It’s no secret that I’ve become a huge BorderPatrol fan, in part because proprietor Gary Dews is prone to go on a tear about the non-beer-ness of IPA at pretty much the drop of the proverbial hat, but also because his amplifiers may well be the best of their kind. And I mean that. Ask him about IPA. He’s going to glower at you. And having an Englishman glower at you is very entertaining.
More seriously, I stick by that bit about his amps being the best of their kind. Now, 300b amps are not known for their bass response and SET amps are not known for their ability to drive “modern” loudspeakers. That said, Gary has been routinely able, at least in my direct and personal experience, to make such bromides evaporate like the hot air they apparently are. Would it be repetitive to say that they sound awesome?
After the insanely successful floor show at RMAF, Gary chose to go a slightly different route here at CAF — a moderately sensitive loudspeaker with a moderately powered, push-pull (but still 300b-based) amp, his P21 EXD stereo integrated ($12,750). While the phrase “push-pull” may well be enough to cause uncontrollable vomiting amongst the SET faithful, I’m a bit more sanguine — it really comes down to synergy, and not every tool happens to be the right one for the job. But first things first — let’s talk about the output.
This all-in-one amp, with its 20wpc, might not seem like a powerhouse able to make big dogs bark. If that’s you, raising your eyebrow like Spock, chill. We’ve been ruined by those silly bits of Audiophile Received Wisdom that state nonsense like “more is better” — we, as a group, seem to have forgotten how important those first few watts really are. Given “normal listening”, I’ve found that 20 watts is typically more than I usually need or use even with “normal” speakers. Proper matching, and 20 watts is exhilarating. If they’re good.
This amp, matched to speakers that are not outright pigs to drive, tends to produce a more linear sound than an SET. And no, I don’t mean “lean” or “scooped” or “v-shaped”. I mean linear — performance is excellent, up to and past my limits (and the limits of most speakers). With an SET, the performance can be great at the extremes, but there seems to be a focus and one that’s squarely centered on the midrange. With the P20 and P21, the there isn’t such a specific focus — it’s like spreading the butter across the entire piece of toast, edge-to-edge, and not just layering extra thickness in the middle. Heh. Another way of saying this? The performance is extremely un-300b-like. Bass is fast, hard-hitting and tight — which, if you know anything about 300b tubes, is really weird. I mean like really weird. Is the treble rolled? Ha! Once again, you’ve been led down a garden path — it’s really time to lay down some of these cluttering burdens. BorderPatrol is just doing it different — and the fact that it can be done different is one of the reasons why this brand is special. Anyway, I have more on this elsewhere.
Switching gears, the Living Voice Auditorium line has been around, pretty much unadulterated, for something like a decade. The look, being generous, is a bit plain. They’re just rectangular boxes, sort of over-sized monitors actually, that sit on an unadorned size-matched black stand, coupled together with blue-tac of all things. Not auspicious, and the MTM design doesn’t really open any eyeballs either. Sure, you can opt for an upgraded veneer (which would be my recommendation), but even then, the look may be underwhelming, given the propensity of modern designers to fabric speakers that look more like spaceships. That look, and the and fact that the frequency response is limited to between 35Hz and 25kHz, is the downside.
On the other hand, these are 94dB, which make them pretty much ideally suited to a modest-output amplifier. They’re not heavy, and positioning is relatively easy to accomplish. Once positioned to your taste, the 6Ω load is easy to drive. In point of fact, I’ve driven this pair with 7 watts, no problem. And now things are starting to get interesting.
The top-of-the line model, the $12k OBX-RW (OBX = outboard crossover, RW = top-of-the-line), has an audio pedigree deriving from Kondo. In this model, you’ll find top-grade audiophile parts, including Scanspeak Revelator tweeters and two 6.5″ custom doped-paper drivers, Hovland and Musicaps and all manner of tasty bits. Designer Kevin Scott has had plenty of time to tune and tweak this speaker, but has (for various reasons) chosen not to do away with them or even radically change them. Why? Exactly! Why should he? Because, lashed to the BorderPatrol P21, the sound coming out of this system was like the kiss of a succubus. I am still thinking about this sound. It’s just something I can’t get out of my head. Sure, it can’t grab that lowest octave, but who cares? The system can do Morcheeba with convincing authority. EDM fans are going to look elsewhere anyway, so the rest of us into classical or jazz, can queue up now and be done. And the everything else? There’s just something hauntingly excellent about this combo. And I mean that. Did I mention I can’t get it out of my head?
Also new in the room were a pair of devices, the first being a DAC. This is a deliberate throw-back design, a rejection of anything that gets in the way of immediacy and transparency — something most modern DACs have sacrificed. In Gary’s vision, this meant a NOS design (Redbook resolution only), but coupled to a sophisticated async USB input. The DACs come with a pair of single-ended outs and has an optional external tube-rectified/choke input-filtered power supply, which Gary was demoing by doing some a/b switching. The result of that demo? The external power supply does add an audible and pleasing amount of depth to a presentation that was both rich, smooth and detailed — I’m getting me one. Mmmm, mmmm.
Also new, aside from the headphone amplifier, mentioned in the CAF Teaser, was Gary’s take on an entry-level preamplifier prototype. Housed in the same bamboo enclosures as the headphone amplifier, the new pre is “tubed” like the rest of the BorderPatrol line, and also has an optional outboard tube-rectified/choke input filtered power supply. I need to explore this more, because his Control Unit (prices start at $6,500) is one of the best-sounding preamplifiers I’ve ever heard.
Price on the new DAC is $1,295. Price for the new preamplifier is still TBD, as is the price for the new headphone amplifier, though Gary is thinking that the price is going to be “under $2,500” for each. More soon.
Just to say, in reply to your comments, that I have not heard the two manufactures you mention, so I can offer no exposition from experience with said, comparing with the Electro-Harmonix. I am sure differences between the manufactures may be discerned, but I wonder if the magnitude of said may be as much, if not more, a function of the circuit in which they are used, and not simply that a ‘better’ circuit reveals differences of greater magnitude either.
Some years ago, Gary and I exchanged mail concerning manufactures and their characteristics in the Border Patrol, and the biasing of the amplifier apropos each manufacture, and how, in the circuit Gary has produced, changes in setting the bias brought changed electrical values elsewhere in the device, needed to be taken into account. Also, as David Wright pointed out, in a similar exchange, the current draw of the manufacture’s heater/filament was a small but important factor in the sound.
I am less inclined to spend cash purchasing varieties of manufacture of valves, now, than I once was. A good design and execution of amplifier — as I believe the Border Patrol amplifier to be — and the acquisition of a modestly priced, decent sounding (in the BP) and reliable output valve have put paid to purchases to compare. Gary, himself, expresses my sentiment succinctly, “to show that it is possible to make great sound without needing very expensive tubes.” What remains in my pocket can, then, be put to greater service, namely, the purchase of even more recorded, fine music.
A message to Gary: ‘Will be in your old neighbourhood, in November, when off to the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival. (James Dillon composer in residence this year and another expatriate earning a living across the waters.) Not home for you, I appreciate, but a spitting distance away. For me, Sheffield born, a world away!
Can I firstly say, a long time since I spoke with or exchanged e-mail with Gary but have done so with Gary’s man this side of the Atlantic, David Wright, and my enthusiasm for the Border Patrol amplifier is undiminished: I have an early example of the SE300B.
Now, the matter in hand. Having owned and exhausted a pair of turn-of-the-century manufactured WE300Bs and other manufactures of the 300B type, I can only endorse the Electro-Harmonix manufacture, particularly, the ‘Gold’: robust, reliable, for 300Bs affordable and, in the Border Patrol amplifier, fine sounding.
Now, the sound of a valve is not to be found solely in the valve itself but in the design and execution of said. With the Border Patrol, my sentiment now would be, if the Western Electric were to become available again, given issues of reliability — purchased a pair and twice a valve was replaced under warranty — cost, and sound quality, Hell would have to come to close to freezing for me to purchase a pair; that ‘ugly duckling’, the Electro-Harmonix 300B Gold will do me fine.
PS, the recorded music I listen to is the music I hear in the recital hall or auditorium or opera house almost every week of the year and, while the reproduction of recorded music in the home does not displace it does not disappoint since I came to own a Border Patrol.
I have found that the EH tubes Gary ships with his amps (I have the latest, an S10 EXS, myself), are very good. I think the Takatuski are better, but different. The Sophia Royal Princess are more affordable and also sound excellent.
I’m curious about the experiential difference between the standard model BP products and the upgraded versions in terms of your satisfaction level. Coupled with Living Voice, does the base level P21 and Control Unit do it for you or do the succubi only manifest via the upgraded versions? I may be mistaken but I believe that a top level BP is over $20K which is beyond my budget. I have heard you and others through the years talking about the superiority of Border Patrol so I am listening. I mentioned previously that I am thinking of going with the 22w Lampizator GM70 to match with the OBX-RW. One reason being that you get Lukasz best effort for $10K. Also, his whole philosophy speaks to me, I just want to be a part of it. Besides – how cool is it to use old Soviet military parts to build hifi gear – beating swords into plowshares and all.
The usual advice is to audition and decide. I like so many don’t have the luxury of access to these products. As my wife so often reminds me – whatever we eventually buy will be so far beyond where we are now (Rotel/Klipsch) that it won’t matter. Any of the possibilities will land us in a more than acceptable level of sonic heaven. This is probably true but only if I do my homework properly.
Thanks for your work here and any wisdom you care to share.
I now have the fully-tricked out S10 EXS amp at home, driving the DeVore O/96, and am thrilled with that combo.
On the other end of the product line spectrum (for BorderPatrol and Living Voice, at least — and compared to what I heard in the post), I was able to arrange an in-home demo with the IBX-R2 from Living Voice, run from a P21 from BorderPatrol, two summers ago. I almost bought them, and if I hadn’t been flat busted broke at that time, I would have.
For me, there’s something about the 300b that just isn’t translated across other output tubes. I’ve heard fine high-output triodes, and have been very pleased, but there’s just something about a 300b that is very hard to overtop. All things being equal, I’ve been more consistently engaged with that tube over all the others. YMMV.
As for Lukasz, I’m also on record being a huge fan of his digital work. Haven’t had much chance to play with his analog stuff, but who knows what lays ahead. In the meantime, I’m only comfortable recommending the stuff I’m familiar with.
I also enjoyed this room and, while the music wasn’t always to my taste, it was still a great listen. I noted then and now the choice of Electro Harmonix branded 300B tubes. I’d be curious to know from Gary if they contribute to the linearity of the amps that you described or if there were additional considerations in their selection over other brands.
It’s also nice to know that there’s someone else out there who’s not a fan of IPA.
I don’t want to speak for Gary, but I think the EH tubes were chosen for cost/performance. They’re not my favorite 300b tubes, but they’re reliably good and don’t cost a fortune.
I supply the amps with Electroharmonix 300B as standard because they are very hard to beat when it comes to cost, reliability and sound. There are better sounding 300B’s but I also like to show that it is possible to make great sound without needing very expensive tubes.
Don’t get me started on IPA.