The Dissenting Opinion
Stereophile’s Herb Reichert posted a letter on the web version of an “As We See It” column written by his colleague Jon Iverson. I’m reposting it here (with linking and attribution) for several reasons, but mainly because I want to use it as a map to work out my … feelings.
The TL;DR of this (rather long) post is summarized pretty much entirely by Mr. Reichert’s comments. I have taken the liberty of then beating said horse past unrecognizability.
Why bother, you ask?
Simple: because words matter. And because I am still getting notes from readers uncritically referencing what was done over at Stereophile and invalidly concluding that everyone else must, therefore, be confused. And wrong.
Um, yeah. Not so fast.
The problem is that pulling on this thread also means addressing a few (perhaps moving) pieces. If I fail to address the bulk of them, I leave too much open to (potentially irrelevant and obfuscating) critique. Which means that this article is not short. Your indulgence is asked, but I suspect most of you can handle a bit of a walk.
So, we’ll kick things off with Mr. Reichert and wander through the various alleyways together.
Here’s Mr. Reicher’s letter (reprinted here, with permission), because it may be hard to find:
Submitted by Herb Reichert on November 23, 2018 – 9:41am
When you say “JA said, ‘If this is a ‘great’ DAC, I’ll have to hang up my measurements.’ I took this to mean Herb liked it, but JA’s test rig did not.”
You and John Atkinson broke the first, and most cardinal rule, of all science and engineering: you began your investigation with an assumption (one that played directly into you own preexisting belief system) that products with higher levels of measured harmonic distortion are somehow less qualified to perform their intended function. (An assumption that was NOT validated in your own blind listening comparisons.)
Worse yet, JA tipped you off: breaking his own cardinal rule of separating his reviewers from his measurements – until after they have completed their listening tests.
Worse yet, you admitted these prejudice(s) up front: “Sure, why not? Go ahead and send me the DAC, I thought. I’d love to hear what something covered in audio fur sounds like.”
When I read this, my Berserker roots forced me to reach for my warhammer.
Before you even listened, you dismissed my 30+ years of experience trying to correlate audio measurements (hundreds of which I made myself) with what I noticed while playing recorded music. You dismiss the Boarder Patrol DAC by simply assuming it measured poorly and that my anecdotal experiences are somehow deficient – compared to yours.
Therefore, you began your listening sessions (and your As We See It) with the assumption that my intellect, experience, and listening acumen were less “accurate” than yours and less important than John’s measurements. As even JA might confirm: I do not report on what I “like” as you suggest, I do my best to describe only what I experienced using the review product for its intended purpose of reproducing recorded music in my home.
You began your AWSI with an assumption and a put down; then you continue with a dismissive boast putting down audiophiles you assume are less informed than yourself.
“I thought those amps sounded quite good,” an audiophile will say. I then have to ask, “Do you mean accurate good, or pleasing good? “Both,” they usually reply, implying that accuracy is always pleasing.
“The BorderPatrol DAC SE was something else entirely. I gathered from JA’s hints that it hadn’t measured well. When it arrived, I tested it with some familiar and challenging recordings, which quickly revealed that, in terms of neutrality, it was far short of accurate good.”
When you say “accurate” do you mean you examined a music signal entering the BP DAC and compared it to the output? Neutral? What is your “neutral” reference DAC? An MSB? A Wavelength? A NOS Holo Spring? Those are mine. Or the Benchmark – which you (and John) have already admitted you favor?
Please then, direct mine, the aforementioned audiophiles, and the reader’s attention towards the objective part of your assessment……and while you are at it, tell us all how we can learn distinguish “accurate good” from “pleasing good.”
You state, “If at all possible, I want to hear something as close as possible to the master tape.”
Reason forces me to ask, WHICH master tape did you use? And, how will I recognize “close to the master tape” when I hear it?
In order to answer that question, I have purchased and studied at least 80 genuine (analogue) “master tapes” taken directly from the archives of RCA. Many of them I played back on the exact Ampex machines they were recorded on (which I also purchased). Virtually all of them sounded VERY “pleasing good” and therefore, by your definition, must ALSO have sounded accurate good. In truth, I can’t remember hearing too many bad sounding master tapes.
For my reviews I always use high-res “master” files supplied to me by the recordist for that purpose. When I finished my BP/BM comparison, I told JA about my own “alarming audiophile episode” with Macy Gray’s HDTracks album “Stripped,” wherein the BP DAC reproduced pretty much exactly what I heard sitting behind the binaural head at the former church in Greenpoint and the Benchmark DAC3 which did not even get close. It conspicuously stripped away a huge amounts of what I and David Chesky know is on the recording.
I use Chesky recording sessions to review headphones because I can compare what I hear live to the sound coming off the so-called “mike feed.” The Border Patrol DAC reproduced the church walls, the reverb, the positions on the floor where the musicians were standing, and all the subtle breathiness of Macy Gray’s voice. With the Benchmark, the majority of that information (which is definitely on the master file and appears via David’s $100K MSB DAC and via my Holo Spring DAC) disappeared !!! Your neutral DAC “stripped” away information that is unquestionably on the master file. Not to mention the BM DAC made it sound hard cold and harmonically threadbare. I call this subtractive distortion. Did you measure any of that?
My definition of accurate is: the DAC that makes a real piano in a real room sound the most like a real piano in a real room is the most accurate.
My definition of a neutral DAC is: the DAC that preserves the most information I know is on the file or tape.
What is yours?
Peace, love, and jangling keys,
Okay, so this letter is fascinating on several fronts, but before I kick-off, I need to say a couple of things.
First, I consider Herb Reichert and John Atkinson to be my friends. Now, we don’t have a standing invite at the corner deli for a weekly mile-high Reuben or anything, but that’s primarily because both of them live in New York and Maryland isn’t one of the Five Burroughs. I like to pretend that if it was, we’d all be that kind of pal. Along those lines, BorderPatrol designer Gary Dews is a gent I’ve broken bread with more times than I can count, and that is exactly because Marylanders do regularly visit with people that are not accessible by walking, train, cab, or Lyft.
Second, Part-Time Audiophile was the first to review (and heartily recommend) the BorderPatrol DAC SE to the wider world. We loved that little DAC, from back when it was “parts” bolted to a plywood board all the way up to it’s finished and now-orderable form. There was just something different about it that was more than worth the time to listen, and once done, more than worth the time for more and more listening.
Third, like many of my “audio journalist” colleagues, I’ve been writing about high-end audio for a little while (10 years), and like many of them, I’ll admit that I don’t know everything. But there are a few things I’m pretty clear on. The role, value, and purpose of a review — I’m good, there. Human psychology, theory of perception, cognitive science — that’s another thing I’m pretty solid on. Logic, epistemology, and metaphysics — I’m your Huckleberry. The human experience, the meaning of life, and the nature of the Divine? Okay, well, let’s call that one “a work in progress”.
But this note from Mr. Reichert? This has me totally confused.
There is a certain reviewer who I won’t name (because he writes unhappy emails whenever I do) whose pet project is “cleaning up” the world of high-end reviewing. Apparently, he takes it personally when an audio reviewer could even be thought to have her hand in the cookie jar.
Makes sense. It’s hard to scratch out a living when everyone thinks you’re Typhoid Mary.
I bring this up now, in part, because despite a disturbing tendency some have to infer ill-intent at every opportunity, it’s very much worth
noting underlining that not everything is about malfeasance. Sometimes, journalists — especially audio journalists — get it wrong. No conspiracy. No master-plan. No cash-grab. Just error.
Point is, you’re always free to disagree with me. You might even be not-wrong. That’s the beauty of this entire enterprise — claims to “right” and “wrong” in the context of personal preferences in high-end audio do not (usually) require ontological commitments. Rather, what we’re doing is talking about aesthetic judgment. What I offer in a review is my “taste”, if you will, weighed against and wrought from a decade of semi-professional exploration and experience. Your personal continua of experiential data contain all sorts of ties between pleasure and experience — and may well differ from mine. In fact, I’d be shocked if we didn’t differ, at least somewhere and at least in part. That’s why, in my opinion, being explicit about biases, proclivities, and taste tends to be a very worthwhile confession for any reviewer to be open about.
To restate the point: the question for any reader is, “Am I (or is any reviewer) someone that subscribes to a digest of the world that you are able to grok?” If not, well then, no harm and no foul. And that
possibility likelihood is precisely why I prefer to populate my endeavors here on PTA with the views of people that are not precisely like me. This is also why I think some websites/magazines are “better” than others.
So, when Jon Iverson of Stereophile reviewed the BorderPatrol DAC SE, I was perplexed but hardly shocked. Mr. Iverson “failed to get it”, and that’s perfectly fine. It happens. Reviewers disagree. Again, it’s kinda baked into the model.
But reading on, I became baffled by several things. I was baffled that Mr. Iverson’s review was commissioned. More, that the writer executed that commission. Also, that more of the … curious … elements were not “caught” in the editing. And that it was printed. But most of all, that it was then the target of a subsequent “As We See It” column, and then referenced by yet another.
No, really, it’s all very weird.
By the numbers
Of course, they really ought to have agreed with me. Tsk, tsk. The fact that they did not, however, only shows is a lack of taste. More precisely, that Mr. Iverson’s taste doesn’t line up with mine.
But the second reviewer also did not agree with their own writer, Herb Reichert. Again, all that shows is a lack of respect for the fine and discriminating Mr. Reichert, a paragon of virtue and elegance, and justly due all adorations and adulations. If that feels a bit thick, well, he did agree with me. No, the fact that they didn’t agree wasn’t the weird thing. The fact that they were put in a position to disagree — that was the weird thing.
Why the second opinion with Jon Iverson? What is the point of seeking a second review? And since when do we get second opinions from Stereophile? No, really — since when? I mean, don’t get me wrong. I think this is brilliant. I wish they’d do this regularly — in fact, I kind of wish they made this “two-opinion” approach the rule and not the perplexing exception, and precisely for the “aesthetic judgment” reasons I laid out earlier.
We get a clue from Mr. Atkinson own note:
Editor’s Note: BorderPatrol’s tube-rectified flagship D/A processor ($1850 as reviewed) is built around a 16-bit Philips TDA1543 ladder-DAC from the 1980s: a chip you’d sooner find in a budget CD player from 25 years ago than a 21st Century high-end source component. In our review, the DAC SE impressed Herb Reichert for delivering “refined, human-sounding musical pleasures,” but didn’t do well on the test bench. (In particular, I criticized BorderPatrol’s use of what I felt was an “underperforming” chip.) Given this conflict, I felt a third opinion was called for. I therefore shipped the BorderPatrol DAC to Jon Iverson for him to audition. And as luck would have it, a planned visit to Jon’s place by members of the Central Coast Audio Club would allow for some level-matched comparisons under both sighted and blind conditions.—John Atkinson
Because it has apparently never been the case heretofore where the conclusion of an esteemed reviewer disagreed with the test bench. You’ll pardon the raised eyebrow while we (ignore Art Dudley entirely and) simply bask in the idea that a test bench result ought to drive a reviewer’s endorsement. Or that a test bench result might then mandate the search for a corroborating review. And that what might be “just the ticket” to sort out the messy disagreement might be … blind testing ….
All this is fascinating, no? To put it another way, Stereophile now suggests that, contrary to their past (unstated?) policy, that disagreements between reviewers and/or between reviewers and “the test bench” ought to be sorted out by rigorous (!) empirical testing.
Well, there you have it. It’s a new day at Stereophile.
And about that first review … that apparently had no actual testing … Um, sorry, Mr. Reichert.
An Ode to the Glory of “Audio Fur”
Jon Iverson eventually received the DAC in a move that was apparently unknown and not-approved by the manufacturer. So, not just a “second opinion” but a surprise double-dip. Talk about bang for the buck! What a lucky break for a small manufacturer! About the surreptitious sneak, Mr. Iverson wrote:
[John Atkinson] wouldn’t tell me anything about Herb Reichert’s original review of the product, which had not yet been published. Instead, he said, cryptically, “If this is a ‘great’ DAC, I’ll have to hang up my measurements.” I took this to mean Herb liked it, but JA’s test rig did not.
Sure, why not? Go ahead and send me the DAC, I thought. I’d love to hear what something covered in audio fur sounds like.
“Audio fur”, eh? Yeah, that’s not going away any time soon. But I’m just going to let that sit there for a moment before I read it again.
Nope, didn’t help.
No, really. I’m lost. How are we supposed to read this? Heaven help me, is this meant to be … funny? Yes? No. I really don’t know. ‘Flabbergasted’ is a good word for my reaction to this, but I bring that up because I have no clear idea of what to say.
Did Stereophile really just formally acknowledge that one of their published reviews was intended as a hatchet-job?
Nothing is what I / Wanted, Dead or Alive
What deeply puzzles me is that the original review was hardly unequivocal. It’s true — Mr. Reichert’s ultimate conclusion was:
“Herb, you must love this new outlier DAC that turns its back on heavy-handed, digital-sounding digital and, instead, delivers refined, human-sounding musical pleasures—at a very reasonable price.”
Of course, that conclusion did throw the POTY under the bus. Oops.
Anyway, on his way to his conclusion, Mr. Reichert made reasonable comparisons and went out of his way to be even-handed. This review was, in actual fact, a fairly typical example of what I believed a Stereophile review was: reasonable, well-balanced, well-constructed, and fair.
The measurements comments, however, were not. While Mr. Atkinson apparently followed Mr. Reichert’s explicit advice and didn’t specifically use the word ‘broken’, he did enthusiastically advocate for his personal parts-preferences (that, sadly, were rather different from those chosen by the manufacturer). But it was the flat dismissal of the possibility that research and testing might have actually gone into the as-presented design, and that such research might include something other than a read-out from the ass-end of an oscilloscope, that was so perplexing.
Interestingly, it’s entirely unclear whether Mr. Atkinson has actually ever listened to the troublesome device … which I suppose isn’t as weird as it sounds — that’s the point of Stereophile‘s “separation of church and state” — but given the “challenges” posed by the BorderPatrol DAC SE, you’d think there would have been some curiosity. Apparently even in this perplexing case, one person does the “subjective” test, another does the “objective” test, and the two only twain at the editor’s desk. Odd, but understandable — but it does invite the assumption (and also begs the question) that the three sets of “results” must have some sort of causal relationship.
I’ll forestall an argument here — there is no necessary causal relationship between a poor outcome on a particular test and what a reviewer judges to be aesthetically displeasing. You know this already, however. There are listeners that favor tone. There are listeners that favor transparency. There are listeners that favor dynamics. There are listeners that favor imaging. There are listeners that favor frequency extension (it’s all about that bass …). Do we all want all of these things? Sure, let’s say that we do. But some of these things are easier to accomplish than others. Some may need to be sacrificed (in whole or part) because of the relative importance of other factors. Designers, being human beings limited by physics and economics, tend to make choices. With these boundaries, crafting audio products is not just engineering, it’s art, and that is why cost-no-object loudspeakers sound different from each other.
Two reviewers diverged in the wood
But let’s get back to measurements. How many times have audio reviewers disagreed with the audio measurements? I’m sure someone (cough, Art Dudley, cough) has data on this, but the point is that I think it’s reasonable to expect that this happens often enough that readers are pretty much accustomed to it.
So why was this case so odd? Why was it, this time, with Review #1 in hand, that Review #2 had to be commissioned? Even though it is a marvelous idea, as I’ve said, as far as I can tell this has happened only rarely at Stereophile. There have been instances when a reviewer has so thoroughly cocked up a review that the magazine was obliged to add a “corrective” — a “second opinion” that then acts to replace the first. Take the Bricasti Design M28 review done by Michael Fremer — a tragically mistaken piece of work that we not only vehemently disagreed with but so did John Atkinson himself. The amps were, after a re-review, promptly promoted to Class A Recommended Component status (a move we fully concur with), but this came while erasing Michael Fremer’s original judgment. To me, this speaks volumes as to the value of a negative review — or more specifically, the lack of it. Not even “pro reviewers” always get it right with respect to system mismatch, errors, and setup fuckery.
As an editor, when you get a negative review, the first reaction ought to be “Did we really do our due diligence” and pretty much anything other than “Let’s broadside a company”. That is, if a negative review hits the inbox, it may make sense to take another look. Why? Because words matter. (And because, regardless of your rights, and even if you’re sure to prevail in the end, lawsuits are expensive.)
But the reverse is a little weird. That is, expressly seeking a contrary second review when the first review is well-done and balanced, and then piling on with not one but two columns front-handing and back-handing the device and the original reviewer, well, that begins to feel “mean-spirited”.
It is, perhaps, worth noting that Mr. Iverson’s follow-up review ironically corroborated Mr. Reichert’s (somewhat grudging) conclusion — everyone, barring the author (with a clear agenda), preferred the Border Patrol solution over the competitor. Oops. But focusing on that conclusion might lead to awkward questions about how and where one can actually hang an oscilloscope.
On the merits of sacrificing children
Which brings me back to Jon Iverson’s “As We See It” piece and the assumption that familiarity is correctness. I can’t think of any other way to put it, to be honest. Very specifically, Mr. Iverson claims that the BorderPatrol DAC SE is “colored” because it must be “adding” something to the sound.
… when I go to a fine restaurant, I don’t pull out a bottle of Sriracha sauce. I’m more curious to taste precisely what the chef has prepared. And when I hear a new audio component, I’m not looking for added aural flavors.
This is another lovely image, and as a writer, I can see why the author would be loath to let it go. Sriracha sauce, surreptitiously snuck into a “fine dining” establishment. Yes, that would be a bad thing, undoubtedly.
But why does Iverson think this? Because the review sample sounds different than his reference.
The assumption is, apparently, that his reference is neutral and correct — because it is his reference. Therefore, and since that the BorderPatrol DAC doesn’t sound like his reference, it must be wrong. And not just wrong, in the sense of aesthetic judgment, but wrong in the sense of being “in error”, “broken”, or “incorrect”. And, therefore, the “error” must also be malicious:
It purred like a sweet, sultry voice, softly caressing my ears, nibbling them gently, even as it lied to me with every word.
Another lovely turn of phrase, that. Again, you can see why the editor might want to hold that one too.
If Mr. Iverson prefers the sound of one DAC, that’s fine, that’s a statement of aesthetic judgment. Mr. Iverson is as free as anyone and can choose to disagree with his wife, his friends, the rest of his audiophile club, me, and Mr. Reichert. He can prefer what he prefers. But that’s not the same as a claim that his aesthetic preference is what it is because it is “correct”. That bit about the Sriracha bottle demands justification — you don’t get to slam a product as “broken” (“[it] lied to me”) without some justification for making that claim, and no, aesthetic preference doesn’t cut it. That’s why Mr. Reichert’s letter talks about references — because Mr. Iverson did not, so Mr. Iverson’s comments are unmoored. We’re left to wonder if all of this wasn’t the fault of a hyperbolic hiccup, the tenacious and lingering half-life of an overripe bubble of linguistic ecstasy that cannot, quite, be consigned to the heap of trimmings, fed to the verge of unnecessary wordage that, when allowed to profusely proliferate in glittering fractals of alien light, serve only to obfuscate a very telling and rather important and curiously fundamental (later) admission buried deep in the Comments Section:
[…] some readers may be surprised to know that if I had the extra money I would probably buy the Border Patrol to have it on hand as needed.
Okay. Deep breaths!
So, occasionally, it turns out that the job of writing something is rewarded with a particular gem. Something sparkly. Something sublime. Doesn’t always happen, or at least, doesn’t always happen for every writer, but when it does, you want to hold on to it. But if the prose is particularly sparkly, something really snazzy, you really want to hold on to it. Even if you end up “writing to it”. It’s as if the beautiful metaphor you conjured has developed its own gravitational pull; what happens is that your pretty prose ends up warping the argument.
A good writer, it’s said, has no problem sacrificing their favorite “children”. And when your pretty prose gets in the way of actually making sense, it’s past time to put that shiny metaphor back into the drawer, sparkle or no.
But about that “review”
So, what we have here is apparently a failure to communicate. That is, we have a review that is clearly flawed from the very outset and maintains that flaw all the way through to the deeply troubling conclusion.
Two additional points.
The first one is more of a theory, or maybe, a suggestion. It goes like this: Perhaps we can start with the assumption that the device (DAC, amp, &c) that “does less” (e.g., no oversampling, no upsampling, and uses no filtering on the signal) might actually be “doing less” to the input signal. If that’s so, then the difference you hear when you change albums MIGHT have less to do with the DAC and more to do with the choices made by the recording engineers. That is, the DAC is simply passing on the “errors” (aka, the “aesthetic choices”) made in production. In other words, YOUR MUSIC IS TRASH. Or, at least, some of it is. That is, when you switch from “mastered for iTunes” music to stuff “mastered for audiophiles”, there is (and ought to be) a completely unsurprising difference in the quality of the original source material — and in how that will sound on your system. A converter that lets you hear shit music sound like shit is, perhaps, telling a bit more truth than a converter that makes all music — regardless of the efforts (or lack thereof) of the mastering team — sound the same (or similarly objectionable or unobjectionable). Put another way, the assumption that oversampling, upsampling, and filtering is required for “good sound” deserves a second look. Just a thought.
Secondly, Mr. Iverson refers to the “tube compressor” sound quality of the Border Patrol DAC, apparently in comparison to what his reference sounds like. In fact, many of his comments make oblique references to “tube sound” (“fattened” and “warmed”, etc). That’s nice, and a clear nod to the “tube nature” of this DAC. Because everyone knows that tubes “do things” to the sound. Right. But a tube rectifier working in conjunction with solid state rectifiers in a hybrid power supply is a far cry from a tube output stage. That is (again just to be clear), the audible impact is and will be radically different. So, what’s going on there? More hyperbole? But this is beside my point — the point I had was this: did no one tell him that the giant blue button on the front of the unit actually turns that tube off? I would have thought the “TUBE ON/OFF” stenciling would have given that away.
Final thoughts about the “controversy”
I said it earlier, and it’s worth repeating here at the conclusion: I don’t believe that this unhappy circumstance indicates any malfeasance on the part of anyone and I am not accusing anyone of anything.
But everyone ought to be deeply troubled by the entire affair. At the very least, Stereophile has been thoroughly clueless in their zeal. I cannot fathom how this was permitted to happen in the first place, much less, why that team kept the punishment going, issue after issue. Especially since both reviewers found the product worthy of personal acquisition. The clear “error” here — and the ongoing tragedy — is that it is very easy for a casual reader to get the sense that the reverse is true. And that’s just sloppy.
Stereophile, for me, represents the pinnacle of the industry that Part-Time Audiophile has been privileged to play in. Their history, quality, and overall reputation are — to my mind — unimpeachable. Their staff is, quite honestly, the very best in the business. All of them. I have nothing but respect for their publishing team all the way down to each of their writers.
But that doesn’t mean they always get it right. Reviewers disagree — it’s what we do.
And it is in that spirit that I suggest that this time Stereophile has wildly, completely, and egregiously, struck out. And that’s disappointing.
I think it makes sense to end (this very long discussion) on a high note, and luckily, it’s an easy one to hit: the BorderPatrol DAC SE is one of the best-sounding digital converters we’ve ever heard. Our review last year named it one of our favorite products of all time, and as such, it earned three awards — an Editors’ Choice, a Best Value, and a Best of the Year. We simply do not have any more awards to bestow.
The BorderPatrol DAC SE is not perfect and neither is it without quirks — it doesn’t support DSD or “high resolution” audio formats, it is not network-enabled (much less plays well with Roon), it has no volume control (it really is meant to be used with an external preamplifier), and it’s not terribly blinged-out.
For those of us willing to “suffer” these particular slings and arrows, the rewards include breathtakingly direct access to music, access that is otherwise currently unavailable at anywhere near that price.
If I had to offer up a single adjective to capture the performance of the BorderPatrol DAC SE, it would be this: CLARITY. And no, I don’t mean “hi-fi”, where “clarity” is code for “LSD-like hyper-reality and manic over-articulation, with a thoroughly unnatural obsession for preternatural quiet, separation, or decay”. I mean, instead, that old audio chestnut: “it seems as if I’ve removed a veil over the music that I didn’t know was there”, but taken more to be “removed the wall where the window used to be”. As Mr. Reichert noted, the timbre of natural instruments was not “uncanny”, it was “real” … and it’s more than a little weird that this is such a compliment.
Speaking entirely for myself, the BorderPatrol SE DAC is a marvel that deserves to be heard. Do yourself that favor.
If you absolutely must have a second opinion (and if you’ve been following the argument, then you know that you really should), go read Mr. Reichert’s original review. It’s a good read — that Mr. Reichert can really tell a story. Then, for fun, feel free to explore the c | Net review or the AudioBeat review or the Dagogo review or the Audio Beatnik review.
And then, having been completely delighted by such a thorough fine-dining experience, perhaps we can just agree to pretend that the rest of the puzzling Stereophile repetitive motion disorder was simply the result of a bad bottle of Sriracha.