The Vinyl Anachronist
by Marc Phillips
Part CL: What's on Your Platter?
A few days ago one of my writers at Part-Time Audiophile bought a new turntable, the Dr. Feickert Analogue Volare--an excellent 'table, by the way. I'd been helping him with his choices along the way, throwing out several random suggestions as is my calling. I had almost as much fun as I did when I bought my new turntable, the Pear Audio Blue Kid Howard, just last year.
After the Volare arrived, he asked me an unexpected question that sort of stumped me: what kind of turntable mat do I prefer?
I didn't have an answer right away. Unlike record clamps and weights, which I discussed last time, mats are a little trickier because there is no one-size-fits-all answer. Sometimes, the stock mat is preferred. Sometimes, it depends on the platter material and how it interacts with the mat--if it isn't a tight, flat fit, the air spaces underneath can create additional resonances that can gum up the sound. Sometimes, and this has applied to my turntables more often than not, the best answer is no mat at all.
If a turntable platter is made from acrylic, or some kind of composite like Delrin, it's okay to set your LP right on top. The first time I used a turntable with no platter mat, it felt weird. It felt like I was going to scratch up the record. Isn't that the reason for a nice cushy platter mat in the first place, to carefully protect the LP from getting scratched? Turns out that if everything is relatively flat and free of debris, the musical information in the grooves will not come in contact with the platter surface. The real reason for a mat on a turntable platter is to control resonances and vibrations.
Generally, you'll find turntable mats used when the turntable platter material is metallic. That's because the platter will ring like a bell if you tap it, and the mat, if it's doing its job correctly, will help to dampen the platter. On my old AR ES-1 turntable back in the '80's, the aluminum platter was in two pieces. The pieces rang loudly when separated, but they were silent when fitted together. Still, the AR came with a felt mat that eliminated the possibility of noise even further.
When I first began this hobby, back in the '70's and '80's, turntable mats were ubiquitous. Either your turntable came with a felt mat, like Linns and ARs and Regas, or it came with a rubber or Sorbothane mat, like Technics. That was the first great audio debate about mats--which was better? The camps split up, with one side saying that rubber and Sorbothane were better damping materials than a thin sheet of felt, and the other side saying that Sorbothane had a habit of leaving residue on LP's. Also, felt doesn't overdamp the sound like rubber does, killing the liveliness and energy that drew you to analog in the first place.
For years, owners of Linn and Rega turntables knew the truth about felt--that it just sounded better on those two brands. I've met many Linn and Rega owners who tried every turntable mat on the market and eventually returned to the stock mats--simply because they sounded better. The turntable, after all, was voiced with those felt mats in place. The designers knew what they were doing.
Still, replacement turntable mats have remained a consistent upgrade for most turntables over the years. I think they're still popular because they're a relatively inexpensive way to impact the sound of your analog rig. In addition to felt and composites, other materials for turntable mats emerged--most notably cork and paper mats. While many balked at the idea of paying up to $100 or more on something made from such cheap materials, there's more to making a proper mat than grabbing a piece of paper, scissors and a hole punch.
I've also seen a number of leather turntable mats, which are obviously more expensive. They are stylish, but I'm not convinced you can achieve the same close tolerances in thickness and weight. I've never tried a leather mat, so I can't be sure.
That's right, mats need to be manufactured to fairly high tolerances--they must be perfectly round so that they don't appear to wobble on the platter, and the spindle hole needs to be perfectly centered for the same reason. The material, whatever it is, must be the same weight and thickness across the entire surface of the mat, although you can make the mat heavier toward the edges to increase the "flywheel effect" that comes with added inertia. In other words, the materials may be inexpensive, but the labor needs to be precise.
But here's the tricky thing about turntable mats: they usually make a difference in the sound, one that can be easily detected, but is it an improvement? When it comes to audio tweaks, that's always an important consideration. It's easy to mistake changes for improvements.
I've played around with mats over the years, especially when I was running that lime green Rega Planar P3-24 turntable from 2009 on. That was my experimental analog rig, where I tried all sorts of modifications and upgrades--an external motor supply, a machined aluminum sub-platter, and a heavier counterweight for the tonearm so I could try out a bigger range of phono cartridges. That's when I had a chance to try out two products from a UK company called Funk Firm--the $199 Acroplat platter replacement for Rega Planar turntables and the $99 Achromat mat, which sat on the existing Rega glass platter.
I performed some A/B comparisons between the Rega felt mat on the Rega glass platter, the Acromat on the Rega glass platter and the Acroplat platter by itself. The Achromat is made from hard acrylic, and it doesn't look like much, but the material is anti-static and filled with tiny bubbles that help to absorb the excess energy. The Acroplat, on the other hand, is an actual replacement for the glass platter. With the Achromat in place, the sound of my Rega was more focused than before. The Acroplat took that clarity to the next level, so much so that the old glass platter/felt mat combo sounded a bit soft and blurry in comparison. I kept both of those products around for many years--I still use the Achromat sometimes--because they made a distinct improvement on the sound.
Recently, I've been playing with the Les Davis Audio turntable mat, which is made from LDA's constrained layer damping material that controls energy and vibrations coming from the turntable motor. In the interest of full disclosure, I was the first US distributor for Les Davis Audio, but from the moment I tried his CLD products when I went to Sydney in 2015, I heard a major difference and decided to spread the word. Several years later, Les is still at it, with a much larger range of products--including this crazy-gorgeous mat. When I place the mat on my Pear Audio Blue Kid Howard, I can hear a distinct lowering of the noise floor during play. The music almost sounds louder, and more fulsome in the bass. That's what happens when you lower the noise floor of your hi-fi--more music comes through. I'm keeping this mat.
As I mentioned, there are a few variables that come into play when choosing the right turntable mat for your particular 'table. I can't make that decision for you, unfortunately, because I don't have a master list of which mat works the best on which turntable. Just ensure that you're making an improvement in the sound, not just a change. It helps if you can try before you buy--I know vinyl lovers who have a pile of replacement mats they'll never use again.
In addition, there's another type of turntable accessory that will yield even greater improvements in the performance of your analog rig. Hint: it goes underneath, not on top. That'll be for next time!
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