A visit from Border Patrol and Living Voice

Gary Dews has, for the last several years, put together one of my favorite rooms at the Capital Audiofest. Who’s Gary? He is the man behind Border Patrol, and what he does is make amplifiers. Not just any old amplifiers, but 300B-based amps with some monster external power supplies. A direct result of this latter addition is why, according to Gary, his amps sound so different from the traditional, romantic, 300B sound. That is, the treble isn’t rolled and the bass isn’t a wooly, mushy mess. Romance and intimacy are still there, but when you switch from Diana Krall to Mumford & Sons, a Border Patrol amp can be right there with you.

Gary is also the East Coast dealer for Living Voice, which is convenient, since the pairing with Border Patrol is somewhere in the neighborhood of “magical”. Unfortunately, while Living Voice, as a brand, may be fairly well-known (perhaps because of the Vox Olympian speakers, pictured left — credit HomeTheater.com) the other, more reasonably priced speakers may not be terribly familiar to many. So, let me re-introduce! Say hello to the Auditorium Series, wherein Living Voice sells a single speaker — with options. All the speakers in the line are a high-ish 94db sensitivity, 6ohm nominal, MTM driver array in a reflex-loaded rear-ported cabinet, with a bass reach down to 35Hz. The options? Parts quality and whether or not the crossover is internal or external. By the by, if you’re someone likely to be influenced by such things, these speakers in this lineup have received a pair of Blue Moon awards from 6moons.

So, guess what Gary dropped off before he took off for an extended trip back home to England? A pair of the mid-line Auditorium speakers, the IBX-R2! For those of you keeping score, this is an inboard crossover with the “regular” bits. The “RW” is the one that uses all the top shelf parts. And like a glowing cherry on top, Gary also left me with a P21 300b push-pull amplifier, fitted out with two pairs of relatively new Sophia Electric Carbon Princess 300b tubes.

So, here we are at the end of three weeks. I just spent another 4 hours chatting with Gary about with audio, the industry, politics, traveling in Europe, circuit design and why we don’t have a real audiophile club here in the DC Metro Area. Four hours later in the day, and we’d have been downing pints. Lots of them. Gary’s a personable fellow. But now the speakers and the amp are off to the next victim.

I’m sad to see them go. So, hopefully you’ll pardon me while I wax poetic about my time in tube-land.

I’m sure I mentioned at some point that I would have bought this very combo not so many years ago. Back in 2010, at the Capital Audiofest, I remember being blown away by the combo and cursing myself for having just sent in deposits on a pair of Merlin VSM-MXR and a rack of Joule Electra gear. Had CAF been in April, instead of July, the next several years would have been entirely different — and, quite frankly, I’m not sure this site would exist. As it was, I sold the Merlins and all the Joule Electra — and have been spinning ever since, more or less.

Bringing the pair here, to my listening room and forward in time by 3 years, I feel confident in that original gut-check assessment — this is an outstanding pairing. Stupid-good. Crazy-good. What-the-hell-are-you-doing-good. I’m still a little breathless, thinking about it.

For the last few weeks, I’ve listened to a ton of music. Not reviewing, just listening. Most of the CAF reviews I wrote, I finished while sitting in front of them. I’ve even played classical music — I actually went to rack, pulled some classical pieces down, and put them on the stereo. For fun. Yeah! When was the last time I did that? Ahem.

Okay, so let’s peel the onion a bit.

Living Voice

If I say that they’re not perfect and freely admit that they are not they the best I’ve heard, would you think that too negative a way to start? Maybe it is, but I just want to get that out there in case you’re the type to fast-forward to the punchline. While I dearly loved the sound I was getting, I can readily see where and why some might not swoon. Superficial people, mostly, but whatever.

Because, sound quality aside (which is a big caveat in itself), if was pushed to it, I’d have to admit that the finish on the IBXR2 is a bit … Amish? That is, it’s a rather plain look — there’s very little in the way of bling. Cabinets are a simple box-column shape, straightforwardly veneered and look it. There’s a small black stand that isn’t really attached by anything other than white-tack. Feels a little flimsy, and when you knock on the cabinets, you do not get the dull, muted thud of a dead wall, but the short bark of real wood, even if well braced. Stepping back, they look like your basic, standard, run of the mill speakers. My wife actually likes this design, for whatever that’s worth, saying that it actually “looks like a speaker”, and given what’s traipsed through here, this is something she finds welcome. She went on to explain that she’s a little tired of “spacey” and/or “penis-like” loudspeakers (her words), so the classic box/column Living Voice design works for her. Hmm.

Anyway, while the are plain, they’re not boring. Start with the cabinets. As I alluded to, they’re not MDF, but instead, they’re a dense, braced wood (“chipboard”). Not sure that matters, much, but I do know that some designers make a big deal about inertness as a positive aspect of a cabinet. Of course, there are others — like Lou Hinkley of Daedalus Audio — that hold that such cabinets are almost never inert across all frequencies, which actually leads to an uneven set of reflections and absorptions. Like the Living Voice folks, Daedalus favors stiff over dead, in much the way that actual musical instruments are made. Anyway, the crossover bits use audiophile-grade Musicaps, the silk-dome tweeter is a superb Scanspeak Revelator and the mid drivers are a proprietary doped-paper. Srajan Ebaen has a lot more of what’s goes into each gradation in the Avatar line in his discussion of the OBX-RW over at 6moons, so I’ll leave off here with this: the look may be a bit Amish, but the sound is most definitely not.

When I compared the Living Voice/Border Patrol combo to my reference rig, I was first struck by how rich everything was. Let me say it another way: I was struck by how rich everything was. Yes, a mid-tweeter-mid array on any speaker will likely bring focus and a bit of emphasis to the mid-band. It’s what that kind of driver array does. Here, with the tweeter offset, we get another interesting twist in the design: better than average off-axis dispersion and even a degree of time alignment for the sweet spot (with toe-in). Add in an amp leveraging some truly great 300b tubes, and that extra focus extended from 2-d to 3-d. The words I kept going to were “texture” and “tangible”. Odd things to say about a sound stage, perhaps, but trying to capture the sheer immediacy of the presentation and the lusciousness of that tone simply invites the climb into cliches. This sound is … gripping. Involving. Emotional. It’s also one of the reasons it took me so damn long to finish the write ups from CAF!

Just in case I’m not being clear, this speaker/amp combo is delicious — I’m sure I’ve mentioned this in the past. Out-stand-ing.

But let me put that into context. My current reference loudspeaker is the eFicion F300, a 3-way with a great big Heil tweeter on top and some fancy carbon-fiber cones for the mids and bass. That speaker goes deep in a big, mean, way and I get clean extension into the low 20Hz region in my listening room. Air, detail, and dynamics are all outstanding. It’s an 89dB speaker and 8ohms, nominal. For $17k, it’s performance is remarkable for a “full range” speaker (most tend to fly far north of $20k) and I quite fancy it — that’s why it’s my reference. But its sound is starkly different, almost at right-angles to the approach taken by the Living Voice.

There was this panel discussion at NYAV this year where John Atkinson asked the question “why do speakers sound different”. The answers given, rather predictably, revolved around some mythical “absolute sound” that really ought to have drawn derisive snorts, sneers and catcalls, but given that most audiophiles believe that, I suppose it was inevitable that none of that happened outside of my own head. Anyway, later that weekend, Jeff Joseph provided a far more insightful response — “because designers are always chasing a particular sound.”

Well, I think it’s safe to say that the Living Voice and eFicion speakers sprang from entirely different inspirations. Yes, the eFicion is probably the more hi-fi of the two, more linear and — perhaps — more lean. While not bright, by comparison to the Living Voice, they are certainly bright-er. But … I had the feeling that the Living Voice speakers may have been the more revealing. There’s something about the Living Voice that is … well … alive. In a way that my reference just isn’t. It’s like comparing the Queens of Summer and Winter, something a wise man does not, but then, wisdom is something I’ve rarely been accused of.

It’s probably redundant to say that the bottom-end on the IBX-R2 is not as cavernous as the eFicion F300s — those go at least another 10Hz deeper, and you can hear that extra extension pretty easily. Look — I don’t need 20Hz, but I’d like it to be … aspirational … if that makes sense. However, these Living Voice speakers do not reach much past 40Hz — their spec sheet says 35Hz, but I’m not sure if that’s supposed to be taken as flat, an F3 or an F10 number. If I were to guess, I’d say it’s at least an F3. When asked to do something from deadmau5, or I flip to my demo/test track “No Sanctuary Here” from Chris Jones’ Roadhouses & Automobiles, the deep bass was simply absent, robbing some of this music of its support and infrastructure. It’s a cheap shot, then, but if I had to cite a weakness — and not a flaw, as it’s obvious that this was a very deliberate choice — in the Avatar line, this would be it. Neither the cabinets nor the drivers are big enough to “go there”.

The question, then, becomes one of requirement. Do you “need” to go there? This is a valid question — if you’re an audiophile, chances are, you don’t. If you like acoustic jazz (which I love), chamber music, light pop, opera, or small arrangements with female vocalists, then you don’t. If you’re a Tupac fan, or play electronica or pop with an artificial techno-beat, then a subwoofer would have been a good investment anyway. The other side of that question is, of course, how much will the rest of what’s on offer ameliorate this lack — because, as I’ve now said several times, there’s a lot more going on that bass.

Border Patrol

As you can see, the look of the Border Patrol amp is also rather unassuming (a matched set with the Living Voice?), with a plain and functional aspect — Amish — but still, that entails clean and well made. The spacing on the plinth is even, the joins smooth and the overall quality of the workmanship is clearly beyond the DIY crowd. Everything is clearly labeled and the entire aesthetic comes across, perhaps, as more “vintage” than “bling”. I talked with Gary about the look, and asked about upgrades and options. He shrugged, suggesting that options might be possible in the future, but what he far prefers to do is maximize the value of the design — and that casework matters. Everything is tuned as a whole — pull any particular bit out or off, say, slap a metal faceplate or swap the wood for Delrin or something, and the sound quality could go in a different direction. The amp is a system.

I nodded, sagely, as if I fully understood that, and pushed him again.

The problem is cost — he’s a one-man outfit and the amps take a long time to string together as it is. The transformers are custom made to Gary’s incredibly particular specs — I’m going to return to that in a later post, as this set of details is totally worth the closer examination — and are not only extremely unusual (read: expensive to make), they’re also extremely effective. Using lesser transformers just isn’t an option, nor is any other shit-parts. He’s reaching to the top shelf to pull his bits from — upgrading the look and feel of the deceptively simply wooden casework could very well fubar his entire pricing scheme, and he’s desperately trying to hold costs down as low as he can. Long story short — more bling = higher cost, but not necessarily better sound quality, so where’s the value? It’s a reasonable story to tell — and, quite frankly, one I’d prefer to hear more often.

The power supply is external, like I said. It’s an entirely different look and feel, too — having to do with when the two products were developed and how they came together. Again, at some point there may well be changes. I for one am hoping he moves more toward the natural surfaces and away from the aluminum — there are enough thick plates out there, and real wood just looks better. Anyway, the PSU “is a valve rectified choke input filter high voltage supply”, and as I alluded to, is rather unusual in implementation — but extraordinary in impact. Again, more on that later.

The gain structure on the amp with the stock 6de7 driver tubes is low, something around 12dB total. This required turning the volume well past the 1-o’clock position on the dial to get rocking output levels. Swapping those tubes for a NOS pair of 6dr7 boosted the gain by about 8dB and brought that median position back to a more familiar 10 o’clock position, with plenty of headroom. I didn’t get these new tubes hooked in until the last week of the stay, so this precluded any meaningful time with the even less sensitive Joseph Audio Pulsars as the majority of my time was spent with the stock tubes. I don’t have any reason to think this is a no-go — Josephs have a very similar impedance curve to the Living Voice, it’s just their sensitivity is almost 9dB lower. My recommendation: talk to Gary about your speakers and have him find you a good tube complement to make that work.

Anyway, what I recall is a looser, fuller, bloomier bass than the iron-in-velvet hammer of the Plinius or the more balanced and articulate approach of the First Watt. That is, I got precisely what I was expecting from a valve amp — but there was reach “down there” that really ought not to have been there. I mean, this is a 300b tube after all, and Everyone Knows that 300b tubes suck at bass. So, yes, both my solid-state amps clearly bettered the 300b amp here with tracks from Chris Jones, Jem, Blue Man Group, and Morcheeba, but unless we brought out the crazy bass shit, I wasn’t noticing. And that’s weird. Yeah. I’m gonna say it — this amp has balls. Picture me with my eyebrows escaping into what’s left of my hairline and you have a picture of my reaction.

Another surprise was the top end — that is, there was one! That was not expected. I can’t remember who was raving at me at Newport about how awesome the 300b tube is — if you’re old. Ouch. Anyway, I am pleased to report that there was, in point of fact, a very sweet treble. Either that, or I’m old.

Turning to the mid-band, I was entirely un-surprised to hear the life and light came through with an HDR-like illumination. Again, the Border Patrol amp drew more realistic, warmer and rounder images than either sand amp. The Plinius had more body than the First Watt, but the First Watt was more linear. Detail went to the First Watt, but it was the Border Patrol that chased it, past the more darkly, muscular and fortified Plinius.

So, it was time to bring out the big guns. From its lair, I carefully extracted my loaner Audio Space Reference 3.1 300b integrated amp. This is a particularly interesting catch as now I had two amps that are integrated push-pull designs, both leveraging a quad of 300b output tubes and putting out about 20wpc. Pretty fair comparison, I thought, though the Audio Space does also bring a phono stage to the plate, and adds a 16ohm tap to the Border Patrol’s 4 and 8ohm taps. ]The price on this Chinese-made unit is about half of the Border Patrol, and adds a very different, up-market, art-deco aesthetic with lots of chrome. It’s a bold look, and contrasts rather starkly with the more understated Border Patrol aesthetic. I can imagine quite easily that the Audio Space is “a bit much” — my wife was not thrilled with that look.

In use, the two amps were fairly similar, but gain structures were very different — the Audio Space rarely got up to 11 o’clock on the dial, where I had the Border Patrol regularly cranked up to 2 o’clock. As I mentioned, swapping the 6de7 tubes with 6dr7 closed the gain gap, but the NOS 6dr7 Gary had sent along were a bit more microphonic than the stock tubes. With those stock tubes, both amps were very quiet, but the Border Patrol amp put out a bit more heat, due to the tubes in the external PSU.

Another thing to mention — the tubes in the Audio Space integrated were all Shuguang “stock tubes”, and Phillip Holmes, a reviewer at Dagogo, spat nails when talking about these tubes. His personal recommendation to me was to swap them out pronto and crush them into a fine powder before burning them in an incinerator. Instead, says he, I needed to get me some nice NOS tubes from Sylvania or RCA, or if I wanted to reach deeper into my pockets, perhaps Telefunken or Valvo. Not being a tube store, or having anything on hand to try, I haven’t gotten around to that yet. The Border Patrol, by contrast, had NOS tubes — and those big, new-production Sophias.

So, with all those caveats laid out there … well … I really preferred the Border Patrol amp. And not by a little.

Look — both valve amps did wonderful things with the frequency band — all of it — and both did things with a 300b tube that I just didn’t expect that tube capable of. That’s the push-pull design, I’m guessing. And that’s where they separated. The Audio Space was lean by comparison where the Border Patrol was just rich. And full. And and and ….

In the end, it came down to density. The Border Patrol amp just had more. Of everything. Finesse. Control. Speed. Color. Image stability, detail, and, of course, texture. In some cases, the separation wasn’t huge. In some cases, it was downright subtle. But every time, in every meaningful dimension, there was this extra hit of elegance and grace from the P21 that was just intoxicating and addictive.

Was it the upgraded tubes? Was it the external PSU? Was it a better design, better parts, or … sunspots? I’m not going to second guess all that, but the point is, as configured, I was just loving that Border Patrol.

These past three weeks have completely revolutionized my thinking about tubes generally and the 300b in specific. I’m going to need more of this ….

So, I’m heading out to Gary’s place next month. The goal will be to check out the other amps in the lineup and maybe do a side-by-side comparison. Stay tuned for that.

Associated Gear