Review: BorderPatrol USB Digital to Analogue Converter (SE Version)

Good things come in small packages. To be fair, good things come in big packages too. The common denominator is “packages” and I sure like packages. Sometimes, I’ll order something silly (like a pack of pens) from Amazon just so a package will come. Because when packages come, every day is Christmas. Sigh. I have issues.

But getting back to small packages. Have you ever taken the lid off of a piece of audio equipment and discovered that the guts running the whole damn thing is floating in a sea of empty space? Take an iMac for example — the actual “computer” part is something like 1/5 the size of the monitor, and easily gets lost behind it. That feels weird for some reason. Like that bag of chips at the quickie-mart. The bags sure aren’t getting any smaller, but if the chip-to-air ratio gets any farther out of whack, Amazon could use them to pad a shipping box.

All of this has very little to do with BorderPatrol‘s new USB Digital to Analogue Converter, except for the odd coincidence that the diminutive chassis feels like a piece of audio equipment that had been attached to a vacuum pack machine — all that “extra space” that haunts many manufacturers is simply gone. The result is a chassis that is only 9″ wide and 7″ deep! It’s cute! I think designer Gary Dews is gonna clout me on the ear with that comment, so I’ll just leave it there, but I will offer that this less-is-more thing is kinda the whole point. This DAC has zero frippery. Frippery is what gets in the way.

What there is, however, is a USB input. There’s also an optional S/PDIF input (RCA) for those interested in using an external CD transport. There are single-ended RCA outputs. There’s a IEC plug for an external power cord. There’s a rocker switch. And that’s about it for the back panel. On the top of the box, you can see the cutaway into the copper chassis (!) that shows off a single tube — that’s the “high inductance choke and a EZ80 tube rectifier” for the power supply. The little blue-circle “power” button on the front of the chassis turns the tube “version” of the power supply on and off, but does not actually turn off the DAC (the rocker does that).

To continue the minimalist theme, the DAC uses a “vintage” R2R DAC chip (Phillips TDA1543) with no over-sampling (NOS), no up-sampling, no digital filtering and no output buffering. Remember the zero frippery maxim? This is a Redbook-only converter, so think 16bit/44.1kHz files, or, what usually streams from Spotify or Tidal, or what’s spinning off of that CD transport that I just mentioned. 

Being a BorderPatrol design, the power supply is of special mention, as it leverages their usual choke input filter design. A special SE version ($1350 vs $995 for the standard) adds the “twin transformer power supply system (as used in the EXS amplifier PSU’s), as well as ELNA Cerafine power supply capacitor and film and foil signal coupling capacitors.”

The lack of high-res audio support may have a few of you scratching your heads. I understand that. In the high-end world, we’re now starting to see files up to DSD512, with more to follow, and in that light, why “go backwards”? Why indeed!

To begin to sketch the answer, let me suggest that I, like many of you, never did dump all my old CDs. I still have them. Piles and piles and piles of them. All over the place, really. And I will confess — I kinda miss playing them. With the S/PDIF version of this DAC (a $500 option), I just need a transport. Say, an OPPO, or maybe one from Bel Canto or Audio Note UK, if I’m going to splurge. Another thought — if you did rip all those CDs, they’re still all Redbook! And yet another thought — if you like to stream audio from an online service, Redbook is still probably fine — if not overkill. At some point, everyone of those online services may flip over to a high-res format, but until that heady day, we still have today and a shit-ton of great music to listen to that’s Redbook encoded (or “worse”).

But here’s the real reason why you should care — the BorderPatrol DAC Sounds Great, Fully Capitalized. If you’ll pardon the hyperbole, at $1,850 with all the bells and whistles, this DAC blows the doors off of just about everything else. And no, not just in its weight class. I mean “just about everything else”. To clearly better it, I have to go to extraordinary lengths (and budgets) — and that’s crazy.

My favorite experience with the DAC was very recent. I had the little bugger hooked up, via USB, to a $17k Aurender W20. Yeah, I know. That’s a 10x difference in price, but that Aurender is so damn good it’s really hard to not use it. Anyway, I had queued up one of my current reference tracks, the title track from the Reference Recordings CD of Copland‘s “Fanfare”. Right at the beginning, there’s a couple of cymbal crashes. With the BorderPatrol DAC, this passage redefined “real” in my hi-fi world. My head whipped around, my eyes flashed whites all the way around, my pupils dilated, my nostrils flared, and sweat popped out across my forehead. That was brass. And not just brass, but Zildjian, and not just Zildjian, but recently polished Zildjian, polished by a man named Brad who’d recently moved from California, but had been suffering from a bit of intestinal distress, and who had apparently found relief through a precise combination of wheatgrass and elderberries, but not quite enough to bring back the overall strength in his left arm, which he’d chosen to support with a brace, which in this particular instance had slipped 1/7th turn around his elbow, but since it was a cotton brace and not a neoprene brace, the brace had only restricted his movement by 7% instead of the usual 9.5%, which allowed him the stability to really bring those Zildjian cymbals together in a truly convincing way.

Uh huh. Anyway, you get my point, I hope, which was this: HOLY CRAP, that sounds AMAZING.

Seriously, I’d never heard this particular shimmer and sheen before. This passage, and that instrument, showed a timbre that I was immediately able to take back to other DACs and measure them on. And measure them poorly on.

In terms of openness, a quality I value almost above all others these days, the BorderPatrol DAC SE is utterly absent. Not transparent. Not invisible. Absent. Open windows? Pshaw. No building. This is some serious voodoo shit, and I have absolutely no idea why this DAC sounds so different. Well, other than “zero frippery”. Hee hee. But what I do know is that it sure sounds sweet!

Speaking of “sweet” — the “focus” of the sonic signature is “wide-band”. There’s no lift, no tuck, no nothing — bass was as deep as I’ve ever heard. Think Lorde and Pure Heroine for some truly not-natural but still epic bass. The top end shimmered and sparrrrrkled. Both piano and vibes had percussive attack and natural decay — but if there’s any particular point at which this DAC gets matched, it’s here, with decay. In some extremely hi-fi sounding systems, I’ve heard über-DACs play into zero-noise-floor amps and create this weirdly ethereal decay structures that feel like some kind of fractal Philip Glass construction built entirely out of LSD. This BorderPatrol DAC isn’t like that. There’s a tube in there. That tube adds some richness and dimensionality into the presentation, a feature that Mr Dews finds indispensable, and I’ll simply offer that his view is incredibly hard to argue with. But then, I’m a valve guy, so take that as you like. To go that extra (detailed) mile, you can disengage the tube — and then you’re back into the über-quiet/über-black background, the endless void spinning slowly away from you as DAVE powers up the space station, while you and David Bowie begin your endless tumble of slow orbits around the Earth. “Ground Control to Major Tom, can you hear me Major Tom?

Note: the output impedance is not zero or close to it — think: “it’s a tube DAC” — so anything downstream (amp, passive preamp, integrated, woodchuck, whatever) that presents an input of less than 20kΩ is worth being cautious about. I say that, though I should note that anything that presents so low an input load could be problematic for anything, so I’m really just pointing a finger at “specialty passive preamps”; if you’re concerned about a mismatch, ask BorderPatrol.

Also note (especially for those Computer Audiophile guys that like to plug their DACs directly into an amp because of a predilection for epically sub-par preamplifiers) that there is no volume control knob or switch on this particular DAC, so plugging it directly into an amp may/will require using Roon or some other app, tool, or gadget that does allow you to attenuate. Remember: zero frippery. Assuming you’ve got a quality preamp (and BorderPatrol is quite happy to sell you one, which, I submit, may be the best-sounding component that the company makes — and that’s saying quite a lot of something), none of this is an issue, but given how many of you out there appear prone to doing truly wacky things (with DACs specifically), I felt it’s worth mentioning — so, if you’re the wacko, plan accordingly. My recommendation is to use the DAC with an external preamp or an integrated. I did, had no issues and oodles of fun.

Given the caveats around high-res support, which may or may not be minor depending on your current digital library, I cheerfully confess that this DAC has been the most entertaining thing to hit my rack in years. The performance easily earns the BorderPatrol DAC SE an Editor’s Choice award, but also puts it firmly into Best of the Year territory.

An absolute must-listen.

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10 Comments on Review: BorderPatrol USB Digital to Analogue Converter (SE Version)

  1. Bradley Hughes // April 25, 2017 at 9:12 AM // Reply

    Great Review and I am interested in this DAC. You say we need a preamp. Can we plug it into an integrated amp and still be ok?

  2. Do you think the normal version will also bring the same kind of magic without the special mower supply?

  3. I have a transport and a no fuss nos dac from a small dutch company and it’s all i need! Great stuff. Redbook forever.

  4. same here. in my experience, redbook from a proper transport into a proper dac is almost indistinguishable from hi-rez, so why bother? to pay more? to feel that you are buying the best?

  5. Mr. Hull says:

    “The output impedance is a bit high….”

    I feel like I am being kept in suspense! What is the output impedance? It is not listed on Border Patrol’s web site as near as I can tell.

  6. Insert User Name Here // April 16, 2017 at 1:47 PM // Reply

    I don’t own a ton of hi-rez, but I’ve been picking some up lately via HDTracks. … after A-B’ing vs. the Red Book, I’ve found some sound better, some sound perhaps a little *worse (more tipped up and hi-fi sounding) and the great majority just sound a bit different without one being particularly better than the other.

    I know that many of the hi-rez files are somewhat sake-oily–and have just been up-converted from 44.1/48 masters (which my own DACs will happily do for me without the added expense), so maybe that’s the problem. (To this point, one album with impeccable provenance, the RR 176.4 Eiji Oue Rachmaninoff Symphonic Dances is one of those that absolutely crushes it’s Red Book counterpart.) But still, contra to the MASSIVE hype from reviewers and DAC manufacturers alike, I just don’t hear a very *consistently* compelling case being made for hi-rez.

    Is there any evidence that hi-rez is a real (technological) ticket to audio nirvana? Although I was as excited as anyone about the impending hi-rez revolution a few years back, now that it’s arrived, I am underwhelmed… I just don’t think I’d find the fact that a DAC is Red Book-only to be much of a deal-breaker (or even deal-considerer) at this point. Is it just me?

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