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CAF 2015: BorderPatrol, Triode Wire Labs and Living Voice recreate home

BorderPatrol-1

Photo courtesy of Paul Elliott

There is always a risk, covering an audio show. A risk that someone will say something. Not mean, nasty or cutting — just something interesting. Or they’ll do something likewise interesting. Doesn’t sound so horrible, unless you’re an easily distractible fellow and you completely forget what you’re about and assume somewhere along the way that you’ve already accomplished your task. Like take photos of a given room, say. Whoops. Thankfully, Paul Elliott was able to pick up my slack.

The problem with the BorderPatrol room? I have this room at home. Well, near enough. I do own a pair of Living Voice Avatar OBX-RW loudspeakers ($11850/pair — special wood finish may be extra). There’s something very special about these speakers, something that caught my ear way back at the very first Capital Audiofest; it’s something that’s haunted me ever since. I can’t even really put my finger on exactly what “it” is — they just do something very right. Way back at that first CAF, I remember being extremely annoyed at how good that BorderPatrol room sounded — annoyed, because I’d just spent my entire budget on other gear. Well, time flies like a banana and all that, and now, I’ve corrected that error. Finally.

The amplifier anchoring this system was a scaled-down version of my reference; this one was an integrated BorderPatrol P21 ($9,750), a push-pull stereo job leveraging a pair of 300b tubes per channel to create a whopping 20 watt/channel. I joke, because that amp has brassy ones big enough to clank together like a pair of Big Bens. There was zero issues with level, dynamics or punch. The P21 is the single PSU version of the push-pull design — the P20 ($13,750 — and one of my reference power amps) uses two. There are a small set of upgrades they make available, including a massive pair of super-duper external power supplies which throws the prices well past $20k for a new amp. The upshot here is that this is a 300b-based tube amp that does things no 300b-based tube amp should be able to do (according to Conventional Wisdom). Specifically? Real, solid, hammering bass. Extended, shimmering, delicate and sweet treble. If you’re not familiar with the 300b, and how it usually gets implemented, that’s really weird. Add to that the “traditional” immersiveness that a 300b “typically” throws at you, and you’ve got yourself a cobra, hypnotic and lethal.

The sneaky bit, and worth calling out again, was the new BorderPatrol USB NOS DAC ($2,000 w/ external tube power supply), here tucked surreptitiously into a pair of bamboo boxes. That DAC, which “only” handles Redbook files, is the best-sounding DAC I’ve heard under (to pick a completely arbitrary number out of the air) $5k, and is one of the very best-sounding DACs I’ve ever heard, regardless of price. Sound like a bit of hyperbole? Fine. I was a doubter too. Once. But while there are DACs that are smoother, more rounded and more silken, this DAC is openopenopen with nothing between you and the music. Maybe I should just save the rest for the coming review ….

Nah.

See, I’m not precisely sure why the DAC sounds this good. I seem to recall some DAC designer claiming that “the chip matters”, but that its contribution to the overall sound was lower than you’d think, maybe something like 15%. I have no idea if that’s true or accurate, but the chip here is used in a decidedly minimalist way, without upsampling or oversampling or buffering. Arguably more important to that other designer was the USB input/transceiver chipset and the power supply. Again, no idea about that weighting, but that latter bit is where BorderPatrol just happens to shine. The power supply here is a choke-input filter design, an oddity for digital gear, but one designer Gary Dews is rather notorious for — and its the same design he uses in those massive silver-box power supplies that he wires up to his amps (with variations-on-a-theme for everything else, for that matter). This DAC offers an off-box tube rectified supply, too (like the amps), and it’s not an option. Well, it is but not really — just get it and say “thanks!”

Triode Pete was showing off his excellent and affordable cable loom as well — including his new balls-out “Silver Statement” power cord (starting at $1,199), using solid silver (not plated) connectors with carbon-fiber connector shells coupled to his proprietary blend in those big 7awg conductors. I’ve said it before, and I’ll probably say it again, but I think that Triode Wire Labs is offering some of the best bang-for-the-buck currently available in today’s audio market. Obviously, you’re free to use zip cord if you’d rather bang your head on a wall, but the TWL power cords especially are some of my personal favorites — I have a half-dozen or so that I use almost constantly. Pete also offers a full loom of RCA interconnects and speaker cables that are on my to-do list. More on those anon.

I’m over budget on sheer wordiness (typical), so let me summarize. For less than $25k, this was one of the best-sounding rooms at Capital Audiofest this year — just as it was at that very first CAF, six years ago. I’m just as impressed now as then, which is probably why I now have this stuff at home.

Dews is a wizard. Full stop.

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Photo courtesy of Paul Elliott

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Photo courtesy of Paul Elliott

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Photo courtesy of Paul Elliott

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About Scot Hull (975 Articles)
Founder, Editor and Publisher at Part-Time Audiophile and The Occasional Magazine.