, either, and their finish is not as sleek as that of the cabinet. That may not be obvious unless you get down on your knees, though most people who saw it noticed the finish rather than the feet. Nor did anyone mention the many screws around the drivers, screws we wish were hidden from sight.
Some magazines scoff at the idea that audio components, even loudspeakers, need a break-in period before they are at their best (oddly, they do seem to believe that cars need breaking in). We have noticed in the past that Totem speakers need an especially long break-in period, and the Forests are no exception. When we began the break-in, using a CD player in repeat mode, they sounded somewhat shrill and constipated. After some 20 hours of running they began to sound normal, with their characteristic depth and image emerging. By the time we hit 75 hours they sounded superb. That was about as far as we got, though Vincent Bruzzese recommends twice that run-in time. Keep this in mind as you run the rest of this article. And of course don't go to your dealer and try to evaluate a brand new pair.
One other detail before we proceed. If you've seen recent Totem speakers at shows, you may have noticed that placed atop were polished aluminum "Beaks," bullet-shaped devices. Beaks are supplied with the expensive Shaman speakers and are available as an extra-cost option ($100 a pair in Canada) with other models. Totem sent along two pairs of beaks with the Forests. We'll get to them later, but we did use both pairs in our evaluation of the speaker.
Which evaluation opened with William Walton's Façade, a delightful piece of satiric music especially well-played by the Chicago Pro Musica on Reference Recordings RR-16 (the LP version). Listening to this fine recording through the Forests confirmed what we already knew: this is no ordinary loudspeaker. The image and the reconstitution of the hall sound were first class and grabbed our attention right from the opening passage (this seems to be a hallmark of Totem speakers). We listened with fascination to the snare drum, with its ultra-sharp (but not overly so) attack and its echo dying away, throwing light on the acoustics. Only the piccolo (whose passage is over in an instant) was a little crisp. The clarinet was gorgeous, and indeed there was a fine marriage of woodwinds and strings. The castanets were lively and rhythmic, and the cymbal was beautifully present, with a plausible coherence that is a pleasing contrast to the white noise "sshhh" sound too many speakers give it.
Reine especially noticed the way that the (intentional) dissonance of the piece comes through, and Albert marveled at the excellent mix of detail and smoothness, as well as the realistic ring of all instrumental timbres.
Next we listened to one of the most famous of Sheffield's original direct-cut discs, Growing Up in Hollywood Town. The song Amanda opens with a powerful percussive sound (repeated throughout the piece) which rocked us back in our chairs. There is a good variety of instruments in the accompaniment, and we had no trouble hearing "into" the sonic mix. The harmonica was wonderful, and the percussion emerged with unusual clarity. The overall sound was a little brighter than with our Alpha system's reference speakers, but it was never shrill, and indeed the strings had a silkiness we liked a lot. Amanda McBroom's voice was very good, very close to the way it had been with the reference, but even with even more smoothness in the upper midrange.
Reine liked the spaciousness of the sound, though she noticed an occasional bit of sibilance on McBroom's voice. "It's always there," said Albert.
We have made some references to the great clarity of detail brought out by the Forest, but of course certain speaker flaws can serve to underline detail. A boost in the top end or the upper midrange would be an example. On our third recording, we could hear that there was some elevation of the upper tones compared to our reference (which certainly never sounds muffled). And we weren't certain the Forest's interpretation was the right one.
The selection was the blues number Ain't No Fool from Empty Bottle Blues (Hungaroton SLPM 37062). Once again there was endless detail, and plenty of depth too, but Jerry Ricks' voice was altered. "You can usually tell he smokes," said Gerard, "but here his voice is smoothed out, as though he had kicked the habit twenty years ago." Albert thought his voice was still rough, "but not in the same way." The guitar also suffered from the greater top-end content, with the sound of its strings overwhelming the resonance of the guitar body.
Still, there was a lot to like. The words were beautifully clean and clear, and there was an energetic liveliness to the song that we enjoyed a great deal.
By the way, we deliberately use a somewhat warped copy of this LP, so that we can see how disturbed a speaker is by the very low frequency signal (below 8 Hz) generated by the warp. The Model One had been disturbed by it, whereas the Mani-2, with its twin push-pull woofers, had ignored it. We could see the Forest's woofer cone moving back and forth because of the warp, but there was none of the tremolo caused by Doppler distortion. Pretty good.
We had already noticed that the Forest's cabinet was plenty tight, and so we expected it would do well in our percussion recording, Secret of the Andes. Of course it passed the test, with no tendency to "homogenize" the varied Central American percussion instruments in the opening section by superposing its own resonance on top. In the bass, the Forest doesn't have any sort of personality. It just reproduces what it is given, and it does so with impact, clarity, and as much detail as you could want.
That aside, what we noticed right from the start was the excellent depth, with an image bigger than the speakers, and indeed bigger than the room. We also could hardly help noticing the rhythm that just wouldn't quit. No dragginess or heaviness, despite the solid bass. This speaker dances on tiptoe, and it dances with consummate skill. It does everything with energy and communicative enthusiasm.
We have used this long-discontinued Nautilus LP for years to check out how speakers handle percussion. The second part of the piece includes a piano solo by Victor Feldman, and sometimes the piano doesn't sound quite the way it should. It didn't here, thought Gerard, with the tone unbalanced in favor of the higher harmonics. Albert wondered whether another 75 hours of break-in time would have helped. He had said much the same thing with the Mani-2 (UHF No. 43). We were curious to see how the Forest would do on our technical tests.
We ended with another Sheffield direct-cut disc, Amuseum (from James Newton Howard and Friends, LAB-23), which also has percussion and more percussion, as well as a little percussion. Oh, and some synthetizers.
Once again, the Forest's quickness and its lack of spurious resonances delivered impact that was startling in its power. The details were abundant, and timbres were so well reproduced that there was little difficulty distinguishing the synths from the acoustic instruments. The "bass guitar" (another synth) was especially gorgeous.
But not everything worked. The percussion solo is long and repetitive, and it seemed extra long with the Forest, because the shift in energy toward the higher tones emphasized the leading edge of each drumbeat. Reine blamed the musicians, though the speaker probably wasn't helping.
Nor, possibly, was our room. The Alpha reference system, you may recall, is in a relatively small room that has had its acoustics designed for a short reverberation time (0.22 second) right across the audible frequencies. That makes the very tight bass of a speaker like the Forest seem even tighter. In a "normal" room (meaning one with poor acoustics) the bass would have more "bloom" to it, and the top end would seem less prominent. We suspect that is what you might find in your own listening room...unless the Forest has just come out of the factory-sealed box, of course.
Now let's talk about the Beaks.
Vincent Bruzzese says that the design of the Beaks was determined with the help of a mainframe computer, and that every aspect of it (the cutout on the underside and the fine grooves milled into the surface) must be exactly the way they are. He adds that actual frequency measurements have been run on speakers with and without Beaks, but he has supplied neither the methodology nor the actual measurements. The Beak is meant to be at once a resonator (the air space trapped under the device) and--if we understand correctly--a diffraction device. It is claimed that it improves the bottom end, and it also allows the tweeter to go higher more linearly. How it does this is, for the moment, anyone's guess, but we used a final recording to evaluate the role they play in the way the Forest sounds.
We placed the Beaks as shown in the photo below, which is the way Totem recommends.
The test piece was Dorothy from Amanda McBroom's West of Oz (Sheffield LAB-15), also used in our evaluation of phono preamplifiers in this issue. The song is complex, with interweaving of choral voices, harmonica and percussion before McBroom's voice enters. We listened through with the Beaks in place, as they had been throughout the test. The song sounded wonderful, which was no surprise. We removed the Beaks and listened again.
Yes, there was an unmistakable difference, but what was it? We knew we preferred the speakers with the Beaks in place, but we weren't certain what we were hearing. We went back and forth a few times, and gradually all became clear.
It was the clarity that suffered when we removed the Beaks. The lower midrange became a little muddy, and the choral voices blended together a little more, adding a touch of confusion. The instruments were less natural, more electronic, and the Totem's vaunted image was somewhat flatter. Putting the Beaks back brought the sound closer to us. The sibilance in Amanda McBroom's voice was emphasized a little, but so was the warmth.
By the way, Totem emphasizes that the Beaks are not meant only for Totem speakers, and that in fact they may make even more difference to speakers that have lower performance to start with. Perhaps... though we think the Beaks would be hard put to add focus to speakers that don't have any, or improve the lows of a cabinet that booms on every note.
All that was left was to do the measurements (which of course are never allowed to override the listening judgements, though they can sometimes shed light on them).
The frequency response curve is shown above. You can clearly see the tilt toward the highs, away from the lows, but it looks good, despite the peak centred around 8 kHz (and no doubt responsible for the speaker's tendency to favor the highs in music that has a lot of content in that part of the band). In any case, the lows are not exactly absent. Some of the dip below 100 Hz is due to room effects, not the speaker. The oscilloscope trace at upper left is a 40 Hz tone reproduced at full reference level! It is nearly distortion-free...and remember, our reference level is 100 dB at 1 meter, not 90 dB (one tenth the loudness) commonly used. This is more than pretty good.
(You may wonder why the sine wave seems to skew as it goes from left to right. That's because we don't test with steady-state tones, but with third-of-octave warble tones, which change constantly in frequency. The warble tone had a centre frequency of 40 Hz.)
We reran the frequency response test with the Beaks removed. The peak around 8 kHz was reduced by about 1.5 dB. The Beak's effect is not imaginary.
Just below is a 100 Hz square wave, reproduced at reference level, with the microphone on axis with the tweeter. Of course what comes out is never identical to what went in, but this is a pretty good square wave, with straight sides and a recognizable shape. No wonder the Forest sounds so fast and coherent.
The Forest is a welcome new addition to the Totem lineup. It's getting to be a crowded lineup too, a far cry from the company's early days, when the Model One was the "one model."
Is it too crowded? Possibly. The Tabu is slightly cheaper, but costs the same once you add the stands. We liked the Tabu a lot, but we like the Forest even more. With the prices so close, the choice is a no-brainer. Get the Forest.
Model: Totem Forest
Price: $3500 Canadian (mahogany and black), $3750 (cherrywood) (In the US, $3000/$3250)
Dimensions (cm): 20 x 89.5 x 27
Warranty: 5 years transferable
Most liked: Quick, light, musical
Least liked: Favors the top end on some music
Verdict: A music lover's find
Can you imagine a new Totem speaker that sounds ugly? If it's ever happened, the company at least doesn't make a habit of it. The Forest, in either fine mahogany or the cherrywood available for a small premium, can amply justify its price in a number of ways.