CAF 2014: BorderPatrol speaks with a Living Voice, bow down and worship


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.