Element does a lot really well. For one, it’s load agnostic. Measured through the excellent Lynx Studio HILO DAC/ADC, it shows zero voltage drop when going from an Earsonics SM2 to a 600Ω DT880 to a Mr. Speakers Alpha Dog to a FitEar MH335DW.
And, while it’s not dead silent from the mains, considering the competitive landscape, it is nearly so. It spits just a bit more hiss than an iPhone 5 and a bit less than iRiver’s original AK100. On low gain, a turn to 9 o’clock can make my Alpha Dog uncomfortably loud, and a turn to 10 o’clock can uncomfortably loud up my 600Ω DT880.
Despite that — and partially thanks to its aggressive attenuation settings — Element is pretty well-suited to sensitive earphones. Sometimes it picks up static when I jog the earphone cable, but even at near-0 volume levels, it keeps channel balance to within 4dB. By 6:30, it is perfectly balanced. When your source software is maxed and you’ve got something like a FitEar MH335DW or Ultrasone IQ plugged in, 6:45 is about as high as I recommend taking Element. I can nearly handle a twist to 7 o’clock with the Grado GR10 and GR8e. Driving the Earsonics Velvet, I get another hour.
Because Element’s pot is so large, and its zero-to-full travel distance is so wide, you can really fine-tune volume for nearly any phone out there. And especially considering the power it spits, this is impressive.
By the way, it spits a LOT of current. It can turn both your high-ohm and low-ohm headphones into into a wincing speaker, but sans IMD sizzle. Ditto the Earsonics SM2. In fact, I had Element thrash the SM2 at volumes which I previously figured no amp could cleanly supply with ample current. Element had no problem whatsoever.
How Element spits is flat, neutral, detailed, and extended. It’s a sound signature I want to call bright, but can’t. There’s too much even-weighted detail in both the mid and bass frequency bands for that. Element nails the flat, pedal to the metal, detail-oriented signature that makes trance, blackened death metal, classical, live, and 90’s video games come to life.
In particular, it pipes wide, top-to-bottom stereo detail into every frequency. Like the Linnenberg Maestro, it’s throws up a wall-of-sound. That wall goes wide and tall. No frequency band gobbles up stereo detail. And each frequency extends ribbon-like outward without a central, anchoring feature.
Trance my friends. Trance.
Element is both powerful and load-agnostic. My Lynx HILO (which measures dynamic ranges of up to 119dB) isn’t whack (I test it against repeatable measures before I ever start a run with RMAA), and I can confirm that the Element nails dynamic range in excess of 110dB and noise below -110dB when fed signal via an iPhone 6 through Apple’s Camera Connection Kit.
Note: raw performance may depend on what USB signal Element is feeding. My iMac’s USB yields a slightly more current-stable signal, but overall feeds a less impressive signal to Element. It could be a USB problem in my computer, or a an idiosyncrasy of Element’s USB controller.
Element certainly breaches the dynamic range/noise levels broached by 16-bit, and in some areas, far surpasses it. And because it is largely load agnostic, crosstalk performance dips no more than 12% across most loads. Element impresses. RMAA measurements for The Element are here.
As you can see, The Element’s RCA inputs are up to snuff. And that somehow, it doesn’t get along with my iMac. I’m confident in suggesting The Element as a full-scale analogue/digital all-in-one unit especially if you are either tethered to a laptop, iPhone, or prefer to use the analogue outputs of your favourite music player.
My favourite amp/DAC, the Lynx HILO, is warm and chalky. Maestro is more liquidly detailed. Element is drier, and end-to-end more contrasty than either more expensive amp.
It powers past the HILO for both absolute power whilst somehow achieving low noise levels that shame some portable players. As to its tagline: the power to hear what you’ve been missing, it’s both apt and unapt. Rarely have I heard such power so well mated to high, stable current levels. But I’ve heard DAC/amps with more detail; it’s just that they’re far between and few in number.
So, it really depends on what you mean by missing. Which just goes to show: even JDS, whose mission is pretty damn transparent, aren’t completely immune to marketing bravado.
I’m not about to tell you to couple a warmish headphone with Element in order to balance its penchant for neutrality. I have no idea what you like. I can say this:
No matter the phone, Element will have the power. No matter the load, Element supplies the current. I don’t wholly recommend it for sensitive earphones, but you could do a lot worse.
Element ticks most of the boxes necessary for it to remain a strong fixture among performance-minded amps of great value. It is a way better amp and DAC than the AudioEngine D1. It’s got drive almost on par with the Goldmund Telos HDA and ALO Studio Six.
While it won’t totally please measurement freaks, it pretty much toots its own horn. All it requires is your headphones. Any headphones.
Without being the final word on absolute output quality, Element is both powerful and resolved enough to warrant the massive interest it’s accrued. Add to that iOS/OSX plug ’n play simplicity, stunning looks, and great ergonomics and you have quite a deal.