Here is the thing for us in Blighty – it’s expensive…. 1990s population expansions has put most of us in the U.K. in a less is more (cash) situation, so far as our living room sizes are concerned. The 70’s and 80’s days of the big bungalow owned by a school teacher with a Mini parked outside have long since been replaced by the same bungalow carved up into two properties, and a Beamer and Merc on the drive(s). The same is true of other countries too I’m sure, which necessitates smallish speakers for smaller living spaces. So to this end, what about Totem’s KIN Play bookshelf speakers….
Well, most medium sized bookshelf speakers largely disappeared from most living rooms in the 90s for all these iPod docks, and convenience players. I suppose the Bose effect was had, but I’m making an impassioned case for speakers like these Totem’s here… And why? Well it’s to do with the fact that full range speaker separates do imaging, bass extension and sound-staging like no other dock system can – in fact a visit to the proverbial cleaners. So these speakers hopefully appeal to the next generation and I hope it’s where the next generation go. Back in concept of traditional speakers – if it ain’t broke no need to fix it, is just so true.
Who are Totem, what are these?
Totem Acoustic are a Canadian speaker manufacturer from Montreal. I use a Totem logo for my website, which was a childhood ornament I’ve had all my life. A mascot I guess, but considering the religious Canadian origins, an apt logo and name for this speaker firm.
I initially asked for a loan pair of Totem Hawk’s or Forest’s, which my local dealer stock : Norman Hobbs. I think these are all tremendous speakers, particularly with Naim Audio gear used by this dealer. At the UK’s Bristol HiFi show I met Sam Verellen of Totem who was showing off Totem Tribe Tower’s. Again fantastic.
These KIN Play’s are a budget two channel speaker system brought out by Totem at the end of 2018 that suit people who want to connect all their equipment into a main pair of speakers. They are an active (powered) design with a passive crossover and rear ports. I used them with solid oak stands from HiFi racks. Looking good in white satin or black satin, they are well constructed.
They use a 120 watt Class D amplifier which doesn’t mean they are any less potent and addictive than Class A or AB alternates, as class D tends to be powerful, efficient and cool for such speaker designs. The main master speaker is connected to the mains and via conventional speaker terminal binding posts, to the passive channel speaker using the box supplied speaker wire.
The idea of KIN Play is you’ve either got to use Bluetooth from your phone or tablet, or you connect them to a streamer. Or indeed turntable – there is an inbuilt turntable phono stage which is a pre requisite for making a turntable work of course.
On the master you’ll find RCA inputs to connect your turntable or other analogue source and a switch to select between either. Being aptX Bluetooth capable, music can wing its way wirelessly from laptops or phones and tablets up to 48khz sample rates. You want an onboard Digital to Analogue Converter (DAC) to receive digital signals via an optical connection AND do the jigarey pokery of digital Bluetooth (in aptX HD guise) to turn it into analogue sound – you got it. A rear 3.5mm analogue input too (for receiving music via the 3.5mm sockets of portable music players or PCs perhaps) and a sub(woofer) output if you are using them as a home cinema junkie. A round dial at the front helps with volume control, and a remote control for input/source selections, volume, bass and treble. The gobstopper sized front light on the master speaker indicates which input source is selected. Pleasing with its green (RCA) or blue (Bluetooth) hue for most of my test uses.
Another option is to plug in a different DAC with these dual use RCA analogue inputs. I had a range of economically priced streamers available including a Sonos Port and Allo DigiOne Signature. However I settled for my trusted £300/$350 Yamaha WXC-50 Streamer over WiFi using its digital optical output, playing Tidal subscription service music and locally stored music over the network. This digital input is routed into an RME ADI-2 DAC FS with it’s analogue outputs into the aforementioned line inputs of the Totem’s. I also used a Chord Electronics Qutest DAC. and Google Chromecast Audio.
I thought the white and black speaker cable supplied looks cheap with its thin gauge ‘bell wire’ looks, but it’s easy of course to replace to a more purposeful looking cable. Totem assures it is a premium cable so I’m not casting aspersions here by the way – it just doesn’t look anything special.
You don’t have streaming functionality built in commensurate with similarly priced but admittedly smaller KEF LSX speakers. (£1000 for standard pair or £1,150 for the Soundwave version available in Europe only)
And how do they sound?
Initially the impression is one of an Audiophile sounding pair of speakers which meshes bass and treble decently, in other words. There is a sweet expressive treble too. Also an impressive soundstage which together makes you think these speakers transport all the beneficial aspects of traditional HiFi design and sound into this new-gen HiFi ideal of ‘one-box’ design affordability.
One very well recorded Radiohead track from my own Britpop playlist is recorded so well, I thought it was coming from my own system which is many thousands more in price.
You get a feel that dynamics are decent for speakers of this price. This is clearly where much more expensive HiFi tends to take over, but neither are the dynamic capabilities of these speakers in both speed, intonation, and bass capabilities, a let down or in anyway disappointing for your cash here. And I couldn’t resist playing a bit of Boards of Canada’s Music has the right to Children album. Ok they are a Scottish group but the sentimentality of having a connection to film music used by the Canadian tourist board, had me placing in my mind a vicarious connection to these Totem’s country or origin.
Side by KEF LSX, the KEF’s are a more relaxed and tonally even listen. The KEFs just give an impression of a more even sound across the frequency range. That said LSX have to extend a bit more for their diminutive size and the bass isn’t as deep and dynamic as the Totem’s, but with the excellent RME ADI-2 DAC FS needed to get these similar dynamics – another £700 or so. But if more treble and heft of a bigger speaker is your thing, without use of AD converters of the KEFs analogue inputs to potentially interfere with your phono stage, and perhaps a more traditionally room filling sized route to HiFi, to boot, these Totem’s offer a good alternate. So Totem’s KIN Play will appeal if walking down this preference street. Whereas the KEFs get out exquisite dispersion, imaging and sound stage for their size, no doubt due to the Uni-Q driver arrangement (treble driver within mid range driver), the Totem’s utilise a bigger driver moving more air so bass will self-evidently extend more.
The relative sharper sweeter treble might not be everyone’s cup of tea with the KIN Play’s – it isn’t overbearing to me personally, but if you like a flatter frequency response then the KEF’s might be more your thing with streaming inbuilt too. Size has to come into it and built in streaming capability – the KIN Play’s need an add on streamer, which wouldn’t be an issue with the likes of streamers like a Chromecast Audio.
But for all the differences between these two sets of speakers, unlike the well known man with the Beard and Glasses, I’ll give my opinion** because it is important (**disclaimer – it might not be your opinion). This is that I prefer the KEFs just ever so slightly due to their balance. I was forever going back and forth but it wasn’t until the KEFs were run in (and utilising their ethernet link) I realised which set was best personally.
Totem’s are quite possibly a less neutral sounding speaker because they have a sweeter treble – I wouldn’t call it bright. But they have more dynamic capability when fully optimised and as such you hear into the music in a traditional way. The *comparative* KEF balance might not be something you want to go back too.
The dalliances of What-HiFi magazine to say these speakers have less timing and dynamic expression to KEF LSX is demonstrably wrong in my view, but only if you take the KIN Play’s to their highest performing level with a much better DAC. The KEFs don’t offer an upgrade route of course (but have DSP room correction too), so the KIN Play’s will fit into existing systems with DACs well.
Trying to hike midrange using the 5 band parametric equaliser of the RME, in response to What Hi-Fi’s comments concerning midrange, gave a boost. But I couldn’t help feel that it detracted from the overall sonic character of these Totem’s, in what they are trying to achieve. So like a benevolent COVID-19 self isolator, I went back to appreciating the flat frequency response with no adjustment. Midrange is accomplished but whereas it isn’t in your face, it feels voiced and subjugated fo sit in a nice spacey place. In a somewhat understated way, it’s pleasing. I dont think any lack of forward mid projection can be a criticism, which was also levelled at Totem by What Hi-Fi.
The use of Class D amplification does allow these KIN Play’s to go loud, unlike the KEFs, which relatively are straining to deliver the same precision on max volume. So another reason to buy the Totem’s over the KEFs, but be aware of the warnings in the manual as to distortion, clearly one to avoid for obvious reasoning.
Being very much improved using the RME compared to internal DAC/Bluetooth use, shows how capable these speakers are. It’s not that the internal DAC isn’t going to be adequate for most ‘bluetoothers’, but pimping your DAC allows an upgrade route to keep you smiling enjoying them. Most obviously soundstage and resolution is opened up using the RME, the Chord Qutest too. This is hardly a surprising revelation since the RME is nearly the same price as these Totem’s.
Onwards and upwards
The design does allow this upgrade path and one such option might be to add something like a Schiit Jotunheim with its excellent multibit DAC. Kill two birds with headphones too.
It’s a crowded space with speakers in this class from designs like the KEF LSX, and offerings from Dynaudio or Acoustic Energy. It’s impossible to test all but in an effort at benchmarking for consumer choice, I’ve done my best here for the benefit of comparative testing.
What speakers like this make you realise is that the cliff falling diminishing returns of premium Audiophile HiFi against relative pocket rockets like these, make these speakers a type of product that at least everybody should try or own.
They make a case that Audiophile HiFi needs to broaden its reach, take a chill pill and get off its perch of equating doubling of prices to doubling performance and make HiFi for music and the masses. Products like these Totem’s do this well, and at this price you’d have to say only a staunch pessimist would have severe complaints. A Victor Meldrew type. I wish more speaker firms like Totem would get on this journey of appealing to the masses – PMC, Harbeth, Spendor etc. So many of them don’t. It’s where the market needs to go to broaden the Audiophile appeal and critically, bring down price.
For this reason and the reasons of its sonic accomplishments I can recommend Totem’s KIN Play speakers, especially if you like speakers voiced with a bit of treble, you use turntables and have a good DAC already or intend to buy one.
- Frequency Response : 39Hz – 22kHz +/-3 dB
- Integrated Amplifier Power : 120W (Class D)
- Bass Driver : 5.25″ / 13.97 cm Natural Hybrid
- Tweeter : 1″ / 2.54 cm Metal Alloy Dome
- Dimensions : WxHxD – 7.08″ x 13.97″ x 9.25″ / 180 x 355 x 235mm
- Inputs : Bluetooth (up to 48khz rates), Stereo RCA/switchable to PHONO (turntable use), Optical digital, 3.5mm minijack analogue
- Outputs : subwoofer output
- Phono Stage : moving magnet compatible
- Placement distance – 4 feet to 8 feet
- Crossover Frequency – 2.3kHz
- Weight : 7.2kg (powered master speaker) , 5.4kg (slave unpowered speaker)
- Colour – Satin black or Satin white
In the box : remote control, speakers, speaker interconnect cable, 3.5mm mini jack interconnects, optical digital interconnects, adhesive isolation feet for speakers, removable speaker grills, IEC power lead.
$1100 / £1000 / EUR……..tbc
9165 Rue Champ D’Eau
Montreal, Quebec, Canada
Tel : (514) 259-1062