Perched on their stands in my listening room, these new £1799 per pair bookshelf speakers from Canadian loudspeaker specialist Totem measure just over 160mm wide and around 300mm tall. They look mighty small, so I'm mentally preparing myself to be underwhelmed, but they command a real presence, punching well above their weight in terms of sound quality and soundstage, and filling my listening room with no problems at all.
For those who might not know the name, Totem is Canadian. It was founded in 1987 by Vince Bruzzese, a self-confessed maverick who has admitted in interviews to being "outside the mainstream of Canadian loudspeaker design". I contacted him to discuss some aspects of the design, and he told me that phase coherence was "primordial in all our designs". He said that this coherence was maintained on- and off-axis, in both the vertical and horizontal planes, and that a key element in achieving this was to use a very accurate 'quasi' first-order crossover (6dB/octave).
Bruzzese added that the drivers were specifically designed to work together and "intermesh as a single unit". The crossover, which operates around 2.6kHz, has a large overlap between the drivers. It is hard-wired and uses one OFC Litz-wired air-cored inductor feeding the polypropylene-coned 130mm (c5in) long-throw woofer and one metallised polypropylene film plus a cylindrical paper/oil capacitor for the 33mm fabric dome tweeter. The tweeter network also has a resistor to fine-tune level and phase.
The 130mm woofer, produced specifically for Totem by Morel, has a large 75mm voice coil, is said to handle 500W peaks, and, according to Bruzzese, "offers better control, speed and impulse for this small-volume design". The dome tweeter is made by Muller in Germany to Totem's specifications and has a large, linear suspension that allegedly makes it "ruler flat to 30kHz".
The MDF cabinet is made by Totem and uses lock-mitred edges and corners to make it light, yet stiff. Veneered inside and out, it also has borosilicate dampening paint on the internal surfaces to "equalise energy flow". The cabinet is reflex-loaded by a rearward-facing port, and a small (50x50x75mm) cube of foam on the back wall is included to break up standing waves.
The review pair was finished in a very handsome mahogany veneer, but the speaker is also available in black ash. As with many speakers these days (probably due to dealer pressure), the Sky had four gold-plated terminals on the back panel for bi-wiring (or - amping), and came shipped with a gold-plated link strap; these simply slip out for bi-wiring, and were used in bi-wire mode for the whole of my listening.
The other thing to bear in mind is to use a good amplifier with a generous power rating. The Sky claims an 87dB sensitivity, which compares with the KEF LS50's 88dB, the B&W CM5 S2's 85dB and Neat Acoustics Motive SX3's 86dB. But an amplifier with a minimum of around 50W will still be wanted, and something in at least the class of an Arcam A39. Low-power valve amplifiers are unlikely to be the best choice for this particular speaker. I used an A39 for some my listening, but also pressed into service my trusty old Naim NAC32/2xNAP135 setup. Both LP and CD provided the source material.
From the very first few bars I played on the Sky (which happened to be that great song Jack and Diane from the John Cougar album American Fool), it became clear that the Sky was no lightweight – neither in terms of quality, nor in terms of its sheer weight and presence in my 20ft listening room. Vocal clarity was superb, guitars were open with great dynamics, and the track as a whole rocked along very nicely indeed.
Switching quickly to an old favourite of mine, Ben Sidran's Let's Get Away from it All (from the album Old Songs for the New Depression), only confirmed my first impressions. Open, weighty and dynamic on piano, full and rhythmic on Marcus Miller's snappy bass lines, and persuasive and articulate on Sidran's vocals, the Totem Sky was slowly but surely winning itself an admirer.
I had recently picked up a half-speed mastered LP version of John Martyn's classic Solid Air and I couldn't wait to hear what the Sky could do on the title track. It certainly didn't disappoint. Martyn's vocals were open and well defined; bass lines had great weight and detail. All in all, on what is a very difficult track for even a top system to hold together, the Sky turned in an articulate, rhythmic and coherent performance. When I say this speaker punches above its weight, it surely did that in spades on these last two tracks.
I was really warming to the Sky, and was beginning to like them tremendously, so on went Lay Down Sally from Eric Clapton's Slowhand album, which has a syncopated kick drum beat that really drives the song along. This was handled with great panache by the Sky.
I next reached for another favourite album from the golden 1970s era in America, that produced the likes of the Eagles, Poco, Linda Ronstadt, Jackson Browne and Orleans. I refer to the Black Rose album by John David Souther, who co-wrote a number of Eagles songs (and who was also married to Linda Ronstadt). This unusual album refuses to be pigeonholed as country, rock or jazz, straddling all of those genres with its unique style. While my chosen track, Faithless Love, is a great ballad in the conventional sense, its instrumentation is very unusual for a country song, featuring viola, cello, double bass, flute and oboe. The Sky conveyed Souther's vocals coherently and expressively, and captured the nuances of play in the various instrumental strata beautifully. The body, voice and playing of each instrument was well handled, and I found myself impressed that such a small speaker could handle it as convincingly as it did.
As each new track hit the turntable and each new CD spun up for its turn, the Totem Sky continued to impress and never disappointed. I tried to trip them up and get them to fall flat on their face, as the reviewer must. That's one reason why I hit them with that John Martyn track earlier. But they never did fall down badly and always handled whatever I chose throw at them.
Put them on a good rigid stand (the actual partnering stands are priced at a costly £375/pair); feed them with a good quality source signal from vinyl or CD/streamer, and use an amplifier of at least the quality and power of an Arcam A39, and the Sky is capable of a surprising standard of performance, and suffers from few vices. They are well made, look good, sound good and clearly merit Recommendation. What more could you want for £1799/pair?