“Simplicity is a great element of good breeding.” Fanny Kemble
JDS Labs is an American company based in Illinois. According to their mission statement, their intent is “To help headphone enthusiasts enjoy their music.” Do they succeed in doing this? Well, today I’m reviewing the JDS Labs The Element and after spending some time with this Headphone Amplifier+DAC I would say that they do indeed. Read on to find out why.
Disclaimer: This unit was loaned to me for the purpose of this review. I do not benefit financially or otherwise by doing this and all opinions here are my own based on my experience with the product.
The official website has a host of detailed specifications here.
JDS Labs website
Package and accessories
The JDS Labs Element came in a plain brown box with the JDS Labs logo printed on the top. I have seen a different box in pictures which is a glossy black and more “retail” looking so perhaps my unit was a previously opened one. Upon opening, we are presented with the Element packed in black foam. Sitting underneath are some warranty and social media cards, a USB cable and 16VAC Power Adapter.
The unboxing experience is fairly mediocre but all that is forgotten once the Element gets into your hands.
Build and functionality
Moving to the back panel we find the inputs and outputs and above these a simple “The Element” printed in white text. There’s the 16VAC power input next to which is the power button. Note that the power button doesn’t actually power off the unit but simply switches between headphone and RCA outputs.
When powered “Off” it sends the signal out via RCA. When switched to “On” a white LED lights up under the volume knob, indicating that it’s now in headphone amplifier mode. This is one of my favourite features of the Element. It makes switching between headphones and speakers extremely easily, with only the slightest of delays when switching. Also, while using the RCA output, the volume knob does not have any function – it is functional only when using the headphone amplifier.
Next to the power button is the High/Low gain button. This is fairly self-explanatory. It’s recommended to use Low gain unless you’re not getting a loud enough signal from your headphones.
Moving across to the centre of the rear panel we have the RCA line inputs, followed by RCA line outputs. Last but not least is the USB input which allows you to connect a laptop or desktop PC or a smartphone via an OTG cable.
There were no additional drivers that needed to be installed on my PC so it was a plug and play experience. Tick another box for that one. Due to the Low (1.0x) and High (4.7x) gain settings, the Element should work well with anything from low impedance in-ear monitors to hard to drive, full-sized headphones.
Music used for testing
The Element comes across as being slightly more aggressive and slightly leaner in its presentation than the Arcam. In contrast, the irDAC-II is smooth and mature while perhaps retaining slightly better detail. For functionality, the Element fares very well with its smooth volume control and the magic button at the back that makes it so easy to switch between headphone amplifier and speaker outputs.
The irDAC-II has more connectivity options and the addition of Bluetooth and a remote. The Element, however, is less than half the price of the Arcam unit making it a viable option for a wider audience who can’t or aren’t willing to shell out that much cash on a DAC.