Category Archives: Audio

Back to the HD-580 – For a While

My Audeze LCD-2 fell off my desk at work and got pranged so they’re going back to Audeze for repair and, incidentally, upgrade to the 2016 drivers. My home pair hasĀ  these drivers and they are a subtle improvement over the 2014.

In the meantime, I’m listening to my trusty old HD-580s. Original 18 year old drivers, though I’ve replaced the headband and ear pads, and the cable, a few times over the years. They’re clean and play, fit and look like new.

First impression: these HD-580s are nice headphones! Smooth mids, nice timbres, well balanced. They really were the very first audiophile headphone, SOTA for 1999, a whole different league apart from Grados and the like. But compared to the Audeze:

  • The low bass is rolled off
  • The bass is not as tight
  • The mids are a tad boxy, not as open sounding
  • The high treble is rolled off

Overall, they sound a tad muffled and slow compared to the LCD-2. Conversely, the LCD-2 has:

  • Wider bandwidth: deeper bass, higher treble
  • Better detail & articulation throughout the range
  • More natural, realistic voicing

A gentle parametric EQ helps widen the HD-580’s apparent bandwidth:

  • +3 @ 25 Hz, Q=0.67
  • +3 @ 14 kHz, Q=1.5

I’m enjoying this trip down memory lane. I listened to these same HD-580s during most of the 10,000 hours I put into Octane Software back in the day. They sound nice, but I will be very happy to get my Audeze back.

Audio History

I loved music and was fascinated with audio electronics since I was a little kid. Later I became interested in the physics of sound.

I bought my first audio component in the 1980s in college, a Harman Kardon integrated amplifier. It was simple and cheap, had no tuner, only 40 WPC output, but it did have a phono amp (MM only) and decent gain stage. To find good speakers, my friend Shawn and I visited the local audio store and listened to several different speakers (Klipsch, Polk, and a few others) with a variety of music. We both liked the Polk 10Bs best. They had the smoothest least colored sound for my limited budget. My musical taste at the time was about half classical, half rock.

Back in those days digital audio and headphones were not an audiophile option. Good headphones simply didn’t exist and digital audio was so new, consumer CD players were expensive and tended to have poor reproduction of high frequencies and transient response. Because of this, there were no good cheap paths to high quality sound, like we have today.

I didn’t have a turntable, they were too expensive. But I did get a good CD player, an Onkyo DX-530 which was one of the first CD players to use oversampling, which improved the high frequency and transient response by enabling more gradual slope Nyquist filters.

This little system lasted me through college with many hours of satisfying listening. Then, my junior year in college, the local audio store went out of business and I got their used demo pair of Polk SDA-2 speakers. This was a big upgrade from the 10Bs, and the price was so good it was almost an even trade when I sold the 10Bs.

After graduating from college I was ready for a decent turntable. I visited the local audio store and auditioned a couple of different turntables & cartridges for several hours, picking a Thorens TD-318 MK II with an Ortofon MC-3 high output MC. That was in 1991. That HK integrated amp only had a low-gain MM phono amp, and my budget didn’t allow for a low ouput MC. The high output MC was a little on the bright side, but it had the smoothest, least colored sound compared to the MMs.

This little system lasted me for several years, until around 1995 I got a new job and promotion and my budget was ready for an upgrade. I auditioned a couple of different power amps and pre amps at the local audio store and ended up taking home an Adcom 5800 power amp with a Rotel RC-990BX pre amp, which had a dual-stage phono amp, so I could now try low output MC phono cartridges. And I had enough power to fully drive those Polk SDA-2 speakers.

At this time, digital was improving but to my ears, good vinyl still had more natural sounding high frequencies and transient response. But only good vinyl – like heavy 280-220 gram pressings, half-speed masters, etc. I started collecting MoFi half-speed masters, Cheskys, Audioquest, Telefunken, Wilson Audio, Classic, Water Lily, and other audiophile vinyl. I didn’t have the budget for much, so I carefully selected and treasured each new addition to the collection.

In the late 90s I replaced my Onkyo DX-530 with a Rega Planet CD player. I read so many good things about it, I thought it must be great. I never really got into this CD player, I think the old Onkyo was actually better. The Rega had a distinct sound that grabbed one’s attention at first. But upon further listening it was to my ears, congested and the high frequencies were all wrong. I ended up selling the Rega about a year later. It was so popular, it was easy to sell. I replaced it with a Rotel RCD-1070. Nothing special, but a solid well engineered good sounding player.

Fast forward a few years to 2000, when I sold my first startup (Octane software) and was ready for another audio upgrade. I already had reference quality amplification so this time it was the speakers. I visited the local audio store with my best albums and spent all day listening to every fine speaker system they had. I also did a bunch of research in audiophile channels. I ended up picking Magnepan 3.6/R speakers, as they had the most natural, linear, uncolored midrange and treble of any speaker I listened to. The Adcom 5800 had plenty of power with enough refined clarity to make these excellent speakers really sing.

About a year later I designed and built my own ladder stepped attenuator to replace the preamp. This added a level of clarity and transparency to the system — no active preamp is cleaner than a single metal film resistor in the signal path! And I learned a little about analog audio circuits, grounding and soldering. Now I didn’t have a phono amp anymore. I did a bunch of research and picked up a DACT CT100, which is an excellent reference quality flexible phono amp, but just a circuit card. I designed and built a power supply for it (dual 12V batteries), with a small chassis, cabling & grounding & connectors. I was delighted with the sound, a noticeable upgrade from the Rotel pre amp’s phono amp, which was quite good to begin with.

This new level of transparency revealed the limitations of the Rotel CD player so I looked for alternatives, knowing that DACs were constantly improving. I ended up with another Onkyo, a DX-7555. It had a more refined sound with more natural midrange voicing.

After we moved from Orcas Island to Seattle my listening room changed. I used test tones, microphones and measurements to tune my new audio room. I built floor-to-ceiling height 22″ diameter tube traps for the rear corners, RPG acoustic foam 4 layers thick strategically located on the wall behind the listener, careful room and speaker arrangement, and ended up with a great sounding room that was within 4 dB of flat from 40 Hz to 20 kHz. It wasn’t perfect though. There was a small rise in the mids around 1 kHz, likely inherent to the Mag 3.6 speakers, and the lowest bass octave was from 6 to 12 dB down. Notwithstanding these limitations, it was a great sounding room.

I kept this system for about 10 years, from 2005 to around 2015. Then I replaced the ladder stepped attenuator with an Oppo HA-1 DAC, using the digital outputs from my source components. And I got a Behringer DEQ 2496 and used its pure digital parametric EQ to tame the 1 kHz bump and lift the bottom bass octave. This put the in-room system response within 3 dB of flat from 30 Hz to 20 kHz, which is comparable to a good recording studio. The sound is fantastically natural: detailed yet smooth and not bright, bass is deep, yet controlled and fast, natural voicing through the mids with seamless transition to high frequencies.

Finally, in Jan 2018 I sold my turntable, vinyl, and related analog equipment. I just wasn’t using it anymore, since I had all those recordings on digital, and the sound quality of digital had improved so much, while great LPs do sound great, I no longer felt that they sounded any better than great digital.

Mike’s Best Vinyl LP Records

UPDATE: Mar 2018: These are all sold!

As I’m liquidating my vinyl and playback equipment, I’ve sorted through all my LPs and found about 100 of them to be half-speed masters, heavy vinyl, 45 RPM single sided, Japanese Press, Mobile Fidelity, Chesky, Wilson Audio, Telefunken limited edition pressings, or other such. Many are out of print, all are in mint condition – no scratches, cleaned with the Nitty Gritty 2.5FI, played only on properly aligned high end equipment.

I’ve got a few hundred more LPs not shown in this list, many of which are nice, but they’re standard quality. I’ll probably sell them in bulk for $1 each somewhere.

Here’s the list of my best LPs. Items already sold are highlighted in RED: lpListHighQuality-1712

Vinyl LP Cleaning Solution Recipe

I covered this topic about 10 years ago, offering a recipe for fluid to clean vinyl LPs. I still use that recipe in my Nitty Gritty; here’s a summary and a few more tips.

It has 3 ingredients, one of which is optional:

  • Distilled Water
  • Isopropyl Alcohol
  • Wetting Agent (optional)

Most wetting agents are soaps which contain fragrances and other non-essential ingredients that you don’t want polluting your record cleaning fluid. I’ve stopped using the wetting agent and it still works just fine. If you use a wetting agent, all it takes is a couple of drops for a small batch.

Alcohol is a solvent that may degrade the seals of record cleaning machines. To avoid damaging the machine, keep the alcohol below 20%. That seems to be a conservatively safe level, and it doesn’t take much alcohol to do the job so adding more won’t necessarily get records any cleaner.

Two kinds of isopropyl alcohol are commonly available: 70% and 91%.

  • Recommended: Conservative formula (< 20% alcohol)
    • With 70%: 1 part alcohol to 3 parts water = 17.5% alcohol
    • With 91%: 1 part alcohol to 4 parts water = 18.2% alcohol
  • Aggressive formula (< 25% alcohol)
    • With 70%: 1 part alcohol to 2 parts water = 23.3% alcohol
    • With 91%: 1 part alcohol to 3 parts water = 22.8% alcohol

As for cost (as of Jan 2018):

You can buy 91% isopropyl for about $3.50 per quart, and distilled water for about $1 per gallon. That makes 1.25 gallons of fluid for about $5. Nitty Gritty charges about $80 for 1 gallon of their solution, which is for all practical purposes the same thing.

JDS Element vs Meier Corda Jazz

This is a detailed comparison of the Corda Jazz with the JDS Element. I own one of each and listen to them almost every day, along with an Oppo HA-1. I’ve reviewed each of them separately.

TL;DR Summary: If all you need is a pure analog headphone amp, get the Corda Jazz. It has all the clean neutrality of the JDS Element, but richer, sweeter, more refined. If you want the flexibility of having a DAC and analog RCA inputs and outputs too (even if you won’t always use them), get the JDS Element.

Similarities

Cost: Both cost the same (about $350).

Provenance: Both are built by very small independent companies. Both are designed and built with a no-bullshit engineering philosophy.

Sound Quality: Both have excellent reference-quality measurements and great subjective sound quality. Differentiating them in a properly done level matched DBT is possible, but requires careful listening.

Gain: Both have adjustable gain separate from the volume knob–a switch for high vs. low gain. This enables them to drive anything from efficient IEMs that only need millivolts and milliwatts, to big power hungry planar magnetics.

Power: Both have > 1 watt max continuous power output, enough to drive almost any headphone on the planet, except for electrostats which need a dedicated voltage step-up transformer.

Reliability: I’ve used both near daily for more than a year with no problems.

I believe any pragmatic audiophile (myself included) would be happy with either one, so long as he valued sound quality and neutrality over fancy knobs, glowing displays and the exclusivity of limited production boutique equipment. Actually, each of these does provide some of the latter exclusivity despite their low price, being less common than mass-produced gear from major manufacturers. When people see one on your desk they ask, “What the heck is that?”

Differences

DAC: Advantage: JDS Element
The Element has a DAC; the Jazz doesn’t. The Element’s DAC is clean, but USB-only and does not run in async; it relies on the source (your computer) to clock the data. JDS claims async mode doesn’t provide any audible benefit, and their measurements support that claim (though that doesn’t necessarily make it true). I do note, when using theĀ  Element’s DAC from my computer, occasional (once every few minutes) “tics” or brief drop-outs that are not in the source material and occur seemingly randomly. These don’t happen when bypassing the DAC and using the analog input. This behavior is consistent with the notion that the clocks (computer source vs. Element DAC) are slightly different and it occasionally re-syncs. This may happen less frequently or never on other computers.

Flexibility: Advantage: JDS Element
In short: in addition to being a headphone amp, the Element also has a DAC and can serve as a preamp. The Jazz is only a headphone amp; it has no DAC and cannot serve as a preamp.

If you need a DAC that can drive line-level analog output (for example to a different device), and also a headphone amp, the JDS Element does the job. You can use the Element with any computer or device having a USB connection; you don’t need a fancy sound card.

Both the Element and the Jazz have unbalanced analog RCA input jacks and can be used as a simple analog headphone amp. In the Element, this bypasses the DAC.

The Element also has analog RCA line-level output jacks, which the Jazz lacks. This makes Element quite flexible as a line-level DAC, an analog headphone amp, or a preamp. When turned off, the DAC is still on and it routes the USB input to the analog RCA outputs. So you can use the Element as a DAC with line output, and as a headphone amp, leaving both plugged in at the same time. However, it will only drive one or the other, depending on whether it’s turned on. Put differently, think of the Element as “always on” for DAC, line input and output, and its power switch controls the headphone amp.

The Jazz is nothing more than a pure analog headphone amp. It has no analog RCA outputs to drive another analog line level device. It can’t be a DAC, nor can it be a preamp. That’s because of the Jazz’s active balanced ground drive.

So what is active balanced ground drive? More on that below, but in short, it improves the S/N ratio. The drawback is that the – output carries part of the signal, so an unbalanced analog input shunt this signal to ground. This makes the Jazz attempt to drive a 0-ohm load, which can blow the fuse or damage the amp. Use the Jazz only to drive headphones — not other audio components!

Volume: Advantage: Corda Jazz
The Element has an analog potentiometer volume control. It’s a very good one: smooth, wide range, well balanced, but still a pot. The Jazz uses a stepped attenuator triggered by an analog pot; there is no pot in the signal path, only metal film resistors. It has about 30 steps, each about 1.5 dB apart. One can argue whether a stepped attenuator makes any audible improvement, but there’s no question it’s a superior design: cleaner signal with perfect channel balance at all volumes, and unheard of at this price.

Imagery: Advantage: Corda Jazz
The Jazz has a mode to artificially create a more natural stereo image from normal (non-binaural) stereo recordings. It’s a switch that blends channels with phase delay depending on the difference in L / R channels. I’ve used these before and they’re usually gimmicky. Meier’s is not a gimmick. It’s the only one I’ve heard that improves the image while getting out of the way of the music being otherwise sonically neutral or nearly transparent. I said “nearly” transparent. It does make the tone a tad less rich, a small emphasis in the upper mids to lower treble. I usually leave it off, except on recordings with extreme L-R separation, where for example a singer or instrument is entirely in one channel or the other. These are hard to listen to on headphones, and this switch fixes that.

Signal Isolation: Advantage Corda Jazz
Both amps have unbalanced analog output to the headphones. But the Jazz adds a twist: active balanced ground driving. Signal ground to the headphone is not the 0 V frame ground that it would be with standard unbalanced. Signal ground contains some of the L and R signal combined, such that the net signal at each speaker of the headphone (difference between + and -) sums to pure L or pure R. Because the ground contains some L and R signal, the net field around the cable is near zero (not exactly zero, as it is with balanced). This isolates the signal better, immunizing it to hum or other electrical interference, improving the S/N ratio. Some might say this also makes the load easier for the power supply to drive, but the power supply is already over-engineered with its 10 W toroidal transformer.

Build Quality: Advantage Corda Jazz
Both have great build quality, but the Jazz is a small step higher both inside and out: the case, switches, knob, power supply and other internal components. The Element is by no means cheaply made, it’s a pleasure to view and handle. But the Jazz is a step up.

Sound Quality – Subjective Listening
Both sound great: clean, neutral, detailed and fast without brightness, deep bass without being bass-heavy. Both are dead silent even at high gain full volume – no hum or other background noise. Both have excellent measurements comparable to professional reference gear. Not having a DAC, the quality of the Jazz depends on the source. I compared the Jazz & Element using an Asus Xonar DX sound card to drive the Jazz, and driving the Element with a USB bit stream. I used Audeze LCD-2 headphones (with the 2016 drivers) and extremely high quality recordings of a variety of music, mostly acoustic.

In this configuration, I preferred Jazz in overall sound quality, which countered my expectations since good solid state amps are so hard to differentiate in blind listening tests. The Jazz has the same level of clarity and detail as the Element, yet at the same time sounds slightly more rich in the bass and sweet in the mids and treble. Call it more musical, yet without any loss of neutrality or clarity. I emphasized the word slightly because the difference is subtle. Upon first impression they sound identical, though I feel well trained experienced listeners using excellent recordings would detect the difference consistently with careful listening in an ideal quiet environment. Indeed, the differences were big enough to overcome my expectation bias that there would be no differences!

That said, if I needed the flexibility that the Element provides–listening to music from a laptop where I must stream bits over USB because I can’t install a high quality sound card, or I needed to use it as a preamp in addition to a great headphone amp, or I was using great but less than reference quality headphones like Sennheiser HD-600 instead of the Audeze–I would grab the Element without hestitation. To put some meat to that statement, I purchased my Element and it’s not for sale.

By comparison, the Oppo HA-1 is the best of both worlds and more. Its analog amp equals or exceeds the Jazz, which is a high bar. Its Sabre ES9018 DAC is fantastic and has coax, toslink and USB inputs. It is fully balanced with both line level and headphone outputs, yet also has a single-ended outputs. It also has great flexibility with numerous inputs and outputs. The only feature it lacks is the Meier’s headphone image circuit, but I only miss it on those rare recordings with artificially extreme L-R separation. But the HA-1 is big and bulky, weighs about 15 lbs, costs 3x the price of the Jazz or Element and is no longer made.

Audio EQ Settings

Since I went to the dark side, and started using gentle parametric EQ to correct the FR of headphones & speakers to neutral, I want to collect the EQ settings here. My general philosophy is to make subtle corrections. FR response deviations are often related to other forms of distortion like phase or ringing. Amplitude corrections big enough to restore completely flat response can exacerbate those other factors. Thus I stick to subtle, gentle corrections that improve neutrality yet preserve the original character of the sound, short of restoring perfectly flat response.

When boosting levels, remember to apply a reduction in overall gain to avoid clipping. Take the biggest amplitude boost at any frequency and cut by that amount. This is in the voltage (not power) domain, so dB = 20 * log(V1/V2).

For example, if you apply +2.5 dB @ 4.5 kHz, then you must reduce overall gain by 2.5 dB, which is a gain ratio of 1 / (10^(2.5/20)) = 74.98%. Or just use 74%. When it comes to gain ratio, to avoid clipping, lower is safer. So always round down (truncate the decimal), not up.

Sennheiser HD-580

Characteristic FR: flat down to 50Hz, then roll off bass at about 6 dB per octave. Gentle dip of about 5 dB between 3500 and 9000 Hz. Narrower dip of about 6 dB between 10 and 17 kHz.

Parametric EQ Correction:

  • +4 dB @ 25 Hz, Q=0.67 (2 octaves wide — 1 each side)
  • +4 dB @ 14 kHz, Q=1.3 (slightly under 1 octave wide)
  • Gain: -4 dB = 0.63 = 63%

Subjective Difference:

This simple EQ transforms the venerable HD-580 making it more open, natural and neutral. Deep bass extension without impacting mid-bass and linearity. Slightly crisper transients and “air”. Even though the midrange is untouched, it sounds a touch more open, less boxy.

Audeze LCD-2

Characteristic FR: flat from zero to about 2 kHz. Gentle dip of about 7 dB between 2k and 9k. Flat from 9k on up.

Parametric EQ Correction:

  • +2.5 dB @ 4500 Hz, Q=0.67 (2 octaves wide — 1 on each side)
  • Gain: -2.5 dB = 0.74 = 74%

Subjective Difference:

Normally the LCD-2 sounds perfectly natural, yet a touch soft like listening from the 5th instead of 1st row, and correspondingly soft on detail. This EQ brings the LCD-2 back to the 2nd row and restores some lost detail, but without affecting its near-perfect voicing. It transforms the LCD-2 into the perfect headphone!

The 2016 and later LCD-2 are a touch brighter and need less EQ. Say 2 dB for these, and 3 dB for the 2014 model. CSD plots show the LCD series headphone tends to ring or resonate around 4-5 kHz, which is the trough of their natural response curve, so you don’t want to boost this freq too much.

Magnepan 3.6/R

Characteristic FR: depends on the room. My listening room has floor-to-ceiling tube traps 2′ diameter in corners behind the listener and 4″ thick RPG acoustic foam on the wall behind the listener. This EQ is busier than the headphones, which is unavoidable with in-room speakers, though I still managed to keep the rates gentle.

Parametric EQ Correction:

  • +3 @ 32, Q=0.67 (2 octaves wide — 1 on each side)
  • -2 @ 90, Q=1.41 (1 octave wide)
  • +3 @ 240, Q=0.4 (1.5 octaves wide)
  • -2.5 @ 1000, Q=0.67 (2 octaves wide)
  • +3 @ 3000, Q=1.41 (1 octave wide)
  • Gain: -3 dB = 0.7 = 70%

Of these, the bold-faced ones correct anomalies inherent to this speaker. The rest are room corrections. That is, the Magnepan 3.6/R is a near-perfect speaker when set up properly in a good room, but it rolls off the low bass and has a gentle lift around 1 kHz. The other 3 settings are corrections to my room.

Ubuntu VLC DAC Audio

I recently got a JDS Labs Element DAC + headphone amp. I drive it from my Ubuntu desktop using VLC as the audio player. It’s plug and play – no drivers needed. However, best results come after applying a few tips:

VLC Audio Device: The DAC has 17 output devices that appear in VLC. Which one to use? Use Pulse Audio if you want to hear a mix of all audio on the computer. Pulse Audio mixes all sources and resamples them if necessary to a common rate. Use JDS Labs Element DAC, USB audio direct hardware device without any conversions if you want to hear the audio track in its native sampling rate & bit depth, and nothing else. I prefer this for best sound quality.

VLC Output Module: use Pulseaudio audio output if you want to hear a mix of all audio on the computer. Use ALSA audio output if you want to bypass Pulseaudio to hear the audio track and nothing else.

VLC occasionally stopped playing and popped up an error saying “Device or resource busy”. If you’re using ALSA, only one app at a time can use the device. For example, if the browser tries to play a video it can steal the device from VLC. Also, VLC seems to have a bug in which it occasionally steals the device from itself when switching tracks. Adding a udev rule made this happen far less often. Add a file called 41-jdslabs-dac.rules to directory /etc/udev/rules.d. Make the contents like this:

# JDS Labs Element DAC
SUBSYSTEM=="usb", ATTR{idVendor}=="262a", MODE="0666", GROUP="plugdev"

This makes the JDS Labs DAC accessible to any Linux user.

Audio Glitches: Occasionally, once every hour or so, the audio will stop for a moment, then resume. I believe this is because the JDS Element uses USB adaptive mode, not async. This makes it compatible with more computers. Some people claim that adaptive move has more jitter and lower sound quality, but measurements belie this claim.

More audio glitches: Occasionally I would hear tics in the music, as if the computer CPU were too busy to deliver audio. Re-nicing the VLC process to -15 fixes this.

Review: Audeze LCD-2 (2016)

What? Another LCD-2 Review? Why? Here’s the background.

I got a second pair to use at work, again from the Headphone folks in Montana. I’ve owned this headphone since 2014 and already reviewed it twice: once when I first got them, again later when I EQed them. Audeze never rests and is constantly improving their products. But they don’t change the model numbers. The LCD-2 has gone through several variants with names the community invented because Audeze didn’t see fit to name them:

  • LCD-2.1: the original version – creamy sound, smooth linear mids with rolled off treble
  • LCD-2.2: same linear mids, improved treble response, yet still on the warm side of neutral
  • LCD-2F 2014: introduction of Fazor, improved detail and transient response, but some people report the treble sounds wonky
  • LCD-2F 2016: lighter re-tuned drivers, further improved transient response

The 2016 LCD-2 is similar to the 2014 overall, with excellent reference quality sound. Since I linked the prior reviews above, here I’ll describe only the differences. Compared to the 2014, the 2016 LCD-2 has:

  • Bass: cleaner, tighter, faster but neither attenuated nor amplified. This is hard to imagine because the 2014 bass was excellent to begin with. Somehow they improved it.
  • High Treble (9+ kHz): cleaner, faster and slightly amplified. A good recording of castanets shows the 2014 was already excellent, but the 2016 is even better. Treble is shelved up a touch and brighter compared to the 2014, but the 2016 is not bright sounding.
  • Mids: different – described below

Comparing the midrange is more complex and takes more than a few words. The 2014 midrange is incredibly smooth and natural and has a slight presence emphasis compared to the 2016. This presence is subtle and to put it in perspective, the Sennheiser HD-600 (a great headphone in its own right) has far more presence sounding boxy or nasal in comparison. I like the 2014 mid presence on small ensemble acoustic music; it brings out the natural timbres of acoustic instruments and voices. But with large ensemble works and big complex music, this presence becomes a slight glare that veils the music. The 2016 lacks this presence, yet it also lacks the glare that comes with it on big complex music. The 2016 still voices acoustic instruments in a natural, realistic way – it’s not midrange suck-out like some headphones have.

So when it comes to the midrange, both do extremely well, yet I prefer the 2014 for small ensemble acoustic music and the 2016 for bigger more complex music.

Overall, the 2016 is better than the 2014 in many ways, but not in every way. The 2016 is more open, faster and more resolving – all good. Yet the 2014 has a special intimacy and realism to the midrange voicing of small ensemble acoustic music.

Note: I contacted Audeze and for $400 they will upgrade any model of LCD-2 to the latest version, which includes new ear pads of your choice and return shipping. I’m leaning toward upgrading my 2014… but haven’t yet decided. If the 2016 was better in every way, I would. But the decision isn’t that easy.

Alternatives

In my experience, planar magnetics wipe the floor with conventional drivers in terms of overall sound quality – both in headphones and in speakers – so I limited my search to them.

I auditioned the HiFi Man HE-500 a few years ago. It was a great headphone but had a weird midrange response that didn’t voice acoustic instruments properly. I looked at other HiFi Man models but none of them have the truly linear frequency response I’m looking for.

I gave the Focal Elear serious thought. Sure, it’s a conventional driver. But it had such rave reviews I considered it. Yet it also had some decidedly non-rave reviews and the specifications showed non-linear frequency response, transient ringing and higher distortion. No thanks.

Finally I decided to keep it simple. I like my LCD-2 so much, why not first try the latest version? If I didn’t like it I could always return it and move on to something else. I found a pair from Headroom, the headphone folks in Montana, that was an open box, so I got a lower price, yet new with full warranty. I’ve been a customer of theirs since 1999 because they are knowledgeable, honest and have a generous 30-day try-return policy.

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 et.al. 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.

Background: JDS Labs Element & Audeze LCD-2 2016

Background

I spend a lot of time at work and wanted a reference quality headphone rig to match my home system. Technology is constantly improving, reducing the price of reference quality audio every year. I still love my LCD-2 headphones, so they were at the top of my list yet I was open to trying any new headphones released since then. I wasn’t going to get another Oppo HA-1, which I used in my home system. It’s too bulky and has way more features than I need, and at work I use the computer as an audio source. I have a great computer audio system at home too, using a Juli@ sound card and Corda Jazz amp. I’d consider getting another just like it, but first wanted to check out what alternatives might have recently appeared.

If you’re using a computer as the audio source, you need two things:

  • A high quality D-A converter to get a line level analog signal.
  • A high quality headphone amp to amplify that signal and drive headphones.

A sound card does the first – but it’s not portable and only works with desktops (not laptops). Now, all computers can stream audio files out a USB port to an external DAC. This is portable and works with any computer – desktop or laptop. With the right configuration (adaptive or async), the external DAC clocks the bits and jitter is not an issue.

Given my preference for no-nonsense engineering over audiophile mystique, I quickly found JDS Labs, aka some guys in Illinois building well-engineered and built headphone audio gear on a budget. They started by producing a little amp called the O2, an open source design released into the wild by NwAvGuy. Prior to JDS, this was only available as a kit, and lots of headphone audiophiles don’t have the skills to build it. Perhaps they should – no Jedi’s training is complete until he builds his own light sabre – but that’s a different subject.

A few years ago, JDS started building their own designs, which took the O2 to another level in performance and higher power output enabling them to be used with a wider variety of inefficient power hungry headphones like the HiFi Man HE-6. Yet even JDS’s new gear was built to solid engineering specifications without any audiophile nonsense and reasonably priced.

Long story short, I got a second pair of LCD-2 headphones and a JDS Element to drive them, which is a headphone amp combined with a USB DAC. I compared this amp to my HA-1 and Corda Jazz, which is stiff competition.

I posted my reviews of the Element and 2016 LCD-2 separately.