Review: JDS Labs Element

The Element

See here for background.

It’s a headphone DAC+amp – details here. Since I care about function over form, I saved $50 buying a b-stock version new from JDS. It’s small & light, simple to use and beautiful in appearance. The cosmetic glitches that made it b-stock are truly cosmetic and slight; you won’t notice unless you’re a perfectionist. Inputs are USB and analog unbalanced RCA, so it can be DAC+Amp or just an amp.

The Element comes with an external wall-wart type power supply and a USB cable. The power supply is unusual: a wall-wart style AC-AC whose output is 16 VAC at 1 Amp. That’s 16 Watts for a 1 watt amp – so far so good!

My description of the sound is brief because there’s not much to describe. If you’ve ever heard a well designed and built top quality solid state amp, that’s what the Element sounds like. Spec-wise (curious readers will find specs at the above link) it’s as good or better as anything you will find at any price. And I mean any price – even into the multi-kilobuck range.

I believe specs are useful but they don’t tell the full final story. Absolutely black quiet background: no audible noise at any gain or volume setting. Stark neutral frequency response, all measured distortion (THD, IMD, noise, etc.) at -100 dB or lower. The sound is smooth yet detailed with no edge or grain. It sounds exactly like whatever you’re playing. My first impression was to call this sound reference quality, but a side-by-side comparison with my Oppo HA-1 and Corda Jazz took it down a notch. All are clean and neutral, but the HA-1 and Jazz have a richness in the bass and sweetness to the mids and highs that the Element lacks. This difference is subtle, I hear it only on high quality recordings with my Audeze LCD-2 headphones. It disappears with Sennheiser HD-580s. I don’t believe this is euphonic distortion; the HA-1 and Jazz are honest neutral amps, nothing like the tubuliciuos sound of a great SET amp. Some people call the Element “dry” and I believe this is what they mean. It’s clean and neutral, yet it lacks the last bit of refinement.

The volume knob is big, sits top center, moves easily and smoothly and has a wide range – over 270* of rotation. It’s nicely linear and extremely well balanced L-R.

The Element’s USB DAC can accept up to 96 KHz – 24 bit. When listening to this digital source the amp has considerably less gain. I found this was caused by software mixer settings; after correcting the Element’s DAC and analog levels had about the same level. I used the Element’s low gain setting with my LCD-2 and HD-580 headphones, and it had plenty of unused range to the volume knob.

The Element has unbalanced analog line level RCA inputs and outputs and can be used as a pure analog amp. If you plug in an RCA input it bypasses the DAC. When powered off, the Element powers off the headphone output but is still “on” internally, routing the line level input to the analog output. When turned on, it powers up the headphone output and powers off the line level output. This gives the Element great flexibility as an in-line device and headphone amp.

The Element’s DAC does not run in async mode; it relies on your computer to clock the data. JDS claims this has no audible drawbacks, but my experience belied these claims. I heard occasional tics or brief drop-outs, suggesting that it was re-syncing slight clock differences. These were seemingly random, not reproducible when backing up and replaying. This might not happen with other computers. Driving the Element from the same computer in pure analog mode eliminated this issue. By “pure analog mode” I mean: instead of feeding the Element’s DAC from USB, I installed a high quality sound card and fed the Element the analog unbalanced line level output. This bypasses the Element’s DAC entirely.

I have one minor quibble with the Element – the build quality is good, but not quite excellent. The connectors aren’t the rock solid Neutrik you get on true audiophile amps, and doesn’t give the satisfying thunk those provide when you connect & disconnect. It has me plugging in the headphones & other connectors with care. The volume knob is very smooth and satisfying to use (and it’s a top quality Alps pot), but it has a bit of give when you push gently on it and the instructions say not to lift the amp by the volume knob – despite the amp being small & light. Overall, the Element is well built yet not the solid brick military build quality of top-tier professional and audiophile equipment. I suppose JDS had to find cost savings somewhere, and they seem to have made the right choices. It does have a solid warranty you can use if something breaks or flakes out on you.

Overall, thumbs-up for the JDS Labs Element. It is a complete DAC+amp, semi-portable by turning any computer into an audio source, with enough clean power to drive just about any headphone on the planet. It has excellent sound quality, though just a bit short of absolute reference quality. It’s fantastic the level of engineering, sound quality, and output power you get for the price.