Back in the early 1980s, hi-fi dealers used to blow customers' minds by playing music through a quality budget amplifier connected to a pair of small bookshelf speakers. The NAD 3020 integrated amp and LS3/5a BBC monitors were favoured components for this audio parlour trick.
Listeners were invariably taken aback by the big spacious sound and pinpoint imaging, and the fact that the system could play surprisingly loud, given the 3020's modest 20-wpc output and the LS3/5a's tiny stature. These systems launched a whole generation of music-lovers into serious hi-fi sound.
You can think of the system under review as a 21st-centry update of those classic setups. But it's better in every way: more dynamic, more linear, more musical. While these components are manufactured offshore, they're Canadian designs. Totem Acoustic is based in Montreal, while NAD's parent company Lenbrook is based in Pickering, ON.
Priced at $599, NAD's D3020 Hybrid Digital Amplifier is rated at 2x30 watts. As the model designation is meant to convey, the D3020 is a tribute to the classic 3020, the best-selling integrated amp in history; but it's thoroughly digital. In addition to optical and coaxial digital inputs, it has an asynchronous USB input that can accept streams to 96kHz/24 bits. There are also two analog outputs (a pair of RCA jacks, and a 3.5mm stereo jack). Finally, the D3020 also has Bluetooth capability, so you can stream music from a mobile device.
You toggle through inputs using by pressing the big "S" (for "source") on the top, or from the supplied remote control. On the front, there's a big volume control, a subdued digital display that shows the input source and level, and a 3.5mm headphone jack. You can place the amp vertically or horizontally, and the display will reorient itself accordingly.
Priced at $500 per pair, the Totem Kin Mini is a very compact monitor, even tinier than the LS3/5a. It's available in black satin and white satin finishes. On the front baffle, which slopes upward gently, is a 4" phenolic honeycomb woofer and .75" soft dome tweeter. The woofer material is stiffer than metal, says Totem President and Chief Designer Vince Bruzzese. Bruzzese favours minimalist crossover designs with premium parts, and the Kin Mini has uses a single air-core inductor and polypropylene capacitor, along with 14-guage internal wiring. The result, he says, is that the Kin Mini can play very loud, with no saturation in the midrange. A pair of Kin Minis can be put in almost any position, Bruzzese says, and still image correctly.
Just now coming to market is the matching Kin Mini subwoofer, also priced at $500. The sealed enclosure houses a 6" carbon-fibre woofer, which is angled upward slightly, powered by a 110-watt amplifier. On the back are line- and speaker-level inputs, along with controls for level, crossover frequency and phase. It can be set to switch on from standby when it detects a signal. Totem specifies the -3dB point for this little sub at 32Hz.
Following Bruzzese's suggestion that I burn the Kin Minis in for about 70 hours before doing any critical listening, I played a folder containing Richard Goode's performance of all 32 of Beethoven's Piano Sonatas (Nonesuch, ALAC files ripped from CD), then went about my business. Right off the bat, I was blown by how natural the piano sounded.
After the break-in period, I placed the Kin Minis on the top shelf of a fold-down desk, about a foot from the front wall, and connected them to the D3020 using speaker cables supplied by Totem. I did some listening in desktop mode, sitting about four feet away. But I also got up and moved around the room, listening from distances to 10 feet. Music came from my MacBook Air, running the BitPerfect player on top of iTunes, and connected via USB to the D3020.
I wanted to hear how the Kin Minis would fare without the sub. Totem says they'll play down to 90Hz with proper room positioning. Sticking with piano, I cued up Angela Hewitt's performance of J.S. Bach's Keyboard Sonatas and French Suites (16/44.1 download from Hyperion Records). The lively Fugue from the D Minor Sonata was sheer delight, full of sparkle and expression.
Playing "Somewhere/Everywhere" from the Keith Jarrett Trio's Live in Lucerne 2009 (ECM, 24/96 download from HDTracks), I was aware of the limitations of these little speakers. The D3020 and Kin Minis played the long improvisation at the end of this track with lots of drive and energy, producing a wide image above my desk. But Gary Peacock's bass sounded anemic, especially in the lower strings.
Connecting the Kin Mini Sub to the D3020's subwoofer transformed the sound. I set the crossover frequency control on the sub to maximum, allowing the D3020 to handle crossover function; then simply adjusted the sub's level and phase controls to get a good blend with the Kin Mini speakers.
With the sub taking care of deep bass, everything became effortless. This little system produced a convincing image above my desk that extended beyond the speaker plane and the wall behind the speakers. While I was able to localize the sub below my desk during nearfield listening, the effect lessened when I listened from further back in the room. Cranking up the volume until the 0dB light on the D3020 flickered occasionally on peaks, the system didn't sound strained. The lively rhythmic presentation during the long improvisation at the end of "Somewhere/Everywhere" made me want to play air drums along with Jack DeJohnette.
Going back to the Bach Sonata, I found an improvement there as well. The system sounded easier, more organic. It was the real deal, with Angela Hewitt's piano spread out on top of my desk.
The bass introduction in "Almost Like the Blues" from Popular Problems by Leonard Cohen (Sony Music, 24/96 download from HDTracks) was tight and energetic, and moved along irresistibly. In this case, the sub and Kin Minis blended very well. The mix of anguish and irony in Cohen's voice was portrayed as well as I've ever heard it.
At this price, you expect some limitations, and there are some. While it can play loud without obvious distress or compression, this little system can't convey big dynamic swings as well as a more powerful, more expensive rig.
Also, there's a bit of an edge in the upper midrange and lower treble that occasionally intrudes. For example, the Minnesota Orchestra's strings sounded a bit wiry in a performance of Beethoven's Third Piano Concerto with Yevgeny Sudbin (BIS, 24/96 download from eclassical.com). Similarly, Norah Jones' voice in "Cold Cold Heart" from Come Away with Me (Verve, 24/192 download from HDTracks) had a slight papery edge during nearfield listening. Stepping back away from my desk mitigated that effect. And the piano and other instruments were gorgeous.
So there are quibbles to make. But overall, I really like this little system. The D3020 and Kin Minis fare nicely on their own; but the system really blossoms with the Kin Mini Subwoofer thrown into the mix. What really impressed me me is how wonderfully organic this system can sound. Which raises an interesting question: 35 years from now, will people be remembering how they got into serious hi-fi with a surprisingly capable small system like this one?