BorderPatrol Digital to Analogue Converter SE

The trouble with a classicist he looks at the sky
He doesn't ask why, he just paints a sky
—John Cale and Lou Reed, "Trouble with Classicists," from Songs for Drella

Left brain/right brain, yin/yang, male/female, Apollonian/Dionysian, classical/romantic, painterly/linear, dark/light, hard/soft, warm/cool...I use these contrasting adjectives in my reviews because I feel some confidence in their ability to convey the nature of what I experience while listening to recordings with whatever new audio box sits before me in the listening studio.

I also use: accurate (I hate that word), neutral (what's that?), colored, clean, transparent, open, musical. Sadly, I have little confidence in their ability to describe my experiences.

The best I can do is tell you where the review component directed my attention, what it sounded like, and what thoughts and feelings occurred as I listened to my music.

If one of these is right...
Today I'll need every good metaphor and precise adjective I can think of to describe BorderPatrol Audio Electronics' fully optioned Digital to Analogue Converter SE ($1850). The BP DAC is an outlier: a 16-bit, R-2R, non-oversampling (NOS), DAC designed around the ancient and discontinued Philips TDA1543 converter chip—which, I can assure you, is unlikely to earn high marks on John Atkinson's test bench. (I asked JA not to say "broken" or "obsolete"—he must think of a kinder word.)

The BP DAC is at the opposite end of the spectrum of engineering and audio beliefs from such contemporary sigma-delta (eg, ESS Sabre ES9028PRO)–based machines as Benchmark's DAC3 HGC ($2195), which received JA's highest praise: "Benchmark's DAC3 HGC offers state-of-the-art measured performance. All I can say is 'Wow!'"

Well-heeled fans of Benchmark's rigorous measurements-oriented design favor such loudspeakers as TAD's Compact Reference CR1 ($37,000/pair; matching stands, $3600/pair), of which JA said: "Summing up the measured performance of the TAD Compact Reference CR1 is easy: This is textbook behavior!"

Well-heeled fans of BorderPatrol DACs are more likely to purchase Volti Audio's fully horn-loaded Vittora loudspeaker ($25,750/pair), or Volti's more affordable horn-bass reflex hybrid, the Rival ($7900/pair), which caused John to throw up his arms in despair: "I hate it when an audio writer says, 'Listen for yourself'—but in the case of the Rival, that's all I can say."

BorderPatrol's founder, a tall, British-born contrarian named Gary Dews, designed the DAC and manufactures it in Waldorf, Maryland. He says his goal is to make "a refined human sounding converter."

Description
To make his "human-sounding converter," Gary Dews chose a simple, two-channel, 16-bit TDA1543 chip created by Philips in the 1980s for use in their lower-priced CD players. In the 1990s, Mission, Arcam, 47 Laboratory, and Audio Note, among others, used this chip in their in upmarket DACs. The TDA1543's eight-pinned simplicity makes it a longtime favorite with DIYers and small audio manufacturers predisposed to creating affordable, low-parts-count products capable of natural, unaffected sound.

The BorderPatrol DAC has no digital filters, oversampling, or upsampling. Its output is taken directly from the chip via Uptone Audio discrete film and foil capacitors, with no buffering. The DAC's output impedance is thus relatively high and should be used with preamplifiers having an input impedance of at least 20k ohms. The BP's USB input is asynchronous and uses a C-Media CM6631A chip. Its coaxial (RCA jack) S/PDIF input uses a Texas DIR9001 chip. The analog output is approximately 2.0V RMS.

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Most DACs use generic switch-mode power supplies. For their part, Benchmark says their switch-mode supplies are quieter and therefore better than linear power supplies. In contrast, the BP DAC SE has an old-school linear supply that, uniquely, uses two power transformers (wired in parallel) to feed an EZ80/6V4 tube rectifier, paralleled with high-speed, low-noise diodes.

At this point you might want to ask why BorderPatrol chose an expensive, possibly noisy, tube-rectified, choke-filtered, linear power supply. Why not a quieter, more modern switch-mode type—like Benchmark's? I ask you to consider this because my experience of building amplifiers suggests that the overall sound character of any given audio amplification device is determined mostly by the design of its power supply.

An illuminated button on the faceplate allows the BorderPatrol's tube rectifier to be switched in and out of the circuit, thereby altering the unit's basic sound. (When the tube was switched off, the DAC sounded more solid-state stiff and firm. When the tube was switched on, soundstages were bigger and voices more breathy and colorful—like tubes.) This unusual and expensive form of rectification feeds a high-inductance choke input filter.

The BP DAC measures only 8.9" wide by 3.1" high by 6.8" deep, and except for its aluminum faceplate, its chassis is made of pure copper. Next question to consider: Why use heavy, expensive copper?

BorderPatrol's standard DAC S costs $995 and comes with the customer's choice of a USB or S/PDIF input. Supplied with both inputs, it costs $1495. For this review, I requested BorderPatrol's DAC SE, which costs $1350 with one input or $1850 with both, and has the tube rectifier, twin power-supply transformers, plus ELNA Cerafine power-supply capacitors and film and foil signal capacitors.

Setup
Because this month is all about DACs (see, elsewhere in this issue, my Follow-Up on Schiit Audio's Yggdrasil DAC with Analog 2 and Gen 5 USB upgrades), I kept my reference system constant: Each DAC fed a Pass Laboratories HPA-1 line-level preamplifier/headphone amp and XA25 power amp driving Harbeth M30.2 loudspeakers Blu-Tacked to 24"-tall Sound Anchor stands.

My Mac mini computer was connected to the DAC SE via an AudioQuest Cinnamon USB link and, toward the end of my listening, an iFi Audio iGalvanic3.0 USB isolator and Mercury3.0 USB link.

Letting synaesthetic associations occur
If your audio system reproduces opera recordings with intoxicating vocal timbres on spacious, detailed soundstages, it is definitely a high-quality system. Unfortunately, most hi-fi systems—including many expensive ones—make opera sound screechy, annoyingly flat, and fatiguing. This is why, at audio shows, you hear more Rebecca Pidgeon than Kirsten Flagstad. The BorderPatrol DAC SE was obviously designed to play opera. It let Kenneth Wilkinson's recording of Birgit Nilsson singing Beethoven's concert aria Ah, Perfido!, from Birgit Nilsson Sings German Opera, with Edward Downes conducting the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden (16/44.1, Decca/Tidal HiFi), show me a vibrating universe of human expression. Through the DAC SE, German opera uplifted my spirit, my body, my senses. It delivered Nilsson's vocal tones, the sublime texture of her voice, with absolute Schönheit. The BP DAC put the bug in me: I'm still bingeing on Birgit.

COMPANY INFO
BorderPatrol Audio Electronics, c/o Kaja Music Systems,
11864 Sidd Finch Street
Waldorf, MD 20602
(301) 705-7460
ARTICLE CONTENTS

COMMENTS
Bogolu Haranath's picture

"Oh No, Not Again" ............ Bill Harley :-) ...............

Bogolu Haranath's picture

"Oh No, Not Again" ............... Marky Ramone & The Intruders :-) .............

jeffhenning's picture

...By the bucket loads.

Sorry, but the Earth is not flat and that prince from Africa is not sending you $20M.

Ortofan's picture

... pleasant versus accurate debate - except that this time it revolves around a DAC instead of an amplifier.
https://www.stereophile.com/content/manufacturers-comment-0

The challenge for the Border Patrol designer is could he design a DAC that measures as well as the Benchmark unit but still exhibit a sound quality that would appeal to the reviewer?

Bogolu Haranath's picture

The designer probably can, for a price tag of $20,000 :-) ...............

Herb Reichert's picture

"facing the pleasent versus accurate debate" . . . because no such "debate" exists - except in the minds of people who listen to numbers printed on pages. If David Chesky (HDTracks) or Kavi Alexander (Water Lily Acoustics) or Todd Garfinkel (M-A Recordings) record a solo piano -- the DAC that lets that piano sound most like the real piano is - UNDEBATEABLY - the most accurate. Is it not?

By that simple - easily-varifiable - measure, the Border Patrol is far more "accurate" than the Benchmark.

Ortofan's picture

... (or any other piece of audio equipment) with distortion measurements such as those shown in figures 9 and 10 is an accurate device? You may prefer the resultant sound quality, but it's undeniable that you're listening to significant amounts of added distortion. The performance of this DAC is barely above that available from an analog disc and is far below the requirements for CD, let alone even higher resolution recordings.

Regarding "real piano" sound, I have a real piano in my listening room as an "easily verifiable" point of reference - do you?

mav52's picture

Get real JA. I thought it was always about the sound the listener hears not how much it the device or component cost.

johnnythunder's picture

"I am reminded of a quote by Daniel R. von Recklinghausen, Chief Engineer, H.H. Scott: "If it measures good and sounds bad—it's bad. If it measures bad and sounds good, you've measured the wrong thing."

I'm not an audio engineer but I agree. Apart from the subjective aspects of what sounds good and bad of course. Go to a Best Buy one day or even a Bang and Olufsen store - you'll hear lots of low-ish quality audio that sounds great to the people buying and who are we to tell them they are wrong for liking what they like!

geoffreyvanhouwaert's picture

Hello Mr Reichert,

I've read your reviews for the past few years now and learned a lot about writing reviews and your personal flavours. The one thing i never understood is why you have a Mytek dac in your set-up, let alone two... I have a wonderful Nos dac with the same phillips chip inside and even without the tube it sounds ten times more 'analogue' than the sabre dacs. I know bad word. The designer of my dac doesn't believe in tubes in a dac. He does make preamps with tubes...

Anyway my question: say for argument sake that the Myteks are too detailed and the Border Patrol with tube is too romantic (tempting as it is to use the tube) wouldn't the border patrol without the tube be just about right? Wouldn't a good nos dac without tubes be just about right for digital.

I know right doesn't exist in audio and i loved the last two sabre dacs i tested recently, i have nothing against the Mytek for instance. It's just a thing i've been thinking about personally because i've been very tempted in buying the border patrol because of that damn tube. But with a tube preamp for instance would it be too much on the tuby side? Hope you understand what i'm trying to say here.

Best regards
Geoff from Belgium

Herb Reichert's picture

The simple answer to your Mytek inquiry is - I listen. I am presently living an audiophile's dream. I get to use and experience a wide range of audio technologies (almost at will) but it is against my religion to assign virtue or value to equipment based on the designer's choice of technology. I deeply enjoy my Mytek DACs because, like I told Ortolan, they make piano and vocal recordings sound like real people and real pianos. Right now I use only three DACs: the Mytek Brooklyn, the Schiit Yggdrasil Analogue 2, and the Holo Audio Spring. All sound different but all are 'real' sounding -- not overly processed.

geoffreyvanhouwaert's picture

Hello,

You already answered my question in your review. Only read half of the review when i posted my question. I should have known. Thanks!

tonykaz's picture

I've been reading DAC reviews since 2011, when NwAvGuy did his Benchmark comparable Odac ( that I still own ).

Back then, nobody dared dig thru DAC performance in any sort of descriptive "Attempt " !

Back then Jason Stoddard said that DACs are boring!

Back then DACs did their job and politely stayed out of the debates, leaving it all up to Amplification and Transducers to grab and keep the Spotlights.

Back then, we had Big Sound in Montana where the finest DACs were up on display and compared alongside the World's greatest Amplifiers and Headphone Transducer Systems. Hardly anyone noticed the DACs! ( including the obsolete Yggy from Schiit , hmm ).

I paid attention, I auditioned the Yggy and found it lacking, I considered the MSB Analog DAC but kinda passed because of something Jason Stoddard said.

So, all these Years we've had Bland, ho-hum, yawning reviews of DAC's near sameness.

Until NOW !!!

Now we have a wordy Loquacious Bon-Vivant who's willing to go out on that limb that all others seem to dare not go.

Are DACs gonna get described now? ( finally ), does Stereophile have a brave soul able to go where no man has dared go?

I'm wading around the murky DAC understandings craving some assist in putting these complex puzzle pieces into a coherent understanding.

Thank you

Tony in Michigan

emcdade's picture

The measurements confirm What my audition of this dac was like; not good.

Soft bass, slightly grainy and lacking air in treble region, amorphous imaging. I hate to say it but there are a number of dacs at 1/3 the price that will sound better to my ears.

I now have a T+A DAC 8 DSD being fed nothing but quad rate DSD from Roon. Now that is a product that sounds different than your standard Benchmark DAC in a very good way. It has gobs of air and three dimensionality, while still having tons of body and real flesh and blood sound. That combination is elusive, but it does it.

hollowman's picture

Nonoversampling:
1982: 1st gen Sony (and other Japanese) CD players
2003: Zanden intro's super-$ model 5000 DAC -- it is NOS and uses Philips '80's-era TDA1541 dac. Reviewed by Stereophile in 2006
2018: TotalDAC, BorderPatrol, Soekris , et al.
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Oversampling:
1982: 1st gen Philips CD players (4x OS used to "emulate" 16-bit performance 'cause the TDA1540 dac was only 14-bit)
1984: 3rd gen Japanese CDPs intro 2x OS. Philips cont. to use 14-bit/4x OS
1986: Philips intro's new 16-bit dac (TDA1541) and new 4x OS chip (SAA7220)
2018: Chord's latest DAC with massive OS via gazillion taps

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