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Do Record Mats Really Make a Sonic Difference? And if So, Which of These Do You Prefer.

Here are eight excerpts of Vivaldi's "Concerto for 2 Mandolins" from the audiophile sampler record Chasing the Dragon (VAL007) produced and engineered by Mike Valentine. Also find the entire 96k/24 bit file generously provided by Mr. Valentine that you can enjoy as well as use as a "control" in helping you determine which mat (if any) helped produce the most accurate vinyl rendering of the file.

The original 96/24 Nagra digital recording used three Neumann M50 tube microphones in the classic "Decca tree" configuration.

The turntable/tonearm used was the recently reviewed Zorin Audio combo fitted with a Lyra Titan i feeding a feeding the recently reviewed Swan Song Audio Cygnet MC phono preamplifier. The A/D converter was the Ayre QA-9 currently under review. The files are 16 bit/44.1K WAV.

The mats were: 1) the stock carbon fiber one supplied with the Zorin 2) a Boston Audio Graphite mat 3) "The Simple Mat" made from synthetic cork 4) a now discontinued one of what feels like ultra-thin 1/16th of an inch cork from a fellow who shall remain nameless and whose mat was nameless so I'll call it the Brooklyn mat 5) the Hideinthesound suede mat 6) the Hideinthesound split mat with suede on one side and a smooth hide on the other side, 7) The Music Hall cork mat with the raised discs 8) the Moo mat made of cow hair and hide.

There are dozens of other mats worthy or coverage but we'll start with these.

Please download the files and listen. The plucked, percussive mandolin is an ideal instrument to demonstrate differences (if there are any) among the mats in terms of transient speed and clarity, sustain and decay—especially given the recording technique, which produces stable, three-dimensional images.

There's no "best" or "worst" (assuming you hear any difference at all). It will just be interesting to see if a consensus develops around one or two of them.

After voting, please leave a comment about what you heard and why you voted as you did.

File "1"

File "2"

File "3"

File "4"

File "5"

File "6"

File "7"

File "8"

Master File

Master File "redbook"

A "gift" for you

Do Record Mats Really Make a Sonic Difference? And if So, Which of These Do You Prefer.

isaacrivera's picture

But I did not explain. My point was that there are 2 tests being done here by Mr. Fremer.

Test no. 1 is whether there is a difference at all between using and not using a mat: assuming you hear any difference at all

Test no. 2 is whether there is a consensus among the files It will just be interesting to see if a consensus develops around one or two of them [files].

Thus all the files vs. no difference. 61% of voters think there is a difference though there is no consensus among the files.

Jim's picture

I chose #1 but the distinction among the mats is VERY subtle, and if I were accused of confabulation, I would not mount too vigorous a defense. Nevertheless, the distinction between the rapidly plucked percussive notes and those allowed to sustain was slightly more apparent with #1. Also, the bass seemed a little tighter and less "boomy" than with other mats, especially #7.

With such subtle differences I wonder what other advantages a mat might provide (e.g. static reduction as suggested by Hide in Sound, a softer surface to protect vinyl grooves, etc.?)

Michael, even if the consensus is "No Differences Whatsoever" this challenge has been very informative and I appreciate the efforts you have made to carry this out.

pulsetsar's picture

was number 3. Pulled ahead mainly through the more 3D experience it provided. My full ranking is:
3 > 2 or 4 > 6 > the others (I am not bothering to rank each of them)

I liked 2 and 4 for the natural sound they imparted to the notes but the overall presence of the images, soundstage width/depth, and master of detail was 3 in my setup.

On a side note, the 24/96 file rocked! It seemed to also be a different mix - is that true? Also, what a nice tune and recording - a pleasure to listen to regardless of the testing scenario.

ohnofiasco's picture

Its close but 2 just felt like it had a bit more punch and space. That little bit of distortion in the left channel about 1/3rd of the way through was driving me a bit crazy. Thought my grados were crapping out on me until I noticed it happened in the same spot on all tracks, ha.

Hosta3's picture

My 62 year ears struggled to discern the differences but there are enough subtle cues to preferred 6, 3 and 4 in that order.

doddsainoz's picture

My favorite was No4. A very subjective test from you Mr Fremmer when we take into account our preferences for how we like to listen. But for me 4 had a pleasing overall balance and dare I say a much better sence of space and imaging.

potatoha's picture

Is it just me or the left and right channel swapped on the master? Master starts with mandolin from the left channel and the others from the right channel.

MG's picture

No doubt what is placed between the record and platter is going to make a BIG difference, mainly if one choses the wrong stuff. This is as important as how the record is hold against the mat/platter (another worthy test, Michael?).

In my opinion, No.5 and 3 sounded clearly most accurate and natural, with less distortion and good depth and harmonics, with an edge for No.5 in my opinion. I dare to guess they are the Boston Audio Graphite mat and carbon fibre Zorin mat, as thy should present a harder surface to the record. I assume the record has been hold with the metal clamp from Zorin, right?

My impression is that No.1 has to be the thick cow hair mat because the sound was quite dull, as if a mattress was placed in front of the speakers.

Jim Tavegia's picture

This I could equate to a couple of things. 1.) The resolution of one's playback system. I say this not as sub appeal, but when you start listening to determine "gnat farts at 50 feet", as they may not be readily audible to some. Some may not also really enjoy listening that hard to really discern what ever differences are there.
2.) What ever differences are there might also have some frequency and level differences that may not necessarily match up with the balance that one's overall system may have. I think of all the headphones that are considered Class A in Stereophile and they all are incredibly different and each appeals to a different listener.

I am not surprised about these numbers anymore than I may be the only one to prefer the sample file that I did. Everyone else could land on other files, and will. A bunch of people disagree with me already, which is great.

jimel84's picture

With my setup. A dragonfly into an old computer into old Boston computer speakers. But by a small margin I liked number six.
Just seemed to be a little more space and air there.

teachscience's picture

I preferred number seven by a small margin to number three but the master file was better then all of the needle drops, resolution I think, anyway, I rarely take part in these activities and now I remember why.

Michael Fremer's picture
It's fun!
Russo7516's picture

Thanks Mike !

Ajcrock's picture

About a year or more ago I purchased a Rek O Kut. The parts are all polished and ready to go. The platter is aluminum. Does the material used for the platter make a difference in the mat to use?

Glen Stockton's picture

My listening for this test was straight through the computer's integrated sound system, with good although not studio grade headphones. I chose mat No. 6 for its' detail and reduction of background noise, although there were other sounds audible with this audition that were more noticeable than all the others, such as an inadvertent damping of at least one "tail" on the mandolin, which seemed smoothed over by most of the other mats. No. 3 also was very detailed, with an enhanced bass response, although background noise was not as effectively eliminated as No. 6. Of all the mats compared, it seemed that No. 8 sounded to most like a "phono-record" and the least like the Master File. Also, there was a discernible reduction in the Red Book 16/44.1 kH recording as compared to the Master File 24/96kH. I will keep this audio comparison test on my hard drive until I have the opportunity to evaluate them with a higher-resolution system.

Glen Stockton's picture

I have only very recently been following your excellent columns, and wonder if you have previously conducted a comparison of popular cartridges? I am retired and thus cannot afford most of the units that are touted to be superior to entry-level models, both moving-coil and moving-magnet designs, which apparently differ widely in their tonal output and resolution. And when coupled with turntables and arms costing under $15
00, is there likely to be even greater variation of the sonic qualities of each? Unfortunately, many of your readers do not have access to dealerships whereby we can make subjective comparisons, and have to rely on the opinions of various writers who have their own preferences of what constitutes the ideal sound. And as a side feature, perhaps comparing various levels and combinations of interconnects and preamplifiers would be of reader interest.

Michael Fremer's picture
Yes, if you look under "resources" at the bottom of the page and click on "vote" you can scroll down to the cartridge comparison and listen for yourself.
Marcos's picture

Funny, I took the test today and found #3 to be the most well-balanced between bass quality and quantity and the attack and clarity of the strings. I'm using a pair of Grado G1000i phones with an Audioengine D5 USB dac, so I figured I wouldn't really hear much of anything because of the relatively cheap dac. I couldn't really care less about listening to music on the computer, so I didn't bother buying a good USB dac. In any case, #3 appears to be the "winner", which is suprising, as audiophiles rarely agree. The fact that most heard no difference does NOT surprise me. I will admit to liking the master file probably most of all.

paulsaints's picture

Hi - I would be really interested to know which recording version of the Master File "redbook" your source is from as it sounds so much better than any download sources for that piece that I have been able to find. And what is the "gift" piece - is it part of a bigger work that is available?? Thanks -Paul W

Michael Fremer's picture
I took the 96/24 download provided by the recording engineer and converted it to 44.1/16 bit. The gift piece is from a John Renbourn album
eddieB's picture

Mike, you recently reviewed a Rega turntable and switched mats because you felt (!) the dedicated mat gathered dust (a valid concern) and, worse, could fly off the platter and sabotage your stylus (in 20 years, in a very static-y environment, this has never happened to me and- Ah!- my P3). I kind of wish reviewers would review a product as it is sold by the manufacturer. The felt mat is (in terms of scientific principles) an 'elegant solution'. Tap it between your fingers, you will get little audible response as opposed to cork and other relatively hard materials.

Michael Fremer's picture
Felt does produce 'static cling' in dry environments causing the mat to stick to records. Felt is a dust collector and it's impossible to get the dust out of the fibers. I don't like it. I do listen as delivered but then change.
Ghost Rider's picture

Thanks for doing the test I may be a little late for the vote. I am curious which was which. Has it been posted?

Christian Goergen's picture

Am I insane? I'm sitting in front of my cheap PC with my thirdclass loudspeakers in an ideal position between the speakers and I hear: a threedimensional stage with congas/bongos or whatever, that are in position left/right, tiny chimes left up, the guitar right in the middle. Moving the speakers away from the wall results in deeper stage. Its a "soft" room with plenty of space in my back, so reflections are negligible. I will never doubt the importance of speaker positioning and hearer position.
Resolution does matter. Itunes isn't able to transfer this file to my Iphone.
I'm not able to tell any reproducible differences between the mandolin files 1 to 8.

Wimbo's picture

7, 3 and 6.
Only listened to each one once.

Wimbo's picture

Sounded vague and congested.

Slammintone's picture

Number 1 was my pick with 8 being number 2. File 1 wasn’t the quietest but I heard more air and space around the plucked strings, more as if the recording was done in a room with high ceilings and lots of flat and hard surfaces all around. It gave the performance some real lift in the presence region. It seemed quite like a live performance. Also, I thought the bass was just a bit bigger and more solid. Finger slides and what I thought was the sound of the performer breathing were also more pronounced. File 8 was much of the same, just slightly less of everything I noted about file 1 including tracing sounds.

MrPutty's picture

Are you a listener or performer? To me 4, 5, and 8 Each had redeeming values. All were good. 5 was more of what the mandolin(?) performer would hear of resonances and harmonics. 7 had good musicality but less detail. 4 presented a closer bass. 8 had solid detail so how do you pick between your favorites? You listen until you are bored with one and then seek what satisfies you the most.

DubZ's picture

I stumbled onto this while searching for advice on a replacement TT mat. After listening to each file several times on my IPad with headphones, and on my Cambridge player thru my speakers until I was sick of it, I can honestly say they sound the same to me. I played them in sequence and when I thought I heard a difference I rapidly switched to another file, and it sounded the same. I focused on different elements. Same. I got someone to switch between the files randomly for me. Same. Sometimes I thought there was a bit more background noise, but there could be reasons for that other than the mat.
The interesting thing for me is that 42% of people were like me. Perhaps even more interesting is that many people are adamant that there is a difference - more air, sustain, tighter bass and the usual audiophile descriptors - BUT those people who are adamant there is a difference are almost evenly split between the 8! OK, 3 gets a few more votes and 4 a few less, but statistically speaking there's nothing between them. So just under half of people think there's no difference, and of the rest those who voted for one are contradicted by the 7/8 who voted for another. Sure, the 42%, at time of writing, who found no difference could have poor hearing and/or cheap and nasty systems where everything sounds the same. But, if person A says there's "more air" and "tighter bass" on file 3, then surely person B's system shouldn't turn that into less air and mushy bass, while finding air and sustain and tightening bass when there was none and it was mushy? I could say that I find this remarkable, but it's not. I'm going to save money on the mat and spend it on something that really does make a difference. And by difference I mean something that I can repeatedly and consistently identify. So thank you, this was very helpful.

mixpro's picture

Better late than never? I too found this while researching mats. Can you please reveal which one is which?
Ovarall I liked #5, #1, #4, #7 in that order. My notes:
#1 Clear, nice
#2 A bit duller
#3 Harsh, brittle
#4 well rounded, good lows, still clear on top. The most bass resonance.
#5 Greater depth of reverb. Not as warm as #4.
#6 Mids forward, edgier. Not as nice.
#7. Even hi-mid-low, flatter than #4,6. Nice.
#8. A bit rolled off on top.