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Positive Feedback ISSUE 10
october/november 2003


totem acoustic

the Sttaf loudspeakers

as reviewed by Victor Chavira and Ed Morawski


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Marten Design Monks.

Magnum Dynalab MD-208.

NAD T541 CD/DVD player. LINN Axiss turntable with the K9 cartridge.

Nordost Quattro-Fil interconnects, Analysis Plus Oval 9 speaker cables, and El Dorado power cords.

Audio Magic Stealth Power Purifier, Vibrapods, Townshend 3D sink, and  Echo Busters.


one.jpg (6551 bytes)Totem Acoustic of Canada is known for making high quality stand-mounted speakers such as the Model 1 and Mani 2. These speakers feature rigid cabinet construction, high quality drivers, hand assembled crossovers, and borosillicate damping material. The Sttaf is Totem’s answer to customer requests for an affordable floorstanding model.

The 36-inch-tall mahogany Sttafs are rectangular prisms. The driver complement includes 5-inch polypropylene woofers and 1-inch soft dome tweeters. The speakers rest freely upon black wooden bases that accept carpet-piercing spikes. Each Sttaf has two holes on its veneered back panel. The upper hole is a port. The lower hole is an access for sand-filling the bottom portion of the cabinet. Once the speakers have been optimally placed, they can be secured to their bases with wads of putty included with the speakers. I set up the Totems away from room boundaries with various degrees of toe-in.

The first thing that impressed me about the Sttafs was their big sound.

The speakers were barely waist high, yet they projected a broad and dynamic musical picture. For example, while playing Rush’s Moving Pictures and Permanent Waves on LP, I noted genuine impact from Neil Peart’s massive drum set and Geddy Lee’s thick electric bass. Naturally, the five-inch bass only hinted at the very lowest octave, but sufficient low bass energy was present to support the music’s driving momentum.

Another impressive aspect of the Sttafs was their ability to disappear into the music. I noted that their narrow front baffles minimized the front panels’ sonic imprint while listening to Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier, performed by Glenn Gould on a Columbia LP. The grand piano was thoroughly anchored within a substantial soundstage. Gould’s incredible ability to turn a book of studies into a deep contemplative masterpiece was unhindered by any limitations imposed by the speakers.

Large orchestral works such as Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9 ("From the New World") on Nimbus CD demonstrated the Sttafs’ dynamic vigor. Musical passages that rose from loud to louder were comfortably within the Totems’ dynamic range, although the step from louder to loudest induced some dynamic compression, as the petite woofer worked feverishly to sound like its larger and much more expensive siblings, Shaman and Wind.

mclachlan.jpg (14918 bytes)An album such as Sarah McLachlan’s Surfacing highlighted the Sttafs’ excellent imaging and midrange transparency. Her voice was clear and warm without a trace of nasalness or chestiness. The Totems’ midrange performance was closer to my then-reference Magnepan 1.6s than other speakers in this price range. Now that the 1.6s have gone up in price to $1725, the Sttafs represent a serious benchmark for what can be accomplished at $1500.

The Sttafs’ very minor flaws have more to do with reduced resolution and extension at the frequency extremes, yet their powers of resolution are perfectly balanced to the level of components that are most likely to be used with them. My $3000 Magnum Dynalab 208 receiver and the Sttafs made wonderful music together, though I could list several components of equal value to the Sttafs that would approach the level of performance afforded by the 208.

So far, I have described the Sttafs competent performers with a wide variety of music, but not the type of music I listen to most—Latin Jazz. Habana Nocturna by Cuban pianist Hilario Durán features Canadian sax and flute player Jane Bunnett. This music is less percussion-driven than on other Latin Jazz recordings in my collection. Here, the emphasis is on melody and the interplay between piano, flute, and strings. The Sttafs rendered this music with rhythmic and tonal accuracy. The Sttafs are like good mini-monitors that have been extended to the floor. The Totems’ small, stiff cabinet contributed negligible overhang to the notes and beats. Images appeared dimensional, but less so than my open-backed 1.6s.

Guitar music is the other genre that occupies most of the space in my CD collection. Guitars are the reason I owned panel speakers. The 1.6s came closer to the sound of my two custom-made instruments than any speaker I know of for the money. I’m glad to report that the Totem Sttafs did not disappoint in this respect. Liona Boyd’s Spanish Album sounded harmonically true, with balanced overtones and string textures. The 1.6s’ superior transparency and air was countered by the Totems’ slightly more efficient design and responsiveness to small dynamic shifts.

In summary, the Totem Sttafs are high-quality speakers with many positive attributes. They produce solid, well-defined midbass and enough low bass to support most of the music I listened to. The midrange and treble are detailed and expressive, but not too analytical. The Totem Sttafs can be safely recommended for listeners who desire the qualities of a good stand-mounted speaker without the added cost of stands. Those with bigger budgets who desire more refinement, resolution, and bandwidth are instructed to move up the Totem pole. Victor Chavira





Magnapan MG12.

Plinius SA-102 amplifier and an E.A.R. 864 preamplifier.

RAccuphase DP-65V CD player, Aries turntable w/ JWM 10 arm and a Dynavector 20X cartridge.

Empirical Audio Clarity 7 speaker cables, Holophonic-PC interconnects, power cords.

Dedicated balanced power with Brick Wall Surge Suppression.


two.jpg (6646 bytes)The first time I attended the Consumer Electronics Show I went to see the computers, but a friend insisted that we go to the Alexis Park to see the high end audio equipment. Okay, I thought, let’s laugh at the ridiculously high prices! It just so happened that we came across the Totem Acoustics room, and I was introduced to the Arros, the Sttafs, and the Forests. This marked my re-introduction to the audiophile world after an absence of many, many years. I was absolutely blown away by the tremendous sound of the slim Totem speakers. The bass was so incredible that I swore the sales rep had a subwoofer hidden somewhere, and I could feel the difference when he put on the infamous "beaks." Flying back from Vegas, I juggled my limited finances in my mind, trying to figure out how I could come up with the $3000 for a pair of the Forests, but was unable to manage it. I ended up owning many, many speakers, but never a model from Totem. Was I secretly afraid I could never relive that first experience? Now, circumstances have come full circle, and I have been asked to review the Totem Sttafs. Although this is their second-cheapest floorstanding model, I was thrilled with the assignment.

The Sttafs are very slim and light, and don’t have spikes or feet. Totem provides little spiked platforms that the Sttafs can sit on, but I don’t consider this a valid solution, as there is no mechanical bond between the speakers and the stands. More on that later. When I first heard the Sttafs in my room, I was surprised at their lack of bass and overabundance of treble. I moved them around quite a bit, but they ended up in almost exactly the same configuration as my JMRs—three feet from the back and side walls and toed in about ten degrees. Closer to the rear wall and the bass boomed, further away and it receded completely, but even at three feet, the bass was nothing like what I remembered.

Listening to various CDs—Alison Krauss, Diana Krall, Loreena McKennitt—was enjoyable but somewhat disconcerting. The treble and bass seemed disconnected, as if I were listening to two different speakers at the same time. I had had similar issues with the Meadowlark Kestrels a year before. After playing with placement and cables for months, I had to admit that the Kestrels were not suited to my small room, but I hated to give up on the Totems. The highs were almost magical, and though I could hear the potential of the speakers, I couldn’t figure out how to reach it. I tried them with the little spiked bases and without. They sounded much better without. I tried some bluetack to couple the speakers to the bases, but that accomplished nothing. I put the Totems away for a week and went back to my Trentes. 

Coming back to the Totems, I put marble slabs on my carpet and placed the Sttafs on top of those, without the spiked stands. Though the bass solidified instantly, it still seemed as though the Sttafs were two speakers—a solid, tight bass module and a glorious treble module—but the integration problem remained. Many hours of listening only served to reinforce this impression. The tweeter continually called attention to itself. Being extremely detailed, I was always aware of it. The same went for the woofer. While they sounded great as drivers, they did not sound so great as separate drivers.

This was in stark contrast to both the Magnepans and the Trentes. While the Maggies are somewhat wanting in the bass department, they provide a seamless wall of sound. The Trentes’ bass easily rivaled that of the Sttafs, but the Trentes are perfectly balanced throughout the audio spectrum. It is impossible to discern any point at which the sound changes from driver to driver. Unfortunately the Sttaf's drivers never integrated as a whole, sounding like two distinct drivers. (Time for a bigger room Ed! - Dave Clark)

By this time I was more disappointed with myself than with the Totems. What was I doing wrong? I devoted an entire day to getting to the bottom of the problem. I changed speaker placement more times than I care to mention, but to no avail. I removed the metal jumpers and replaced them with various wires, again to no avail. Finally I bi-wired. I tried the Empirical Clarity7 speaker cables on both the low and high sides, in partnership with ZU, Audioquest, and DIY CAT5. The best results were with the CAT5s on the high end and the Empirical on the low end, but even this was not significantly better than using wire jumpers.

These speakers certainly have potential, but in my system and room, I just couldn’t make it happen. No doubt these speakers require a room with greater dimensions than mine, allowing them to really sound their best. Ed Morawski


Totem Sttaf loudspeakers
Retail: $1500

Totem Loudspeakers
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