Designed to replace the mat on the platter of your turntable, the Yellow Bird is an intriguing looking accessory. Paul Rigby wonders how it performs
When building a hi-fi, everything matters. Everything affects sound. Somehow. At some level.
So, looking at a turntable, that means the platter and the plinth, the arm and the cartridge, the motor and the drive type. It also means the feet, the addition (or otherwise) of a lid, any cables and, of course, the platter mat.
When you buy a turntable, the mat often receives next to no attention because the manufacturer’s build budget prevents that. It’s busy sorting big stuff like the bearing and the plinth construction. The mat is often a last-minute add on and sneaks onto the final design depending on how many pennies are left in the kitty in or the corner of the chief designer’s pocket.
This is why it’s always a good idea to survey any new turntable and then to ask yourself, “Just how good is this bit…and this? And what about that over there?” The core of your new turntable should be fine but it’s the accessories that might be suspect. If you want to maximise your turntable’s performance, enhancing the quality of these accessories can pay major dividends in getting the most from your turntable in sound terms.
Turntable mats can be had for low prices. Even good quality examples. Pro-Ject’s Cork-IT fetches around £18-£19, Origin Live’s mat is more intricate and costs bit more at around £40. There’s also mats made from leather (ok but not my favourite) and a butyl rubber sheet from Oyaide which is well worth a look at £90. The latter is a rare exception of a platter mat tipping over the £50 mark. In fact, the latter was the only one I had previously seen.
The Yellow Bird from Hexmat tops even that figure.
At £115, the Yellow Bird is an intriguing design and one that has obviously been created after some serious thought.
Created by Zsolt Fajt, an engineer from Budapest in Hungary, he has studied the issue of vibrations and noise in and around hi-fi and has developed his own philosophies to tackle them. For a vinyl record, “I tried to get the size of the contact surfaces close to zero. The total contact surface of a record is several decimeters square. Using the Hexmat isolator, this surface is close to zero, just 1-2 square millimetres and the disk is almost floating.”
With its internal structure and coating, the Hexmat isolator isolates, “…these damaging vibrations from the recorder, generating full power transfer between the platform and the disk and utilizes the vibration damping properties of the spherical form. The Hexmat isolator is a clamping mechanism that separates the record from the vibrating mass it contacts and allows the vinyl to have its own fairly good damping properties.”
One of the benefits of this system is, according to Fajt, “Less noise due to more accurate groove tracking.”
And the man has been working hard on this thing, from what I hear. More than 100 prototypes of this mat have apparently been made with a variety of material compositions including a variety of polymers, stabilised wood species, tropical trees pieces, industrial metals, ceramics, gold, silver, crystals, gemstones, various coatings and, apparently, many more besides, “During this time, we have experienced what works, what does not and how to produce it. The range of variations is almost inexhaustible. Because the combination of materials used has a dramatic impact on sound, we are planning to release several product variants. Our current product is a first series entry-level device.”
Now I did try to get more information from Fajt about the exact materials used, the shape of this mat, the nature of the blisters on the mat that push the vinyl record vertically up and away and more. What I received in return were polite deflections and, to be honest, I can see why. Revealed build secrets will open up the mat to copying by others which will then kill Hexmat stone dead, stopping Fajt’s income and taking him out of the game. So, I can understand is reticence. I’d be the same, to be honest.
The above information does offer a range of clues and guides to where this mat is at, as it where. Which leaves me with the meaty task of sound testing it.
I began with The Four Freshmen’s A Today Kind of Thing, a four-piece vocal harmony combo backed by an orchestra and the track Byrd Avenue, a short yet bouncy and energetic song. The four singers front a varied backing band stuffed with varying instruments from a Doors-type organ to glockenspiel, a string section and electric guitar.
Keeping a track on the instruments, which tend to sit behind the voices in the mix, is tough because of their position but also because its easy for the hi-fi in question to blur the edges between each.
With the Hexmat in place, the sonic response was intriguing indeed. I considered this test a tough one because I have used the wholly excellent Origin Live mat for some time now. Its a simple looking mat but uses some exotic materials within. I’ve had no cause to doubt it but this, admittedly more expensive, Hexmat added something to The Four Freshman’s track here.
What I was getting was a lowering of noise. Noise I thought had already been removed. But no, there was a definitely a lowering of noise and, with that, greater air and space in the midrange which encouraged a new focus in the vocal presentation. The harmony effect seemed tighter, integrated and slender. That is, there was no floaty bass bits hanging off it. The vocal harmony seemed smooth and flowed very easily. Then a band of silence appeared underneath and then the instruments appeared.
Again, focus was the thing along with the lowering of noise which encouraged the rather shy gamut of instruments to pop their head further out of the mix but in a naturalistic manner. There was never any sense of false focus here, no smearing of the treble or upper mids. Everything felt very natural and at ease. Music flowed across the soundstage with a complete lack of friction.
Does this make the Origin mat suddenly a bad product? Of course not, it’s a superb accessory but the Hexmat (which, I repeat, is more expensive) does push the performance envelope.
Moving to rock I tried We Will be Strong from Thin Lizzy. Full of big, heavy percussive strikes, slashing guitars, steady bass guitar, it’s a solid rocker. With the Hexmat in place the bass honed up tremendously, the new focus meant more impact and drive to the track as a whole. There was weight behind each percussive impact. Each time that drum was hit, it stayed hit. It wasn’t getting up again. It was out for the count.
The band’s twin guitar effect was also interesting. Their sound had extra bite, like a knife that has been newly sharpened, the guitars cut through the air with a finer slice, adding to their slashing effect in the song.
One new element that I was now aware of were cymbal splashes. I’m sure that they were there before but they were more noticeable now.
Vocal harmonies sounded dense and compact with a precision that gave the delivery new weight and added emotion and insight when certain words were stressed.
Despite the relatively high price, the over-riding effect of the Hexmat was to clean your music. That is, the enhanced sense of clarity was superb. The effect smoothed the upper mids towards your ears, added precision to treble and tonal accuracy to bass. For jazz, this included an intriguing analytical sense to the accuracy of the presentation.
The reduction of noise and the added precision that reflected that also added bass impact and weight giving rock movement and a sense of power. While rock vocals created a new sense of urgency.
I fully expected to be underwhelmed by the Hexmat. Oh how wrong I was. It is, in fact, a little cracker.
HEXMAT YELLOW BIRD PHONO RECORD ISOLATOR
GOOD: clarity, precision, bass impact, midrange accuracy, emotive vocals
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