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.