New Gear: Griffin Twenty AirPort Express Amplifier

Futureproofing. It's a concept that appeals to consumers, but for various reasons most manufacturers have shied away from products that enable people to extend the useful lives of the gear they already own.

The brand-new Griffin Twenty ($99, out today) is a refreshing exception to the rule.

The little Class D amp is designed around Apple's last-gen Airport Express wireless access point/mini router, and is aimed at repurposing a pair of forgotten passive speakers as a wireless AirPlay system. It's a nice idea, and the price is right. Do  the numbers add up? 

Firing up the Twenty

"The good speakers miss you," the literature tells me, and Griffin positions the Twenty as an alternative to unspectacular-sounding docks. So I did as suggested, hooking up a pair of old Triads we had gathering dust around the office, plugging in, and cranking up some Zeppelin, Lonnie Smith, T. Rex, and James Brown and a little PiL to get in a retro mood.

As you might expect, there wasn't much to setup beyond connecting some speaker cables (the binding posts on the Twenty are solid-feeling spring-loaded all-metal units; nice to see in an inexpensive device), sliding an Airport Express onto the power-supply stub atop the Twenty, powering the thing up, and selecting said Airport Express from the AirPlay tab of whatever audio app I happened to be using. There's a convenient subwoofer output (crossover set at 80 Hz); I didn't make use of this feature, but it's there.

Obviously, since the audio connection is made using the Express' optical output, you can plug in anything that spits out an optical digital audio signal; I had good results with my MacBook Pro. 

The huge gain knob is a pleasure to manipulate, though its top placement means you can't squirrel the Twenty away on a shelf without any airspace.

I'm not sure why you'd necessarily choose the Twenty aesthetically if you weren't already a pre-2012 Airport Express owner, though one possible use case did come to mind - if you're using it as a desktop amp with passive speakers and a Mac, you could just mount your MagSafe power supply (which uses the same connector) to the Twenty and feed it directly from the Mac or whatever other digitally endowed source device you might have handy. It'll save you an outlet at the very least. 

It would have been nice to see an analog input someplace on this thing, and a headphone amp might have made sense given the desktop application I found appealing, but neither feature would be part of the device's core mission (to turn disused speakers into a wireless AirPlay "dock"), and such things would have added complexity and cost.

Bottom Line

The Twenty is unquestionably a cool little device, though at this point it is is a bit of an odd product. When Griffin first announced the Twenty back in January, Apple hadn't yet rolled out the new Express, which now features a very different form factor - one that can't take advantage of the Twenty's old-style power connect.

The use of an Airport Express as an AirPlay receiver in third-party products is widespread.

From a recycling perspective, the Twenty is a neat device, especially given the passing of the particular Airport model it was designed around - it lets you make use of an obsoleted Apple product that lots of folks have lying around, and perfectly good speaker pairs that have been pushed to the sidelines in the dock (or post-dock) era. 

At $99 the price is right, not far off from other small Class D devices. If you're not a Mac household, and you're looking for something to repurpose some old speakers for the digital age, you could pick up something like the Topping TP30 (which packages a USB DAC with a 30 watt/channel Class D amp). The Topping also has an analog input, which makes it a lot more generally useful.