Boston Audio Design Mat 1Review by Jonathan Noble
Writing this review got me thinking about some lyrics from a favourite album, Joe’s Garage Acts 2 & 3, by Frank Zappa:
Joe: Oh oh oh
L. Ron Hoover: Well, you have nothing to fear, my son!
You are a Latent Appliance Fetishist,
It appears to me!
Come on, let’s be honest, we audiophiles love our fanatical fixations with the smallest of things – connectors, blocks, clips, pegs, spikes and cones. Vinylphiles are especially fixated over fussy details, and to die for gadgets, such as reflective tracking protractors, digital stylus pressure gauges, seemingly endless innovations in cleaning products, record clamps, cartridge head shells and exotic tone arm wires. Vinylphiles get to play with an assortment of toys, and I often think to myself, those poor digital guys haven’t a clue as to what they are missing. In truth, most of the committed vinylphiles that I know, are blatant, ‘out of the closet,’ tweak-freak fetishists of the finest order – an observation which brings me to the topic of this review. I have to confess that I am a mat fetishist! I guess the ‘mat-fixation-thing’ started some years back when I began to modify turntables. Initially working on belt-drives, such as good old AR and Thorens TD150’s, then later, superior rim-drives such as Thorens TD124, and the Garrard’s 301 and 401 (yours truly currently spins with a lovely Garrard 401, with grease bearing taken from a first series 301 – yes the first, and by now rare, hammertone, silver-grey model – an SME 3012 arm and Ortofon SPU GME moving coil). Those early tweak-experiences taught me about the importance of correct Lp support.
I have auditioned all the obvious choices, with mats made from rubber, felt, glass, acrylic, cork, aluminium, and so forth. Each has its own sound, and amazingly, the material used beneath an Lp sounds exactly the way you might expect. For instance glass sounds detailed and clean, in fact quite ‘transparent,’ with especially fast transients, yet is also a little edgy, scratchy and ‘glassy’ sounding at times. Rubber, by contrast, tends to emphasise richness and warmth, and slurs the leading edge of notes, and is far too coloured sounding for my taste – although it must be said that there many different kinds of rubber, and no doubt, some will sound better than others. Felt is airy on top but lightweight and vague everywhere else (apologies to LP12 fans), whilst cork (which is an almost favourite of mine), is at once rich and clean, yet a little ‘spongy’ when it cones to dynamic presentation. Despite endless, painstaking experiments, I never did find a support material that ‘has it all.’ Soon enough, I began to experiment with composite designs, built up from layers of different materials (some rim drives have long spindles, which helps). I discovered, for example, that rubber on top of cork on top of acrylic, sounds quite different to cork on top of acrylic on top of rubber – and yes, the sounds that one has learned to associated with each, indeed do add up to form a composite effect. (1)
Until recently, I was content with a 3 mat arrangement, with a lower 1mm layer of cork, followed by a 4mm acrylic disk, and toped by my own take on the Ringmat concept (itself made from paper and rings of cork). This arrangement, in the context of my Garrard 401/SME3012/Denon DL103r, was most satisfying. A firmer support, such as an acrylic disc, does provide better transient details, but to be honest, I never had much luck with firm supports, finding the softer Ringmat concept to be a better compromise, one which trades a small loss of dynamic life for a more satisfying tonal balance. That was how I had things, until an Ortofon SPU GME mc pickup made its way into my system. The SPU is a wonderful cartridge, with an intoxicating presentation, and the most natural string tone I have heard from a mc – well, from the ones that I have experienced anyway. But, there was one niggling problem. I was lacking some dynamic edge, and I do like a bit of excitement, especially when listing to late night jazz. Cork rings and paper were not working with the SPU. Swapping to glass, and later acrylic, brought better dynamic expression, a cleaner and more involving presentation, a choice I would not have preferred with the DL103r. There was no question about it, the SPU plays best with a firm support, so I began to look around to see what could be found to compliment my new princess. I am bothering to mention this set of events because, as no doubt most of us already know, audio requires a mix and match to find complimentary balance, without which it is impossibly to elevate ones sound onto that next plateau.
I read about the Boston Audio Design Mat 1 on the net, an unusual design made from pure graphite – think pencil lead. I just knew I had to test drive the Mat 1 for myself, because for some reason, carbon/graphite, is a materials that keeps turning up tops in my system. I adore Black Gate capacitors, which work with graphite particles, and I love Riken ohm resisters (carbon) used sparingly in the right placed (and which are nothing like the awfully vague and slow sounding carbon resisters that can be bought at your local electronics store). I have also read good reports about carbon conductors, but have to confess that I am not much of an interlink fetishist. In fact, carbon chains allow for the existence of organic life, as we know it (we humans are mostly composed of carbon), so I figured, why not a slice of graphite-organicity below that other source of vibrant well being in my life. I looked around to see if the Mat 1 was available in South Africa (which is where I live), and that’s how I met up with Geoff Fairlamb of Stereo Musicality – a high-end audio dealership located in Cape Town. Geoff explains that is when he realised that I am a so called ‘Garrard-Cultist’ (i.e. a nutty and serious enthusiast!) that he felt safe to offer me the Mat 1, allowing me to audition this product at leisure, prior to purchase. We met, early one evening after work for drinks at a pleasant watering hole in Rivonia (a suburb of Johannesburg). Geoff had just flown up to Johannesburg to install audio equipment for some clients. We had a wonderful time discussing all manner of audio nonsense. And I wish to take this opportunity to note that Geoff is one of those rare finds, an audio businessman-salesman with a genuine commitment to service the well being of his clients. When you buy audio equipment from Geoff, you find a close friend, one with whom you can rattle your views, and imagine your audio ambitions.
Mat 1 is a ground breaking product, and it is worth elaborating a little on some of the more technical aspects of this design. Boston Audio Design are quick to point out that their product is the only, stand alone, pure graphite turntable mat available today (we may also note that Nottingham Audio use an integrated, graphite playing surface on their most expensive decks), and that the graphite used in this mat differs from other carbon based designs, which use carbon fibre – carbon fibre is a composite material, which differs from pure graphite. Graphite, commonly available in large, solid blocks, can be sliced and machined (Mat 1 is 3mm thick, machined to tolerances of +- 0.005 inches). But, as Boston Audio Design are quick to add, the biggest challenge to anyone who wishes to make a mat from this material, is the problem of how to seal its relatively soft and ‘dirty’ surface – think about rubbing soft pencil lead over the surface of your favourite lp’s, and I suspect the point starts to drive home. Boston Audio’s solution has been to fine polish the surface of the graphite (which is made to spin at 4000 rpm), and to seal it with a special lacquer. Finding the right lacquer, one which would seal the surface of the graphite, without disturbing its unique resonant properties, proved to be the biggest challenge. And, anyone wishing to use Mat 1 must be made aware that the playing surface of the mat should not be touched – the thin lacquer is ill suited to washing, and gradual build up of grease from the hand will likely harm this product. Treat Mat 1 the way your would a precious lp, holding it on the edge, and avoid dropping, as graphic is unfortunately quite brittle.
Boston Audio Design have published a ‘white paper’ on the technical aspects of this product, see:http://www.boston-audio.com/products3.html
It’s a fascinating read, one which helps to explain about the good resonant properties of this material – a material that apparently attracts, traps and sinks vibration. This is a critical point. Turntables are obviously designed to make music from vibration and most turntables rightly take extensive measures to reduce the harmful influence of extraneous mechanical noise, be it from the motor drive system, or be it feedback from loudspeakers. But, far more critical than this, is the vibration that come from the recording itself, i.e. the music we wish to hear. Surely then, the most fundamental point in vinyl reproduction, is generated at a singular point (if you will excuse the pun), that being the interface of a diamond and a vinyl groove. The energy that dissipates from this point will quickly move in a complex fashion: up the stylus cantilever, into the body of the cartridge, along the tone arm, and simultaneously through the vinyl, into the mat, before entering the platter and plinth. These flows of energy need to be damped, yet contrary to what some think, we are powerless to eliminate this chain of effects. Taming the precise nature of this distributed energy field – which moves in many directions at once, through each and every material in the vicinity of the mechanical interface: diamond, aluminium, vinyl, graphite – is without doubt one of the most critical aspects of modern turntable design. And naturally, the complex interactions of mechanical energy that we are describing here, will have electrical correlates that will form in the pickup coils, and that means we are, in actual fact, listening to the resonant properties of the materials that allow for the transmission of this energy field. (2) The good news is that Boston Audio Design make some exciting claims in favour of the positive effects that graphite can bring to bear.
Intuitively, I found myself doing a test record frequency sweeps, as used to demonstrate tone arm resonance. My current SME-SPU combination resonates a touch early at around 15hz, and I will swear (although cannot prove) that stylus wobbles appeared less pronounced with the Mat 1 in place! Ahh, but what of the sound? I want to write about my first encounter, because ‘first experiences’ often provide a freshness of perception. Well, it was some month backs, and as I recall, the Lp that I selected was a finely recorded piece of baroque ensemble (knowing me, it was probably Bach, or Vivaldi), a passage which was chosen to showcases complex rhythms and textures, and spatial depth (but unfortunately, I do not recall the precise Lp). And right here, I wish to quickly emphasise that we are considering a mat, not a new cartridge, or a new turntable, or pair of speakers. Obviously, a mat cannot provide the type of improvement that might be had from a bigger/better loudspeaker (ditto for a heavier/better turntable). Loudspeakers clearly determine the big parameters in a system, such as bandwidth, energy and spatial presentation. The kind of improvements that comes from a really-good-mat is of a different kind, having more to do with subtlety and refinement of presentation (and, as many will no doubt concur, subtlety and refinement really does matter). In point of fact, I would say that a mat upgrade is unlikely to introduce something of its own, but rather, is more likely to highlight, or to bring to fullness, something that was already there – to lend a new emphasis to a prior context. In my situation Mat 1 has brought a whole new level of insight with respect to certain pre-existing attributes, and I hasten to add that Mat 1 has been far reaching in its effect (I would even say akin to what one might expect from a cartridge upgrade).
The first thing I noticed was a darkening of the acoustic space, coupled to a new vibrancy of tone. I was hearing a lot deeper into space than before. It was a space that receded into the depths, with an eerie dark background, and spotlighting effects that fell upon instrumental tones, as they emerged in stencilled relief again the heightened tangibility of that space. The effect is similar to what Renaissance art critics term chiaroscuro, the artful play of light and shade, to render the third dimension in painterly space. These effects of spotlighting and darkening suggest a double motion, where on the one hand a heightened sense of inner detail is achieved, whilst on the other there is a brooding sense of tonal mystery, and spatial nuance. That initial smile had turned to a beaming grin. I get excited about complex, double motions of this kind, which are a rare sign of true progress toward my elusive goal of ‘natural’ sound. Live music is often like this: at once clear and free, yet mysterious, seemingly absorbed by the performance venue. All too often, audiophile ‘detail’ comes with an over exposed top end, or worse, an un-natural ‘fizzy’ sensation that hangs in the air like confetti, an effect that some audiophiles seem to love but which I personally don’t care for. I want sound that is bold and true, with rich, deep tones, a wide palette of textures, and an immediacy of dynamic presentation – which is precisely what fascinates me about live concerts. Mat 1 is a ‘tone-meister!’
The next thing I noticed was the fine range of textures, and tonal differentiations, with dramatic shifts of harmonic structure that showcase, for example, the rasp on the brass, the breath on a flute, and the bow on a string. Differentiation of timbre, texture and tempo are hallmarks of great analogue reproduction. The Mat 1 does this differentiation thing in spades. And finally, I began to notice the speed, precision, and shear fluidity of the sound. The system had received a new release of energy – the attack of a plucked string, the kick of a bass drum (I also played some favourite jazz and rock tracks that evening). This lp support allows the full dramatic force to come to the fore, and it does so without anything negative that might be described as an edginess, harshness or an artificial ‘bite.’ It must be said, that a more conventional acrylic support, is quite good in this last respect (with the SPU, at least), it’s just that graphite is better still! Needless to say, I was truly impressed by that first listening session, and further sessions have continued to confirm those early experiences. I called Geoff up on the phone, to tell him that I wanted this mat, and I have been truly delighted with it ever since.
In closing, I wish to note two final points of interest. Firstly, Garrard 401 owners should note that, at Geoff Fairlamb’s request, Boston Audio have just introduced a purpose made version of Mat 1, which is intended for use with the 401 (i.e. made with a slightly smaller diameter to accommodate the up-stand edge condition of the 401 platter). And lastly, whilst writing this review, I have had to package my lovely SPU, to send it overseas for re-conditioning. This means that I am currently listening with my trusty DL103r whilst the SPU is being repaired. I can happily confirm that the Mat 1 is every bit as satisfying with the DL103r as it was with the SPU. This means that the Mat 1 is the first hard playing surface that suits the DL103r, according to my taste. In fact, I am so confident about this product that I believe it will bring its special qualities to the fore, no what matter what turntable, arm or cartridge it is partnered with (although, obviously, I am not sufficiently experienced to maintain this belief as a matter of ‘fact’). I would definitely say give Mat 1 a try. Ultimately, one has to judge these matters for oneself.
above photo: Mat 1
Boston Audio Design http://www.boston-audio.com/