My personal experiences moving from Sttaf to Hawk
A little introduction:
This post is long, but I am hoping that all of the details will be helpful to anybody looking at the Totem floorstanding loudspeaker line, most especially those people who have been thinking about the Sttaf versus the Hawk. There has been quite a bit written about both of these speakers individually in these forums and elsewhere, but precious little detailed comparison information exists that can help buyers understand their differences in regard to sound and amplification.
So I hope this is all helpful!
I should probably state my slant on the loudspeaker world before going too much further: I like Totem floorstanders very much because I have a need to furnish an 11x22 plant room / sunroom with full-range speakers that 1) do not detract from the ambience of the room, 2) have no more than ~3’ of height and 3) do not have too large of a footprint. Frankly, I have enjoyed this as a challenge, and over the years have considered many, many potential alternatives (like the Gallo Classicos) but all of them would require me to rearrange the furniture and/or plants in such a way that the room design would be negatively impacted.
So, like many other Totem fans, I value what Vince’s floorstanders can do in such a diminutive package.
In 2010, I visited my local Totem dealer to audition some Totem speakers (the Sttaf and the Model 1) and I found the Sttaf to be quite to my liking. I asked them about the Hawk – which I also wanted to hear – but they reported that in their experience, there was not a significant difference between the Sttaf and the Hawk, and that the Sttaf therefore offered the best value.
The dealer loaned me their floor-model Sttaf to listen to in my sunroom, and that demo was a resounding success – I bought a pair and enjoyed them immensely for about 3 years. I had them connected to an Exposure 2010S2 and the synergy was just perfect. I heard things in my recordings that I never heard before, and it was just exciting to sit down and listen to music.
Perhaps, though, it would be more accurate to state that I enjoyed them immensely for about a year, but then I started realizing that there were some things that I simply did not like. I wasn’t sure what those “things” were for about another year, at which point I realized that there was a sort of a “coming out of a can” quality to the presence range that was audible in many, many recordings, making them all sound somewhat similar in this range.
I also felt that, at higher volumes, bass presentation would often muddy up the treble presentation – as if the vibrating woofer and cabinet (we all know that Totem cabinets are at least somewhat active – it’s part of the Totem philosophy) resonated the tweeter itself above certain volumes, which was pretty annoying.
Because of this last effect, all modern compressed recordings – with their bass pumped up so incredibly high – were basically unlistenable on the Sttafs. Two perfect examples — I could countless others — would be Adele’s “21” and Vampire Weekend’s “Modern Vampires of the City.”
However, those same recordings sounded just fine (not awesome, mind you, but at least just fine) in my car or on computer speakers.
So while it was fine to listen to great recordings on the Sttafs, I am not the type of audiophile who wants to limit himself only to great sounding recordings (as much as I wish all recordings of great music were great recordings, it just isn’t going to happen). I want to enjoy new music, too, at least as much as I could, given its oftentimes ridiculously amateurish mixing and engineering.
So given what I had been told about the Hawk, I thought that I owed myself a look outside the Totem line for inspiration. I looked at PMC (what I heard in person was very fussy in regard to placement and imaging in this room), Focal (really too big for the sound levels I was looking for), Monitor Audio (ditto), Gallo (too big of a footprint), DeVORE Fidelity (their small models would not sound full-range enough in my room), and many others (all of which, for full-range, were over 40 inches tall – Nola being one of many, many examples).
My requirements were really: size of the Sttaf, with the same imaging and musicality, but without the defects. I also wanted something with more honest bass.
Then it occurred to me – why not just ignore what I had originally been told, and try the Hawks? They are almost identical in size to the Sttafs. Although there are very few discussions online comparing the two, the few discussions that I did find seemed to opine that there were indeed real differences. But just what those differences were was not clear, so I figured that it would be worth a try in-person.
Before doing that, I admit that I was worried about my Exposure 2010S2, which I otherwise liked quite a bit. Having read all sorts of crazy stories about how difficult the Hawks are to drive (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rTVS0GCwNxg being one example, with this guy using 600 watts of Parasound JC-1s), I wrote Totem to ask if the Exposure would be adequate. They reported that, yes, the 2010S2 would be just dandy. All systems go for Hawk testing, then!
(A side note on the 2010S2 that will be relevant later: although I liked it very much, it needed at least 15-30 minutes of warmup before the transistor bias would settle and the sound would be “right” on the Exposure. I was always a little disappointed with that aspect of its operation, but it seemed a small price to play for what was otherwise a very nice piece of work.)
My previous Totem dealer had gone out of business within two months of my Sttaf purchase (maybe that’s one reason they wanted to sell me something that they carried!), so I had to go with one of the “home theater” dealers in my area who didn’t have a showroom. This also meant that they didn’t keep most Totems in stock or have demo units. However, they were able to speak with Totem and get a pair of demo Hawks sent to them so that I could borrow them for use in my own home. Thank you to both them and to Totem for understanding how important an in-home demo can be!
So, on one momentous day, the dealer dropped by to set up the Hawks with my Exposure. We flipped the system on, and here’s what I noticed.
My immediate (first 10 seconds) impression was: wow, very nice; they at least have the presentation I love so much in the Sttafs.
But within the very first minute, it became clear that there was something very, very different about the bass coming out of the Hawks. It was more honest, and went quite a bit deeper. There was a more visceral feel to it.
And that got me wondering: what if I played, say, “Modern Vampires of the City” on these things? Would the bass muddle up the treble the way it did on the Sttafs?
We gave it a go and, holy cow, the difference was truly night and day. On the Hawk, bass power has NO impact on the high end. Both come through cleanly, even when cranked up to very high volumes. What an absolutely incredible difference – way beyond anything I expected. I was ecstatic!
We continued to play recordings. One after another, and something else became clear – the “can” like sound in the presence region that I had found so annoying after extended listening of the Sttafs was nowhere to be found. Wow!
But one other thing became clear: The Exposure 2010S2, while OK, was really not enough to adequately drive the Hawks. First off, rather than listening with the volume at 9-10 o’clock on the dial, I had to get the volume to 11-1 o’clock to achieve volumes on the Hawk that were equivalent to the Sttaf. That was less than ideal.
Additionally, the Exposure now seemed to take about an hour after a cold start for the transistor bias issue to settle down. I began realizing that the Exposure was not the most amazing piece of hardware in the world (and even within Stereophile’s famously glowing review, there has definitely been some question about the Exposure’s actual performance.)
But the Exposure overall was fine, and it was clear that the Hawks – even on the 2010S2 – were a marked improvement over the Sttafs. So I ordered the Hawks and got down to business of investigating an Exposure replacement.
The dealer let me keep the demo units while my new Hawks were in transit. One thing that became pretty clear over several days was that the Hawks presented bass in a way that could be overwhelming in about 1% of my recordings (almost all of this 1% were recorded within the last 5-10 years and were probably mixed in ProTools for headphone playback.) Because of this, I realized that I really would benefit from an amplifier that had tone controls.
I am not going to discuss the merits of tone controls here because that is simply too controversial and religious in a way that I am not interested in discussing, but I do know that I had wished I had tone controls a few times over the few years I had the Exposure/Sttaf combo. But the Hawks – at least with crappy modern recordings and in my chosen room – really could benefit from them, I felt.
So I started investigating a variety of replacement amplification choices. And when your requirements are 1) lots of well-behaved power; 2) tone controls; 3) something that fits in a reasonable space that doesn’t required dedicated shelving; your options are unfortunately quite limited these days. (I wanted the be able to stack the amp on top of my CD and SACD players in a very small space without, once again, having to redecorate just to fit in a giant amp.)
The contenders really became the 1) McIntosh MA6600, 2) the Parasound Halo A21 with a Parasound preamp like the new P5, 3) the NAD M3, and 4) the NAD C375BEE.
The McIntosh was just right in terms of power and capabilities, but was altogether too large and heavy for the space. Plus, it doesn’t look all that great when sitting out as the top component in an open stack; it’s much better-suited to a rack. The Parasound combo was promising, but the A21 combined with a pre-amp was very tall (and really, from a quality perspective I would have much preferred the JC2, but it has no tone controls). The M3 was shockingly close to perfection, but after reading John Atkinson’s measurements of it in Stereophile (http://www.stereophile.com/content/nad-master-series-m3-integrated-amplifier-measurements), I was disturbed to discover that its digital tone controls were attenuated (both boost AND cut!) at higher volumes, making it useless for reducing the Hawk’s bass in the way that I needed.
So that left me with the “lowly” C375BEE, which actually retails for less than the Exposure 2010S2 I already had. I had thought about buying the NAD when I bought the Exposure a few years prior, but my previous experience with NAD was not good at all (I previously owned a NAD integrated that sounded “dead” to me.)
I got a demo C375 unit from a local dealer, and went about testing out the Hawk/NAD combo.
The C375BEE was just amazingly perfect. It had all of the crystalline clarity of the Exposure, but it actually had less grittiness to it. It had no noticeable issues with needing to warm up to achieve proper transistor bias, and it had breathtaking control over the bass presentation of the Hawks. You could actually hear the comparatively lower THD of the NAD. And once again, I could listen to the Hawks with a volume control at 9:00 on the dial with plenty of power to spare.
The NAD additionally enabled me to satisfyingly listen to the Hawks at lower volume levels than the Exposure could, while still maintaining a good sense of drive and detail.
With the bass knob set to the “10:30” position, I could disable the tone defeat feature with the remote control when I needed to tame modern, bassy recordings (my “1%,” as I now like to call them). Having the ability to do that made a huge difference for those recordings, making them truly listenable.
From the Exposure, I missed the LED indicator on the volume knob, but, as it turns out, the latest (Version 5.0) builds of the NAD C375BEE now have white dots painted on the bass, treble, balance, and volume knobs. This is something that you won’t see in any of the product photos online, so I was happy to discover this about the latest builds and thought it was worth mentioning. It’s not an LED, but at least it’s not horrible the black-on-black of the earlier units.
The latest versions of the C375BEE also have more granular remote control over the motorized volume than the earlier revisions (this is detailed in the release notes of the service manuals you may find online) – comparable to the Exposure’s granularity, really, which is very nice.
A bizarre thing happened with the C375/Hawk combo after about 80 hours of break-in. When listening to the bass slams that follow the helicopter on Pink Floyd’s “The Happiest Days of Our Lives,” the woofer (those little ScanSpeak Revelators!) on the right-side Hawk bottomed out with a sharp crack.
I swapped the channels to see if it was an issue with the driver, and, sure enough, I only had an issue with one of the units – my left-hand Hawk’s woofer did not bottom out during these passages.
I consulted with the dealer, who in turn consulted with Totem, and they replaced the driver, free of charge. During the process, Totem said some curious things that I had not previously heard. Firstly, they reported that they recommend 120 hours of break-in for the Hawks (this is at odds with all of the specs on their web site and printed materials). Secondly, they reported that they felt that the NAD presented too much dynamic power for the Hawks, which startled me, given 1) all I had read to the contrary, and 2) everything I had ever learned about amps & speakers.
Since the replacement woofer seems to have solved the entire issue, I chalked my experience up to a simple manufacturing defect in the Revelator rather than anything Totem itself did or said. I know that ScanSpeak is revered for its quality, but any manufacturer can have a bad day.
But this still got me curious about Totem’s concern about the NAD. Taken in light of all of the “Hawks are very difficult to drive” commentary that you can read online, I decided it might be interesting to look more into the mysteries of driving the Hawk.
It has been stated in a number of places online that the Hawk, when it was created, was Vince Bruzzese’s crowning achievement, and that he proudly used them as his primary speakers (at least for some time) in his own home. It is clearly an unusual speaker, and a speaker that has seen its specs changed a bit since coming out in late 2001. (86db sensitivity versus today’s 88db, for instance). It clearly does an awful lot in a very small box.
But what about its impedance? It’s always been labeled as a 6 ohm load. Now, no loudspeaker system presents a constant impedance load throughout its frequency range, but some reviews over the years found the Hawk’s 6 ohm stated load to be questionable – some people characterized it as being closer to 10-ohm load, but there was never any science behind it.
The most formal test that I was able to find showed a really crazy impedance curve: Hi Fi World October 2008 (http://www.monitoraudiousa.com/assets/files/reviews/hifiworld_gs20_review.pdf) Compare the Hawk’s impedance curve with all of the others and you will get a sense for how odd it is.
The Revelator mid-woofer used in the Hawk is labeled as the 15W/8530K01. I got a chance to see this during my unit’s repair. If you look at the spec sheet for this part – presuming that it is a stock unit, which it has reported NOT to be by many people – you will see that it has a total Q-value (Qts) of .41:
Putting a high Q-value woofer in a vented enclosure can present many design challenges (http://www.troelsgravesen.dk/W1501_95.htm has a good discussion of this). As a matter of fact, ScanSpeak makes a number of very similar-looking “15W” series Revelators that, to a neophyte designer, would be more appropriate to use in a vented box like the Hawk.
But, Vince Bruzzese chose to put the 15W/8530K01 into a rather standard bass-reflex configuration, *and* he chose to use a first-order crossover configuration, in which there is a large amount of signal shared by both the woofer and the tweeter. So the Hawk is a very unusual design. It is entirely likely that the reason that Totem feels a little uncomfortable with “too much power” has something to do with this unusual combination that presents a very strange impedance curve indeed.
My relatively unqualified guess is that the Hawk, throughout select portions of its very strange impedance curve, may interact with the NAD’s “PowerDrive” dynamic power capability in a manner that is not predictable. That’s about all that I can surmise from my admittedly very limited analysis of the situation. But I thought it was worth sharing.
With the replaced woofer, I can state that I find the Totem Hawk/NAD C375BEE combination is overall quite incredible, and I have not experienced any further problems. I do try to have some respect with the volume knob, and I think that’s important for any owner of this combination to be aware of.
But at the end of all of this, I can state without a doubt that these relatively diminutive components add up to something that sounds twice as large as the eyes would otherwise presume. And in every single respect, both components are better than the Sttaf and Exposure they replace.
If you are considering the Sttaf and have the budget for the Hawk, do yourself a favor and audition the Hawk. It’s very different from the Sttaf, and all in a good way. You just need to revisit your amplification, and use it wisely.