Please don’t shoot me, I’m only the record player.
That’s what I imagined my turntable saying to me after spending an entire weekend going back and forth listening to five different turntable mats varying in cost from $30 USD to $350 USD.
Why did I do this?
Because I’m interested in getting the best sound (to my ears) out of my system, and since I had a number of mats in the house, and needed to write something about them, I decided to throw them all in the mix, and see what came out. I took a lot of notes, I drank a fair amount of beer, and I took too long to finish this up, but it’s finally done, so I hope it makes sense.
I’ll be upfront about this, this is more about adjusting to taste what your turntable is able to deliver. Very much like an Instagram filter. The very best mat (like the best of anything) will not add anything to nor subtract anything from the sound, rather, it will simple allow more of what is already there to come through to your ears. That’s not to say some of these mats didn’t flavour the sound slightly – they did – but whether that flavour is in-line with what your tastes appreciate, or rely on as a benchmark, is up to each individual.
I performed all the comparisons on my personal rig, which at the time of this shootout was comprised of a Linn LP12 Majik with Hana SL LOMC cart, an Audio Note AN-S2 step-up transformer, Audio Note M1 RIAA phono stage, and an Audio Note Oto Line SE integrated amplifier. Cabling throughout is Audio Note Lexus with a pair of Audio Note AN-E/SPe HE loudspeakers to translate all the analog goodness. This is not a comparison based on measurements, figures, or blind testing: It’s just me listening to the same LP (Folk Singer – Muddy Waters, 200g Analogue Productions 2×45 rpm 2011 pressing) again, and again while taking notes on what each mat did to the presentation of the songs. I chose to use one LP to keep it as simple as possible, and also to keep this reasonably short because I don’t think anyone wants 5,000 words on ‘table mats except my editor. This isn’t the definitive mat comparison, but it will (hopefully) help guide you in choosing a price point, and a style of mat for your turntable if you feel it’s in need of an upgrade. I’ve done my best to keep the rhetoric in my descriptions to a minimum, so bear with me. Also, let’s not forget, some turntables don’t even require a mat. If you have one that doesn’t, well aren’t you a lucky bastard?
1. Stock Linn Lp12 felt mat $30 USD:
This is a plain jane felt mat of thin/medium thickness (2 mm I’d say) that comes stock with the Linn LP12 turntable. It is similar to the Rega felt mat (which is rather ubiquitous in the hi-fi world), but just ever-so-slightly thinner, and coarser feeling. I’m not a huge fan of this mat or the Rega because of the static issues that both seem to have in practical use. I find they attract dust, hair, and airborne particles in general, and require me to goose every LP with my anti-static gun. They sometimes stick to the LP after playing as well, which causes me to swear often. YMMV.
2. Pro-Ject Leather It mat $60 USD:
Soft suede leather mat in black that is medium thickness (between 2mm-3mm), and has a supple, nappy texture to it. I got this mat originally to replace the Rega mat on my RP6 a few years back. I found it at a local shop here in Vancouver, and immediately noticed an improvement in sound quality over the stock Rega mat at the time (and my static issues vanished). This is a very high-quality leather that Pro-Ject uses, with no defects, or nicks anywhere. It feels luxurious.
3. Auditorium 23 Standard mat $95 USD:
This is a thinner mat (about 1.5 mm I’d say), and has a textured/woven diamond-crosshair pattern on the playing side, and is plain on the underside. I was offered this mat to try out by a friend who had upgraded to the Auditorium 23 Hommage mat. I noticed a very large improvement in SQ over the Pro-Ject mat as soon as I threw it on my Rega. When I bought the LP12 in late 2015 I threw this mat on it after giving the stock Linn mat, and the Pro-Ject mat a shot for a few days each. Same deal, much better SQ than either, and no static issues.
4. fo.Q polymer-hybrid mat (solid, and perforated) $125 USD:
These two mats came to me courtesy of Joseph Cohen at The Lotus Group, as part of a package of fo. Q polymer products. The solid mat is medium thickness (2mm in my estimation), and is quite stiff, with excellent finishing on it’s subtly-pebbled surface, and rounded edges. The perforated mat features irregular cutouts shaped like circles/ovals, and is just over half as thick as the solid mat. It too is rather stiff, but also features excellent finishing, with no surface blemishes, or imperfections anywhere.
5. SPEC Analog Disc Sheet AP-UDI $350 USD:
I was given this mat to take home, and try out at RMAF in 2015 by Jonathan Halpern of Tone Imports who is the North American distributor for SPEC Corporation out of Japan. I’d heard this mat in action on the SPEC turntable at RMAF, and Halpern very kindly offered it to me try at home for a while. This is a lacquer-encased aluminum turntable disc that is very smooth, completely stiff, and is medium thickness (about 2.5 mm). The finish is impeccable on this disc, and the lacquer coating has a very unique hard/soft texture to the feeling of the surface; like an extremely dense, hard rubber (hockey puck?) if I was pressed to describe it.
I started off most sessions in order from 1 thru 5, but also reversed it.
1. Stock Linn Lp12 felt mat $30 USD: This is a lively sound, and if you’re at all familiar with the LP12, then you know what I mean. This is the sonic signature that has sold innumerable Sondeks the world over, and continues to for more than 40 years now. There’s a reason that the LP12 is one of the most revered, and popular turntables in history, and this thin, black felt mat is part of that. Folk Singer is an all-acoustic recording, and Waters only one at that. The mastering on this LP is phenomenal, with absolutely ridiculous air, and space around each performer, and their instrument from these September, 1963 recording sessions. Straight-up, the stock LP12 sound reminds me of growing up in the ’70s; inviting, laid back, with a splash of subtle tonal colour. Both Muddy Waters’and Buddy Guy’s guitar pics, and strums on Long Distance Call practically jump out of the deeply-textured mix. There is a real urgency, and immediacy to Waters’ plaintive vocals coming from well behind the speakers’ focal plane with the body of each guitar, and Willie Dixon’s big standup bass. All are presented with realistic weight, and capacity to their reverberations. Tone, and timbre are beautifully portrayed, and the illusion of the recorded space taking up position between the loudspeakers is striking in it’s conviction.
2. Pro-Ject Leather It mat $60 USD: Swapping in the Pro-Ject mat, and dropping the needle into the lead-in groove reveals that the suede provides a quieter background for the recording to materialize from. Long Distance Call once again captivates, but there is a slight softening to the frequency extremes, with both the most upper registers, and deepest octaves now displaying a rolling-off, or slight attenuation. Overall the sound has smoothed somewhat, and seems to possess a liquidity to the overall texture that it did not with the stock felt mat. My Captain jangles in with a more vibrant alacrity to the guitar than was present with the felt mat, and there is a more pronounced depth to both Waters’ voice , and Dixon’s string bass. Waters’ hand slaps on his guitar body while strumming also reveals more detail in their interaction with a more defined, palpable “squeak” to the friction between wood, and skin. Clifton James work on the Snare in Good Morning Little Schoolgirl now has more focus to each strike of his sticks, and the weight of Waters’ and Guy’s guitars are more fleshed out with real tonal extension. Sound stage has widened, and deepened slightly.
3. Auditorium 23 Standard mat $95 USD: Tossing the heavy Pro-Ject mat onto my lounger with the Linn mat, and sliding the very light A23 Standard onto the spindle made me wonder once again where Keith Aschenbrenner of Auditorium 23 came up with this funky fabric/pattern for his entry-level turntable mat. It has a genuine woven/stitched feel to it – especially the raised cross hatches –and feels like you’re handling something with both aesthetic, and functional purpose. With this mat in play, the first thing that jumped out at me was an increase in how I perceived the dynamics of every song. There was a more energetic feel to instruments, and vocals, a more present, or right there effect, and the depth in, and around – between – instruments/vocals was an order of magnitude larger on cuts like Big Leg Woman. Tonality, and timbre remained true, but the midrange timbre felt more saturated – in a more realistic/live way. Bass depth across the board was more pronounced as well, but again not in an exaggerated manner, but with more organic texture. This LP has several very hot sections on Waters’ vocals because of his sudden, and instantaneous shouts, usually just after a very quiet passage as well, so it tends to startle listeners not familiar with the recording. The A23 mat managed to noticeably tame these hot sections, without affecting dynamics or headroom at all. Balance to the presentation seemed key here, but almost with the effect of an old-style loudness button being pushed.
4. fo.Q polymer-hybrid mat (solid, and perforated) $125 USD: The fo.Q gear is a different beast from any of the other mats because really, it is three mats. You can use either the thin, perforated one, the thicker solid one, or combine both (with a small vertical tracking angle adjustment – VTA). Of the four combinations I tried with these mats (solid mat top, perforated bottom, just the solid mat, just the perforated mat, and perforated top, solid bottom), the one I preferred the most was the solid mat on its own, so that’s the one I’m going to concentrate on. This was the most neutral-sounding of the mats so far, with added clarity, and a heightened sense of transparency to cartridge source that the previous three didn’t seem to highlight in the same way. Waters’ faint foot tapping on Feel like Going Home came across much more clearly on the recording than with the Linn, Pro-Ject or A23 mats. The presentation had a more forward 3D placement in the room, with a beaminess to guitars, bass, drums, and vocals which seemed to gather everything more between the focal plane of the loudspeakers. Congest is too strong a word, but there was a closeness in proximity of spacing that was absent to what I’d been hearing with previous mats. At first this was distracting, but upon repeated listening with the fo.Q it started to grow on me. There was an intimacy to the spatial presentation that when coupled with the increased transparency of the fo.Q mat on Guy’s and Waters’ guitars on tracks like You’re Gonna Need My Help that made a clear case for less tonal colour emphasis, and more genuine neutrality.
5. SPEC Analog Disc Sheet AP-UDI $350 USD: I always either started, or finished with the SPEC mat, and I’m glad that I did because it was by far the most revealing, and human sounding of all the mats. Perhaps because of it’s composite/sandwich construction, and the smoothness of the lacquer coating it is better able to create a sonic-translation seal between the platter, record surface, and cartridge which allows for a deeper window into the musicality of the recording than any of the other mats. Perhaps because LPs are birthed from lacquers, there’s a shared DNA between the album, and the SPEC AP-UDI. I can say that there was never any doubt what mat was on the Linn when listening to the SPEC disc. Especially notable was the difference when it wasn’t being used. Where the felt mat was perfectly enjoyable, and the suede added that sense of liquidity to the sound, the A23 added dynamic punch, and the fo.Q laid everything bare, the SPEC seemed to be having an intimate, and far-ranging conversation with my turntable. Waters’ voice on My Captain became a holographic visualization in the way my brain translated what was being played. Dixon’s bass string slaps, Waters’ and Guy’s fingers sliding over guitar frets, James’ hypnotic drumming… they all took on a visceral, almost snarling sense of live music. Obviously the boys at SPEC who did the R&D into the design, and construction of the mat are on to something. SPEC calls their particular approach to sonic perfection Real Sound, and refer to it often when speaking about what they are trying to achieve in the analog realm. The SPEC gave me by far the most tactile enjoyment of all these mats. It seemed far more aware that music is about the sum of the parts of every song, rather than any specific component inherent to a recording.
I can already see the comments section of this post riddled with “of course he liked the most expensive mat best.” As a reviewer all I can do is write what I experienced, some may agree, others may disagree, but the SPEC mat bested the others by a not inconsiderable margin in this shootout. It’s also $350 USD which is more than many people spend on an entire turntable, and therefore it’s not for everyone either. Also, this was a comparison on one turntable which has a metal platter. The results could have been drastically different if I was using a Rega with a glass platter for example.
Perhaps it wasn’t fair to compare such an expensive mat to far more affordable alternatives, but these five mats were what I had in the house when I conducted my comparisons. Would Aschenbrenner’s A23 Hommage mat at $250 USD been a fairer comparison? Perhaps. But one of the reasons I wanted to do this review was to present the differences not only in the design approach to something as lowly (in many ways) as a turntable mat, but because so few people take a turntable mat into consideration when building their systems. I mean, who really buys a record player, and then gives a shit about the mat that’s thrown on the platter?
And unfortunately in some respects, that is what I am, so I give a shit, and I’m glad I do because having the experience, and knowledge to assess something like how a mat can influence the chain of playback in my own personal system helps me to assess what is happening in a system when I’m 2,000 miles from home in a strange hotel, and listening to a set-up I may be only marginally acquainted with.
I hope this review gave some insights into what a mat can do for enjoying the tea ceremony of playing vinyl records. Vinyl is probably the most complicated, fussy, obsessive, and ultimately satisfying form musical playback known to mankind, and anything that can help get us closer to the moment a song was recorded can only further cement the impression that a record player is truly a time machine.