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Boulder 3010 Preamplifier and 2108 Phono Preamplifier

Boulder 3010 Preamplifier and  2108 Phono Preamplifier

In 1936 the Polish violinist Bronislaw Huberman asked Arturo Toscanini to conduct the opening benefit concert of the Palestine Symphony in New York. The musicians, most of whom had fled Europe after the Nazis rose to power in Germany, were both terrified and elated to rehearse under the famously tyrannical Toscanini, who spent a month in Palestine preparing the orchestra for its American debut. “Mr. Huberman,” the violinist Lorand Fenyves exclaimed after one session, “Toscanini is a magician! He doesn’t simply conduct the orchestra; he hypnotizes us.”

Something similar could be said about the character of the new Boulder 3010 preamplifier and 2108 phono preamplifier. In an era when the noise floor and distortion levels of playback equipment keep receding, Boulder has once more upped its game to offer some unique sonic attributes. Aficionados of vinyl playback will recall that Boulder made quite a splash over a decade ago with the introduction of its 2008 phonostage, which became a lust object for not a few audiophiles. I never had a chance to hear the 2008 at length, but did have the chance to review the 2000-series preamplifier and amplifier, both of which constituted what was then the acme of solid-state performance that I had hitherto experienced, in terms of resolution, grip, and bass control. 

In the span of those years, much has changed in the audio industry, at least when it comes to improvements in musical playback. I’ve had the opportunity to hear a number of stellar products, ranging from D’Agostino to VTL to CH Precision, that were the equivalent of staring at a painting from different angles and noticing different details. So my curiosity was definitely piqued when I learned from Boulder representative Rich Maez that the company was not only completing the construction of a new factory, but also revising its upper-echelon equipment. My memories of the 2000 series were so positive that I was eager to hear what Boulder would accomplish next. It was not exactly what I expected. I had fond memories of the stentorian grasp and frequency extension of the 2000 series equipment. But the latest Boulder gear wasn’t as overtly overwhelming as the earlier iterations. Instead, I realized after a few weeks that the Boulder gear, particularly the preamplifier, was pulling a Houdini-like act. What it didn’t do was as significant as what it did. 

The 3010, you could say, is master and commander. It has a wealth of controls, ranging from a remarkable six pairs of outputs, which can be separately attenuated, to a “blend” function that allows you to change an early stereo track to mono, if you wish, by progressively blending the channels. But apart from all the technical wizardry, there is the musical factor.

With the 3010, there appears to be no overhang on notes. They start and stop on a dime, but always in the most refined manner. If there is a good deal of pedal applied to a piano note, it will linger in the air but then terminate in a gentle but definite fashion into black space. If grace notes are there, they will appear for a fleeting second, only to disappear into the ether. Put otherwise, the 3010 is an exacting preamplifier. There is no escape from its authority. Each finger stroke of a piano key, gentle or ferocious, will be rendered with complete precision. Tympani strikes emerge with well-nigh annihilatory power. Overall, the alacrity and crunch of the 3010 preamplifier endow it with a lifelike character.

Add in its shocking clarity and you’re starting to approach the real thing. It’s a bit like staring down Crater Lake in Oregon in its extreme transparency. Turn up the dial on the 3010’s volume control to your heart’s content and what you will hear is no change. Oh, the sound pressure level will increase. But what will not alter is the musical presentation. There will be zero increase in distortion. To a degree that I have not previously experienced with a preamp, the 3010 preamp is a proverbial straight wire with gain. 

Boulder explains that in the 3010 it has constructed gain modules that handle both the positive and inverted halves of each channel. Previously it had employed a single gain-stage module designed for each half of each channel. Now it has machined a specially shaped module with integrated heatsinking that can house both gain stages, while providing sufficient passive cooling to prevent the gain stages from overheating. According to Boulder, the dual gain stage provides for more consistent thermal tracking of each half of the signal, and keeping all circuitry on a single board in the module helps to ensure that the response from the module is more accurate. This translates into a variety of benefits.

 

The first and most obvious is clarity. No matter the gain setting, the 3010 provides startlingly pure reproduction. This was most apparent on smaller-scale recordings where the level of grip and control produced a kind of hypnotic sensation. On a recording of Bach harpsichord concertos by Jean Rondeau on the Erato label, for example, I was continually fascinated by the crisp authority of the Boulder 3010 coupled to the dCS Vivaldi CD/SACD playback system. Bach’s music often has a fairly hypnotic quality to it, but the Boulder brought it out to an extent that was breathtaking. Harpsichord trills emerged from the Wilson WAMM loudspeakers with machine gun-like precision. On cadenzas, I could distinguish whether the harpsichord intervals were fifths or thirds without even trying. The 3010 exuded a sovereign authority but not in an overtly commanding manner. Instead, the music emerged with a natural relaxation that is a byproduct of the preamplifier’s control, a quality that was even more apparent on vinyl playback.

Another attribute that the 3010 displayed was tonal fidelity. It almost goes without saying that the Boulder plunges into the bass region with great power. What distinguishes it here is the way it captures the ringing peal of the organ in the nether regions. On the Hungarian trumpeter Gabor Boldoczki’s CD Gloria, the organ played by the German virtuoso Hedwig Bilgram, who, incidentally, accompanied the French legend Maurice André on a number of his recordings, swells with a lustrous sound. At the same time, Boldoczki’s piccolo trumpet has on a Purcell sonata for trumpet and organ a nasal quality that nothing I’ve previously used has captured to this extent. On a rendition of “Ave Maria” by the composer Guilio Caccini, the 3010 delivers the vibrato and sumptuous tone of Boldoczki’s playing with commendable fidelity. This ability to convey the ebb and flow of the music came to the fore in a recording by the pianist Igor Levit for Sony of Bach Partitas. The precision and delicacy, the shadings and slight hint of rubato, were all furnished by the 3010 in spades. Rather than seeming to be reproduced mechanically, the Partitas had a beguilingly mellifluous singing quality. Similarly, on a recording on the Hyperion label of Schubert songs by the Austrian baritone Florian Boesch, it was hard not to marvel at the nuances in his supple and full-grained voice, which the Boulder offered with ease.

Given the ability of the Boulder preamp to ramp it up to seemingly limitless volume levels, I couldn’t resist cranking it on Wynton Marsalis’ sizzling CD from the new Buddy Bolden movie soundtrack. His version of “Stardust” contains some of the greatest jazz trumpet solos that I’ve heard, and the Boulder let them rip without any compression. On another cut, “Phantasmagoric Bordello Ballet,” the ability of the Boulder to sort out complex musical passages also came to the fore. The crack of the drumstick in the rear of the soundstage was reproduced with superb dynamic punch, not to mention Marsalis’ wah-wah mute passages, where every screech and groan and moan was fully audible. “Woah, woah!” is what I was thinking. Frankly, I doubt that New Orleans jazz has ever before been recorded at this level of sheer technical virtuosity.

If anything, these attributes are even more readily apparent when playing vinyl. The 2108 phono preamplifier, like the 3010, runs off a separate power supply. Unlike the 3010, which has a backlit screen, it does not look like it is part of the NORAD command center. It is supposed to be run balanced, but does have a pair of adapters to allow you to run a singled-ended tonearm cable into it, which is what I did. Overall, it has three balanced inputs. It also has a mono button, a demagnetization function, and a number of equalization curves that can be accessed via the front panel for playing older mono records from Decca, Columbia, and EMI. 

Initially, I ran the 2108 into the Ypsilon PST 100 silver preamplifier. From the start, the 2108 possessed excellent dynamic authority and bass. It also established a wide and deep soundstage. But I found it sounded best, as you would expect, with the 3010. There the match was very efficacious indeed.

Drums proved in many ways to be the most revealing. On the album Special Requests (And Other Favorites) on HighNote Records by the great jazz guitarist Kenny Burrell, I relished the wide and open soundstage that the Boulder provided. But what particularly struck was the union of control and relaxation that was so palpably clear in the drumming on the LP. As with the CDs I auditioned via the 3010, there was that spooky union of effortlessness and command. My sense is that audiophiles are accustomed to thinking that too much control can impinge upon the natural flow of music. Somehow the extreme grip of the Boulder actually allows the music to breathe even more freely. Indeed, it was spooky to listen to the rhythmic steadiness of Clayton Cameron’s drums cruising along in the background on the Burrell LP. Here was accuracy in service of musicality.

Drums come to the fore on an old favorite album of mine, Victor Feldman’s The Artful Dodger on the Concord label. The tonal accuracy of the 2108 allows it to present the urgently expressive drumming of Colin Bailey with a real sense of verisimilitude. It sounded like depth charges were going off in my room as he pounded the drums on “Agitation,” a fiendishly complex bebop number that features Asian chords and pentatonic scales. Then there is that pellucid sound that the Boulder 2108 and 3010 bring to the table. On an Erato recording of Maurice André playing a sonata in G major by Jean-Baptiste Loeillet, I was struck by the cavernous amount of air that the 2108 pulled off the LP. You could almost feel the damp cathedral walls as André’s trumpet, canvassing the highest reaches of its register, resounded through the St. Pierre church in Strasbourg. Rarified territory.

 

So what really let the Boulder strut its stuff? One of the most impressive albums I heard on it was the soundtrack of Super Fly with Curtis Mayfield. If one album lets you know that this equipment isn’t playing around, this is it. Take the track “Pusherman.” The deep, fat, and sassy electronic bass instantly emerges with propulsive power. The drums in back possess crushing impact. At the very same time, Mayfield’s crooning voice loses none of its insinuating silkiness as he announces, “I’m your pusherman.” Once again, total relaxation allied to stygian power.

As always, there are some caveats. If you’re wedded to tubes, the Boulder is not going to give you a sumptuous tonal balance or the kind of holographic soundstage that is often associated with glowing bulbs. The Boulder is after different game, which is to say that it’s seeking fidelity to the source. Its incredible rhythmic accuracy and clarity are pretty much bound to exert a spellbinding effect. At times, I was left looking rather like a goggle-eyed Bertie Wooster contemplating an acute observation from Jeeves. If you have a chance to listen to the Boulder gear, let it fly, as it were. I suspect that you, too, will find it a highly addictive experience.

Specs & Pricing

3110 Preamplifier
Inputs and outputs: 6 stereo XLR balanced inputs; 6 stereo XLR balanced outputs; 1 auxiliary XLR balanced output
Input impedance: 333k ohms, balanced
Output impedance: 100 ohms, balanced
Maximum input level: 7Vrms
Maximum output level: 28Vrms THD+N: 0.0008% (-102 dB)
Maximum voltage gain: 20dB
Volume range: 100dB
Volume steps: 0.1, 0.5, 1.0dB ±0.01dB
Dimensions: Preamp, 19″ x 9.25″ x 18″; power supply, 19″ x 5.1″ x 18″ 
Weight: Preamp, 78 lbs.; power supply, 45 lbs. 
Price: $130,000

2108 Phono Preamplifier
Inputs and outputs: Three pairs balanced (converts to unbalanced) inputs; two pairs balanced (converts to unbalanced) outputs
Input impedance (maximum): Moving coil, 1000 ohms; moving magnet, 47k ohms
Resistive and capacitive loading: Adjustable on individual Personality Cards
Output impedance: 100 ohms balanced
Phono equalization: RIAA, FFRR (London/Decca), EMI, Columbia
Maximum output level: 28Vrms
THD: 0.005%
Gain: Moving coil, 70 or 60dB; moving magnet, 50 or 40dB
Weight: Phonostage, 37 lbs.; power supply, 48 lbs. 
Price: $52,000

Associated Equipment
Wilson Wamm Master Chronosonic loudspeakers and subwoofers, Ypsilon PST-100 preamplifier (silver), VPS 100 preamplifier (silver), and Hyperion monoblock amplifiers, dCS CD/SACD playback system, Continuum Caliburn turntable with Swedish Analog Technologies CF1-09 tonearm, Ortofon MC Century, Lyra Atlas, and Miyajima Infinity cartridges, Transparent Magnum Opus and Nordost Odin 2 cabling, Stillpoints Ultra 6 and Critical Mass Systems footers

By Jacob Heilbrunn

The trumpet has influenced my approach to high-end audio. Like not a few audiophiles, I want it all—coherence, definition, transparency, dynamics, and fine detail.

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