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Product Review
 

Marigo Labs Signature 3-D Mat

July, 2005

Jason Victor Serinus

 

Specifications:

 

● Gold Surface on Black Anti-Static Coating with Embedded
    Silver Wire; Green Surface on Reverse Side
● Dimensions: Same Size as CD and DVD but Much Thinner
    (also thinner than the 3-D Mat v.2)
● MSRP: $199 USA

Marigo Labs

www.marigolabs.com

Introduction

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
ģ 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, itís 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. Itís 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 Marigoís Ron Hedrich that it represents a major advance in digital technology.

Surprise Discovery

As a longtime user of Marigo Labs' original Crossbow CD Mat (first introduced in September 1997), I was delighted to encounter prototypes of Marigoís 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 catís 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 ďthinĒ 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 ďthinĒ version with an ďultra-thinĒ 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 ďthinĒ version.

Ron resisted my criticism. I, on the other hand, was so convinced of the matís 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 matís 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 of 2004.

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, Iíll 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 youíve 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. Thereís 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 canít increase a CDís dynamic range, but it does seem to alter dynamics by bringing out information that was formerly inaudible. No matter what level of player Iíve 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.

Video Performance

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 spouseís office system that consists of a $50 KLH DVD player picked up at Costco, an eight-year old 19Ē 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 thereís 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 Secretís battery of benchmark tests.

I have now watched several scenes of Nikolaus Harnoncourt conducting Vesselina Kasarova and Dietrich Henschel in Monteverdiís great il Ritorno díUlisse 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 engaging.

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 whoíve 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 Iíve 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 Thetaís 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 Recordingsí oft-praised issue of Rachmaninoffís 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 listen for.

Without using the Marigo Labs Signature 3-D Mat, I have a very nice sonic experience. Relistening with the mat in place, itís hard to think of whatís 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 Symphony Hall.

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 entire presentation.

In short, one single $199 disc transforms my systemís gestalt from ďaudiophile qualityĒ to ďmusical.Ē The $95 Marigo Labs 3-D Mat v2 accomplishes similar transformations, but not to the degree of its Signature cousin.

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 reviewerís 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 Smithís "When Doves Cry" from Land (1975-2002) (Arista) and Oh Susanna (Canadaís 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 womenís 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 artistic statements.

As far as Iím concerned, the essence of music was for the first time revealed through this system. And thatís what itís 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 matís development. The original Orpheus Crossbow matís 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 thatís on the recording but is ordinarily lost in the retrieval process.

"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,Ē says Hedrich. ďThe 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 itís 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, weíre 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 information."

Ronís 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 analogue.

"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. Itís very artificial - thatís why digital doesnít 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. "Itís 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.

Substance

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 matís 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 contamination.

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 matís 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 matís other side, which offers anti-static and EMI absorbing properties, to rest against the discís surface. The v2ís black underside has anti-static properties, while the Signatureís 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 transportís read mechanism."

Conclusions

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, Iím 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."

Thatís 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 -

© Copyright 2005 Secrets of Home Theater & High Fidelity

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