Boulder 810 line preamplifier & 860 power amplifier Wes Phillips Takes A Listen To The 860

Sidebar 3: Wes Phillips Takes A Listen To The 860

When Fred Kaplan asked me to come over to his house and listen to the Boulder 860, he gave me no clue as to what he was hearing. "Just bring some source material you're thoroughly familiar with," he e-mailed.

I'd been by his place before, to drop off a universal player, and had listened to his Parsifal Ovation loudspeakers with the Krell FBI integrated amplifier, which he reviewed in July 2007. So I'd heard his room, his speakers, and a generous helping of his reference discs, including Masterpieces by Ellington (CD, Sony 4694072), which I immediately adopted as one of my own. I came prepared to hear something pretty special, but Fred's invitation was open-ended enough that I wasn't sure what to expect.

When I arrived, Fred ushered me to the sweet spot, asked for a disc, put it in the player, handed me the remote, and left the room. I cued "(What's So Funny About) Peace, Love, and Understanding?," from the Holmes Brothers' State of Grace (CD, Alligator ALCD 4912).

Something didn't sound quite right. While the harmonic overtones of the electric guitar were sweet and extended, and the bass was deep and taut, there was a band of coloration in the upper midrange that made the Holmeses' tight harmonies sound muffled and opaque. Only after the song was over did Fred come in and ask what I'd heard. I told him and he sat down. "I know," he said. "Isn't that odd?"

We played a few other tracks, including "Solitude," from Masterpieces by Ellington—all of them had that strange upper-midrange furriness. "I'm going to try using the preamplifier from the FBI," said Fred. He must have seen panic on my face. "Don't worry, I won't ask you to help move it."

Later, John Atkinson wrote me. "You went to Fred's to hear the Boulder? What did you think?" I told him what I'd heard. "That's quite odd," he wrote. "It measures well. I guess I'll listen to it in my system for a bit." After a week or so, he wrote again: "When I return the Vandersteen Quatro Woods to you, could I leave the Boulder 860 for you to listen to in yet another system context? Since it measured well, but sounded compromised in one system and better in another, I'd like to get as many different takes as possible on it."

But of course. I recalibrated the Quatro's high-pass filter for the Boulder's 100k ohm input impedance, connected the Ayre K-1x preamplifier to the high-pass/Boulder combo with Shunyata Antares Helix interconnects and Andromeda speaker cables, and let 'er rip.

"(What's So Funny About) Peace, Love, and Understanding?" was startlingly present. Wendell Holmes' lead vocals were gritty and focused, and the sound was seamless from top to bottom. No glare, grit, or fuzz—anywhere. The top end was pure silk; the bottom was as deep as bedrock. Ellington's "Solitude" sounded warm and full-bodied. If there was any upper-midrange coloration going on, I couldn't detect it.

"I Saw an Angel Die," from Chickasaw County Child: The Artistry of Bobbie Gentry (CD, Shout! DK 32278), was a revelation. Gentry's voice was pure and breathy, but the Boulder let me hear—to notice for the first time—that its purity owed a lot to Gentry's inexperience in the studio. She moved in and out of the microphone's plane of focus, which might annoy audiophiles but charmed this music lover. What it lacked in professional experience it compensated for with its sense of discovery.

I take that as evidence of how well the Boulder 860 revealed dynamic variation and detail—an observation further borne out by listening to Morimur (CD, ECM New Series 1765). The explication by Christoph Poppen and the Hilliard Ensemble of Helga Thoene's "decryption" of the Ciaccona of J.S. Bach's Partita 2 in d for Solo Violin, BWV 1004, may have been intended as an aural thesis in musicology, but it has survived in my "to-play" queue for six years because it is profoundly beautiful, not to say heartfelt. The Boulder 860 revealed its core qualities of purity and passion.

Despite what I heard at Fred's, the Boulder 860's performance in my system was revelatory. It was an amplifier that I would gladly spend time with and money on. It was also another demonstration, as if one were needed, that your mileage may vary.—Wes Phillips

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