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.”