Audiophile adages persist with the tenacity of
folklore. One declares that speakers are your most important investment -
the key determinant of ultimate satisfaction. An opposing philosophy
postulates that since it all starts with the source, front-end quality is
most essential. A third line of thinking refuses to isolate one component
from another, suggesting every piece in the chain (including cables and
power quality) are equally important.
Where most audiophiles would agree, however, is that tweaks are a minor
aspect of system building. Defined by the dictionary in Microsoft Word® as "a
slight adjustment or change in something, especially in order to improve it
or fix it," tweaks are usually considered the icing on the cake.
After you get the big guys in place, so says the
acquired wisdom, it's time to look at isolation devices, EMI/RFI shields,
and all the little things that can end up costing a mint without having even
a tenth of the impact of a change in major components.
The Marigo Labs Signature 3-D Mat, which you place atop a CD, DVD-V, DVD-A,
SACD, or mp3 disc before hitting "Play" may change your thinking about
little things. Consider it a tweak if you must. It's certainly so
lightweight and thin (the ultra-thin hand-coated nature is part of the high
cost) that you need to pile three of them together to equal the thickness of
a single CD. But once you hear the major difference this mat makes, you may
agree with Marigo's Ron Hedrich that it represents a major advance in
As a longtime user of Marigo Labs' original Crossbow CD Mat (first
introduced in September 1997), I was delighted to encounter prototypes of Marigo's new 3-D Mat (originally dubbed the "Stealth 3-D Mat") at CES 2004.
Although Marigo founder Ron Hedrich had produced his first mats just days
before CES began, he was confident that they were the cat's meow.
After Ron loaned me the "thin" version of the Stealth 3-D mat, I carried it
to the Talon Audio room. There we auditioned it on their ultra high-end
Goldmund transport. The improvement in sound quality was startling.
Excited by what I heard, I immediately brought the
mat to David Elrod and Jud Barber in the Joule/Elrod/Joseph room. Placed
atop a CD in an Audio Aero player, the sonic improvements were so great that
the room immediately acquired one to use for the remainder of the show.
My excitement was not without reservation, however. As much as I felt that
the disc transformed sound quality in every transport and player I used it
in, from mass-market boom boxes to Theta and Levinson transports, the “thin”
Stealth 3-D Mat slightly darkened the top end of the sonic spectrum. The
folks in the Elrod/Joule room heard this as well. We nonetheless agreed that
there was so much more there there, that the trade-off was worth it.
After I shared my criticism with Ron Hedrich, a slew of e-mail and phone
dialogues ensued. At one point, Ron declared that, on the basis of feedback
from a few long-time customers, he had replaced the “thin” version with an
“ultra-thin” model that was more compatible with a wide variety of
transports and that worked even better. But when I tried the "ultra-thin," I
felt that it darkened highs even more than the “thin” version.
Ron resisted my criticism. I, on the other hand, was so convinced of the
mat's merits that I persisted, trusting that he could get it right. It was
only after I read him a list of my source components and cabling, whose
quality he could not deny, that he reassembled his boxed up reference system
and listened for himself rather than relying on the ears of others.
Once he heard what I was talking about, Ron experimented with further
refinements to the mat's hand-applied coatings. New prototypes were
developed, with the renamed Marigo Labs 3-D Mat v2 released in spring 2004.
The top-of-the-line, twice as expensive Marigo Labs 3-D Signature Mat, which
he sent me months before its release, joined the product line in early fall
Ron tells me that almost a year after their release,
only 1000 mats have sold in the U.S. and the U.K. combined. 70% of those are
Signature 3-D Mats. Given how major a sonic improvement these mats make, I
can only assume that their classification as tweaks has prevented
audiophiles from embracing the product wholeheartedly.
What the Mat Seems to Do
Since Ron only filled me on the science and technology behind his Signature
3-D Mat after I had spent over a year placing it on virtually every CD, SACD,
DVD-A and DVD-V I played, I'll save technical discussion for the end. Time
instead to fill you in on what the mat seems to do.
The first thing I heard with the mat in place was how much more substantial
everything sounded. If you've ever compared stand-alone SACD and CD players
of equal quality, you know that SACD contains significantly more
information, especially in the mid and lower midrange. Instruments and
voices take on additional (natural) weight, depth and fullness. There's also
a greater sense of air and three-dimensionality, and a more natural decay to
the sound. The differences are unmistakable. Once you hear good SACD, you
realize what is missing from most bluebook CDs.
I would say that Marigo Labs Signature 3-D Mat accomplishes a similar sound
quality change in CDs, that occurs when you switch from CD to SACD, except
that it works its magic on all discs, including SACD, CD, DVD-A, DVD-V, and
mp3. If it helps a CD sound more like an SACD, it makes an SACD sound that
much closer to analogue. It can't increase a CD's dynamic range, but it does
seem to alter dynamics by bringing out information that was formerly
inaudible. No matter what level of player I've tried it in, including
several top-of-the-line four and five figure transports and players that
come equipped with weights and clamps to improve laser tracking, the
Signature 3-D Mat has taken the listening experience to another level.
Because of the poor quality of my video set-up, I was initially hesitant to
explore how the mat works with DVD-V. I mainly watch DVDs on my spouse's
office system that consists of a $50 KLH DVD player picked up at Costco, an
eight-year old 19” Zenith mono TV/VHS player from Circuit City, and a
20-year old Kenwood tuner. Although the audio is handled by the superb Von
Schweikert Vr-4jrs here for review, and there's some top-of-the-line
Harmonic Tech, Wireworld, and AudioPrism cabling to make the best of a bad
situation, I doubt that either the player or the low-definition TV would be
considered worthy of Secret's battery of benchmark tests.
I have now watched several scenes of Nikolaus Harnoncourt conducting
Vesselina Kasarova and Dietrich Henschel in Monteverdi's great il Ritorno
d'Ulisse in Patria (Arthaus Musik). The difference in picture and sound
quality with and without the mat is astonishing.
Picture: With the mat, the colors have far more life and depth. Images also
have considerably more detail and clarity. There is an extra weight and
roundness to the images with the mat in place that renders them far more
Sound: Without the Signature 3-D mat, I experienced a ringing,
one-dimensional harshness characteristic of many entry-level players. The
sound was so harsh that I was only comfortable listening at low volume for
an extended period of time.
With the mat in place, however, the ringing was for the most part
ameliorated. In its place I discovered a previously unheard midrange
fullness and tighter, more profound bass that rendered voices and
instruments far more substantial, colorful, and lifelike. For the first
time, I was engaged by the singing and playing.
More on Sonics
You are no doubt familiar with the cookie-cutter, one dimensional, monotone
presentation of most bargain rack systems and mass-market CD players. Most
boom boxes sound so shallow and devoid of midrange warmth that they offer
optional "bass boost," the kind that drowns deficiencies in an exaggerated
boom boom boom. (People who've grown up on a combination of boom box
reproduction, ultra-subwoofer car systems, and poorly amplified performances
have little idea what correctly proportioned bass should sound like. If it
rattles your fenders and destroys your hearing, it must be real).
I have tried the Marigo Labs Signature 3-D mat on a number of boom boxes and
rack systems from different manufacturers. Without fail, it has transformed
shallow sounding devices into systems capable of far greater color and
musicality. It makes every system I've tried it on sound as though it cost
at least twice as much. Who ever thought that even puny speakers powered by
wire so thin that a sneeze could shatter it could sound musical when fed
significantly more information?
After revisiting my own audio set-up, I realize anew what a difference this
mat makes. One would expect Theta's top-of-the-line transport and DAC to
sound pretty satisfying with or without some damn mat sitting atop a CD. So
it comes as a shock to rediscover just how much of my listening pleasure
hinges upon use of the Marigo Signature 3-D mat.
Take Reference Recordings' oft-praised issue of Rachmaninoff's Symphonic
Dances. After playing the opening three minutes of this disc at least
350 times - 500 is more like it - I prefer to think that I know what to
Without using the Marigo Labs Signature 3-D Mat, I have a very nice sonic
experience. Relistening with the mat in place, it's hard to think of what's
not different. Allow me to put it in list form:
1. The soundstage widens and deepens, providing a stunning sense of a full
orchestra surrounded by an aura of natural hall reverberation. Much of this
air and reverb was absent without the disc. What before sounded like a
high-grade audiophile presentation takes on a life of its own, seemingly
independent of all the boxes and wires arrayed before me.
2. The sound of massed double basses and percussion significantly increase,
and is presented with greater focus. The additional mass and weight seem far
closer to the real thing that I experience on a regular basis in Davies
3. The ring of the triangle, which seems suspended in space in actual live
performance, lifts out of the disc and rings in my room in lifelike fashion.
4. There is far more life to highs, and significantly more detail to the
In short, one single $199 disc transforms my system's gestalt from
“audiophile quality” to “musical.” The $95 Marigo Labs 3-D Mat v2
accomplishes similar transformations, but not to the degree of its Signature
Journey to Another World
My most recent experience with the Signature 3-D mat was at the home of a
well-known writer/reviewer for major audiophile print publications. His
solid-state amplification and set-up are quite different than my own.
I pray that my spouse never learns that my colleague has committed the
unmentionable: running long lengths of speaker cable under the floor from
his two massive speakers to equipment racks conveniently placed to the left
of the sweet spot. Worse, he has violated one of the cardinal rules of
audiophile set-up by placing a glass-topped coffee table directly in front
of his couch. Such choices honor aesthetics, leave spouses relatively
content, and make changing CDs pretty easy, but involve sonic compromises
that I refuse to make for the sake of a spouse who has yet to glance at my
three-rack mini-universe without derision.
There were many things I liked about this reviewer's array of modified Denon
DVD-2900 universal disc player, Parasound Halo C2 preamp/processor, Halo A51
power amp, dedicated 20A power line with Hubble outlets, SineLock and
AudioPrism power conditioners, Kimber Palladian power cords, Nordost SPM
speaker cables, Nordost Quatrro Fil interconnects, Montana EPS speakers
(custom), and James SG 10 powered sub. Although I found the treble a little
harsh even after the verboten glass-topped coffee table was covered with a
pillow, I was greatly impressed with soundstaging, imaging, and solid bass
response. There was great beauty to the sound. Nonetheless, there was no way
that I could pretend that I was listening to tube equipment. The glare and
lack of warmth and air associated with much solid-state amplification could
not be ignored.
Our auditioned tracks included Patty Smith's "When Doves Cry" from Land
(1975-2002) (Arista) and Oh Susanna (Canada's superb Susie Ungerleider)
performing "Sacrifice" on Sleepy Little Sailor (Stella 3).
After listening to both vocalists, I asked if we could replay the tracks
using the Signature 3-D Mat. The difference was startling. All of a sudden,
voices and instruments transformed from flat, mono-dimensional presentations
to rounded sonic images that bore a far greater resemblance to the real
thing. You could feel the presence of the drum, the roundness of the
strings, and the different layers of undertones and overtones that comprise
the human voice.
Equally striking was the additional air and depth. Voice and instruments
were now realistically separated, resonating in different acoustic planes
rather than sounding crammed together in mono-dimensional space. Where
before the voice had seemed somewhat dryly miked, it now sounded like it was
recorded in a naturally resonant space. And where sonic images had hung in
space as though they were lovely pictures on a wall, they now seemed to live
in the space between and around the speakers.
Life is the key. To these ears, the most important change was the additional
soul that these women's voices exhibited. An entirely new emotional
component was revealed, one that allowed me to feel the heart that motivates
their singing. The transformation was anything but subtle; it made all the
difference in the world. What had before registered as interesting
arrangements of studio-processed sounds now touched me as living, breathing
As far as I'm concerned, the essence of music was for the first time
revealed through this system. And that's what it's all about.
(My colleague is buying a Signature 3-D mat, btw).
The Genesis of the 3-D Mat
Ron Hedrich explains that he has devoted six years and a couple hundred
prototypes to the 3-D mat's development. The original Orpheus Crossbow mat's
three sets of three half moon cutouts are now triangles, and the little
cut-out dispersion nubs on the center spindle have become grooves. A process
of trial and error has revealed that even 0.0001" alterations to the size of
the triangles make a sonic difference.
The mat works its magic on multiple domains. On one level, it adds dither
(otherwise known as noise or additional energy) to bring out low-level
information that's on the recording but is ordinarily lost in the retrieval
"The cut-outs and other mechanical structures of the mat create a very
specific energy spectra that mechanically dithers the laser to recognize and
retrieve additional low level information that is otherwise lost, truncated
or unseen,” says Hedrich. “The cut-outs get the least significant bits that
get lost and never get off the disc.
"This phenomenon of information loss has not been previously addressed
because it's just not understood. A laser is a transducer system that
changes one form of energy to another. Any transducer has limited
capabilities. In the case of digital, we're trying to convert digitally
encoded pits and lands into electrical signals using a laser and optical
sensor. Unfortunately, this involves both loss and corruption of
Ron's goal was to ameliorate loss of information at the level of least
significant bits (LSB). Such loss is responsible for the premature and
totally artificial truncation of information that distinguishes digital from
"Regardless of the price of the system," he maintains, "you can hear the
information on a digital recording decay to a certain level and then drop
dead. It's very artificial - that's why digital doesn't sound like real
music. We lose not only ambient information but also the low level
information which transmits the completion of the harmonic structure of
every note. This is what the mat restores to the listening experience."
The 3-D mat represents an integrated system of size, shape, coatings,
thickness, and material. "It's a thoroughly interactive system, just like
our planet," says Hedrich. "Everything affects something else."
Note from Editor: Tweaks are often
controversial, and this one certainly is. Please read the
numerous comments on this product that have been published in our forum.
The mat is a carbon fiber Kevlar matrix approximately 0.017" thick and
compatible with almost all transport mechanisms. The composition guarantees
that the mat will stay flat. Hedrich claims that even after you flex it like
a deck of cards, it will resume its perfectly flat shape.
The mat's woven laminated structure contains a small amount of superfine
silver strand in a proprietary array. When rotated at high rpm, this creates
a shielding effect around the sensitive digital equipment in the transport
mechanism, reducing corruption and loss of information due to EMI/RFI
The coatings on the two sides of the mat (green and gold for the Signature,
darker green and black for the v2) are strictly for performance. While they
were formerly silk-screened onto the Orpheus Crossbow mat, they are now
hand-applied in small batches. Despite the amount of time and rejects this
process entails, hand application produces a more effective mat.
The mat's green side, only placed against a disc when playing DVD-Video,
absorbs stray laser light. While turning this green surface away from a CD/SACD/DVD-A
goes against the conventional wisdom, it allows the mat's other side, which
offers anti-static and EMI absorbing properties, to rest against the disc's
surface. The v2's black underside has anti-static properties, while the
Signature's gold color underside (not real gold, and scratchable to boot)
provides superior anti-static properties as well as what Ron terms "an
extremely effective shield for the transport's read mechanism."
Reviews normally include concise conclusions that allow readers - especially
readers such as myself who are continually inundated with information - to
breeze through the detail and cut to the chase. In this case, however, I'm
going to depart from convention.
Ron Hedrich claims that the Marigo Labs 3-D Mats are "a breakthrough
technology for digital."
"I've found a flaw in the digital retrieval system," he says, "that no
transport to date has addressed. I address it by applying proven digital
technology to the optical domain that is not in existence on any machine
made in the world. This translates into real world performance gains in
everything from entry level to state-of-the-art digital systems."
That's a pretty mighty claim for a lightweight product that, even in its
statement version, costs at least 400 times less than the best audiophile
transports currently available. If you want to find out why Ron may very
well be correct, I urge you to read the review. Okay, skip the intro and
start with "What It Does" if you must. But please read enough to see why I
believe that using the Marigo Labs Signature 3-D Mat will change your
digital listening experience forever.
- Jason Victor Serinus -