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Tweakers' paradise

Mats & tuning elements in HiFi

[Italian version]

It is surprising how many energy transformation processes are involved in making music with a Hi-Fi system and so it is, therefore, perhaps not so surprising that there are all manner of accessories that can be bought or made which are widely accepted to improve the reproduction process overall.
Ringmat Developments in the UK produce mats for both CD and LP and I have been using both extensively over the last several weeks.

I view Hi-Fi systems as consisting of three types of components:

  1. Fundamental - the source, amplifier and loudspeakers
  2. Essential - interconnects and speaker cables
  3. Tuning - supports and environmental accessories.
Why do I differentiate these components in this way? Well simply it seems to me that most people treat these groups with different levels of scepticism when assessing their potential for improving the sonic performance of the system.
All but the most indifferent of listeners would have a problem accepting that the fundamental components can make a difference and most music lovers would accept that they can make a BIG difference.
Many, especially the technically inclined, accept that the cables also influence the sound. But in my experience a significant proportion people have trouble accepting that the cables are as important as the fundamental components.
The concept that the cables actually form part of the fundamental component by virtue of its energy-induced interactions, is treated with strange looks by people who are quite happy to spend hundreds of pounds on the fundamentals, but would be wary of spending a few tens on the cables.

Tuning components are the most controversial. These items are not needed at all to produce sound from the musical storage medium. Many would argue strongly that if they have any sonic effect at all, it will be minor.
After two decades of building, modifying and tuning my own systems I have found that all three types of component affect the sound. However, whilst changing a fundamental component such as the loudspeakers can have a very large sonic affect on the music, a change of the essentials and even more so the introduction of a tuning element, may have a much more subtle affect.
But these subtle affects can make a big difference to the system's musical integrity and, more worryingly, the fundamentals need to be optimized before the benefits of cable upgrades and tuning activities can be fully appreciated.
Furthermore, the affect of tuning elements is system dependent and thus there is an inevitable paranoia when assessing these accessories. If there is no audible impact is this due to:

  1. The tuning element being inert?
  2. There are no music-affecting energy influencers for the tuning element to act upon in the system being tuned?
  3. The system in question has such high levels of other unrelated energy distortion so as to hide the benefits of the tuning element?
  4. It's working but the listener can not hear the affect? Put more bluntly when I try something and can hear no effect I am left wondering: Does not work at all?; It works but not in my system; It's working in my system but I can't hear the benefit.
Now distinguishing between these negative outcomes requires major investigation and so reviewers should be rightly cautious about proclaiming a product does not work at all.
On the other hand, even when there is a sonic effect, describing the potential benefits of tuning element can be just as challenging, due to the system dependency and the sometimes subtle sonic results.

So what are these energy interactions at there most basic level that make tuning a Hi-Fi system worthy of consideration?

The following diagram shows the components of a hi-fi system and the potential energy fields that can act on it to distort the sound and shroud the music.

[Noise sources in a HiFi system]

First of all, no hi-fi component can add to the sound recorded on the software purchased either in CD or vinyl format. So in my opinion the "front end" must not be the limiting factor in the system, because if you are interested in upgrades, you need as good a signal retrieval component as you can afford. Next comes the amplifier.
This component takes energy from the power station up the road and imparts it onto the low level signal to provide sufficient power to drive the transducers in the loudspeakers. A simple process to describe but there are many ways of going about it.
Too much processing in this part of the chain can destroy the very essentials of the music in question.
The loudspeakers can take many forms; there are hundreds on the market ranging from simple two-way reflex loaded boxes for the bookshelf to massive electrostatics that would dominate all but the most cavernous of listening rooms. In general the active part of the speaker converts electrical signals into acoustic waves. Again a simple energy transfer process but one susceptible to coupling with energy fields in the listening room.

So in the case of vinyl, to reproduce music the Hi-Fi system converts electrical energy into mechanical energy to rotate a disc; this mechanical energy imparts a displacement of the stylus which converts mechanical energy into small amounts of electrical energy via an electro-magnetic interaction within the cartridge (less for a MC than a MM); this small electrical signal is then amplified by the injection of more electrical energy; finally the electrical energy is converted to mechanical energy by the transducers in the loudspeakers.
In the case of a CD source we have additional energy transfer processes: Not only do we need a rotating platter, but electrical energy is converted into optical energy that is reflected by the CD onto a receiver that converts the optical energy into electrical energy to produce a digital signal.
In this process there is also a servo unit attached to the laser/detector unit which utilizes electrical to mechanical energy to focus the laser onto the CD. The digital signal is then of course converted by an electrical circuit into the analogue electrical signal that is fed to the amplifier.

Now at every instance of energy conversion the signal can be subject to the introduction of distortion and loss of information. Also, noise can be injected into the system by the various energy forms in the reproduction chain being coupled into external energy sources.
The types of energy that influence the various parts of the Hi-Fi system are indicated in the diagram. These energy sources, if coupled into the signal, will distort the resulting sound, and these sonically degrading interactions are those commonly addressed by the variety of accessories that are available to the music lover to tune their system's reproduction.

Tuning by mats

All of this brings us to mats. These tuning accessories take numerous forms. A few mats (rugs or carpets if you prefer) placed on an uncovered hard floor or wall can dramatically affect the sonic environment of the listening room.
There are numerous synthetic and rubber mats that can be employed to dampen vibration within the fundamental components. We are all used to mats being placed on the vinyl turntable to optimize the mechanical coupling between the record and the platter. All these mats essentially act as energy dampers.
More strange are the mats utilized to affect the performance of CD players. I wrote about the Aurex mat recently which apparently addresses the problems associated with stray optical fields in the CD player (see Aurex review). Even more mysterious, perhaps, are the products from Ringmat Developments which act to optimize the phase information in the music. Both CD and vinyl products have been reviewed by Geoff Husband but I too have experienced the benefits of these components in my system which is very different from Geoff's and thus worthy of a second opinion and an update.

Statmat MkII CDi

I have been using the original Statmat in my CD player for sometime and at the London Hi-Fi show I picked up a "beta" sample of the latest incarnation of this mat which carries the rather automotive CDi badge on the packet! This latest version has a smaller diameter (less material (?)) than my original and the patterns and cut-outs are slightly different. As explained in Geoff's review and at the Ringmat Developments website (www.ringmat.com), this thin polypropylene sheet acts to negate phase distortion in the acoustic waveform that results from a build up of a static electric field within the player.
OK that's the limit of my understanding of the theory. I have had success with the original mat but what does the CDi variant bring to the sound. One of the challenges in testing the Statmat is the memory effect - that is once you have put the darn thing in the CD player, if you go back to playing without it, the reduction in sound quality is not as large as the improvement heard upon first listening to it!
After several weeks of listening to CDs with the CDi in place I am convinced that the music has a more involving presentation than with the old Statmat. However, how can I convey to you what I mean by this?

Perhaps the following might help. The title track by Tommy Smith from his "Step by Step" CD, as with so many jazz albums is really well recorded with a great atmosphere. This track is a good test vehicle because it has quite complicated rhythmic content, the bass line is particularly interesting as it slides from one note to the next; reinforcing the sax's lead from a relatively gentle introduction, to a frenzied few bars about 2 minutes into the piece, before the musicians really get into there stride and boogie away.
With the original Statmat the sound is more open with a greater depth of image than without it, there is a swish of the cymbals and the drums have an aural environment, but for me what the original Statmat did was make better sense of the timing and particularly the interplay between the bass lines and the drums.
With the CDi mat in place, the air in the recording is more evident resulting in my being able to hear more convincing breath on the sax playing and the keyboard passage, set well back in the mix, makes a more audible contribution to the spirit of the music. But it is definition of the bass and drums parts that really seems to snap into place.
In the passage when the sax goes into a frenzy the drum rolls are more audible and this leads the passage along, despite the feeling of anarchy conveyed by the sax. This passage moves more naturally into the boogie phase of the composition and the musicians really get into their stride.

I can do no more than this to describe to you my perceived benefits of the CDi Statmat in my system. At 28 Euros (16 Euros for an upgrade), little more than the cost of a CD, the latest Statmat incarnation imparts an extra degree of involvement to the reproduction.

Ringmat Support System - update

Geoff sent his review sample of this product for vinyl spinners to me for a second opinion shortly after I joined the TNT crew. And no surprises - I confirmed his positive findings.
However, while the system was in transition from France to the UK, John Rogers of Ringmat Developments contacted Geoff to inform him that he suspected the yellow plastic spacers Geoff had been sent were flawed and would not therefore convey the full benefit of the support system.
Intrigued and determined to stay open-minded about this turn of events, I agreed to try some replacement spacers. The only difference to the eye between the potentially "flawed" original and the replacement mat was a slight colour change.
I had been using the original system, including one yellow spacer, for a couple of weeks so had got a feel for my system's sound with the ringmat and its spacers in place. Upon replacing the yellow mat that I had been using with the a new one, the sound was different but not such that I could describe the change easily.
More air to the reproduction was my initial assessment but frankly I was surprised that there was any difference at all. In order to investigate more fully, I decided to tune up the LP12 - something I had been putting off for some weeks but I knew that the suspension was displaying some lateral motion.
An hour or two later and with two springs interchanged (I must replace those springs soon!) the suspension was bouncing nicely in the vertical plane. I then repeated the comparison of the original and replacement yellow mats. Yes the difference was there and it was more audible.
Without repeating Geoff's review, suffice it to say that with the new mat in place the sound stage was wider, the music more transparent with the instruments separated aurally and spacially but more together musically. The "flawed" mat gave a more closed in sound with more bass in the tonal balance. Just to check I wasn't going mad, I asked a friend for his opinion doing a simple a/b comparison on my system and he confirmed the difference in sound.
The intriguing thing in this experience is not so much that the ringmat system works, but that replacing one spacer improved the sound! And no I have no idea why.

In Geoff's review he found little benefit from the LP Statmat and Ringcap that form part of the package. I have convinced myself that they both add to the sound improvement in my system.
I came across the killer example only recently as a result of obtaining a vinyl copy of What's the Story by Oasis. I have had the CD version of this work for years and I have tried various methods of taming the harshness of the high frequency energy on this recording.
Both the Aurex and Statmat I have found effective. However, I have found that reproduction via the vinyl format really sorts out this problem and I listened with great satisfaction to my new addition to the record collection. The high frequency information (and the bass and drum rhythm lines buried beneath) became clearer with the Statmat and Ringcap in place.
However, I have noticed that at the end of some records the cartridge touches the edge of the Ringcap which causes me to leap to lift the arm to prevent this happening. I understand that geometric considerations dictate the diameter of the device which can not be made a little smaller without affecting its performance.
I am using an AT33e which has quite a wide body an only just snags the Ringcap on some records but this is something to watch out for if you try one.


The Ringmat products are just two examples of tuning elements that bring benefits for the cost of a reasonable cable upgrade. I instinctively use these items, even though it increases the fiddle factor!

A tuning element targeted at addressing one energy interaction, by its presence will almost certainly set up other interactions. All elements have mass or can carry electrical fields, absorb light and so on, so their effect on the sound (if any) will be as a result of a complex interaction with the system and its surroundings. It is this complexity that leads to system dependency and, I suggest, scepticism.

I am now playing with various support ideas utilizing absorbing materials costing from a few to a few tens of euros.
Of course when experimenting with tuning elements there is a risk that there will be no audible effect, but the expenditure is relatively small and it might just result in an upgraded sonic performance at least as significant as changing a cable or even trying a different fundamental component.
The sceptical and risk averse will never know what they might be missing. And here's a final thought: Who would think of buying a car with no shock absorbers ;-)?

PS. Some readers who already own a Ringmat system may be wondering if their yellow spacers are similarly flawed. Ringmat Developments have offered the following advice:

If there are any yellow or clear spacers the wrong way round which are still in circulation, they would have been amongst the very few that were shipped in February or March this year (1999).
It should be easy enough to check them - compare the sound when using two slate spacers (0.125mm x 2 = 0.250mm thick) with that when using one clear (0.250mm) spacer, then similarly check the sound when using each yellow spacer (0.500mm thick) with that obtained using one clear and two slate spacers (0.250mm + 0.125mm x 2 = 0.500mm).
In carrying out this test, the overall thickness of the spacers should be approximately correct so as to achieve an accurate stylus rake angle, and the absolute phase of the signal from the record (LP) should be the same as that of the reproduction (hi-fi) system; if in doubt, play the record twice, once with absolute phase set at 0 degrees and once at 180 degrees (by switching the speaker cable connections at the back of the speaker from red to red and black to black so that they are red to black and black to red - muting or switching off the (power) amp whilst making any change, of course!).
Because the yellow and clear spacers are made from materials which are different from those used to make the slate spacers, very sensitive systems may detect a small difference in sound anyway, but it should be obvious from the "flatness" of the music and the shape of the notes if any of the yellow or clear spacers are suspect. If any problems are suspected, users should contact us.

Copyright 2000 Steve Davey - http://www.tnt-audio.com

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