Totem Acoustic Forest Loudspeakers

By Mark Marcantonio

One of the most exciting aspects of high-end audio is finding an unassuming product that delivers big results. Totem Acoustics has a well-deserved reputation for producing small speakers with a big sound. If you’ve experienced a Totem demo at a hi-fi shows, you know the company demonstrates a habit of playing its entry-level speakers more often than the flagship models, as if to reinforce this message.

My personal fun with the Totem Forest speakers began with the first track I played, Joe Walsh’s “Life’s Been Good.” The review pair arrived courtesy of an East Coast Totem dealer rather than directly from the Montreal factory, so some of the break in was already complete. A solid week spent listening to classic rock, served up via the McIntosh MS750 music server, handily finished the break-in period.

Not that I minded looking at the speakers in the meantime. My Forests were finished in Ice, a high-gloss finish that has the slightest tinge of gray, and part of the family of four “design” high-gloss paint finishes that include Dusk, Sky, and Fire. (Black, Blue and Red). They are also available in white satin and three wood finishes: black ash, mahogany and cherry. Finish quality on the review pair was as smooth as anything coming from the Wilson factory, a highly impressive feat for a $3,500 pair of speakers.

Unique Approaches

Totem’s preference to call its speakers “columns” underlines the distinctive aspects that make up the Forest. The color gives the Forests the appearance of being larger than the 7.7 x 34.3 x 10.6″ (195 x 870 x 270 mm) measurements suggest. The rounded front edges are different than many of Totem’s other models. And instead of utilizing conventional spikes to mechanically couple the speakers to the floor, designer Vince Bruzzese took a novel approach. A trio of aluminum “Claws,” with balls arrayed in a triangle pattern, comprises a very solid base. Functionally, the balls act like spikes and decouple the speaker from the floor.

The Forest is a two-way design, featuring a 6.5-inch (165mm) woofer and a 1-inch (25mm) chambered aluminum dome tweeter, with a second-order crossover at 2.5 kHz. Drivers are neatly flush mounted, and according to the well-written manual, should be listened to without grilles. Totem is firm in its belief that grilles are optional. Unless you have small children or shed-prone pets, they will probably be unnecessary.

Peeking inside the cabinet reveals the same level of attention to the finer details. The interior is sprayed with borosilicate damping material instead of stuffing foam. Similarly, the crossover network is also robustly built with top-quality components and heavy wiring.

Straight-Ahead Setup

The Forests spent the most time in my 13 x 19 foot family room, which has an 8-foot ceiling. During the initial weeklong break-in period, the speakers were randomly placed but still threw a very convincing three-dimensional soundfield. These are not finicky speakers.

Listeners that spend a few hours on placement will reap tremendous rewards, as careful setup techniques yielded even better sound. In my room, the Forests ended up three feet from the rear and side walls, with my listening position about 8 feet back. Wide dispersion is a Totem hallmark, and the Forests were one of the few speakers I’ve experienced that did not require toe-in alignment. (Not that they sounded overly harsh with the toe-in array.) The wide dispersion also helps when listening casually from another room. Guests were always impressed at how good the Forests sounded, even when used as background entertainment.

Important note: The Forests’ imaging performance suffers if you have to place them too close to the rear or side walls. If possible, give the speakers at least 18–24 inches from any wall. Their rated power handling is 50–200 watts, with a nominal impedance of 6 ohms, making the Forests easy to drive with solid-state or vacuum tube electronics. I got great results with the AudioEngine N22 amplifier and vintage Marantz 2230B (22–30 watts per channel), so if you currently don’t have the budget for speakers and speakers, the Forests provide a great foundation on which you can build.

Taking Care of Business

Thanks to the surfeit of power supplied by the i-7 amplifier, it was easy to put the Forests to task. In most instances, your ears will give out before the speakers do. When listening to the Pixies’ “Allison” from Mobile Fidelity’s remaster of Bossanova at high volumes, the Forests still maintained the placement of the individual guitar tracks without experiencing any soundstage collapse.

If required, the Forests produce serious bass, but you will need to spend time fine-tuning them to your liking. A mass-loading compartment is located in the bottom of each speaker, and I found the perfect balance by placing about eight pounds of sand in each one. The upshot of utilizing the loading option instantly materialized on the music sources. Don Williams’ deep, gravely voice became tighter and better defined with the sand in place. And the thunderclaps in “Gaia,” from James Taylor’s Hourglass, carried a lot more weight than expected.

Instrumental pieces posed few challenges. John Berry’s sweeping, percussion- and horn-driven soundtrack to Dances With Wolves requires speakers with a wide soundstage in order to pull off the connection to the wide-open Dakota prairie. The French horns in “Journey to Fort Sedgewick” arrived with sublime tonality. And while the Forests admirably handled the percussion and detailed bass line in “Pawnee Attack,” the track illustrated the speakers’ understandable limitations. A small speaker can only move so much air, and the cut forced me to scale back the volume.

Dialing down the volume and switching the program material to Wilco’s 2009 self-titled album, I found the harmonies on “You and I” taking on a magical character. Whether you prefer Johnny or Rosanne Cash, listeners that favor male or female vocalists will enjoy the midrange body the Forests offer.

While the Forests proved an excellent match with vacuum-tube electronics, just like the Mites and Rainmakers that I have used extensively, they were a much better match with my modded PS Audio Trio C100 integrated amplifier than the aforementioned two examples proved to be. Your amplification choice shouldn’t be a limiting factor.

Final Call

Equally pleasant at low and high volume levels, Totem Acoustic Forests offer a highly musical experience for a modest price. They play well with the three major amplification types: solid-state, vacuum tubes, and Class D.  Factor in the ease of setup and a gorgeous pair of cabinets that come in a wide range of finishes, and you end up with a perfect recipe for a fatigue-free speaker that’s enjoyable to look at as it is to hear.

Additional Listening:

With so much attention placed on the stratosphere of hi-fi components, it’s always thrilling to hear something as engaging as the Forests at a price that most audiophiles can afford. Per Totem’s instruction, I used no toe-in on the speakers and put them about six feet apart (tweeter center to tweeter center) in my main listening room, which measures 24 feet wide and 16 feet deep. Placing them about four feet from the rear walls minimized sidewall interference. The Forests had a perfect balance of midrange clarity and sacrificed nothing in the bass department.

Even though these speakers are slightly on the lower side of the sensitivity scale, at 87db, the 45-watt-per-channel Conrad Johnson MV-50 C1 and 25-watt-per-channel Pass Labs M2 had a much easier time driving the Forests than they did my Magnepan 1.6 or Vandersteen 2CE speakers, which have similar sensitivity specifications. Since 25-40 watts will only get you so far, a quick swap for the new Simaudio Moon i700, with 175 watts per channel, offered me the ability to play my favorite metal and large-scale classical tracks without strain—at least until things got very loud.

The key term with these speakers? Balance. The Forests’ top-to-bottom coherence caught me off guard in the initial listening sessions. I wasn’t missing my panels, yet the Forests moved a serious amount of air when I wanted to get wacky with the volume control. By comparison, the Magnepans can be very beguiling when listening to solo vocals, but don’t rock with authority. The Forests ably captured vocal nuances and spatial cues, but also had the speed and weight necessary to thoroughly enjoy records like Electric Wizard’s Dopethrone.

Indeed, the Forests’ strong suit relates to how they offer a healthy dose of resolution without crossing over to the dark side of harshness. However, the speakers will reveal shortcomings in your gear if it is not up to par. Connect the Forests to a budget solid-state integrated and you will probably be disappointed. But don’t point your finger at the Forests. Spend a few extra bucks on some worthy components (I suggest a nice tube amp), some decent cable, and I suspect you will share my amazement in hearing that $3,500 speakers can sound this good. TONE is proud to award Totem one of our first Exceptional Value Awards for 2011.  -Jeff Dorgay

The Totem Forest

$3,495 per pair


Analog Source Rega RP1 w/Ortofon Super OM40    Simaudio 5.3
Digital Source McIntosh MS300 Music Server    Simaudio D300 DAC
Amplifiers Simaudio Moon i7    Vista Audio i34
Misc Shuynyata Venom 3 power cords