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JDS Labs – The Element Review

 

JDS Labs The Element 04

I’d like to thank the folks at JDS Labs for offering me the chance to purchase The Element at a reduced rate in exchange for my review.

Design and Build Quality

The potentiometer deserves a special mention, not only for being clearly the center of The Element’s design but also for being incredibly enjoyable to use. Its tracking is smoother and more precise – dialing in the exact volume you want has never been easier – than any other analog potentiometer I’ve used and the white lighting that emanates from underneath it is a nice cosmetic touch.

One minor niggle I have with The Element is how incredibly sensitive it is to EMI (ElectroMagnetic Interference). Originally, I placed my Element under the left side of my PC monitor. Now at first, I didn’t notice the noise, as I was plugging in more difficult loads like my HE-400 and DT990 Pro and the low sensitivity (in the case of the former) and high impedance (in the case of the latter) effectively brought the noise down to nearly imperceptible levels, and once the music started going, I didn’t notice it at all.

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But, upon testing The Element with much more sensitive IEMs like my Triple.Fi 10s, the noise was immediately apparent. After swapping out USB cables, connecting The Element to a powered USB hub and even attempting to move the AC adapter to a less electrically congested area, I was nearly at my wit’s end and was prepared to contact John and co. for a replacement.

Soon after, as I was reaching around the backside to turn the amplifier off, I noticed the noise was reduced by the placement of my hand. Then I realized the noise was coming from my monitor. So I moved The Element to a new spot on my desk and the noise disappeared. And it wasn’t just my monitor’s fault either. Testing this with a number of other electronics including my PC speakers, Blue Snowball USB microphone and a USB 3.0 hub, all yielded similar results. But, once I gave The Element some space on all sides it finally delivered the dead-silent operation with sensitive IEMs I initially expected.

The Element likes being isolated from other electronics (and it wasn’t just my monitor) so give it what it wants and it’ll sing for you. But desk space often comes at a premium for many users so it is disappointing that The Element is so easily influenced by EMI from other electronics.

Moving on, one issue I have with The Element is one I also had with another JDS Labs product I reviewed some time ago, the C5D. The sole analog input along the back doesn’t feature the O2 + ODAC combo’s dual input/output functionality. As a result, if you want to output the signal from The Element’s excellent DAC to another amplifier, you’ll have to request the RCA jacks be switched to a dedicated DAC line output, sacrificing the analog input in the process which is a bit disappointing. The Element’s biggest strength is in the quality of its amplifier (which I’ll get to later) and the built in DAC, as transparent and resolving as it is, is more of an added bonus. So removing the sole analog input and limiting The Element to USB-only playback isn’t something I’d recommend, but the option is there.

Update: I’ve spoken to John at JDS labs and I’ve been informed that The Element has undergone a recent product refresh that, alongside other improvements, now includes an automatic DAC line out through the unit’s RCA jacks when the amplifier is switched off. In addition, a $20 premium option for two sets of RCA jacks, which give the unit dedicated line in and line out ports.

JDS Labs The Element 03

 

Technical Specifications

AMPLIFIER PERFORMANCE

  • Frequency Response 20Hz-20kHz+/- 0.1dB
  • THD+N 1kHz, 150 Ω0.0009%
  • IMD CCIF 19/20kHz 150 Ω0.0004%
  • IMD SMPTE 150 Ω0.0005%
  • Noise, A-Weighted-108 dBu
  • Crosstalk @ 150 Ω-67 dB
  • Output Impedance0.1 Ω
  • Channel Balance+/- 0.56 dB
  • Max Continuous Output, 600Ω140 mW (9.4VRMS)
  • Max Continuous Output, 150Ω505 mW
  • Max Continuous Output, 32Ω1.1 W
  • Peak Output Power, 32Ω1.5W

DAC PERFORMANCE

  • Frequency Response 20Hz-20kHz+/- 0.15dB
  • THD+N 100 Hz -0.15 dBFS0.0023%
  • THD+N 20 Hz -0.15 dBFS0.0016%
  • THD+N 10 kHz -0.15 dBFS0.0019%
  • IMD CCIF 19/20 kHz -6.03 dBFS0.0011%
  • IMD SMPTE -6.03 dBFS0.0012%
  • Noise A-Weighted dBu 24/96-102 dBu
  • Dynamic Range (A-Weighted)>112 dB
  • Linearity Error -90 dBFS 24/96-0.02 dB
  • Crosstalk -10 dBFS 100K RCA-100 dB
  • USB Jitter Components 11025Hz-113 dB
  • Maximum DAC Line-Output, 100K2.10 VRMS

DAC Performance

As mentioned before, excellent. It delivers impeccably transparent performance and works with files up to 24 bit and 96KHz. There’s no DSD support or ultra-high resolution file support like you’ll find with some (often boutique) DACs out there but this is no big loss, at least in my book, and I don’t imagine many users will be disappointed with the file support or performance.

Amplification

Based on the rated specs above, The Element is capable of delivering more power than many people will ever need. In my testing, there was nothing in my inventory, ranging from high impedance dynamics to a couple of HiFiMan planars that The Element couldn’t drive beautifully. The 1.0x (unity) gain setting was more than enough to drive my headphones to sensible levels with the dial at about 12 o’clock, meaning there was plenty of room to increase the volume if I needed it (and didn’t like my hearing much). I rarely found a need to use the second 4.7x gain setting in regular usage and I imagine the volume and power output will be plenty for most users at the default low gain setting.

The Element is the cleanest and most transparent amplifier I’ve heard and drives every load I’ve thrown at it, from low impedance balanced armature IEMs like the TDK BA200 and Astrotec AX-7 to a set of over ear Beyerdynamic DT-990 Pros, effortlessly. Aside from the venerable and notoriously difficult to drive HiFiMan HE-6 (which I unfortunately don’t have on hand to test) and other headphones of a similar ilk like HiFiMan’s new endgame headphone, the HE-1000, I have little doubt that The Element will be able to deliver the full potential of most everything you can think to send its way.

JDS Labs The Element 06

Conclusion

The Element is JDS Labs’ statement to the world of expensive, boutique designed amplifier and DACs, showing that it is more than possible to build a desktop amplifier and DAC solution that not only performs excellently but looks great doing it. While wishing no disrespect to the O2 + ODAC as it wasn’t designed to look aesthetically pleasing, it certainly…doesn’t. It was specifically designed to deliver audibly and measurably transparent performance as cheaply and efficiently as possible and unfortunately, the budget didn’t leave much room for a quality enclosure. The Element, however, performs exceedingly well and looks great on a desktop.

Without a doubt, JDS Labs’ Element has found a permanent home in my setup, being my amplifier of choice for virtually all of my music listening going forward. At $350, it’s not cheap and it faces stiff competition from the likes Schiit’s Magni and Modi amplifier and DAC, respectively and even the O2 + ODAC combo, which offers similarly transparent performance, while losing out to The Element in terms of pure power output and aesthetics. If you’re willing to make the investment, however, I have little doubt that The Element will more than earn its keep.

About Justin McBride

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