Boulder 1021 disc player Page 3
Was this a problem with "illegal" characters in the filenames? Was it that some filenames were too long? Or was it that I was burning the files to DVD-R blanks rather than to DVD+R blanks, which, I understand, have a more reliable directory structure? Whatever the problem was, it wasn't solved by burning another DVD-R, and I couldn't track it down by the time I had to start writing this review. Fortunately, it didn't affect any of the commercial hi-rez data discs I had to hand from Reference Recordings and Fidelio. [It turned out to be a filename length limitation in Roxio Toast, with which I had burned the DVD-Rs. The longer filenames were truncated and lost the "flac" suffix, without which they weren't recognized by the Boulder.]
But the sound of the hi-rez files the Boulder could find was stunning: open, airy, grain-free, with a sharply defined soundstage and an excellent sense of the recorded acoustic. Keith Johnson's 24-bit/176.4kHz recording of Eiji Oue and the Minnesota Orchestra performing Rachmaninoff's Symphonic Dances (HRx, Reference HR96) sounded more robust than the original CDsimply more real, as if the glass of the window between the listening room and the hall in which the recording had been made had been removed. This, for me, was the proof of concept for the Boulder 1021. It doesn't get better than Keith's masters!
It should also be noted that, with hi-rez data discs, the Boulder's playback was gapless. There were no brief mutes or, more important, audible glitches between files.
For four years now, my reference disc player has been Ayre Acoustics' C-5xe ($5950). I performed two sets of comparisons with the Boulder 1021 as, midway through the latter's sojourn in my room, I had the C-5xe updated to Ayre's MP specification, as reported on by Wes Phillips in this issue's Follow-Up. All comparisons were performed with levels matched within 0.1dB at 1kHz, which wasn't hard to arrange: the players had identical output levels.
With the original version of the Ayre, the comparisons were a very close thing: both players sounded superb. In directly switched comparisons I really couldn't swear that I heard any difference, particularly when I went back to the PSB Synchrony One speakers rather than the ultra-resolving Revel Ultima Salon2s. Perhaps the Ayre was a little more laid-back. Perhaps the Boulder was a little more forward, with a slightly more extended bottom end. Perhaps I was imagining things. While the Boulder will play 24-bit, high-sample-rate files from data discs, the Ayre, of course, will play SACDs as well as CDs and DVD-As. The only firm judgment I could make was that the Ayre playing an SACD version of a recording was preferable to the Boulder playing the CD transfer. No mystery there, of course. On the other hand, having a CD's metadata displayed on the Boulder's screen was proving curiously addictive.
Once the Ayre had returned from its trip to its maker, I repeated the comparisons, using it primarily with its new reconstruction filter set to Listen. My feelings about the sound quality of the MP revision basically echo those made by Wes Phillips. Listening to another recording I had engineeredthe performance by Pinchas Zukerman, Cynthia Phelps, Eric Kim, and Marc Neikrug of Mozart's Piano Quartet 1 in G Minor, K.478, on Bravo! (CD, Stereophile STPH014-2)I was impressed by how the updated Ayre managed to keep separate the images of the musicians in space, even though, as I described in the liner notes, most of that space had been synthesized with a Lexicon reverberator set to mimic the acoustic of the recording venue. Through the Boulder, the four players took two steps forward within a slightly smaller space.
Listening to Robert Silverman's performance of Beethoven's Piano Sonata 24 on Editor's Choice (CD, Stereophile STPH016-2), the relationship between the sound of the piano and the admittedly too-small hall in which I had recorded it was less ambiguous through the Ayre. Interestingly, playing the original hi-rez version of the master file on the Boulder tended to even out the difference, which suggests that Ayre's MP filter does bring CD sound closer to that of high-resolution media. For CD playback, my preference would be for the Ayre's presentation, but it wasn't a night-and-day difference: both are in the top rank of CD players.
Which brings me to the Meridian 808i.2, the best-sounding CD player I have yet auditioned. It has the "apodizing" filter based on Peter Craven's research, which trades off a very slight reduction in top-octave bandwidth against a complete elimination of the ubiquitous pre-ringing that has afflicted CD's reproduction of transients since the mid-1980s. Technically, the Meridian's filter is similar to the new Ayre filter set to Measure. I will explore the sonic differences between the two players in a future Follow-Up; for this review, I directly compared the Boulder with the Meridian, again with levels matched to within 0.1dB at 1kHz. And whereas for the Ayre comparisons I used duplicate discs played in synchronization, for the tests with the Meridian I drove the British player's digital input with the Boulder's AES/EBU output via a dCS 972 digital/digital converter set to do nothing other than convert AES/EBU to S/PDIF.
Oh dear. Having auditioned both players extensively prior to the comparisons, and having gotten a handle on the sonic character of each, I was surprised by how similar they sounded when directly compared with one another. In the end, the Boulder's presentation was a touch more forward than the Meridian's, with a slightly more extended low end, while the Meridian was somewhat better at preserving the sense of space, with slightly more top-octave air. I must say that if I could afford either of these players, I could live happily with it.
The Boulder 1021 may be very expensive, but it is both superbly engineered and superb-sounding. Its measured performance is at the current state of the art for high-resolution audio performance, and its ability to retrieve, store, and display the metadata for the CDs it plays is addicting. Its future is really guaranteed, however, by its ability to play data discs carrying high-resolution audio files, whether they be ones you've burned yourself from downloads, or commercial discs from companies like Reference Recordings or Fidelio. Yes, playing such files back from your computer is possible, but computer soundcards that can get the most from files sampled at 176.4kHz and 192kHz are few and far between.
Boulder's 1021 is highly recommended to those fortunate few with pockets deep enough to be able to afford it.