No, the N22H reference-grade headphone amplifier from U.K.-Based Cranborne Audio doesn’t come with a bonus set of steak knives, nor do you get another one free if you order now. This device is a fantastic and super affordable, excellent-sounding, stand-alone solution for home studio users with subpar DAW-based headphone monitoring situations – also ideal for those on the go doing remote or field recording. The N22H will just about squeeze into your back pocket, and with the option of powering it via a 9V battery (up to 10 hours in low current mode), it can be used anywhere. But wait, there’s more!

This seemingly simple little standalone headphone amp/Cat 5e shielded snake/breakout box can also be integrated with Cranborne Audio’s unique C.A.S.T. recording system that includes the 500R8 500 Series chassis [Tape Op #135], and Camden preamps. This is how Cranborne explains it: “C.A.S.T. uses a shielded Cat 5e, Cat 6, and Cat 7 cable instead of 4 XLRs to not only reduce cable spaghetti in your studio but also distribute audio around studios or stages using affordable, readily available network cabling whilst achieving the highest sonic results due to their strict design standards.” You can make long runs (up to 100 meters) for mics and headphones possible with no obvious signal degradation via small breakout boxes.

The 500R8 has two awesome-sounding individual headphone/monitoring outputs onboard, but what if you are recording in a booth, the other room, down the hall, or across the street and need to get a signal to the system and a headphone mix to the artist? To solve this problem Cranborne has introduced the new N22H C.A.S.T. expander as an accessory for the 500R8 system. This handy little box is about the size of a mid-sized effects pedal and serves as a headphone monitoring solution, a standalone “reference-quality” headphone amp, and a C.A.S.T expansion unit for Cranborne’s 500R8. This means that when connected to the 500R8 via Ethernet cable, the N22H’s inputs serve as a direct link to the 500R8 for recording. I tried this out and recorded a friend at almost the max distance away with perfect audio quality. We also plugged a mic into the N22H and ran the Cat 5e shielded cable down the hall, to the other end of the building into my mix room. He could monitor and set levels for himself at the source while I was recording and monitoring almost 300 feet away! There was no high end loss and the signal was as strong as coming straight off the front of the 500R8’s monitor section. I admit, it’s weird to be using an Ethernet cable for audio, but it sounded perfect.

In addition to using the N22H for monitoring purposes, you can feed the signal back through the C.A.S.T system via the two XLR/TRS combo jacks. There is also a pair of TRS output jacks and a single 1/4-inch headphone jack with adjacent level control. A Headphone Settings switch selects stereo or mono operation, and an input source selector is on top of the unit. The N22H can run off a 9V battery or the provided wall wart. While we’re talking about power, the N22H is capable of transferring phantom power from a preamp (through the Ethernet cable) to power mics and active DI boxes – a single Cat 5e shielded can transfer up to four separate phantom power signals.

How does it sound? Whether you choose to use the unit as part of the 500R8 or as only a standalone headphone amp, it sounds fantastic. Rich, full-spectrum, clear audio with tons of headroom. Sending a mix down a Cat 5e shielded cable over 300 feet away with no discernible loss in audio quality for $99? Sign me up!

Although the N22H is not a full-blown artist studio monitoring mixer with separate volume controls for different sources, it is an excellent and affordable solution for mobile recording, and simple tasks or setups. Connectivity is an overlooked aspect of the studio. We have a pile of excellent boxes and toys, but are you using them to their fullest? Simple, well-built utilities are becoming some of my new favorite pieces of studio equipment, as they let me integrate and interface more easily from one piece of gear to another and maximize each tool’s potential. Whether you’re looking to expand your 500R8 system’s capabilities, or want an affordable, high-quality headphone amp, the N22H will get the job done.

Tape Op is a bi-monthly magazine devoted to the art of record making.

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