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October 2011
Enjoy the Music.com Review Magazine
Boulder’s New $195,000 Super Amplifiers
An outstanding 1,500 Class A Watt 450 lbs model 3050 monoblocks!
Plus an interview with Boulder’s Rich Maez

Review By A. Colin Flood

 

  You know you dream of it. You know you want it.

Boulder Amplifiers may have the most appropriate moniker in audio amplifiers. Their latest massive cement power amps are a machined block of aluminum walls. Located in the Colorado town of the same name, near Denver, the 26-year old company recently engineered and manufactured its largest, finest, most powerful and outrageous amplifiers, the 3050 mono amps. The two by one by three foot mega-monsters promise to be the biggest, baddest amps in the neighborhood.

Each amplifier is an asymmetrical mirror image square of the other. There are no 90-degree angles on the amplifier exteriors. All metalwork is monolithic. Metalwork is cut from 6061-T6 aerospace grade aluminum and stainless steel with all machining and texturing done in-house. Think subtly shaped, soft silver blocks - the size of a clothes storage bin:

1,500 watts at 8 Ohms!
Pure Class A operation!
Fully balanced!
120 output devices!
450 pounds!
Dual 240-volt electric lines required!
6,000-watts maximum consumption!
Four toroidal power transformers!
Vanishing levels of distortion!
75-pound carved granite base!
Extensive mechanical resonance damping!

 

Announced at the 2011 Consumer Electronics Show, Boulder already has sold over a dozen [a dozen!] of these voltage crates to existing fans. Their 2050 model released in 1999. The 2050 has a THD spec of 0.0005%. One of the few magazine reviews (the amps are massive and require dedicated power lines) said they have "never had any other amplifier on the bench that measured better!"

Boulder has not published official test results yet (saying full testing will have to wait until they have a lot more time available), but the 3050s will be "well beyond" what the previous 2050 models can do. Power output might be as much as 4,000 watts... into 2-0hms! Talk about bass control. Talk about super-car performance. By comparison, the $4K (used) Pass Labs X250 amps I reviewed for Enjoy the Music.com are a mere 250-watts into 8-Ohms! I made a YouTube video of the Audio Power Labs’ 833c tube amps. Those are 200-watt monsters for about $150,000.The $150K Krell Master Reference Amplifier is rated at 1,000 watts into 8 Ohms. I heard Krell amps energize their showroom like few other displays could at AXPONA 2011; they have so much power.

 

Insane Series
The last two digits in Boulder amplifier name indicate what the model is: "50" indicates that it is a mono amplifier, "60" is stereo. The number in front of the product indicator describe the series the product is a part of: "3050" is a 3000 series mono amplifier. As the series number gets higher, the performance level of the product increases as well.

"It costs more," says Rich Maez, Director of Sales & Marketing for North and South America, "but it means that we're in complete control of the finished product and can address any production issues as they happen instead of having to take delivery of products where we're not happy with the quality, tolerances or reliability of the finished goods. We don't want to sell anything with our name on it that's not representative of our idea of the perfect product and that means doing it ourselves."

Four extremely large transformers to make sure that each amplifier meets rated output power spec adds weight, as do their machined steel housings and the potting compound that keeps them from humming or vibrating. Boulder uses toroidal transformers because they are the most efficient and stable even though having them made correctly is more expensive than other transformer types.

They use four of them in order to make a lot of power available on demand. Boulder says they "do not quote kVA specs for transformers since 99.9% of the people out in the real world don't know what the specs mean or how they relate to actual output power - there's no reason to confuse people with specs that can be manipulated and twisted all over the place anyway."

Each channel will need its own 230/240VAC mains feed! (Normally, solid-state power with loudspeakers is not usually dangerous. Do NOT however, plug and unplug connections with these amplifiers on.)

The monster amps have 120 output devices per chassis and Class A operation throughout, which means very large and massive heat sinks. Making the sinks non-resonant to eliminate microphonic distortions makes them even bigger. An internal fan would be too obtrusive, so the amps cool with conventional sinks.

A huge, machined base as a foundation on which to build everything is required as bent sheet metal would collapse or destroy itself in shipping, as is an entire system of machined platforms or resonance control for every circuit board. The amps are big, heavy subassemblies optimized for unlimited capability. As a result, it is not a lightweight project.

 

Class A Bias
The 3050 has an intelligent biasing scheme that continuously measures voltage draw, current draw and load at the output terminals. The scheme then instantly raises the output section's bias fast enough to keep any transients or dynamic swings in Class A operation and then ramps the bias down in a gentle analog fashion over a period of 28 seconds until the next transient is detected that will require raising the bias again. This scheme makes the amps much more efficient and reliable than traditional full-bias Class A amps but without the audible steps or sliding schemes.

Each half of a 3050’s balanced design is powered and driven independently. Both the positive and inverted sections of the amplifier are independent in a single chassis. Boulder tests each subassembly individually outside of a chassis on a mix of their own analysis equipment and an Audio Precision system. They then bench test the entire amplifier as an assembled whole on the same pieces of test equipment into multiple simulated loads.

 

Mirror Pair
There are left and right channels aesthetically, but not sonically. Boulder intended for the amps to be placed with the power buttons on the inside edge, but some people prefer them reversed. They will not sound any different either way - the internal electronics are identical in each chassis.

At the present time, the next run of 3050s will be at the end of 2011 or the beginning of 2012. Other products are available upon order but since 3050 production seems to block the build of other products because of their labor intensity and size, Boulder does not plan to build them all the time.

 

See, Touch And Audition Before Driving Them Away
Only retail stores sell Boulder products. They do not sell direct and prefer to have our products sold by businesses where they can be seen, touched and auditioned. In addition, Boulder may not be available at your beck and call all the time and your local dealer is. Boulder arranges for freight transport from the factory to our dealers and distributors around the world, properly crated and insured. The dealer then arranges proper freight transport to the customer’s home (if necessary) and installs them for the customer. There will be no drop shipments where customers have to do the installation themselves. Warranty is five 5 years, part and labor. Reliability is a key element of their design criteria. Return policy is a question for their dealers. With the research and care that goes into buying a product like this, however, Boulder suspects that there will not be any returns.

 

Talking with Boulder
By email and chat on Facebook, I asked Maez a few dozen questions:

How did he get into this?

     It was actually an old girlfriend that got me into the industry. I was doing college radio and was a huge music fan and looking for something to improve my car stereo at a local high-end retailer's annual "warehouse sale." While there, she dragged me over to see a pair of flat floor-standing speakers that sounded unlike anything I'd ever heard before and I was awestruck at what I heard - they were Apogees. As they were an open box pair, she convinced me to spend my next semester's funding on them and I starved in order to pay for them. Then, just as I was about to graduate, a hiring freeze was put into place for my planned field. At the time, her brother had wrangled a job at that same dealer and he managed to get me employed there. From there I moved over into the manufacturing side of things since I have more of an interest in the creation side of things.

 

Is there really a market for something like this?

     There is. Much like any other high-end or luxury market, there's a market for products that push the limits of what's possible in performance. Our first run of 3050s sold out long before the design finalized and there's currently a waiting list. Because we occupy a place in the audio industry where we already make gear at the very top of the performance ladder, we have a much easier time making products at this level than a company that makes value-oriented or budget gear. Likewise, if we were to try to make things the way they do, we'd probably not have the greatest success, so we stick to what we're good at.

 

What speakers do most customers have with Boulder amps?

     I'd love to give you a definitive answer to this one (because I'm itching to buy speakers), but I can't. I can't even tell you "big ones" or "little ones." We're distributed all over the world and in certain places antique horns are sought after, so we get paired with them. In places where living space is at a premium, monitors are predominantly used. In the Americas, companies like Focal, Wilson, Magico, Dynaudio, B&W, etc. get a lot of exposure and we're naturally paired with them. In different places there are other marques that dominate the market, so we get paired with them instead. This is good for us because we get feedback telling us that we have no problems driving various speakers and our goal of neutrality is verified if the character or voicing of the speaker is clearly audible.

 

Much like any other high-end or luxury market, there's a market for products that push the limits of what's possible in performance.

  We try to design neutral instead of voiced or flavored, so the speaker then becomes the colored or voiced product of choice, meaning that the user then decides what's best based on his preferences. We can drive anything, so the electronics aren't limited by what they're connected to. We have users who use everything from mini-monitors to giant ribbons to horns to big dynamic speakers.

[Note: Boulder's listening room has Wilson Alexandria X-2 speakers tethered to Boulder 2050 mono block amplifiers.

 

Isn’t this amplifier going to be overkill for most speakers?

From a pure power perspective, yes. Unless you're driving an incredibly inefficient speaker in a huge room or auditorium (yes, we've done that), the 3050s are much more power than just about anyone will ever need if they value their hearing. However, much like an engine, the maximum power available does not necessarily determine the response of the amplifier. A very powerful engine responds with unmatched control, even at low speeds. The same is true for an amplifier of this size and power, meaning that the control and clarity of the amplifier is going to be unmatched, even at moderate listening levels, because of the inherent capabilities of the amplifier as a whole.

 

Do the 3050s require a warm-up?

     That's a question. We should know the answer to that, but we don't – our model hasn't been evaluated in a "warm" vs. "cold" state yet since it's still young and everything that has been done to it has been done with a lot of electrical testing done prior. In other words, we'll turn it on, poke around in it with a meter for a while and then listen if we have a chance, but we've never really listened to them cold that I'm aware of. Likewise any kind of "break-in" period - if there is one, we couldn't tell you what it is because we've always used well-tested and run-in assemblies and have never built a pair from scratch for listening purposes.

I would guess that a warm-up period is necessary because of the sheer number of output devices that have to get up to temperature in order to stabilize bias, but I couldn't tell you how long that might be.

 

Are we getting any closer to audio nirvana?

     Yes, but slowly. The people who want to hear real life in their living room are likely to be disappointed in the near future. Those who want to hear much, much better reproduction of recordings in their living room, however, are probably on the cusp of an era of brilliant development.

 

I doubt any speaker or amplifier will ever have the dynamic capability of real music.

     Hi-res digital that's bit-perfect in comparison to the original master, big advances in digital conversion, new analog parts that allow us to do things better than ever before are all becoming available. Amps with big voltage capability have always been around because of industrial applications or pro sound reinforcement. But the ability to make them actually sound good has been the limiting factor.

I doubt any speaker or amplifier will ever have the dynamic capability of real music. Not only is the playback equipment handicapped by the ability to move air on a scale that individual instruments have no problem with (not to mention an entire band), but the recording process tries to capture a huge event through a tiny microphone diaphragm. We're good at what we do throughout the entire recording and playback chain, but not THAT good. Occasionally I'm shocked when I hear a tiny portion of music that sounds incredibly realistic, but it's always something that's just a detail.

Room EQ [is okay] if it's done in such a way that it doesn't cause other problems, but yes. We have new parts and research that enables us to lower noise floor, lower distortion, increase efficiency, etc. Processing power has also, oddly, allowed us to do new things with analog because of how we can then control it. As parts get better, so do the finished products.

 

When I see that an amplifier doubles its wattage rating as Ohms get lower, I think an amplifier will have great woofer control and delicious bass. But why is that?

     Sometimes it is and sometimes it isn't - it all depends on the overall circuit topology for bass control and damping, not just the power output capability. It's possible to build a high-powered amplifier with boomy or undamped bass. We feel that an amplifier should be well damped and should have very tight, fast and powerful bass response as a result. I've never heard a "warm" kick drum. Power, energy and control in low frequencies are where rhythmic music is seductive and involving.

 

Why is voltage more important than wattage?

     A recorded musical signal is stored as voltage from the microphone on. In order to reproduce that recorded musical signal exactly as it was captured, you need to be able to reproduce that voltage swing perfectly, especially when amplified. Wattage is a ratio of current to voltage. If you have all of the current capability in the world but your voltage swing is handicapped, you lose the ability to reproduce the true dynamic range of the musical signal as the artist intended it to be heard.

 

How many volts do cone speakers need?

It would depend on the level to which the music was being played and the efficiency of the speaker. If the volume is low and the speaker efficient, not much.If the system were playing very loudly and the speaker inefficient, quite a bit more. Because every cone-based loudspeaker has a different efficiency at different frequencies, the answer will be different for every model and brand of speaker. Add to that the fact that every user will generally play them at different levels and the answer to this question could be anything. So what we try to do is make amps that will provide "more than enough" up to their maximum rated output power for any reasonable situation you could place them in, thus our massive supplies. The [same] answer holds true for horns, but the output voltage required would be less because of the much greater efficiency of horns.

 

What musical passages, at what SPL, require that much voltage?

Theoretically, just about anything could and again it depends on loudspeaker efficiency and room size. But the more powerfully dynamic, bombastic and/or complex passages in pieces of music are where the majority of power gets used. Everything from large symphonic pieces to rock to jazz to electronic music can be demanding enough to make an amplifier work hard. So can a number of movie soundtracks because of the inordinate amount of sub-bass information that's used.

 
Pair of machined steel tubes housing transformers mounted to the base plate of the amp. The rest of the amp is then built up around this subassembly. All of the exiting wires are secondaries.]

 

During loud musical peaks, what uses more power, a typical residential washer and/or dryer or the new 3050?

Residential dryers don't play loud musical peaks! :) At the very instant of the peak, a 3050 could if it were playing loudly enough into a low impedance load, but only at that tiny fraction of a second when the peak occurred. Otherwise the dryer will use much, much more power when operating over time since it runs full-bore continuously during the drying cycle, using a large amount of power all the while.

 

What do you estimate is monthly power consumption?

     That would depend on usage (how much it gets used), listening habits (how loud it gets played) and associated equipment (speaker choice and room size). Consumption could be substantial or insignificant, depending on the kind of use the amps get.

 

Are your customers at all concerned about being Green?

     I'm sure some are. As a manufacturer, our customers interact a lot more with our dealers than with us, so we don't get a lot of direct feedback. A typical Boulder amplifier will use much less power at idles than a tube amplifier. We're not out to drain the world of energy yet at the same time we have to meet certain engineering goals for each product. The trick is to meet our engineering goals with a minimum amount of energy waste and consumption.

 

What makes a solid-state amplifier musical?

     The ability to reproduce exactly what the artist and producer of a recording wanted you to hear. Unless it's an abysmally recorded piece of music (and even then, it can be fun to listen to), the music has its own merits and musicality. As long as we don't editorialize or try to change the qualities of the recording in any way, our amps should be musical. Not everyone does this - some manufacturers choose parts based on their "sound" or "voice" their equipment because they like a certain kind of flavor or coloration overlaid on the music or like the music to be presented a certain way. Our thought is that every recording should sound different because every recording is different.

 

We've never deviated from that objective. Dynamics, detail, acoustic space, virtuosity, delicacy, power, grace - everything is presented as it was captured in order to let you hear the musicality inherent in the performance or soundtrack.

     About 26 years ago, Boulder originally began in the professional world of studios and broadcast where recording engineers had to be able to hear exactly what was in their work in order to make the best recordings possible. We've never deviated from that objective. Dynamics, detail, acoustic space, virtuosity, delicacy, power, grace - everything is presented as it was captured in order to let you hear the musicality inherent in the performance or soundtrack.

  

Isn’t a granite base overkill if the amplifier sits on concrete?

     It could be seen that way, but remember: we're sold all over the world to many different people. In some places, things placed on the floor are dirty. We've also had requests to do a custom stand because there are a number of stands or platforms that simply can't support a 450 lb. amplifier. 

 

Are the 3050s 100% made, or assembled, in America?

     Both, as much as possible. Some things, like certain ICs, simply aren't available as a US made product, but we source anything and everything from locally or from the US whenever we can. We're the last high-end electronics manufacturer that cuts and finishes our own metal and makes our own circuit boards. Everything you receive from us is designed, engineered, produced and assembled at our facility in Boulder, CO. Other than anodizing, we don't outsource anything at all if we can help it.

 

Have you considered an Apple color theme of peach, orange or green shades? ;)

No, but we've had requests for black, blue, Rosso Corso and dark gray. People are free to customize them as they see fit once they take delivery.

 

 Any special instructions for placement?

Just make sure that the surface can support 900 lbs. of amplifier and 150 lbs. of granite base plus your loudspeakers and anything else in the area, that they have adequate ventilation and that you never want to vacuum in that location again. Otherwise the amps are unaffected by any sort of placement issue. We designed them to work optimally out of the box with no tweaking necessary.

 

Is your pre-amplifier required?

No, any preamp will work, balanced preferred. Obviously we feel that our preamp is the best mate because they meet our design criteria, but I suspect every manufacturer feels that way.

 

Are the plastic surround shielding on the speaker posts required by Euro law?

     Yes. In addition to potentially hazardous voltages between the + and - terminals at high output power levels, some binding posts are the same spacing as European AC plugs. 

 

Why not add power meters?

They're frivolous and have nothing to do with the reproduction of music other than to distract you from the sound that's being created. We're justifiably proud of the performance of our products, so we'd rather you listen to what they can do instead of stand in front of them and look at a meter. 

 

Do speaker cables matter?

Only as far as the qualities of the cable are concerned. Since every cable is a minor filter based on the inductive and capacitive qualities of the winding, the amplifier will reflect the filtering characteristics of the cable. In short, it will reproduce exactly what it is fed. If a heavily filtered cable is used, that will be audible. If a relatively neutral cable is used, that will be also.

The amplifier itself will not react to the electrical characteristics of any cables being used.

 

How do you design a "text-book perfect" square wave?

With a lot of hard work, experimentation, lab time and proprietary circuit topologies that we keep to ourselves!

 

Specifications
Other Specs
Dimensions: 22.6" (57.4 cm) W x 13.4" (34.04 cm) H x 34.7" (88.2 cm) D. Depth includes 32A IEC connector. Without connector, depth is 29.5" (75 cm).

Each chassis weighs 450 lbs. (204.12 kg)

Granite base: 22.6" (57.4 cm) W x 2.75" (7 cm) H x 29.5" (75 cm). Each base weighs 75 lbs. (34.02 kg). Bases are black granite with polished stainless steel inserts in the feet.

 

Company Information
Boulder Amplifiers
3235 Prairie Avenue
Boulder, CO 80301

Voice: 303) 449-8220
Fax: (303_ 449-2987
Website: www.boulderamp.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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