This review page is supported in part by the sponsors whose ad banners are displayed below

Gains weren't equally obvious each time. The legendary 1968 Argerich/Abbado/LSO documentation of Chopin's and Liszt's Piano Concertos No.1 [DGG 449719-2] was a case in point. Without the JohnBlue CD mat, the soundstage over the Micromega is quite impressive and bass not at all shy except for slightly laid-back foreground attacks. Piano tone is pearly and overall clarity reasonable. With the JohnBlue CD mat, improvements were subtle. I had to go back and forth a few times to insure I was not imagining. But improvements were present and could best be summed up with contrast. The overall soundscape had better contrast. This meant that the foreground was more highlighted to give more sculptured relief which in turn created the impression of better definition.

There were no fixed rules for what kind of improvements to expect. It was case by case. In general, most so-called audiophile recordings could do without it and still convey that audiophile sensation. To my surprise then, certain perfectly fine vocal and instrumental recordings that I'd been enjoying very much over the Micromega could still benefit from the CD mat. The superb Eric Satie album by Alexandre Tharaud and Friends [Harmonia Mundi HMC 902017.18] sounds so perfect in every aspect that I saw no room for improvement. Regardless, I threw on the CD mat. The operative word was contrast again. Light and shadows had finer half tones. Treble was highlighted, bass darkened and the midrange had more body. The effect was most prominent in the Duos disc where the four-handed piano pieces become more dynamic and Juliette's cabaret songs has more focused vocals to have her stand right in front of the piano.

About focus, one CD in particular seemed to be benefiting from the JohnBlue CD mat in exactly the way I hoped for. This was a rare recording of Argentinean composer Julian Aguirre's Piano Music played by Lía Cimaglia Espinosa [Cosentino IRCO 267/268] . This hard-to-find 1981 recording was remastered and reissued by Argentinean label Cosentino. While preserving the mesmerizing performance in the most exquisite of piano tones, stereo imaging is somehow too exaggerated. With the low octaves to the left and the higher ones to the right, there's enough room for Moses and his people to walk in-between. With the JohnBlue CD mat in place, the two banks of sound waves merged to flood the void with melodious ambience while the soundstage remained reasonably wide.

I witnessed similar findings with the cheap top-loading CD-ROM drive of an NEC CDR-401G outputting digital to Deltec's Little Bit DAC. Some CDs in fact showed more pronounced improvements than over the Micromega, leading me to speculate PlayStation users should investigate this. As I did not have other top-
loading machines, I moved on to the more popular tray types where the CD mat worked just as well. You simply line up the mat with the CD and make sure both sit tight in the allocated space of the loading tray. The auto-clamping device will do the rest.

Drawer-type CD players - draw your own conclusion
To my ears, the following is my premium system for resolution and clarity without undermining musicality: Restek Radiant CD player + NuForce P-9 + NuForce Reference 9 V2 biamp + Apogee Stage + Infinity BU-1 paired subwoofers. Although only a standard Red Book player, the Restek Radiant featuring the legendary (single-crown) Philips TDA1541A-S1 16-bit 4 x oversampling DAC with Restek's proprietary all-component noise-shaping and filtering circuitry is one amazing digital machine that has withstood the test of time. Its slim tank-like build with 8mm aluminum sides and 2mm top reinforces a hardened steel sub-chassis. I liked this player so much, I bought two and neither developed tracking problems or other breakdowns over 15 years. Here the JohnBlue CD mat couldn't gain much advantage even though some subtle sonic reshaping was evident. Almost as a general rule, earlier CDs that are slightly dry will benefit from the airier makeover. Some people always criticized early compact discs for 'digital sound'. If you have such issues, this CD mat might be for you. Since I was among the first batch of CD converts, I have collected a lot of early productions. I never have issues with them except for some you can no longer buy but they do sound a tad smoother with the JohnBlue CD mat.

In the good old days, whenever we finished our Philips meeting at the client's office, we'd head down to the Philips showroom and pick from their new CD releases with our 30% staff discount. For classical, most new releases back then were LP reissues. My favorites were the Decca ADRM (Analog to Digital ReMasters). To me, they remain the best-sounding compact discs even by today's standard - raw and primal without artificial coloring. Their immediacy brings me closer to the music. But some audiophiles keep hearing problems; digital sound they claim.

The Kertesz documentation of the complete Dvořák Symphonies on Decca for instance is a perfect case study. Some single CD releases of these symphonies were coupled with Dvořák's most imaginative symphonic poems that were unjustifiably neglected. These orchestral gems were the last output of the Bohemian composer who had just returned from America a celebrity. No longer sidetracked by gaining fame and fortune, Dvořák now was able to compose for passion. The first four works of that lot, Op.107 to Op.110, were based on Czech folklore with fairytale titles like "The Water Goblin", "The Noon Witch", "The Golden Spinning Wheel" and "The Wood Dove". "The Hero's Song Op.111" is believed to be autobiographical. Through the years, there have been a few recordings of the Op.107 - 111 by various conductors but Kertesz remains the unchallenged spokesman. The monumental Kertesz/LSO/Dvořák project (mostly accomplished by the wizardry of mastering engineer Kenneth Wilkinson) took place between February 1963 and November 1966 in Kingsway Hall, London. Most audiophiles uphold it as the sonic Mecca of orchestral venues, yielding the golden means between spaciousness and detail. Best of all, these recordings preserve the most natural untainted timbre that seems so hard to capture these days. Digital? Not at all and not to me. Can it be improved though? That never crossed my mind until I inflicted this CD matness upon myself.

Allow me to elaborate my point with the Symphony No.5 [Decca 417 597-2]. The one striking feature of Kertesz's approach to this Dvořák cycle is his instinctive and spontaneous freshness that makes others seem too calculated, overly rehearsed or consciously civilized. His symphonic sound is enthusiastic, direct and immediate. This CD's filler of the Husitská Overture Op.67 brings out those features in the most remarkable way. Based on the tragic trial and execution of Czech priest, philosopher and reformer Jan Hus and the Hussite uprising against the Catholic church in the early 14
th century, this dramatic overture is the Bohemian version of the Egmont Overture. Dvořák's interpretation of the noble human spirit fighting repression is simply more unyielding and forceful still. The music is flooded by Bohemian patriotism and Kertesz showed no intentions of diverting the flood. The emotional moments are feverishly gut-wrenching. For years, I've let emotions overtake me whenever I listen to this. When I let the JohnBlue CD mat get on top of things, I realized how this immediacy could be reasonably toned down without diluting dramatic impact. This I didn't mind. (For your information, the Kertesz/LSO/Dvořák cycle was later reissued in two complete albums, with the nine symphonies on one and all filler overtures and symphonic poems on the other.)