Boulder Amplifiers’ products tend to be as hefty as their prices. The company’s new 508 phono- stage is neither. It is a svelte piece of gear that retails for $5000. At this price point, there is a lot of competition, but the Boulder acquits itself very well, indeed. It is a clear offspring of the company’s more lavish products, including the new two-box 2108 phonostage. The smallest product that Boulder has offered in two decades, it is carved out of a single block of aluminum and looks quite attractive, at least if a Bauhaus look is your style. Personally, I found its appearance to be quite ingratiating; it didn’t take up much space on my new Stillpoints ESS rack and was dead quiet in operation. No hum, no buzz, no nothing. It just sat there like a quiet guest—until the needle dropped on the vinyl. Then came something else entirely.
Like all Boulder products, the 508 runs in balanced mode. Since many tonearms are terminated with single-ended connections, Boulder offers a spiffy set of adapters, but it must also be run balanced from its outputs. You could use adapters on the outputs if you really wanted, but I wouldn’t advise it. The more adapters you use, the more distortion you introduce. There’s a switch on the front panel for on-off operation along with a mute switch, and another switch in the rear that toggles between mc and mm mode. Gain is a robust 70dB in moving-coil mode and 44dB in moving-magnet mode. You could substitute your own step-up transformer and thereby run an mc cartridge in the mm mode to bypass an extra gain stage, but I don’t really see the point.
Having recently auditioned the $52,000 Boulder 2108, I reckoned that the 508 would be a big step down in performance. It wasn’t. The first LP that I played on the TechDAS Air Force Zero turntable with a Graham Phantom Elite 12″ tonearm and a TechDAS TDCO1 cartridge was a Deutsche Grammophon recording of Narciso Yepes and Godelieve Monden playing Telemann guitar duos. This is a subtle record that takes far less dynamic wallop than delicate figurations and beautiful timbral shadings to make its point. Right from the outset, I was smitten by the 508’s ability to convey them. The exceptional linearity of the 508 manifested itself not as a dryness of sound, but as an ability to convey little details accurately against extremely black backgrounds. Another notable feature was the wide and deep soundstage. Once again, the clarity of the Boulder had a beneficent effect, not only allowing you to hear where the instrumentalists were positioned, but also how their plucks resounded into the hall. The sense of the ambient decay of the notes, particularly on the Sarabande section of the Partita in E major, came through vividly, as did the twang of the guitars on the Menuet that immediately follows the Sarabande. The 508 delivered a keen sense of the body of the guitar and the forcefulness of the performers in communicating with each other. In this regard, the absence of noise with the 508 was itself a striking development. What you don’t hear in high end can often be as important as what you do. In my experience, whether it comes to amplifiers or phonostages, this is an arena in which Boulder has always excelled.
Perhaps even more impressive was the monumental recording of another duo, Pierre Fournier and Friedrich Gulda, performing Beethoven’s complete works for cello and piano. I recently procured from Chad Kassem’s Acoustic Sounds what looks to be one of the last sets of a special LP edition mastered at half-speed by Emil Berliner Studios. (My limited edition numbers 1668 out of 1700. If you see one, grab it.) The sonics are as superb as the performance, which was recorded in 1959 in Vienna’s legendary Musikverein. Fournier has long been one of my favorite cellists, and the 508 accurately captured his refined and majestic sound. What was most stunning on this album were two things: The 508 anchored the two performers in their respective spaces and provided what seemed like limitless dynamics. To further test the 508, I played another Deutsche Grammophon LP, this time a Boston Symphony Orchestra recording of the late-Romantic composer Manuela De Falla’s wonderful ballet score The Three-Cornered Hat, which he wrote at the urging of Sergei Diaghilev, the impresario of the Ballets Russes. Once more, the Boulder nicely laid out the orchestra with the trumpet solos firmly rooted in the right rear and woodwinds spaced neatly in the middle. The opening fandango came through with real swagger, the sheen on the strings could only garner a thumbs up, and the great mezzo-soprano Teresa Berganza’s voice soared over the orchestra. All in all, it was a very spacious, even lavish, presentation. Dynamics were very good—not as good as with megabuck phonostages. In the treble region, the 508 just couldn’t quite soar into the ether on orchestral recordings, but the tympani came down with a resounding whack. Dynamics are where, in my experience, most phonostages that don’t have separate power supplies tend to falter. The 508 never sounded compressed, but it didn’t have the ultimate resolving power that the big boys can deliver.
Nonetheless, the linearity of the Boulder and its prowess in the bass region should not be underestimated. This came home to me in listening to the 45-rpm reissue of the South African musician Hugh Masekela’s “Stimela,” which is probably one of the most overplayed cuts at audio shows, but, heck, I like it. And it reveals a lot. What it revealed to me in this instance was the profound bass definition that the 508 delivers. The drum crescendos in “Stimela” were cleanly defined and propulsively powerful. I also noticed how clearly the 508 captured not only the huskiness of Masekela’s voice, but also how beautifully it rendered his enunciation of the song’s lyrics. It was as though they were etched in stone. Ditto for his playing on the flugelhorn. The way Masekela soared into the treble region, then issued plaintive wails was profoundly moving to listen to on my system. Boulder often gets knocked for delivering a sterile sound, but it’s a bum rap. This went right to the emotional essence of the music. Ditto for a Sackville label recording that I recently acquired called Three Is Company that features the jazz soprano saxophonist Jim Galloway, a remarkable musician who teamed up with the pianist Dick Wellstood for this album. This is traditional straight-ahead jazz and on lively numbers like “Minor Drag,” the 508 viscerally delivered the fast-paced excitement of the music. The 508 nailed the sometimes nasally and keening quality of Galloway’s soprano sax, while Pete Magadini serenely mans the drums, gently accompanying his peers.
To some extent, I’m scratching my head over the 508. It definitely marks new territory for Boulder, which rockets into the stratosphere when it comes to the pricing of amplifiers, phono- stages, and preamplifiers. Somehow the company has managed to cram into this small box a wealth of the attributes of its top-notch gear. It has done the same thing, incidentally, with its new 866 integrated amplifier, which I listened to for several months and which left me flabbergasted at what it delivers. The 508 is a fine piece of equipment that is at home in any high-quality system and is likely to elevate the vinyl performance of not a few. For anyone considering a solid-state phonostage in this price level, auditioning it isn’t an option but a must.
Specs & Pricing
Inputs: One pair balanced, converts to unbalanced
Outputs: One pair balanced
Input impedance: Maximum mc: 100 ohms; mm: 47k ohms
Output impedance: 100 ohms, balanced
Gain, RIAA: mc: 70dB; mm: 44dB
Frequency response, RIAA: ±0.5dB, 20Hz to 20kHz
Dimensions: 11.5″ x 2.3″ x 9.5″
Weight: 11.5 lbs.
255 S. Taylor Avenue
Louisville, CO 80027