Review: JDS Labs Element – Bravado

Disclaimer: We were supplied the JDSLabs Element for the purposes of this review. It goes for 349$ USD. You can find out more here: JDS Element – A NO COMPROMISE AMP+DAC.

Update I: I’ve clarified the performance section with regards to 24-bit playback, as well as added a small bit on iPhone-slaved performance.

Update II: I’ve updated the performance section with 24-bit RMAA scores.

No shit

If you hate the sort of marketing bravado that calls aluminium alloy ‘duralumin’, you’ll probably appreciate JDS’s use of everyman English. They even correctly call Element’s naughty bits a comfortable knob.

No ultimate, nor word salads about objects and light and shadow. That’s because, waffle-and-sunny-side-up-fried-egg as it is, Element was designed to be used. And no marketing team had to tell me that. It’s obvious.

Features

I’ve got to admit to feeling naked: JDS must know how obsessed I am about knobs. And design elegance. There are three buttons on Element: an attenuator, a mains nipple, and THE KNOB. Sorry for shouting, but damn, just look at it. It’s practically a turn table. It rotates from naught all to full between hard stops located at 6 o’clock, the other at four hours twenty minutes.

Switching off a good alarm clock takes a single blind bash, right? Well, this knob is just like that. It’s the first thing you touch. The only real thing I have against is is that it sort of cants as you twirl it. Not that I was expecting Linnenberg-level precision for 349$, but Element’s knob is big enough that you really notice the slightest bump.

A not-so-real claim I’ve got is that Element is so light and its soft-touch are feet so slippery that it requires two hands to plug in a headphone.

Nearly everything is blindly operable. Want to turn it off? Depress the nipple closest the mains. Want to attenuate the signal for earphone or portable headphones? Depress the nipple to its right. I can fit the best part of an index finger between the two. There’s nothing to muss.

Okay, one other niggle: Element’s RCA input jacks aren’t labeled. As a reviewer I should be able to intuit their functionality (especially as their written on Element’s page), but after knobs, I love great typography and the clever use of print. But I had run to Element’s page to suss what the RCAs were for, but only after I plugging its RCAs into an ADC, thinking they were lines out; they’re not. I’d love for Element to say that.

When the mains is switched on, Element glows a bit like KITT, a bit like a rebooted Cylon, and a bit like TV-meets-V.I.N.CENT. It looks GREAT next to an iMac or something else Apple. And since its DAC can be powered from an iPhone, all it takes is a CCK to make it look great next to an iPhone.

If like Lieven, you’ve got something less attractive on your desk or in your pocket, at least Element will spruce up the place.

Build

Element’s kept together with fewer bolts than an iPhone. I’ve got my thumb hard down on the RCA jacks. They’re not wobbling in the least. Neither do they press in budge in or out. Its corners are solid. Its headphone jack’s got a nice chamfer to its edge. The USB port doesn’t, which makes stripping paint around it certain. Not that you’ll have much reason to plug and unplug it.

Its soft-touch base extrudes into stubby, Kirby-like feet. Neatly engraved underneath it all is JDS’s infinity-like marque, which if pressed, flexes inward. And, it’s feet aren’t perfectly level, so Element tends to wobble on its toes.

I’m not about to hack it apart, so I’ll have to guess that Element is pressure-fitted around an internally bolted skeleton held together with pressure locks. My unit has a few fine scratches and blemishes here and there. And it comes in a hand-me-down sort of box that embarrassingly requires a second box in which come its wall wart and cables. (Something tells me JDS quit designing Element as soon as they polished up its knob.)

Overall, it’s a cohesive, function-dictates-form design whose small compromises are understandable given its price.

Performance and more after the jump or click here:

Review: JDS Labs Element – Bravado
3.47 (69.48%) 154 votes

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Back before he became the main photographer for bunches of audio magazines and stuff, Nathan was fiddling with pretty cool audio gear all day long at TouchMyApps. He loves Depeche Mode, trance, colonial hip-hop, and raisins. Sometimes, he gets to listening. Sometimes, he gets to shooting. Usually he's got a smile on his face. Always, he's got a whisky in his prehensile grip.

53 Comments

  • Reply September 17, 2015

    Dave Ulrich

    Nice review! How does it work as as stand alone DAC?

    • Reply September 18, 2015

      ohm image

      How do you mean? It only works as a DAC by way of plugging it into a computer. There are no line outputs (on my unit) that would allow you to connect outboard equipment.

      That said, if its amp performs as well as it does, it has to be doing so in relation to a very good-performing DAC. I’m fine in saying that this alone will do you as long as you don’t want balanced output.

      • Reply September 18, 2015

        Dave Ulrich

        My mistake. When looking at the page on JDS labs website, I mistook the RCA input for an output.

        • Reply September 18, 2015

          dalethorn

          Some of the mini-DACs like Dragonfly or Audioengine D3 will repurpose the headphone out as a line out when you need that. This DAC might not, but good to check anyway.

          • Reply September 18, 2015

            ohm image

            This one does not.

            Edit: not that at this level of performance it matters.

            • Reply September 20, 2015

              dalethorn

              In case anyone missed it, the Line In can be configured as Line Out in the order process.

              • Reply September 25, 2015

                loki993

                It can be but it seems like it would be sort of silly. This is primarily a power amp, and apparently a good one, if your just going to run it as a dac it may be worth looking into something else.

                • Reply September 25, 2015

                  dalethorn

                  The best design would have both, but getting a choice is a good move to sell more units.

                  • Reply September 25, 2015

                    loki993

                    It actually does have both…its just its a jumper setting inside the case and apparently its not the easiest thing to disassemble since it uses all hidden screws. Why they didn’t just add a switch or something…who knows. I still think though anyone buying this to use as a dac only would selling themselves short on this.

                    • September 25, 2015

                      dalethorn

                      I remember some repair labs that didn’t use wrist grounding straps and all – a lot of customers lost ss devices that way. So as a rule, I wouldn’t recommend anyone resetting it unless they have the experience, and use proper grounding.

                      As far as not having an option, or making it hidden, just try selling these things for a few years and having angry customers in your face. Granted, some of that will happen anyway, but I don’t like taking chances unnecessarily.

                    • January 20, 2016

                      Gadja Petrovich Hrenova

                      Hi guys! Advise a better DAC AUDINST HUD-DX1 or
                      JDS Labs Element.

                      I use headphones Beyerdynamic Custom STUDIO Headphones 80 Ohms
                      and a personal computer .

                      I would be grateful for your advice !

                    • February 19, 2016

                      alfa42

                      Ah, I’m facing the same dilemma.

                      From what I see, the Audinst has a superior DAC (technically, but I don’t know if I under blind A/B test I could tell any difference) but more warmish sound signature and the JDS Labs has more neutral sound signature.

                      Did you get any of those two or are you still deciding?

                    • February 20, 2016

                      Gadja Petrovich Hrenova

                      I took Aune X1S 32BIT / 384 DSD128 mini DAC,
                      happy , Beyerdinamic CUSTOM STUDIO 80 ohms shakes well .
                      USB receiver Aune X1S realized at the last chip from XMOS,
                      and DACs part – on so popular today converter from Sabre ES9018K2M.
                      As a result, the device supports playback of c sampling frequency
                      to 384 kHz (PCM), as well as in the DSD format.
                      Amplification part in Aune X1S has a separate power supply
                      and is implemented under the scheme OP + BUF,
                      is characterized by very low distortion , and high power .
                      It cost me $ 230 .

                    • October 7, 2015

                      Packdemon

                      What else do you have to do to disassemble it after I unscrew the 4 hidden screws? I’m having a hard time disassembling this thing, and I really don’t want to break anything by trying to pull with excessive force. The reason I am doing all of this is so I can get access to the DAC inside, so I can add my own 3.5mm output to it.

                • Reply October 1, 2015

                  ohm image

                  Surely you mean headphone amp, not power amp.

                  • Reply October 1, 2015

                    dalethorn

                    The amp is as good as the DAC? That would make it a good buy right there.

                  • Reply October 1, 2015

                    loki993

                    Something like that yeah..not sure why I wrote power amp, maybe what I meant to say was powerful amp.

                    • December 13, 2016

                      ohm image

                      For the price, it’s hard to recommend anything else.

        • Reply September 18, 2015

          dalethorn

          I just got a YES confirmation from JDS: “Yes, Element can be configured with RCA DAC line-output instead of RCA analog input. Please describe your special request in the Order Notes field during checkout.”.

  • Reply September 19, 2015

    Oldandcurious

    Does The Element presents an upgrade to the O2 of JDS, paired to the HD600? I am also aiming for the open-bacl EL-8. Thank you for your thoughts on these.

    • Reply September 20, 2015

      ohm image

      I’m sorry, but I don’t own the O2. Element is neutral. It is powerful. It is resolving. If that appeals to you for the HD600, then emphatically I can say ‘yes’. I don’t own the EL-8.

      • Reply September 21, 2015

        Oldandcurious

        Thank you for taking the time to reply to my questions.

    • Reply October 10, 2015

      Spiderpigmom

      I’d like to know, too.

  • Reply September 19, 2015

    InebriatedGnome

    Very glad to see a review of this; it’s been on my radar for a few weeks now. How would you say The Element stacks up to the ALO Pan Am? The two are very different, yes, but I’m in a position to get either for a similar price. I would be driving the HD650 out of the amp I choose.

    • Reply September 20, 2015

      ohm image

      They aren’t in the same league. Pan Am is awesome, but can’t hold a candle to Element.

      • Reply September 20, 2015

        InebriatedGnome

        Thanks! Are you talking in terms of pure sound quality or just raw power? I was very tempted by all the impressions saying the HD650/Pan Am pairing beats out the Bottlehead Crack.

        • Reply September 20, 2015

          Headfonia_L.

          Really? doesn’t come close to me. Crack for the win 🙂

          • Reply September 20, 2015

            InebriatedGnome

            Fair—maybe there’s just a small cult surrounding the Pan Am 😉

            Ideally I’d like to demo both, but there are no stores I know of in NYC where that could happen.

            • Reply September 20, 2015

              Dave Ulrich

              As the Pan Am is discontinued, and the Crack is a DIY project, that might be kind of hard

              • Reply September 21, 2015

                InebriatedGnome

                Yeah, sadly. I certainly chose a bad set of amps to consider—the Pan Am is on my radar despite being discontinued because someone offered me a very favourable trade for one. I’ll probably just go with that; the allure of tubes is too strong.

                • Reply September 21, 2015

                  ohm image

                  The Pan Am is a great amp, and because you can roll tubes, it is heaps fun. But it doesn’t properly drive low-Ω headphones well. It is a very, very good amp for high-Ω phones and sounds great. But it has its limits in WHAT it can drive WELL.

                  • Reply September 21, 2015

                    InebriatedGnome

                    Gotcha—thank you for your impressions and advice!

      • Reply November 7, 2015

        GrizzlybEast

        whoa really?

        they are priced actually the opposite. Thats cool

  • Reply September 21, 2015

    Brandon J. Andrews

    Sounds like a ground loop or similar issue with the mains-powered computer. Have you tried something like an Olimex USB-ISO?

    • Reply September 23, 2015

      ohm image

      I’ve not. I do have a ground loop, and it is present even when my computer isn’t plugged into the same mains or in at all. That said, some amps/DACs are 100% free of it. The Element is only mildly susceptible to it.

      • Reply September 23, 2015

        Brandon J. Andrews

        Can you hear any noise with headphones? It should only be a problem if you use the Element as a pre-amp.

        • Reply September 24, 2015

          ohm image

          I guess I wasn’t clear. I explained that it is noise between an iPhone 5 and an AK100.

          • Reply September 24, 2015

            Brandon J. Andrews

            Hmm? I was referring to your iMac -> Element -> Hilo measurements showing noise at -85dB. This is poor performance even for onboard audio these days, and should be audible as background noise. However, it may not be an issue when plugged into something ungrounded, like headphones.

            • Reply September 30, 2015

              JDS Labs Inc

              True, -85dB should be audible. Something is wrong here.

              –JDS

              • Reply October 1, 2015

                Brandon J. Andrews

                All that’s “wrong” is that the USB DAC is not galvanically isolated. This makes the Element unsuitable for use as a preamp to a grounded amplifier.

                • Reply October 1, 2015

                  JDS Labs Inc

                  An external ADuM4160 USB isolator will help in this situation.

  • Reply September 28, 2015

    Headfonia_L.

    I listened to this at Canjam Essen. Quite good, extremely powerful! Might even need a lower gain stage for inears

    • Reply September 30, 2015

      ohm image

      It is very close to the level where in-ears are too loud. But yes, incredibly powerful. And very, very good voltage/current ratio.

  • Reply December 14, 2015

    Aakshey

    How does the Element compare to the Asus Essence One Muses?

    • Reply December 15, 2015

      ohm image

      I’m sorry but I don’t own that amp.

  • Reply January 20, 2016

    Thomas Pan

    Hey Nathan,

    What would you recommend as a desktop amp for ultra low impedance earphones like the IQ and UERM. I’ve been looking a the element as well as the leckerton audio uha 6s mkii.

    • Reply February 8, 2016

      shigzeo

      (Nathan here): You can’t go wrong with the either but the Leckerton hisses less and has slightly better volume control for sensitive earphones.

  • Reply February 18, 2016

    Brian

    Is it possible to compare this to the Fostex HP-A4? I would imagine the element has a much stronger amp to drive orthos and such, but my current pair are not that power hungry.

  • Reply March 14, 2016

    Exh1l3d_0n3

    I found that the Element (updated one with RCA in and RCA out) hissed as well. That is, until I plugged it into a powered USB hub. Hiss was almost completely gone. I still don’t really like the plain signature and will be looking to replace with a tube amp/dac setup, but for what it is. It is very nice.

  • Reply October 15, 2016

    Emilio Vargas

    Any thoughts of the element vs fostex hp-a4, regarding son sound quality?

    • Reply October 16, 2016

      ohm

      Emilio,

      I’ve not spent enough time with the HP-A4 to make reliable assessments of it. I’m sorry.

  • Reply December 13, 2016

    Mike W.

    Looking at the Element to be used with my Byerdynamic DT770 pro, and also as a DAC for playing music from my Laptop to my High-end 2-channel audio system… Am I heading in the right direction, or is there a better option in the price range for a dual purpose DAC/Headphone amp? Thanks.

    • Reply December 13, 2016

      ohm image

      For the price, it’s hard to recommend anything else.

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