Review: Three amps for building your own desktop audio system

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I wanted to perform a similar experiment to compare the Audioengine N22 to the NuForce Dia, but that’s not quite possible, as the Dia doesn’t have analog inputs. However, NuForce’s Icon–2 features essentially the same amplifier, so I brought it into the mix as well. As expected, the Icon–2 (through its analog inputs) sounded great, with tight bass and a sound that gave each instrument some space to breathe. The N22 was even better, though, with more clarity, space, and instrumental detail, along with tighter bass.

Switching to the Icon–2’s USB input put it more or less on par with the N22. There were some subtle differences in sound, but overall performance was comparable. It wasn’t until I switched to the NuForce Dia (connected to my MacBook’s optical output), with its better DAC, that I heard something that bettered the N22, justifying the Dia’s $30 price premium. However, pairing the N22 with a quality standalone DAC (the DragonFly) offered even better performance, suggesting that the N22 includes the best amplifier of the bunch.

Headphoning it in

AKG K 701

Both the DTA–100a and N22 include headphone jacks; I tested each with my AKG K 701 headphones (which are picky about amplification) to see if either is of sufficient quality to replace a dedicated headphone amplifier such as the the modest HiFiMAN Express HM–101. I used the HM–101’s DAC as a source to feed the two amplifiers, and I also used the HM–101’s headphone output to provide a benchmark for evaluating the headphone outputs of the two amplifiers.

The contest between the HM–101 and the Dayton DTA–100a produced mixed results. The DTA–100a pulled better bass performance out of the headphones, but I found that the HM–101 sounded less harsh and more pleasant overall. (Both improved on my MacBook’s built-in headphone jack, however.) In other words, the DTA–100a’s headphone jack is on par with that of an inexpensive headphone amplifier. In contrast, I preferred the N22’s headphone jack to that of the HM–101. The N22 offered more bass, better pacing, more detail, and an overall more-enjoyable listening experience. If you’ve already got a good headphone amplifier, you’ll likely want to continue to use it, but the headphone jacks on both units are a nice bonus if you’ve been using a standard headphone jack.

Bottom line

I’m comfortable recommending any of the three amps here; I suggest going with the amplifier that’s best for your budget and speakers. If you want to get up and running as inexpensively as possible, the Orb Audio Mini-T will do a fine job of bringing your old speakers back to life. But for not much more money ($20 at current street prices), the Dayton Audio DTA–100a offers a notable improvement in audio quality, two inputs, and a pretty good headphone jack. The problems I encountered with stereo balance at low volumes were disappointing, but I suspect they won’t be issues for most people, and I think the DTA–100a is the overall better value. If you’re planning to use a computer as a source, though, you should consider the previously reviewed Topping TP30 and its built-in DAC.

For a bit more money, the Audioengine N22 offers the best construction of the three units, and by far the best sound—if you’ve spent $200 or more on your speakers, the N22 will help them sound their best. However, the N22 is also the same price as some entry-level stereo and home theater receivers, which will offer many more features but take up substantially more space. The N22 is also very close in price to NuForce’s great $229 Dia, which adds digital inputs and a remote (but omits analog inputs). If your equipment has questionable analog outputs but coaxial- or optical-digital outputs, I recommend the Dia over the N22. With a quality analog-audio source, however, the N22 shines, and is the best desktop amplifier I’ve heard.

This story, "Review: Three amps for building your own desktop audio system" was originally published by TechHive.

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At a Glance
  • Audioengine N22 Premium Desktop Audio Amplifier

  • Dayton Audio DTA-100a Class-T Digital Mini Amplifier

  • Orb Audio Mini-T Amplifier V2

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