BorderPatrol DAC SE Digital-to-Analog Converter

by Mark Blackmore | September 11, 2017

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In a recent review, The Audio Beat editor Marc Mickelson imagined who would audition and buy the product he was writing about. In a digital world that changes rapidly, you might wonder who would buy a non-oversampling DAC that has no output filtering, is limited to 24-bit/96kHz resolution and uses a tube rectifier in its power supply.

Measuring 9"W x 7"D x 3 1/2"H, the BorderPatrol DAC is a basic black box with a silver front plate and a small opening in the top plate revealing copper shielding, which is used for the entire case, except the front panel. BorderPatrol sells it in two performance levels: standard and special edition (SE). Each can be configured with either USB or S/PDIF, or as switchable between those two inputs.

The review sample was the SE model with a single USB input. USB data is handled by a C-Media CM6631A chip feeding a TDA1543 DAC chip. No oversampling or digital filtering is used, and output is direct from the chip to the rear RCA jacks via film-and-foil output caps. A choke-input-filter power supply uses hybrid tube/solid-state rectification. The SE version also adds a twin-power-transformer arrangement and an Elna Cerafine power-supply capacitor. Gary Dews of BorderPatrol says believes that his power supply approach, with its tube rectifier and four transformers/chokes, "is unique in a digital-to-analog converter." Prices are $995 for the standard single-input model and $1350 for the special edition. The switchable model is $1500 for standard and $1850 for the special edition.

The front panel has a single switch that powers up the EZ-80 tube rectifier. A master power switch for the digital circuitry is on the back. Because the power draw is low, it is recommended to keep the master switch on at all times and turn on the tube only when listening. Also on the back of the chassis are the USB input, RCA outputs, a coax digital output, and IEC inlet for your power cord. BorderPatrol’s one-page manual says that you can replay files up to 24 bits/96kHz through the USB input, depending on your software. The digital coax output on the back will pass up to 24-bit/192kHz files, so I also used the the DAC SE as a USB-to-S/PDIF converter to feed a Neko D100 Mk 2 DAC that I occasionally use.

There is just one installation tip to mention. BorderPatrol cautions that the DAC should be coupled to a source of at least 25,000 ohms. This is not a problem for most preamps, but a strictly passive preamp may have trouble. I did try my vintage McCormack TLC-1 and some bass impact was lost. Not terrible, mind you, just not all of the performance paid for.

Other than that requirement, the BorderPatrol DAC SE is truly plug and play. My Mac Mini’s audio MIDI found the BorderPatrol DAC SE listed as "2.0 High-Speed True HD Audio," and all of my audio-playback programs worked without problems. I have an older USB DAC that is fairly unstable and needs to be reassigned frequently. The stability of the BorderPatrol DAC when dealing with a variety of audio programs was a big relief. There is nothing else for Mac users to do, but PC users will need to download USB drivers available from diyinhk.com or from Schiit Audio. For some reason, an AudioQuest JitterBug caused etched treble and a confused soundstage. I was surprised by this because the JitterBug had been effective with other USB products.

I used two programs with the DAC SE: BitPerfect to access and control my iTunes library, and Audirvana Plus to stream Tidal and MQA files that are unfolded by the Audirvana programming. This is where things can be a bit confusing. I’ll remind once you again that the TDA1543 chip is a 16-bit/44.1kHz-capable chip that will accept 24-bit/96kHz data through USB. Accordingly, using BitPerfect to control the core audio of iTunes allowed me to play 24-bit/96kHz files from my library, and the BitPerfect logo switched from blue to pink to indicate higher-resolution files. Switching to Audirvana Plus, the BorderPatrol DAC SE is listed as being a 32-bit/384kHz DAC. Clearly it is not, but keep in mind that MQA only requires a 24-bit/96kHz-capable DAC in order to do its first unfold via software such as Audirvana Plus. I was in favor of software handling of MQA files from the beginning, so I’m delighted that the BorderPatrol DAC SE played any MQA album with the appropriate software help.

As I type this, I’m listening to MQA tracks from So Is My Love by Ensemble 96 [2L 140] identified as a 24-bit/352.8kHz FLAC file, and it works fine and sounds great. No, I’m not getting full resolution or complete unfolding possible with a true MQA DAC, but the important point is that the tracks play and the entire MQA catalogue is available if you have Audirvana Plus. Of course, any DAC that can play back 24-bit/96kHz files can similarly access MQA files, but I was impressed that BorderPatrol’s chip of choice didn’t preclude me from enjoying streaming at the highest resolution.

Despite my success with Audirvana Plus handling high-resolution audio, I assumed that there was no way to listen to DSD files. Gary Dews alerted me to a program for Mac called Vox Audio Player. This did a DoP conversion, allowing me to send DSD files to the BorderPatrol DAC SE. The tracks sounded good, with a smooth and extended treble. Vox also worked well with my ripped CD-resolution, revealing a bit more low-level detail than the same file through Audirvana Plus.

When evaluating a new component, I usually begin with "The Saga of Harrison Crabfeathers" from Brian Bromberg's Wood [A440 Music 4001]. With the BorderPatrol DAC SE, bass shook the front room but also revealed the wooden body of Bromberg’s 300-year-old Matteo Guersam bass. Room-filling bass is never a problem with this cut; however, you should feel like your ears are very close to the bass. Getting the body of the closely miked bass right can be elusive, but the DAC SE did a fine job. After the opening bass cadenza, the bass drum kicks were clearly separate from the upright bass and the cymbal work had good extension without being too bright.

Staying with string bass but a contrasting recording technique, I switched to Jen Chapin and Stephan Crump on their album Open Wide [Artist One Stop A1s6901]. Crump’s bass was not so prominent but still sounded full without overwhelming Chapin’s voice. The title track highlights the way Chapin used the nasality of her voice as an effect that I might call kittenish if it were an actual vocal term. Crump’s bass purred with fretboard slaps for percussive effect.

Encouraged by the treatment of voice, I searched for other Jen Chapin recordings. When her ReVisions: The Songs of Stevie Wonder [Chesky SACD 347] first came out, it didn’t make much of an impression on me, but listening to Open Wide prodded me to give this Chesky recording another chance. With the BorderPatrol DAC SE in the system, I finally got it. Chris Cheek’s huge baritone sax sound on "You Haven’t Done Nothin’" was wickedly funky, and Chapin’s voice hung perfectly between and way behind my speakers. I listened for how well the DAC SE handled the reverberation of the bari sax in the left channel and how it bled into the right channel on the loud honks. It was pure fun, and I wanted to dance around the living room while listening.

As a trumpet player, I’m drawn to well-recorded brass, and here are a few recordings that were reproduced with natural, true tonality. I listen to "The Magnificent Seven" from Erich Kunzel’s Round-Up [Telarc CD-80141] for one particular spot. At 1:34, the trumpet solo should sound distant but with great warmth in the trumpet’s tone. The BorderPatrol DAC SE gave me that brassy glow and body with strong image solidity. I could even hear a bit of buzz from the bell.

Next I cued up Jane Monheit and Nicholas Peyton’s The Songbook Session: Ella Fitzgerald [Emerald City 5638623450]. On "I’ve Got You Under My Skin," Peyton plays the melody with swoops and bends over a synthetic background beat. The BorderPatrol DAC placed him in the room with me, with a perfect blend of brass warmth and breathy, spitty tone. Peyton's performance is no doubt a nod and a wink to Ella Fitzgerald's perfect sense of pitch. I smile every time I hear him play that opening.

The BorderPatrol DAC was very good at portraying the layering of depth and the width of the soundstage. My other DACs either highlight the treble to emphasize space and size or have backgrounds so black that images seem to pop out rather than inhabit a place on the stage. The BorderPatrol DAC SE was different, with better integration of images and their surroundings. "Second Time Around" from Rickie Lee Jones’s Pop Pop [Geffen GEFD-24426] set Steve Kindler’s violin solo back behind Jones's vocal. The BorderPatrol DAC revealed that his solo was recorded by a brighter microphone and in a different acoustic than her voice, but it also let me hear the different resonances in the violin’s body, depending on what strings Kinder was bowing.

I have to admit that initially I was so wrapped up in the instrumental and vocal timbre that I failed to notice how well the soundstage developed with both acoustic and studio recordings. The fact that this relatively inexpensive digital-to-analog converter can produce such musical nuances is pretty amazing.

At the beginning of this review I posed the question, Who will audition and buy this DAC? If you have a large library of 24-bit/192kHz downloads and aren’t willing to downsample them to 24 bits/96kHz, then certainly the DAC SE will not fill your needs. Nor will it natively handle your DSD files without some conversion program like Vox. I do have most of my 2500 CDs ripped to hard drive, and with streaming programs like Apple Music, Spotify, Pandora, or Tidal I have access to over 30 million tracks. The BorderPatrol DAC SE handled all of these files, producing sound that far exceeded its price. Bass was full with ample drive that never got out of control. The soundstage was wide, deep, and seamless with realistic placement of individuals, and the overall sound was vivid and gutsy.

In many respects, the DAC SE is a digital cousin to my Denon DL-103R and Ortofon SPU phono cartridges: all three prove that you don't have to be a gazillionaire to be a discerning audiophile these days. I’m a proud owner of both cartridges, and now of the DAC SE. I encourage you to seek out an audition because you may become an owner of this bargain-priced DAC too.

Price: $1350 or $1850, depending on configuration.
Warranty: Two years parts and labor.

BorderPatrol
11864 Sidd Finch St.
Waldorf, MD 20602
(301) 705 7460
www.borderpatrol.net

Associated Equipment

Analog: J.A. Michell Gyrodec turntable with Orbe platter and bearing; Ortofon TA110 tonearm and cable; Sumiko Blackbird, Denon DL-103R and Yamamoto YC-03S cartridges.

Digital: Korg DA-100 and Neko Audio D100 Mk 2 digital-to-analog converters.

Preamps: Korato KVP-20, McCormack TLC-1.

Amplifiers: Yamamoto Soundcraft A-08, InnerSound ESL.

Speakers: Altec Lansing Valencia, InnerSound Eros.

Cables: BPT IC-SL interconnects; BPT SC-9L speaker cables; BPT C-9 and L-9CST, Yamamoto (came with amp), and Shunyata Venom power cords.

Power distribution: BPT 2.0 and CPT.

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