I like to write about different audio equipment and the music I love to listen to.
My Review of the Totem Acoustic Speakers
First things first; I am so very blessed to be able to purchase and flip the kind of audio gear I listen to with limited worry about financial or emotional losses. Many hobbyists would be deemed lucky to devote a serious block of their time each month to dabble in an area of interest and pleasure. I am not an exception; at my age and with my profession, I humbly offer my gratitude for the opportunity to vary my stereo equipment so often and share those results with anyone interested in a short read.
When I started this journey in early 2010, my knowledge then, as I now know, was naive and very limited. I harbored a lot of skepticism for the audiophile community with its stratospheric price points and what was considered reference or budget. I did have one expectation when I started, being that I assumed I would replace my existing loudspeakers with a moderately exceptional product comfortably in my price bracket and be done with it. Dozens of components and combinations later, a new product I am reviewing and flipping has sucker-punched me with a healthy dose of that first skepticism.
I will not bore you with the details of how exactly I jumped from a pair of KEF R300s up the food chain to these magnificently sculpted Totem Element Fires. In a hyper abbreviated version, I received the right information at the right time and was able to make the purchase for an exceptionally rare price. However, the conundrum this created for me may sour many readers and certainly will upset makers of high-priced products.
I have become very comfortable making purchases in the sub $2,000 category and finding many fine products worthy of review. I admit my mind cannot dislocate or dislodge an assigned retail price to a product while I critique its performance. So when a $5,999 product lands in my lap, I am strained to be objective and fair. I wish nothing more than to speak the truth to you, and since my writing is solely based on personal preference and opinion, the fact of diminishing returns and familiarity are going to color this review no matter how hard I try to avoid this from happening. So without further ado, the Totem Fires wish to make your acquaintance.
If there is one aspect to this price point I must concede, it would be the level of build quality and appearance that comes with top-shelf products. Each Totem Element Fire is in its own 35 lb. box with moderate amounts of soft foam holding them in place. Each speaker is wrapped in a nice little white bag, though the material feels more canvas than cotton that is immaterial. Placing each speaker on my shipping scale, they come in at 26.4 lbs. apiece, nearly identical to the KEF R300's they supplanted.
I live in an older house where my listening room is covered by tongue and groove pine paneling, inefficient '80s aluminum dual pane windows, and dust that appears to replicate with the alacrity of a hot virus. It took five minutes to realize that these gorgeous piano black speakers with their four coats of polyester would be reduced to grey fuzz boxes in no time. Photographing these beauties also proved to be a mostly aggravating chore. There is no doubt they are absolutely lovely to stare at; their non-parallel walls, trapezoid-like features, and downward sloped top make them appear just as much an art piece as they do an audio statement.
This is my first experience with the Platinum WBT speaker binding posts and, let me tell you, in person, they look like jewelry. A very thin silver jumper is pre-tightened to bind the dual posts; my Audioquest Rocket 88s are full range, so I leave the silver jumpers in place.
The benefits of changing out gear regularly also means I have had to adjust where my stands should be placed, and often. The Element Fires are placed seven and half feet apart, tweeter to tweeter, just a smidge over two feet from the back wall and each is at minimum three and half feet from side walls. My listening position is 11 feet from tweeter to ears. I wasn’t expecting the trapezoid side panels to throw me off; I was so used to relying on my eyesight o spot cabinet toe in from my listening chair.
When I place the Fires with a little bit of toe in, looking at them I couldn’t help but think “I know I didn’t point them in that much, they still appear to be looking straight at me?”. I adjusted them until toe in was absolutely minuscule, in keeping with suggestions by the manufacturer. I am not going to say I nailed placement on the first try…so…I will say that results were immediate and I was able to begin listening in very short order.
Keeping with my forthcoming nature, I happen to be breaking in a new Bel Canto e.one DAC2.5 and Cardas Clear USB cable that I let run in for over a week without turning off. Here is where the plot thickens and facts become obscured. I have a cheesy pair of Polk Audio RTi4’s that play humble surrogate when I am in between orders.
I am very familiar with and ‘used’ to the small sound these produce, even with my FLAC files streaming straight to my Marantz PM15S2 Ltd. sans DAC or with other review equipment. So when I plugged the Bel Canto in and let it run for the first 24 hours, what I came back to honest to God blew me and my wife away. NEVER have those little RTi4’s sounded so big, so open and so musical! Yes, that is for another review, but I have to divulge this so as to explain a different expectation and qualify that earlier skepticism I mentioned.
Please let me state the obvious, yes, the Totem Element Fires sound awesome. Yes, they sound much better than the KEF R300’s, let alone the Monitor Audio Silver RX8’s before them. Yet for God’s sakes, at more than three times the price, they flippin better punch into a whole new echelon for what they cost! Let’s talk about that cost and what is it that makes them so…
The engineers at Totem Acoustic from Canada have some serious mojo on their side. Known for crafting little speakers with big, bold sound, their wizardly ways contain no boundaries – as this new driver technology called “Torrent” will prove. I prefer to quote their literature that accompanied my pair of Fires: “By no means can the TORRENT be considered a standard driver. It is mechanically and electrically engineered to avoid the use of a crossover and yet perform beyond any preset levels. Its chassis and parts are machined with watchmaker’s precision from selected hi-tech alloys. The TORRENT woofer structure is not stamped, molded or cast in any conventional manner but micro-machined and hand-assembled for beauty, structural integrity and precision beyond any known alternative means. From it’s nearly ½ inch (12mm) thick alloy faceplate to its radical magnetic assembly, superior venting and thermal dissipation, the TORRENT is a technological tour de force. Basically, the chassis provides a totally controlled receptacle as well as a quite foundation and base for the ancillary advanced parts to achieve their desired cumulative effect.
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In order to achieve superior control and a seamless roll-off in the upper frequencies, all TORRENT voice coils are wound around large gauge aluminum or stainless steel formers. This allows for perfect heat transfer and dissipation mechanical stability and desired Eddy-current coupling behavior. The TORRENT copper voice coil has multiple layers of “square” copper wire, eliminating the undesirable air-gap found in voice coils. This tightly integrated copper assembly maximizes magnetic strength and minimizes unwanted micro-vibrations. The 7 inch cones operating range is the most extreme and it is therefore reinforced with 3 TORRENT compounds, including borosilicate dampening. Moreover, it features a complete O-ring rear reinforcement for added linearity and edge diffraction attenuation.
This goes on for several more pages in the brochure. Essentially there is a whole bunch of metallurgy, rocket-science, and electromagnetic profundity behind the making of this product; ergo that nagging skepticism. Look, I am an admitted moron when it comes to understanding that entire hyperbolic tangent. What I want to know is this, will the consumer connect with this product and simply choose to beam with pride from ownership, or will they agonize and argue superiority over fellow audiophiles? Most likely the former and not the latter, although, the forums may say otherwise…
The Element Series is unique in its architectural design and geometric conception. Its stunning multi-angled chassis displays no apparent parallel lines while defying the laws of perspective.
Available in gleaming, luxurious, 4-coat polyester finishes: Dusk/Black or Ice/White. The Element Series also comes wonderfully appointed with custom-designed & machined aluminum terminal back plates, precision machined reflex ports, and fabulous platinum W.B.T. connectors (bi-wireable).
The Element Series is designed to integrate seamlessly with the Tribe Series, for stunning synergy in surround setups.
- Unique architectural design and geometric conception
- Stunning multi-angled chassis
- Available in gleaming, luxurious, 4-coat polyester finishes
- Custom designed & machined aluminum terminal back plates
- 7-inch Torrent™ hand-assembled drivers
- Fabulous platinum W.B.T. connectors (bi-wireable)
- Revolutionary magnetic field technology
- No active or passive cross-over parts in the woofer section
- Fully rear-damped 7-inch cone
Frequency response 40 Hz - 22 kHz Impedance8 ohms
Recommended Power 50 W - 150 W Sensitivity 88 dB
Width 224 mm / 8.81” Height 421 mm / 16.6” Depth 297 mm / 11.7”
Audible reorientation is in order. I have to adjust to what I am hearing, it is almost overwhelming at first, the information being presented to my ears is plentiful and very different from what I am accustomed to. I waited a few days before taking any serious notes and funny enough, I would write down the song I was listening to, and then no notes would follow. I sat in my chair in a sort of daze without critiquing each track.
I had “Bad Wings” 16/44.1 Flac from the Glitch Mob turned up about as loud as I’ve ever had my system. I snapped out of it long enough to mentally take note of “Ball & Biscuit” from White Stripes in 16/44.1 Flac. I wrote “tight snare, gritty guitar, Jack White clear vocals.” I didn’t know how to describe that at such high playback levels Jack’s wailing guitar screeches through the Fires, teetering on the edge of being strident, but I make it through the song without feeling punished and my ears were not begging my left hand to reason with my brain and lower the volume. No, I would not allude to it “sounding live” but I was a bit perplexed that I was expecting fatigue, my wife yelling from the other room to turn it down and still, no ringing.
“Three Legged Workhorse” from This Will Destroy You (16/44.1 Flac) has a clicking echo in the background that my KEF R300s could not reproduce with such air, space and roll off. Then later in the song, there is a robotic electric grunge sound reminiscent of 80’s Sci-Fi soundboard mixing. The drum kit is fabulous; there is no grating metallic zing from the symbol crashes, just smooth sheen.
I can tell right away that I want to dial up an all-day session of melodramatic progressive post rock—and play it loud! “A World Alone” from Lorde (16/44 Flac) is resplendent with the kind of fine details one wouldn’t normally pay attention to with such a hit pop princess track. Okay, I admit her catchy beats and mature voice has sucked me in as a fan, just don’t tell the guys at work.
The only time sibilance reared its ugly head in my music rotation was with Sarah Brightman singing “Think of Me” from her Phantom of the Opera days. The CD was not a very good representation, a 1988 release of the concert. Most tracks were low and details hard to extract. I would attribute most of this to poor recording.
At the opposite end, Nils Lofgren’s live concert recording of “Keith Don’t Go” (16/44.1 Flac) was sublime. Truly, I love to play this song on all new equipment, the delineation of Lofgren’s acoustic playing style, how much or little one can hear the ‘space’ around him and the sounds of those strings being plucked at. This time I have to nod my head and say this is about 9/10’s to a live venue. The crescendo is fabulous, fast, dynamic, micro details emanating well beyond the Fires edge. As he rapidly strums at the song's climax, the weight and metallic pulse of those strings really do sound damn close to real, real in the sense that there is imperfect grain to what live music sounds like, nothing polished, nothing omitted, just raw.
Equally important for late night, or very early morning listening is the fact that the Element Fires still softly breathe definition, detail, and a pretty impressive soundstage on the low. One could argue a close sound to Martin Logan Theo’s at low volume.
So where is my beef? I cannot deny the effort Totem engineers put into researching new materials, solving for age-old problems, how one goes about stuffing a ton of expensive technology in a compact component that sounds like a large sophisticated reproduction device. I was very impressed with the Uni-Q and new Aluminum Magnesium Pulp drivers used in the KEF R300s, so exploring the new Torrent driver, one could be blind and yet notice something radically different from the look of all prior drivers. High-quality parts cost big bucks; high-quality finishing material takes time to complete. R&D is not cheap and of course, the company needs to move enough units to help pay for all that research and investment. So where is my beef?
While I use two subwoofers with bookshelf speakers, both crossed over at 60 Hz, low end grunt was well taken care of. One thing I consistently noticed through all my listening is the lack of lower mid-bass and some mid-bass energy. I realize that the KEF R300’s could color the sound and emphasize mid-bass frequency and pronouncement, and I wonder if the lack of this with the Fires in my room was an accuracy thing, or what? Just a few weeks back I had seen Nickle Creek live in Saratoga California. What a fabulous concert—what fantastic musicians.
Playing the album “Reasons Why” (16/44.1 Flac), that mid-bass energy was totally flat. I do not have measurement devices…yet, so I really cannot explain an innate feeling of missing something, and if I am missing something from $6K worth of speakers, on my salary, I have a problem. There are many, many great full-range speakers out there for $5,000 dollars, not to mention some semi-custom bookshelf jobs for less than $6,000. With truth and candor, I would not pay $5,999 for bookshelf speakers to be left with this ‘not all is there’ feeling.
Please understand that every single thing else these speakers did was awesome, I meant it when I said Keith Don’t Go was the best I have ever heard in my room to date. I played the hard-edged post-rock group Ocoai’s “Breatherman” and felt goosebumps from how sinister they sounded with the Fires. The Fires can do hard rock, they play classical music with ease, and Nora Jones was ridiculously good. I simply cannot justify this level of diminishing returns, or the gap from KEF R300s to Totem Element Fires being a worthy purchase I would make.
I want and do expect (maybe too much) from a $6,000 purchase. Now, to really irritate the manufacturer, to buy these in near perfect condition at half the price, I can and would cross that bridge—how else did you think I got these in my listening space? Cheers!
- KEF R300: An Owners Journey
A review of my KEF R300 bookshelf speakers and the long journey through the audio kingdom to find them.
Jason R. Manning (author) from Sacramento, California on October 17, 2015:
Hey there Pablolie, thank you for coming back to give an extended impression of the Fires. I always welcome updates and changes of perception and or confirmation of opinion. I am glad you are living contended with your Fires. I still look with an intent eye for a pair of reasonably priced Earths, I still crave and must have a fuller range presentation. Like you, if I ever had to go back and downsize to bookshelf's, the TEF would also be my number one choice. Thank you for sharing your experience, please come back and let me know if you change anything. Cheers!
pablolie on October 16, 2015:
it has been a while, and i just wanted to comment on the fact that i have over time fallen in passionate and total love with the TEF, and probably shall never own another speaker (famous last words). not sure if they came into their own over time, or if my ear adjusted to them, but they are simply a lot of *fun* to listen to, and i know it's not because they distort anything. i actually don't think the middles are receded anymore - i think it's because (very unusually for a bookshelf speaker, albeit a pretty large one) the bass response is simply so tight and extended, and the highs are so linear, that together they initially steal the show when one's ears weren't tuned to that extension. but ultimately it represents true high end stuff, that linear, analytical and wide frequency extension, and these things rock and are fun. I still love the LS50, but have learned to adore the TEF.
Fidelity on February 09, 2015:
Great writing! I am a Totem, Magico, Devialet dealer in Vancouver, BC and in the fortunate position to live with these daily. I also manufacture speakers under Fidelity Acoustics label, where I have immense fun in designing and developing and cooking the sound that I believe to be right. One of the problems I encounter is the long versus short term impressions my clients get. Lots of speakers do well on the short term listening demo and sound impressive, but do badly in the long term. In the long term it isn't impressive sound but rather musicality that wins.
I would love to hear from you; email@example.com
Jason R. Manning (author) from Sacramento, California on December 19, 2014:
I would like to hear/read your take on the new NAD line. You are correct about the Bel Canto giving a level of forgiveness, yet keeping a detailed character. The DAC 2.5 has done things to speakers I have not thought possible. Only one pair of speakers was beyond its powers to tame and that was a pair from Axiom (which I have lots of sour grapes towards). Digitally speaking, you are spot on, what we can do with servers and DAC’s is amazing. Room correction equipment is also in another realm – however, I have to say that these JBL 250’s give me serious pause about what we would get from a $4k - $8k pair of speakers today. I also spent a few months with some Altec Lansing Model 14’s that transformed my bias toward horn speakers, I was not a fan until I gave these my undivided attention. This reminds me I am really behind on writing about the journey….
pablolie from san francisco bay area, california on December 18, 2014:
look forward to your review. of both the Bel Canto and the JBLs.
i love the Benchmark, but am about to experiment with the NAD M12. i like a lot of accuracy, blended with a smitten of forgiveness. i hear the Bel Canto does that well, and NAD tends to do that too. we shall see.
in general i think it is an absolutely amazing time to be an audiophile with a 5-10k budget - it seems the engineering in that space has taken a huge step forward. my current system -it pains me a little to say- sounds better than the 40k system i put together in y2k. it is a matter of room acoustics, of course, but i think some companies have really turned up the innovation notch.
in the new year i shall add a few reviews myself, your audio journey is inspiring.
Jason R. Manning (author) from Sacramento, California on December 17, 2014:
Hello Pabolie, I actually have jumped in a different rabbit hole as of late. I am in love with a pair of JBL 250 Ti's I have been listening to for the past several weeks. I really agree with everything you have stated. I have a large listening room so I can play with several options and am having fun all along the way (the most important part :-)) Your DAC was my second choice to the Bel Canto, I absolutely love this Bel Canto - I have been procrastinating my review for a long while, I still have the notes, just not the time. Thank you so much for the dialogue on this.
pablolie from san francisco bay area, california on December 16, 2014:
yes, but i decided to keep them, after long thought, and especially after i paired them with a NAD M22 power amp fed by a Benchmark DAC2HGC. i am also keeping the KEF LS50 (forever). i think i like both combinations immensely, for different reasons, and i like to swing. :-) i can wholeheartedly recommend the LS50 to anyone spending 1.5k on speakers. you may never need another speaker. doing the same on the TEF (totem element fire) for nearly 6k is a different proposition. it works for me for a lot of music, but i wouldn't recommend it to a friend that struggles to pay mortgage and put kids through private school. audio is about diminishing results that these days cut earlier than you think. i have heard several 200k systems that -to me- sounded crappy. the TEF fall into the totally balanced and musical camp. and they seem to be coming into9 their own with the M22 as i let them play on.
it is also a function of audio room characteristics and stuff. no easy choices there, and as you said, a distracting journey until you establish your personal likes in your personal listening room. good luck everybody :-)
i really like the TEF, all in all. i am keeping them (not sure if you did). between them and the LS50 i can rotate amazing speakers for a while...
Jason R. Manning (author) from Sacramento, California on December 16, 2014:
Greetings Pablolie, I thank you for taking the time to share your feedback and experience with the Totem Fires. I am further glad that it wasn't just me and someone else could verify with their own ears that small but important lack of mid-range flare. KEF is a mid-range genius product, it is too bad it is so difficult to meld together the strengths of competitive products into one "moderately affordable" speaker.
Thank you for the compliment - Cheers.
pablolie from san francisco bay area, california on December 15, 2014:
i share your point of view - the low middles and high bass seem a bit lacking. male and female voices (which KEFs traditionally excel at) come across a bit lean. in comparing this $6k speaker to the KEF LS50 -which is 25% the asking price of the Fire- i actually prefer the KEF LS50.
there's nothing fundamentally wrong with the Fire - it does punch with authority (as you'd expect from such a big driver) and it reaches high with crystal clear quality, and maybe it's because of those two strengths that the middle gets squeezed out some.
keep writing reviews... :-)