Upgrading the turntable mat is one of the most popular upgrades for the Audio-Technica AT-LP120. The vinyl community and AT-LP120 enthusiasts seems to agree that the sound quality of the turntable can be noticeable improved with an aftermarket mat.
So in this article, I will test and compare the AT-LP120 standard felt mat against two popular aftermarket mats to find the best mat and what kind of gain in sound quality a mat upgrade can give.
After spending a few nights researching the vinyl community for the best mat upgrade candidates for the AT-LP120, I landed on a rubber mat from Hudson Hi-Fi and a cork mat from Pro-Spin. Two very popular mats for the AT-LP120 that I recently ordered from Amazon.
These two mats are also inexpensive. My research taught me that it is not necessary to throw a lot of money at this upgrade.
The mats I will test and compare on my AT-LP120 are:
We’ll get to the test and comparison part shortly, but first let’s have a look at the reason why the standard felt mat might not be ideal to maximize the sonic performance of the AT-LP120 and how an aftermarket mat can improve the AT-LP120’s sound.
How can an aftermarket mat improve the AT-LP120 sound?
The turntable mat that come standard with the AT-LP120 is a felt slipmat.
According to Wikipedia, the felt slipmat was invented by hip-hop pioneer Grandmaster Flash. Slipmats are designed to slip on the platter. Allowing the DJ to manipulate a record on a turntable while the platter continues to rotate underneath.
Traditional rubber mats, on the other hand, are made to hold the record firmly in sync with the rotating platter. To stabilize the record as much as possible. The same is true for cork mats.
A good aftermarket rubber or cork mat will usually do a better job than the felt slipmat at stabilizing the record on the platter so that the stylus and cartridge get perfect working conditions to read the record’s grooves with the desired accuracy and precision. And is generally the better choice for those that use the turntable for music listening rather than DJ scratching.
A punchier and tighter bass is often reported to be the most noticeable sound improvement that a good aftermarket turntable mat of rubber or cork will give on the AT-LP120.
Another thing about the AT-LP120 is that its aluminum platter is quite ringy and has a very distinct and long-lasting resonance.
An aftermarket rubber or cork mat will do a better job dampening and reducing that resonance than the standard felt slipmat. Which results in less noise and distortion.
For the two reasons discussed above, the standard felt slipmat might not be optimal for those that want to extract the most sonic potential out of their AT-LP120. Those that want to use the AT-LP120 for music listening rather than DJ scratching.
AT-LP120 mat test and comparison
My AT-LP120, that I use for this comparison, is upgraded with a VM540ML (AT440MLa/b) cartridge and has the internal preamp removed to increase sound quality. So this test is performed with a AT-LP120 that is already taken to the next level in sound quality.
If you are interested in upgrading the cartridge on your AT-LP120, you will find what I think is the five best cartridge upgrade options for the AT-LP120, and the very best option, in this article.
The standard felt mat
The baseline for this test is the standard felt slipmat from Audio-Technica.
As already discussed, it is known to not provide the ideal level of dampening and stability to get the most sonic potential out of the AT-LP120.
The most noticeable downside with this mat is a lack of control and precision in the lower-end.
The aftermarket rubber mat
The rubber mat I choose for this test is designed by Hudson Hi-Fi in NY and it has many happy vinyl enthusiasts around the world using it with their AT-LP120s.
The first thing I notice is that it is much heavier than the two other mats in the test. Just by holding it in my hands, it seems obvious that this mat will stabilize the record on the platter better than the original felt slipmat. It feels more solid, heavy and dense than the much lighter original felt slipmat.
When I started spinning records with the rubber mat, the increase in dynamic control that was expected from the rubber mat was actually noticeable. The bass became slightly tighter and more controlled with the rubber mat compared to the standard felt mat.
We are more or less talking nuances, but considered that this is a sub $20 upgrade, I guess nuances is what we are betting for. And it absolutely delivers.
The records I used for the comparison is AC/DC – Back in Black and Pink Floyd – The Wall. And the amazing bass lines on those albums just sounds a little tighter with the rubber mat compared to the standard felt mat. I also played a bit of jazz to make sure that the sound of vocals and string instruments wasn’t compromised for the improved bass.
The rubber mat delivered exactly the sound improvement that I had expected based on my initial research.
Now, let’s test the cork mat from Pro-Spin.
The aftermarket cork mat
To make this section short, the cork mat provided exactly the same increase in sound quality as the rubber mat. I could not hear any difference between this one and the rubber mat. The bass is slightly tighter and more controlled compared to the standard felt mat.
When it comes to weight and perceived quality, the cork mat is much lighter and feels more fragile than the rubber mat. It doesn’t give the same feeling of quality and durability as the rubber mat.
Both the cork mat and the rubber mat sounded better than the standard felt mat. The bass tightened up just as I had expected from the research I did in advance.
But I cannot say that the rubber mat sounded better than the cork mat or vice versa. If there is a difference in sonic performance between the cork mat and the rubber mat, then it is very marginal.
They also cost about the same.
So I guess the question is.
Rubber or cork?
After experiencing a really a dry and cold winter that made everything in my house ultra static and almost drove me crazy last year, I was initially very keen on a cork mat that are sometimes talked about as the best choice for dealing with static electricity.
But after completing my research prior to this test, I learned that quality rubber mats deal with static electricity more or less as well as cork mats. So there probably won’t be a significant difference in that respect after all.
The rubber mat feels much more robust and long lasting than the cork mat. I also think the rubber mat looks visually better on the AT-LP120. And that are the two minor differences that tips the scale in the direction of the rubber mat from Hudson Hi-Fi.
The Hudson Hi-Fi Turntable Platter Mat with Audiophile Grade Silicone Rubber is my recommendation for an aftermarket mat to upgrade the standard felt turntable slipmat on the AT-LP120. Just click on the link to check the price on Amazon.
Considered the low cost involved, it is probably an upgrade everyone that is interested in improving the sound of their AT-LP120 should seriously consider.
And if you are interested in improving the sound of your AT-LP120 beyond upgrading the turntable mat, check out this article where I find the best cartridge upgrade for the AT-LP120.
As you will see, a high quality cartridge is an upgrade that really takes the AT-LP120 to the next level of sonic performance.
A note on tonearm height adjustment
The short message here is this. Leave the tonearm at its lowest setting even when replacing the felt mat with a thicker cork or rubber mat.
The tonearm on the AT-LP120 is known to be set slightly too high from the get-go and adding a thicker mat will help correct that.
So just leave the tonearm height adjustment at 0.