Review of BorderPatrol SE-i DAC

MyAudioPhrenia gives the BorderPatrol SE-i DAC the highest praise and the first 5-Ear award

Some bytes are better than others…

Or what is old can be new again

Bear with me and come back in time to a steamy Mid Atlantic  weekend in July 2010 when Gary Gill took a chance and put on the first Capital Audiofest 2010. This first year was a small event in the Glenview Mansion in Rockville, Maryland, maybe 10 to 15 rooms. Remembering the big Hi-Fi shows at the Shoreham and Washingtonian Hotels when I was a kid, where my father sold LP’s by the thousands, I had no idea what to expect. I drove down from Baltimore on a Saturday morning for a look-see. It must have been 100 degrees by 10 am when I got there. This big house was filled to rafters with people and stereo gear. I remember Jim Salk was showing off some beautiful speakers sporting the new (at that time) Raal ribbons. I wondered around for a few hours and made it up to the second floor and into one of the smaller rooms off to the side. There was this tall fella(later known as a bloke) running the room. I remember he was standing back and letting the music speak for itself.  I did finally with a little effort find out this was Gary Dews of BorderPatrol, recently transplanted from England to the DC area. I don’t remember much about the equipment in the room, but the sound was something I will never forget. It produced the most open, non-Hi-Fi sounding music I have ever heard from a system. I moved on to explore the rest of the rooms. Soon I came back to the BorderPatrol room for another listen just to make sure I was not just caught up in the little kid excitement I was experiencing. A different track was playing but it still sounded glorious.

With heat rash ointment applied in all the appropriate places, I went back on Sunday for a second round of listening. I started on the first floor but after hearing nothing but the usual Hi-Fi sound I quickly went back up to the BorderPatrol room. It was like new ears had magically formed on my head as I walked into the room. There it was, that open, fresh, and alive sound. I just knew that there was something special going on here. Many years later I found out that Gary Dews bet the mortgage to be a vendor at this first CAF. Out of this gamble, Gary got a trio of very good long-standing clients that allowed BorderPatrol to develope a following here on this side of the pond. Since then I have heard the BorderPatrol amps and preamps at many of the shows and in a few homes. The sound is so pure, open, and fresh. The power to both drive the low notes and to bring out the air in the recording is unique to BP’s products.

BorderPatrol is unusual in this flavor-of-the-month, upgrade merry-go-round, Stereo trade-up world. Gary takes a long time to design and build gear. Many prototypes are built and carefully listened to. Changes to the sound by changing a tube-type, capacitor, circuit, or power supply etc are analyzed over many hours of listening. BorderPatrol amps and power supplies have not changed over the years simply because there is no need. They sound like the way music is supposed to sound. Gary will not compromise his house sound for the sake of economy or marketing. He is just not built that way.

Now we come to the BP DAC. The same BorderPatrol design regimen went into this small product. Like all of BorderPatrol designs, a tremendous effort went into the power supply. You have to have clean and robust power. The DAC chip is fed from a very sophisticated choke input, and tube rectified power supply.

With the decision to build a DAC; the choice of the chip became a long journey that led Gary to an R2R DAC chip with no oversampling and no digital filtering. This produces the most natural, ‘un-digital’ sounding DACs. This little box with a painted pure copper chassis (because it sounds better!) with no digital display or digital volume control is pure magic. Nothing to cause noise or distract from the sound quality.

This DAC has been very successful for BorderPatrol and sales are still strong. The SE-i has been reviewed many times, all except one state the same thing; “This is the most musical Digital to Analog converter for CDs out there”, or “This is the most analog/musical sounding DAC out there”. Spoiler alert, I am going to say the same thing. If you have a large collection of CDs or ripped files(and PCM up to 176.4 kHz) as I do then this is the DAC for you.

As I am writing this I am listening to my favorite Jazz feed. ABC Jazz from Australia. Even with this low-res stream, the sound is without effort. There is space between the notes, It breaths naturally. There are no digital edges.

I have listened to many DACs in my system. Many well-known favorites and with every one of them, you always know you are listening to a digital source. I can not say this too many times. The BorderPatrol SE-i simply does not sound digital.

On my digital side, I have a large collection of RedBook CD’s ripped to a 20 Terabyte NAS(Network Storage). This feeds one of two music servers. The BorderPatrol SE-I handles the CD files and PCM up to 176.4 kHz files with no problem. I also have a CD transport which is why I acquired the DAC with switchable USB and SPDIF. There are times when you just want to pop in a CD.

I am waiting for the Innuous Zenith (to be reviewed next) music server to replace the Raspberry Pi and Windows 10/JRiver servers. The SE-i easily is recognized by both. One can easily hear the difference between the two servers. Both are very good but they are different, as the difference between table salt and French sea salt.

Listening to the BorderPatrol SE-i DAC

The system for this review starts with the previously mentioned two digital sources, feeding the BorderPatrol SE-i DAC. Next, the superb LTA MicroZOTL preamp supplying the low-level signal to the EleKit TU-8800 KT88 SET amp. The sound train ends with the Spatial Audio Sapphire M3’s. All reviewed here……

The first five tracks are all CD (RedBook) ripped files using Exact Audio Copy software.

Blade Runner 25th Anniversary re-release. Music by Vangelis. This music is full of layers of electronic music with snippets of voice at various levels and depths. With the SE-i DAC, all these levels and layers are very distinctive. The forward edges of the notes are as smooth as a rose petal. This is the first time listening to this music since watching the movie and all those incredible images just came rolling back with the clarity of what I was hearing. 

Even with the slight forwardness of the Spatial M3’s the front wall of my listening room disappeared to infinity. The sheer weight of this movie certainly comes through Vangelis’ music.  It certainly comes together in the “Blade Runner (End Titles)” track. The swelling bass and the driving rhythms bring the point home. With this DAC there was never a hard edge anywhere which can be so prevalent with an oversampling chip.

Burt Bacharach’s Casino Royal is a rough recording probably suffering from early digital conversion but Dusty Springfield’s rendition of the “The Look of Love” is spectacular. Imaging width and depth much bigger than my sound room an Dusty’s voice is so real that I had to check and make sure I was really in my sound room. The presence of the sax is
simply amazing.

Henry Saint Clair Fredericks (Taj Mahal), Blue Light Boogie practically forces you to delve into the textures of Taj’s voice. With ”Honky Tonk Women” and title cut “Blue Light Boogie” you cannot sit still. Talking about getting into the music. Blues to its supreme. Taj rattles the bones like nobody else.

Back in 2004, we had a small and fledgling Audio Club here in Baltimore. We developed a set of tracks burned onto a CD and each member received a copy. As we visited each other’s homes we could listen to the same tracks to get a sense of each system. I still use this set of tracks simply because I have heard them so many times.

Woman of the world Celtic ll “Raindance” sung by Annie Grace & Lynn Morrison is one of these tracks. It has a lot of low-level detail, tremendous bass, and a young women’s voice that can get shrilly very fast on the crescendos. The BP SE-i had it all except the shrills. This was the best playback of this track to my memory.

I decided to stretch my musical experience by playing an album by the Ensemble InterContemporian. This music by Iannis Xenakis, a French-Greek composer born in 1922. Two pieces “Phelga” and “Jalons” were at first very hard to listen to. It was way outside my comfort zone for the first listen. Bit I went back and listened again. I was drawn in completely, mostly for the clarity and insight into the sound of the instruments. The composer and the artists were stretching the limits of the instruments. It was as if I was hearing a cello, trombone, or just a tambourine for the first time. The BP SE-i allowed digging very deep into the essence of this music.

Next four titles are 24-bit bit files from various sources

Steely Dan’s Aja is an album most are familiar with and all agree is well recorded. I have all three formats and the LP. I started with “Black Cow” and title cut “Aja”. The CD is great but the 88.2kHz is much better. Everything is more there. Then you progress to the 96kHz it opens even more. This took me by surprise. I then did what I exactly said I would never do (who said “never say never”). I had to pull out the LP.  Now I m not going into describing my analog system but I have to say the 96kHz file through the SE-i was so very close to the analog that if I just walked into the room I would e hard press to say which sounded better.

A DVDA ripped disk to 96kHz from Ziroq. “Ziroq’s musical style is a heady mixture of rock and flamenco with influences from India, Morocco, and Latin America, it’s a fusion of polished guitar and atmospheric multi-cultural themes, all underpinned with a wide variety of foot-tapping rhythms.” Quoted from Stuart M. Robinson of HiFiDelity review. This is a great diversion from my usual listening palette, and a great find that was buried in my database. Again, the SE-i handled this complex musical production with ease.

I have a Tidal 96kHz download to check out. Tony Bennett and Diana Krall’s Love is Here to Stay. Yes, it’s a bit gooey sweet, but it is music from The Great American Songbook and for an old fart like me I feel this was produced just for me. This download over the SE-i had me listening, toe-tapping the whole album. The voices just floated in the space in front of me. My system just disappeared and I was transported into the time and space continuum

I found a Reference Recording at 176.4kHz that just had me spellbound. Doug Macleod, There is a Time.  From the RR catalog… ‘Prof.’ Keith Johnson’s first blues recording! 13 new MacLeod originals highlight this richly detailed recording, done at Skywalker Sound in Marin County, CA. by our Grammy® winning engineer.

Also featuring Doug’s longtime bassist Denny Croy and Jimi Bott, one of the most recorded, awarded and respected blues drummers in the world. Doug says: “Making this album was different than any other one I’ve done in the past,” recalls MacLeod about the sessions. “They put Jimi, Denny, and me on this huge soundstage at Skywalker Sound in Marin County and we sat around in a circle where we could see each other. We played live, no overdubs, just three guys playing some music together.”

This is a fabulous recording. This is so real it is scary. Kudos to RR but the SE-i just brings it all right there in front of me. Just another time warp journey to the studio where this we recorded and I shape-shifted into the mike stand in front of Doug.  Every track is incredible but “The Night of the Devil’s Road” had me looking for a winter coat.

 

So I now have joined the club of the BorderPatrol SE-i DAC lovers. This 9 ¼-inch by 7-inch deep by 3-inch high chassis is just about as simple as a DAC can be. For Redbook CDs and PCM up to 176.4 kHz files, this is the DAC to have. Why would you buy such a DAC? BECAUSE IT SOUNDS SO GOOD! Just a blue-lit switch on the front panel that allows you to turn on or off the tube rectifier. There is a main power switch on the back. Gary suggests leaving the unit on 24/7 and only turn on the tube rectifier while listening. The tube is very visible through the top of the chassis and it’s easy to tell whether which state it is in. On the back, there is a pair of RCA outputs, a small switch to choose either of the USB or SPDIF inputs, and mains IEC connector with the fuse. No power cord or USB cable is provided. Gary believes every audiophile has a box of standard cords in a box at the bottom of a closet. BorderPatrol has a fourteen-day return policy. The BorderPatrol SE-i DAC comes highly recommended and it gets my first five ear award.