Boulder has been making amplifiers since 1984, and the model 1060 stereo amplifier, the subject of this review, has been in continuous production since 1999 -- in stark contrast to the upgrade cycle of three to four years that some manufacturers have made part of their business strategy. While the name Boulder comes from the company’s site of operations, in Colorado, I think most folks would assume it reflects their products’ weight -- the 1060 closes in on 140 pounds (with no handles to assist in positioning it . . . ugh!).
The 1060 ($25,000 USD) is a beast of an amp not only in weight, but in dimensions and power. It measures 18”W x 9.5”H x 22.5”D, that depth extending another 8” when the 32A power cord (provided) is installed. The front panel has one button (for power), while the side panels are fashioned as a honeycombed block of machined aluminum for heatsinking. (The review sample rarely got more than warm to the touch.) On the back are the 32A inlet for the aforementioned power cord, two sets of binding posts per channel (T-style nuts are used, for easy tightening; banana plugs are not accommodated), and a pair of balanced inputs; as the 1060 is fully balanced, only XLR cables are to be used. The flat gray metalwork is stylish in a timeless, understated way.
The specifications state that the 1060 outputs 300Wpc into 8 ohms, doubling down to 1200W peak into 2 ohms; any amp that doubles its wattage as the impedance is halved is what most folks would consider a “current monster,” with the ability to handle any dynamic peaks thrown its way. So if cannon fire is your thing, the 1060 has you covered. The 1060 is biased in class-AB, and can pull as much as 3000W from the wall; while the review sample never ran hot in my room (we do usually listen to only that first watt, folks), it needed about four hours’ warm-up to reach its sonic best. From a cold start, it sounded a bit congested, with little finesse -- but those things were corrected in due time.
The build quality, inside and out, was exceptional. Joints are secured with no readily visible screws, and the entire chassis had the feel of a solid block rather than an assembly; there was no flex. Besides having an internal layout that uses less wire (aka “little EMI/RFI antennas,” which raise a system’s noise floor) than any other product I’ve seen, the 1060’s dual transformers are both potted and shielded, for purposes of reducing resonances and noise. That the 1060 generates as little noise of its own as possible is reflected in its claimed signal/noise ratio: 127dB at rated power.
The owner’s manual is exceptionally detailed. Several pages describe fault conditions that the 1060 will handle with aplomb, protecting your speakers by shutting down until the condition is removed. Two different fault conditions occurred during the 1060’s stay here, and the Boulder kept my precious Rockport Technologies speakers well protected. The first was when I dropped an object that scored a direct hit on my DIY power conditioner, and damn if the IEC receptacle inside didn’t shatter -- though I didn’t know that at the time. All I knew was that my rig was playing, and then it wasn’t. It took some diagnostic work to discover the shattered IEC; having replaced it, I plugged my gear back in. Still, nothing worked. That’s when I found out that the circuit breaker had been tripped when the IEC shattered. In the second case, a buddy brought over a hot new DIY power cord, but failed to fully tighten the lugs in the IEC plug, which led to a dead short.
In both instances, the Boulder shut down its output instantaneously to protect my speakers, exactly as the manual implied would happen. I’d never before seen that kind of robust fault protection in an amp, and it’s comforting to have that kind of confidence in a product; other amps actually fried some drivers in my old speakers, when a transformer in my preamp shorted. That painfully expensive experience wouldn’t be repeated with the Boulder in circuit.
That’s all part of the Boulder package. Their products are built to last, and to make sure your speakers last, too.
But what good is all that if it sounds like cowbells?
After the requisite warm-up time, I threw in a CD that I know extremely well: David Bowie’s Hunky Dory (Virgin 521899), which I listened to in its entirety -- always a good sign. Listening to the get-down’n’dirty rock’n’roll of “Queen Bitch,” I was struck by how the band’s timing seemed to improve; with that, the song had a more relentless quality than I remembered. The Spiders from Mars were a great backing band (David, why did you ever can them?) when playing pure rock’n’roll (which “Queen Bitch” most certainly is), and the Boulder let me follow the band’s attack, pace, and rhythm better than I ever had. It was as if the initial moments of attack were better defined, with a tempo that always pushed forward, while at the same time never shortchanging the full decay of the note just played.
While I’ve found few tube amps with the guts to provide reference-level pace, rhythm, and timing (PRAT), the solid-state amps I’ve heard that do so may also falsely “etch” leading edges, or give the critical midrange frequencies a tonal coolness. The Boulder 1060 proved itself fully competent in these regards, committing none of the sins common among megawatt solid-state amps. When the piano enters in “Time Is the Diamond,” from Low’s Trust (CD, Kranky Krank052), it’s clearly recorded a bit too hot; if the voicing of an amp or any other component in the signal chain is off kilter, the piano will sound piercing and have you reaching for the volume control. The Boulder rendered the piano with appropriate attack and aggression, but no more. I found that with appropriate system matching, women’s voices were rendered with evenhandedness by the Boulder, sounding natural and complete. Listening to “Good Grief,” from Nedelle’s From the Lion’s Mouth (CD, Kill Rock Stars 5965 60424 2), I was greatly impressed by how the 1060 was able to track the singer’s occasional forays beyond her usual range, illuminating the strain in her voice at those times. However, Nedelle never sounded flat or overextended (particularly in the upper midrange), as if she were pushing past her voice’s limits, which an error in the signal path would do -- then, her voice would sound unnatural and peaky, without the true-to-life tone of a naturally reproduced female voice. The Boulder simply never made such errors in the midrange.
Another way the Boulder proved itself exceptional was in its ability to unravel the performance while never losing track of the whole, or compressing and sounding confused when I pushed the volume level; such are the benefits of an amp with prodigious current reserves. With complex and dynamic material such as “Battle,” from the Gladiator soundtrack (CD, Decca 289 467 094 2), the Boulder was able to maintain total control throughout, keeping the soundstage well defined and fully expanded during explosive dynamics; a lesser amp might get confused, collapse the stage, and be limited in its ability to instantaneously scale as high in volume as such a recording’s dynamic envelope requires. But that’s what a solid-state beast like the Boulder will do for an audio system: provide rock-solid stability regardless of volume level, while swinging with aplomb from whisper to explosion.
However, while other beast-amps can match the Boulder 1060 in dynamic swings and stability, scant few solid-state amplifiers can render the top octaves with as much purity and clarity. When listening to the piano at the end of “Marx and Engels,” from Belle & Sebastian’s Push Barman to Open Old Wounds (CD, Matador OLE 649 2), I was struck by how much the piano reminded me of a clear pool of water -- a sensation identical to one I’d had at a recent orchestral concert, where the piano soloist played an unaccompanied encore of some achingly beautiful music. In both instances, the piano had no vestige of electronic haze, no raggedness accompanying the decay of each note, and no predominance of whitish coloration in the upper registers; instead, the sound was as clear as pure water. However, there was one big difference: the first time I felt that sensation was in a concert hall; the second time, I was at home, listening to my stereo. When an audio system can emotionally return you to the concert hall, it’s doing something very right. The Boulder did that.
One other area where the Boulder proved itself exceptional was in its reference-level retrieval of detail. With the exceptional signal/noise ratio that Boulder claims for the 1060, I expected the amp to be a detail champ. It didn’t disappoint. Listening to the banter among band members just before the beginning of “The Curtain With,” from Phish’s Colorado 88 (Jemp 1001), I was struck by how the Boulder revealed some of the conversation and comedy among the bandmates off-mike. Hearing such small things you’ve never heard before in tracks you’re familiar with, while not the most important aspect of the audiophile experience, is very much a part of it, and track after track, disc after disc, that’s what I experienced with the Boulder 1060. Specifications matter; the Boulder, with its 127dB signal/noise ratio, dug deep to retrieve all the info available in the music.
In further testament to the 1060’s resolution capabilities, I found that swappings-out of ancillary upstream components -- power cords, isolation footers, power-conditioning tweaks -- were clearly audible through the Boulder. Changing the power cord of my Audio Research Reference 3 preamplifier produced far less congestion in the midrange and more space between performers with “Billy Liar,” from the Decemberists’ We All Raise Our Voices to the Air: Live Songs 04.11.08 (CD, Capitol 31803-2).
The Boulder 1060 is a fantastic component to build a reference system around. An amp so responsive to changes elsewhere in the signal path allows its owner to tailor the system’s sound to his or her liking, via careful selection of upstream components, cables, and tweaks. With the Boulder, I found the differences between various preamps and CD players to be profound -- but just as audible and as important to overall system balancing were the differences among the cables and tweaks I used. Three different preamps gave me three very different sounds at the listening chair. The Boulder is not voiced to offset another component’s voicing; it’s designed to amplify whatever that other component’s voicing may be. All of this makes careful system matching all the more important; the responsibility falls on the owner to carefully select the source components, cables, and tweaks that will produce the voicing you want your speakers to present. In short, it’s not necessary to select upstream components with characteristics that offset and counteract any weaknesses of the Boulder 1060.
Does that mean that the Boulder has no weaknesses? Not quite -- but unless your upstream gear is nigh-on flawless, you’ll simply be hearing your other gear’s shortcomings and strengths. The Boulder is highly flexible in allowing the owner to customize his or her system’s sound to taste.
But every component has flaws. What nits do I have to pick with the Boulder (aside from its considerable price)? Though the 1060 is claimed to output up to 1200Wpc into 2 ohms, I felt there could have been a bit more overall thrust and explosiveness -- though I suspect that’s what Boulder’s monoblocks are for. Despite the fact that I never sensed any lack of power or dynamic envelope, the midbass and down were more of a period than an exclamation point; so if you’re interested in an amp whose raison d’être is bending the floor joists, you can likely find that elsewhere. When I listened to “Moby Dick,” from Led Zeppelin’s How the West Was Won (CD, Atlantic 83587-2), the Boulder was always fully in control, but never seemed to have the pin-me-in-my-chair force that I’ve heard from some other solid-state amps with this track. Also, relative to what’s possible, the 1060 was missing a bit of dimensionality -- the space between and around performers. With “My Old Timey Baby,” from Dan Hicks & His Hot Licks’ The Most of Dan Hicks & His Hot Licks (CD, Epic EK 65481), the Boulder was able to fully carve out a well-defined soundstage of exceptional width and depth, but didn’t present performers as holographic images in the way the best amps can. I’ve found that dimensionality is something that simple signal paths do better than complex paths, and the Boulder, with all those transistors (56) and gain stages, lacks a simple signal path. I once owned a Wavac 572 single-ended-triode amp; its single output tube was able to deliver a deep space between and behind performers that I’ve not heard equaled by any solid-state amp.
Similarly, no one will confuse a SET amp with the 1060’s completeness of midrange tone. Listening to “I Hear You Say So,” from the Innocence Mission’s Glow (CD, A&M 0332 2), or Nedelle’s “Good Grief,” I found that achieving a natural tone for the female singer and the accompanying acoustic guitars was really a function of optimizing the rest of the signal path: namely, I had to use a tube preamp. There was no glow from within (a common tube characteristic) with the Boulder, which was so overwhelming that it was always there, regardless of ancillary gear. That’s not to say the 1060 couldn’t pass these things on if the rest of my gear could -- it did. The Boulder 1060 didn’t enhance or provide; instead, it passed along to me what it itself had been presented with, augmenting nothing along the way. Similarly, it committed no serious or even minor errors of any sort that will keep it from rendering a wholly musical experience in the best systems. The Boulder did nothing to excite, nor did it do anything to annoy or tire, after the newness had worn off.
All of my gripes are about very small things; it would be a disservice to you if I amplified the Boulder 1060’s shortcomings. In these criticisms of one of the finest audio components I’ve ever heard, I am splitting hairs.
The great thing about beast-like solid-state amps is the sense of total control and ease they provide. Imagine running a 100-meter race with Usain Bolt -- he’ll loaf his way to a several-meter lead and win. The Boulder 1060’s sense of ease in playback was like that: no matter the volume setting, it never got flustered or confused, its sound never hardened or compressed, and it never failed to reproduce music with rock-solid stability.
Dynamics are the one area where a home system will always fail to reproduce the live experience; the smallest drum kit is bigger than the largest home stereo. It takes real power and control to approach real-life effortlessness in the playback of music in the home. While tube aficionados will always prefer that sound, I’ve never heard tubes control speakers as well as solid-state does. However, solid-state typically comes with tradeoffs: a hardened upper midrange and treble, a lack of dimensionality, or a tonal flatness. The Boulder 1060 didn’t come with those flaws, but neither does it provide the goodies that tubes provide. That was the thing about the Boulder 1060 -- it did nothing but amplify the signal and control the speakers.
This is a component for mature listeners who are getting to the finish line and aren’t trying to use their amps to re-edit the signal. Built to last a lifetime, and with a mix of capabilities to match, the Boulder 1060 is an easy component to recommend for listeners looking for their final power amplifier.
. . . Ryan Coleman
- Preamplifiers -- Audio Research Reference 3, Herron Audio VTSP-3A
- Amplifiers -- Edge Audio 12.1 Signature, McIntosh MC501 monoblocks
- Loudspeakers -- Avalon Time, Rockport Technologies Merak / Sheritan II
- Sources -- Esoteric Audio K-01 disc player; Esoteric P-02 transport and D-02 DAC; Sony XA-5400ES Signature CD player with ModWright Truth modification
- Interconnects -- TG Audio
- Speaker cables -- AudioQuest Redwood
- Power cables -- TG Audio
- Power treatment -- TG Audio passive conditioner, Maestro and Oyaide R1 outlets, WPZ wall plate
Boulder Amplifiers 1060 Stereo Amplifier
Price: $25,000 USD.
Warranty: Five years parts and labor.
Boulder Amplifiers, Inc.
3235 Prairie Avenue
Boulder, CO 80301
Phone: (303) 449-8220