Audioengine N22 Desktop Audio Amplifier Review 
Home Theater Power Amplifiers Stereo Amplifiers
Written by Todd Whitesel   
Monday, 06 December 2010

One discussion topic I constantly see on Audio forums and chat rooms is the “second system.” Most of us dream of having at least one room in the home/apartment that can serve as a primary listening and/or home theater room. But bringing a functional system into any room while maintaining feng shui can be  challenging. It can be doubly challenging for a second system. When it comes down to it, most of us are willing to sacrifice some performance for convenience; after all, who wants a 60-pound amp sitting on the dresser, no matter how great the sound? Audioengine's latest release, the N22 Desktop Audio Amplifier makes such sacrifices a lot easier. This 22-watt unit can serve proudly in any second system, even as “the” system if space dictates.

Quick to Setup

Like every Audioengine product I've tested, the N22 is incredibly easy to setup and use. You can have the amp out of the box, setup and playing music in 10 minutes. Everything comes carefully packaged and organized in cloth bags with adjustable drawstrings. Everything you need is included – from RCA and 1/8-inch audio cables to 16-gauge speaker wire, pre-stripped at the ends and marked for proper polarity. Although Audioengine supplies bare-wire speaker cable ready to go, the N22 is equipped with gold-plated binding posts ready to accept not just heavy gauge bare wire (up to 12 gauge) but banana, spade and pin terminations. One front-panel dial powers on the amp and controls volume.

 

top of n22


Small but Versatile

The N22 is built to fit in nearly any room, no matter how limited your space. This compact, 22-watt amp stands 7&1/4 inches high, extends 7&5/8 inches deep and measures barely more than 4 inches across, which includes the built-in stand. (I have books that consume more space than this amp.) And because the N22 stands vertically, it tucks easily into tight spaces. I use the upper room in my home as a dual office/music room. My main audio setup is against the south wall, while my desk and computer occupy the north side. Because of this, my back is turned toward my primary rig, so when it comes time for serious listening I shift to the center where I have a couple chairs placed for such activity. That doesn't mean when I'm working that I don't listen to music, but it most often comes from the periphery instead of me being front and center. The N22 changed that. I could put the amp on my desk, to one side of my computer monitor, and have full access to music from the “north.” The amp has plenty of ventilation and runs quite cool so it can handle cramped quarters without issue.

Although the N22 has a small footprint, it doesn't scrimp on features. It includes a headphone amp, and unlike most audio amplifiers the N22 can run safely without speakers connected. The headphone amp operates independently of the power amplifier, which is a pretty cool feature and makes the amp even more versatile. Should you want to listen to music stored on an iPod/iPhone through headphones only, you can bring the N22 along (it weighs about 4 pounds) without the burden of lugging speakers and their cables through the house. Plug in the amp and connect your device and headphones and you're ready. A preamp output also makes it possible to connect a subwoofer (for 2.1 “surround”), external amp or Audioengine's own wireless adapter and maintain volume control via the front dial. The rear panel also features a USB power port to keep iPods, iPhones and other USB-powered devices fully charged.

I wouldn't use the N22 to drive high-end mini monitors, as they are often less sensitive and require greater power to drive; but the AudioEngine amp deserves better than a $25 pair of plastic “computer speakers.” (AudioEngine's own P4 passive bookshelf speakers would be a logical pairing to the N22.) My trusty Athena AS-B1 bookshelf speakers, with sensitivity rating of 90dB, proved an excellent match to the N22. My sources included an iPod mini,and iTunes via my Mac mini.

 


In Action

The N22's sound surprised me. I thought it would be thin in the lower end and more pronounced in the highs, but it's a nicely balanced unit that preserves the weight and substance of music without sacrificing clarity. The only time I encountered trouble was playing compressed audio at very high volumes, which resulted in some annoying buzz and hum through the speakers. With uncompressed audio, there were no such occurrences, just enjoyable music with a sense of bloom that again surprised me. The Black Crowes terrific cover of Gram Parsons' “She,” from the 2-disc Croweology collection, sounded very rich while preserving the delicacy of the song's arrangement. Chris Robinson's heartfelt vocal sat squarely in the breezy mix. Turning things up several notches, I went to the barroom busting beauty of The Pogues' “Bottle Of Smoke.” This sublime composition is the bridge between punk rock and traditional Irish folk, with a rollicking rhythm that builds to a fevered pitch carried by Shane MacGowan's rusty larynx. The N22 had me soon stomping my feet in ecstasy and looking for the nearest pint of Guinness. All the whoop and puckish energy of the band and music came through, leaving me wanting little more. Not bad for a desktop amp.

back of n22For even better performance, I ran HRT's MusicStreamer II DAC from one of my Mac mini's USB ports into the N22's analog inputs. This upped the ante, as I could stream music from iTunes through the DAC for independent processing before playback. The improvements to redbook CD were immediately apparent, with better imaging and detail; however, the DAC also makes it possible to play high-res files – up to 24-bit/96kHz – without the use of a DVD player. Digital music sites such as HDtracks and Linn Records are just two of several outfits that offer high-resolution audio files for download. One recent release from the latter that blew me away musically and sonically is British singer/songwriter Dan Arborise's Of Tide & Trail. Linn aptly describes Arborise as “John Martyn meets Nick Drake for the 21st century.” This scintillating collection of 10 songs is a warm and rich treasure of to-be classic Brit-folk. The ambience of Arborise's guitar and his woodsy, feathery vocals came to life through the N22 - mood and emotion captured in sonority.

Final Thoughts

Audioengine has another winner on its hands with the N22. For $199, you get an easy-to-use and musical amp that's equally at home in the bedroom, den or office. Its small footprint will be immediately welcome, but the sound is what will turn it from guest to permanent resident.






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