Totem Acoustic Tribe I Speaker System
Just when I thought speaker designers could focus 100 percent of their talents on creating the best-sounding speakers, flat-screen TVs came along and created a burgeoning market for ultrasvelte plasma-friendly speakers. Anything other than the most demure designs now elicit comments like, "They're too big," "I think they're ugly," or the perennial, "Not in my living room!" from reticent shoppers. This just goes to show that, for some customers, style and size are the dominant factors when picking out a set of speakers. Maybe I'm overstating the case, but it's starting to look like colossal towers and even fairly small monitor speakers' days are numbered. Skinny on-walls are what's happening now.
Up Against the Wall
This leads to the question, how good can an on-wall speaker be? Vince Bruzzese, Totem Acoustic's president and chief designer, has a knack for extracting big and beautiful sound from the teeniest speakers. (See my review of the Totem Dreamcatcher system in our May 2003 issue.) With his Tribe I, Tribe II, and Tribe III speakers, Bruzzese is now applying his skills to the even trickier realm of on-wall speakers. He has sized the new models to visually complement 40-, 50-, and 60-inch screens. Bruzzese is also unleashing a potent micro subwoofer, the Storm, to provide a solid foundation for the Tribes.
My favorite a cappella group, the Persuasions, amply demonstrated the Tribes' strengths. Our ears are most keenly attuned to the sound of voices, so we can instantly detect unnatural colorations. But the Tribe speakers delivered the totality of the Persuasions' soulful music. Further listening revealed that the Tribes' sound was an advance over previous generations of Totems, as I heard a wealth of new detail from my go-to demo discs like the Best of Sessions at West 54th, Volume 1 DVD. The heightened resolution shimmered and shined on "Just Like You" by Keb' Mo', which had the in-the-moment vibe of live music. Clearly, Bruzzese isn't resting on his laurels.
I'm also happy to report that Totem still builds almost every part of their speakers, except the drivers, in Canada. The motives go beyond national pride; Bruzzese wants to maintain audio-obsessive control over quality. (The drivers are made to Totem's specifications in Europe.) Lurking inside the Tribes' lock-mitered cabinets are crossover networks brimming with high-quality parts. Sure, a lot of manufacturers make those sorts of claims. But the Tribes' crossovers feature pricey gold-and-silver foil capacitors and carbon-composite resistors, and, instead of mounting those components on a printed circuit board, Totem uses hand-crimped, Teflon-coated, oxygen-free copper wires. It's definitely a more expensive construction approach, but Bruzzese designs for quality sound, not the bottom line. Even the port tubes that bolster the Tribes' bass response are hand machined to precise tolerances.
The fanatical attention to detail extends to the nickel-plated, solid-copper Totem badge affixed to the Tribes' magnetically attached cloth grilles. And, for once, I actually preferred a speaker's sound with its grille in place. Each Tribe includes a sturdy wall bracket. You can place each of the three models either horizontally or vertically.
The Tribe I and Tribe II each feature twin 4-inch woofers flanking a 1.1-inch tweeter, but the Tribe III ($1,500) upstages the two lower models with its new 4-inch, Totem-designed-and-manufactured Torrent woofer. This mighty little woofer extends bass response and increases dynamic headroom beyond what the Tribe I and Tribe II speakers can achieve.
The Tribes are fitted with double sets of all-metal binding posts for biwiring, but, whether you wall- or stand-mount the speakers, the limited wall clearance precludes the use of thick speaker cables or even skinny cables fitted with banana plugs. I used standard Monster cables terminated with spades. It's worth noting that you can also use the Tribes in concert with Totem's all-out assault on in-wall speaker design, the Inner Spirit ($2,295/pair). Or use them in combination with Totem's smaller monitors like the Rainmaker ($950/pair) or Dreamcatcher ($430/pair) as surround speakers. I can imagine that some folks will even use Totem's petite Arro towers ($1,175/pair) with a Tribe as a center speaker.
Totem's new Storm mini subwoofer boasts 8-inch drivers on three sides, but only the front woofer is connected to the sub's 300-watt-rated amp. (The side-mounted units are passive radiators.) Connectivity accoutrement cover all basses...er, bases: you get stereo line-level inputs and outputs plus speaker-level ins and outs. Yes, you can bypass the Storm's built-in 40–250-hertz crossover, and the phase control is continuously variable.
A Wall of Sound
For this review, I set up Tribe Is as the front and surround speakers and a Tribe II in the center-channel position. A single Storm sub handled low-frequency support. On-wall speakers can't sound exactly like freestanding towers or stand-mounted monitor speakers; the prime difference is that the on-walls' soundstage isn't as deep and spacious. I was mostly aware of the wall inhibiting the soundstage's depth when I listened to CDs in stereo. But the stage was completely wide open, and the Tribes projected a nice sense of image height. With DVDs and multichannel music, the spatial coherency was never less than excellent. I also spent a good deal of time with the Tribes mounted on stands positioned about 3 feet out into the room—which significantly enhanced their presentation of depth.
I popped in the Day After Tomorrow DVD and let 'er rip. The surround mix put me inside a vortex of rain, hurricanes, tsunamis, and arctic wind. Forget judging the Tribes as on-wall speakers; they're just really good speakers. The little Storm sub loomed large as it unleashed the film's climactic maelstrom with serious gusto. Sure, home theater sound is the prime directive for on-walls, but, over the course of the review, I listened to more music than I watched movies. That's always a good sign.
If you get a chance to hear these Totems, do yourself a favor and bring along one of Wynton Marsalis' well-recorded big-band CDs—I recommend Live in Swing City. A lot of on-walls and otherwise decent freestanding speakers blend all of those swinging horns into one undifferentiated brass sound—but the Totems can decode the distinct tonalities of the band's trumpets, trombones, clarinets, and saxophones. And, thanks to the Tribes' silky smooth tweeters, the full-boogie horns never hurt my ears. OK, but could the Tribes do justice to the beat coursing through the Pixies Sell Out DVD? Throttling up "Wave of Mutilation" and "Where Is My Mind?" answered that question in a hurry. The Tribes can play loud enough to get my neighbors riled up. The speakers' extraordinary resolution of detail coasted through the band's melodic thrash, and Kim Deal's rippling bass lines left no doubt about the Storm's exacting pitch definition.
It's hardly a secret that flat-screen prices are plummeting, so smart buyers can take advantage of the windfall and reinvest the savings on a gathering of Tribes and a Storm subwoofer. Combining high-def video and high-def audio in a sleek package is not only possible, it's affordable.
• Finally, an on-wall speaker that sounds like an away-from-the-wall speaker in many respects
• The micro sub thunders like a big boy