BorderPatrol Digital to Analogue Converter SE Jon Iverson November 2018

Jon Iverson audtioned the BorderPatrol DAC in November 2018 (Vol.41 No.11)

Editor's Note: BorderPatrol's tube-rectified flagship D/A processor ($1850 as reviewed) is built around a 16-bit Philips TDA1543 ladder-DAC from the 1980s: a chip you'd sooner find in a budget CD player from 25 years ago than a 21st Century high-end source component. In our review, the DAC SE impressed Herb Reichert for delivering "refined, human-sounding musical pleasures," but didn't do well on the test bench. (In particular, I criticized BorderPatrol's use of what I felt was an "underperforming" chip.) Given this conflict, I felt a third opinion was called for. I therefore shipped the BorderPatrol DAC to Jon Iverson for him to audition. And as luck would have it, a planned visit to Jon's place by members of the Central Coast Audio Club would allow for some level-matched comparisons under both sighted and blind conditions.—John Atkinson

As I've found in reviewing dozens of DACs, the sound qualities of most modern models fall within a fairly tight circle. Members of my local audio club often say the same. But every once in a while a DAC comes along that falls distinctly outside that circle, and forces you to think about what that means, for better or worse. BorderPatrol's Digital to Analogue Converter SE is one of those DACs.

To tease out the BorderPatrol DAC SE's character, I tried several wildly differing recordings, beginning with Martin Garrix's classic EDM track "Animals," from his Gold Skies EP (16/44.1, Republic), which clearly exemplified how the BorderPatrol altered sharp transients. "Animals" begins with a very short, repeated, high-pitched electronic pulse that sounds like an electrical spark: tap tap tap. The BorderPatrol reproduced this sound as more of a dop dop dop, rounding off its sharpness and removing the static-like quality I've heard through other DACs.

Still in the electronic realm, I tried "Batshit," from Sofi Tukker's Treehouse (16/44.1, Ultra 1). A taut, Yello-like studio confection that jumps through the speakers to claim dominion over a listening space, "Batshit" is wonderfully mixed and mastered, but I must admit that the DAC SE sweetened its electronic edges in an enjoyable way, and smoothed out the sampled cymbals a bit—the effect was pleasing.

With "I've Been Loving You" from the Milk Carton Kids' latest, All the Things That I Did and All the Things That I Didn't Do (24/96, Anti- 87516)—a beautifully recorded acoustic album with harmony vocals that recall the Everly Brothers or Simon and Garfunkel—my Benchmark DAC2 HGC D/A converter provided luxuriant detail that was a pleasure to listen to—but when I switched to the BorderPatrol, my partner, Corrina, noted that everything now sounded a bit damped down, and it was harder to hear into the space. We listened to this track four times, switching between Benchmark and BorderPatrol, but it only confirmed our mutual observations. "You Can Bring Me Flowers," from Ray LaMontagne's Till the Sun Turns Black (16/44.1, RCA 83328), demonstrated similar behavior: another great recording, but again, small details were subtly obscured. "The BorderPatrol has a bigger, warmer sound," Corrina said, "but the Benchmark seems more precise."

Conversely, when Corrina put on "Claim Your Ghost," from Iron & Wine's Beast Epic (24/96, Sub Pop SPCD 1170), she decided that she liked how this recording's somewhat thinner acoustic-guitar sound fattened up a bit through the DAC SE. The guitar took on more body, and I felt it blended better with the vocals. Ditto with the next album we listened to, Jack Johnson's From Here to Now to You (24/96, Brushfire/Republic 3745526): This slightly bright recording took on a more mellow feel with the BorderPatrol.

A few tracks later, Corrina turned to me. "Should we get this DAC, and switch it in with thinner-sounding recordings?"

I saw her point. Having already discussed with John Atkinson the measurements he'd taken of the DAC SE I knew it was probably embellishing the sound—but in some cases, the change was positive! Still, with the best recordings, I missed those lost details.

The Club Listens, Part 1
A few members of the Central Coast Audio Club of San Luis Obispo County, California, dropped by to listen and comment. We began by calibrating the levels of the two DACs we were comparing, the BorderPatrol DAC SE and Benchmark's DAC2 HGC, with pink noise, using one member's mobile app and my trusty RadioShack SPL meter, so that everyone knew they were running at the same volume. Right off the bat, one member said that, though the levels were now even, the pink noise sounded different as we went back and forth, taking readings.

Next, members selected the tracks we'd use, first in sighted trials and then blind. I figured that giving listeners a chance to "train" on both DACs would help when we went to the blind phase, but complications and wide-ranging discussion ensued after only the first few tracks. We began with Mozart's Piano Concerto 12, with pianist Alfred Brendel accompanied by Sir Neville Marriner and the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields (16/44.1, Pentatone Classics 5186236).

CCAC member George Drastal: "With the Benchmark, strings were steely, weak center fill, piano sounded insubstantial without bloom around the notes. With the BorderPatrol, I could hear more of the wood around the strings or the body of the instrument. Still a weak center fill, but the piano notes hung in the air like there was bloom around them." "Ditto," added Craig Boisvert. "I would add that the Benchmark felt like I was listening to a recording; with the BorderPatrol, it felt like I had a good seat and was there. I could hear the bowing better on the wood instruments."

Next we tried "That Don't Make It Junk," from Hailey Tuck's wonderful new album, Junk (24/44.1, Silvertone 19075840272). CCAC member Daniel O'Connor jumped right in: "The differences were not as evident as with the classical track, but the BorderPatrol was more meaty and the sibilance of the voice was reduced." Ruben Salcedo remarked that the BorderPatrol had "a more euphonic voice, you had that air and breathiness you get in a live performance. This is a great recording that is palpable, like a live performance. Sometimes we lose that in a recording, but for some reason—maybe it's euphonic, or colored, or rolling things off in a way—I like what the BorderPatrol is doing." The other members agreed with Ruben, all suggesting that the BorderPatrol had more of a you-are-there "live" feel.

We moved on to an informal blind test. The DACs were hidden, and I switched between them twice: first DAC A, then DAC B, then A again, then B. They didn't know it, but DAC A was the BorderPatrol, DAC B the Benchmark. We began with one of Craig's picks: "Brickhouse," from Sara K.'s Hobo (24/96, Chesky JD 155).

Dan: "I thought, with this particular track, it was difficult to tell. I heard more resolution in DAC B in the first go-around." George: "With DAC B I thought I heard the voice slightly elevated in height, the little comment in the right channel seemed a little clearer, and the harmonica a little more forward." Craig: "DAC A didn't sound as fleshed out, and was a little strident. DAC B did sound better, and some of the sibilance was gone." Interestingly, both Craig and George thought that in the second and third blind trials the DACs sounded the same.

Summing up, starting with Ruben: "On the Mozart cut, the piano and strings benefited from what the BorderPatrol does, but I think a better recording benefited from the Benchmark." Craig: "Even though the Benchmark did better on the one well-recorded Chesky track, I still think that the BorderPatrol would be more listenable in the long haul. If you have nothing but well-done recordings, the Benchmark would be the way to go. But if you have, like the rest of us, recordings done in different years, in various recording studios and with various mastering engineers, the BorderPatrol would be the choice for me." Dan agreed. George: "The BorderPatrol's and Benchmark's sounds couldn't always be differentiated, but when they could, the comparison always favored the BorderPatrol."

Ruben had a final thought: "Why can't someone like Benchmark create a filter for us with a happy face, and we switch to it when needed?" Craig: "The butter-and-jam setting."

The Club Listens, Part 2
In an e-mail the next day, George clearly expressed that our testing methodology could use some work. He suggested a more rigorous blind test, with no discussion or sighted listening beforehand.

This time, an additional CCAC member, Danny Fahy, would be attending—he hadn't been able to make the first session—and I figured we could tighten up the blind listening approach, if he was game. We didn't tell him which brands of DAC were being compared, only that we would switch back and forth between two.

We used the same tracks as before, with the DACs in the same order: the BorderPatrol was DAC A, the Benchmark was DAC B. First up was the Mozart piano concerto. Danny: "DAC A was less analytical and grainy and lively, but not in a bad way. DAC B, you hear way more recording noise, such as ruffling music on stands. It was electric and lively, but almost to the point where it was distracting. If I had to live with one with that music, I would pick DAC A."

Then the Hailey Tuck track: "Again, I thought DAC B, now that we have modern music, was very revealing and resolving. But DAC A was comforting, like warm bread," Danny chuckled—"you know what you're going to get, like comfort food." After listening to the other tracks, Danny asked to play a request: "Harry Flowers," from William Orbit's Strange Cargo III (16/44.1k, I.R.S. 27703). "With DAC B, there was something happening with the beginnings of the notes, little artifacts in the samples, that DAC A smoothed out. It's cool to hear those artifacts, but at the same time they were, for me, distracting."

Conclusions
I can easily see the appeal of BorderPatrol's Digital to Analogue Converter SE. It sounds as if there's a nice vintage tube compressor hung onto the output, and it would seem that whether or not this is a good thing will greatly depend on the recording played. With the BorderPatrol and a bright recording, the thin upper snaps of transients were polished a tad, and the mid and lower octaves fattened up enough to warm up the sound in a pleasing manner. But conversely, with a well-balanced or already recessed mix, some details and dynamic highlights were sanded off, which could lead to a slightly burnished, matte finish where you might want a bit more sparkle.

Our club's listening tests were not Sean Olive–grade evaluation panels and procedures (footnote 1). Please accept them as informal attempts to uncover differences and preferences. I also wanted to add more voices to the mix, as my own tendency is to want to hear every detail on a recording, warts and all. As a result—and, clearly, unlike some of my fellow CCAC members—I resist DACs like the BorderPatrol DAC SE.

Some CCAC members will surely disagree, but here's what I heard in BorderPatrol's Digital to Analogue Converter SE: It purred like a sweet, sultry voice, softly caressing my ears, nibbling them gently, even as it lied to me with every word. Contrast that with what I prefer to hear: a calm, even voice telling me the unvarnished truth, even if that truth may hurt a little. If you know yourself well, you'll know that the voice you want to hear and the voice you need to hear are not always the same voice.—Jon Iverson


Footnote 1: Sean Olive worked with Floyd Toole at the Canadian National Research Council in Ottawa and is currently an Acoustic Research Fellow for Harman International. Sean has possibly performed more rigorous blind tests of audio components than any other researcher.—John Atkinson
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?

Part-Time Audiophile's picture

An excellent question.

The corollary being -- can he do it for under $2k and still like it enough to want to make it?

I'm reminded of an old sign at work:

1. Done Fast
2. Done Well
3. Done Affordably

PICK TWO.

The interesting point to note is that this designer did in fact make a DAC that appeals to reviewers. An embarrassing number have refused to return them, preferring instead, to send a check. There's a reason for that -- and it's not "because it's handy to have around".

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.

Part-Time Audiophile's picture

While your experience is, no doubt, valuable and insightful, your comment is rather less so.

What did you "test" with? What are your preferences? Did you follow the instructions and advice of the manufacturer or any of the reviewers that wrote about it, or did you strap it the back of an airplane, dip it in chocolate, or attempt to chokeslam the unit before use?

The point: is your judgment relevant without your argument or your assumptions?

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.
-----------
----------
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

Clarkston's picture

Thank you Jon Iverson, CACC, and Stereophile for going the extra mile to question your own conclusions, even at the expense of potential embarrassment. Great to see blind testing and a larger group participate in making real world comparisons. Great to see a wide range of music tested including tracks that would get you shamed out of a regional show or high-end store. This is the first time I've seen anyone suggest in print that most DAC's actually sound very similar. I own two pieces of equipment that measure poorly - one being the the Boarder Patrol SE DAC and the other are my speakers. I've tried alternatives and listened to countless others but my ears (and my friends ears) tell me ignorance is bliss, I guess. Does this make me a bad audiophile? Hope to see input from other local clubs creep into your reviews in the future.

X