“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 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
The Element is crafted from a matte black, cast aluminium housing that feels as good as it looks. The top and four sides are aluminium while the bottom is a black plastic with a large JDS Labs logo. The sample that I received has the new and improved solid rubber feet which grip surfaces well and makes inserting and removing headphones easy.
On the top is a rather large volume knob with a single white dot indicating position. Actually, the knob is huge (that’s what she said). Despite the knob’s girth it doesn’t look or feel out of place at all. In fact its perfectly suited for what it’s meant to do. It’s very smooth and allows very precise volume adjustments and it’s practically impossible to miss – there’s no need for fumbling about or even to look while using it. I feel a bit like I could be driving a bus with this thing but that’s not a negative. On the contrary, it gives you a hands-on experience that makes you feel more connected to the device and mixes a bit of old-school feeling along with its modern form.
On the front panel is a single 6.35mm headphone jack, right in the middle. That’s all there is and I wouldn’t want anything else. It’s this kind of simplicity that makes the Element so appealing. It doesn’t need to be a show pony with flashing lights or an impressive panel of buttons – it just works.
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
Mathias Eick “Midwest” full album [flac]
Earthside “A Dream in Static” full album [flac]
The Pineapple Thief “Your Wilderness” full album [flac]
Jan Garbarek “In Praise of Dreams” full album [flac]
The Element has a mostly neutral sound to my ears and delivers excellent detail across the spectrum. There might be a slight emphasis on the low end but this could be my imagination at work. During testing, I wasn’t able to detect any background noise or hiss even with low impedance earphones, despite it having enough power to drive whatever you can throw at it. It has an impressive soundstage and extends well on both top and bottom.
When listening to Mathias Eick’s “Midwest” you can clearly hear parts of the percussion well outside your head-space and the imaging is top notch. With Earthside’s “A Dream in Static” the Element kept up well with the busier segments and retained good separation. Playing through my Elac B6 speakers this album got a little harsh at high volume but that was due to the neutrality of the Element and brightness of the Elacs.
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.
JDS Labs The Element Conclusion
JDS Labs’ The Element does a lot of things right. In fact, pretty much everything it does is done right. It’s simple, attractive and functional. With its linear sound, precise volume control, digital and analogue input options it’s also versatile. Some might wish for more input options such as optical or coaxial but for those simply wishing to connect their laptop or desktop computer, the USB line in should be adequate.
Coming in at $349 for the basic version or $369 with the added analogue in it isn’t exactly cheap but it’s not unattainable either. If you want something that looks good and just works The Element is an easy recommendation.