From left to right: Nico Bruzzese, Lucy Lentini, Suave Kajko, Vince Bruzzese and John Healey.
Canada has an illustrious past in speaker and audio component design. Earlier this year, we highlighted many of these Canadian manufacturers and their products in a three-part “Made in Canada” series. The responses to this feature from our readers couldn’t be more positive. All three parts of this article can now be found in the “A/V Articles” section on www.canadahifi.com.
The beauty of having all these companies in our neck of the woods is that we can visit them and share their stories with you. This past summer I had the opportunity to visit Totem Acoustic, one of Canada’s premiere speaker manufacturers, located in Montreal, Quebec. Totem is famous not only to Canadian audio enthusiasts but to audio enthusiasts around the world – its products are distributed in 53 countries. During my visit, I received a very welcoming tour of Totem’s main office and production facility from Nico Bruzzese, Chief Operating Officer, and John Healey, Ontario Sales Representative. Later, I sat down for a talk with Vince Bruzzese, Totem’s President and Chief Designer, as well as Lucy Lentini, Vice President of Sales and Marketing.
A Look Around the Office Space
Totem’s main production facility is located in the northeast, industrial part of Montreal. This facility, roughly 30,000 square feet in size, is home to Totem’s research and development space, business operations, speaker assembly and shipping. The woodshop, where the speaker cabinets are constructed, and the machine shop, where speaker components are built, are currently in two other locations just outside of Montreal. Totem has been around for some 22 years now, with its entire product line-up designed and hand built right here in Canada. The company recently purchased the lot next door to its main office and plans to consolidate its operations into a single facility in the near future.
I’ve visited a number of audio video manufacturers during the last several years and I must admit that Totem’s facility is unlike anything I’ve ever seen – I sensed that I was in for a very different experience compared to other factory tours from the moment I entered the front doors. The main foyer is beautifully decorated in a native North American theme and the floors are covered in a luxurious hardwood. To the left of the main foyer is a large product demonstration room, a space where dealers are often invited to enjoy wine and cheese and listen to Totem speakers. To the right is a stair case which leads to the main reception area. The designer theme and rich hardwood flooring are carried throughout the entire second floor office area and make the space feel hardly like an office at all. Had I known it was going to be like this, I would have been inclined to bring a pair of slippers for the tour!
My tour began with a walk through the upstairs office area. The first room we walked into was a large home theatre demonstration room used for testing new speaker designs and presenting them to dealers. The 7.2-channel system in this room consisted of the Tribe III on-wall speakers all around and two Storm subwoofers at the front of the room. Two rows of couches provided seating in the middle of the room. The dual subwoofer setup was reminiscent of Totem’s setup at the Salon Son&Image in Montreal earlier this year. Using two smaller subwoofers will typically produce a more balanced low frequency response in all the locations in the room. Totem prefers this configuration because it works particularly well with the most discerning multi-channel music such as SACD and DVD-Audio. Using one larger subwoofer which would have better dynamics might be preferred by users who will use their speakers mostly for movie watching. Nico showed me a quick clip from the martial arts movie “Hero”. The on-wall Tribe III speakers kicked butt – they produced an enormous soundstage and delivered great dynamics.
Next we ventured into Vince’s office, where all the speaker designs are dreamt up (so to speak). His desk, in the centre of the large room, was spilling over with stacks of papers covered with hand-written notes and diagrams. Against one of the walls, and facing his desk, were some two dozen various Totem speakers, some existing models and some prototype designs, an assortment of audio components and a listening chair in front of all of the equipment. A wall unit in another part of the office displayed a few one-of-a-kind tube-based amplifiers designed by Vince.
Totem prides itself on taking a distinctly personal approach to speaker design. Many of today’s speaker designers rely heavily on technical measurements involving physics, electrical and mechanical engineering principles. By contrast, Vince relies mostly on his ears, as well as a lot of trial and error, when designing speakers. Only once a new speaker design is nearly ready for production, Vince will test it in an anechoic chamber to ensure that there are no inconsistencies in the frequency response.
Totem’s current speaker range consists of over 30 different models priced for just about every budget – from the $575 Dreamcatcher bookshelves all the way up to $15,000 Wind Design floorstanding speakers. All Totem speaker cabinets are finished in real wood veneers and many models are available in five or six different stain colours. In addition to the wood veneer finishes, the company recently introduced a number of paint finishes, both matte and glossy. And to top it all off, unfinished cabinets can be special ordered from Totem. These cabinets are generally shipped to the customer who will apply their own choice of finish and return them back to the factory where the speaker components will be installed. The possibilities are virtually limitless.
A Walk Through the Parts and Production Facility
During this part of the tour, I was given the opportunity to see exactly how each speaker comes into existence from start to finish. The process begins with the arrival of the speaker cabinets from Totem’s woodshop. Upon arrival, the cabinets are meticulously inspected for any defects – Totem has zero tolerance for imperfections here. How meticulous are they? I was shown cabinets with the tiniest defects, which most people probably wouldn’t ever notice, that were rejected from going into production. Since there are variances in the appearance of real wood veneers, Totem takes the time to select pairs of cabinets that are close matches before assembling the speakers. Totem takes great pride in quality workmanship and this was clear from the very first step.
Next, we walked over to the woofer and tweeter storage area. Most Totem speakers use drivers produced by OEM driver manufacturers, based in Scandinavia, that offer very tight performance tolerances. But these are not just off-the-shelf drivers – Vince asks the OEM speaker developers to produce drivers with very specific parameters. When the drivers arrive at the Totem plant, each one is thoroughly tested prior to being installed in a cabinet. Nico shared a perfect example with me of just how important driver tolerances are to Vince. Recently one of the OEM manufacturers moved its production from Europe to China and sent its new batch of drivers to Totem for evaluation. The drivers did not pass Totem’s acceptance levels, and after some consideration Vince decided to invest in the OEM company so that it could continue manufacturing the drivers in the original factory.
In the speaker business, it is common for a manufacturer to use the same driver or tweeter across a number of different speaker models. This obviously simplifies the design and manufacturing processes but it comes at a cost – the driver may sound great in one speaker model and not so great in another model. Totem on the other hand uses a unique driver for almost every single one of its 30 speaker models. Each driver is designed and fine-tuned to achieve the optimum performance from its particular cabinet. Walking through the speaker driver storage area, Nico assured me that even though some of the drivers appear to be the same, there are indeed technical differences between them.
But not all Totem speakers use OEM woofers. About three years ago Vince branched out into woofer design himself. The first Totem designed and manufactured woofer is a four inch woofer dubbed “Torrent” which can be found in the Tribe III on-wall speakers, designed to accompany flat panel displays. Totem says that this woofer offers incredible speed, extended bass response and increased dynamics compared to the Tribe I and II on-wall speakers.
A number of Totem’s subwoofers use Canadian made BASH amplifiers that are built to specifications defined by Vince. Since BASH is a large company that also supplies amps to other speaker manufacturers, Totem does not share the full specifications with BASH. Instead BASH builds some 80 to 90 percent of the amplifiers and then Totem adds their own components at the assembly plant.
As with the drivers, each speaker model also uses a unique crossover and unique wiring. Most manufacturers use crossovers that are built on printed circuit boards. The problem is that over time air adversely affects the solder, which results in loss of performance of the speaker. Totem’s crossovers aren’t on printed circuit boards. Instead, the components are lashed and glued on to a peg board. As with cabinet and woofer designs, Vince spends a considerable amount of trial and error time when designing each crossover. All aspects such as the positioning of the individual electronic components relative to other components and details such as the number of twists on a grouping of wires or capacitors are all carefully considered. The wires chosen for each crossover and speaker cabinet are also important parts of the design – each speaker uses a unique combination of wire gauges to achieve maximum performance. As mentioned earlier, the crossovers are assembled at Totem’s off-site machine shop.
As we strolled through the production facility, I heard the sound of Canadian rock band Our Lady Peace. Following the sound led us to the assembly area, where each speaker finally takes its shape. Here, the speakers were being assembled to “Naveed”, one of my favourites from the band, appropriately playing on a pair of Totem speakers. Assembly is usually performed in batches of one speaker model at a time. In this part of the process, the crossovers, drivers and speaker terminals are secured to the speaker cabinet. While in this area, we took a closer look at the speaker cabinets. Nico and John explained that Totem cabinets are constructed from MDF or HDF panels, which are lock miter-jointed, and have real wood veneers on both sides of every panel. This results in cabinets that are very rigid and exhibit some of the same desirable qualities of real wood. Unlike other manufacturers, Totem uses very little insulation or foam inside its speakers for damping. Instead, all speakers are coated with a thick layer of borosilicate paste to control damping and standing waves. Some of the higher speaker models also use some solid wood in their construction. All this attention to details ensures that the speaker will provide many years of enjoyment. Speaker assembly is performed entirely by hand.
As the speakers reach the end of the production process, there is one final step before packaging – yet another quality control check. Each speaker is thoroughly inspected for any cosmetic imperfections on a long, brightly lit table, much like a luxury car that rolls off the production line.
If there’s one thing that I learned from my visit to Totem’s production facility, it is that everyone that works here is a perfectionist and shares a tremendous passion for audio. When you employ this kind of team, the final product is simply remarkable. I felt like I fit right in with my slightly obsessive-compulsive personality!
Coming Soon From Totem: An Exclusive Insight From Vince Bruzzese
Just as this article was going to print, Totem introduced two Tribe in-wall subwoofers at the CEDIA expo in Atlanta. The first subwoofer is said to be the slimmest 12-inch in-wall subwoofer currently on the market. It uses dual 12-inch woofers, one active and one passive, housed in a wood enclosure with a black anodized aluminum front frame which comes with a completely flat, flush mount magnetic front grille. The flat cone design is activated by a 5-inch voice coil. The subwoofer’s power is provided by a BASH 500 watt standalone/rack mountable amplifier. Vince says that this subwoofer will deliver enormous speed and musicality, and will blend perfectly with any of the company’s speakers, especially the Tribe in-wall and on-wall speakers. This 12-inch subwoofer will be available this December for $2150 can.
The second Tribe in-wall subwoofer will utilize dual 8-inch active drivers in a smaller chassis and is said to achieve most of the performance aspects as the 12-inch model, like speed and musicality. Vince says that the cones are exceptionally good because they employ ballistic quality carbon fiber to make them ultra stiff and linear. As with the 12-inch model, this subwoofer comes with an external, rack mountable BASH 500 watt amplifier. An attractive feature with this model is that a second subwoofer can be added, in which case both subwoofers will be powered by the same single amplifier. The subwoofer with the amplifier will retail for $1595 can. An additional subwoofer module will go for $795.
During the next year, Totem will also introduce a Pod Design series mini speaker which can be mounted on a stand, on a wall (right side up or upside down) or placed on shelf. This 6.5-inch cube will utilize one active Totem-design Torrent woofer (found in the hugely successful Tribe III on-wall speaker), two passive Torrent woofers on the sides and a new top mounted, flush tweeter.
Perhaps the biggest (literally!) news is that in 2010 Totem will introduce a new Design series floorstanding speaker that will fit somewhere between the Forest and the Wind Design models. This new speaker will use two of Totem’s patented 7-inch, 58 magnet section, drivers and is promised to offer performance very close to the Wind Design speakers but at a more affordable price point.
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