A very long and detail review:
I am writing this essentially as a memo with regard to the mats I received from you, but I will try and approach the subject in a somewhat analytical manner. You may feel free to use any portion of these comments as you may wish. Fortunately, much of what I have to report is favorable.
For context it is important to know the equipment that these mats were evaluated on. My reference system consists of a SME 20.2 with the SME special edition model V arm. For this review I used a VDH Frog and a Koestsu Rosewood Signature Platinum, each receiving equal time on the table. The table used a Cardas Golden Cross cable with DIN to XLRs. It fed an Atma-Sphere MP-3 preamp using Amperex 6201 gold pins in the phono section. This ran to a pair of Atma-Sphere M60s which have been upgraded to Mk 3 status. These then drove a pair of Coincident Super Eclipses with the Revelator tweeter upgrade. Cabling was with silver custom made, fully balanced interconnects from the pre to the amps and Coincident speaker cable. Cabling was raised off the floor and the system resided on custom made stands with Symposium platforms all around except for a Neuance platform under the turntable. The listening room is 19'x26' with an 8ft ceiling. Speakers are positioned across the shorter wall and 8,5 ft in from the wall behind them and are centered with 9 ft between the center of the cones. Listening position is about 10 from the speakers and centered between them. There are for bass traps in the corners and sound absorption panels on the wall to remove first reflections. Thick wall to wall carpeting, a plaster ceiling and a wall of LPs behind the listening position. The wall behind the speakers is wood. All in all it is a very transparent system in a good sounding room. Analysis with a SPL meter shows no greater dips or rises in frequency than 4db and that is only in two small bandwidth areas.
The SME 20 is a very neutral TT and through this system is very revealing. It comes with a platter that has a sophisticated face that is made of softer-than-vinyl Isodamp, which is diamond-turned with a fine scroll that imparts a fiber-like finish which is said to improve record-platter intimacy. Having had this same system for quite a while, I am very familiar with its sound and am able to notice most any changes quite quickly. I am always trying to improve it and have listened to many alternate pieces of equipment, And while in all instances these changes would invoke a noticeable and different sound from the system, more often than not that change was not for the better. I think that the greatest challenge in evaluating audio devices is to avoid the conclusion that different is better. Sure, there are times when it is clear from first listen that a new piece of equipment is not only different, but obviously distasteful, but often, a listener is caught up and enamored with the difference of a new item and it is only much later that they realize that it was not an improvement. So it is with that in mind that I attempted to discern whether the Extremephono mats (the Speed, the Non-Felt Mat and the Skin) were actual improvements to my system.
I realized right away that there were several variables that needed to be addressed before I could meaningfully listen to the mats and compare them to the Isodamp platter mat built into the SME 20. Namely, VTA adjustments to compensate for the different thickness of the mats and the choice of using or not using the reflex clamp that comes with the turntable. In order to best compare I needed to be sure that VTA was adjusted for each mat or combination of mats to be the same as it was without any mat and to be sure to add additional washers around the spindle to allow for the clamp to work effectively regardless of the additional height from various mat combinations. A good deal of time was spend prior to listening to make sure these adjustments could be accurately reproduced. The results were very interesting.
I began by using the manufacturer's recommended combination of the Speed sitting on top of the Donut Non-Felt mat. I had chosen three LPs for the listening tests and would listen to a side of one before switching back to the naked SME 20. Over the course of two days I made the switch eight times, listening to the different LPs and adjusting the VTA accordingly. Four of the listening tests were done with the clamp and four without. At the end I felt that there had been a small improvement with the mats on the turntable. The low end had tightened somewhat without hurting the upper frequencies and there was some added depth to the soundstage. While nothing else had changed notably, this was a clear improvement, albeit a small one. But with the SME a small change for the better is notable, as you are already in the area of diminishing returns. Namely, it is hard to improve on something that good already. So, I was pleased and decided that if that was all there was to be, I was happy with the acquisition. I also tried the Donut mat alone and with the skin, and again there was noticeable change to the sound, but after extended listening I felt that while different, in this case it was not an improvement. There seemed to be a small loss of low level detail. I suspect that on most turntables the result would be different. But in this system there is very little vibration that finds it way into the front end and the softness of the donut mat seemed to soak up a small amount of the detail. I went back to the Speed and Donut mat combination and again was very pleased with the result; clearly a small improvement over the SME alone. In all cases I found that it was beneficial to use the clamp, but only if you were careful to not over tighten it; I would screw it down so it just touched and then add only scootch more. More than that was detrimental. This was true for all mat combinations.
Finally, I decided to try the Speed mat alone; without the Donut underneath. And that's when the big fun really started. I noticed an immediate difference and it didn't take any analytical listening to know it was better; much better. Now, not only was the low end tighter, but the highs had added sparkle, the mids more presence and the soundstage both greater width and depth. Little did I know that there would be more. But during that first side I listened to with the Speed alone I was too amazed by those improvements I have already mentioned to realize that there was actually more to come.
As I mentioned earlier, one of the cartridges I was using was a VDH Frog, and while it is one of my favorite cartridges, it is extremely sensitive to VTA and notoriously hard to dial-in to that perfect sweet spot. And as I mentioned, I was having to adjust the VTA each time I switched from the Speed back to the bare SME platter. In this process I noticed that whenever I was going from the naked platter back to the Speed I was having an easier time getting the VTA correct. And with my set-up and the Frog it is easy to hear a .2mm change. Anyway, that difference regarding the VTA adjustment really puzzled me for awhile. Then I realized that perhaps the biggest improvement I was seeing with the Speed was that it had apparently widened the VTA sweet spot. No longer was a slight adjustment taking you through the perfect spot with the result that the bass would sound good but the highs a little recessed or vice versa. In fact I had a much wider adjustment range which sounded great and within that range could favor either a "lower" or "higher" VTA flavor without compromising the overall sound as before. Effectively this has allowed me to use small adjustments in the VTA (all within .2) to act as a subtle tone and soundstaging control without having to compromise on the quality of the sound itself. And yes, there is also an improvement in overall resolution with a concomitant increase in both micro and macro dynamics, but to me the most significant improvement was in the way the Speed expanded the sweet spot of the VTA. I have noticed that I no longer have any thought of changing VTA when going between 200 gr, 180gr or 140 gr LPs. I had previously gotten to the point where I had accepted that about one in five records would sound off unless I adjusted VTA and it was always a struggle to live with that. I am no longer struggling.
I guess it would be seen as a disingenuous review if no faults were found; and yes there was one. I discovered it in what could be described as a true A/B blind test. I usually do my listening late at night with very little light on in my listening room; usually just a soft LED task light by the turntable. One night I had been listening for a while and at one point after changing a record I noticed a degradation in the sound. I looked around and couldn't figure what had gone wrong. It wasn't until after the record ended that I realized the problem. When I had last changed the record, apparently the Speed mat had clung to the back of the prior LP and had been stuck into the dust cover along with the record. The worst part was that I couldn't immediately recall what that record had been and it took a while to find it. I put it back on the turntable and all was well. So I guess the only gripe with the Speed is that on occasion it will stick to a record and if you are not careful it can find its way into the stacks. I now look a little more carefully before returning a record to its jacket. -Arthur A.