In September, Montreal-based Totem Acoustic celebrated its 30th anniversary. When Vince Bruzzese founded the company in 1987, he was teaching high-school math and physics. A lifelong music-lover and audiophile, Bruzzese was dissatisfied with the speakers he had owned, so set out to create his own.
His first commercially released product was the Totem Model 1, a two-way monitor. Following its launch at the Montreal Audio Show in 1989, the Model 1 quickly earned a reputation for speed, dynamics, imaging and tonal accuracy.
Totem has just introduced the Signature One, a thorough reworking of the original Model 1. Bruzzese has been busy on other projects as well. At TAVES in Toronto last November, Totem showed the Sky two-way monitor, which retails in Canada for $1,850 per pair. Shipments began in the spring, and the product is getting great reviews.
The Signature One (reviewed here) was announced at CES 2017; shipments have just begun. At the Montreal Audio Fest in March, Totem showed two floor-standers: the Sky Tower and the Tribe Tower, the latter using the company's Torrent drivers. Bruzzese is also working on a new version of the Mite two-way monitor, which will ship late this year for $950 per pair.
In early August, WiFi HiFi Publisher John Thomson and I visited Totem's headquarters to talk to Bruzzese about his new products, and about his unique approach to speaker design. Joining us were Lucy Lentini, Totem's VP of Sales and Marketing (also Bruzzese's muse and shield), and Lionel Goodfield, Totem's new Director of PR. What follows is a heavily abbreviated version of our discussion.
Gordon Brockhouse: Over the years, I've visited a lot of speaker companies. Frequently, they show me their anechoic chamber and IEC listening rooms. You have a very different methodology and philosophy.
Vince Bruzzese: Several years ago, we built a small chamber next door with two-foot cement walls. It was very disturbing for me to go in there to test a speaker. It's not natural for us to live in a non-reverb world. It would have hindered my interpretation on how music is produced by a speaker, so we decided to scrap it.
For listening, we just use a corner of my office, and other rooms in the building. This is the way to maximize the spatial imaging of a speaker. This is the way to deliver the intensity of a musical performance.
There's a hidden message in ever recording. It's my job as a speaker designer to extract that message. You're not going to do this by shifting response by a half or quarter decibel here and there. It's about harmonics, and how they're dispersed throughout the room. The room cannot fight the harmonic energy coming out of a speaker. That's why we test our speakers in real room environments.
Our goal is simplicity and musicality, and very accurate phase response across all axes. I'm a tallish person. If I sit up and walk around, I don't want to be disturbed. That's why we listen to our speakers for months on end while we're evaluating parts. It takes a couple of years to bring out a speaker. I've been working on the Signature One for a couple of years.
GB: How did the Signature One come about?
VB: As soon as we let the original Model 1 go out to pasture, Lucy said we have to start thinking about our 30th anniversary. We needed something that would create the same excitement as the launch of the original Model One back in 1989. It took me a while to realize that a speaker of the same size will not work in today's world.
We wanted to make it an 8Ω speaker. If we're going to make a larger speaker with 8Ω impedance through the audio band, I looked at our Forest model. The Forest always had a great volume, and it's a big powerful speaker.
The Signature One uses the same woofer and tweeter as the Forest, but selected in slightly different patterns. The tweeter is our tried-and-true SEAS unit. We're on our fifth generation. We build half of it here. SEAS was the first company to build a driver specifically for Totem. That was 28 years ago.
GB: Why was constant 8Ω impedance so important?
VB: With the disparity in electronics that exists today, you're better off producing an 8Ω speaker. We're reaching out to a greater variety of people, and some of them may want to pair the speaker with a small integrated amp. If we make it an 8Ω speaker, it has a higher chance of achieving its potential.
GB: I was blown away by the Signature One's dynamics. Is that because it's letting the amplifier do its job more easily?
VB: The amplifier isn't choking. That tweeter-woofer combination is dynamite. But you wouldn't believe how a small change creates the ease of flow. It's doubly hard to extract that type of dynamics out of a small speaker, but we needed a slightly larger volume.
GB: You've been working on a lot of speakers during the past couple of years. Do ideas cross-pollinate from one product to another?
VB: One model can show you the faults in other models. As I was developing the Signature One, the Sky was there to motivate me. The Sky said, "Look at me, I can play with anything. Put me close to a wall and I'm going to bomb everything of this planet." The Signature One takes that to an audiophile level, and puts you right in that recording where you hear everything. It has that quietness in space. The space between instruments in the stereo image is dead quiet, so the speaker portrays things you thought were not possible.
GB: For an article in our last issue, I spoke with an engineer from Bell Media about a Dolby Atmos project he worked on. One of the things he likes about object-oriented surround is the way it can separate different elements in a musical performance. That's what struck me about the Signature One. On some recordings, the presentation had an Atmos-like immersive quality. Instead of portraying a group of musicians in an amorphous image, it shows the musicians in well-defined locations, so you get the same kind of spatial unmasking that you get with an elaborate multi-channel system.
VB: Absolutely. That's what we're trying to get in stereo. People who make recordings put an enormous amount of effort into them. Whether I'm listening to an FM broadcast, CD or digital download, it's got to excite me. Whether it's a 1959 recording of John Coltrane, or Hendrix, or Monteverdi, I want to be put there.
We suffer the consequences for this. It's expensive to build a box the way we do. It's expensive to use £20 and £30 capacitors. We do it because that's our principle, our reason for existence. We'll use a metal-encapsulated paper-oil capacitor just to get the correct phasing. We're able to get a clarity from the tweeters that we could not have obtained five or six years ago.
GB: How do you choose parts? Is it just trial and error?
VB: I just put them on the speaker itself, and then when I find a certain resistor that give it a little more, that's what I use. A lot of people think a resistor just changes the level of the tweeter. No, it changes the Q factor of the whole system [i.e. the way the system stores and releases energy].
Is this measureable? We've had people who make test instruments here trying to sell us measurement systems with microphones surrounding the speaker. On one occasion, I did a two-minute demonstration of one of our speakers to one of these people, and asked, "Do you think we really need this system?" She said no. We achieve what we're trying to achieve from listening.
GB: Are there tradeoffs in speaker design between amplitude and phase response?
VB: I'd say that phase response is the most important. As soon as the phase response is perfect, you're reaching almost perfect amplitude response. Then it comes down to driver choices.
GB: Something thing that struck me about the Signature One is how rhythmic it is.
VB: I've heard speakers where I couldn't even recognize the music they're playing, because they're just not rhythmically inclined. One thing about our speakers, rhythm rules after phase. They're the same thing. If the phase is beautiful, the rhythm will be just there.
GB: The bass from the Signature One is really impressive for a small speaker.
VB: For the Sky, we claim 3dB down at 48Hz, but in a room it can go deeper than that. With the Signature One, if you have the muscle behind it, in a real room environment, it will have information down to 20Hz, but it will be 10dB down.
GB: And it doesn't get ugly.
VB: Correct. It's better to have less bass, but with control, and not try to extract the maximum at 50Hz. At 50Hz, it's no better than the Sky. At 30Hz, it is, and it keeps those pulses going; but you need good equipment. That's why it's an audiophile product.
GB: Tell me what it means to Totem to manufacture in Canada.
VB: We purposely manufacture here in Canada. I was given an education here; and as a teacher, I contributed to others' education. I think the education process is critical, and so is having good jobs.
All final assembly is done here. Our Torrent drivers are machined in Trois-Rivières, because that's a lower production cost area for us. They're assembled next door in a little factory we have just for Torrent. The other drivers are tested and assembled here.
Crossovers used to be assembled here, but we had problems with fumes from the solder permeating the office area. So we set up two employees who used to build our crossovers in their own business, and they supply our crossovers. We have the same overhead, but not the fumes.
Cabinetry is outsourced to three different companies. We tried doing cabinetry in-house at the beginning. But the CSST [Quebec's workplace safety agency] charges 12.8% on every salary if we have a woodshop in the building.
We helped fund some of these sub-assembly suppliers, lending them the money to buy machinery. It would have been easy for us to build cabinets overseas. It would be more profitable, but it takes away from what we're doing. We're feeding at least 60 families here in Quebec. These families are paying taxes. We take these steps, which are very carefully thought-out, so we can contribute to this society.