Penon Totem – High voltage!

If you're looking for a full fledged flagship cable that brings the intensity up a notch on all your IEMs with snappier and punchier bass, fuller bodied mids with superb bite and separation and energetic yet smooth treble with superb transients without breaking the bank then look no further! 

Pros

  • Highly competitive price to performance ratio
  • Sub bass presence is improved
  • Increased mid bass control and punch
  • Fuller bodied mids with increased note weight
  • A touch more upper mids bite depending on combo
  • Superb resolution and separation
  • Footprint makes the Totem usable on the go
  • Flawless build quality worthy of a flagship
  • Pigtail totem extension for un-compromised SQ with all termination

Cons

  • Earhooks a bit rigid out of the box will mean reduced comfort, will smoothen over time
  • Standard Penon cable packaging – will not wow people used to flagship luxury cables (but then again, price is so competitive honestly I for one don’t mind one bit!)

Product Page : https://penonaudio.com/penon-totem.html
Price : 799$

Introduction

Like most people I know I have enjoyed Penon as an online shop, a trusted distributor of many brands I love like Dunu, Astrotec or ISN to name a few. But Penon also began manufacturing products a while back, starting with great value for money cables and is now evolving into a more premium segment with the OSG and now the flagship Totem.

The totem is a cable built for superlatives with a whopping 668 cores and material such as gold and palladium, both usually found in flagship cables like Effect Audio Code 51. It’s priced competitively at 799$ in fact the very same price as their flagship IEM the Volt I recently reviewed. As we’ll see Totem is a superb sounding combo with Volt but also many of my flagship IEMs.

Let’s dive deeper!

Build, ergonomics and comfort

Build
The Totem features palladium plated pure silver, single crystal copper plated with pure gold and more traditional single crystal silver plated copper. All of this is tightly wound into two wire each made of 334 cores for a total whopping 668 cores. The sheathing is featuring the blue tea color which is matching with Volt color scheme quite well and I bet it’s not a random choice. I like it’s distinctive color and you won’t mistake any other cable for the Totem.

For reference Penon OSG is 4 wires of 71 cores for a total of 284 core. Totem has the kind of configuration found on much pricier (3x the Totem price) cables like Effect Audio Code 51 flagship (granted, Code 51 is silver plated all around while Totem has 2 copper and 1 silver plated).

The braiding is flawless both before and after the Y split and the Totem cable looks the part of a flagship. The carbon fiber metal splitter and slider look slick and everything is perfectly adjusted. Penon decided to make the Totem termination 2.5mm balanced and provide two pigtails for 4.4 and 3.5 termination. I actually like this solution for a flagship as it means no compromise on sound quality and it’s versatile. You can ask for a special request build with 4.4.

Note that there is also a Totem interconnect in the Penon catalog priced at 85$ it’s a great option for a high grade interconnect between your DAP and portable amp.

Ergonomics
The high strand count and the fact that the cable is wound very tightly makes the Totem a bit rigid although it’s not stiff either but it’s more supple than my Dunu Hulk. Although the gauge is much bigger but Hulk is in a 4 wire configuration with 22 AWG. Penon doesn’t provide the wire size in AWG but the overall footprint of 2.8mm including sheathing which using a calculator leads me to believe the Totem is roughly a 17 AWG for each of the 2 wires. This seems consistent as 22 AWG on the Hulk x 4 is approx 2.4mm without sheathing and Totem has a similar footprint although it’s not as big over all thanks to it’s two wire braiding agains the 4 wires of the Hulk that makes it bulkier.

The earhooks are a bit stiff out of the box but will get looser over time with perfect comfort down the line as well as very secure hold on IEMs. The termination of the Totem are similar to the OSG and it’s high quality all the way. I like that Penon chose to color code the 2 pin termination those visual cues are always appreciated.

Comfort
Given its high count of cores and AWG, you could be a bit worried about the Totem footprint but it’s actually very good and the Totem can be used on the go contrary to some 8 wires configuration I found clumsy and too weighty on the IEMs. using the pigtail with make it a bit heavier though but nothing to worry about.

Sound

During my early days in this hobby, I was a cable doubter and didn’t understand how cable could make such a big difference to sound quality. But as I kept an open mind I did audition upgrade cables and it became clear that it could make a significant difference in my enjoyment of music, especially as you go towards flagship DAPs and IEMs the potential is maximized on some pairings. In the end it’s all about synergy and sometimes you’ll get a marginal improvement on a pairing while another might be “wow”. Yes the ratio of price to increased SQ is not the higher but it’s the last element of the chain you can improve and sometimes just that extra something makes all the difference in terms of the magic.

But back on topic… what is the Totem sound profile?

Well I have one word for you : intense! Totem is really like spices and aromatics in cooking, it adds flavors and excitement! Starting with the bass, the Totem is a rhytmic cable that makes the bass more dense with increased control and punch and a tad more presence. The midrange gains some body but the Totem is not a coloured cable and interestingly didn’t make my IEMs warmer. Everything just feels more focused in the midrange with better separation and richer timbre. Last but not least, up top the Totem brings some additional energy in the lower treble and maximized my IEMs extension in the upper treble bringing extra refinement and nuance.

Bass

As we’ll see in the pairing section, bass wise the Totem is a dynamic cable infusing a lot of physicality and rhythm. The sub bass presence is increased a little but it’s not overdone and more importantly it add focus with much improved control on all IEM I tested with. This bring extra physicality and if you feel your IEM might do with a tad more sub bass then Totem will certainly benefit. The mid bass gains in terms of note weight and the Totem did wonders with percussions where the increased weight and density gave me so much more satisfaction than stock cables and even most of my other upgrade cables. Leading notes are snappier with the Totem giving an additional punch that is so satisfying and decay is cleaner and faster although this combines with richer textures which are not being my experience with snappier cables so far. Impressive.

Mids

The Totem influence on my IEMs midrange is very clear : instruments have more body and take up more space, luckily this goes along with better separation with a slightly increased stage size.

Notes have more intensity and everything feels more dense and focused. On top of this timbre are spot on and texture are richer this especially stands out on woodwinds that sound heavenly with the Totem but brass instruments also ooze with this rich tactile feel for lack of a better word.

This also has a major impact on vocals that are very emotional and with a rich portrayal of the tessitura of singers both male (benefiting from the gentle lower mids boost) and female (enjoying the upper mids spot on presence).

Treble

The Totem treble shows great mastery, there is extra energy in the lower treble but just a nudge and the upper treble follows the same pattern with little extra presence added but significantly faster transient speed which makes a big difference.

The lower treble is really beautiful with the Totem, it adds just a touch of extra excitement with slightly boosted presence but the main highlight of the show is note weight. This is one special cable in that respect has there is a significant boost in note weight, every thing takes life thanks to it and piano is the first beneficiary. Notes are therefore more articulate, with more emphasis and the Totem makes everything more engaging.

In the upper treble, the Totem will bring the best extension you can get out of your IEMs but not so much by way of extra upper treble presence as it really doesn’t emphasize that part of the range. The main highlight of the upper treble range is transient speed. Notes seem to appear and disappear just as fast making for a cleaner and articulate rendering of details but at the same time given note weight it doesn’t fall into the ethereal either.

Pairings

Penon Volt
If you’ve read my Volt review then you know I have done a full writeup of the Volt/Totem pairing so you have already read this one.

The Totem takes the Volt the extra mile in terms of sub bass. The 3 tests tracks Sohn’s “Falling”, Aphex Twins “Ageispolis” and Phanee de Pool “Amstram” all exhibit a more focused and controlled presentation. I am talking subwoofer like performance with a physicality that goes well beyond what the excellent stock cable can deliver. I was simply utterly impressed by this combo and the sub bass coming out of those IEMs was simply unreal. Consider me stunned. Wow.

On to the mid bass, the Totem tightens the mid bass significantly, bringing a much snappier performance out of the Volt’s dynamic driver. It’s now very close to the best BA bass I have at hand with my custom EM10 and FIBAE7. It’s a bit shocking how this cable affects the mid bass performance again bringing a more focused bass with more punch along with more detail. The Totem brings a sense of visceral realism to the Volt bass and I got lost in time listening to my bass test playlist, absolutely hypnotized by the sound coming out of a pair of custom IEMs. Again, wow.

The first thing that is clearly apparent is how the Totem brings the Volt mildrange towards more transparency and clarity but also more bite in the upper mids. The overall tone of the mids is more balanced despite retaining a slight warm hue. The stage is more open with better instruments separation with the lower mids loosing a bit of thickness over the stock cable. This provides a fantastic sense of realism and the cleaner attack and faster decay also make it an even more engaging IEM and I had a hard time putting the Volt down going through my midrange test tracks. The additional bite now makes brass a totally different story and while Volt remains smooth and won’t bring you to the edge of performances in terms of bite it will provide a good amount of it which I think make it more engaging.

I am not sure if it’s the palladium plated silver, but first very apparent difference is the extra lower treble energy you get out of the Volt with the Totem. Things remain absolutely smooth no matter which track but you have welcome extra energy that makes Volt more engaging. Electric guitars, piano and hi hats and snare drums are more enjoyable to my ears and when I compared Jack Johnson “Staple it together” with both cable it was clearly so much more enjoyable with the Totem. Last but not least, with the Totem upper treble section is less significantly improved but you still get extra resolution and refinement that comes with the last 5% improvements that flagships are known for and let me tell you Volt is among much pricier IEMs in that configuration.

Custom Art FIBAE7
I was quite keen to see how the Totem would pair with this rich, lush and smooth sounding IEM.

The FIBAE7 bass has great presence starting with impressive sub bass that bring unusual physicality for a balanced armature. Like the EM10 the FIBAE7 has great mid bass slam with less control though. The Totem makes the FIBAE7 bass tighter and punchier with a cleaner and faster bass overall. Note attack is snappier and decay is shortened. So with Totem the FIBAE7 still has great bass presence and physicality but the rhythm is much improved with better speed and control.

The FIBAE7 mids are full sounding, smooth, rich and textured with fairly forward lead instruments and vocals. The Totem doesn’t affect this signature, but there are some subtle changes. I would have expected meatier lower mids to be a bit too much and increased but interestingly it was not the case. Synergy is more complex than one cable affect every IEM in the same way. In the case of the FIBAE7 the Totem brings better separation and the improvement in terms of detail retrieval is very obvious showing how much the FIBAE7 can scale with a better chain of gear.

The FIBAE7 has energetic treble with great lower treble presence and refined upper treble presentation with good extension. Totem brings a bit more balance to the FIBAE7 treble : I found the Totem didn’t affect the lower treble presentation too much (note weight and treble energy was already great on the FIBAE7) but it did enhance the upper treble presence and the lower treble tilt on the FIBAE7 is no longer. This extra upper treble presence is not overdone but brings more balance to the FIBAE7 treble presentation and also helps bringing more air and make it more resolving.

Earsonics EM10
This is still one of my favorite custom IEM if you’ve read my review you know I consider it a most under rated IEM that can compete with the best and is no less good than the highly praised Grace. The EM10 is a highly engaging all rounder CIEM with TOTL performance across the board with one of the best BA bass around.

The EM10 bass is a deep, rich, strong and full bass with a mid bass tilt. The mid bass is hefty with superb slam. The Totem is bringing more balance to the EM10 bass : the sub bass presence relative to the mid bass is increased and while the mid bass is not affected in terms of presence the balance between sub and mid bass is restored making the EM10 more physical. But the Totem also makes the EM10 more focused with snappier attack, quicker decay providing a more focused bass presentation and making the EM10 yet better at infusing a fantastic sense of rhythm. Totem manages to pull the sub bass I always wished for in the EM10 and in particular out of Shanling M8 powerful bass this takes the EM10 to elite levels.

The EM10 mids are full bodied with good lower mids foundations and very articulate with good separation and bite. Like the FIBAE7 I expected to find more lower mids presence with Totem but it wasn’t the case and the EM10 doesn’t sound thicker or warmer. The main influence lies elsewhere and like the FIBAE7 I noticed better separation and increased detail retrieval making the EM10 significantly more resolving.

The EM10 treble is smooth but with good energy in the lower section and exquisite refinement up top. Lower treble treble energy is improved on the EM10 brining significantly more energy but not overly so, keeping the smooth nature of the EM10 but a more engaging listen. Note weight is a bit improved there and I enjoyed piano so much on the EM10, spot on timbre and energy. The upper treble is not as heavily affected, the EM10 already enjoys excellent extension, speed and a refined balance in terms of presence and the Totem didn’t affect it too much.

ItsFit Lab Fusion
If you’ve read my Fusion review you know I like the punchy and clear sound, with great soundstage and fantastic imaging. It’s more of a reference tuning and I wondered how the Totem would affect it, given my previous pairings give different results.

Well the Totem is the best pairing I have heard with the Fusion. First, I aways felt the Fusion bass was a bit too clean and lean. Totem brings some heft to the Fusion bass and that makes a big difference in terms of how engaging the Fusion can be. The sub bass was excellent so it’s not a matter of control but the increased sub bass presence certainly makes the Fusion more physical. This is even more apparent in the mid bass where the Fusion is on the lean side. Fusion intrinsically has clean, fast and controlled bass. Totem doesn’t change this but makes the Fusion bass much more fun : the mid bass has significantly more presence and this infuses a sense of rhythm and engagement that transforms the Fusion! Given how fast and clean it is fast paced tracks are portrayed exquisitely with the Fusion and Totem combo and Lucy Dixon “Stormy weather” quick percussive rhythm was the best I have heard it.

The Fusion mids are clear and clean with very good separation, with a reference tuning. The Totems brings very interesting twist to the reference Fusion. First the lower mids presence is much improved providing more weight and body to instruments and I found it brought a much more organic character to the Fusion. This is furthered by improved upper mids bite definitely making the Fusion midrange more exciting and it was one of my gripes with the Fusion tuning. The Totem making the Fusion both more organic and exciting make it a much more engaging IEM.

Now Treble, this was the item I expected the most out of given the pairing with Volt, I suspected the Totem would bring the Fusion magnetostatic driver to its best. The Fusion features both superb upper treble extension and exciting but non fatiguing lower treble. The Totem does affect the baseline signature a bit, adding some energy to the lower treble making it more engaging yet. The upper section was not affected as much as I would have figured but like Volt it does bring some additional detail retrieval making it a bit more resolving.

Tansio Miraï Zodiac
This is one pairing I was looking forward to, but the 2 pin didn’t go into the Zodiac socket and I didn’t want to damage the Totem so I was unable to test this.

StealthSonics C9 Pro
The C9 Pro is a highly engaging and smooth IEM with a strong bassline, full mids with superb vocals and very refined and elegant treble. It’s a thick and warm organic signature with good air and treble energy.

The C9 Pro has the most mid bass emphasis of all my IEMs with a fat, thumping mid bass with rich textures. It was immediately apparent the Totem brings a tighter bass to the C9 Pro, with a snappier attack and quicker decay the C9 Pro’s bass sounds less utterly romantic but more focused and punchy while retaining its incredibly rich textures. There is also significantly more bass detail and paired with the Totem the C9 pro is even more enjoyable.

On to the midrange, the C9 Pro features full bodied, richly textured and smooth mids with beautiful vocals. It’s the thickest and fuller bodied IEM in my collection and the Totem unlike the OSG doesn’t make it leaner but doesn’t make it thicker yet. The upper midrange has a bit more bite compensating for the 5/6 kHz dip and making the C9 pro more engaging.

Treble wise, atypically for a very organic and thick IEM the C9 features exciting and energetic lower treble and a well extended top end. The totem yet furthers those qualities and the C9 Pro gained yet a bit of energy in the lower section making it more engaging yet. The upper treble is yet a tad better than with other cables but nothing spectacular either.

Verdict

When it comes to cables, we all have different opinions on wether or not it makes a difference and we all have our personal limit of how much we can afford and want to spend on a good upgrade cable. Most of us will never go flagship there because price have soared this past few years due to both material cost increase and pure inflating prices lifted by the market of price no objects audiophiles with deep pockets. Full disclosure I only owned one flagship cable with the PW Audio 1960 4 wires and it was eye watering 1K$ for a second hand. My personal limit is more around the 500$ mark and there are a lot of great cable upgrades in the 250-500 range that will bring you 95% there in terms of improvement while not breaking the bank.

Penon sure raised my attention when they decided to launch the Totem because even if it’s above my general limit price for cables, it’s not insanely far from it and the spec sheet alone is similar to 3x priced cables. If you follow my blog, you know I have had the chance to review Penon OSG mid tier cable and I love it as its superb value for money so I began to wonder how the Totem would sound, especially since I ordered the Penon Volt flagship in custom form and it has become a personal favorite in my own top 3. I was very lucky to get my wish granted and the opportunity to review the Totem, in time for the Volt review so you know how well the Totem pairs with Volt and why I think this combo at 1600$ is worthy contender of any flagship regardless of price.

Now that you’ve read my pairing section, you know Totem does deliver flagship value at a great price, and will deliver the extra 10% that flagship bring to the table and can make a huge difference to musical enjoyment as is the case when everything clicks together perfectly. It might be beyond your personal limit in terms of price but if you ever go flagship in a cable then the Volt is a very strong proposition! For those who own much pricier flagship and doubt it can compete with your pricier collection then take a chance and try Totem : you’ll be surprised 🙂 I for one am saving up to buy a Totem with MMCX termination to enjoy with the likes of Luna, Zen and FD5.

If you’re looking for a full fledged flagship cable that brings the intensity up a notch on all your IEMs with snappier and punchier bass, fuller bodied mids with superb bite and separation and energetic yet smooth treble with superb transients without breaking the bank then look no further!

Listening notes
I spent approximately a hundred hours with the Totem, listening on Hiby R8, DX160 and Shanling M8. 

Special Thanks
Thanks to Penon for providing a review unit of the Totem. As usual, this review is my honest opinion. No incentive was given for a favorable review. 

Accessories

  • 2.5mm balanced female to 3.5mm audio male adapter
  • 2.5mmbalanced female to 4.4mm balanced male adapter

Specifications

  • Single crystal copper silver-plated Litz 6
  • Palladium-plated pure silver
  • Single crystal copper plated with pure gold
  • Core:2 shares, 334 cores per share
  • Outer diameter:2.8mm
  • Carbon fiber metal splitter and CNC integrated slider
  • Plug: 2.5mm balanced gold-plated Carbon fiber
  • Length: 1.2m

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