Boulder 1060 power amplifier

Can an $18,000 power amplifier be a bargain?

Can an $18,000 wristwatch?

After a certain point, the usual value-for-money considerations don't apply. With amplifiers, I'm not sure where that point is. But, for me, the Boulder 1060 is hors de categorie, as the French hi-fi scribes like to say: "out of category."

Nevertheless, I like to escape now and then, as I did with the Lamm Industries ML1.2 monoblocks and the $15,000 McIntosh MC2000 Commemorative (in the July 1998 and November 1999 issues, respectively).

Hell, I could have gone crazier still: $59,000 for a pair of Boulder's 2050 monoblocks. Twenty-five years ago, that's what I paid for a house. Think of the car you can buy today for 60 thou.

That $60,000 car can be leased, of course—why tie up all that capital? Maybe high-end audio dealers should offer equipment leases. I can see the ads now: "Lease a pair of Boulder 2050s for a rock-bottom price: only $500 down and $399 a month."

I'm not sure what my friend Marc paid for his Boulder 500AE amplifier—well under five thou. Marc has owned his amp for more than 10 years. Two years ago, he sent it back to the factory for servicing and updates. It sounds better than ever. Has he gotten value for his money? You bet!

I don't see too many Boulder 500AEs turning up on the secondhand market, but when they do, they seem to go for between $2500 and $3000, depending on age and condition. If you're lusting after a Boulder and can't swing 18 thou (neither can I), you might search for a used 500AE. The amp, now discontinued, was in production for 15 years with no major design changes.

Marc is steadfastly loyal to his 500AE. "Why should I bother with tubes?" he asks, rhetorically. He has a point.

Jeff Nelson, president and chief designer of Boulder, has steered a steady course with solid-state—one of a very few manufacturers to do so, in my opinion. In the 500AE, and now in the 1060, he has avoided the sterility associated with certain solid-state amps. He's also avoided the hazy, syrupy, fake-tube quality I've heard from certain other solid-state amps.

Of course, Jeff says he designs his amps to be neutral. But all amplifier manufacturers say that (the single-ended triode contingent excepted). To paraphrase George Orwell in Animal Farm: All amps are neutral, but some are more neutral than others. The Boulder 1060 is more neutral than others.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Marc's Boulder interested me in the marque, so to speak. So when I heard that Boulder was coming out with a new stereo amp—more "affordable" (ahem) than the 2050 monoblocks—I quickly called Bruce van Allen, of Boulder, to see if I could have a listen.

"It's $18,000, Sam," said Bruce.

"I wish you had something less expensive."

"If you wait, we'll have a replacement for the 500AE—less power than the 1060, of course. But if you want to try the 1060 in the meantime, I'm game."

Wow! It's not every day that I get to hijack such an expensive piece of gear from Jonathan Scull or another member of the Stereophile gang. This was rather bold on Boulder's part, considering my Cheapskate origins and continuing propensity to recommend less costly gear.

The Boulder 1060 is not the kind of amp you can ship UPS. Bruce delivered it himself, as he made the rounds of the Northeast in the van Allen van. It was late winter, he'd been schlepping throughout the region, and he'd caught a touch of the flu. While in this feverish condition, he got the idea that he could expedite the setup of my amp by removing, in advance, the screws that held the bottom of the wood packing crate. He could remove the crate from his van, holding it by the bottom, of course; then set it on my garage floor, lift off the top of the crate, and—voilà!—there would be the 1060, in all its naked glory. We would then haul it upstairs. (It absolutely takes two people.) Good idea, no?

Ahem. As Bruce now says, "The best-laid plans...;';'

He opened the door of his van and eased the crate to the edge of the rear compartment. As he did so, the weight of the crate shifted...and Bruce was left holding only the top of the crate as the 140-lb Boulder crashed to the concrete floor.


"B-stock," I said, using the industry term for a slightly blemished or damaged unit.

"It is now," he replied.

How's that for Boulder's luck—and mine? Here I'd been looking forward to hearing the most expensive solid-state amplifier I've ever had in for review, and the manufacturer drops it. Seldom have I heard a more alarming—or disheartening—sound.

Fortunately, the amp survived—save for some slight damage to the chassis and the precision alignment of its interlocking parts. A module inside had jogged loose, but Bruce easily set it back into place. Both of us breathed easier.

"The amp's bulletproof," I said. "Bruceproof."

Later, after we'd listened for a while, Bruce asked, "Do you have to write that this happened? Everybody in the industry will be repeating this story for years," he said, ruefully.

"You know our policy, Bruce. Full disclosure."

Too bad about that slight damage to the chassis; the Boulder 1060 is the most beautiful solid-state amp I've had in my listening room.

The construction quality is awesome—and durable, as Bruce proved. Note the absence of rack-mount handles on the front or rear—it does wonders for the amp's appearance but does make it somewhat difficult and awkward to transport.

As I said, the chassis is made from precision-machined interlocking parts. This includes the heatsinks, which look like part of the chassis rather than something that was stuck on. They're solid and anti-resonant—not those flimsy fins that ping when you flick them with your fingernail.

And no sharp edges. This is no small matter to someone whose legs bear the scars (no kidding) of previous encounters with sharp heatsinks and amplifier faceplates. Remember, an amp of this size will likely sit on or close to the floor. Sharp heatsinks are a hazard to children and pets, and, in my view, unacceptable. I'm surprised manufacturers aren't more concerned about product-liability lawsuits.

About those heatsinks (they're beautiful, like the rest of the amp)—they didn't heat up very much. The Boulder 1060 ran only slightly warm to the touch—this in summer, without airconditioning. This is not one of those amps (solid-state or tube) that will turn one's listening lair into a sauna.

The top plate slides off, allowing the owner to admire and show off the amplifier's innards—and, more to the point, allowing easy access for service. The heatsinks and sides, too, are easily removed without hours of labor. Inside, the surface-mount modules can be removed for replacement or repair. I'd guess that the 1060 can almost always be serviced and/or updated in the field.

Of course, this level of cosmetic finish (it's exciting just to feel the 1060) and precision machining is reflected in the amp's $18,000 price. But you do get something for your money besides great sound: pride of ownership. The Boulder 1060 puts most other high-end solid-state amps to shame, appearancewise; for that reason alone, I wouldn't buy such an amp without seeing, touching, and listening to the Boulder. It's a jewel. A work of art. Exquisite.

And you're not just buying cosmetics. Inside, there are 56 bipolar output transistors: 28 per channel. This means, among other things, that the output devices are very conservatively driven and should last a very long time. The amp is rated to deliver 300Wpc into 8, 4, or 2 ohms, with 800W peaks into 4 ohms, 1600W peaks into 2 ohms.

The 48 filter capacitors (with a total of 187,200µF) offer a "distributed" low-impedance power supply. Better a lot of small caps than fewer big ones—it results in a faster "recovery time," and no "ghost images." The twin power transformers are encapsulated and mechanically shielded.

On the back of the chassis are special, nutlike speaker-binding posts that can be finger-tightened without a tool. These posts can take spade lugs or bare wire. No, they won't take bananas.

Power-cord buffs (and there are some out there) will be out of luck: the 1060 does not use a standard IEC connector. Instead, it comes with a very beefy power cord that connects to the amp via a connector that looks like a large plastic cup.

Inputs are balanced-only, but adapters are available from Boulder for use with single-ended RCA inputs. The output stage operates in a dual-differential mode said to offer "near perfect" common-mode rejection of noise.

For a brief time I had the use of a balanced Boulder L5AE line-stage preamp, but Bruce wanted it back. I switched to the unbalanced Musical Fidelity A3CR and Aloia PST 11.01 preamps. Also in my system were the Cary CD-303 CD player and AcousTech PH-1 phono stage. Speakers were mainly the Verity Audio Parsifal Encores, but also the B&W CDM1 NTs, Triangle Antals, and JMlab Micro Utopias.

The Verity Audio Parsifal can suck up some power—especially in the midbass, where, last month, the speaker sounded somewhat thin and lacking in dynamics with the Musical Fidelity A3CR. But with the Boulder, balanced inputs or not, the sound was as exquisite as the amp's appearance: detailed, dynamic, controlled, with a harmonic presentation that rivaled tubes at their best. Do I miss single-ended triodes? Not while I have amps in-house like the Boulder 1060—or the Musical Fidelity A3CR, for that matter.

Maybe my biggest surprise came when I tried B&W's new CDM1 NT speakers (not that anyone other than JA would likely mate an $18,000 power amp with $1200/pair speakers). The B&Ws became explosively dynamic. I intended to listen to this combination for only a few hours, but ended up auditioning it for two weeks. The easy-to-drive, 91dB-sensitive Triangle Antal XS, though, just didn't need the power. Nor did the 90dB-sensitive JMlab Micro Utopia.

Another thing about the Boulder 1060: speed. Ever notice how some big amplifiers (especially solid-state ones) can sound a little slow—as if held back by their massive power supplies? Not so the 1060. The amplifier was breathtakingly fast, bracingly clean, and harmonically pure. Hey, compared to the $59,000 Boulder 2050s, this might be a bargain that gets you very close to the 2050s' sound for a fraction of the price.

In short, the Boulder 1060 is an outstanding amplifier. It held its own against the Mac 2000 Commemorative or the Lamm ML-1.2 monos. No, the 1060 didn't have the liquidity of the Lamms, that same SET immediacy. But the Lamm is rated at 18W; the Boulder, at 300Wpc, is a lion.

Does one need such awesome power?

Depends. When Larry Archibald auditioned the Boulder 2050 monos, he discovered, much to his surprise, that his Thiel CS5 speakers could suck all that power out of the amps—1000Wpc. To be sure, the Thiels like a lot of power, and LA's cavernous room makes further demands on an amplifier.

But even in my much smaller and cozier listening room, speakers like the Verity Parsifal can benefit from power aplenty. When I paired the Boulder 1060 with the Parsifal Encores, I heard total control in the bass—a sense of dynamic ease even at moderate volume levels that comes only from having plenty of power in reserve.

As Antony Michaelson, of Musical Fidelity, noted last month, speakers can drain an awful lot of power, especially in the bass. And when an amp runs out of power, it doesn't necessarily clip in an obvious way. Rather, as an amplifier runs out of steam, dynamics compress and the soundstage begins to collapse. Typically, the sound hardens and coarsens. You may notice listening fatigue rather than catastrophic clipping.

But doesn't power corrupt? Hasn't Sam said so? And Nietzsche, too? (Actually, it was Lord Acton who said, "Power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely.")

Power often does. But not here. With the Boulder 1060, you can have it all: awesome power, headroom, dynamic drive, control, detail, sweetness, sensuality. This is what you pay $18,000 for. If you want it all and can afford it, the Boulder 1060 is worth the money.

Don't forget, too, that Boulder has a history of keeping amps in production for a very long time without major design changes. That should help your amp hold its value. Boulder also has a history of not gouging when it comes to upgrades. In other words, you may pay a lot up front, but you get it back in the long run.

So...would I buy this amp, if I had the 18 thou?

Again, depends. I can't think of another amp, at or near this price, tube or solid-state, that I would recommend more.

But I would prefer a somewhat smaller, less expensive Boulder—a big stone, a large rock, a replacement for the 500AE. My friend Marc would like one too—as, I'm sure, would legions of other loyal Boulder fans for whom $18,000 is, alas, hors de categorie. Fortunately, such an amp may soon be forthcoming.

Until it does, the Boulder 1060 might remain here as the reference amp in my main system—at least until Bruce picks it up. (I can't lift it, let alone crate it, without assistance.) If you, too, are looking for a great solid-state reference amp and price is no obstacle, then I highly recommend it. I look forward to keeping it in my seestem for a while.

Boulder Amplifiers
3235 Prairie Avenue
CO 80301

Osgood Crinkly III's picture

Adjusted for inflation (, $18k would be $8659 in 1987 dollars. By comparison, for $7900 in 1987 one could purchase (at MSRP) a pair of Threshold SA/1 monoblocks. Is this Boulder amplifier sufficiently better than the SA/1's to justify the additional cost?

Due to their superb, "legendary" sound, today one can easily get $8000-10,000 for a pair of used Threshold SA/1's. What will the Boulder be worth used? What will it be worth in a year, let alone 27 years from now?

The Boulder boasts big output wattage, but plenty of cheap amps also boast big watts. The SA/1's by comparison, were 160 watt (8 ohm), class A, solid-state monoblocks, which provided 40 amps continuous, 200 amps peak. And what, pray tell, is the current capability of the Boulder? Why isn't this specification even mentioned in the review?

The SA/1's were so good that the German classical record company, Telefunken, used them to master its recordings. Does the Boulder have similar high-quality professional credentials?

The point I want to make is that I am skeptical about current astronomical prices for so-called "high end" audio equipment. I don't think the price-to-quality ratio compares favorably to that of decades earlier. Rather, I attribute current inflated prices to a shrunken high-end market. The volume of sales just isn't high enough to support the costs of manufacturing such specialized gear. If this is indeed true, then one would be better off selectively buying used gear in good condition. Good luck, though, finding a pair of used SA/1's. Their owners are not parting with them.

iosiP's picture

But where is the measurements part of it?
Because the looks and sound I could appreciate at the local dealer but I'm less sure it can drive my fussy Raidho C3.1. And no, unfortunately I can't borrow it for an in-home test.

And BTW, there was a big fuss about the Constellation power amps but when you measured them, ahem...

John Atkinson's picture
iosiP wrote:
But where is the measurements part of it?

This review was originally published in the "Sam's Space" column, which doesn't include measurements.

John Atkinson
Editor, Stereophile

iosiP's picture

But then, "the thanks remain the same"!