Totem Tribe Towers Compact Excellence

By Jeff dorgay

Listening to the deep bass line in Lyle Lovett’s “She’s Already Made up her Mind,” I’m still amazed after nearly 20 years of reviewing speakers, at how Totem’s Vince Bruzzese gets so much bass out of such small cabinets.

These svelte speakers are instantly riveting. The tiny frontal area of the enclosures houses a 1.3-inch soft dome tweeter coupled to a pair of 4-inch Torrent drivers, which are technological marvels. Totem has the only 4-inch woofer that is capable of a 26Hz free air resonance, and the dome tweeter goes effortlessly up to 30kHz. You can read more about the tech involved here, but it’s safe to say that Totem has succeeded brilliantly here in terms of clarity and phase accuracy.

Moving on to some more bass-heavy tracks, these speakers move serious air, regardless of their size. Five different amplification choices from Boulder, Nagra, Pass, PrimaLuna and VAC all deliver the goods: the highly resolving nature of the Tribe Towers quickly shows off the nuances between them all. With a 4-ohm impedance and an 89db/1-watt sensitivity, they work well with tubes or solid-state amplification. As expected, they offer slightly more slam with a big solid-state amplifier, but your personal preference will dictate what you pair your Totem Tribes with. We’ve often seen Totem use a Boulder amp in their demos, but rest assured that you’ll still get that deep bass you heard when tracking through Yello (just like you heard in the demo) with a good tube amp too.

Switching the program to Laurie Anderson’s Live at Town Hall NYC reinforces the exceptional spatial abilities of these speakers – from the ethereal openness of Anderson’s voice to the correctness of the applause in the audience. Staying in the Laurie Anderson groove a little longer, “Excellent Birds” (from Mister Heartbreak) combines both characteristics in one track. It’s incredible how far cone speaker design has come in 20 years or so – you no longer need a panel speaker to achieve this kind of three-dimensional presentation, only to have to compromise dynamics and impact.

Fine details make the difference

The new Totem Tribe Tower tips the price scale at $5,300/pair in Satin white or black and $5,800/pair in gloss ICE (white) or DUSK (black).Perhaps it’s Bruzzese’s love of automobiles, but these speakers are finished as well as any luxury car (if not better than some) and sport a gloss and lack of orange peel that you might expect from a $100,000 pair of Wilson or Focal speakers. Much like a cool car, they look great just standing still.

Our review samples arrive in the gloss black and reveal another great surprise: these beautiful speakers only weigh about 30 pounds each – a significant bonus. Nothing like high-performance speakers that won’t break the bank or your back. After a year of moving 300 and 400-pound speakers, I can’t tell you how welcome this is.

While the Tribe Towers deliver excellent sonics and top value for their price, this is a very important category. With so many great speakers starting at $10k/pair, making the Tribe Towers the anchor of your system allows you to build an excellent system for under $10k, and something pretty stunning for $20k – $30k (depending on whether you require equally good analog and digital performance, or just one excellent source) The Tribe Towers offer enough sonic performance that you can grow pretty far with them, as your enthusiasm and budget allow.

Every aspect of these speakers offers a level of quality that isn’t seen at this price. It starts with the finish, but it’s more than just a pretty paint job. The absolute precision of the finish work on the cabinet edges, dual WBT binding posts, and an innovative approach to the speaker’s feet is impressing. Totem eschews the spikes in favor of round, machined, ball-like feet that offer the same sonic coupling benefit of spikes, yet won’t damage your floor.

The only possible drawback to these feet is the small footprint, and light weight of the enclosures may be a bit wobbly on a relatively loose weave carpet or area rug. Those with small children and modest to large dogs will have to be a bit cautious, as I fear these speakers might be easier than some to topple. The price we pay for beauty.

Back to the sound

One of the secrets to the Tribe Towers success is the quality of the enclosure, crossover, and drivers, along with the meticulous attention to detail in the construction process. Totem hand-builds their crossover boards with a point to point wiring scheme, avoiding the pitfalls of a printed circuit board. The drivers are all hand-matched for uniformity, and the crossover is a gentle, first-order design, only connected to the tweeter.

Totem claims that this helps to offer a cleaner phase response, and it doesn’t take more than a few minutes to confirm this. Combining this with the minimal front baffle makes for a speaker that quickly disappears in the room, and creates a broad, immersive soundfield in all three dimensions. No crossover whatsoever in the woofer path adds to the fine detail these speakers are able to resolve.

Whether your go-to demo tracks favor vocals or acoustic instruments, the Tribe Towers deliver such a detailed presentation, it almost feels like a pair of premium headphones. We were consistently surprised, having several “wow I didn’t hear that” moments with these speakers. Again, this is the kind of thing you expect for 10, 20, or 30 thousand dollars a pair, but is rarely offered at this price.

The Tribe Towers perform equally well in our 12 x 18-foot room (on the short wall) and our larger 16 x 26-foot room (on the long wall), with just a tiny bit of toe-in. In both places, we followed their suggestion, starting with the speakers about 4 feet from the rear wall, which is an excellent starting point. In the smaller room, the speakers ended up about 6 feet apart and then in the larger room about 10 feet apart. While the smaller room offers a slightly more intimate sonic presentation, these speakers are capable of filling a bigger room with ease.

Should you really like to rock out and have a bigger room, you may want to consider an amplifier in the 75-200 watt per channel range. Physics is physics. In a smaller room, 30-40 watts of high-quality amplification will suffice for all but those needing excessive volume.

Just like the other Totem speakers we’ve either reviewed or listened to at various shows, they possess incredible dynamic range. The Tribe Towers can play loud, really loud when you want to listen to heavy rock, but they also sound good at low level (around 75db average). Not all speakers can accomplish this, but the Tribe Towers are as much a joy to listen to quietly.

Their ability to process large dynamic swings also means the Tribe Towers make a great pair of front speakers in a modest-sized theater system. While we didn’t have a full Totem system to do this, we did use them briefly in our bedroom system, powered by the latest Anthem multichannel receiver with excellent results. And, Totem makes a full line of surround and architectural speakers along with their own subwoofers, so you can keep a uniform sonic signature throughout.

Parting random thoughts

After living with these speakers for some time and using them in a variety of different listening situations, the smile only gets bigger. These are approachable speakers that are indeed without compromise. Their design is very user-friendly – all that experienced them enjoyed them as much as we did, with nary a “not in my living room” comment to be had.

Knowing that Totem has been around for decades, and has a well-established dealer network around the world means that your Totem Tribes will always be supported. This is a big part of what makes them a trustworthy investment. Their commitment to a phase coherent design makes them so engaging to listen to.

Bottom line: zero complaints.