Interview with Rich Maez of Boulder Audio

  1. What moved you to design Boulder 2008 phono preamplifier? Do you think that lately vinyl is reinventing itself?

The 2008 was the result of requests from our customers. They asked for a phono section to match the quality of the 2010 preamplifier and the 2060 and 2050 amplifiers. We initially built 10 units, thinking that the 2008 had limited appeal, and every one sold when we first showed it at the 2002 Consumer Electronics Show. We then decided to make it available permanently and it has been one of our most popular products ever since.

I don’t think vinyl is reinventing itself – it is still the same basic format and still has the same appeal. I think, however, that there are things that are making vinyl sales increase. First, there are a large number of people who are rediscovering their old music collections after a number of years. These are people who have retired or no longer have children at home and have more time. Second, both the production of vinyl LPs, turntables and the electronics to play them are constantly improving, so sound quality is better than ever. Third, younger people (besides club DJs) are discovering the sound of vinyl and buying new releases on vinyl. Even bands like Metallica are doing extremely high quality reissues of their older albums on vinyl.

  1. How does Boulder experiencing digital-analog format?

We began working with digital audio conversion about 12 years ago. At the time, we were developing the 2000 Series and we saw the opportunity to do some things that had never been done before in both the digital and the analog portions of the converter. Today, we have just completed the development of the 1021 Disc Player, and again we have tried to do things that would be best for sound quality instead of simply doing things the way audiophile companies have traditionally done them. We are extremely proud of the 1021. It’s a big leap forward for sound quality, especially since it can also play very high-resolution music files.

I think that as time goes by and we have access to more high-quality recordings and technology, digital sound will continue to improve and become even more neutral. Boulder does not prefer one format (analog or digital) over another, but rather we concentrate on making everything adhere to the original recording as much as possible.

  1. In your lab testing you probably compared your reference 2008 with 2020. What kind of conclusion can you draw between state of the art DAC and phono preamp?

They’re different, though neither sounds like a master tape. Analog has its own types of distortions and digital has a very different set of distortions. We try to eliminate all of them as much as possible, however there are things we do not have control of – resonances in phono cartridges or tonearms, DAC chip limitations, etc. The 2008 gives you a huge amount of detail and resolution and lets you hear the flavor of the cartridge and turntable, though the 2020 has perfect pitch accuracy, better dynamic range, and powerful low frequency response. Neither is better, they’re just different.

  1. Boulder 1021 Disc player was just announced. It support numerous formats and you invested over 1 mil $ into research. Can you please tell us what lead to this kind of universal player and how did you approach the designing of it? Why this project demanded so much funds?

The 1021 actually began life as a DVD player. We had started to develop a video player, though when Blu-ray and HD-DVD appeared, we decided to concentrate on music (we could never keep up with Sony or Toshiba and the rate at which they were developing the blue disc formats). So we stripped the DVD capability from the 1021 and decided to figure out where the limitations of digital music reproduction were and create entirely new ways to solve them instead of trying to improve on what was already being done. Most players had always used an “audiophile” disc drive that limited what was possible because of the electronics that came with it – high-end manufacturers were being forced to use them. This meant we needed to develop a new display and user interface. Also, if we created our own software and computing system, we were free to do any type of data conversion that could be burned onto a CD-R, and this allowed us to decode WAV, AIFF, MP3, FLAC, or OGG Vorbis files, some of which can go to 32-bits and 192 kHz where digital filtering is much gentler. Not only were the new files other than Redbook PCM (standard CD music) convenient and you could store hours and hours of them on a disc (like MP3, for example), but you could also find hi-res files that provided incredibly good, pure sound quality, better than we had ever heard before.

As time went by, we realized that the player should be a slave to the data, not the other way around – it should do the work in software instead of processing it in hardware and forcing it to work in an AES data stream. The more we learned, the more we changed. The more we changed, the more expensive it became to develop. In a sense, we’re fortunate that we aren’t limited by pricing and much like Bentley or Breguet we have the freedom to develop and innovate the absolute best we can.

  1. Everyone is approaching jitter and digital audio with their own solutions. What is Boulder design philosophy regarding DA converters?

When we were working on the 1021, we decided that we would avoid anything that would be susceptible to jitter and have an effect on sound quality. The DSP section is then slaved to a master clock that is located as close to the D/A section as possible. All of the clocking is done there. If the clock signal is needed elsewhere for reference or sync, it is sent back where accuracy is not absolutely necessary because it will be clocked later at the DACs anyway. We also believe that the elimination of low-frequency noise-related jitter is extremely important, so we developed our own precise interval clock to deal with this issue. Low-frequency noise-related jitter has a much greater correlated impact on digital sound quality than many people think. Dual buffers, one in hardware and one in software, also help to deal with any effects jitter may have on the data. The best way to deal with jitter is to eliminate the things in the conversion process that can be affected by it.

  1. Your amplifiers are used commonly in pro audio industry. Do you draw the line between pro and high-end audio?

No, not really. Boulder actually began as a pro audio company 25 years ago. Jeff Nelson, our founder, began in the broadcast industry where reliability is paramount and also worked in Hollywood with a number of people who believed that sound quality was the top priority. These people still exist. For example, if you watch movies like U-571 or Glory, the people responsible for the soundtracks spent thousands and thousands of hours making them an incredibly powerful sound experience. They don’t work with poor quality equipment because it would mean their sound isn’t as good as it could be and they have a huge amount of pride in what they do. We really don’t look at what we do as “high-end” or “pro” or “consumer.” We prefer to see ourselves as a high-performance company. We feel it is better to define ourselves by the great things we can achieve instead of who we sell to or how they use our equipment. In the end, we’re happy that people appreciate and understand what we do.

  1. Where is the line between overpriced gear and remarkable products that demands higher prices?

That’s a very hard question to answer. There are industries such as fashion where you simply pay a premium for a brand name or marque, even though the materials are not special. There are also industries like automobiles where you pay a premium for performance or luxury (or performance instead of luxury). Then there are other areas like art where you pay for rarity or future investment or watches where you pay for complications and jewelry but not accuracy or performance. In audio equipment, all of these same things can be true and customers are still devoted to companies that do each of them.

I would say that a product is overpriced if it fails to meet the expectations of the person who pays for it or if the manufacturer is dishonest about what does or how well it works. It should not be expensive simply because someone wants to charge a lot of money for something that was cheap to develop and produce. It should be exceptional to see, feel, and hear, and it should be obvious that it is special on first sight and even more when you listen. It should never meet the expectations of the customer, but always exceed them. It is remarkable when it continues to surprise and thrill you years later. That would be true for a product that is expensive as much as for a product that is not.

We are aware that our products are expensive, however we are very careful that all of our products are the very best performers in the world and that can be verified on the test bench as well as by ear. We are not expensive for marketing purposes. We are expensive because we do not do things cheaply or quickly. You can take the cover off of any of our products to see the effort that goes into making them. The chassis are not empty or full of parts from Pioneer. Everything has a purpose and we make everything ourselves if possible, including cutting our own metal. We feel that owning a Boulder should be special and that the product should provide you with a lifetime of enjoyment, not just a few years until something else comes along. We want our customers to be loyal, so we build things as best we can.

  1. Do you plan to offer more affordable products or your current product and price politics are borderline between quality and manufacturing costs?

The 800 Series products (810, 850, 860, and 865) are probably as inexpensive as we can go without sacrificing our engineering philosophy. To make things less expensive would mean trying to eliminate things that make our products perform well. The 800 Series performs well because we made them smaller and less powerful, not because we removed a lot of the performance. Some things, like gain stages, for example, are better in the 1000 and 2000 Series, but the lower priced gear is still great. We still do everything ourselves, we still give you programming and automation options, and they’re still very reliable. There will be more products in the 800 Series, though there will likely never be a series that is less expensive. That would mean performance we’re not proud of.

  1. What product you are most proud of?

Wow. There are so many. The 865 is an incredible performer for the money. The 1012 is three products in one chassis. The 2008 is unequalled. The big 2000 Series amps are delicate monsters. I would say that right now I am most proud of the 1021 Disc Player, simply because it is so different and so new – you’re always most proud of your newest release. It has been a revelation in CD sound, and has created an appreciation for CD that some dealers had lost. Being able to play hi-res music makes it even better.

  1. What do you use for your reference playback?

We have many, many recordings that we use, both analog and digital. Most of it is just good music instead of audiophile-type recordings, so some of it may not have the greatest recording technique, but we are very familiar with it. Some also do very specific things to a system. We use classical, jazz, rock, acoustic, electronic, everything, because our customers play everything and we have to be able to reproduce what they play through our equipment exceptionally well. At any given time, you can go in our sound room and hear Boccherini, Tool, Charlie Parker, The Beatles, Enya, Zane Musa…the list goes on.

  1. Can you please describe your reference company audio system?

We have many things available, from Westlake and B&W and Sonus faber and Apogee loudspeakers, to Wilson and JM Lab at our nearest dealer. We have numerous cables though we also make our own. We do not, however, have a “reference system.” We do not have a system we try to match or sound best with. Instead we try to sound neutral or transparent. We have to sound good with everything you could ever connect our gear to, anywhere in the world, so we constantly rotate, change or borrow equipment to make sure we stay neutral and do not “tune” our products.

The room is just as important. It’s multiple layers of sheetrock on the walls, each wall is treated, and the ceiling is six feet of acoustic material.

  1. Do you plan to add also a speaker to the product line and offer a complete Boulder system?

We don’t plan on it at this point. We know electronics and it’s best to stick with what you know and do it well. Other companies have tried to add a speaker line and it has meant that what they already did well suffered or the loudspeakers were not as good as the electronics. Besides, if you think our amps are heavy, imagine what a loudspeaker would be like!

  1. Do you have a dream product that is still just on the blueprint table?

Many! But we’re not saying what they are so that if we decide to build them we can take our time and do things carefully (without pressure) and it will be a surprise when they are released.

  1. Any contemporary manufacturers, audio designer that you feel share the same vision and quality as you?

There are quite a few. Dean Jensen was our original gain stage inspiration, and he had a massive impact on our company. Wilson has done a lot of work on materials research, Hansen and Magico have pursued constrained layer damping theory, Transparent has worked on eddy current and high frequency noise elimination, and Continuum has done a lot of resonance control work. Even inexpensive companies like Denon have pursued performance – they all basically pursue a similar performance goal and try to eliminate colorations.

Boulder is a company dedicated to eliminating distortions. We don’t make our equipment “sound” a certain way; it’s not voiced. There are other companies that do things this way, and then there are companies that make design choices by the way they change their products’ sound or create “flavors.”

As for quality, it also includes reliability. Things must not blow up. We don’t think anyone can build a chassis the way we do, and everything we make must be completely reliable. Since we do everything ourselves, quality is always the best it can be.

  1. Do you feel threatened by rising low priced Asian audio manufacturers?

No, we’ve actually been very successful in China, as the people who are able have been seeking out Boulder because of our reputation. The Chinese usually build tube or valve equipment (we only do solid state), it is generally not balanced, and it is not built to the same standard. Our way of building is very expensive and must be done slowly, one-by-one, so it does not really fit the Chinese production method. Since their way of doing things is very different from ours, we are not threatened. We have a different objective.

  1. What would you say that have changed in few recent years in the high-end audio?

The industry is fragmenting. We have seen a number of companies get bigger, a number get smaller, and some collapse entirely. Companies are also focusing on different types of customers – some prefer enthusiasts, some like luxury buyers, and they are very different types of people. We also have the custom installation industry affecting what we design and the way products are controlled. Analog is selling, the iPod has created the server product category, higher resolution digital is becoming available in different formats. Even overseas manufacturing has had an impact – reliability is down with prices, and fewer companies are in control of their own quality because they no longer build their own equipment at home. So we must be aware of all of these things and still stay true to what we do. One thing that has not changed is that people expect a lot from Boulder products.

  1. Where your company is heading in future?

People will always need amplifiers, but we are also looking at where music may come from. Downloads, subscription services, Blu-ray discs, digital libraries, who knows? We need to be aware of where music is going so that we can work with new formats. We feel that we are already world-class for the traditional formats – vinyl, CD, etc. We will continue to support those, as people have large collections of music on them. We need to try to work with new formats in a way that will not mean poor performance. If we have to wait for formats to improve, we will wait and go slowly. We have never been first, though we have always been the best.

  1. How do you see the future of high-end?

The high-end will always exist and there will always be companies that are successful if they build products that people want, and not just the type that Boulder makes – single-ended triodes will probably always be around in some form. The types of products that are available may change, as servers are very popular now but they are simply a computer in a fancy chassis. They may be just a step towards remote storage or streaming on demand. Vinyl playback will continue to improve, and hopefully so will vinyl formulations for better LPs. Even CDs are still improving, as JVC’s XRCD24 has proven. I think multi-channel audio may become more popular, but two-channel stereo will not disappear any time soon – there’s simply too much good two-channel music out there already, and multi-channel is very expensive to do properly.

I also think that the high-end will become more mainstream. As companies continue to grow and get better at what we do, we will be exposed to more and more people who didn’t know that high-performance sound exists. We just need to be very careful that we do not sacrifice performance for popularity.

  1. Any last thoughts for our readers?

Enjoy what you have, have what you enjoy. Do not buy products to impress others because you will have to listen to them. Buy good music, not just good recordings. Do not be afraid of new products, music, or formats. And most of all, let the high-end hobby make you happy.

Matej Isak

Mono & Stereo