JDS Labs 'Upgraditis': The Element Headphone Amp + DAC Review

April 15, 2018


Whenever I get asked for headphone amp recommendations for a given headphone, I respond back with two questions: What’s your budget? What’s your goal? The case with many of my readers is that they just dropped a couple of hundred dollars or more on nice headphones or IEMs and are disappointed that they don’t sound better out of their smart device or computer. This usually leads to a goal of getting better sound on a now more modest budget. Enter JDS Labs.

For the price and simplicity, it’s hard to recommend any other brand. For some time now, the simple and dependable O2 headphone amp and OL DAC have been staples in my review process. These little black boxes haven’t moved from my desktop since receiving them despite competing products coming and going. The reason is two-fold. They’re relatively cheap, which makes them accessible to a wide audience, and they’re versatile—there’s little-to-no coloration or noise, there’s more than enough power for most headphones, and they simply sound good with a wide variety of music. So, what’s not to like?

I continue to stand by my statement that the OL/O2 stack, with its crisp, clear, controlled, and consistent characteristics, is a damn good place to start for new budget-minded audiophiles. But good can always be better and that’s where JDS Labs’ The Element comes in. For those looking for the simplest USB-based audio upgrade, The Element does nearly everything the OL/O2 stack does, but does it better and in a single unit. This is now my recommended entry-level headphone amp/DAC.

On paper, The Element measures better than the O2 across the board, but the notable upgrade for most users is that The Element puts out nearly double the power of the O2. Offering max continuous output of 1.1 mW into 32Ω, you’ll have plenty of headroom to drive most high-end, high-ohm dynamic headphones (and even some orthos) to deafening levels.

On the DAC side of things, the standalone OL DAC still measures impressively for its price point (now $99), placing it in “reference-grade” territory. The DAC within The Element is similar but not quite up to the same specs, which is a likely concession for being a combination unit rather than a standalone DAC. While the two DACs measure close in most categories, The Element’s DAC loses the optical input and dynamic range, jitter, crosstalk, and frequency response all take a slight dip. The Element also only supports bitrates up to 24/96, which is rather conservative in today’s digital realm. That said, from a sound quality standpoint, The Element easily bests the OL/O2 stack and that’s what really matters to most.


What look like minor measurement differences on paper actually equate to much more. The struggle with reviewing The Element is that I can basically take the good things I wrote about the OL/O2, paste them below, be done, and you likely wouldn’t know the difference. Does that mean I was wrong about the OL/O2? Did I overhype them? Or did JDS Labs just figure out how to take their approach to sonic neutrality and transparency to a new level? I’m going with the latter.

So, let’s revisit some of my thoughts about the OL/O2 stack:

“This stack isn’t going to romanticize your music collection. Rather, it’s going to allow you to focus on the music and hone your efforts on choosing the IEM or headphone [or powered monitors in The Element’s case] that best suits your musical taste.

I’ve mainly been running the rounds with the Audioquest Nighthawk, Beyerdynamic Amiron Home, Meze Audio 99 Classics, and Sennheiser HD650. The OL/O2 drives each of these headphones with ease and enjoyment, although none come off as being quite as airy, lush or three-dimensional as when pushed with a powerful tube amp (just my personal preference), the warm characteristics of each is conveyed cleanly and with good dynamics. Although these are all darker sounding headphones, I liked the pairings because it brought some balance to the neutrality of the OL/O2 stack. The consistent instrument separation and detail retrieval of the OL/O2 pairing is solid. The sound stage is modest, extending maybe three to four inches out around the head. Stereo imaging is dead center, although I do selfishly lust for a more holographic presentation. As someone who favors really lush sounding gear, this little stack can sound a bit flat to my ears—bass notes hit with impact, but often lack resonance; mids are clear, but are light on warmth; treble is crisp and detailed, and never too brittle, but airiness and texture seem overly controlled. But all of this is inherent in neutral, transparent solid state amps and DACs….

Overall, I generalize the OL/O2 stack as being crisp, clear, controlled, and consistent. Sure, it can be boring for those that favor the ooey gooey goodness of lush and distorted tube gear, but boring isn’t always bad. In fact, these little black boxes are probably one of the best places to start for new budget-minded audiophiles looking to learn just what it is they like and lust for.”

Wow. If you think the OL/O2 stack sounds like a winner, The Element is a champ. The Element literally does everything the OL/O2 does sonically, but does it noticeably better. I think what struck me at first listen was how much cleaner The Element sounds—it truly takes the JDS Labs house sound to a new level. Switching from The Element back to the OL/O2 reveals grittiness in the OL/O2 that never stood out in use or comparisons before, especially as the volume gets cranked up. My guess is that this is mostly the O2’s fault, but The Element sounds smoother and more effortless throughout the dynamic range, emphasizing its crisp transparency and neutrality with better resolution and dimension. What’s more, the oversized volume knob’s smooth throw allows for precise volume control. I faulted the OL/O2 combo for having a limited sound stage, but The Element seems to reach further in this regard, immersing you in a deeper and wider atmosphere.

The Element also addresses the flatness the OL/O2 stack can exhibit. Whatever tuning tweaks were made to The Element have brought more realism to its output: Bass notes, while seemingly a touch less impactful or visceral, are more controlled, resonant, and exhibit better timbre; mids remain clear and defined, but seem to draw in new depth and dimension; and the high notes, while still easily described as crisp and detailed, ring more true, more accurate, and with better resolution. The Element is, in all its basicness, more revealing and immersive.

What this all culminates to is that The Element is an excellent choice for computer audiophiles looking for an inherently neutral and transparent solid state amp and DAC combo that can scale at volume. From my perspective, The Element’s sonic signature makes it an even better tool for audio purists, gear geeks, and reviewers because it reveals the sonic traits of the recording in front of it and of the headphones, IEMs, or powered monitors feeding the music to your ears. Simply put, The Element is not just for the budget-minded audiophile. Considering its sleek design, price-to-performance, and sonic signature, it’s hard not to make The Element a top choice for any computer audio enthusiast.


But What About...?

The cons? Okay, The Element is so lightweight that you have to hold it with one hand when trying to plug in or unplug your headphones or other connections. Second, the headphone jack isn't the smoothest. Third, the power supply ships in a separate box, which is kind of tacky.

The competition? I know I’ll get asked, so let me get this out of the way…. JDS Labs faces no shortage of competition in the marketplace for small, affordable desktop headphone amps and DACs. Most notably, I get asked about comparisons to Schiit’s products. My advice is to consider your actual needs (specs/features), sonic preferences (bright/neutral/warm), and budget, and then make a decision from there. Word of mouth is easily one of the biggest drivers in the audio hobby, but you’ll likely go crazy, or broke, trying everything everyone recommends to you.

That said, my preferences leans towards certain brands for these smaller desktop components (I find it hard to go “wrong” with any of them): ALO Audio, CHORD, iFi Audio, JDS Labs, and Schiit. My experience leads me to believe that these companies offer some of the best sounding small and portable products for the prices, new and in the used market. Across the sonic spectrum, from “bright” to “dark” sounding, I’d place them in the (subjective) following order: Schiit (brighter), JDS (neutral), iFi (neutral/warmish), CHORD (warm/classic “British” hi-fi), and ALO (warm/dark).

Build quality? All of the companies above offer high-end products for the prices. I think CHORD is probably the most solid, followed by ALO, Schiit/JDS, and then iFi. I have had QC issues with iFi review units and some of my Schiit products, but never any issues with ALO, CHORD, or JDS Labs.

Good luck on your quest for #AudioNirvana.


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