A kinder, gentler sound for digital audio

Old tech lends a new sound to the BorderPatrol Digital to Analogue Converter.

The BorderPatrol Digital to Analogue Converter's lovely sound may not be accurate, but that's why I like it. As you can see from the picture, there's a vacuum tube lurking in there, but the tube doesn't amplify the signal -- it's used in the BorderPatrol's power supply. Most of the BorderPatrol's chassis is made of copper, which you rarely see in components in this one's price class.

The BorderPatrol converter

Steve Guttenberg/CNET

The converter is compact, just 9 by 7 by 3 inches (226 by 173 by 78mm) and weighing in at 6 pounds (3kg), it feels robustly built. The BorderPatrol's Phillips digital converter chip is an old-fashioned, non-oversampling design, and it along with the power supply are responsible for creating a sound that stands apart from most competing converters. All BorderPatrol products, which include a line of tube preamps and power amplifiers are hand-crafted in Waldorf, Maryland, and each one is listened to and tested by the designer, Gary Dews.

My review sample had a USB digital input so I played iTunes and streamed music from Tidal on my Mac mini computer. Right away I knew the BorderPatrol wasn't just another digital converter; there was more life, more body and soul to the sound of files. Treble detail and clarity was a little soft, but the sound really pulled me in. So much so that I stopped evaluating and got lost in the music -- that's always a good sign. I had to force myself to take notes as I listened!

The company doesn't claim the converter is anything more than a 16-bit/44.1kHz standard-resolution digital audio component, but the BorderPatrol played Tidal's "Master" 24-bit/96kHz high-res files, albeit down-converted to standard resolution. I listened on my desktop first with a Schiit Jotunheim headphone amplifier (review to come), and a variety of headphones including Audeze Sine and Sony MDR Z1R headphones; then later in my main system with TAD ME-1 speakers.

In some ways, the BorderPatrol struck me as the ideal converter for audiophiles who complain about the sound of digital audio, and prefer listening to LPs. I'm not about to say the BorderPatrol makes digital audio sound like analog, but it gets you some of the way there.  

The BorderPatrol converter has a single tube used in its power supply.

BorderPatrol

With jazz guitarists Jim Hall & Pat Metheny's eponymous album, the sound was undoubtedly more vivid when I switched over to a Mytek Brooklyn converter. Bass also firmed up, and the soundstage was more finely focused. Ah, but Beck's lushly orchestrated "Sea Change" album had a richer tonal balance, and the soundstage was deeper with the BorderPatrol in play. Vocals were more lifelike, while returning to the Brooklyn the sound was clearer and more detailed, and I could hear more of the reverberation in the recording.

The BorderPatrol was changing the tonal balance, softening transients, sweetening the overall sound, but that's sometimes a good thing. For instance, when I played the Rolling Stones' horribly compressed and harsh 2016 album, "Blue & Lonesome," I really enjoyed the music. That wasn't possible with the Brooklyn converter -- the music's grit and glare came roaring back. Ah, but a great recording like Kraftwerk's "Minimum- Maximum" live album on the BorderPatrol was a marvel. The BorderPatrol makes music -- even electronic music -- come alive.

Once I stopped comparing and just listened, I fell in love with the sound. BorderPatrol has a musicality that you just don't get from everyday digital gear. Then again, for listeners craving the utmost resolution of fine detail, I'd recommend the Schiit Bifrost Multibit or the Mytek Brooklyn converters.

The single USB or coaxial input BorderPatrol sells for $995, £721 and AU$1,330, and if you want both -- USB and coaxial digital inputs -- the price jumps to $1,495, £1,159 and AU$1,998. The BorderPatrol SE converter looks the same, but features an upgraded power supply and other tweaks for $1,350, £1,046 and AU$1,804 with the single input; and $1,850, £1,434 and AU$2,472 for the two-input version. I reviewed the $995 USB BorderPatrol.

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