Whenever the talk of my distaste for digital audio comes up among audiophile friends, there are usually two things mentioned. First, I’m asked “What DAC are you using?” The second thing commonly said is “You should hear that BorderPatrol DAC.” Well lucky me, I finally got to spend some time with a BorderPatrol SE-i.
I hear music in digital form just about every dang day while I’m working in the studio. I’ve gotten used to it. It’s almost an occupational hazard, and my brain has learned to compensate. Depending on the skill level of the engineering, the sound ranges from acceptably good to razors hacking away at my eardrums. Digital is merciless. There is not one iota of forgiveness like there is with its older brothers, analog tape machines and analog consoles.
Words and Photos by Dave McNair
Sometimes, I forget about digital’s usual lack of nuanced texture and a tendency towards being dimensionally flat. The best way to love digital is by not listening to analog. When I get the rare project in for mastering that was done on analog tape and coupled to an analog recording console, my inner audiophile weeps at the beauty and then turns to anger for the travesty forced upon us by the ugly Reign Of The Bitstream.
Oh simmer down now, I’m exaggerating. It’s not THAT bad.
When digital is done very well it sounds pretty good to me. Occasionally it’s excellent. And don’t forget that analog has its issues that require a different skill set to minimize. In my experience, this is not only true for the long, sometimes treacherous path in music production from microphone to final release but also in the equipment and setup used by audiophiles to listen to music.
You Don’t Know Me, But You Make Me So Happy
I haven’t met BorderPatrol head honcho Gary Dews, although we did speak on the phone. But judging by the sound of his little BorderPatrol SE-i cutie and the tech employed to cook it up, he’s a pretty smart fella with a good set of ears.
For those not familiar, the SE-i (and the other BorderPatrol DAC variations) uses a particular R-2R resistor ladder chipset that is considered an antique in the rapidly advancing state of digital conversion. The Philips chip has been out of production for many years but not to worry, there are huge stocks still available. My ear tells me that newer is not always better.
The BorderPatrol SE-i DAC is offered in 4 versions:
S USB or SPDIF – $1,075
S USB and SPDIF switchable – $1,575
SE-i USB or SPDIF with Jupiter Beeswax film and foil output capacitors and superior power supply – $1,425
SE-i USB and SPDIF switchable and with Jupiter Beeswax film and foil output capacitors and superior power supply – $1,925
I listened to the Full Monte BorderPatrol SE-i with dual inputs and the bragging rights Jupiter Beeswax cap/better PSU upgrade. All models contain a cool looking sideways mounted EZ80 vacuum tube that is visible from an opening on top. The copper used inside the chassis is also visible and chosen for its effect on the sound.
The cool points are starting to add up.
This tube is not technically in the audio path since it’s used as a rectifier in the power supply. I found the effect subtle but significantly audible. Gary uses a neat trick by making the tube rectifier selectable via a lighted front panel push button. Button in is tube ON, button out is the full-wave diode bridge rectifier by itself.
But wait, there’s more.
The chipset used in the BorderPatrol SE-i uses NO anti-alias filtering OR oversampling. OUTRAGEOUS! The Digital Police are on the way right now to arrest Gary for violating code #867-5309 of the Digital Audio Compliance Act.
I’m not gonna go very deeply into digital audio system theory but take my word for it, a lot of the theory working the way it’s supposed to work is because another smart fella named Mr. Nyquist says ya gotta have that filter. Obviously, in this case, rules are made to be broken.
Buy The Ticket, Take The Ride
So how does the BorderPatrol SE-i sound?
Another little (or not so little) quirky thing about the BorderPatrol SE-i DAC is that it only converts PCM (pulse code modulation) digital at sampling frequencies of 44.1K, 48K, 88.2K, and 96K. No insane 192K. No DSD. No MQA decoding. This makes me very happy.
The same audio pals that know my distaste for digital are also familiar with my disdain for all things Hi-Rez. I say like what you like. I’m not challenging anyone else’s love and acceptance of any of these formats, but I’m not on board the Hi-Rez train. I’m not even going there as to why because it’s a painfully long and mostly boring discussion unless you live and breathe digital audio theory. I will say this if you’re in the market for a very good sounding, reasonably priced DAC and the lack of Hi-Rez is a deal-breaker, I’m sorry for you. Enough said.
So after finding a spot and plugging it in, as usual, I couldn’t resist a quick listen.
Wait, what is that sound? Oh, it’s a CD. I forgot. I listen to so much vinyl, that my recently refurbished California Audio Labs transport hasn’t gotten much use lately. I don’t remember a CD sounding quite so, well, listenable. Maybe a little on the warm side but something really good is happening here.
I hooked up the SPDIF output from the Cal transport to the BorderPatrol SE-i and the optical out to the DAC inside my PS Audio Stellar Gain Cell line stage/DAC. I just LOVE having a switch to A/B stuff. The PS Audio DAC was hella bright compared to the BorderPatrol. Hmmm, better give this little fella some time to look and feel his very best.
Returning to listen a few days later after leaving the BorderPatrol SE-i on with Robbie Robertson’s self-titled solo album warming up the innards, the sound seemed to improve. I picked Robbie cause it has that particularly edgy mid 80’s glare that was so common in those days. Things had started to sound a little more detailed and the differences between the BorderPatrol and the PS Audio were not as stark, although I strongly preferred the sound of my system when using the SE-i.
Robbie had never sounded this good before.
After talking with Gary about his DAC some things started to make more sense to me. He told me of an early a-ha moment while listening to 300B vacuum tube amps and high-efficiency speakers owned by a friend. He found that system to be far more engaging than the more commonly heard Naim-style solid-state offerings with lower efficiency UK speakers of the time.
As a shop owner selling lots of different gear he began to have success fitting Audio Innovations and Audio Note tube amps with his tube rectifier, choke input filtered power supplies. Soon after, Gary began making his amps and preamps using his sonically superior power supply designs.
While experimenting with DAC kits and liking the sound of resistor ladder DACs best, he started making his own using what he learned in tube amplifier power supply design. For example, using resistors in front of the rectifier to slow down the switching cycle and size of the EMF spike usually hurled around inside the power supply used in a typical solid-state circuit, effectively simulating the friendlier impedance situation of a power supply used in vacuum tube circuits. Cool.
The BorderPatrol SE-i DAC seems to scrape the burned part off the digital toast so you can put on your butter and jam and simply enjoy it. Yet it doesn’t sound like any highs are filtered. So while neither detail nor resolution seems in any way compromised, there is a relaxed feeling to the sound. It’s not quite that luscious liquidity and fine-grained detail that I hear in the best analog playback, but it’s close.
Initially, I preferred the sound without the tube in the rectifier path. It was a little snappier without, but still had that appealing smoothness. However after more hours of warm-up, the tube in the circuit seemed to open up a little and the difference between in and out was even more subtle although something cool was happening, so I did most of my listening with it in.
My current reference system used to test the BorderPatrol SE-i DAC was a PS Audio Stellar Gain Cell preamp to Audio Hungary Qualiton APX-200 amp driving a pair of Qln Prestige Three loudspeakers. I also used my Dynaudio Special 40 speakers driven by a pair of Pass Labs XA-60.8 amps. I found the Dyn/Pass combo to be a surprisingly good matchup.
I streamed lots of music using Qobuz via USB out of my old Macbook. I also spent some time rediscovering old CDs that I hadn’t listened to in ages. Many of these were CD-Rs that I’d burned while mastering – to reference my work outside the studio. That’s not something I always do, but I’ll occasionally listen to something I’m working on outside of the analytical studio environment.
I divided my listening into three broad categories. First up were CDs I knew well and mostly loved but were very bright from a combination of the production and/or the era of poor to mediocre early digital production limitations:
XTC – Skylarking
Peter Gabriel – So (remaster – better than the original but still edgy AF)
Robbie Robertson -self-titled
Toy Matinee – self-titled
Crowded House – Temple Of Low Men
Next, CDs and some streaming from a similar time but were inherently a little more listenable, to begin with:
Joni Mitchell – Hejira
XTC – Black Sea (remaster)
Roxy Music – Avalon (remaster)
Little Feat – The Last Record Album
Finally, streaming and some CDs of more modern or remastered listenable digital:
Kevin Gilbert – Thud
Tom Freund – Sympatico
Fiona Apple – Fetch Me The Bolt Cutters
Los Super Seven – Canto
Los Lobos – Kiko (remaster)
In most of these recordings, I am intimately familiar with every nook and cranny. With recording after recording, I heard a listenability that I’ve only heard in a few megabuck converters like MSB, Prism, Weiss, Lavry and dCS.
No, I didn’t hear anything for the first time that I hadn’t been aware of before. No revelations in dimensionality or detail, but it just sounded right. My ear wasn’t looking for missing detail while trying to ignore a scratchy lower treble – that famous edgy AND dark of poor digital.
FINALLY, the sound was artifact-free enough to not have to WORK at listening to music! More than a few times I was amazed by how clear and detailed the BorderPatrol SE-i sounded while simultaneously sanding down the digital rough edges.
Is the sound from the BorderPatrol SE-i reference quality? I asked myself that question enough times that I decided to take it to my mastering studio and insert it into my system to do some more listening tests.
In a direct comparison with my Prism Sound DA-2, the BorderPatrol SE-i DAC had the same alluring warmth and organic quality that I heard at home. The Prism, while noted for its overall sense of transparency coupled with a lack of any hard, edgy qualities, was noticeably more extended at the highest frequencies and had a slight advantage in the very deepest bass frequencies. I did however like the Border Patrol midrange presentation a little bit more. The Prism was a natural beauty, the Border Patrol was the same thing with better lighting and a little bit of makeup.
Wrap It Up
I bought the BorderPatrol SE-i DAC for my personal use. Knowing that it has been reviewed quite a bit including this excellent one by Scot Hull, I hadn’t intended on writing a review. After living with its sonic seduction, I couldn’t resist doing a bit more than just a follow-up piece.
Yes, it’s been available for a while, but the great sounding gear has no expiration date IMO.
the BorderPatrol SE-I DAC has claimed several of our coveted awards, including EDITORS CHOICE, BEST VALUE, and PRODUCT OF THE YEAR (2017).
Talked to Gary at Capital Audiofest a couple of years back after listening to his DAC in the Volti room. I couldn’t believe I wasn’t listening to high-res after all I’d read about bits and bytes and flacs and masters. He said, “That’s all just numbers.” He’s right. So I bought one, ‘cuz it’s not numbers, it’s music.
Cool story, Jim.
I was being a bit hyperbolic in my review concerning ‘hi-rez’. It’s not totally without merit, but there are about a thousand things other than super high sample rate or one bit DSD that I consider more important for getting great sound.
See you are an XTC fan, I make Andy Partridges guitar amps and helped design his studio. Do you know that Todd inverted the phase on Skylarking and there is a corrected version you can get here: https://burningshed.com/store/ape/artists-ape/xtc/cd/XTC-Skylarking_corrected_polarity_edition-CD
Have fun, stay safe!
I think my Skylarking is a recent remaster, but I had the original one when it first came out.
IMO the sound of Skylarking has more to do with sonic decisions rather than the absolute phase, which is normally inaudible or very subtle depending on the playback speakers.
I believe people like Mark Waldrep would beg to differ with you regarding the “digital” sound of digital. When digitally recorded correctly in the studio, analog formats with their limited dynamic range, noise floor, separation and so on, can’t compare to superbly recorded and reproduced digital sound
My opinion on digital is simply my opinion, nothing more or less. I’m not about convincing someone otherwise, so we can agree to disagree.
I have been known to prefer digital in some studio situations, but even at it’s very best, one thing digital never has is vibe. Sometimes there is a place for no added vibe. In my experience, very often the vibe of well-done analog outweighs the cleanliness of digital. I’m speaking primarily about the production process but I’ll stand by my feelings when applied to playback, as well.
Very good review.
Excellent review and your praise is well worth it. Gary is able to get music out of those 0 and 1s. He is quite good at his lark as we say over here in the UK.