Everyone knows about JDS Labs in Head-fi world. They have made a lot of good sounding amplifier and DAC, just to name a few, CMoy BB, Objective 2 (Not their recipe), ODAC (Now already Rev.B), C421, they are all received good compliment if you do some research on them. Personally, I have tried their CMoy BB, Objective 2 (O2) and ODAC. In fact, the Objective 2 is my reference unit in Earmass.com for quite a while until I sold my unit, the O2 is very clean and transparent sounding, and the soundstage performance is very good too. However, sometimes I really craving for more musicality on the O2, for that price I can’t really complain though.
I am really excited when I first saw JDS Labs announced The Element, which is not only their latest DAC/Amp but also should be their desktop flagship. I contacted John and now The Element is on my table already, after spending some time with The Element, here comes the review.
JDS Labs The Element (349USD), Analog Output Only
The Element is very, very sexy. It has been such a long time that I have never saw something so well design like this. The volume knob, oh the volume knob, it is such a great enjoyment every time I turn the volume knob. The white light lighted up when you turn on the switch, it is really beautiful, not typical cheap blue light that you see from another DAC/Amp, the square shape of it indicate classy design, material used is very good too, the build quality is very good. The bottom of the unit is very cool too, with JDS Labs logo and good isolation knob. Front and rear panel is very clean. It is a clean and beautiful design I can say.
Previously, JDS Labs intended to make The Element as an Amp/DAC unit only, meaning that you cannot bypass its headphone amplifier section and only use the DAC, it is when everyone make noise about this design and finally JDS Labs revised the later batch to accept analog output (only upon special request, but can’t do both Analog output and input), so now you can have an option to use either only the DAC section (turn off the rear switch with RCA connect to external amplifier) or only the headphone amplifier section (turn on the rear switch with RCA connect to an external DAC) upon customisation. Between, The Element is not USB powered and you will need a 16VAC AC adapter, which luckily is included this time, with multiple type of voltage and type of plug to select. I don’t really understand why JDS Labs is not designing The Element to automatically bypass either DAC section or headphone amplifier section, rather than ‘custom made’, this is very inconvenience and also limiting the feature of The Element too, it is not something difficult to do too.
Providing analog output is not the only thing JDS Labs improve in the latest batch of The Element though. JDS Labs has added a gain control in The Element, you can choose between low gain (2.06 VRMS, +8.5dBU) or high gain (9.93VRMS, +22.5dBU), low gain is recommended by JDS Labs though, from my experience low gain of The Element is powerful enough to power up my Sennheiser HD600, HD700, Beyerdynamic T90, ZMF V1 and German-Maestro GMP450. I will not worry about the driving efficiency though, The Element is very powerful. It is a bonus too that The Element need not any driver to work, both in Windows and Macs.
So far so good?
However, it has been rumoured that the DAC inside of The Element is actually a Rev.B of ODAC that JDS Labs is selling very well. Nothing wrong with the ODAC, it is still a very competent budget DACs around the market, however we can’t deny the fact that it can’t support anything higher than 24 bit 96kHZ, the point is, ODAC is quite long time already in the market and we really need a upgraded version of it, maybe an ODAC 2 or a different one from the current ODAC. Before I made any statement, I did asked John regarding why The Element only support up to 24 bit 96kHz of audio files format, they do have their own reason for this, John replied in the email :
“Element’s hardware supports 24/192k! UAC2 support is disabled as explained in the release article:
Digital-to-Analog Conversion The Element processes digital audio through an SA9023 controller and PCM5102A DAC. While the PCM5102A supports 32-bit, 384kHz audio, we’ve intentionally selected a UAC1 controller for maximum software and OS compatibility. DSD and 32-bit driver support remain unjustified. Quantization error of 24-bit audio yields a theoretical dynamic range of 144dB, several orders of magnitude beyond an audibly ideal dynamic range of >110dB. In other words, we value a clean implementation and real world performance over a superfluous feature-set.
You can find more information why UAC2 is unnecessary in the original ODAC release article as well.
Microsoft Windows remains the most popular OS in the world, and does not yet support UAC2. As soon as Windows gains UAC2 support, I’m sure many DACs will quickly add support (JDS Labs and others). ”
JDS Labs’ team do have good reason to support their design, so spec is spec, I think the most important still come down to sound quality, isn’t it?
I have paired The Element with Sennheiser HD600, HD700, Beyerdynamic T90, German Maestro GMP450, ZMF V1, First Harmonic IEB6 and Vsonic GR07.
The Element is balanced and moderately warm sounding, I believe many will regard this as a dark sounding DAC/AMP, but in my opinion it has good treble response just not as airy, transparent and sparkle as I would like to. That being said, The Element is a very capable DAC/AMP, especially at 349USD as a combo DAC/Amp.
The sound quality is in my opinion, good and very easy on ear. ‘Harsh’ is word that you will never use to describe about The Element, it is quite smooth sounding overall. What you get here is a balanced but warm sounding DAC/Amp, which I believe many will like too. Midrange production of The Element is quite good, smooth and never fatigue, fortunately it is quite lush and full sounding too, still not that kind of flabby/fatty kind of lush, but it is lusher than what I will generally called lean, very good and I believe newbie will start to appreciate this. The bass is quite balance sounding too, providing good depth and impact for those who love, as a 349USD Hi-Fi DAC/Amp we can’t expected it to be really meaty in the bass (Do note that meaty bass doesn’t mean bloated/boosted bass), the bass in my opinion is quite good and it is there with good presentation. However, I have saw JDS Labs done the excellent bass boost feature with their CMoy BB V2.03R, I really hope that they can continue the good tradition, I will very happy to see them make bass boost feature for The Element, although I know they want to maintain the simplicity of the design, but consumers are always ready to reserve some space for good feature.
I don’t have anything to complain regarding the soundstage too, it is open and has good positioning, all of these are very well present for 349USD. There are always some space between you and the music, sometimes I will found that there is too much distances (not as forward) between me and the music, it another words, I do found that The Element lacking some of the transparency that I am asking for, it is also not a really clean sounding DAC/Amp, far from being veiled though, but I believe this is what keep it separate from some higher end headphone amplifier.
However, I found The Element is very well paired with my Beyerdynamic T90, lets call this synergy worked very well. The treble is not that bright now but retained the details, the mid and bass are performed very well too. I believe this is widely because of The Element’s treble performance (tamed the brightness of T90) and transparency of T90 (Brought the music clearer to present) working very well together, I believe bright and those with excellent transparency will worked very well for The Element.
For 349USD I will say it is a good DAC/Amp, especially when you already have let’s say AKG 701 series, Philips X and L series, Sennheiser HD600/650, Beyerdynamic DT770/880/990 and the entry T series, also those I simply can’t add in now but equivalent, why saved on the DAC/Amp? You will need at least a capable entry DAC/Amp combo like The Element I am reviewing today.
Back to The Element itself, I like how it sounded, how it built/looked and how it priced too, however I just can’t forgive JDS Labs not to include a high resolution future proof DAC inside of it, also I also can’t forgive the Line in/Line out feature that is a choice rather than a compulsory feature in The Element, come on! Yes, added in a dial for bass boost feature (Formula such as that in the CmoyBB) is very welcome too. But hey! 349USd, 349USD……349USD…….. Am I asking too much?