Audioengine N22 Desktop Audio Amplifier (Playback 45)

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Audioengine N22
Audioengine N22 Desktop Audio Amplifier (Playback 45)

Audioengine was founded by a team whose members had backgrounds in the audio, pro-sound, and computer industries (specifically, Apple Computer), which is a formula that has helped the young company stay at the forefront of the interrelated iPod and desktop audio revolutions. Not too surprisingly, the firm’s first product—launched in 2005—was the critically acclaimed A5 self-powered, desktop monitor ($349/pair), which was favorably reviewed in an earlier issue of Playback and remains in production to this day. Later, the company went on to develop the much smaller yet still quite impressive A2 self-powered monitor ($199), the S8 powered subwoofer ($349), and the W1 and W2 wireless audio adapter modules ($99/each).  As you can imagine, these products collectively give iPod fans and desktop audio enthusiasts a lot of good options to consider, all of which are—in the global scheme of things—quite sensibly priced.

However, even with all this progress, Audioengine still felt a few essential elements were missing from its product mix; namely, a good, straightforward, no-nonsense desktop integrated amplifier and a matching set of high-quality passive desktop speakers. Accordingly, Audioengine has addressed the need for these two missing pieces with its two newest products: the N22 Premium Desktop Audio Amplifier ($199) and the P4 Premium Passive Bookshelf Speakers ($249/pair). This review will focus on the N22, while a separate Playback review (also in this issue) will center on the P4’s.

Before we delve into the features and sound of the N22, there are some aspects of its evolution that Playback readers may want to know about. In conversations that predated the development of the N22 by a year or two, members of the Audioengine team explained their desire was to build a small, modestly priced, and yet high quality desktop integrated amplifier that would, by design, sound significantly different from (and thus, presumably better than) other high-quality desktop amps then on the market. Before sketching out the N22’s design, then, the Audioengine guys spent a lot of time listening to and evaluating competing desktop amps—amps that in nearly every case were based on class D switching amplifier technologies.

While acknowledging that many of the better class D designs were solidly made and had undeniable technical merit (low distortion, high efficiency, cool operation, and typically high damping factors), the Audioengine team collectively observed that the sound of most class D designs left them cold. The operative word in that sentence is “cold,” since the Audioengine team felt many class D designs exhibited a certain cool, clinical, sterile sonic character that tended to distance the listener from his or her music. What was missing, they felt, was an amplifier that could capture (yet not exaggerate) the engaging natural warmth of music, just as many larger scale high-end audio amplifiers manage to do.

Accordingly, one of the team’s first decisions what that the N22 would be a traditional, high-end class A/B amplifier design, but one built on a smaller and more affordable desktop scale. While acknowledging that such a design would, of necessity, be somewhat larger and potentially more expensive to manufacture than a class D solution, the bet was that the sonic results would more than justify the means.

Also in keeping with longstanding Audioengine practice, the N22 was designed to be extremely simple to set up and to use. In practical terms, this meant the amp would feature an elegant, minimalist, no-gimmicks configuration whose emphasis was on sound quality and overall simplicity. It also comes with a very complete set of hook-up cables, so that users can begin enjoying their new amps almost immediately, and without having to worry about missing accessories. As you’ll learn in this review, the N22 is not an amp that tries to be all things to all people; instead, it strives to focus on one thing and to do it well.

FEATURES

  • 22 Wpc RMS power output from a traditional class A/B amplifier circuit.
  • Minimalist controls: the faceplate of the 22 contains only a small blue pilot light, a mini-jack for headphone connections, and a high-quality volume control. There is no input selector switch for reasons explained below.
  • The headphone amp section of the N22 is fed by high-performance Burr Brown/TI OPA2134 opamps.
  • Inputs: the rear panel of the N22 sports two sets of analog audio inputs (one pair of RCA jacks and one stereo mini-jack, both of which are “live” at all times, so that no input selector switch is needed).
  • Outputs: the N22 provides a variable preamp output (so that the N22 can be used either to drive a bigger power amp or powered subwoofers), plus a pair of gold-plated speaker taps.
  • Other: one appealing detail touch is the rear panel of the N22 also provides a cool USB power outlet jack that can be used to keep the batteries of iPods, etc., charged.
  • Accessories: the N22 comes with a power cord, a pair of speaker cables, a stereo RCA interconnect cable, a 1/8-inch mini-jack interconnect cable, and protective cloth bags for the amp, cables, and outboard power supply module.
  • Other cool design touch involves the chassis of the N22, which is designed to be positioned vertically so as to take up a minimum of desktop space. Interestingly, the chassis enclosure and its associated tabletop stand are designed to turn the entire chassis into a flow-through convection cooling “chimney” with air inlets at the bottom (concealed by the stand) and exhaust vents at the top. It’s a clever design that works beautifully (the amp barely gets warm, even when pushed fairly hard).
  • The outer shell of the chassis is, somewhat unusually, made of MDF material and is finished in satin black.

SONIC CHARACTER

The N22 is defined by three synergistic sonic characteristics: smoothness, richness of tonal colors, and natural (not artificially enhanced) warmth. Unlike other possible set of sonic virtues, these do not necessarily make for listening experiences that seem “spectacular” or “gripping” in a self-aggrandizing way. Rather, the sound of the amp is one that I think listeners will come to appreciate more and more over time, as they come to realize that the N22 somehow always manages to “sound right.” Let me explain what I mean by this comment.

Many amps strive to deliver what might be called a “high definition” sound, where the leading edges of transient sounds are ultra-sharply defined and almost hyper-defined. This sort of sound can seem very impressive to some listeners because, I suppose, it seems to demand attention and can initially feel very exciting. The trouble, though, is that this sort of sound isn’t necessarily true to the sound of the real thing (i.e., live music), nor does it wear well over time. Sonic qualities that initially seem very impressive later come to seem fatiguing or, worse, downright abrasive.

In sharp contrast, the N22 offers good measures of natural definition and clarity, but never seems to be pushing the “definition envelope” to the point where edginess would intrude. Instead, the Audioengine sounds remarkably smooth most of the time, though it will of course reveal rough, raw-sounding recordings for what they are. The quality of smoothness makes the N22 easy to listen to for long periods of time and also helps the amp make the most of the imaging capabilities of the speakers it drives. These characteristic are, I found, particularly important in a desktop context because speakers are typically placed so close to the listener that any traces of harshness or edginess would potentially stick out like the proverbial sore thumb. The good news is that, with the N22 in play, those kinds of distractions never arise in the first place.

Next, let me offer the observation that the N22’s fundamental smoothness helps to unlock the amp’s inherently rich, vibrant tonal colors. It seems to me that some “high definition” amps achieve definition at the expense of imparting a slightly hard-sounding, “glassy” edge on the music—qualities that make the sound seem cooler, more sterile, and clinical than it should. You get definition after a fashion, but tonal colors can get lost in translation, so that they seem washed out or in a sense “bleached” in an artificial way. With the N22, there are no harsh edges or hints of excess treble energy to contend with, so that the full-bodied richness of the amp’s midrange is given room to breathe, bloom, and develop fully. For this reason, the Audioengine amp consistently invites the listener to relax and drink in the beauty of the music.

Finally, the tonal balance of the N22 has a slightly warmer balanced than many competing small amplifiers do. While some might argue that this characteristic represents a deviation from strict textbook neutrality, but if so it is a characteristic that again plays very well in a desktop listening context. Where many desktop systems tend to sound slightly thin and lacking in foundational weight, the voicing of the N22 helps to compensate, making it easier for the listener to forget that he or she is listening to typically small speakers that are, after all, placed just an arm’s length away. The N22’s warmth is particularly well expressed in the amplifier’s bass range—especially the critical mid-bass region, where the foundation of many musical pieces resides. Where many small desktop amps sound a bit anemic and underwhelming down low, the Audioengine has an uncanny gift for making small loudspeakers sound as punchy and full-bodied as possible (subject, of course, to the inherent limitations of the speaker system’s being driven).

How does the N22 compare to like-priced class D amplifiers? To find answers, I compared the N22 alongside a NuForce Icon 2 amp, which is one the better class D amps I’ve tried. I discovered that the NuForce offered somewhat more treble detail, resolution, and extension, but that the N22 offer greater smoothness, warmth, and a somewhat “sweeter” presentation overall. Midrange capabilities of the amps were fairly similar, with the NuForce enjoying a narrow edge in terms of openness and detail, but with the N22 displaying an equally narrow edge in terms of tonal richness and warmth. Bass differences between the amps were very revealing. The NuForce showed tighter control of bass textures and transient sounds and arguably deeper extension, while the N22 showed significantly greater punch more appropriately weighty mid-bass. Both amps have merit, but the point is that they are significantly different in terms of overall presentation. Listeners who find the class D overly cold or clinical may, therefore, feel the N22 is “just what the doctor ordered.”

The N22’s headphone amplifier is fairly similar in overall voicing to the main amplifier, yet I came away feeling the N22 headphone amp was good but not great. The reason I say this is that today’s better headphones really thrive on amps that can serve up tons of resolution and detail—areas where the N22 headphone section can be surpassed by some competing designs.

MUSICAL EXAMPLES

One recording that serves to showcase many of the N22’s strengths is the soundtrack album from the film The Commitments [MCA], where a particularly revealing track is the R&B classic, “Mustang Sally”. Heard under ideal circumstances, this track can have tremendous vitality and rhythmic bounce, but under less than ideal conditions it is also possible for vocals to sound overly “hot” and for the propulsive electric bass guitar and drums to have not quite enough punch and “oomph” to drive the song forward. Happily, the N22 allowed our test speakers (Audioengine’s excellent P4 desktop speakers) to give of their best and to bring the track to life.

 

While the N22 certainly did not mask or tame the intensely modulated vocals heard on “Mustang Sally”, neither did it contribute any artificial harshness or edginess of its own. Instead, the amp’s inherent smoothness and natural warmth let me hear the sheer power and energy of the vocals, which admittedly get a bit wild at moments, but without letting the experience become unduly strident or raw-sounding. Similarly, the amp’s mid-bass weight, punch, and warmth enabled the small Audioengine P4 speakers to do an unexpectedly good job of capturing the potent, guttural growl of the electric bass and the fierce pop of kick drum and snare. Indeed, with the N22 in play the track fairly jumped off the speakers, sounding thoroughly engaging and alive.

Another recording that also benefits from the N22’s strengths would be “Triptych (Excerpt)” from the Craig Hella Johnson/Conspirare, Company of Voices album Conspirare in Concert [Harmonia Mundi]. This choral and instrumental piece has proven to be a bellwether track of sorts, in that it can sound hauntingly engaging and realistic on good equipment, but a little edgy and thus incoherent on not-so-good gear. The N22, I’m pleased to report, passed my “Triptych (ExcerptO test with flying colors, and here’s why. The particular piece I’ve cited features both percussion and especially vocal swells that push some amps up to and then far beyond their “comfort zones”—making the choir sound uncharacteristically rough and out of control, which just isn’t right. The N22’s smoothness and deep reserves of peak power worked hand in hand when these swells came along, enabling the sound of the choir to expand naturally to fill my desktop listening space with sound, rather than falling apart or descending into momentary roughness. What is more, the N22 did a much better than usual job of maintaining a pleasingly three-dimensional presentation during those powerful vocal swells, so that I was able to enjoy a sense of the distinct groupings of choral sections spread out upon a large soundstage within the recording venue (the Long Center in Austin, TX, where I had the privilege of being in attendance when portions of this recording were being made). This kind of three-dimensional presentation and ability to take large-scale passages in stride is part of what makes the N22 such a desirable amp—and a very good deal.

CONCLUSION

Consider this desktop amp if: you want a well-made, easy to use desktop integrated amp and headphone amp—one whose sound is long on smoothness, rich tonal colors, and natural warmth.  Listeners who have found it difficult to embrace the sound of class D integrated amps may well find that the N22 provides the more naturally warm and engaging presentation they have been looking for.

Look elsewhere if: you require an amp that also includes a built-in DAC (there are many amps on the market that do, but the N22 isn’t one of them). Also look further if you favor the admittedly cooler but perhaps also more detailed and tautly controlled sound that some class D amps provide. Be aware, too, that while the N22 headphone amp section is pretty good, it is less detailed and focused-sounding than some we have tried.

Ratings (compared to similarly-priced desktop integrated amps):

  • Tonal Balance:  9.5
  • Clarity: 9
  • Dynamics: 10 (sounds noticeably less edgy when pushed hard than many small amps do)
  • Flexibility: 3 (but note, the N22 would get a “10” in terms of simplicity and ease of use)
  • Value: 9.5

BOTTOM LINE:

The N22 is, I think, one of those amps that sounds more and more effortless, natural, and “right” the longer that you listen to it. The amp’s distinguishing sonic characteristics—smoothness, rich tonal colors, and natural warmth—work together to serve most kinds of music well. What is more, the amp’s character seems particularly well-suited for desktop application, where qualities of warmth, smoothness, and effortless three-dimensionality are often in very short supply. I found the N22 had the potential to make desktop listening experience more enjoyable and engaging, so that I kept coming back for more. And isn’t that precisely what good amps are supposed to do.

SPECS & PRICING
 

Audioengine N22 Premium Desktop Audio Amplifier
Power Output: 2 x 22 Wpc RMS
Frequency Response: 20Hz -20 kHz, ±1dB
THD+Noise: < 0.02% at all power settings
Analog Inputs:  two stereo analog (via 1/8-inch mini-jack and RCA jacks)
Analog Outputs:  variable-output preamp (via RCA jacks), stereo speaker taps (via gold-plated 5-way binding posts).
Other: Provides USB power charging port
Input Impedance: 10 kOhms
Dimensions (H x W x D): 7” x 2.75” x 5.5”
Weight :  5 lbs.
Warranty: 3 years, parts and labor
Price: $199

AudioEnGINE
(877) 853-4447
www.audioengineusa.com

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