A new range of platter mats from Sonic Voice and with UK Distribution by HiFi System Components Ltd. has arrived so Janine Elliot takes a listen.

If only all cables sound the same, then my life would be so much easier. Similarly, if mats didn’t matter things would be more rounded, too. For me, my own suspicion on such things really began in my teens. I remember as a child playing with making my own felt mats and then buying my first serious product, an Audioref rubberised mat, not because I understood why it sounded better than an OEM mat, but because the HiFi magazines told me it was good. And, boy, it certainly was better than the standard Trio KD-1033B mat, and even more so than the mat coming with my Garrard 301. In my HiFi career I have tried rubber, felt, cork and numerous other formulations, but I have never tried leather. Come in Sonic Voice, a company formed two years ago in Germany, with a series of leather, leather plus felt and leather plus carbon fibre formulations. The use of leather in a turntable mat is not new, with many companies offering such products and even turntables coming equipped with leather mats, but Sonic Voice pride themselves on the type of leather they use, and the humane principals they use in getting the finest bull hide.

But, why should different materials actually make a difference? Forgetting the adage of reduction of noise from the motor and bearings, there are a number of other important reasons to employ a good mat. The vibrations made by the stylus itself reflect off the record and off the platter and feedback onto the stylus. Mats and clamps alter the way this is handled either by coupling or isolating, and either method will affect amplitude and frequency. My Townshend Rock 7 doesn’t even have a mat as Max believes that by having the platter made from a substance with same acoustic impedance, i.e. a polymer which is as close as possible to that of the record itself,  the record becomes effectively a single inch-thick compound, with the platter acting as a drain for the energy. Max, like many, believes that having different materials next to each other is unfavourable, whereas others have complicated formulas for their mats. So, mats either absorb or reflect. Some, like me, believe absorbing via the platter is best to diffuse wasted energy and others like the idea of reflecting it all back to the stylus so you don’t lose energy. Some don’t want any contact at all with the platter such as decoupling products like the Ringmat. MCRU “Pressure Points” are a set of minute rubber feet to stick onto your platter, reducing contact between record and platter to a minimum. My old Transcriptors Hydraulic Reference similarly tries to maintain as little contact with the platter as possible to reduce motor noise. The long-running Roksan Xerxes tackles that point differently removing the spindle to reduce contact with the bearings. Different philosophies from different manufacturers make HiFi very diverse and very interesting. Each manufacturer has their own take on what would be the best sound, and it can be a minefield finding the best product for your turntable. It is important to add, though, that different turntables and arms prefer different types of material. A felt mat on its own won’t stifle all the energy as its mass is so low, but adding leather increases the chances of absorbing those vibrations. Newer items such as graphite and carbon are considered as excellent materials for damping the platter and hence vibration from the stylus reaching the platter. Certainly for me, the greatest “difference” in sound up to now on my Pre Audio turntable was obtained removing the mat altogether and placing MCRU “Pressure Points” minute rubber feet on the platter. This improved top end precision came at the cost of some of the detail in the bass. Generally, I have found that having the least contact with the turntable results in a better the top end with more of the energy being reflected back to the cartridge and the more contact with the turntable the better the bass and more absorption.

CONSTRUCTION

Sonic Voice sent me three of their vast selection of mats for review. They are all excellently made with “Sonic Voice” embossed on the top with the “O” of ‘voice’ being where the hole is for the spindle, and different mats come in a range of colours including black, dark brown, carbon, grey, white, red, blue and beige, and with or without felt backing and therefore different thicknesses. The first was the Ranchero (~1.0mm-1.2mm) at €59.90.   This is a handpicked natural aniline cowhide leather. Thanks to its vacuum drying process the leather is finely grained. This was supplied without felt backing, though it is available adding extra thickness. It has a natural suede backing, which I thought worked very well in settling vibrations and making good contact with the platter. Secondly was the Classic (2.2mm-2.4mm) with the felt backing and coming in at €69.90. The leather grain is thicker on this mat, being slightly buffed embossed leather, though makes for long-lasting use. Sonic Voice believes that a greater degree of sound enhancement will be achieved due to mixing the sound-damping characteristics of the leather with the scaly structure of the wool fibres (100% merino wool). Thirdly was their latest product, Carbon (1.5-1.7mm) with carbon fibre one side and leather the other and priced at €179.00. This has similar cowhide effect as the Ranchero. As Sonic Voice informed me “We developed the Carbon/Leather mat because Carbon fibre has outstanding vibration damping”. They recommend using this mat carbon side up but it can be used either way round, and it resulted for me in very different outcomes depending on the way I used it. Sonic Voice claims the combination of carbon fibre and leather provide for ultimate vibration damping. As Dieter Zunklei from Sonic Voice informed me; “As a natural material leather avoids dust and static charge, dampens resonance and isolate vibrations”. He also believes that their mats look good on any turntable, and they certainly do in the various leather finishes and an assortment of colours on offer.  As well as all the mats Sonic Voice also produces a leather display bag with two compartments to put up to 30 records inside, and their “Absorber-Mat Jumbo” which is a pad to place under your turntable to dampen vibrations and resonances, available in different sizes.

SOUND QUALITY

When I tried playing my first record, Rimsky Korsakov’s Capriccio (side two of Mike Valentine’s beautifully recorded “Spain” album) using the Carbon mat (carbon-side up) I initially found much more detail at the top end with a much improved soundstage, though I noticed a little distortion and occasional mistracking. It wasn’t anything to do with VTA as I ensured the turntables that I used for the review maintained the cartridge at the correct angle to the groove; just altering the VTA a couple of degrees will create a different sound DNA. I felt some vibrations were feeding back onto the cartridge. Sonic Voice suggest carbon is an excellent absorber of energy but playing this track with the carbon side up didn’t work as well as when I switched to leather side up. The Carbon mat carbon side up had plenty of mid-band detail and the sound was very forward with superb top registers, but reversing the mat gave a much more controlled and musical performance, the leather reducing vibration and static influences. Talking of which, carbon has good antistatic qualities (do you remember the Milty Antistatic carbon fibre record brush!) but I got several static charges when playing carbon side up on one of my turntables. Turning to use the mat on my Technics turntable the mat gave a very slightly more controlled and musical performance, showing different turntables/arms/cartridges will respond differently. On this turntable there was a better precision and control of the music with greater speed meaning the €179 required for the mat was a good upgrade. Turning to the leather Ranchero mat gave improved detail to the background instruments, though not forgiving to crackles on this well-used disc. The top end was also much better with greater detail and control; for example, the muted trumpets. Turning to the Leather and felt mat gave the best tracking of all for this music. The music was realistic in terms of detail and position in the sound stage. Finally, to my own cork mat supplied with the turntable, this presented with distortion on the horns and some lost detail, showing definite advantages in using the Sonic Voice leather discs.

Turning to my favourite symphony, Schubert’s Unfinished 8th Symphony (Pierre Monteux, Philips) the Carbon mat was clear and spacious, with good positioning of the instruments creating a smooth velvety performance not lacking in detail and not lacking in energy and clarity. The Classic with felt mat produced more forward violins (mid frequencies), with the Ranchero giving a clearer performance to the repeated cello rhythm in the first movement (lower frequencies).

Turning to The Moody Blues live double album recorded in 1969 at the Royal Albert Hall, the Carbon gave a detailed rendition adding clarity to the (rather left-channel-prominent) vocal from Ray Thomas. “The Sunset”, Track 2, was very airy in performance showing how well the carbon can work in eking out every detail from the groove. This recording is not the very best in live performances, especially the hum coming out of the vocal mic, but it does give you the sense of actually being there amongst the audience. Side 3 has their most famous track “Knights in White Satin” and the Carbon mat gave the clearest drum kit and spacious performance of vocals, backing including flute and iconic Mellotron.  This was a memorable listen. The Carbon was just so right for this performance. The solo flute in “Legend of a Mind” was very precise, with only the Classic with felt backing providing slightly more depth and detail in the drum solo.

I have used Ray Davies’s album “Working Man’s Cafe” several times before, not least because the Kinks had great links to my birth town. Turning to side 3 the Ranchero mat gave a speedy bass, detailed instrumentation though not spaced as accurately as the other mats. Indeed, I found vocals were not as separated from the lines of instrumentation as evidenced in the other mats. The Classic mat with felt gave a better-defined bass end with clearer cymbals at the other end. The Carbon mat with leather upper gave clearest vocals and a tidier bass end on my equipment.  In all, vibrations were dampened, and a greater precision and control attained. I really wanted the Carbon mat to be the winner, and with this music that was the case.

I next Turned to Roger Hodgson’s ‘In the Eye of a Storm’. Roger is best known as frontman of Supertramp with his uniquely velvety voice, and this is his first solo album from 1984. Track one “Had a Dream” was particularly bright from the carbon/leather mat (leather side up). Detail was all there but the positioning of instruments not quite so convincing. Turning to the leather/felt mat gave a greater depth of soundstage with better-controlled piano and more focussed vocals making it easier to listen to. The bass-end was more defined and rounded. Track 2’s synth stabs were also more controlled. Track two “In Jeopardy” with the Ranchero mat lost a little of the excitement and brightness but the synth was actually more controlled. Turning back to the Carbon mat with the carbon side up the sound became more forward with good speed of top frequencies though with a little loss of the energetic bass.

Patricia Barber’s ‘Live: A Fortnight in France’ album is one I am very familiar with over the years so was an ideal choice to use for the review. This heavyweight vinyl is excellently recorded and relies on the best setup of your turntable/arm to get the best performance.  Using the Carbon mat I felt the bass somewhat light, and some distortion on vocals of the opening track. There was some sibilance on some of the ‘s’ sounds which actually did concern me that my turntable was not set up correctly, though these weren’t so noticeable when using it leather side up. The leather Ranchero mat actually gave for me the best performance on this disc, showing that sometimes things don’t go quite to expectations. Maybe the suede backing to the leather controlled the music more than the felt-backed Classic mat. What the latter mat did do, however, was bring the vocals much more forward and instruments placed much more accurately across the soundstage.

Finally, back to classical music and Mahler’s 5th Symphony the Carbon gave the most detail to the reverb and endings of notes, especially from the percussion section, and a general feeling of greater dynamism to the performance. This was an invigorating performance by Zubin Mehta and the LA Philharmonic Orchestra and a great work to end my review on.

CONCLUSION

Wow, this was a tough review for me as all the mats showed benefits over each other with different music and using different turntables, but one thing was obvious in that they all worked better than the standard mats I use and should be considered as a cheap upgrade for your hi-fi. Where the Carbon mat produced some excellent control and precision of the music, working well on top frequencies and transients, it did so at a slight reduction in bass dynamics, largely due to it controlling these frequencies better. It worked much better on my Pre Audio turntable with the leather side upper, attaining near to, and sometimes better than, the results of the other mats. Being so, it makes an ideal choice for the audio buff happy to experiment trying either way round to get the best sound, and it worked exceptionally well on electronica and popular music. The Classic mat gave a very telling performance of the music with excellent detail and reducing noise from turntable bearings. Music was tight and detailed, whatever choice of music I played. I really did like this simple mat. Similarly, the Ranchero was a great mat, giving excellent detail and excitement to the music. All types of music were portrayed with detail and musicality. This mat is also available with the felt backing, so I wonder how good that would be. If I had to choose a winner, looking at everything including price it would be the Classic but all are worth a try as they work differently and better with different music. They are all widely available in Europe and should be available in the UK as I write this.

AT A GLANCE

Build Quality: Excellent quality control of the cowhide, carbon fibre and backing. They come supplied in a card record sleeve; Perhaps this could be more substantial packaging.

Sound Quality:  Improved precision especially top end and controlling of music. The Carbon had excellent detail and soundstage.

Value for Money They all form a relatively cheap upgrade to any turntable and excellently produced. €59.90 for the Ranchero, €69.90 Classic/felt in black and €79.90 in colours. The Carbon is available at €179.00. 

Pros:

Opens-up the music soundstage including greater detail forward and back.

More information in upper registers, with slightly increased bass detail from the leather/felt mat.

More precision and control of music

Cons:

Carbon mat is not forgiving of disc faults and can give slightly reduced lower bass dynamism.

Price: Variable €59.90-179.00

Classic and Ranchero Highly recommended

Janine Elliot

Review Equipment: Pre-Audio GL-1102N/AT33sa,Technics SL-02/Ortofon 2M RED, Thorens TD-124 V15/iv, Townshend Rock 7/Rega/Kontrupunkt b turntables,  Manley Steelhead phono stage,  Krell KAV250a/MFA Baby Reference Pre amplifier, Graham Audio LS5/9 plus Townshend Supertweeter and Wilson Benesch Torus sub speakers. Ecosse, Townshend and Nordost Cables.

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