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The Ringmat Anniversary LP Record Support System

Optimizing LP Playback Without Fear and Loathing

Paul Szabady

June 2004



“Set up, set up, set up” runs the mantra for high quality LP playback. The higher the potential quality of the turntable/arm/cartridge, the higher the need for perfectionism in set up. “Good enough for Rock ‘n’ Roll”, simply, is not good enough for Rock ‘n’ Roll. One need not succumb to obsessive-compulsive neurosis regarding arm set up (there are certain adjustments on pivoted arms that will always be only a reasonable compromise,) but paying attention to detail and striving for the optimum does result in enormous sonic and musical pay-offs.

There has always been an ascetic, hair-shirt aspect to high-performance record players. While it is unthinkable that any owner of a high-performance turntable would ever give up the LP for musical reasons, convenience and ease of use are a different matter. Manual cueing is, of course, the badge of the breed, losing who knows how many users due to this simple lack of automatic assistance. Add record and stylus-cleaning chores, slip in the need to stop the platter to unclamp and re-clamp each time an LP is changed, and your lout of average slothfulness is soon lost to the format. Go all the way to perfectionism - matching the playback stylus angle to the cutting-head stylus angle for each LP - and even the most ardent LP lover will begin to find apostasy increasingly attractive. “Gee, you know, CD doesn’t suck that bad anymore.” A casual survey of the hardest-core LP enthusiasts revealed only one correspondent who tried to optimize VTA/SRA for each record.

There’s a reason for this. It’s an enormous pain-in-the-ass (PITA.) The common ways of doing it - shimming the cartridge between the headshell; placing shims between the tonearm base and armboard; sliding the tonearm up and down its shaft - seem to have been devised by the same sadistic mindset that produced the Inquisition, the Nazi and Stalinist torture camps and The Fox News Channel. Doing it once during initial set up is chore enough; having to repeat the process for each record should be forbidden by the US Constitution as cruel and unusual punishment. One eyes the Townshend Reference Master turntable with less than furtive lust: it changes arm height during play by remote control! A numeric value appears on the remote handset permits return to the exact same setting the next time the record is played.

Why would you want to change arm height anyway? The goal is to match as closely as possible the angle of the cutting head’s stylus in the groove – its stylus rake angle (SRA). The line-contact styli used in most top-performance cartridges can extract more information from the groove than the less sophisticated elliptical and spherical styli, but only if they are correctly aligned with the cutting head SRA. Assume for a minute that this adjustment is correct for a given record thickness. A thinner record necessitates lowering the arm the exact difference in LP thickness to maintain the same SRA; a thicker record demands raising the arm.

Here other unwelcome variables raise their head. Although there are standards for the angle of the cutting head’s stylus angle, not all mastering houses followed that standard. What’s more annoying, there’s no mention on the LP if that standard was indeed applied during a given LP’s cutting. Similarly, the standard for cartridge stylus vertical tracking angle (VTA) isn’t always followed, and there is also a lingering doubt that a manufacturer’s claimed VTA is, in fact, met in production. To make these tantalizing variations truly tortuous, the stylus rake angle changes due to the depth of the modulation. So it is impossible, according to Ringmat, to get this adjustment absolutely perfect. One optimizes.

For many tonearms, changing arm height involves loosening a grub screw that allows the arm shaft to slide up and down. Rega arms and arms that use the Rega arm pillar will require an aftermarket VTA adjustor. Even if settings are calibrated on the arm’s adjustor, this process is fraught with an intensely high PITA Quotient, not the least of which is the potential to lunch the stylus or the arm’s bearings, and to inflict wear and tear on the grub screw and tonearm shaft. Designs that allow manual adjustment while playing the record can freeze the blood of even the most ardent of LP enthusiasts. The Ringmat Record Support System offers a simpler and obviously easier means of changing arm height. Leave the arm alone. Shim the record.

LP record players are mechanical beasts in function: the quality of the transduced signal (that is, the conversion of the mechanical signal into an electronic signal inside the phono cartridge,) is dependent on the ability of the turntable, arm and stylus to permit this transduction with the least possible mechanical interference and distortion. Given competence in basic design of the table and arm (and pre-supposing that the whole mechanism is effectively isolated from spurious environmental interference), the highest quality signal extraction in a given player depends on the accuracy of the set-up of the cartridge and that of its most critical aspect, the signal-sensing stylus. Blow it there and all is lost. To plagiarize Linn’s old phrase: Garbage In, Garbage Out! The Ringmat Record Support System was designed to maximize the quality of this conversion.

Most LP enthusiasts are familiar enough with the Ringmat, that iconoclastic platter mat that flies in the face of prevailing audiophile orthodoxy by de-coupling the LP from the platter. No screw-on clamps needed, no 1000 lb. anvil platters, no impossible and misguided attempts to mate a potato chip LP to a resonating gong: the Ringmat eliminates the need for them by clever and innovative thinking. The Ringmat is designed to isolate the LP from the platter, to control the flow of energy created by the mechanical vibrations generated by the stylus, and to dump this energy into the air. Ringmat claims particular efficacy in reducing distortions of phase and those caused by vertical modulation. A smaller than LP-sized disc constructed of a parchment paper substrate with strategically-placed concentric cork rings on its bottom and top, the Ringmat is available in 3 thicknesses to match the thickness of the stock manufacturer’s mat that it replaces. (Hint: if you ever casually tried a Ringmat and did not re-adjust the tonearm height to compensate for the thickness of the Ringmat, your comparison was worthless. Go stand in the corner until you’ve realized the error of your methodology.) The Anniversary edition is a further refinement and development of the original Ringmat design, the most obvious visible feature being the cut-outs in the parchment disc that correspond to the strategically placed cut-outs of the Support System’s plastic spacers and rubber mat.

The complete Ringmat LP Support System incorporates and optimizes the Ringmat, adds anti-static control, and allows adjustment of tonearm height by a selection of platter-placed Spacers. In use, the System starts with a very thin rubber mat with a raised thumbnail-sized felt protrusion at its outside edge. Cutouts near its center area are designed to break up resonance paths. This base rubber mat is placed directly on the platter: its function is to lightly damp the platter’s surface and to anchor the plastic spacers, which feature a notch that fits onto the base mat’s felt extrusion. The 8 plastic spacers are LP-sized, color-coded by their individual thickness, and feature the same stencil-like cutouts as the base mat. By adding or removing these Spacers, the thinnest of which, colored green, is .075 mm, arm height can be altered by the finest of increments, allowing optimum SRA adjustment for each record. The thin LP Statmat, which uses conductive inks to dissipate static and to keep it from forming while the LP is spinning, is placed on top of the Spacers and under the Ringmat. The LP itself is placed on the Ringmat. Finally the label-sized Ring Cap, designed to damp any residual resonance left in the LP, is placed on top of the LP, finishing off the sandwich.

The Ringmat Support System is an intelligent, elegantly simple solution to many of the key difficulties involved in LP playback. Static charge is eliminated and kept from forming during the process of disc spinning. The platter’s construction material is rendered moot by the base mat. The Ringmat damps and dissipates extraneous vibrations without the need for clamps, massive platters and the generally elephantine aspects of many popular and, in my view, ill-conceived turntables. But it is the relative ease and repeatability of setting stylus angles that is the System’s crowning touch. This is an absolutely critical adjustment for line-contact styli, but also needs to set optimally for elliptical stylus tips. The higher the resolution of the entire system, the more obvious the effects of this adjustment will be.

The supplied set-up instructions also include an in-depth booklet called “How to Set Up and Fine Tune A Turntable,” along with a useful chart listing the thickness of all the combinations of Spacers. The instructions are comprehensive enough and real-world practical. Ringmat’s recommended set up follows the growing empirical consensus that most styli should be set up so that the headshell of the tonearm is tilted 1 or 2 degrees ‘negative’, that is, tilted down towards the tonearm’s pivot. Following Ringmat’s set up directions will optimize SRA for the given LP thickness used in set up. Any change in LP thickness will require adding or removing shims to compensate for the change in thickness. There are cartridges, however, that are exceptions to this consensus: some require a slight positive tilt, and some that even sound best when the tonearm is level, as per the recommendation of most cartridge set-up instructions. These are easily provided for.

Considering the price of the Record Support kit it would have been nice if it included an absolutely fool-proof way of determining the proper set-up. A caliper or micrometer to measure LP thickness, and a magnifying template to allow viewing and measuring the rake of the stylus in the groove would resolve all ambiguities. Eye-balling a 1 to 2 degree tonearm tilt from the horizontal 0 degree reference is skill difficult to master with any certainty of precision. One is forced, therefore, to fine-tune the system by ear. This creates certain Uncertainty Principles. How does one know when the set up is right?

Grossly misalign the SRA in the LP groove and the sonic results are predictable enough and all too easy to identify. Too ”positive” and the highs shriek, record noise is exaggerated, harmonics become anorexic, bass response drops and dynamics get pinched and flattened; too “negative” and the highs roll off, everything sounds murky and bass gets overwhelmingly fat, uncontrolled and one–note. These extremes are easy enough to perceive and identifying them accurately improves quickly with a little experience. It gets more difficult when you’re narrowing in on the optimum SRA, where, at the extreme of tuning, the difference between a .075 green shim positive or negative is the desideratum.

This slight change in SRA is intensely audible on high-resolution systems. Get it right, and tonal balance, harmonics, dynamics and the stereo illusion all sound the most natural and accurate: the sound stage becomes large and focused, free from ambiguity of image placement, and the pulse, rhythm and drive flow the way live music does. It’s like a magic wand was waved over the system. Be slightly off however, and the whole illusion can collapse. Since this can occur with only the slightest of changes in arm height, it’s all too easy to mistake ‘slightly off’ with the actual sound of the LP (or the cartridge, or the system.) Until you’ve heard “just right,” correctly identifying “slightly off” is prey to error. This is particularly true with multi-tracked studio recordings where there is no live reference to orient perception.

Since, according to Ringmat, it is impossible to make this adjustment perfectly accurate (SRA changes according to the depth of the modulation of the groove), one is forced to tune for the ”optimum” and this can lead to the never-ending Goldilocks nightmare of trying to find “Just Right” by swapping shims back and forth until one sinks into the Slough of Despond. Ultimately, one compromises and makes a choice based on a balance of trade-offs. Experience and practice soon makes this decision fairly easy.

I’ve used the Ringmat for almost 10 years now on my 6 turntables and the Support System for the past 4. Reviewing tonearms and cartridges has the highest PITA Quotient of any in audio journalism. The System makes swapping cartridges and arms and their set up and fine-tuning far less of a chore. In everyday record spinning, the System is actually quite easy to use. Except for the pancake-like audiophile 200 gram re-issues, most LP’s fall into a rather narrow range of thicknesses, necessitating only a change of one shim or so. One’s ear develops quite quickly in identifying the need for a slight change in shimming, and the more you hear the optimum setting, the easier it is to identify a slightly off one. I’ve gotten to the point where I can change shims without stopping the platter. So while the System’s PITA Quotient isn’t zero, it’s definitely far lower than changing SRA at the arm. Most users have a given PITA Tolerance Factor, and it’s obvious that conventional methods of fine tuning SRA have too high a PITA Quotient for even serious LP lovers to use regularly. The Ringmat system offers a much easier to use alternative, and thus is more likely to be used. And Oh! Is the additional effort worth it!

US distributor Music Hall supplied a Goldring Elite MC cartridge for my review and the difference in its performance when used with the Ringmat System and “Good enough for Rock ‘n’ Roll” was astounding. My Meitner PA6i preamp includes a remote control absolute phase reversal switch. The Ringmat-tuned Elite revealed absolute phase with a clarity and obviousness that the non-tuned performance never hinted at, revealing even the differences in absolute phase of multiple instruments within multi-tracked recordings. This example is just one result of the improvements in performance I’ve heard with the myriad of arms, turntables and cartridges that have passed before my ears. The complete Ringmat System optimizes all of analogue LP’s considerable musical and sonic strengths: natural and believable tonality, musically communicative phrasing, rhythmic articulation and dynamic tracking, and the ability to present a convincing stereo illusion – all interlaced with the finest detail and resolution that smack of the organic rather than the ersatz and artificial. I consider the Ringmat System absolutely essential for the highest LP performance.



Specifications:
Kit includes:
1 Anniversary Ringmat 330
1 LP Statmat
1 Ringcap
8 colored Plastic Spacers:
-2 Yellow -.500 mm thick each.
-1 Clear - .250 mm thick
-1 Slate - .125 mm
-2 Blue - .100 mm
-2 Green - .075 mm
1 Rubber base mat.
Items also available separately
Price: $350

Address:
Manufacturer:
Ringmat Developments
PO Box 200, Brentwood, Essex
CM15 9FB, UK
Tel: +44 (0) 1277 200 210 Fax: +44 (0) 1277 201 225
Website: http://www.ringmat.com/
U.S. Distributor:
MUSIC HALL
108 STATION ROAD,
GREAT NECK, NY,
11023

Tel: 516 487 3663
Fax: 516 773 3891

Email: info@musichallaudio.com
Website: www.musichallaudio.com
 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Ringmat