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.
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.
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.