Miracles happen, but you have to show up for them. So goes the old saying. In the hectic month of December (2004) I stumbled onto Building A Better Turntable Mat by Austin Jackson of Boston Audio Design in the Manufacturer section of our Review Magazine. I had never heard of Boston Audio Design, but their carbon graphite turntable mat immediately caught my attention. (Isn't graphite pencil lead)? Having recently reviewed the Harmonic Resonance Systems Analog Disc with the article on Maximizing My Turntable, I thought I was finished with my analog front end for a while. But I am incurably fascinated by resonance control, and the closer to the source of the music signal path, the more fascinated I become. Turntable mats qualify. And as it happened, I had been sent an Extreme Phono Speed mat that I had not yet taken time to review, which set the stage for a direct comparison.
First, the Speed
Casey Ng from Extreme Phono, having read my HRS review, contacted me and offered to send me his new Speed mat. The Speed is a die cut donut of thin carbon fiber material that is thousands of strands of carbon graphite woven into cloth and imbedded in a resin. It flexes, but retains its shape when handled, unlike their None-Felt, which is a floppy, rubber material. At about $99, the Speed is roughly three times the cost of the original None-Felt, which seems a fair price given that it is die-cut into a perfect circle, and made of more costly materials. It is much easier to place on the platter than the None-felt, and does not lift off when the LP is removed as long as the rough side of the Speed is facing upward. (Since I reviewed the original None-Felt back in 2002, a Skin had been developed to prevent this lift-off and eliminate direct contact between the LP and the None-Felt). The Speed is also sold with the None-felt as a package that offers some savings over buying the two separately.
Casey told me that the Speed could be used alone, directly on top of his None-Felt mat, or even on top of the Linn felt mat. I tried all three combinations, and what worked best for me was the Speed on top of the Linn felt. The Speed on top of the None-Felt was a bit too thick for my turntable since the Sumiko MMT tone arm has no vertical adjustment, and it did not sound quite as good. With proper vertical adjustment of the tone arm, your results may be different. The two sides of the carbon fiber material differ slightly, and the matte surface (the one with the smallest little pits in it) should face down. The shinny side that reveals more of the weave of the carbon fiber cloth should face upward and contact the record surface. If the Speed lifts off the platter when you remove the LP, you probably have the Speed upside down. I have been using the Speed with the Linn felt mat as my reference since the early fall of 2004.
The Speed is a significant upgrade from the original None-Felt. It does all the same good things as the None-Felt, only Mo Better. Increased focus, increased soundscape, better pace and rhythm as a consequence of faster attack and decay. Better macro and micro dynamics. Tighter bass. More refined treble. The question becomes "How much, Mo Better"? The original None-Felt (without the Skin) really wowed me at about $30 for the donut version. The Speed, at $99, provides more improvement, but the kinds of improvements it makes are the same kinds of improvements that the None-Felt made. It doesn't really show me anything new in the music, but it shows me the music better.
And this is quite commendable. It is also somewhat surprising when you consider that they switched from a rubber type product to a carbon fiber product. It is not like they started with the rubber product and made a better rubber product. It shows that they had one of those "What if...?" moments and pursued it. I like that.
Then came the Mat 1
The day before Christmas I received a package from Boston Audio Design. Say…was that the UPS man, or was that Santa on the early run? So as not to let the review sample overshadow the thoughtful gifts from my wife and family, I waited several days before opening the box. Inside I found not only their turntable mat, but also two sets of graphite TuneBlocks and an assortment of tungsten carbide and rocket grade ceramic ball bearings. This was becoming a serious project.
I whipped out the Dave Brubeck Quartet Tonight Only! With Guest Star Carmen McRae in stereo. The recordings were made in December of 1960, and the LP was also available in mono. I followed that record with John Cougar's American Fool, recorded in 1982, in stereo, of course, but also available on 8-track and Cassette. CD was just bursting onto the scene. And as I write, it is now more than 22 years since American Fool was released.
The Brubeck disc had minor ticks and pops, but I was able to listen through them with ease. Both of these mats seem to absorb some of the energy caused by particles or scratches that cause the clicks and pops, making them less objectionable, but not eliminating them completely. I left off the HRS Analog Disc for the first comparison, utilizing only the Linn felt pad with the Extreme Phono Speed mat on top. The music was rhythmic and engaging. It was the familiar reference level that I had been enjoying for months. I then put the Mat 1 on and replayed the same first two cuts. It took only seconds to realize something special had happened.
I went back to using the Linn felt and Speed mats. Hmmm. This isn't so bad after all, either. What gives, here? Then, when I tried to add the HRS Analog Disc, I realized I had inadvertently put the Linn felt and Speed mat on top of the Mat 1. Hey, it was after sunset and the room was dimly lit with just the Christmas tree. The dark grey graphite mat blended in almost seamlessly with the tarnished aluminum platter of my elderly Linn. As further proof of the difficulty, and of my own carelessness, I submit that this happened more than once during the evening. Interestingly, I did not pick up on any coloration caused by the severe change in tracking angle.
The American Fool LP was in excellent condition, except for a severe warp for a short distance at the circumference. The Clearaudio Virtuoso Wood cartridge tracked it flawlessly. Here again, the Mat 1 was instantly superior to the reference combination.
But in what way? I had to tear myself away from enjoying the music to put on my audiophile cap to answer that question. The factor that first caught my attention here was the increase in focus. The Mat 1 was certainly absorbing more vibrations from the vinyl than the Speed mat. The attack and decay of notes was shortened. But the more significant characteristic that eventually came to the forefront was that the surface noise was greatly lowered, yielding much lower noise floor for the music. A wider, more apparent dynamic range emerged. The treble was more refined and the bass was much tighter, as revealed by the tight, fast bass of the Kharma loudspeakers. The soundscape enlarged, and both macro and micro details became more prominent. I could hear deeper into the soundstage much more clearly than ever before. Pace, rhythm and timing became non-issues, dissolving into pure enjoyment of the music. Both Brubeck's jazz and Cougar's rock were propelled along effortlessly, independent of the recording quality that differed by 22 years.
Most importantly, the quietness between the notes and between the musicians also carried through the notes, allowing a more accurate delivery of the timbre. This is more than just a reduction of the congestion in the music when multiple musicians are playing at once, although that, too, happened. The quality of a note that tells you it is a particular instrument playing that note, rather than another kind of instrument, became much more prominent. More knowledgeable listeners would probably be able to tell you the brand of drum kit, cymbals or guitar that were being played, and recording engineers would be able to identify the brand and model of microphone being used. Likewise, an acute listener might be able to tell you exactly how a string was being plucked, or name the style of playing that was being heard. The noise floor dropped precipitously, revealing much more inner detail throughout. Overtones in the deep bass that were typically lost in the noise floor became easily identified, giving a sense of deeper bass reproduction. More casually, we might say the music had more palpability. This is the quality the Mat 1 brought to the party that was significantly new for me…at least from the analog side of my rig.
I also compared the Mat 1 with and without the HRS Analog Disc. Because the Mat 1 does such a superb job with cleaning up the vibrations within the vinyl, there is apparently less work left for the Analog Disc to do. The most noticeable effect of using the Analog Disc with the Mat 1 was that the soundstage receded a little further behind the loudspeakers. There was a smaller improvement with the Analog Disc than before, but every little bit helps, I guess. And since I already have one, I will continue the ritual of using it. It works, obviously, on the energy that travels on the top side on of the LP, while the turntable mat works on the bottom surface. But if starting from scratch with a basic Linn turntable, I would sooner spend two hundred dollars for the Mat 1, than a hundred for the Analog Disc.
This brings me around to the question of value. While the Mat 1 costs more than four times as much as the Extreme Phono None-Felt mat with Skin (seen right), and twice as much as the Speed mat, it gave me much greater improvement — however I might fantasize measuring that. I would say it ranks right up there with the None-Felt in terms of value. Whether you have two hundred extra dollars in your wallet is a question for the Huns. In the case of all three mats, the improvement gained was far less costly than upgrading to the Linn Circus bearing. Whether the sound quality gained is greater or less is pure conjecture on my part, since I have not added the Circus bearing. I can say that my Linn Valhalla with the Mat 1 is sounding much closer to the very expensive analog front ends that I have heard at shows, allowing for the differences of source material, systems, and rooms.
Ergonomics and Aesthetics
While you might rationalize that since it is hidden by the LP, the visual appearance of the turntable mat is of little consequence. Be that as it may, I find the graphite Mat 1 very attractive. The surface feels smooth to the touch, but small pits in the graphite create a texture reminiscent of granite, which provides a visual counterpoint to the brushed silver and smooth black metal surfaces of the turntable. This suggestion of nature also harmonizes very well with the wood frame that surrounds the Linn. The neutral gray color blends well with both silver platter and black arm board. And unlike the imperfect circle of the Linn felt, the Mat 1 is precisely turned on a lathe and fits inside the outer ridge of the platter. The hole in the center is slightly larger than the spindle itself, thereby avoiding transmission of vibrations from the bearing into the mat. The center portion of the mat is also machined thinner to allow for the extra thickness created by the record label. At the outer edge, the thick lip of the LP hangs beyond the edge of the Mat 1, allowing the grooved surface to make contact directly with the mat. This also facilitates lifting the LP off the turntable. And since the Mat 1 is relatively heavy, it does not lift off the platter with the record as the Linn felt sometimes does.
An obvious question about the Mat 1 is to ask about graphite dust. Fear not. The biggest challenge Boston Audio Design faced in development of the Mat 1 was to find a sealant that did not mask the beneficial effect of the graphite mat itself. It took two years to reach their goal and it takes two days of spraying and curing to apply multiple coats of sealant to the mat. The effort was more than justified, based on what I heard. The only downside of the Mat 1 I could come up with is that it is probably not a good choice for Rap artists and DJs who like to slip their discs.
The Speed is also very attractive on the Linn table with the black carbon fiber texture contrasting with the brushed stainless steel plinth and visually harmonizing with the smooth black arm board. The woven texture of the carbon fiber material gives the Linn a more high tech look and at the same time suggests a more organic woven cloth that complements the natural look of the wooden frame. Everything ties in very well from a visual standpoint. Of course, if you use the donut Speed with the None-Felt and red or green Skin, you may have a completely different take on this issue. I haven't seen the Skin in person, yet.
Since I do not have vertical tone arm adjustment with my Sumiko MMT arm, and since the Linn has a relatively light platter, I was concerned about the 3mm thickness and the weight of the Mat 1. My concerns were for naught, as Austin told me the Linn was the turntable used in the development of the Mat 1. This, however, raises another question. Will it work as well on other tables? Unfortunately, I'm not equipped to answer that question. But it would be most interesting to see how the Mat 1 might transform some budget tables, or even the old garage sale Dual 704 I've wanted to resurrect for my second system. At the other end of the spectrum, how would it perform on expensive tables and tables with massive platters? Or particularly, more modern turntables that have paid closer attention to lowering the noise floor with their structural design? Hopefully, Austin will get the Mat 1 into the hands of other reviewers who can answer these questions. Then again, maybe I'll get around to working on the old Dual myself!
I suspect he effectiveness of each of these mats may depend largely on the turntable to which they are applied, and to the system that supports it. I was able to test this, somewhat, by stripping my table down to the bare bones by removing the Stillpoints and Symposium Acoustics Svelte Shelf and playing records with simply the stock felt mat. The music wasn't bad, but it was much less focused and the soundscape was much more homogenized.
When I added the Speed mat to the felt, the focus improved considerably and proved that the Speed was certainly worth the $99 price. It made a delightful upgrade. Adding the Mat 1 to the Linn resting solely on the wall mounted wood shelf brought much more focus and pinpoint imaging. The bass and treble were noticeably more improved. But the music did not quite have the dynamic snap or black background that the Stillpoints and Svelte Shelf contributed. Things became even more interesting when I started playing with the TuneBlocks that came with the Mat 1, but that will have to wait for another review.
SummaryOn the Extreme Phono website, there is a long and very well written review by Arthur A who shares his results in using the Speed mat on a very high end turntable. That his results were more modest than what I seemed to experience, suggests that the better your analog rig is to begin with, the less likely you are to experience huge gains. And that makes for common sense. However, adding a $100 or $200 mat to a table that costs $6000 or $20,000, is more of a whimsical adventure than a serious quest for improved quality for someone who is at the budget end of the spectrum. Wherever you might be along that continuum, I recommend you try either or both of these mats. If you own a Linn, I would very highly recommend — make that insist — that you try the Mat 1. Yet as good as my analog front end is playing now, it kind of makes me wonder…what if they made the entire platter out of carbon graphite or carbon fiber? Stay tuned. This ancient form of music reproduction keeps getting better!
Thank you for such a thorough review of the Mat 1. In the review you wondered what if the entire platter was made of graphite. I have wondered the same thing! A couple of years ago, we made a mat that was 7 or 8 mm thick to test whether it made an improvement. The results - to me, dealers, and some audio friends - were mixed at best and there was really no consistent improvement over the Mat 1.
I think the actual dimensions of the mat have a real impact on its performance. Remember the discussion of mechanical impedance in the white paper? If you balance the mat on one finger, gently strike it with another finger, and hold the mat to your ear, you can hear that the frequency is very similar to that of a record. So the impedance is more or less matched, and the vibrations can easily travel from the vinyl to the graphite where they are absorbed. Further, the amount and duration of ringing is essential to performance - too short and the sound is dulled; too long and the sound is exciting, but loosey-goosey at the top and at the bottom, compromising overall clarity. That's where the choice of graphite and finish technique really came into play when developing the Mat 1.
You had also wondered whether the mat works as well on other turntables. Generally speaking, if the manufacturer of a turntable recommends using a mat at all (some acrylic platters are intended for use without a mat), then there will be an improvement similar to what you experienced. In addition to Linn, many of our customers use Nottingham, VPI, and Rega tables, among others. Further, Mark Baker of Origin Live recommends the mat for use on all of their tables.
I hope this answers your questions, and thanks again for such an exhaustive review.
Type: Vibration control device
The Speed - Donut Carbon Graphite + None-Felt $119
The Speed - Donut Carbon Graphite Upgrade w/o None-Felt $99
The Speed - Standard Carbon Graphite + None-Felt Mat $109
The Speed - Standard Carbon Graphite Upgrade w/o None-Felt $89
The Mat 1 - $195
NOTE: Products come with 30-day money-back satisfaction guarantee.
Boston Audio Design