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Big thanks to the folks over at JDS Labs for sending me this unit! I am not being compensated by them for this review in any way. I’m simply giving my impressions of the Amp. Read on to find out what I thought!
Before we get into the JDS Labs Element Review, grab a snack, sit back and relax because..
You’ve come to the right place!!
What I will bring you in this review
My goal for this article (and all articles really) is an attempt to outline everything you could possibly want to know about the stuff in question. In the case of today, it concerns thefantastic Element, a powerful amp from JDS Labs that continues the tradition of excellence found in their entry level Objective 2.
One of the first things you might ask yourself before purchasing a set of audiophile headphones is: “Will I need an Amp?”
It’s a question that simply cannot be ignored, especially if your headphones have a lower Sensitivity and/or a higher impedance. How to choose a Headphone Amp!
The second question might be: “Will I also need a DAC?”
The issue of Amps and DACs can be confusing if you’re new to the hobby, and a lot of the time it’s simply because people fail to explain it with any sort of clarity.
What is a DAC anyway?
A DAC is simply a Digital to Analog Converter my friend. It converts the digital signal from your computer (the 1’s and 0’s) into the sweet sweet analog sound that you hear.
In a microphone recording, you’re screaming obscenities into the mic and your computer has to process it into language that it can understand (called binary). It does this in the form of 1’s and 0’s. So essentially, either of these processes can be happening depending on what you’re doing.
All an amp does is amplify that conversion and resulting signal from the DAC to a listenable level. This is why it’s important to have a good DAC in the first place.
If you’re stuck with a poopy DAC like the built in one of my Lenovo T510, you’re in for a world of pain like Smokey from Big Lebowski.
It’s a league game Smokey. Lol.
Why will you be in for a world of pain like Smokey if you use a crappy internal DAC?
Simple answer: You will only end up amplifying an average, below average, or even downright bad signal.
To prove my point, I just did a little experiment with my Magni Amp from Schiit.
Right now I’m using the Element, as well as the Objective 2 Amp with the Modi DAC because I’m demoing both.
The Objective 2 does not have Analog or USB inputs, so we have to use one of these RCA to mini (3.5mm) cables. I’m currently using the ones pictured to the right if you were interested to know.
This cable’s 3.5mm jack plugs into the front of the Objective 2. The RCA males run into the back of the Modi.
Now because I have this cable, I was able to do an experiment.
I ran the mini end of the cable into the 3.5mm jack on my laptop, and the RCA ends into the Magni. This basically means I’m using the internal Soundcard of my laptop as a DAC (discussed previously). What is a Soundcard?
In a nutshell?
The sound wasn’t bad per se, but it took the gain switch on PLUS the volume turned up all the way to reach a listenable level.
I was actually quite surprised by how decent the actual sound quality was once I got it loud enough, but you could hear a clear difference vs. the magnificent Objective 2. There was really no comparison as far as crisp detail, impact, cleanliness, and weight. My laptops internal Soundcard DAC was a bit flabby/loose sounding, with poor volume and some faint static/noise that I could hear.
In no way ideal, friend.
One thing to keep in mind is that I am in fact using an older laptop with a somewhat bad internal Soundcard. Newer laptops, PCs, and newer technology have come a long way. Whereas 5-10 years ago (and beyond) you had to put up with this sort of thing, nowadays most computers, phones, tablets, etc. do provide better built in converters. You may not even need a DAC at all in some cases, but for audiophiles it’s kind of how we roll. 😛
Alternatively, you could also use something like a FiiO E10K as a standalone DAC. Instead of using the RCA to mini that we discussed above, you would use a simple 3.5mm to 3.5mm interconnect cable such as this one.
The main point?
Invest in a good DAC. Also understand that it’s not necessary to go crazy in buying a really expensive one. The differences are fairly marginal in my opinion, and a DAC around $100-200 will be more than enough. The important thing is to just have one.
With that said, sometimes you won’t even need a separate DAC as in the case of the Element. It has one built in!
Now that that’s out of the way, let’s get into build. We’ll discuss some of the practicality of this stuff in a bit!
The build quality of the Element isn’t necessarily better than that of the Objective 2. It’s just different. It is heavier, so there’s that. It does feel a bit more durable, but I wouldn’t say one is better than the other. Both are just designed differently.
For instance, the Element resembles a tiny turntable. It’s got a huge knob in the middle and has a square shape. The Objective 2 is a standard looking amp in the shape of a rectangle with all the knobs on the front.
The Element doesn’t have anything on the top or front besides the big volume knob. It feels incredible though. All of the buttons on the back feel solid, and when you turn it on, a light glows underneath the knob to indicate that it’s ready to go!
Overall, it’s a sleek and stylish unit that exudes class, simplicity, and elegance. There’s not much more to say.
As far as features go, the Element is very similar to the Objective 2 in that there’s a gain switch, power jack, and USB input. There’s also a headphone jack on the front, but it’s a 1/4″ instead of the 3.5mm on the Objective 2.
Like the Objective 2, the only real “feature” is the gain button. There’s a small difference in the buttons on each however.
When you push the button in on the Objective 2, it makes noise but feels softer. It’s more of a fluid motion when it presses in and out. The gain button on the Element makes a distinct clicking sound. It takes less time for the entire process to happen, and feels “harder” if you will. Not harder in the sense that it’s hard to push, but rather it’s quicker and more to the point.
The Element is a combo Amp/DAC, and also comes with a pair of Analog inputs and automatic DAC Line Outputs which basically enable you to switch between powered monitors and headphones with the click of a button.
So all in all, there’s a USB Type B Jack, Power Button, Gain Button, and the inputs/outputs we discussed above. On the front there’s the 1/4″ headphone jack and the big volume knob is on the top!
The Element is extremely powerful; even more so than an Objective 2! If the Objective 2 powers 99% of headphones with ease, I would say the Element is even more efficient. I do believe there isn’t a headphone out there that wouldn’t work with it.
Now, are all headphones the most ideal choice? It depends on who you ask. The Element continues the tradition of sterile, clean sound that we’ve come to know and love from JDS Labs. I feel confident though in saying that I would feel comfortable driving most any pair of cans with this Amp/DAC. It’s superb and provides plenty of power, even for your most demanding high impedance sets.
Let’s take a look at some numbers.
Max Continuous Output, 600Ω: 140 mW (9.4VRMS)
Max Continuous Output, 150Ω: 505 mWow
Max Continuous Output, 32Ω:1.1 W
Peak Output Power, 32Ω: 1.5W
How about comparing them to the Objective 2?
Max Output (33 Ohms): 613 mW
Max Output (150 Ohms): 355 mW
Max Output (600 Ohms): 88 mW
You can see the Element is more powerful than the Objective 2.
How does this effect the sound?
I did some A/B testing on both. Though there were a few songs where I felt the Element outclassed the Objective 2, by and large they sound very similar.
It’s a crisp, clean, and neutral sound that reveals micro detail while providing a ton of space, air, and room to breathe. The tracks feel like they have more life to them, and they’re also more transparent.
The raw honesty of the arrangement comes through with great precision and attention to detail. This is a sound that the majority of people will fall in love with because the clarity of the instruments and the separation between them is outstanding.
It’s extremely durable, looks sexy in studio, and has a huge knob. I mean what else could you ask for? Sound? Impeccable! You can even use it to power your studio monitors! What are studio monitors?
It’s a step up from an Objective 2 in that it’s simply more powerful, and will likely work with more headphones. Does that mean it sounds better than an Objective 2? With some songs, yes. For the most part, you’ll be hard pressed to find a huge difference in the sound of the Element vs. the sound of the O2.
Still, it’s more convenient than an O2 if you want the all in one combo that can power your monitors. It will leave a bigger foot print, but it’s an Amp/DAC that you won’t be soon replacing.
Stu is determined to help you make sound decisions, and strives to deliver the best and most in depth content on the internet! In his spare time, he likes to fish, paint, play guitar, pray, rap, make beats, take photos, record videos, graphic design, and more. His sense of humour, coupled with a knack for excellence and strict attention to detail are what allow him to stand out in an crowded industry.