Review: JDS Labs Element – Bravado

Amp performance

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.

Headphones

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.

End Words

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. 

Review: JDS Labs Element – Bravado
3.5 (70.62%) 177 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.

55 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.

  • Reply December 4, 2017

    Mike

    Great review! I’m about receive a Macbook Pro from my company and want to understand if the iMac issue stated in the article is an iMac issue or an Apple USB issue. I’m planning on buying the Element, but not if there is an issue with Apple Macbooks. Would you please let me know any additional details on the problem and your thoughts on using the Element with the Macbook Pro?

    • Reply December 4, 2017

      ohm image

      Hey Mike,

      I’ve only tested iPhone/iMac/MacBook and of the three the iPhone tested best in all scenarios where the input worked with the iPhone, but the 2015 MacBook was right at its heals. I expect that certain Macs just have USB issues- my iMac being one of their number. Sound-wise it’s hard to fault even the iMac plugged into a good amp like Element, but it measures worse.

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