CAF12: Border Patrol and Living Voice

I first met Gary Dews, the man behind Border Patrol, almost exactly 3 years ago at the first Capital Audiofest. I was cruising the show, my first, with my then 3 year old twins in tow. I’m not exactly sure what I was thinking, so don’t ask, but for the record, I was flying solo — so it was either with-kids or without-show, so along they came.

Anyway, we were ambling from room to room and for some reason the kids were remarkably well-behaved. There were a couple of rooms that they simply wouldn’t go into — the Joseph Audio rooms being notable examples, as they were “too loud, Daddy, too loud” — but of the ones that they were happy to explore, the Border Patrol & Living Voice room was one of the tops.

To this day, I have no idea what drew them in so. The music? Gary’s laid back attitude? His “funny talk” — he’s from Yorkshire (England), and the kids thought his accent was half-wonderful, half-hysterical, and couldn’t quite decide if he was trying to put them on. Who knows. But I do remember this — I walked out of that room pretty sure I had made a terrible mistake.

Not more than 2 months earlier, I placed an order for a brand new pair of fully tricked out Merlin VSM-MXR speakers and a full set of Joule-Electra components to drive them. This was the single largest outlay of cash I’d made on my audio rig to date — and I was crushed. Because if I’d have heard this room, there at Capital Audiofest, in April instead of July 2010, I’d have spent less money and may well have actually kept that gear, instead of dumping everything on AudigoN less than a year after it all finally showed up.

Timing. Is. Everything.

Okay, fast forward two years.

Gary is here, again, and now showing off a 300B amplifier matched to a Living Voice speaker. And once again, that sound made me sigh and smile — and I’m still cringing and gnashing my teeth. So close! I need to get over this, but I haven’t. Not yet.

Okay, anyway, so here we have a $8,995 SE300B amplifier, a 9wpc 300b-based SET stereo amp with an external, tube-rectified, choke input filter, power supply. It’s also fitted out with the optional $3,000 EXD package. From Gary:

Details on the EXD pack. The EXD spec amps have copper chassis parts vs aluminium in the standard versions. They also have output and inter-stage transformers that have had deep cryogenic treatment and some upgraded components. I have also recently begun cryo treating parts of the external PSU to make the EXD+ spec, or whatever.

The EXD adds $3000 to the price of the standard amp. Converting a standard amp to EXD costs $4250. The cryo power supply option costs $750/per PSU.

You might want to mention that all the amps are fully upgradable so if a client started with a SE300B or P21 standard stereo with 1 PSU, it can be taken all the way to S10 EXD+ dual mono in stages.

Gary specializes in 300b tubes. It’s what he does. No 2a3 or 211 or some other exotic. Just the 300b, arguably the most recognizable and the most perfect audio tube ever made. Don’t agree? Well, that’s what I meant by “arguable”. What isn’t under debate is what a 300b can do and do well — the question is, can it do something other than that? More plainly, can a 300b tube amp actually deliver bass and treble extension, above and beyond the taken-for-granted magical mid range? I’m not sure this is fair, but if you randomly interview audiophiles at an audio show, like I did, you’ll likely get a smattering of awe (amazing vocals!) and contempt (what shitty bass! and where did all the sparkle go?).

Apparently, and perhaps not surprisingly, it’s all about the implementation.

What makes a Border Patrol amp distinctively a Border Patrol amp is the power supply. Not being an engineer, I’m not precisely sure why this is the critical component in any amp, but apparently it is — and with the 300b, it’s even more so. The way Gary explained it to me, using a few single-syllable words that I could understand, is that most power supplies are throttled. His isn’t. In fact, so much not so that his amps are able to handle the entirety of the signal instead of choking the living shit out of it — which translates directly into deeper, more solid bass response and a higher, airier, and more sparkly treble than you may have ever heard out of a 300b amp — coupled to all of that mid-range awesomeness that everyone has told you so much about.

Here’s what I know — the $11,750 Living Voice Avatar OBX-RW loudspeakers, shown here at CAF with their fancy external crossovers and top shelf guts, their 94dB sensitivity and flat 6ohm impedance, make an ideal mate for the Border Patrol amps. Which makes sense, since Gary is not only the East Coast dealer for Living Voice, he’s known the Living Voice folks for the last 20 years, has worked with them, and actually voices his amps with those speakers. Synergy. It’s a word. Look it up.

These Avatars are, like all of the speakers in the Avatar line, good down to 35Hz — and not much more. Therefore, you can’t expect super-subterranean room-shaking or the sheer menacing ominousness of a full-range speaker or one with subwoofer augmentation. And no, that kind of bass wasn’t there in the room. But there was a clear picture to the mid-range, which was rich, voluptuous, and energetic. This is, in part (I’m guessing), to the MTM array that this loudspeaker line boasts. I found the sound intimate, immediate, engrossing.

If you’re a jazz fan, I’m not sure it gets better than this.

So, if you’re paying attention, 9wpc and 94db might not seem like the best move — am I right? No, you’d probably be looking more for 20wpc or maybe a hair or three more — just to be sure. Should you be in search of such a padding, Border Patrol does make gear with higher output, including a parallel single-ended (S20) and some push-pull (P21 and P20) amps.

You might be forgiven this assumption that this is actually required, that is, if you equated “rules of thumb” with “laws of physics”, but here at CAF it appears that Gary was able to bend and stretch such things. 9wpc = sonic goodness at louder-than-normal volumes.

With Border Patrol, increases in cost tend to get you sonic improvements instead of bling. Moving from an SE300b to an S10 gets you a second external power supply, rendering the unit a dual-mono. Ditto the move from P21 to P20 — $4,000 more and the you’re now dual-mono there, too. The EXD package, as outlined above, is the only upgrade.

Except, of course, for the tubes.

Gary was showing here with a pair of Sophia Electric Royal Princess 300b output tubes. These $1,200/pair tubes are considered to be the finest current-production tubes available today and are considerably more refined, extended and rich than just about anything I’m familiar with. Yes, they’re stunningly expensive. I have nothing for you. Move along.

Gary had a couple of other pieces to mention. First is the $12,250 Border Patrol Control Unit EXT1. This preamplifier is Gary’s own design, and leverage his external power supply technology, but the primary difference from the base unit, aside from better parts in the preamp itself (that’s the EXD package), is an upgrade to the PSU, swapping out the transformer for an extra heavy-duty unit. From the website:

  • Single stage triode line-stage pre-amplifer featuring 6DE7/6DR713EM7 style tubes.
  • Zero negative feedback. Hard-wired audio circuit.
  • Copper chassis.
  • Tube rectified LCLC choke input filter PSU.
  • Inputs: 5 x line level inputs marked as Phono, CD, Tuner, Line and Tape but any line-level component such as a DVD player or VCR can be used.
  • Outputs: 2 x outputs to facilitate bi-amping or connection to an active subwoofer.
  • 1 x tape out. This output can also be connected to 5 channel processor.
  • Gain: 8dB
  • Output Impedance: 1kOhm
  • Frequency response: -3dB 7Hz-200kHz.
  • Input voltages: 0-220-230-240V or 0-110-115-120V
  • Recommended Interconnect length: <5m. Low capacitance interconnects are recommended.

Tucked into a middle shelf was a bit of a sneak — Gary’s custom, one-off, DAC. It’s using the third Border Patrol PSU sitting in the rack. Not much to say here as this isn’t really a product, but it is pretty nifty. Redbook only, tube output and tube-rectified power (via that big PSU), sleek wooden case. “Love your suit,” says the man in the mask.

As you can tell, I am a fan of what’s going on here. Gary’s amps have a rather non-traditional sound (they have frequency extension!) that’s not all about the new tubes. I can wish-wish-wish all this was less expensive, but I’m learning that this is pretty pointless. What I can tell you is that the pairing with Living Voice is inspired, and as I mentioned, not at all accidental. You simply can’t overstate how important synergy is. The result, here at least, is worth exploration. Do yourself a favor and don’t do what I did. Listen before you go buy something else. Yeah. I’m still annoyed at that.