There are a number of top high-end electronics manufacturers that you can trust to put out an excellent new preamplifier and amplifier even before you audition them. If you have listened to such manufacturers’ products over time, you also find that real improvements in the new series are always there but generally subtle. You also detect that the company’s equipment tends to be consistently “voiced” in ways that prioritize a given mix of sound qualities. The best manufacturers keep this voicing as limited as possible, but it is always there.
Boulder is definitely one of these top manufacturers. I’ve never heard one of its components that wasn’t excellent within its price range. Boulder also does not change product lines quickly or without reason. Even though its earlier models are always good enough to make improvements in the new-generation matters of nuance, those improvements are always significant in long-term listening. The new Boulder 1110 preamplifier and 1160 power amplifier reviewed here are excellent examples. They are products that approach the state of the art in sound quality, even though they are two steps down from Boulder’s top of the line. At $21,000 and $28,000 respectively, the Boulder 1110 and 1160 are scarcely cheap, but Boulder also has the more expensive 2100 series and the cost-no-object 3000 line.
The Challenges of Excellence
As I’ve just noted, the 1100 and 1160 have the general “voicing” I’ve heard in other Boulder products. Both the preamp and amplifier have exceptional detail and transparency, exceptional air and “live” dynamics, tight but powerful and realistic bass, a broad soundstage with excellent width, and depth that is just slightly forward compared to much of the competition.
Having said this, it is here that I come to some of the major challenges in reviewing products this good. There is a tendency to think of “voicing” in terms of coloration. Well, coloration relative to what? There is scarcely one truth in sound quality. This is something that becomes dramatically clear when you listen to the differences in the sonic nuances in live performances by the same orchestra or group playing the same music in different halls or venues, or even change your seating position in the same venue. It is something that becomes even clearer in audiophile terms when you start switching really good amps and preamps in your own system. If the pieces of equipment are good, all will be musically convincing but sound at least somewhat different. In most cases, the sonic nuances from various mixes of really good equipment will be as different as changing seating positions in the same venue. Pontius Pilate is not famous for his role as an audio reviewer, but his question “What is truth?” does apply all too well to making audio judgements about amps and preamps that are really good, broadly neutral, and have subtle sonic nuances.
Reviewing is easier with front ends: Cartridges, phono preamps, and DAC/streamers, and units with any form of digital processing generally have distinctive sonic differences and “voicing” with audible colorations. Speakers always differ significantly in sound quality. Really good preamps and amplifiers like the Boulder 1110 and 1160, however, present two major challenges.
First, while it is true that no two preamps and/or amplifiers sound exactly alike, the colorations of the best preamps and amplifiers are limited. The better the components are, the more they reveal the higher levels of coloration in the musical source material, every other element in your audio system, the effects of your listening room, and the impact of your listening position. Sticking with a consistent reference system over an extended period helps you hear differences in electronics in that system, but no one with a different system in a different position in a different listening room is going to hear those same differences. In other words, one of the ironies of really good preamps and amps is that they help reveal the colorations in the rest of your system.
Second, after decades of observing audiophile, dealer, and reviewer behavior, I’m all too aware that reactions to a really good new preamp and/or amplifier tend to fall into two predictable alternatives. If the listener has a strong preference for one mix of nuances or “voicing” over another, he will praise or criticize depending on whether the units suit his particular taste. If he has more neutral taste in listening to such nuances, he will listen and hear some new aspects of the music—sometimes because the new equipment is actually superior, but sometimes because part of the addictive nature of being an audiophile is constantly listening for such differences. I’ve met more than a few audiophiles who fall in love (often briefly and expensively) with anything new. I suppose this is better than falling in hate with anything different, but...
In short, you need to keep the comments that follow in careful perspective. I think as reviewers we too often fall into one of these two categories, or dodge around how hard it is to choose between the best amps and preamps, the irony being that the better the amp and preamp, the more the colorations of the other aspects of your system will matter.