The Boulder 1161 Power Amplifer An affordable piece of the rock

By Jeff Dorgay

August 31, 2019
I love wristwatches, but I’m kind of a lurker.

I’d love one of those big, chunky, Rolex Submariners, but I can’t quite make the leap to almost $20k for a watch. I wear a much more modest Tudor Bronze Black Bay. In a recent article from John Mayer on the website, he referred to my watch as “a way to get into the serious watch guy game without spending five figures.” Made me feel even better about my purchase.

High-performance audio is a similar thing. We see so many amazing technological triumphs, but some of them are out of our reach. Interacting with our readers for 15 years now, I’m amazed at how many of you have invested 30 to 100 thousand dollars in a music system. While that seems to be a big sweet spot (as are the 5-10k system owners) it’s still a far cry from the “money no object system” owners. No disrespect, it just is what it is. But guess what, that’s what we all want, right? Occasionally, you can cheat the numbers, and a few rare pieces of gear with a moderately high price tag, aren’t so far out of reach that you’ll never even be able to dream of owning one. And because they offer such tremendous long term value, make perfect sense to pull the trigger on.

The Boulder 1161 is precisely that kind of thing

If I received a big lottery payout tomorrow, I’d buy a full Boulder 3000 series system. It’s the most musically revealing gear I’ve heard in my journey as an audio consumer and audio writer. These are all six-figure components and worth every penny. But, they will remain out of my reach unless I have a major windfall. The new 1100 series is spectacular, in its own right. At $22,000 for the amplifier and $21,000 for the matching 1110 preamplifier, you could add your favorite pair of 10-20k pair of speakers a great source to make up a system that is close enough to what the crazy money gear costs, to live with for the rest of your life. And have no regrets.

Much like our discussion in the review of the dCS Bartok recently, you probably aren’t going to walk out the door and buy a $43,000 amp and pre tomorrow, and you probably aren’t going to start your hifi journey here. (Bully for you if that’s your starting point, though!) You work up to components like this, so you probably have something decent to sell or trade as a starting point, so this isn’t as scary as it seems at first blush.

After giving the 1161 an hour to fully stabilize thermally, the first cut to evaluate the mettle of the Boulder is Meshell Ndegeocello’s “Mary Magdalene,” a track combining a lush female voice, a wispy percussion track, and some of the deepest bass grooves going. It feels as if I’ve pushed my speakers and the listening room about 25% further apart. Many audiophile clichés come to mind, but the way this amplifiers’ complete lack of noise and coloration is uncanny, and if you’ve never heard a Boulder amplifier or system, might even freak you out a little. In an excellent way. I’ve never forgotten my first Boulder experience, and listening to the 1161 takes me right back there. The clarity that this amplifier offers is stunning.

What you don’t get

Because the 1161 is conservatively rated at 150 watts per channel (into 8 ohms), it doesn’t require the massive “big blue” 32-amp connector and power cord that Boulder’s bigger amplifiers use – providing considerable cost savings. Using a high quality, 15-amp AC socket means your favorite power cord will work just fine. Most users having speakers with a sensitivity rating of about 86db/1-watt, should be just fine with the 1161, so this shouldn’t be a deal-breaker. Those requiring more power can step up to the 1160, producing twice as much power, with an MSRP of $28,000.

Because of its power rating, this is a Boulder amplifier that can be easily lifted solo. Hitting the scale at just over 60 pounds, this one is maneuverable. Should you step up to an 1160 (at 135 pounds) assistance will be required. And remember, this is still the 1100 series. 

Boulder is known for casework that is flawlessly executed. This is because Boulder controls every aspect of their chassis building in house, from machining the raw aluminum to the final finish. They look great from a distance, but when you get close and truly inspect any Boulder product, you can see what a fantastic example of metalworking art they are. They are the only manufacturer in the United States that still has this level of control.

Functionality is king at Boulder, and their casework is not self-indulgent – the intricate design of the heat sinks allows higher heat dissipation while saving space over an amplifier with traditional finned heat sinks. The 1161 features the same heatsink design that graces the rest of the line, but the front panel and remaining chassis bits are of a slightly simpler design. The front panel design of the 1100 series is in part homage to the Flagstaff Mountain, which is near their Louisville, Colorado offices.

Finally, you don’t get to use your speaker cables if they have banana ends. The large wing-nut speaker terminals will only accommodate spade lugs because Boulder feels that is the best way to connect speaker cable – bananas loosen with time. So be prepared.

What you do get

Most importantly, you get the sonic virtues that have made Boulder a legend: tonal neutrality and freedom from coloration like nothing else, incredible dynamic range, and high resolution without fatigue or distortion. This fully balanced amplifier runs in class A mode up to 17 watts, (gently transitioning to AB above that) does a better job at disappearing than anything we’ve experienced. It’s so exciting that Boulder has not decreased the quality of their smaller amps, just the amount of raw power on tap.The 1161s 150 watts per channel never max out our Sonus faber Stradivaris (92db/1-watt) or the Focal Stella Utopia Ems (93db/1watt). These flagship loudspeakers deliver incredible performances with the 1161 in the amplification chain, and I couldn’t play them loud enough to detect any kind of clipping. Though the 1161 manual says that the white power indicator will briefly turn red in the presence of clipping, we were not able to make this happen, even playing TOOL at disgustingly (or invitingly, depending on your perspective) loud levels.

Where my reference Pass amplifiers sound slightly tubey in comparison, the Boulder is straight in the middle neutral. We will be revisiting this amplifier again in a month or so when the new 1110 preamplifier joins the system, along with our reference Boulder 508 phonostage for a full Boulder experience. For those curious about the difference, the larger Boulder amplifiers (with larger power supplies and even more output transistors) run further into class A mode, with the top amplifiers running class A all the way to rated power. And that’s what you pay a higher price for.

Many amplification components touted as “neutral,” merely exaggerate detail, overprocessing tonal contrasts in a quest for resolution, but these same products become exhausting to listen to for any length of time. When the Focals were in the system, I felt like I had a miniature version of Boulder’s reference system which features the Focal Grand Utopia EMs and a full complement of 3000 series components. This is an amplifier that you can listen to for days on end, and as you do, discovering new information in your recordings.

Sonically excellent as the 1161 is, most of its other virtue is underneath the top panel. The level of attention to detail rivals what you might expect from the Ferrari Formula One garage. (and, I’ve been to this garage) It’s no surprise that when you visit the Boulder factory, you see their biggest models being wheeled from one department to another on engine stands, in a spotless environment. Boulder’s employees are well trained and have been with the company for years, some for decades. (image courtesy of Boulder Amplifiers)

Nothing I’ve ever had the privilege of lifting the cover on in the audio world is built to this standard. This is what gives Boulder products the highest secondary market value of anything going – if you can even find them used. I’m sure people that trade Boulder in for something else are out there, but every Boulder owner I’ve encountered has only traded up. It’s rarely if ever for sale used, and I’ve never heard of one that has malfunctioned. I don’t even recall seeing a service area when I visited the factory, but I’m sure it’s there somewhere.

Excellence defined

In a world where countless hifi reviews lead to a conclusion where the reviewer says, “Is the XYZ amplifier worth the price asked? I don’t know, I can’t make that decision,” I have no reservation saying the Boulder 1161 is one of the best values in high-end audio today. On their website, Boulder says that the 1161 “has no sonic drawbacks.” For a change, the product exceeds the manufacturers claim.

And that’s what you write the check for. Given the Boulder 1161s sonic performance, build quality, and that it is as obsolescence proof as a component can be, I find it to be a more than worthy candidate for one of our Exceptional Value Awards for 2019. If you seek what Boulder offers, there is no better. And if you don’t need the raw power of the 2000 or 3000 series, this amplifier can easily be the last one you ever buy. Unless of course, you get a hankering for a bigger Boulder…

The Boulder 1161
MSRP: $22,000


Analog Source GrandPrix Audio Parabolica/Koetsu Jade Platinum

Digital Source dCS Vivaldi ONE

Speakers Focal Stella Utopia EM, Sonus faber Stradivari

Cable Cardas Clear, Tellurium Q Reference