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November 2002
Enjoy the Music.com Review Magazine
Extreme Phono None-Felt Turntable Mat
Review by Rick Becker
Click here to e-mail reviewer

 

Extreme Phono None-Felt Turntable Mat

  It came in a clear vinyl bag inside a manila envelope, along with an unsolicited sample of their Solid State Stylus Cleaner. Being in the furniture business, the mat had a very familiar look to it. So on my way to The Analog Shop in Victor, NY, to pick up my Linn turntable that was in for a minor tweaking, I stopped at a local carpet store. Sure enough, the None-Felt was made from the non-skid mat used under area rugs to keep lawsuits from undermining your high-end audio budget.

But before you think you can make one of these yourself on the cheap, consider that this stuff comes in a wide variety of textures and thickness. You could easily try a half a dozen varieties before you got it right, and spend a lot more time, energy and money than the modest $28 Extreme/Phono charges. And as my friend Bob Lietz of The Analog Shop said, cutting anything in a perfect circle, especially with a large concentric hole in it, is more than a little difficult. You also want to have the proper thickness if your tone arm does not have adjustment for the vertical tracking angle. The None-Felt was slightly thicker than the Linn felt which raised the stylus end slightly (which is preferable to lowering it).

Bob's point about cutting a perfect circle was born out when we placed the None-Felt on the Linn. It was no more perfectly round than the felt it replaced. Still, we stood back and admired the new look it gave the turntable. The little dark gray biscuit pattern had a masculine, high-tech look that brought the ancient Linn styling a little more up-to-date in this era of acrylic plinths and carbon fiber tonearms. None of this really matters, however, if you actually play LPs, since the vinyl completely hides the None-Felt.

I thought the proof of the product would be in the listening, but there was another hurdle that had to be mastered first. Vinyl addicts often speak of the ritual of playing LPs, which differs slightly from one turntable to another, as well as one user to another. Setting the cleaning ritual aside, my habit is to simply drop the LP onto the constantly spinning platter and cue up the tonearm. After clearing the arm when the music is over, I simply let the edge of the LP slide between the fingertips of both hands, and quickly lift it off the platter without stopping the motor. Do this a couple of thousand times and it will alter your genes and be passed on to your next born child. It is the slippery felt mat of the Linn that makes this little feat possible.

 

Prepare for Change

The None-Felt mat required serious behavior modification for me. The tacky plastic material precludes slippage when you grab the record while the table is still spinning. Try as I did, I could only do it one time out of ten with any semblance of grace. Usually, the record stuck to the mat and caused the platter to jerk until the LP came clean of the mat. Often the mat broke free of the platter and had to be re-centered. While this instant was much less than a second, I sensed that it was not healthy for the delicate set-up of the Linn. So now, I stop the motor whenever I wish to remove an LP, and start it again when I want to play the other side. (I help the motor by giving the platter a little rotational spin with one hand as I press the power switch with the other).

I followed the instructions, which were to lightly press down on the center of the LP after putting it on the platter. This caused greater adhesion to the mat and presumably greater dampening of the LP. To help this process along, there was a top side and a bottom side of the mat. And as I discovered by leaving an LP on the turntable over night, the bond between the mat and the LP strengthens with time, causing the mat to lift right off the platter when I removed the LP in the morning. Furthermore, centering the mat back on the platter was not as simple a task as with the felt mat with a hole the size of the spindle. The None-Felt required more careful placement, often with several minor adjustments before it was ready to go again.

On the plus side, the mat is washable, and washing it is claimed to improve the sound even more. Maybe, if you have a $10K table with a $5K cartridge these differences become more obvious, but I sure didn't notice it. Nonetheless, it was nice to be able to get the dust off of it, and much easier than vacuuming the felt mat.

 

Why I Put Up With All This Hassle

Well, I wanted to see what the None-Felt could do for the Linn, and I thought my Audio Technica 160ML moving magnet cartridge, as respected as it was in its day, could use a little help. So I ran the None-Felt through the paces as I concurrently reviewed the JPS Labs Power AC In-Wall cable, Symposium Acoustics Rollerblock Jrs and Isis Platforms, and the Coincident Speaker Technology Partial Eclipse Mk II loudspeakers, which all appeared in last month's issue. Keep in mind that the Linn is a suspended table, so if your table does not have a suspension, or has a huge platter, or already has a good mat, your results may vary. 

On a Saturday night back in the heat of August, I had listened to Homage To Ellington In Concert by the New England Conservatory Jazz Repertory Orchestra directed by Gunther Schuller, recorded live in tribute concerts to the Duke only weeks before his passing in May, 1974. I then switched to the None-Felt mat. It sounded like a major component upgrade--instantly. The mat improved the focus without shifting tonal balance.

"Suckin' on a chilidog...doin' my best James Dean" sang John Cougar on "American Fool." It was sharp as a tack on the None-Felt, but when changing back to the felt pad it became warmer, less stressful and seemed to have a deeper soundstage. Sliding into disco with Cyndi Lauper, while the None-Felt picked up the dance rhythm, it could not quite decipher the electronically sweetened voice to reveal all of Cyndi's True Colors. The very articulate Coincident Partial Eclipses easily sorted out the differences between the turntable mats and the quality of the recordings. On a Bon Jovi live album, switching to the felt mat, everything became fuzzier and more spacious--more like the bad acoustics of typical Rock venues, but to understand the lyrics and follow the guitar riffs, the None-Felt was necessary. In fact, I actually began to understand and appreciate Heavy Metal. There was actually some musical skill happening there.

But the musical skill of Bon Jovi paled next to that of Ravi Shankar. As I sat back in my chair I soon found myself in a quasi-reclined lotus position with the soles of my feet together. The None-Felt mat did for the LP what the Rollerblock Jrs. did for CDs when I placed the Jrs. under my dac. The None-Felt illuminated the timbre of the sitar strings and differentiated the cascading notes to the point where I was helplessly sucked into the mystery, charm and speed of the sitar and tabla in the hands of these two musicians.

 

None-Felt + Svelte Shelf

But the None-Felt mat is not the last word in turntable tweaks, as I found out when I added the Symposium Svelte Shelf under the Linn. I had one of those "Oh, My G-d" moments when I replayed Blood Sweat & Tears with both the None-Felt and Svelte Shelf. While the None-Felt added focus to the music, the Svelte Shelf fleshed it out with a bloom and fullness that allowed me to taste the music. Combined, they took my analog playback system to a whole other level.

After replaying Blood Sweat & Tears with the felt mat and the Svelte Shelf in place, I swapped the None-Felt back in. Not only did the music become sharper, as expected, I noticed that the music seemed more dynamic. There was an instantaneous attack to the notes, but they were always musical. 

Also, there was not as huge an improvement from adding the None-Felt to the turntable with the Svelte Shelf already in place, as there was when I added the None-Felt without the Svelte Shelf in place. By draining and absorbing vibrations from the entire turntable, the Svelte Shelf certainly improved the focus to a significant degree on its own, but the None-Felt mat increased the focus even further by working directly on the interface of the platter and the LP. Together, they were a Bonnie and Clyde team with my Linn--truly killer!

Cymbals, shakers and trumpets revealed the greatest improvement. Horns had real bite. Sustained organ notes had bloom without any fog around them. The decay of notes was clearly revealed. And together, they ameliorated the mid-bass bloat of the Linn--an added bonus! The Micro-dynamics were more clearly revealed, but also clearly limited by the quality of my cartridge.

 

Clicks & Pops

At one point I pulled out a well-worn copy of "Peter, Paul & Mary," their self-titled first album. Using the None-Felt without the Svelte Shelf, the clicks and pops hit and disappeared with lightning speed, allowing this classic LP to show off the magnificent harmony of this vintage folk group. Five out of twelve songs on this LP can be sung by half of the people in their 50's. My wife, Linda, who was a "folkie" back in those treasured days, knows them all.

Adding the Svelte Shelf improved the focus, as expected, but the clicks and pops became more pronounced, particularly in the softer passages. So there was a bit of a trade-off in using both with LPs in marginal condition.

 

Cleaning Up My Act

Linda urges me to do this a lot. Mostly in reference to the piles of audio and furniture magazines that surround my listening chair. But at some point I thought it necessary to clean my stylus and I reached for the Extreme/Phono Solid State Stylus Cleaner. It comes in a little clamshell-like clear plastic case about the size of a silver dollar. And like a clamshell, it was a real pain to open. It seemed that in shipping the goop migrated into the cracks of the clamshell and sealed it shut. The issue was further complicated by the fact that the label was put on the bottom of the case, so I was trying to open it upside-down. The effort nearly cost me a fingernail, so be warned.

After an e-mail exchange with designer Casey Ng, we figured out the problem and I was instructed to herd up the goop into the center of the case with the included wooden toothpick. Once I got the goop out of the hinge and away from the edges of the case, and wrote "TOP" on the top, it functioned properly. I also learned that it is chemically stable for about five years, so I asked Linda to program her PDA to remind me to request a fresh review sample in 2007 for a follow-up comparison.

To use the Solid State Stylus Cleaner you open the case and set it on the turntable platter. Then you gently lower the stylus into the goop with the tonearm lift and quickly raise it up. I left it in a little too long one time, and when it finally broke loose, it sounded like a gunshot through the Coincident loudspeakers. Man, was I glad I didn't have one of those $3,000 Bubingawood cartridges! Be sure to mute your preamplifier when you do this, and don't leave the stylus in the goop for more than say half a second. It seemed to work well, but since I clean each record before playing, I didn't use the stylus cleaner often. I guess I'm just not very fanatical.

Also note, the Solid State Stylus Cleaner is a separate product sold by Extreme/Phono, not a freebie included with the purchase of the None-Felt mat. I'm just giving it an honorable mention here and passing along some experience that may guide you toward a more trouble free experience than I had at first.

 

Check, Double-Check

Since my system had undergone considerable upgrading during the time of this review, particularly with extensive use of the Symposium Acoustics products and Coincident loudspeakers, I revisited the Ellington and Lauper LPs. The effects of adding the None-Felt were essentially the same as I first experienced, and were certainly very worthwhile. But in the context of the upgraded system the contribution of the None-Felt mat was not quite as striking. If your vinyl front end and the rest of your system are already at, or near, the pinnacle of perfection, the None-Felt mat will probably have less to contribute. But if, like most of us, there is room for improvement, the None-Felt mat is a "must try" product. Just be sure to specify your turntable model, as there is also a version of the mat with only a small hole for the spindle.

Like the Symposium Acoustics products I reviewed, the None-Felt mat is a dangerous product. It may cause you to forgo that expensive cartridge or turntable upgrade you've been lusting for, or it may catapult your interest in playing vinyl to the point where you simply rush out and upgrade them anyway. It comes down to the philosophy of that car-care commercial: "You can pay me a little now, or a lot later." By eliminating the garbage at the front end, your downstream electronic components and loudspeakers don't have to deal with a lousy signal. Nor will you foolishly upgrade your components to improve the quality of a signal that simply has no quality to give. For $28, the None-Felt mat represents a value that approaches the value of electricity itself. Put it on your list for Santa and check your stocking very carefully. It just might be your favorite present this Christmas. I wish I had mine about 1,500 LPs sooner.

 

The System

Linn LP-12 Valhalla turntable with Sumiko MMT arm and Audio Technica 160-ML cartridge on Symposium Svelte Shelf.

Sony CDP-X77ES player as transport, Illuminati D-60 cable, Muse model two DAC on Symposium Rollerblock Jrs.

Sony ST S550ES tuner with Fanfare FM-2G antenna.

Convergent Audio Technology SL-1 Signature Mk III preamplifier on Symposium Rollerblock Series 2, power supply on Mini-Isis Platform.

Plinius SA-100 Mk III power amplifier on Symposium Isis Platform.

Von Schweikert VR-4 loudspeakers
Coincident Speaker Technology Partial Eclipse Mk II loudspeakers on Symposium Isis Platforms.

JPS Labs Power AC In-Wall cable and power outlet
Interconnects: 18 gauge military spec wire with Apature locking RCA's loudspeaker cable: military spec wire, various gauges, depending on loudspeaker.

 

Tonality

NA

Sub-bass (10 Hz - 60 Hz)

NA

Mid-bass (80 Hz - 200 Hz)

NA

Midrange (200 Hz - 3,000 Hz)

NA

High-frequencies (3,000 Hz on up)

NA

Attack

99

Decay

99

Inner Resolution

99

Soundscape width front

NA

Soundscape width rear

NA

Soundscape depth behind speakers

NA

Soundscape extension into the room

NA

Imaging

95

Fit and Finish

85

Self Noise

NA

Value for the Money

99

 

Manufacturer's Reply

Extremephono likes to thank Rick for spending time with our products. While Rick had accurately described most of the sonic improvements and product attributes, we like to comment and augment a few pointers:

Rick had alluded that our mat appears to be similar to carpet linings, and $28 goes to paying for the precision cutting of concentric circles. We wish to point out that the material we used is very specific, and the donut geometry has been derived from extensive calculation and listening tests.

The last thing we hope is your readers making assumptions based on listening to their carpet linings. Given our unconditional 30-day return policy, please try the actual product before jumping to any conclusion.

For the record, in our first month of shipping mats, we had 3 returns. After we remedied with a more comprehensive set-up instruction, we have since had 0 returns. In a world full of finicky audiophiles and overpriced gadgets, the 0 return rate attests to the positive sonic performance and solid value.

Casey Ng
Extremephono

 

Specifications

Description       SKU#       MSRP
Donut Mat       DMAT1       $35
Standard Mat   SMAT1       $28
Duet Mat Pack  DPAK1       $49 (Donut + Standard)

 

Company Information

Extreme Phono
P.O. Box 15064
Fremont, CA 94539

E-mail: extreme@extremephono.com
Website: www.extremephono.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

     
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