I can’t tell you how many different record mats I’ve tried over the last four or five decades. They’ve come and gone with the regularity of seasons. Some have been sticky; some have been stiff; some have been thin; some have been fat; some have been as springy as balls of dough; and some have been as hard as unripened plums. All of them have claimed to provide an improved (i.e., lower noise and jitter) interface between LP and platter. And all of them have made a sonic difference—not enough of a difference, however, to earn an enduring place in my system (or my memory). As the old saw has it, different isn’t necessarily better; more often than not, it’s just different.
Holger Stein’s Pi Carbon Signature record mat is an exception. Not only is it different; it is also better—at least it is if you’re looking for a closer semblance of the absolute sound. If you’re looking for spotlit detail, then it won’t be for you. (And neither will anything else from SteinMusic.)
However, before I get to Pi Carbon Signature sonics, let me tell you what it is: It is a $650 sheet of paper is what it is. (I’m going to start a new paragraph now to give you time to pick up a pen and begin writing that angry letter.)
Of course, it’s not “ordinary” paper. If it were, you could pull a page from TAS (or if you wanted something more prosciutto-like, a page from Stereophile), punch a spindle-sized hole in it, and slap it on your turntable. No, this paper is hand-made in Japan from the same trees (usually mulberry and fig) that tapa cloth is made from. After being dried on wood, the tapa paper is sent to SteinMusic in Mülheim, Germany, where it is impregnated with SteinMusic Maestro Lacquer—“a varnish made out of the most precious natural resins in a unique composition, optimized for perfect resonance control.”
Though it consists of varnished paper and some sort of carbon additive, the Pi Carbon Signature is not as thin and light as you might imagine. It’s got some substance to it, though not enough substance (unless it’s fastened down to the platter via the little tabs of tape on its rear side) to keep it from occasionally sticking to the backs of your records. Which means that, now and then, you may have to peel the Pi from the LP and resituate it on your record player before playing Side B. This is, admittedly, a pain. But, with the Pi Carbon Signature, it is part of the price of doing business. The other part—the good part—is the effect this mat has on the presentation.
Since I started using the SteinMusic Pi, I’ve been searching for a way to explain how this sheet of paper changes sonics. Perhaps it would be best to do this is by analogy.
Think of the sound of a recording on which musicians were taped in sound booths via individual mics; then think of the sound of a recording on which the musicians were taped ensemble in an actual hall, studio, or club via a Blumlein pair or a trio of omnis. The instruments in the separately miked sound-booth setup may seem more individuated and distinct, but the sense of organicism—of ensemble music-making in a large, shared acoustic space, (highlighted in the Blumlein or spaced-omni setups)—will be greatly reduced or nonexistant.
It is this realistic and sonically attractive “organicism” that the Pi Carbon Signature adds to each and every LP, no matter how it was recorded. This more organic presentation is something the Pi shares with almost all SteinMusic tweaks, including its H2Plus Boxes, Stones, Stars, and Suns room treatments. The inexplicability of this more organic effect is something else the Pi shares with Holger Stein’s doo-dads.
How a piece of varnished Japanese paper can consistently improve the sound of a vinyl record riding atop it is beyond me. All I can tell you is that it does—that the very thing that makes many LPs sound like LPs, like mosaics made of individually recorded bits and pieces, is replaced by something that makes those bits and pieces seem more like interrelated parts of a sonic whole.
This organic effect is not without a downside. As I said earlier, if you’re listening for highlighted details (and, to a certain extent, a vast soundstage), the more “continuous,” more compact, less analytical sound of the Pi Carbon Signature may not be your sheet of Japanese paper. If, on the other hand, you’re looking for a closer approximation of the real thing—looking for analog playback that is very much more like tape playback—then $650 doesn’t seem too much to spend.
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