Boulder 1110 Preamplifier
Like the 1160 power amplifier, the 1110 preamp is a classic case of “form follows function” design. Its appearance includes clean and lightly sculptured metal work, minimal front panel controls, and a clean and highly readable front panel display. For all its technical advances, the Boulder 1110 is also very straightforward in function. It only has XLR inputs and outputs, and basic control features on the front panel and remote. (The 1110’s manual remote is a small attractive unit with input, volume, balance, and polarity controls.)
This apparent simplicity, however, is more than a bit misleading. The Boulder 1110 is one product where you really should pay attention to that famous secret Masonic acronym “RTFM” (“read the effing manual”). This mystery will show you how the back panel allows you to link the 1160 to the Internet for automatic diagnostics, updating, and remote control. Reading through the “M,” which is available on Boulder’s website, also gives you instructions for connecting to an unbalanced component and using “option” and “component” commands that can assign a name to each input, trim the gain by input (so all inputs have the same level), experiment with polarity, and alter the range of the volume, balance, and mute controls.
This ability to tailor the 1110 to your own system is a real strength, but does require use of the manual. If this sounds too complex or challenging, consult any relative or neighbor under 15 years of age.
As for the 1110’s inner design features and circuitry, I asked Rich Maez of Boulder to summarize the design advances in the Boulder 1110, and he provided the following overview: “Sonically, we wanted to do the same things we had done with the 3000 series and 2100 series revisions. Resolution, clarity, and dynamic and transient speed were much better in those new products, and we wanted to bring these improvements to the new 1000-level pieces. Circuit and layout changes were based on those other series, and we were able to actually go beyond what we expected. One thing we didn’t anticipate: the size of the soundstage was much, much larger than with the previous generation.
“We did not want to introduce a certain ‘type’ of sound. We go out of our way not to build gear that has any kind of sonic character to it, if we can help it, so we wanted to simply remove any artifacts that we could find and leave the music alone. Recordings all have their own personalities, good, bad, ugly—that’s part of the recording world. If we remove our colorations, bad or ugly recordings will still sound bad or ugly because that’s what they are. Introducing colorations or artifacts that pretty them up or blur their ugliness simply means that everything you listen to with that piece of gear, even good recordings, will have that same character to it and sound the same to some extent. We didn’t want to do this because in our view it’s not our job to determine what your music sounds like, but rather to let you hear this for yourself.”
As for sound quality, Rich Maez’s comments may explain why I emphasized the word “voicing” over “neutrality” at the start of this review. I said earlier that the Boulder 1110 preamp and 1160 power amplifier have exceptional detail and transparency, exceptional air and “live” dynamics, tight but powerful and lifelike bass, and a broad soundstage with equally excellent width and depth. These words were not chosen casually in regard to either unit. Both preamp and amp produce an exceptionally open and detailed sound, and not by emphasizing the upper midrange or treble. You hear detail in the lower midrange and upper bass as well, and there is no hardening of the presentation—which is often the case in units that initially seem to have lots of detail but later prove to have too much upper-octave energy.
Transients and dynamics are also exceptionally revealing, and imaging is as well defined and natural in size and depth as the recording permits. It is the power, definition, and control provided by the 1160 power amp that does most to keep even truly high-level dynamics and transients so well defined—both in massive orchestral works and really demanding electronic music and rock—but the 1110 preamplifier is also a key enabler, and its resolution of really low-level information and dynamics is a pleasure to hear. It also provides an exceptional sense of musical life and reveals the character of the venue on good, natural, live stereo recordings. This combination of features may help explain why the soundstage manages to be both wide and lifelike, rather than wide at a slight cost in musical energy and life. It also, however, helps highlight the contrast between a good recording and an overmixed, over-processed one.
The one caution I have is that far too many otherwise good recent recordings are miked too closely, or in ways that emphasize upper-octave energy to increase the level of detail at the expense of natural timbre and sonic perspective. I also find that the audio circuity in some digital equipment seems designed to emphasize detail by tweaking the highs (as some speakers do, particularly those with aggressive dome tweeters).
There is nothing warm, fuzzy, or forgiving about either the Boulder 1110 or 1160, and—as I noted earlier—the added detail means the sonic perspective is just slightly forward compared to much of the competition. Voicing for neutrality and detail come at a price with poor recordings, especially if you insist on nearfield listening to further highlight detail. And yes, the Boulder 1110 and the 1160 did present the problem of revealing more of the coloration in my front ends, wires, and speakers. I’ve chosen these as best as I can, and I’ve long learned to listen through the recording’s quality (including tape hiss), and put the performance before sound quality. If you have balanced the rest of your system around a warm or forgiving amp and preamp, however, you may need to make some changes in other components.