Posted in audio, gear

    I've been wanting to do some upgrades to my turntable for a while, so I did some googling and decided to try an aftermarket turntable mat. Your average turntable comes with a standard rubber mat which is designed to absorb vibrations from the turntable while also providing a removable and easily cleanable surface on which to play your records.

    After a bit of research, I quickly decided on a Herbie's Way Excellent II mat due to relatively high praise and good reviews. Let's read a bit about what makes this turntable mat so great—from Herbie's own website:

    Made with finely textured, open-cell silicone foam, this mat has unsurpassed vibration-absorbing characteristics and no resonant qualities to discolor the music. Records are thoroughly decoupled from unwanted platter vibration.

    A black elastomer "donut" on top of the white foam base reduces vinyl/stylus feedback and eliminates lateral slippage. Unique qualities allow the vinyl to "give" slightly, microscopically, to stylus contact, allowing the record groove to be tracked smoothly and accurately. 

    Wowzers. I never usually buy into this audiophile snake oil stuff, but the physics at least made a little bit of sense to me—a foam mat would naturally absorb more vibrations than a rigid rubber one would, right? It certainly wouldn't hurt to find out, at least not as bad as some other audiophile products.

    Many of the reviews for this product describe improvements such as "a broader sense of space", or "enhanced imaging depth", or "more dynamics and punch". Not a single person, however, mentioned performing a blind test to decide if it was objectively better. So that's what I did.

    Below are two audio samples taken from the same record. The first was recorded using original rubber mat that shipped with my turntable and the second one was recorded using the Way Excellent II mat.

    • Old rubber mat (FLAC / MP3)
    • Herbie's Way Excellent II mat (FLAC / MP3)

    For the test, I used foobar2000's ABX Comparator component to compare the two FLAC files and listened with a fairly decent pair of headphones (ATH-A500). The only processing I did was to normalize the volume in order to take care of any slight variances between the two files, as louder music is sometimes perceived as "better", even if the difference in volume is very small.

    The Results

    After doing 10 blind trials, the results came in... I got 4/10 correct; it told me that there was an 82.8% chance that I was guessing. I have to admit that I couldn't tell the difference between the two recordings at all. I've come to the conclusion that you probably won't gain any significant increase in quality (or decrease in noise) by using an aftermarket turntable mat. The difference between the two recordings—if any—is so small that you will never notice any improvements during normal listening conditions.

    For those curious, the equipment I used to perform this test is a vintage 1978 JVC QL-A7 turntable, fitted with a Shure M97xE cartridge. My phono pre-amp is an Audio Technica AT-PEQ3 which gets fed into my soundcard, an Asus Xonar DS.

    24 comments

    egsp

    egsp

    Thanks for providing objective info--so rare but needed! Have you thought about playing a test record and measuring any differences?

    Jeff

    Jeff

    I have not, but only because I do not own one. Any recommendations?

    egsp

    egsp

    I got the Analogue Productions one--it's really interesting to see how my setup fares. I can send you some screenshots if you are interested.

    RedFuneral

    RedFuneral

    I hear a significant difference between the mats with my Ultra-Fi DAC/Stax SR-5 headphone system. I hear less surface noise and a more coherent/visceral soundstage with the Herbie mat, but maybe a little bit of bloated bass.

    Thanks for providing those files, I'm putting together my first real analog setup and now I know not to cheap out on the mat.

    Geoffrey

    Geoffrey

    Interesting, thanks for posting this info. I too purchased the way excellent II mat and if being honest, didn't really notice any difference. I did however notice elimination of static build up, pops and ticks. That alone was worth the investment for me.

    Jeff

    Jeff

    Red, did you perform a blind test when making those comparisons? I'd be impressed if you could tell the difference if so. If not, I wouldn't trust that conclusion ;)

    Geoffrey, I noticed with the Herbie mat, there's much more static when removing a record from the platter. I'm not sure if that results in more, less, or no difference in static clicks and pops during playback. I haven't done any tests for that.

    RedFuneral

    RedFuneral

    No, I didn't do a blind test. I did listen to the recording with the mat first however. Just listening to the recording of the mat alone I was impressed by the soundstaging, when I put on the other one I noticed that it was lacking that quality immediately.

    I notice my Dual turntable lacking in the same way when it comes to soundstaging. The imaging is there, but it's not precise. I'm getting a SOTA table soon that I need to get a mat for(seller lost the original I guess) and the Herbie's is on my list. :)

    FRANK CARR

    FRANK CARR

    SO WHAT IS THE FINAL CONCLUSION IS THIS A WATE OF HARD EARNED MONEY OR IS THERE ANY BENEFIT WHATSOEVER IN USING THIS HERBIES MAT?

    Jeff

    Jeff

    Frank, my tests showed that there was no discernible difference. However, I suppose it all depends on your gear and how well your ears are tuned to the music you choose to listen to. I would say, for the average person, there is no benefit at all.

    Frank

    Frank

    Thank's Jeff,
    That confirms what I kinda already knew anybody who says they can hear any noticeable differance in my opinion must have a very vivid imagination or they want to justify buying $1.00 worth of material for $60 plus dollars.

    Steve Herbelin

    Steve Herbelin

    I agree the average person wouldn't hear a significant difference. Nor would I if using 255K mp3 as a reference. $1 worth of material. Please let me know where I can get a custom-formulated materials molded and calendered for under $17,000.

    Steve Herbelin
    Herbie's Audio Lab

    Jeff

    Jeff

    Hi Steve

    Thanks for your input. Audio quality aside, I would say that I prefer the look and feel of your mats over any of the other aftermarket ones out there :)

    And $60 isn't a terrible amount to ask for, considering how much other "audiophile" grade stuff out there goes for.

    Lester M.

    Lester M.

    Being a musician and composer, often intimately involved with recording processes and mastering, I have an acute ear for musical dynamics and the recorded result and playback. I don't suppose my hearing is any better than the average person's, though. It's not that the average person doesn't hear these things, but either he doesn't recognize the nuance or it's just not significant.

    Frankly, I don't think this review passes muster for relevance with a real high-end audio system, for which the Herbie's mat is intended. The turntable used for the review is fine, assuming it's still in good shape. Your'e simply not going to get much of this turntable's fine musical potential running through a $59 "preamp" that weighs less than 6 ounces. This Radio-Shack-quality phono preamp used for the review is not a high-end phono section at all. And then into a $50 soundcard? Come on, get real. This is great if all you want to do is be able to play records through a computer. With this setup, you probably wouldn't hear the difference if using a mat cut from a cardboard box, so why invest in a high-end platter mat? Or write a review about not hearing any difference?

    This is like using an old Volkswagen Beetle to review "premium" gas. The upgrade fuel isn't going to provide a hoot of difference to the Beetle's performance. With a more high-end automobile however, comparing regular gas to premium would surely give a substantial contrast. The average person might not recognize or appreciate the difference--it's all the same; the car goes when you push the gas pedal, stops when you push the brake. The discriminate driver who enjoys the pleasure of driving dynamics, like the musician or audiophile who enjoys music, will surely appreciate the upgrade fuel over regular and find the differences substantially rewarding.

    I now have a Way Excellent II Turntable Mat on all three of my turntables. On two of them, the audible sonic improvement over the stock felt and rubber mats is profound and undeniable. You would have to be almost deaf not to hear any difference. The average person might not be able to "tell" the difference though: the music still has the same beat, the same rhythm, the same melody either way. To the discerning listener, however, the difference can be exhilarating, like the difference between enjoying the ambient vitality and presence of the originally recorded event or just "listening to stereo." On my third table (an SME), sonic differences are much more subtle, though still highly worthwhile.

    My first Way Excellent II mat went on a Pro-Ject turntable in my living room. My wife thought I had bought a new turntable, because she said, "Wow, your new record player sounds the bomb!" It was the same old turntable though, just with a new mat, which really does make a no-brainer, audible improvement on the Pro-Ject.

    A/B comparisons are okay to weed out differences that really stand out. For subtle, high-end auditioning though, you need prolonged listening. When I first upgraded to a Way Excellent II on my SME turntable, I didn't really notice any difference for a while. Eventually though, I realized things were overall just a notch better. While listening, I felt like i was involved in the recording process even though of course I wasn't really there. Then, the clincher came. For years, I have used the old chestnut, "Jazz at the Pawnshop" as one of my reference albums for auditioning new gear and tweaks (has some fantastic clarinet and vibes solos, by the way). This recording is amazingly well-produced. One piece on this record always bugged me though: the hi-hat never sounded quite right. It was positioned well in the soundstage with a nice brass sheen and "cht-chz" sound to it. There just always seemed to be some distortion though, something not quite right--a fuzzy, clunky disguise of sorts. Because this recording was so well engineered, I didn't think there would be a bad mike feed or anything in the mix. Anyway, when this piece came up during the audition, the mystery cleared up right away. On this particular piece, a tambourine is laying on top of the hi-hat. A tambourine, plain as day! I could see it clearly, though only my ears were "watching."

    Assessing improvements to an audio system are of course judgmental and subjective. As a matter of conversation, I will venture that before upgrading to Herbie's Way Excellent II mat, my prime system with the SME performed at 98 percent of its full sonic potential. With the mat, it's now operating at 99 percent. So to me, at least in one way of looking at it, the mat has made a 50 percent improvement. When striving to bring out the best in your audio system, subtle improvement can be huge.

    Cordially,

    Lester

    Jeff

    Jeff

    Lester, I'm glad you enjoy your mats so much. Keep in mind that this review is specifically geared towards the average consumer, not people who have already sunk thousands into their stereo systems. Get real? You bet I am! A $50-60 sound card and pre-amp are already above average for an entry level listener, considering most people who are just getting into vinyl these days will buy the first $15 phono stage they see on Amazon, and use their integrated soundcard.

    Regarding A/B blind tests, I feel they are more than just "okay". In the incredibly subjective world of audio, blind tests are absolutely necessary to weed out even the most subtle placebo effects, and can be incredibly eye opening. To expect unbiased results of any kind while ignoring blind tests is the definition of foolish! Of course if you listen to one system for prolonged periods, you will begin to prefer that system over others—because you've conditioned your ears and brain to it! The same can be said about literally anything else in the world. Don't like coffee? Drink it every day and soon enough, coffee will be delicious!

    In my opinion, anyone who discards blind tests so casually is only looking for a way to justify their +$100/foot speaker wire.

    Lester M.

    Lester M.

    Quite the opposite, Jeff. Sometimes it takes a prolonged audition to realize when something isn't quite right, for an anomaly to percolate up to conscious recognition. like cymbals being just a shade tinny perhaps, or encountering a familiar passage that has lost a little something, perhaps an orchestral crescendo that collapses due to oversaturation. Or finding that you can't really put your finger on it but the music's just not as engaging as it should be. Conversely, you might find yourself tapping your foot and wanting to listen longer and find that familiar passage has a new-found depth to it.

    When you can hear a difference, you usually don't need to A/B unless you're trying to glean the nature of subtle discrepencies. Then you might have to go back and forth a whole bunch of times. Just about anyone can hear the difference between sibilance in the vocals and not being there. When a flute has air in the tonal texture instead of just being an electronic tone. More glare in the dynamics or less. Fuzziness around the edge of notes or lack of fuzziness. Even the "average" listener who just listens primarily for the rhythm, beat, and melody can hear the difference between a bloopy and resonant bass versus a linear, well-defined bass.

    I discovered many years ago that there is no real point in blind tests, at least for people who have any confidence in themselves. if you can hear a difference, then there is a difference and blind tests will bear that out. If you cannot hear any difference, then there is no point in blind testing. Claiming "placebo effect" and such, though certainly having some degree of validity in many scenarios, is often used just as a tool for skeptics and naysayers to perpetuate their arguments. It seems foolish to me to out-of-hand dismiss other people's comments and reviews about their listening experiences. Is everyone a crook or something?

    Your tests and conclusions are honest and valid; I've got no argument with them. You perceived no discernible audible difference under the conditions tested and are confident in your conclusions, as am I.

    BTW, $100/foot is not a bad price for decent speaker wire or interconnect, though it would probably be a waste of money in an "entry level" low-fi or mid-fi system like described in the above post. There's nothing wrong with such a system, of course. Not everyone is a connoisseur of the finer aspects of musical reproduction and a sort of "gizmo" phono stage can be fully sufficient and spiritually rewarding. I enjoy the heck out of listening to music on YouTube (through the built-in speakers on the side of my monitor and integrated soundcard).

    I think the more important thing in life is music itself, all aspects of the music, not the gear.

    Khablam

    Khablam

    "When you can hear a difference, you usually don't need to A/B unless you're trying to glean the nature of subtle discrepencies. Then you might have to go back and forth a whole bunch of times. Just about anyone can hear the difference between sibilance in the vocals and not being there. When a flute has air in the tonal texture instead of just being an electronic tone. More glare in the dynamics or less. Fuzziness around the edge of notes or lack of fuzziness. Even the "average" listener who just listens primarily for the rhythm, beat, and melody can hear the difference between a bloopy and resonant bass versus a linear, well-defined bass"

    What you're describing here, are massive differences that could only be the result of listening to a different master. Way to strawman the whole thing, Lester!

    The reason you don't like A/B tests, is because you can't do them. It's that simple. You buy your snake-oil, and convince yourself you hear the difference. Try to A/B them and you'll fail. What then? Are you going to just accept you can't hear the difference and are wasting money?
    No, you will of course use poor reasoning to 'explain' why you can't A/B it, leaving your delusion intact.

    Such is the way of the Audiophile.

    Lester M.

    Lester M.

    Ignorance is bliss, I suppose.

    Lester M.

    Lester M.

    By the way, I'm talking about subtle differences, not massive. In reference to strawmen, I think Khablam might be the one lacking a brain. If you can hear the difference between different masters of the same recording, surely you can hear differences of the same recording, same master, on different gear.

    Richard C.

    Richard C.

    OK, I am enjoying this healthy exchange!
    Jeff: thanks for the review, and for taking the time to do an excellent and scientific comparison. You did a great job! My nickels worth: I think that converting the analog signal to digital might cause some loss, so I'd agree with Howard to that extent. That is not to knock your system! My feeling is that the nice digital gear we are using today sounds massively better than the average system back in the analog days. Hey, lots of people were using misaligned cartridges on cheap rim drive BSR and Garrard changers...or (yikes) Eight Track tape players!
    Still, I wish we could additionally try the Mat Shootout on a table (and your QLA7 is incredible in my opinion) through a good analog system (like a nice receiver, for example, from about the same year as your turntable) just for fun. A lot of folks are actually buying those (and many other brands) and restoring them these days. If we still couldn't hear a difference, that would be interesting. If we could... that would be REALLY interesting. If I can talk my wife into letting me buy a Herbie's Mat, I promise to give it a shot. Just another angle on the concept, really.

    cspusa

    cspusa

    Well, I did notice a difference. The drums seemed smoother, the guitar seemed a little more rich, and the singer had a slight more presence. There seemed to be less noise in the opening quiet part of the track, just a little annoying almost inaudible surface noise that seemed to filter the track's reality. But I think both are right to the extent that those who can afford expensive systems are going to be more aware of the subtleties. I believe some, and I include my self, would drool to own such a system, but for that subtle improvement, most will pass over the mat. Most people today are listening to cd's in there car, mp3 on I-Pods, and could care less about spending that kind of money on stereo systems because they just aren't into quality. If they were, they wouldn't be buying low quality mp3 in the first place.

    Khablam

    Khablam

    It's interesting you mention MP3s, because they're the best example of an audiophile's inability to demonstrate they can hear as well as they claim. Bitrates as low as 160kbps are considered "transparent" even using high-grade headphones and equipment.
    That's a discarding of ~89% of the data, and people still can't reliably hear the difference (can't ABX the two).
    To date, no-one has been able to do this at bitrates of 256/320, 81% and 77% removed respectively, outside of rare, specific problem samples.

    Yet, the audiophile will take something like a mat, where you couldn't begin to quantify the difference in signal between them, and go "yep, yep, I can hear all kinds of differences here, loads, wow, yeah" and tell him he can't ABX it? Well, then you get lots of creative reasons why he can't. I mean, he can instantly hear that "The drums seemed smoother, the guitar seemed a little more rich, and the singer had a slight more presence" but suggest he does this in a testable environment? No chance.

    It's a bizarre quirk of psychology that people endlessly convince themselves of something that's not true, but it's also rather entertaining to watch.

    Sarah M.

    Sarah M.

    What's really hilarious to me is reading posts by blowhard naysayers like Khablam because in reality the joke is on THEM, only they'll never know it!

    Josh

    Josh

    I don't see anything wrong with his assertion that if someone says they can hear a difference, they should be able to repeat it in a blind test. Audiophiles who wax religiously over the difference expensive components make without being willing to subject their ears to an objective test are the bane of the audio industry. The attacks on people who call such arrogance into question, throwing names around like blowhard naysayers, is only more evidence of insanity.

    I love listening to music on good gear. I'm not so vain that I'm going to spend my hard earned money on some snake oil like $1000 cables. That's just proof of idiocy.

    I think the review above provides an interesting perspective, but I'm not sure the conversion to digital is the best way to conduct such a blind test of an analog component. I'd like to see a blind test done where an independent party swaps out the mat allowing the tester to hear samples through the record player rather than a recording of the record player. I own a VPI traveler and am considering Herbie's mat, mostly because it is one of the more affordable mats available to replace the stock one which leaves residue on records.

    Josh

    Josh

    I do think something like a turntable mat could contribute an audible difference. You're talking about minimizing vibrations that could be transmitted back to the very sensitive stylus. That makes sense to me.

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