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Reviewer: David Kan
Financial Interests: Click here
Digital Source: Micromega Microdrive and Variodac, NEC CDR-401G, Deltec Little Bit DAC, Marantz SA8260, Deltec PDM Two DAC, Restek Radiant, Assemblage D2D-1/DAC-3.1 Platinum, Philips DVP-9000S
Preamp: Symphonic Line RG3 MkIII, NuForce P9, Audio Zone PRE-T1, Dared MC-7P, Dared SL-2000A, KingRex PREference [in for review], Trends PA-10 [in for review]
Power Amp/Integrated Amp: NuForce Ref 9 V2, NuForce Ref 9 V2 SE, Symphonic Line RG$ MKIII, Dared VP-20, Elekit TU-879S, JohnBlue TL-66 [in for review]
Speakers: Apogee Stage, Mark & Daniel Maximus-Monitor/Omni-Harmonizer/Topaz/Sapphire, Klipsch Synergy F2, JohnBlue JB3, JohnBlue JB4 [in for review]
Subwoofers: Infinity BU-1
Cables: Clearaudio Silver Line interconnect, Deltec Black Slink interconnect, Luscombe LBR-35 interconnect, OCOS speaker cables by Dynaudio, Aural Symphonic Digital Standard digital cable
Power Cords: Aural Symphonic Missing Link, Ensemble Powerflux
Power Line Conditioning: Tice Power Block IIIC, Belkin PureAV PF60, Monster Power HTS-3500 Mk II (modified by NuForce), Monster Power HTS-1000 Mk II
Room Size: 15' x 13.5' x 7'/8' diagonal setup / 11' x 18' x 7'/8' opens to 18' x 19' x 7'/8', long wall setup, carpeted concrete slab floor, suspended ceiling and all walls finished with drywall (basement with small window on one side, which is concrete foundation wall with insulation) / 15' x 15' x 8' / 12' x 24' x 9' opens to 12' x 17' x 9' L-shape, short wall setup / 13' x 28' 8" x 9' with openings on one side to hallway and staircase, short wall setup, suspended hardwood floor, suspended ceiling and all walls finished with drywall, external wall finished with insulation inside and concrete on the outside.
Review component retail: $65 CD mat, $12 TPX capacitor 2.2 uF/100v and $150 2S speaker cables as 3m pair

Part 1: JohnBlue CD Mat
Most people agree. The modern toilet is one of the greatest inventions of all times. I wonder though how many audiophiles would agree on the compact disc player being one of the greatest audio inventions in the entire history of hifi. Some might rather flush it down the toilet and Long Play it forever. Call me biased but I loved the compact disc since the day it was born. Stretching it a bit, you could say I was in the maternity ward witnessing its arrival. As part of the global launch advertising campaign in 1982, we worked late that night before October 1 to prepare the full-page newspaper announcement for the revolutionary perfect sound forever. Despite our long debate into midnight over the Chinese translation of compact disc -- it ended up as laser turntable which in turn drove us to another round of debate on the proper Chinese term for laser -- we managed to beat Sony by running our announcement one day early. Love it or hate it, the compact disc was the most successful technological joint venture in the highly competitive AV business. The Sony/Philips pact was a successful political alliance to secure the market-place dominion of the Japanese and Dutch electronic giants. By avoiding another VHS-Beta warfare, CD became the world-standard playback format for music.

You know what happened next. Perfect sound forever soon aroused much qualm and suspicion. Audio manufacturers didn't lose time looking for new technologies to improve the distrusted medium. Audio accessory manufacturers came up with tweaking devices. Stoplight markers, damping rings, CD mats, clarifiers, demagnetizers, destatic guns, degaussers, edge cutters and more all gained followers while others were happy freezing (at least 5 hours in the freezer) or sanding CDs (inside and outside edges). I am not a disbeliever per se. But like listening to music, I have more important things to do so I never tried any of these tweaks. Why bother now? It all started with the Micromega Microdrive/Variodac combo.

When a top-loader bottoms out
This cute little transport/DAC system was the first CD player I purchased in Canada in 1997. Since 1982, it's also become my seventh CD player after the Philips CD100, CD304, CD960 and CDV770, a Teac VDRS transport of which I forgot the model number and a Restek Radiant. (That tells you how infrequently I upgrade my gear and how un-audiophile I am.) Due to normal wear and tear, the French-designed top-loading transport began to exhibit occasional tracking problems a few years ago. Encouraged by the stoplight and damping ring ideas, I did two things that miraculously solved the tracking problems 90% to 95% of the time. First, I sealed the back of the hinge of the black acrylic cover with soft black leather. In my techno peasant mind, this prevented light from entering the CD compartment to stop diffusing the laser energy. Second (I think that was actually the more effective measure of the two), I glued to the Micromega magnetic CD clamp a piece of transparent polycarbonate plastic that was included in a drum of blank CD/Rs for protection. On top of the plastic, I added a sheet of opaque adhesive film for a fraction more weight and more even weight distribution over the entire CD. This proved to be effective in stabilizing "wow and flutter" and the tracking problem was reasonably under control.

When I saw the JohnBlue CD mat online, I noticed their photo of the Micromega magnetic clamp on the jewel-box insert. "Maybe that's what it needs" flashed across my mind. I hadn't tried any CD mat before, you see. I suppose it works on the same theories every other CD tweak invokes, namely that (A) mass-produced CDs are far from perfect, (B) the pits and lands might be deformed, (C) the reflective aluminum layer might be chipped, (D) the laser beam has difficulties reading the data, (E) too much interference from the cross-interleaved error correction compromises audio integrity and, (F) a CD mat will alleviate the issues.

I know of the Marigo 3-D Stabilizer Mat made from carbon fiber/Kevlar composite embedded with ultra-fine silver strands for stray field suppression, plus an anti-static black coating on the underside and optically absorbent green on the top. I also heard about the much talked about PWB Rainbow Electret Foil. The JohnBlue CD mat feels and looks like a piece of thin but finely textured black paper cut out in the shape of a CD. At 3 grams, it's a feather weight. "Material and texture resemble that of seaweed and moss" is the only technical detail offered by the manufacturer. It is less expensive than the Marigo mat but seemingly also less sophisticated in design. For someone like me not crazy about spending money on tweaks, $65 seems expensive. Instructions are simple: "Place it on top of your disc while playing the CD player. You can be sure of a rewarding sonic experience." And then it goes on telling you what to expect. As music always speaks louder than words, I rather listened for myself.

CD mat matters - or does it?
The Micromega Microdrive/Variodac is a musically soothing and neutral device that occasionally verges perhaps on the soft side. I have the duo hooked up with bi-amped KingRex T-20s into the Klipsch Synergy F2. It works perfectly fine with vocal and instrumental recordings but falls slightly short on complex symphonic recordings in resolution and inner detail. The JohnBlue CD mat proved to tweak it in the right direction. The most noticeable example would be Mahler's Symphony No.1 with Haitink conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra [CSO-Resound CSOR 901904]. I haven't yet listened to this hybrid SACD 2008 recording on a SACD player or any other systems but the sonic quality was definitely not too impressive over the Micromega. Brass and strings seemed to be veiled behind a soft-focus filter. Scale, soundstage and layering were particularly unfit for the 'Titan' namesake of the symphony. With the JohnBlue CD mat in place, I got what I believe to be "a more realistic presentation of the recorded signal". The dialogue between upper and lower strings in the second movement came through with snappier con arco and textural details were more three-dimensional. The muted trumpets were set back to project a backstage image. In the final movement, the powerful tutti reinforced by tympani and bass drum was likewise packed with more punch and highlighted by the frontal attacks of the biting sforzando strings.