Analog Corner #300: Boulder 2108, Consolidated Audio Monster Can
The two biggest sonic jolts I’ve experienced involving phono preamps were from two very different ones: the Petr Mares’s Connoisseur 2.0 and Boulder’s 2008, which was reviewed in the July 2002 Stereophile. The first was hand-built, single-ended, housed in a wooden case, limited to 100 units, and, when I got to hear it in the mid-1990s, cost around $6000, or about $10,000 in today’s dollars. The other was a feature-laden, double-chassis monument to flexibility and surface-mount high technology. It featured beautifully finished, flush-mounted mirrored buttons your fingers just wanted to press.
A friend had brought over the Mares. Before we hooked it up, he insisted we look inside. There, I found the electronic equivalent of the game “Twister” (which, for those of you unfamiliar, is a form of institutionalized-hence-acceptable physical groping: “Milton Bradley told me to put my hands and feet there, so blame Milton not me”).
The Mares’s design featured an impossibly intricate, hand-wired, tightly configured, three-dimensional jumble of resistors, capacitors, and transistors arranged “just so” to produce the desired sonic effect. Call it confirmation bias or power of suggestion or what ever you wish, I don’t care, because the sound produced by that compact wooden box (plus an outboard power supply) was, not unlike that hand-wired jumble, more intensely three-dimensional than anything I’d ever before heard; it was also effortless and revealing of inner detail. The design was later sold to cartridge-builder Lyra, which introduced the somewhat more “builder-friendly” (but still complex) Connoisseur, also housed in a wooden case (footnote 1). It was discontinued in 2007 because of European ROHS rules, which caused many of the parts critical to the design to go out of production.
The earlier Connoisseur revealed instruments hiding in plain sight on just about every record I played that memorable afternoon. Summed up in one word, it was revelatory.
That was a long time ago, and since then, the state of the art has generally improved, although I suspect the original Connoisseur would hold up well against the best of today’s competition.
A few years later, the Boulder 2008 arrived. It was priced outrageously$29,000and built like no phono preamplifier I’d encountered. It was more like a power amplifier, with a massive outboard power supplyactually, three independent ones in a single chassisfeaturing a separate umbilical for each channel and one for the digital control section. There were three separate, independently fully configurable inputs, and even a built-in cartridge demagnetizer. For a reviewer, it was a convenience dream come true.
Sonically, nothing I’d heard up to that time prepared me for what the Boulder did. I wrote, “I don’t remember the first LP I played, but within a minute of listening I was no longer concerned with the sound of the music. What the 2008 delivered was the music’s meaning. That’s what you get for $29,000: communicationa direct connection to the intentions of the musicians.” It was as if “Musical lines” were “carved in granite.”
I dragged my wife down to listen to Alison Krauss and Union Station’s New Favorite (Diverse DIV001LP OOP), and after “Wow!” she said, “It’s as if every note is the most important note ever played by anyone.” Exactly. In the review, I added, “It was like analog on acid. Every note, every musical gesture became the most important, most profound note ever struckuntil the next one.” Hyperbole? No! It was a huge step forward.
Still, it was on the timbrally “dry and stingy” side, and it wasn’t exactly texturally “supple.” But it was so much better than anything I’d ever heard up to that point, in almost every other way, that I happily voted to put the 2008 in the Class A+ category.
Not everyone agreed. One cartridge importer confronted me at the next Consumer Electronics Show and said, “If you like that phono preamp, you aren’t into music.” Certainly, those who prefer a warmer, softer, tubier, bloomier approach to phono preamplification might not have liked it. But John Atkinson’s numbers and graphs provided evidence of excellent measured performance. His measurements, he wrote, revealed “superb audio engineering skill on the part of the designer.” And when he heard the 2008 in my system, he was “bowled over by the sound quality.” Please read that review.
More grace, less in-your-face
In the 18 years since the 2008 was launched, the resurgence has changed the vinyl landscape. The format’s renewed popularity has brought improvements in the vinyl pellets the records are made from, plating and pressing plant upgrades, better record cleaning machines, and of course higher-tech cartridges, tonearms, turntables, and phono preamplifiers. Who in 2002 would have thought that powdered titanium could be selectively melted to 3D-print an impossible-to-machine, inert cartridge body? Who’d have thought there was enough life left in the format to make any of these tech investments financially feasible? Following the 2008, Boulder released two less costly phono preamps: in 2010 the $12,000 1008 and then the even less expensive 508 ($5000), which I reviewed in Analog Corner in 2019. The 508 had a sweet, warm, inviting sound that, though detailed, sounded more supple and inviting than my memory was of the “granite-like” 2008. Scaled down of course.
An updated top-of-the-line Boulder phono preamp was duehence the 2108, introduced in late 2018 at a price of $52,000.
Before you whine about the price, consider that $29,000the 2008’s price when it was introducedis $41,330.08 in today’s dollars. So, the 2108 is really only about $12,000 more expensive. Don’t you feel better?
In 2002, the 2008 was pretty much alone at the top of the price heap, but Boulder’s newest entry has plenty of companyin price and also technology and performance.
Outside, the 2108 appears similar if not identical to the 2008. Again, there are two sets of seven mirrored buttons, but they have been repurposed to accommodate three equalization choices. The extra EQ options are now included, whereas on the 2008 they were extra-cost options and there was only room for two extras. (Each required its own card and there were only two extra slots.)
On the 2108, the left button bank switches between the three inputs and offers a pair of high-pass filters at 10Hz and 20Hz (three buttons: 10Hz, 20Hz, and Out). There’s also a mute button. The right bank selects between four equalization options, Mono, Demag, and power. The casework has been upgraded. Sheet-metal components that could resonate have been eliminated; all metalwork is produced on Boulder’s own CNC machines. When damped and bolted together, the CNC-machined components raise chassis resonant frequency to well outside the audio band.
The big differences between the 2008 and 2108 are inside. In place of the 2008’s three power supplies, the 2108 incorporates four: left, right, logic, and an independent standby supply. The 2008’s supplies were powered up at all times unless you turned off the master AC switch at the back of the power supply. The 2108 automatically enters “standby mode” when the front panel’s “off” switch is pushed. Thus, the 2108 is more energy-efficient. Also, the older unit’s “through-hole” circuit boards have been replaced with surface-mount ones. First-stage regulation is now on the power supply board with the second stage in the main preamplifier. Two other power supply improvements: new temperature-sensing shutdown circuitry replaces the older circuit breakers and new, locking, higher-current, military-grade umbilical cord connectors replace the older multipin XLR connectors. Signal path upgrades include proprietary, house-made, “phono-specific,” 993S and 995S discretely implemented “op-amp” gain stages (footnote 2); the 995S is responsible for the first 26dB of gain, with additional gain provided by the 993S.
These gain stages are incorporated on small, surface-mount circuit boards assembled in-house that allow for smaller, capacitance-reducing PCB real estate and, among other claimed benefits, optimized ground plane layouts. Following initial testing, the boards are mounted within Boulder-machined housings and potted with a proprietary mineral and epoxy compound, all to reduce microphonic resonances and to distribute and stabilize circuit-generating heat.
Footnote 1: See lyraconnoisseur.com/Products/Lyra_Connoisseur/LC_42SEL.html.
Footnote 2: J. Gordon Holt wrote about discretely implemented op-amps here
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Boulder 2108 Specifications
Boulder 2108 Measurements
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