BorderPatrol Digital to Analogue Converter SE Page 2

Next came a big surprise. You all know how much I like music in my home to be vivid and spacious. So once again I'm playing Buddy Holly's "Apartment Tapes," from Down the Line: Rarities (2 mono CDs, Decca B0011675-02), and it's sounding very see-into-the-Hollys'-living-room revealing. The speaking voice of Holly's wife, Maria Elena, is more delicate and intelligible than it was an hour ago through the Mytek HiFi Brooklyn DAC. The BP DAC made her words easier to decipher, but seemed to do so by reducing the room tone. My curiosity aroused, I stopped the CD and played the same album at the same resolution via Tidal HiFi.

The acoustic of the Hollys' apartment reappeared. In "Crying, Waiting, Hoping (Undubbed Version)," Buddy's acoustic guitar sounded more woody and solid. His voice was more there, and the bass range was fuller. But why? All I'd done was switch from a CD feed sent through the BP's S/PDIF input to a "CD quality" Tidal HiFi stream sent through the BP's USB port. The differences were not subtle. Was it the BorderPatrol's receiver chips? Was it my Integra CD transport? Was I not holding my mouth right? I asked Gary Dews.

"It has nothing to do with the respective qualities of the USB and S/PDIF chips," Dews wrote back via e-mail. "In the USB+S/PDIF version of the DAC, which you have, the USB input chip converts the signal to S/PDIF and then runs it through the S/PDIF chip; so regardless of whether you are using the USB input or the S/PDIF input, the signal runs through the Texas Instruments DIR9001 S/PDIF chip. I have four CD transports here, and the Mac mini USB setup is better than all of them."

Interesting, no?

I hadn't noticed, but friends remarked that, compared to the HoloAudio Spring "Kitsuné Tuned Edition" Level 3 and Mytek HiFi Brooklyn Plus DACs, the BorderPatrol seemed "rolled off at the top" and "a little soft in the bass." Remembering that the DAC SE has no output buffers, I asked Dews what its output impedance was and if it would be okay into the 50k ohms input impedance of my Pass Labs HPA-1 preamp.

"The DAC's measured output impedance is 1.85k ohms at 1kHz, which is similar to or lower than most tube-based DACs," he replied. "The DAC was flat to 17.5kHz into a 20k ohm Alps Black pot. –3dB was 19kHz, so only bats would complain about that. Unless you are using particularly capacitive interconnects, there should be no lack of high frequencies. Preamplifier input impedance is more of an issue at low frequencies. That's why I recommend a minimum impedance of 20k ohms."

If either of these DACs is right...the other must be wrong.
Unlike the $1850 DAC SE—with its copper chassis, twin parallel power transformers, solid-state-and-tube rectification, choke-input filter, and discontinued converter chip—the $2195 Benchmark DAC3 HGC forgoes all such unsensible accoutrements that do not contribute to its measured performance and science-lab look. Smirking confidently, both DACs play into the belief systems of their disparate subjectivist-objectivist audiophile audiences.

I warmed the Benchmark on my workbench for 48 hours, then connected it to my Integra disc transport and played Lucinda Williams's Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone (2 CDs, Highway 20 H2-001). I'd just finished playing it through the Schiit Yggdrasil Analog 2, which made Williams sound fleshy and bloody, intimately near. The BorderPatrol DAC SE reproduced her voice in "West Memphis" with a more natural tone than any DAC I've used. Nevertheless, my first thought on hearing the Benchmark DAC3 HGC was, Wow, this DAC sounds really good...lots of fresh new detail and hard-pounding bass. I liked the Benchmark right away.

Strangely, by the end of the last song on disc 1, "It's Gonna Rain," I had an uneasy feeling that something important was missing, I couldn't say what. I'd listened to only one CD, but it felt as if the directness and intimacy that I knew Williams had laid down in those nine tracks had somehow been converted into sounds that emerged with detached, benign indifference. Were my perceptions colored by some preexisting bias against sigma-delta processing? Maybe. But I'd never experienced this detachment with my beloved Mytek HiFi Brooklyn or Manhattan II DACs, both of which are sigma-deltas.

When I played Birgit Nilsson Sings German Opera with the Benchmark, I got really worried. Kenneth Wilkinson's brilliant engineering had gone missing. Clearly, something was wrong.

I read about the Benchmark's Hybrid Gain Control in its manual and decided to try the DAC3 HGC connected directly to my power amplifier. Now I could smile again: Nilsson and Williams were back again, alive and on the job, sounding more clear and dynamic than ever. The sound went from dull to vivid and punchy. An hour later, I discovered the DAC3's HT Mode, in which analog gain and digital attenuation are both set to 0dB (maximum output). This somehow allowed the DAC3 to feed the Pass Labs HPA-1 preamp with no audible penalty.

The next day, while playing my latest obsession, Alexandre Desplat's score for Wes Anderson's film Isle of Dogs (16/44.1, ABKCO/Tidal), I couldn't help noticing that the Benchmark DAC delivered fierce, powerful, body-builder bass that kicked sand in the face of the BorderPatrol's weaker, softer bass. The Benchmark's vigor and precision in music's lower octaves made the timpani in "Taiko Drumming" and "The Municipal Dome" sound muscular and present in a way I found very satisfying.

As I sat there listening to Desplat's "Nutmeg," I also noticed the DAC3's unabashed and engaging descriptiveness—an important quality that I suspect is the "astonishing fidelity" that Jim Austin mentioned in his review. Was the Benchmark's descriptiveness more real or accurate than the BorderPatrol's slightly softer, more delicate renditions? Perhaps. But I see this descriptiveness issue as being less about accuracy (to what?) and more about which sonic traits best allow a listener to stay focused on the music's unfolding. Explicit detail and punchy clarity don't necessarily equal higher resolution or greater intimacy with the performance. Therefore, I still don't trust, or enjoy, the sort of OCD-clean sound I heard from the Benchmark DAC3 HGC.

Nevertheless, with Isle of Dogs I greatly preferred the Benchmark DAC's clarity and powerful movie-theater authority. One album that favored the Benchmark and BorderPatrol DACs was the Budos Band's Burnt Offering (16/44.1, Daptone/Tidal). Recorded live in the studio, it feels as if everyone in the group was surfing the same musical wave. They used real drums and a real drummer, an Afro-Memphis horn section, a Farfisa organ, and lots of Big Muff Pi fuzz-tone guitar. The Benchmark did really well with the drums and the funky Afro–Middle Eastern bass lines, but failed to find the chi and luster of the horns. Through the BorderPatrol DAC SE the horns emitted burnished corporeal tones saturated in color and vivacious in temperament. The Benchmark's horns were more gray and generic.

I heard the biggest difference between the BorderPatrol and Benchmark DACs in their reproductions of electric guitars. The glorious guitar instrumental "Rebel Rouser," from Duane Eddy's Hits & Rarities: The Best of the RCA Years (16/44.1, RCA/Tidal), made it easy to hear that the DAC3 got the pounding of the drums and the energy of the twang from Eddy's Gretsch gee-tar—but it truncated the reverb-drenched space of the recording, robbing me of a secret aural glimpse inside the rusty steel 2000-gallon water tank used as the echo chamber for this million-selling single.

Overall, the Benchmark generalized texture and atmosphere while excelling at rhythm, force, and separation of instruments. With rock, it always boogied. But it never inspired intimacy. The BorderPatrol specialized in refinement of tone and ampleness of atmosphere, with detail more delicate and lace-like than the somewhat brutish Benchmark's.

I love the headspace of modernist atonal composers—it matches the attitude I try to bring to my own art. Veslemoy Synsk, a song cycle by Norwegian composer Olav Anton Thommessen, with mezzo-soprano Marianne Beate Kielland accompanied by pianist Anders Mortensen, is perfectly aligned with my art-aesthetic viewpoint (16/44.1, 2L/Tidal)—it's a work of fine musical art in a superb recording. I use it to evaluate DACs and digital links because it's perfectly true of timbre and showcases a Herb-friendly, old-school modernist humanism. The BorderPatrol DAC SE, the Pass Labs electronics, and the Harbeth M30.2 speakers let Kielland's voice and Mortensen's piano sound realistically corporeal, completely un-digital, and entirely satisfying. Every note, sung or played, drew my attention to the poetry of these songs—not to the DAC.

The trouble with the romantic...
I could live happily ever after with the BorderPatrol Audio Electronics DAC SE, but I'm of several minds about it.

My right brain says, "Yes! I get it. This is what digital recordings are supposed to sound like." My left brain says, "No! Digital recordings actually do sound like the Benchmark DAC3 HGC portrays them. So get used to it."

Then my rational reviewer's mind kicks in: "Both DACs are wrong! The similarly priced HoloAudio Spring and Schiit Yggdrasil Analog 2 DACs represent a more neutral (what's that?), accurate (I hate that word), less sonically extreme middle ground."

Finally, my beating heart declares, "Herb, you must love this new outlier DAC that turns its back on heavy-handed, digital-sounding digital and, instead, delivers refined, human-sounding musical pleasures—at a very reasonable price."

If your right brain dominates and your romantic heart throbs, I highly recommend the DAC SE.

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

Bogolu Haranath's picture

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

Bogolu Haranath's picture

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

Bogolu Haranath's picture

8 to 10 bit resolution and loads and loads of 2nd harmonic distortion :-) ..........

Jack L's picture

.... distortion" quoted B Haranath.

Sorry, bit or bit depth qualifies the original analague signal amplitude. Bit has nothing to do with resolution or distortion.

It is the sampling rates, e.g. 44.1KHz(Red Book spec), hi-rez, 96KHz, 192KHz define resolution of D/A converted analogue signals.

Jack L

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.

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


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


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

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.
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.

doug s.'s picture

...what would a border patrol dac sound like w/the TDA1541 chip that's $140-$300. i suspect that this dac could be offered for at most $140-$300 more than the present iteration. (unless, of course, b/p wants a bit more profit - ha!)

i heard this dac in an all b/p system driving volti audio horns at caf in a really lousy hotel room a couple years ago. the sound was excellent. i suspect having 100db horn speakers in a small room helped the electronics.

for me, after reading the review(s) and seeing the measurements, i'd never purchase this dac. because i believe that a well-put-together system w/proper speakers, amplification, and (most important, imo), preamplification, would allow a better-measuring (and less expensive?) dac perform as well with "perfect recordings", while still providing the warmth and tone of the b/p on all recordings.

even the dacs used as comparisons in this review, are, imo, "snake oil" any dac over $1k is snake oil, these daze. more even now, than 10 years ago, when my lowly modded art di/o dac easily held its own against 5-figure digital rigs. but that still doesn't mean i wouldn't be interested in hearing the b/p w/the better philips chip. ;~)


doug s.