Boulder. Lots of things happen in Boulder. Colorado has a great year-round climate, a friendly business atmosphere (for now), an educated workforce (for now) in short, all the ingredients necessary to support a healthy business environment. Not surprisingly then, you come to find a good amount of HiFi, nay, high-end audio firms nestled in America’s “Alps”. Ever heard of PS Audio? YG? Jeff Rowland? Ayre? Avalon? Indeed, the common thread being that all of these established businesses have had a multi-decade run from Colorado.
Oh right, I almost forgot, Boulder, who’s pre and power amplifier are in for review, is also part of this illustrious King’s circle. The origin story of Boulder is really not too dissimilar from most other high-end houses: Jeff Nelson, building custom boards for recording studios and responsible for broadcast studio’s significant upgrade to previous cartridge machines, felt that existing amplifiers simply weren’t up to his admittedly very high standards of sound quality. His first commercial amplifier, the Boulder 500, quickly rose from zero to hero within the industry and found many a home in recording studios; so transparent, accurate and of genuine high-fidelity was the 500 that soon after, audiophiles began to place orders for an upgraded 500 AE (Audiophile Edition). The rest, as they say, is history.
Today, Boulder can be considered among the handful – literally – of bespoke audio manufacturers that design, produce and build all of their components from start to finish in their new Boulder facility. A visit to their factory in August proved eye and ear opening, as the level of vertical integration and sheer perfection of all manufacturing steps reminded me more of a super high-end chip house than a high-end audio company. Indeed, you will find only the best of tools, machines and most importantly, people at Boulder; Frankly, there really aren’t that many companies that match Boulder at their game. Needless to say, Jeff Nelson built a team that works tirelessly to produce and market the best electronics they can. When Rich Maez and Steve Huntley, Boulder’s worldwide sales and marketing team, offered up review of the 1100 series pre and power amplifier, I promptly accepted; frankly, the prospect of reviewing these top-flight components that I was largely unfamiliar with, wasn’t something I could ignore.
A few email exchanges and a busy fall show schedule later, the pre and power amp arrived at chez K for some proper auditioning. Two steps down from their range topping 3000 series, the 1100 preamplifier and 1160 amplifier clocking in at $21,000 and $28,000 respectively, are certainly, unmistakably Boulder components. From the absolutely superb chassis work, to the quality of the connectors (balanced only), the fit and finish is truly first rate and definitely worthy the asking price tag. Though not über expensive by today’s high-end audio pricing scale standards, $50k total is still a considerable amount of money to spend on high-end audio gear, no matter your persuasion.
Eager to get acquainted with the “Boulder sound”, I first inserted the Boulder combo as replacements for the Einstein The Preamp and Einstein’s The Silver Bullet Mk II OTL amplifiers. The swap was straight forward as both Einstein combos also run via balanced connectors. Given Boulders perfectionist standards, the major difference on the amplifier side was the inclusion of a special, industrial type AC connector said to be fully compatible with 240V AC lines, though of course, 120V lines also work. Rated at 300W continuous into 8 Ohms (and doubling power all the way down to 2 Ohms), my expectations where admittedly very high.
Contrary to the straight forward and simple operation of the 1160 power amplifier, the 1100 preamplifier was an altogether different beast from Boulder. Certainly, when compared to my all analog Einstein The Preamp, the 1100 offers up a far broader spectrum of capabilities and is in fact an altogether more modern, capable and timely “control” center for all your sources. Simple and straight forward in its UI and UX, it offers 5 fully programmable differentially balanced inputs and each of the channels are in fact dual mono construction, housed in a single chassis which compliments the 1160 amplifier in look and feel. Furthermore, a built in ARM chip (with upgradeable software, think iPhone SW updates) handles all of the preamplifier’s functions and housekeeping duties for trouble free operation. A large display clearly indicates the functions engaged and is easily readable from across the room. Underneath the display are 8 gloss polished control buttons used to switch inputs and perform other operations on the 1100.
A continuously rotating, large and nicely balanced volume control rounds out the front plate. Incidentally, the 1100’s volume control is all analog and derived from the flagship 3010 preamplifier. Given the preamplifier’s built in network capabilities and ARM based operations, I wouldn’t be surprised if somewhere along the line an iOS app becomes available that can act as the systems main setup and control app, straight from your iPhone or iPad. Time will tell, though it would certainly mate well with the overall modern look and feel of this preamplifier. Friends visiting chez K’s audio salon frequently inquire about the overall lack of precisely such integration; hopefully Boulder ceases this opportunity to become a class leader in this regard.
As usual, my reference source components included the Kuzma XL DC, Technics SL1000R and Oswald Mills Thorens 124 for analog; a Telefunken M15 tape machine, Playback Design’s all new MPS-8 and Einstein The Last Record Player CD acted as additional digital and analog sources. This system, leashed via Nordost’s Valhalla V2 drove Wilson Audio’s Alexx loudspeakers.
Straight and to the point, this system rocked with explosive, relentless dynamics, an open and very wide soundstage whilst sparkling, never too aggressive highs and treble. So fine was this system’s resolving power that a listening comparison of Reference Recording’s RR-25 45rpm half speed mastered, newly re-released title, Nojima Plays Liszt, clearly didn’t have my mint original recording’s treble resolution and overall presence. Quite simply, even though the new vinyl is produced superior in every technical way possible, it cannot reach the original’s naturalness of the piano in attack, sustain and decay. In direct comparison, the reissue, sounds slightly veiled, not quite as incisive and overall missing that top end extension of the original. Even though I have run this side-by-side comparison on several systems, only a very select few have the ability to so clearly show the difference, and Boulder is decisively amongst them.
On Connect.Ohm 9980, an ambient electronic downtempo release from a few years ago, the album’s first cut, Evolution 1:1, offers up a bass line that is likely felt more than its heard. Truly subterranean in output, it’s become a favorite demo track of mine which can quite easily showcase a system’s dynamic capabilities and overall bass output. Compared to the lush and quite generous output I am used to with Einstein’s The Silver Bullet OTLs, the Boulder 1160 frankly plays bass in a league altogether higher. Then again, not surprising as undoubtedly the 56 transistors the 1160 packs offer up output that is powerful, plentiful and at times virtually limitless. No matter the volume, the Boulder combo never broke a sweat, producing nothing but clean, tight, bass, a midrange that’s spot on neutral, with a lifelike presence and natural quality.
As best I tried, no matter which musical genre I played, I couldn’t detect a “signature” Boulder sound; put succinctly, this combo is about as neutral as it gets. Good recordings sounded good; great recordings sounded great; crappy recordings sounded, well, crappy. Therein lies the audiophile’s conundrum: be careful what you wish for. A fundamentally neutral sounding combination like the Boulder duo will give you exactly what’s on the recording, not more, not less. Your only choice to tune the sound more or less to your liking is to play with cables, different analog decks and cartridge combos, that’s about it. The preamplifier and power amplifier do what they ought to in first place: get out of the sound.
Remember the old saying “straight wire with gain”? It seems that Boulder is closer to that “truth” than others. There’s nothing like taking the same record from deck to deck to hear the fundamental differences of each. The elements which make that possible and so easily identifiable are the Boulder 1100 and 1160 combo. Straight shooters, definitely an end game sort of setup. A+++
PS: What’s next? The all new Boulder 508 phono stage just arrived for an audition – more to come then, soon.
Manufacturer: Boulder Amplifiers
1110 Stereo Preamplifier ($21,000)
Owners Manual: PDF (4.1 MB)
Literature: PDF (2.8 MB)
Dimensions: PDF (168 KB)
1160 Stereo Power Amplifier ($28,000)
Owners Manual: PDF (2.3 MB)
Connector Explanation: PDF (1.3 MB)
Dimensions: PDF (242 KB)
Rear Panel Dimensions: PDF (263 KB)