Nothing Is What I Want

I recently experienced an alarming audiophile episode. John Atkinson wanted to send me BorderPatrol's Digital to Analogue Converter SE, so that I could write the Follow-Up published in the November issue. But he wouldn't tell me anything about Herb Reichert's original review of the product, which had not yet been published. Instead, he said, cryptically, "If this is a 'great' DAC, I'll have to hang up my measurements." I took this to mean Herb liked it, but JA's test rig did not.

Sure, why not? Go ahead and send me the DAC, I thought. I'd love to hear what something covered in audio fur sounds like.

One of the conversations I often have with audiophiles is about what they mean by good when talking about equipment. The meaning of the word can go two ways: good as in measuring well, or good as in pleasing sound.

"I thought those amps sounded quite good," an audiophile will say.

I then have to ask, "Do you mean accurate good, or pleasing good?"

"Both," they usually reply, implying that accuracy is always pleasing.

The BorderPatrol DAC SE was something else entirely. I gathered from JA's hints that it hadn't measured well. When it arrived, I tested it with some familiar and challenging recordings, which quickly revealed that, in terms of neutrality, it was far short of accurate good.

Yet when the Central Coast Audio Club of San Luis Obispo County came over, they loved the BorderPatrol's sound. Some even suggested that the DAC SE's departures from neutrality enhanced the realism of some of the recordings we listened to, adding life back in that was missing when compared directly to a DAC that measured better on the test bench. In that way, it was suggested, the BorderPatrol, with its measurably greater distortions, should be seen as more accurately reproducing the sounds of real instruments in space.

Good grief! The BorderPatrol DAC was turning into a textbook example of the old saw "If it sounds good and measures bad, then you're measuring the wrong thing." (footnote 1)

In fact, there were several recordings that I, too, thought benefited from the BorderPatrol's thickened sound. It was as if I were looking over the mastering engineer's shoulder, urging her to add a bit more tube compression to a mix that, to me, sounded thin. "Ah, that's better."

But I was troubled by the implication that added grunge meant better, even more realistic, sound. I often catch myself mistakenly assuming that we audiophiles are all striving to hear as perfect a reproduction of the master recording as possible, and will gladly accept any warts and deficiencies that might come along for the ride, without wanting to unduly re-edit that sound.

What was I thinking?

And what is "realistic" sound, anyway? One of my favorite ways to verify the truthfulness of a recording's sound is to, if possible, compare a microphone feed of musicians performing live to a component that has been looped into that live feed. Does the sound change when the component is switched in? If so, does it sound "better" in the pleasing-good sense? (It obviously can't sound more accurate.) You'd be surprised how often an added tweak can sound appealing.

A side note: I've had respected engineers tell me that when they loop a DSD encode/decode signal into a live mike feed, for example, it indeed sounds different from the mike feed, and that they "wish the mike feed would sound more like the DSD version." In other words, adding DSD processing to the pristine signal can make it more satisfying. Which might explain the format's appeal to many people.

Bearing all that in mind, when we buy a recording, we don't hear the actual mike feed anyway. The artists, and the mix and mastering engineers, all finesse the signal after its emergence from the mike preamps, elevating the sound and performance until they're happy, then present us with the result. Even purist recordings are subject to such artistic shadings: the choice and placement of microphones, even the design of the mike preamps, can greatly alter the captured sound.

And so, out of a sense of wanting to hear the artists' intent—out of respect for those intentions—I don't want to second-guess and further alter their final sonic creation. If at all possible, I want to hear something as close as possible to the master tape. I realize that my room and speakers add unavoidably huge variables to this, but why pile even more variables on top of that?

It reminds me of the old Zen joke. On the Master's birthday, his followers present him with a large, ornately wrapped box. He opens it, looks inside, finds it empty, and happily exclaims, "Just what I wanted—nothing!"

When I get a new product to listen to, I'm usually looking for that "nothing": nothing getting in the way of what the artists and engineers created, nothing adding extra pizzazz or color, nothing but the sound of their final mix. I've found that others strongly differ with this point of view, and might even say that in many cases they're fixing what the original recording got wrong. Or they're looking for that elusive emotional connection. Or they simply want to enjoy music through a bit of rose-colored tint. So be it. They like what they like.

But when I go to a fine restaurant, I don't pull out a bottle of Sriracha sauce. I'm more curious to taste precisely what the chef has prepared. And when I hear a new audio component, I'm not looking for added aural flavors. Nothing is what I want.—Jon Iverson

Footnote 1: John Atkinson, "If it sounds good . . ." Stereophile, December 1992, p.15.

ok's picture

it always speaks through
certain gear to
certain ear

(more often than not
much worse compared to what
your average audiophile has got)

so is it nothing after all
that master says through to us all?

Mycophile's picture

excellent. Hold the sriracha, please.

Bogolu Haranath's picture

At one time some people were advocating for 'oil filled' capacitors in audio equipment .......... They did not specify whether they wanted olive oil or peanut oil or motor oil or crude oil .......... Anyway they were saying that the music will sound oily and 'liquid' :-) ...........

Bogolu Haranath's picture

What should we put on French fries? ........... May be ketchup? :-) .........

Bogolu Haranath's picture

What if the restaurant serves 'macho nachos'? ........... What then? :-) ...........

Brown Sound's picture

A giant pool hall in Colorado Springs, Colorado called 'Pinkie's' sold those, mmmm. It was the 90's, loud music, hot waitresses, probably forty pink pool tables and some of the biggest and best nachos ever. Thanks for memory!

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Goes great with your choice of beer ............... Forget about 'wine pairing' :-) ...........

Bogolu Haranath's picture

For those of you who are not familiar with 'macho nachos', here is the recipe .........

Tortilla chips + melted cheese + chili or chicken + salsa consisting of tomatoes, chives or onions and cilantro + sour cream + chopped jalapeños + your favorite beer + loud music + hot waitresses + your favorite ball games on TVs + pool tables ..........

How does it (ahem) sound? :-) .............

michaelavorgna's picture

In all my years of hifi'ing, I have never had someone say, "I love this song! but it doesn't sound accurate."

"Accuracy" is an idea, an ideal for some, but it is hardly a de facto standard and it is hardly ever accurate. While a given component can be scrutinized on the test bench in isolation, there's no telling what people will hear once said specimen is inserted into their hifi in their room and asked to play their music.

Heaven forbid we dance!

Making the assumption that there needs be an either/or accurate/enjoyable debate when it comes to listening to music on a hifi is like telling someone they didn't truly taste their fine food in a fine restaurant because they picked the wrong wine.

"You enjoyed your dinner? Well you really didn't taste it ya know."

I think it best to keep our ideals out of other people's enjoyment.

Michael Lavorgna

Jon Iverson's picture
Hi Michael - totally agree that when dancing it don't matter at all how accurate the reproduction is - in fact mo bass, mo betta!!
Bogolu Haranath's picture

"All About That Bass"? ............... Meghan Trainor :-) .............

Bogolu Haranath's picture

B.A.S.S ............... Bad A** Sound System :-) ..............

michaelavorgna's picture

It don't matter at all that you choose to call the Benchmark DAC "accurate". The point I made, and you missed or ignored, is "accurate" in terms of a component is a static, isolated measure. Listening to music on a hifi is anything but.

Not to mention the implied unsubstantiated "superiority" of this mythical beast, "accurate" ;-)

Let's dance!

Michael Lavorgna

Doctor Fine's picture

All kidding aside a component that skews the playback towards a constantly irritating "type of sound" is of no interest to me.
Whether the system makes everything sound the same---boomy for instance.
OR the system ONLY likes delicate songs. OR real LOUD songs.
I lose interest.
However, what I call accuracy is a combination of things not just ONE thing, even "invisibility."
Its when instruments sound EXACTLY like real live instruments and VOICES sound EXACTLY like the person is "right there" singing it...
And the sound works with all GENRES of music. From rowdy rock to symphonic classical to delicate ethereal Celtic harp. Everything clear and everything in proportion.
And the sound has three dimensional solidity. No question as to WHERE the music is originating and how BIG it is.
Even mono can do that trick in a properly pressurized room set up for mono. Mono actually can be three dimensional too but I digress.
Anyway add up all these playback "features and benefits" and you get pretty close to describing what I demand from gear.
And technical proficiency is pretty much a constant in what my search has found to be "old reliable approaches that yield spectacular results."
In other words there is some sort of direct correlation between well designed circuits and well organized realistic sound.
On the test bench does not tell you what your own ears will hear.
But what "hears" well usually "tests" well.
Who knows.
My two cents.

ok's picture

..“accurate” is an euphemism being used by many an audio reviewer in order to account for certain expensive gear that somehow makes casual recordings sound considerably worse. Euphemisms tend to give way to more literal a description when the hardware in question is cheap enough to allow for the ugly truth to be told with no serious harm done.

Long-time listener's picture

My new NAD M32 amp offers, as JA said, a "clean, clear quality of sound." Starkly clean and clear. But I miss the interconnects that used to connect my DAC, pre-amp, and amp. I went for clean and clear there too, but sometimes, when the recording was old, dry, thin, and upper-midrange forward, I switched to a pair of DIY Furutechs that gave me a nice, fat, fuzzy, "forgiving" sound. I regret that I can't use those any more. My only "interconnect" is the coaxial digital cable I'm using, and the only choice there is between a good cable or a bad one. There are no different "flavors."

One step forward, two steps back?

supamark's picture

it's mic, not mike. thank you.

John Atkinson's picture
supamark wrote:
it's mic, not mike.

Stereophile's style is to use "mike' as the plural becomes mikes, not mics or, heaven forbid, mice.

John Atkinson
Editor, Stereophile

supamark's picture

mic's, a proper (though rather lossy) contraction? Yes, this is a pet peeve of mine; and yeah that was a data compression joke :)

jimtavegia's picture

I am finding that it is my hearing accuracy that is more problematic than the gear seems to be these days. No doubt there is better gear, mics, cables, DACs, and the recording storage medium, but even at 71 I can hear the improvements of 2496, but not so much 24192. I have yet to buy my Tascam DA 3000 and just into the DSD recording realm, but soon.

With my high frequency hearing way down I am more worried about finding the right speaker to off set this loss, but that is not around, and the processing necessary to do this also causes artifacts and is not totally clean. I do no more mastering of my recordings. I do make extensive use of FFT analysis for frequency trouble spots, especially if I do not see a noise floor of nearly -80db in my is another story, ambient noise being what it is. AC line noise plays a big part here.

I am finding that my hearing loss is more of a problem than any gear I own or could buy. I think more should start with a hearing test first, then worry about the gear and your room.

supamark's picture

I know a Grammy winning recording engineer (mostly rap, which is like easy-mode but still) who is essentially deaf in one ear and has been his entire career.

I wouldn't worry about speakers to compensate for the high frequency loss. The frequency response of your ears is continually changing, better to be aware of it by listening to some recordings you know very well on a system you know very well regularly to calibrate. Also, if A4 = 440Hz then A7 is roughly 3,500Hz and there ain't a whole lot goin' on above it besides the "presence" region ca. 3,000Hz - 5,000Hz. I don't know how down your hearing is, so if can't really hear above like 3kHz you might have to Beethoven it but otherwise you should be fine for a while yet.

and remember - the quality of the performance is pretty much always more important than the sound quality of the recording (as long as you can hear the performance).

Robin Landseadel's picture

Like Jim Tavegia, I was a recording engineer, something like 20 or more years ago. Back then I already knew I had lost acuity in the upper partials [Thank You Neil Young], I'm sure it's worse now. But I suspect that's really beside the point as regards "accuracy" in sound. Back then I noticed that microphones were the single variable that determine the "color" of the sound, that everything afterwards, assuming minimal standards of self-noise [not a given], did not have nearly the impact on overall sound quality as did the microphones. System hierarchy starts with the performer, which explains why Caruso was the first million-seller. The room follows and is more important than the microphone. After the microphone it's the microphone preamp, then the recorder.

But in all cases [including working with better paid, more experienced and better equipped sound engineers] the difference between "reality" [the ultimate "accuracy"] and the recording was a bridge too far, that no recording on any gear ever equaled the original event.

During the last ten years I have been playing guitar with a group, playing old-timey country and other "folk" musics. There's usually a few violins in the mix. No recording I have heard of a violin has the "grit", the texture of the real thing. Standing in front of the violin section of the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra told me the same thing, but of course I heard more of the microphone feed back then than the real thing. I think people don't really like the sound of a real violin as much as the smoothed out, "easy listening" version of the fiddle, the more reverb the better. I suspect that any microphone will limit dynamics and mess with the time domain of the acoustic event. Certain microphones—say, the U-47?—dominate the sound. A whole lot of people love that sound, a sound that has little to do with reality.

I used to be one of the anti-digital folks, assuming that the sonic qualities of digital recordings were due to the "sound" of the recorder. Now I realize that the drier sound of the digital feed is also a reflection of the drier sound of the venues that music was being recorded in, that the smoothed out sound of "classic" analog recordings has a lot to do with tube and tape compression. And they don't make concert venues like they used to. Davies Hall is a long way from Carnegie Hall, and I'm not talking about the 'plane ride. But in any case, "audiophile" sound is not so much a reflection of reality as it is of the audio "taste" of the performers, engineers and consumers of recordings. Audio recordings are "Post-Reality".

The only way to get the perfect "nothing" is to play music instead of recordings.

supamark's picture

get the right mic(s) in the right place(s) and most of your work is done. even better if you're thinking ahead about how everything will fit together and the final sound you're looking for to minimize EQ, which is where mic's like the U47 come in handy - let the mic do most/all the EQ for you.

Robin Landseadel's picture

I "get" where you're coming from, but I doubt that you really understand where I'm coming from. Yes, a good engineer knows the tools and how to use them. However, the microphone will always blunt and diminish the sound compared to the "real thing". I believe the issue is due to something known as the second law of thermodynamics.

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Law of approximation? :-) ...............

Robin Landseadel's picture

The Law of "Everything Falls apart". More to the point—all engines/generators consume more energy than they produce. A lot of the sound energy gets dissipated due to the very nature of transducers, as they are very inefficient electrical generators [or engines, depending on how one hooks it up and how one designs it]. Someone who's clever and knows their stuff can create some impressive illusions. But no matter how much money you throw at it, it's still Xeno's Paradox—you can't get there from here. You can get close, but it's gonna cost.

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Agreed ......... I was mentioning about law of approximation, similar to Newton's theory of approximation .......... It is similar to logical and mathematical way to guess the value of something ............ It not the exact number or value, but close approximation derived from educated guessing .......... Lot of thing in life are educated guesses ............ A house value or a stock value etc.etc, for example ........... When it comes to sound production and reproduction, the recording engineer and the listener are guessing how a violin or a piano sounds in real life and modifying/choosing their equipment to reach a close approximation ........... You can find more details about law of approximation and Newton's theory of approximation in Google search and Wikipedia :-) ..............

supamark's picture

it's inertia (mic diaphram has mass) and electromagnetism (resistance in the circuit) that blunt dynamics (which is why small diaphram condensers are the most "accurate" mics) when the form of energy is transformed from acoustic/kinetic to electrical. distortions from the heat generated by diaphram movement (2nd Law) pale in comparison to the distortions arising from changing the form of energy (1st Law)... unless the voice coil overheats of course. this is also why speakers tend to be the biggest variable when the process is reversed for playback.

I don't know how well you know thermodynamics (I studied it in college about 10 years ago while working on my biochem degree). I was also a recording engineer (late 1980's to mid 1990's), worked in both analog and digital and recorded classical, jazz, and pop/rock both in studio and on location. Maybe you're thinking of entropy in relation to information theory?

Now, if you wanted to talk about certain brands of analog tape (Ampex cough cough) that shed oxide like a cat after 10+ years unless you bake them then yeah, entropy has a little something to do with that.

Robin Landseadel's picture

Thanks for the clarification. Yes, inertia plays a big role in the sound of transducers. I didn't study thermodynamics, you have that better covered than me. Entropy in relation to information theory is a major theme in Pynchon's Crying of Lot 49, sort of burned that into my brain—as I recall, the more information, the more it acts like noise.

I'm sure you've also noticed how seemingly small variations in physical design in microphones have a large impact on their sonic characteristics.

Got a big box of pancakes of Ampex tape, don't know what to do with them.

jimtavegia's picture

I don't care how much one spends on gear you will always leave the studio or a venue after a recording with less. There are no perfect mics, rooms, set-ups, pre-amps, cables, processors, and speakers, and my hearing will always be the weakest link. We are very close, but perfection will always be elusive.

Bogolu Haranath's picture

"Perfection is not attainable ......... but ....... if we chase perfection, we can catch excellence" ......... Vince Lombardi :-) ...........

Bogolu Haranath's picture

The relentless pursuit for perfection :-) ...........

misterc59's picture

As far as I know (I could be wrong of course), we know of no component that perfectly reproduces the sound heard from live music, from the recording to playback. Obviously, there are multiple and varying pieces of equipment to accomplish what we hear from our systems. Since the goal of perfect reproduction is not yet possible, we can only go by what recorded product is presented to us. From there we can try to achieve perfection in what has been recorded, whether done well or not. Each piece of equipment is an entity unto itself. Once all of these components have been assembled, we hear the result. We can only hope that the mixture of what we have put together (not including the recording end of things) will sound what we THINK is the real thing, or close to it. With all of these variables in the equation (not to mention mood, your hearing at that time of day, etc.) we can only hope we have a reasonable approximation of what was recorded, intended by those who created the sound and all others involved. For all I know, again, as I am not close to being the perfect audiophile, the piece of equipment being auditioned may actually be compensating for other components, interconnects, etc, maybe all, in the system, despite perhaps not having "great" measurements. At the end of the day, if you THINK you have all of the requisite equipment to sound like an orchestral group or whatever your cup of tea is, great, and good for you. For others who aren't sure, or don't think they have the proper equipment to get the "perfect" sound, you may or may not be right, but also good for you! As long as you're enjoying what you hear and can sit back and be happy, who is to say what is being heard is not the closest to the original recording without having heard the original recording?


Robin Landseadel's picture

If one records a lot one realizes that "you can't get there from here", and that the Vienna Philharmonic doesn't fit into the man cave anyway.

Jon Iverson's picture
Some more thoughts on this topic, after reading some of the comments.

I think we are hoping for wonderful music and none of us is intentionally seeking the “sound" of the mic, but you can’t avoid it. That’s how we capture that orchestra or voice. The exception would be instruments (often computers) directly recorded without microphones, so we'll leave those aside.

Since there are a wide variety of microphones (and positions), preamps, formats etc. to choose from, and since we can assume that the recording engineer and producer chose what they thought best for that venue/performance, I’m proposing that it is better overall that we faithfully honor what choices they have made, and have a system that is accurate to that recording (which, as Robin notes, is never exactly "the real thing").

Otherwise we go down the rabbit hole of corrective coloration, which might work for one recording, but be way off for the another (which is what I discovered listening to the Border Patrol DAC). In practice, one would need a variable coloration device to continually re-tune the engineer’s decisions back to what you imagine “live string quartet” should actually sound like.

Which led me to the conclusion that no coloration is better than one that benefits some recordings but penalizes others. In fact, I’ve found in practice that the best recordings are usually the ones penalized with a colored system, which doesn’t seem fair.

Robin Landseadel's picture

Gee, thanks. Here's a little more for your database.

Favorite corrective coloration—the Scott 299B integrated amplifier. Mine's been lying in state in the garage for about a decade now.

I was collecting vintage Capitol Sinatra LPs at the time, seems like no one else was, so they popped up @ $1 a disc. Lots of magical "Audio Illusions" in those recordings. Playing those discs with that amp in the system produced a sense of Old Blue Eyes being in the room and singing right at me like no other combination [Strathclyde TT, SME III arm, Shure 97 cartridge, little RBH tower speakers] of audio components I have owned. Most surface noise vanished, there was a notable lack of audible strain on peaks save in instances of trashed records. At $1 a pop, I took a little risk. Probably could have used a Shure M44-7 at the time, pity.

Another LP with an uncanny sense of presence was my vintage copy of the first Maria Callas recital for the newly created "Angel" record imprint, including the famous aria from "La Wally"—"Ebben? Ne andrò lontana". Again, the illusion created was one of the Diva in the room, singing right at me.

Naturally it wouldn't last. The Scott 299B sang for about a year after it entered my life. Some 40 year old parts gave out. I didn't/don't have the $500 for the re-tread, so it sits on a high shelf, taunting me.

The sleepless nights, the daily fights
The quick toboggan when you reach the heights
I miss the kisses and I miss the bites
I wish I were in love again.

Fortunately, I've got my Martin DRS2 to keep me warm.

PS: My Schoeps 221b microphones were noisy, highly susceptible to A/C noises like dimmer switches and overloaded in the presence of brass. But they did "live string quartet" like no other.

Lars Bo's picture

Is it a Frame of Nothing, a Maze of Warts, a Black Box of Essence?

In any case, this image in your article is aesthetically pleasing, and along with your comment, I grasp what you want to get across and evoke not simply reducible to the reader seeing thinly-drawn-black-rectangle-on-white-background-figure-yay big.


Anton's picture

Nothing on the beach, there's nothing better
But I like nothing when I’m wrapped in a sweater
Some day soon I'll make it mine
Then I'll have nothing all the time
I want nothing!

Gary Dews - BorderPatrol Audio Electronics's picture

If I owned a Benchmark DAC I would be asking myself why it makes strings sound steely, piano sound unsubstantial and orchestra dead.
I would be wondering why this paragon of hi-tech digital to analogue conversion with it's textbook lab performance messes up the timbres of acoustic instruments.

Herb Reichert's picture

When you say “JA said, ‘If this is a 'great' DAC, I'll have to hang up my measurements.’ I took this to mean Herb liked it, but JA's test rig did not.”

You and John Atkinson broke the first, and most cardinal rule, of all science and engineering: you began your investigation with an assumption (one that played directly into you own preexisting belief system) that products with higher levels of measured harmonic distortion are somehow less qualified to perform their intended function. (An assumption that was NOT validated in your own blind listening comparisons.)

Worse yet, JA tipped you off: breaking his own cardinal rule of separating his reviewers from his measurements – until after they have completed their listening tests.

Worse yet, you admitted these prejudice(s) up front: “Sure, why not? Go ahead and send me the DAC, I thought. I'd love to hear what something covered in audio fur sounds like.”

When I read this, my Berserker roots forced me to reach for my warhammer.

Before you even listened, you dismissed my 30+ years of experience trying to correlate audio measurements (hundreds of which I made myself) with what I noticed while playing recorded music. You dismiss the Boarder Patrol DAC by simply assuming it measured poorly and that my anecdotal experiences are somehow deficient – compared to yours.

Therefore, you began your listening sessions (and your As We See It) with the assumption that my intellect, experience, and listening acumen were less “accurate” than yours and less important than John’s measurements. As even JA might confirm: I do not report on what I “like” as you suggest, I do my best to describe only what I experienced using the review product for its intended purpose of reproducing recorded music in my home.

You began your AWSI with an assumption and a put down; then you continue with a dismissive boast putting down audiophiles you assume are less informed than yourself.

You wrote,
“I thought those amps sounded quite good," an audiophile will say.
I then have to ask, "Do you mean accurate good, or pleasing good?
"Both," they usually reply, implying that accuracy is always pleasing.
You continue,
“The BorderPatrol DAC SE was something else entirely. I gathered from JA's hints that it hadn't measured well. When it arrived, I tested it with some familiar and challenging recordings, which quickly revealed that, in terms of neutrality, it was far short of accurate good.”

When you say “accurate” do you mean you examined a music signal entering the BP DAC and compared it to the output? Neutral? What is your “neutral” reference DAC? An MSB? A Wavelength? A NOS Holo Spring? Those are mine. Or the Benchmark – which you (and John) have already admitted you favor?

Please then, direct mine, the aforementioned audiophiles, and the reader’s attention towards the objective part of your assessment……and while you are at it, tell us all how we can learn distinguish “accurate good” from “pleasing good.”

You state, “If at all possible, I want to hear something as close as possible to the master tape.”

Reason forces me to ask, WHICH master tape did you use? And, how will I recognize “close to the master tape” when I hear it?

In order to answer that question, I have purchased and studied at least 80 genuine (analogue) “master tapes” taken directly from the archives of RCA. Many of them I played back on the exact Ampex machines they were recorded on (which I also purchased). Virtually all of them sounded VERY “pleasing good” and therefore, by your definition, must ALSO have sounded accurate good. In truth, I can’t remember hearing too many bad sounding master tapes.

For my reviews I always use high-res “master” files supplied to me by the recordist for that purpose. When I finished my BP/BM comparison, I told JA about my own “alarming audiophile episode” with Macy Gray’s HDTracks album “Stripped,” wherein the BP DAC reproduced pretty much exactly what I heard sitting behind the binaural head at the former church in Greenpoint and the Benchmark DAC3 which did not even get close. It conspicuously stripped away a huge amounts of what I and David Chesky know is on the recording.

I use Chesky recording sessions to review headphones because I can compare what I hear live to the sound coming off the so-called “mike feed.” The Border Patrol DAC reproduced the church walls, the reverb, the positions on the floor where the musicians were standing, and all the subtle breathiness of Macy Gray’s voice. With the Benchmark, the majority of that information (which is definitely on the master file and appears via David’s $100K MSB DAC and via my Holo Spring DAC) disappeared !!! Your neutral DAC “stripped” away information that is unquestionably on the master file. Not to mention the BM DAC made it sound hard cold and harmonically threadbare. I call this subtractive distortion. Did you measure any of that?

My definition of accurate is: the DAC that makes a real piano in a real room sound the most like a real piano in a real room is the most accurate.

My definition of a neutral DAC is: the DAC that preserves the most information I know is on the file or tape.

What is yours?

Peace, love, and jangling keys,

Jon Iverson's picture
At this point, it's an established fact that the Border Patrol DAC adds distortion to music played through it.

It seemed an interesting thing to discover why and how audiophiles such as yourself consider this a good thing. And I found that with some music I also agree it is indeed a good thing (as reported in the follow up). But, in my opinion, with the best recordings it is not. For me, it flattened those recordings, removing some of their life. Seemed unfair to those recordings, and something that needed comment.

And yes, we could argue for days about what constitutes "the best" recordings. :)

But again, I think we could agree that not all foods benefit from a little maple syrup on top, and I find the same concept true with audio recordings. Some colorful audio equipment/recording combinations do indeed sound glorious together, but then fall apart with a different recording.

I've done a lot of recording of live music both in and out of the studio over the last 40 years. And the best test I know, to understand what a component like a DAC is doing, is to loop it into a live mic feed, which I often do. I've personally found this more enlightening than hearing a master tape or other variations (which I've done often as well) simply because you have no "real" baseline with a master. A live mic is a real baseline. Others may disagree with this suggestion, and the whole idea might make another good topic for us to explore together in a future article!

As a side note, even looping a component like a DAC into a live mic feed is problematic in that you have to first digitally encode the signal with another piece of equipment, which can add its own coloration. So knowing as much as possible about the variables is key.

FYI when JA hinted that the DAC did not measure well, we conceived of the idea that the members of the local audio club would listen in a blind test, thus adhering to the "cardinal rule" for the follow-up. And in fact their comments were all reported as is, and vetted as properly representing their blinded opinions. This is why they feature so grandly in the follow-up.

Perhaps the real lesson here is that there are many paths to audio ecstasy. There is certainly no intent to disparage, only clarify.

Part-Time Audiophile's picture

You cannot claim your conclusions as a starting point. Neither can you make the jump from correlation to causation. Both require argument. You have provided none.

Jon Iverson's picture
Agreed - the statement about distortion is in reference to the measurements that JA revealed to all of us at the same time - when the article was published. I should have made that more clear - JA didn't reveal the measurements before we listened.
Part-Time Audiophile's picture

This is a very compelling critique. Thank you, Mr Reichert, for offering it up.

I would like to call out specifically the idea that less is somehow more. That is, the device that does less -- no upsampling, no oversampling, no filtering, and no feedback -- is somehow, magically, "adding something" to the sound of music that comes through it. That makes no sense (logically) whatsoever.

But it does recall the idea that "familiarity" ≠ "correct".

Several years ago, John Atkinson was hosting a panel at the New York Audio Show about loudspeaker design. He asked the panel (of audio reviewers) the following question: Why do cost-no-object speakers sound different?

The answer that designer Jeff Joseph gave me, later that day, was that speaker designers are like other human beings -- they chase some kind of "formative sound". I'd submit that intersecting this idea with something borrowed from Hannibal Lector, gets you the following: we covet what we're familiar with.

That is, if you're most familiar with one converter, that converter quickly becomes the one that's "correct", or "neutral", or "good". That doesn’t therefore mean that it is.

We can be fooled by our complacency. Take India Pale Ale’s, for example. Drink too many of them and you’re likely to be unable to appreciate real beer. But that doesn’t make IPA good. It just means you’ve completely ruined your sense of taste.

misterc59's picture

Very articulate and descriptive comment on what you hear (heard) and whether or not measurements agree. Myself and many others concur (although many others will not, perhaps they don't trust their ears). I would just like to say trust your ears. As I mentioned in a previous post, there are many many parts that are put together to make the final product that reaches one's ears, including the individual who listens to the end product (music). With the number of variables involved, I can't see how someone can categorically say how something will/should sound. As long as a person is happy with the sound they are listening to, why would anyone care? If they're not happy, continue the search for your "version" of perfection. I don't have a mega buck system, but it makes me happy, influences my emotions, sounds great to me, and best of all, I'm content with what I hear no matter what anyone else thinks!


misterc59's picture

Please consider this a reply to Herb's response below...

Herb Reichert's picture

I know you know me and what sort of character I am and what I write - so I did not really take your words personally. Likewise I did not intend my response as a personal attack on you.

Surely, everyone knows I traffic in journalistic theatre. But! I felt I must respond to your unsubstantiated claims. It is not a "fact" that the device with the lowest THD numbers is the most accurate.It is not a fact that the Benchmark DAC preserves the pulsing bit packages better than the Border Patrol. If the DAC does not reproduce ALL of what is on the recording - it is distorting. I also know from my own investigations that subtractive distortion is a bigger joy-killer than "just right" amounts of additive 2nd harmonic distortion. My forthcoming First Watt SIT-3 review will shed some relevant Nelson Pass light on this very subject. Stay tuned. Meanwhile, I vote for more blind listening comparisons. Real audiophiles are not as lame as you suggest, and real engineers don't need measurements to 'prove' what they hear is correct. peace and holiday cheer, herb

Jon Iverson's picture
Herb - you've just made an unsubstantiated claim (and insinuation) that there might be something missing from the Benchmark.

If you have proof that corroborates this "subtractive distortion" that you report, then it would be interesting to see, and JA could add this new technique to his DAC tests.

Right now the measurements and listening tests clearly show some added distortion with the Border Patrol that is not present with the Benchmark. That is a claim that is easy to substantiate. I would agree that this added distortion might be pleasant to listen to however, and certainly cannot explain everything about how we hear these products.

PS I've never suggested "real audiophiles" are lame - interesting that you are using that technique of argument here.

Herb Reichert's picture

The Border Patrol DAC reproduced the church walls, the reverb, the positions on the floor where the musicians were standing; plus all the subtle breathiness of Macy Gray’s voice. With the Benchmark, the majority of that information (which is definitely on the master file and appears via David’s $100K MSB DAC and via my $2K Holo Spring DAC) disappeared !!! Your so-called "accurate" DAC removed this important information that is unquestionably on the master file. Not to mention the BM DAC made what it did reproduce sound hard cold and harmonically threadbare. Which measurement(s) will tell me where that information went? If it sounds bad and measures good . . . maybe all that upsampling, feedback, and noise shaping corrupted the original music file? Maybe all that error-correcting imparts its own sonic signature?

Jon Iverson's picture
Can we assume that you and David Chesky heard all four of these DACs at the same time in the same system and these are your mutual findings? If yes, that would be compelling.

Since you are still claiming that the Benchmark (which also received a POTY from the Stereophile staff this year) is distorting the signal by omitting information, I would still want more technical evidence. I realize not all readers would need that, but I would be happier with it. Just wanting to clarify where we stand here.

rt66indierock's picture

The last time we talked you were promoting MQA, told me it was better than the master and I hadn’t listened to it when I had. You are going down the same path here. Just admit you like certain colorations I’m fine with that. But I doubt things are missing from a Benchmark DAC too many of would have noticed and haven’t. I certainly didn’t in an Extended listening period noted below.

I’m going doubt your conclusions until you come up with a better explanation of why you don’t like the sound of the Benchmark DAC that doesn’t include things missing. Because “if it measures bad and sounds good, maybe your hearing isn’t as good as you think.”

Herb Reichert's picture

"hear" very differently than human ears. But as you said,

"A live mic is a real baseline. Others may disagree with this suggestion, and the whole idea might make another good topic for us to explore together in a future article!" Lets do it!

How about you and I and John meet at some future Chesky session and report on our findings. There we can compare live analogue to ADC-DAC headphone feeds. Very interesting concept. hr

Part-Time Audiophile's picture

Not only is the reviewer demonstrably wrong -- literally everyone that has actual experience with the gear in question disagrees with his conclusions -- but his conclusions are impossible to differentiate from the expectations set by his employer and editor.

The facts are clear and confessed: The Editor sent a note to a reviewer that not only irretrievably biased the result, it violated the "cardinal rule" of audio reviewing. This is a stark admission of professional misconduct. What more is there to say? This AWSI, and the review that gave it rise, should never have been published.

Jon Iverson's picture
I'm assuming that by "the reviewer" you mean me and not Herb, and you might have missed that I actually preferred the Border Patrol on several recordings. But some others not so much. Just an opinion of course.

As stated in the AWSI, I made the leap as to JA's meaning, he did not say anything further than what is quoted. So you can put that on me if it bothers you.

Gary Dews - BorderPatrol Audio Electronics's picture

I didn't miss that you preferred the BorderPatrol on several recordings and it's to your credit that you reported everything, including dropping your boss in it, but your conclusions don't make sense.

You conclude that the DAC that makes acoustic instruments sound the most realistic and life-like is coloured. That's just wrong, by definition.

You suggest that this is a result of a 'corrective colouration' in the BP DAC that somehow restores instrument timbre to acoustic instruments which makes it suit certain recordings whilst flattening others.

IF, that is the case then the converse must also be true. The colourations of the Benchmark, which Herb did a great job of describing, explain why it might better suit some studio recordings and why it fails with acoustic recordings.

In my almost 30-yrs in audio I have never encountered a product that can restore the timbre of acoustic instruments but I've heard many that can ruin it. The Benchmark DAC is one of them. The sounds it produces bear no relationship to the sounds we hear in real life. In addition to sounding hard, cold and harmonically threadbare as Herb says, the Benchmark DAC is heartless, soulless and machine-like. It sounds as though it was designed by people that measure and don't listen. Just an opinion of course.

At some point you and JA should ask yourselves whether the techniques used by Benchmark to achieve the 'textbook lab specs' might be responsible for its machine-like sound and why a DAC with a very simple conversion technique sounds more natural and live.

John Atkinson's picture
Gary Dews - BorderPatrol Audio Electronics wrote:
I didn't miss that you preferred the BorderPatrol on several recordings and it's to your credit that you reported everything, including dropping your boss in it, but your conclusions don't make sense.

You conclude that the DAC that makes acoustic instruments sound the most realistic and life-like is coloured. That's just wrong, by definition.

You can't really say things are right or wrong in absolute terms, Gary, as you don't actually know how any particular recording was made. Without access to something like a mike feed, judgments on sound quality must therefore be opinions, and Jon's opinion is as valid as Herb's opinion. And both are actually correct for them, as with the parable of of two blind men examining both ends of an elephant.

I wrote about the circularity in using flawed recordings to judge flawed products 30 years ago: Scroll down the page to the last 2 paragraphs at

John Atkinson
Editor, Stereophile

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Sorry, I couldn't resist the question ............. Who is the blind man who is examining the 'rear-end'? :-) ............

Robin Landseadel's picture

Note that the title of my initial response is "The Deaf Men and the Elephant". I postulated that all recordings are flawed but it's probably more to the point [as most music is "pop" of various sorts] that they are acts of creativity only loosely tethered to HP's concept of the "Absolute Sound." If I want "The Absolute Sound" I've got a Martin DRS2 to play. As I want to hear a lot of pop music and a lot of classical music, my "audio quality" territory gets mighty subjective. It helps to explain why I've got all these different Earbuds and Headphones. Of course, there's always Audiophilus Nervosa to consider as well.

I suspect that everyone's subjective and subjectivities can be subdivided into the categories of analytic and holistic. There's some magical thinking on one extreme, an excess of rationality on the other.

My personal α & Ω of audio reproducing systems were both LP based and both well beyond my means. One was all Audio Note [Japan, as I recall], tubular, and nearly convincing me that the performer [Tom Waits] was in the room. Whatever was going on was almost devoid of audible surface irregularities with a sense of the performer being placed well in front of the reproducing gear. The other was solid state and excelled at both the sense of the presence of the performers and of bringing the "room" [these were classic WB pop recordings of the 70's, where the creation of the "room ambience" is all trickery] into the room where the music was being played. The solid state gear excelled at detail, the tube gear at 'presence", they both were making music in untreated and probably acoustically inappropriate rooms. Neither had anything to say about the bottom octave. Both were "very nearly, but not quite". One was "holistic", one was "analytical" and they really didn't sound all that much alike.

Meanwhile, up here in the cheap seats, I am expunging every single slab of vinyl in the house in preparation of moving to a smaller place. I've never had an LP system [or any other kind of audio system] as good as the the two I previously cited and I never will. As long as I know that what I'm hearing is already compromised I might as well choose those options that annoy me the least.

rschryer's picture

Latin has gotten out of hand! :-)

Oh, and this sentence: "As long as I know that what I'm hearing is already compromised I might as well choose those options that annoy me the least" makes perfect sense to me.

Robin Landseadel's picture

Been reading through your "R.I.P. Audiophilia" post and all the comments posted in reply. I know the notion of Stereophilia does not apply in my case, having spent so much time listening to recorded music through some very compromised [often mono] audio gear, always spending more money on discs than on playback gear, attempting to fill a hole that will never be filled. Have yet to move to the "Cloud" of streaming, but that's simply a matter of time.

As I get older, I appreciate my guitar more. That's the real thing, the true and absolute sound. So call me a Musicophile, the term of the [now] late Oliver Sacks. The musical experiences that transformed me, more often than not, came from lo-fi gear. It required listening through the gear and re-assembling in my mind. Makes me think of Beethoven attempting to hear his Broadwood via bone conduction, and learning how to compose as a deaf man via looking at the sheet music of his predecessors. In some strange way, it wasn't really about the sound. As Glenn Gould would put it, the most perfect music is the music that sounds best recalled in memory.

rschryer's picture

...with spending more money on the software than on the hardware; it's how it should be, no? If someone has spent $50 000.00 to build a system, I would hope that person has more than 100 discs in their collection to listen to (although streaming does add another dimension to one's selection of listening material).

And nothing wrong in listening to music on low-fi equipment, as long as by doing so you're able to connect with the music.

Here's the thing: considering how much it now costs to own gear that supposedly represents the pinnacle of hi-fi, 99% of audiophiles, and happily so I may add, live in a mid-fi world.

It's all good.

Robin Landseadel's picture

I suspect that my audio daily diet resides in the space between mid-fi and high end.

It's almost entirely headphones and a DAP, usually with the DAP's line-out fed to a headphone amp, driving more than half-way decent headphones. How much of the budget of an OTT high-end system goes into room treatments and bass enhancements? If you want those bottom octaves you either have a lot of money—it's not just being able to plumb the lower depths, it's being able to plumb those lower octaves without breaking your lease—or use headphones.

So, using headphones, we get that bottom octave at low cost.

Right now I'm listening to Roxy Music's "Avalon" from an Apple Lossless rip of the original CD via a Fiio X1, a low-rent [$80] DAP with remarkable sound. I remember "High-End" CD players from the 1990s. This easily has them beat in all regards. I suspect that the player being file-based is a major contribution to its detailed and warm sound when I'm playing it back over lots of different speakers and headphones. Not to mention "Moore's Law".

Right now, it's hooked up to a Schiit Magni III headphone amplifier, a remarkable piece of gear, dynamic with powerful bass and amazing specs. $99 + shipping & tax. I've heard plenty of mega-buck "high-end" amps that didn't sound nearly as good.

I'm alternating between Sennheiser HD 579 and AKG "Tiesto" 167 headphones. The Sennheiser 'phones are open backed, sort out the sounds laterally in their own spaces much like the [bona-fide high-end] Stax earspeakers. Not quite as much detail but better dynamics and much better bass. The "Tiesto" 'phones have extraordinary clarity and deep bass by any standards. Not as much going on spatially as the Sennheisers, but they sound like they're delving deeper into the mix than the HD 579's.

This is a good time to be into audio headgear. Can't really say it's "mid-fi". It's something else.

Becoming more involved with this sort of sound I become much less tolerant with the hair-shirt aspects of this hobby of audio reproduction.

rschryer's picture

...a sweet setup, Robin. I'm sure it sounds very good and I may even check out a couple of your components for myself.

It's hi-fi for sure, in that it certainly delivers "high fidelity", but I also view it, in no way disparagingly, as mid-fi when compared to the megabuck systems out there that have created a new standard, one unattainable for the majority of audiophiles, of "hi-fi". In that sense, in absolute terms, what most of us own in gear can only be considered "mid-fi".

This doesn't mean, however, that the gear we own can't also be excellent.

Robin Landseadel's picture

The Schiit Magni III is the true outlier of the batch.

rschryer's picture

Perhaps a stocking stuffer from me to me this year. :-)

Thanks for the heads up, Robin.

Part-Time Audiophile's picture

Sure, we can ask: "does this song/track capture the original sound". And we will then have the problem that we don't have the unadulterated mike feed, or far better, the live event itself, to compare with.

But isn't this argument peculiar? I mean, are we evaluating the recording process or a reproduction system?

While we may never know what happened to the original sound in the recording process, can't we still know what a piano sounds like in real life? And if so, can't we use that knowledge to recognize similarity to that sound when we find it in our playback systems? Also, can we not use more than one recording (artist, venue, recording engineer/mastering chain) in our reviews?

Seems pretty straightforward, doesn't it? Assuming that the goal of "high fidelity" is valid, then doesn't it follow that when the sound the system produces is more like what we can experience "live", it's better, no?

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Check out JGH article "Who's right?: Accuracy or Musicality" in Stereophile :-) .............

Bogolu Haranath's picture

"The ends justify the means" ............ Niccolo Machiavelli (Italian statesman and political philosopher, 1469-1527)

John Atkinson's picture
Bogolu Haranath wrote:
Check out JGH article "Who's right?: Accuracy or Musicality" in Stereophile

Did you mean this one?

John Atkinson
Editor, Stereophile

Bogolu Haranath's picture

I was referring to JGH article, which was originally published in Stereophile, Dec. 1977 ............. The article you are referring to is also great ............. I have to read both articles one more time :-) ............

Bogolu Haranath's picture

I totally agree with you JA .......... "It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)" :-) ..........

Jon Iverson's picture
Pity the poor Benchmark that happened to be in the hot seat when the Border Patrol arrived! So I feel obligated to add another comment for the record.

Over the last few years I've spent several months each with DACs from Chord, MSB, Ayre, T+A, Auralic, and many others. I would place the Benchmark squarely within this company and would make the same claims comparing any of these other DACs with the Border Patrol.

Also, for the record, I never state that the Border Patrol "restores" something that is missing. I believe other listeners may have reported that. But I did find that it can pleasingly fatten up a lean acoustic guitar for example.

I also don't state that the "DAC that makes acoustic instruments sound the most realistic and life-like is coloured." Some audio club members found that the BP made acoustic instruments more life like, and I found this curious (hence the AWSI above). Again on lean acoustic recordings, like the Iron & Wine track mentioned in the followup, I state it adds a pleasing warmth. However on the Milk Carton Kids acoustic track, it took some of the life out of an otherwise delicate recording.

For more on the latest Benchmark, I suggest readers read Jim Austin's review here.

For my actual comments on the Border Patrol, click here.

PS some readers may be surprised to know that if I had the extra money I would probably buy the Border Patrol to have it on hand as needed.

Part-Time Audiophile's picture

Are you interested in buying one? To have around? "As needed"?

The DAC you said was lying to you. And is covered in audio fur. That DAC?

Look, you're allowed to be ambivalent about a result. Most of us are ambivalent about most reviews. But we don't then indulge in the hyperbole that reads well but is so easily misconstrued.

Because when you say stuff like that audio fur stuff -- and what you really mean is, "I know a lot of folks really do like it and while I can appreciate it, it isn't my cuppa", you're just torpedoing a company's future. For fun. Because you're more in love with a turn of phrase than actually saying something in line with your actual judgment. And that's ... weird.

If you honestly feel that the product, after testing, is "broken" -- and you nevertheless soldier on with the review, then you're either a masochist or you have an axe to grind, and in either case, your judgment is questionable. I get the whole "Stereophile Policy" thing to not stop a review once it's been commissioned -- but this wasn't commissioned, this was a sneak-attack follow up; apparently, a perplexingly curious attempt to "rectify" an apparent and confusing gap between Mr. Reichert's review and Mr. Atkinson's measurements. So, clearly, the "rule" doesn't apply. You went ahead. You were as perplexed as Mr. Atkinson by the opinions of nearly everyone, and yet you nobly resisted the evidence of your ears and your friends. I think this is absurd on several levels, but whatever.

But yet, here you are, suggesting that in fact that was not the case at all. That instead, this DAC really ought to have a place in your personal pantheon of great products. In case you might need it. To listen to. And not because you prefer all your shirts to be hair-shirts. But because, instead, the truth is that you only purchase products that you actually ... like.


When will you be suggesting to Mr. Atkinson that he hang up his measurements, then?

rt66indierock's picture

It should be noted you are all over the Border Patrol website. Isn’t any criticism of a Border Patrol product a criticism of you? And there is more going on here than you may realize.

rt66indierock's picture

Please pick a side and don’t weasel. Either high performance or coloration is fine. If a recording is thin there should be nothing wrong with that.

FredisDead's picture

if you substitute solid state vs. tubed or planars vs. dynamic vs horns or tape vs. vinyl vs. digital or belt drive vs. direct drive vs. idler or belden vs. fancy wire and all the other standard fixtures of debate. Herb-I hear you and side with you-you have every reason to be upset with some of the snide sideways compliments and frank put-downs inherent in Mr. Iverson's AWSI. I happen to believe that tempers don't flare in a vacuum-this is a continuum of some snide comments about your love for the PrimaLuna pre-amp. As a consumer and observer it is easy to see the obvious. Benchmark DAC owners have a marked history of fairly quickly becoming ex-owners. In a perfect world, JA would be forced to live with each product that he declares to be "engineered beyond criticism" for a solid year without any alternative. Only then would his world-view change. When reviewing turntables and cartridges, MF is fond of saying, "it's shortcomings are those of welcome omission vs. commission" or some such construct. In the context of budget analogue his saying has some merit but in the context of overall system verisimilitude it does not. There are thousands of analogies to be used; do you like your food bland or do you like it to have punch?; do you like your car to have predictable (and boring) understeer or do you prefer a more challenging enthusiast's driver's car?; do you prefer your women to look like Puritans or....

rt66indierock's picture

I have a standing offer, if you think your stereo is better than my office system is bring it in, we’ll have a shootout. Your music and mine but you must carry every piece in yourself. One of the winners, a snow bird, allowed me to borrow his system for five months. The system was Benchmark electronics and Joseph Audio Pulsars. I could easily live with his system for next fifteen years. I’m glad Herb prefers other equipment. But in the music, I listen to the things Herb said was missing are there.

rt66indierock's picture

Your test equipment is welcome to visit me any time in the valley of the sun.

I was able to reconcile the issues with the Border Patrol DAC with one phone call yesterday.

ok's picture

properly directed and re-produced recorded music often sounds considerably better than the original messy live event.