Audioengine’s N22 desktop amplifier was introduced as a partner to the company’s P4 passive speakers, and while I am going to talk about the P4s in another review, in this review I wanted to look at the N22 by itself, especially from the standpoint of the desktop musician.
A Desktop Amplifier?
Let’s start with what the N22 is, a desktop amplifier that you can see in the photo below. Many of you might be asking yourself what in the heck that is, and the short answer is that it’s just what it sounds like, an audio amplifier that fits on your desk. The longer answer, however, is that it’s what you need to power a pair of passive speakers, which are speakers that don’t have their own built-in amplifier.
Audioengine N22 Desktop Amp
I wouldn’t blame you for scoffing at this point and asking who in the heck makes unpowered computer speakers these days. It’s a legit question, if you’re talking about most of the computer speaker industry—almost all of the computer speakers on the market have their own (usually low end) amplifier. It’s why you have to plug them into the wall.
There are, however, a few passive computer speakers out there, for instance Audioengine’s own P4 speakers. They have the advantage of being far smaller than the company’s own A5, self-powered cousins, smaller even than the difference between a 4 inch woofer and a 5 inch woofer would suggest. That’s a handy thing for people with limited desk space, as the A5s, while they sound amazing, are large.
Other examples of passive speakers include Sony’s SRS-P7 (US$8.86 at Amazon), and, well, I couldn’t find a lot of other examples.
Be that as it may, there is a very important class of speakers called reference monitors used (or needed) by many desktop musicians and producers. Some monitors are powered, but many others aren’t, and that’s because a lot of producers and musicians can be pretty persnickety about what amplifier they use, as well as a whole host of other reasons far outside my expertise and the scope of this review.
The point is that there are passive reference monitors out there that are an inexpensive way for desktop musicians and producers to get a high-quality, flat sound when recording, playing, or mixing music. To use them, however, you need an amplifier, as the sound out from your Mac is unpowered.
Take, for instance, KRK’s excellent R6 reference monitors. These are at the high end of entry level reference monitors, and retail for $299 each (but you can find them everywhere for $149, including Amazon). In my mind, these are the kind of monitors that most desktop musicians and producers might get.
Other reference monitors in this class include the Alesis Monitor One Mk2 ($299 list for a pair, $170 currently at Amazon), or the JBL Control 5 ($436 for a pair, $338 at Amazon). There are many more examples in this price range, too.
You can spend hundreds or thousands of dollars more if you want to, but I imagine that most people buying high end reference monitors probably are equipping a studio, but either way, the N22 is a great desktop amp.
In my setup, I put Logic through the R6s (via the N22 amp), while iTunes (and everything else on my Mac) gets pumped through my A5s. It’s good to be Bryan! In the figure below, you can see a shot of the N22 in situ. I have a very large desk (there’s more off camera to the right), but you’ll notice that the vertical nature of the N22 means it doesn’t have a large desktop footprint.
The N22 in situ
OK, that’s the long setup, now let’s look at the N22. The thing I love about Audioengine is that they engineer a great product. They decide what they want to make and then find the right high-quality components that allow them to do so. In the years I’ve worked with the company and its products, I’ve never found them to compromise on the quality of what the end-product sounds like.
That’s important when it comes to an amplifier for many reasons. The first is that the amp has almost as much to do with the sound that a speaker makes as the speaker itself. Cheap amps can introduce noise, distortion, or even a bias, things you don’t want with your reference monitors or your computer speakers.
The N22 features a dual class A/B amp that offers the kind of quality I expect from this company. A Class A/B amplifier is an analog amplifier, and to me, analog beats digital every time when it comes to amps. This is true for my guitar, it’s true for my stereo, and it’s true for my desktop amp, now that I have the N22.
In any event, the result of using this Class A/B amp is that it makes my R6’s sound great (I’ve used it with a set of Audioengine’s P4s, too, and they also sound really good). The sound is clean at low, mid and high volumes.
This amp has another surprise for desktop users, too, and that’s an integrated headphone amp (the Burr-Brown/TI OPA2134 for the tech heads out there). There’s a headphone jack on the front of the amp that allows you to plug a pair of headphones in and get the same kind of clean sound through your headphones that you’ll get through your passive speakers.
And, because this is an Audioengine product, the company made sure that it can be used conveniently with an iPod, iPhone, or iPad, too. Underneath the 3.5mm input (there are also RCA inputs), there is a powered USB port on the back of the amp that lets you charge your iOS device, as you can see in the figure below.
Lastly, there’s an RCA (left and right) line out that allows you to pipe an unpowered signal to another set of speakers or some other audio interface. I’m not sure how many people will need that, but it’s handy if you do.
Audioengine N22 Desktop Amp, From the Back
I’m Lovin’ It!
If you can’t tell, I love this amp. It’s small, the 22 watts of analog power (the “22” in N22) per side are more than enough for most users, I think, and it sounds great. I do have the tiniest quibble, though, and it is tiny. The industrial design of the N22 doesn’t stand up to the look and feel of Audioengine’s speakers.
The innards are high quality and well worth the money, but the simple black plastic case with its easy-to-use volume knob (hint: you turn it clockwise to make it louder, you turn it counterclockwise to turn it down, and when it clicks and the blue light goes out, it’s turned off) just doesn’t look anywhere near as sexy as the P4 speakers it was designed to work with, let along the even sexier A5s.
Of course, you’re not going to use the N22 with the A5s, but the point is that Audioengine makes great looking kit, but the N22 looks pretty pedestrian.
If I could, I’d give the N22 a 5 star rating for sound, a 5 star rating for quality, a 5 star rating for utility (the headphone amp, the ins and outs, the powered USB port) and a 3 star rating for the ho-hum industrial design.
Our reviews aren’t set up for such specialized ratings, however, so I’m giving it a 4.5 star rating. At $199 (Amazon), the N22 is more expensive than some desktop amplifiers out there. For instance, the FiiO E9 amp is $111.95 at Amazon and the NuForce Icon Amp is $179 (Amazon). But both of those are digital amps, which, to me, serves to emphasize why the N22 is such a great device.
On the other end, there’s the Headroom Desktop Amp at $849 (also at Amazon). This is a Class A analog amp, a step above the N22 at a significant price premium.
For the money, I’ll go with the N22. Audioengine has implemented a high end desktop amp with an entry level price range—just as with its speakers, the quality is unmatched by anything in that price range.