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JDS Labs EL AMP II Headphone Review

amirm

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#1
This is a review and detailed measurements of the JDS Labs EL AMP II Headphone Amplifier. It was kindly supplied to me by the company and is the companion to the EL DAC II I just reviewed. The EL AMP II costs US $249. JDS previously set a record with the Atom headphone amp which produced superlative performance for just US $99. Many people have asked for that performance but in a metal enclosure. Is the EL AMP II the answer? We will find out.

The EL AMP II uses the sexy enclosure of previous generation product with its massive volume control:

JDS Labs EL Amp II Headphone Amplifier Audio Review.jpg

As you see, it stacks nicely on top of the EL DAC II.

All controls are in the back:

JDS Labs EL Amp II Headphone Amplifier Back Panel Connectors Audio Review.jpg

The power button plays double duty controlling whether the headphone or line out is active. I limited my testing to headphone out.

The gain switch toggles between high and low.

The same universal chunky 16 volt AC external transformer powers the EL AMP II. So you better have a dedicated power strip to accommodate the two.

The volume control is the star of the show. It feels good to use. So much so that you may be tempted to just play with it. :)

Anyway, I am sure you are hear to know how it performs so let's measure it.

Headphone Amplifier Audio Measurements
Setting our input level to 2 volts, and keeping the unit at max volume in low gain gets us unity gain:
JDS Labs EL Amp II Audio Measurements.png


I like this gain setting so that you don't over power sensitive headphones.

Performance is just a hair better than the Atom which may be due to sample to sample variation or slightly better implementation. You have audibly transparent distortion giving you what comes in, into lower impedance load and with more power. Just what an amplifier needs to do.

Ranking is of course near top of the class:

best headphone amplifiers 2019.png


Signal to noise ratio at full output is exceptional (left):
JDS Labs EL Amp II SNR Audio Measurements.png


Reducing the output to just 50 millivolts to check how noisy it would be with sensitive IEMs, also shows excellent performance:
Lowest Noise Headphone Amplifier Reviewed.png


Frequency response doesn't get better than this:
JDS Labs EL Amp II Frequency Response Audio Measurements.png


Intermodulation (plus noise) versus level shows an exceptionally quiet amplifier in low gain mode:

JDS Labs EL Amp II IMD versus Power Audio Measurements.png


In high gain it goes past what our reference THX AAA 7890 amplifier produces (in single-ended mode).

Let's expand on that power point by measuring THD+N using 300 ohm load:
JDS Labs EL Amp II Power into 300 ohm load Audio Measurements.png


The low gain mode again shows it stuff with exceptionally low level of noise and distortion. High gain (red) bests the Atom (green) as well at lower volumes. And produces a tiny bit more power.

The situation doesn't change a whole lot at the other extreme with 33 ohm load:

JDS Labs EL Amp II Power into 33 ohm load Audio Measurements.png


The only regression was the one channel not being able to keep up as well (dashed in red).

Channel matching showed variations early on:
JDS Labs EL Amp II Headphone Amplifier Channel Balance Audio Measurements.png


This is supply dependent so may be an concern for some very sensitive IEMs. With my Sennheiser HD-650 in high gain, it only happens when I just come out of mute. So definitely not a problem there. And the low gain mode should mitigate this as well.

Headphone Listening Tests
I hooked up the EL DAC II and EL AMP II together and drove them using Roon music player.

I started testing using my MrSpeakers/Drop Ether CX closed back headphones. These are 25 ohms and very inefficient. But they were no match for the EL AMP II which pushed them to extreme levels of fidelity and loudness. At just 12:00 to 1:00 o'clock on the volume control, I had incredibly dynamic range with amazing impact and detail. Turning up the volume to max kept going with no hint of increasing distortion.

Switching to Sennheiser HD-650s with their high impedance left me with the same outcome. The detail and impact of your recordings come to surface like nobody's business. I am tapping my toes listening to this setup as I type this.

I wish there was no risk of hearing loss as I would push the volume higher and have the best time I could. :) There is no question who is the master in the equation of amp versus headphone: the amp rules.

Conclusions
The JDS Labs EL Amp II takes the peformance of Atom and delivers it in their super attractive "Element" package. The matching DAC finally gives you a great pairing as far as looks, making you want to keep looking at them. :) Both tactical, subjective beauty and sound fidelity is delivered in this package.

Of course, if matching looks is not important, you can use the amp by itself with other DACs in which case, I would hide the DAC and put the amp within reach.

Needless to say, it is my pleasure to strongly recommend the JDS Labs EL AMP II.

FYI, there is a comb package in the form of JDS Labs ELEMENT II which I will review later today or tomorrow.

--------
As always, questions, comments, corrections, etc. are welcome.

I have to review no less than three products today so I demand overtime pay! Please donate generously lest you want me to go in strike using: https://www.audiosciencereview.com/forum/index.php?threads/how-to-support-audio-science-review.8150/
 
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#2
great performance!
Does it use the same LME49600 current buffer/NJR2068 combo as the Atom? Judging from the output power it seems that at least the LME49600 has been maintained, since is typically in the 1-1.3W region.
It's like an Atom with improved supply filtering/regulation.
 

amirm

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#7
There is no doubt that this is a more attractive package than the Atom, but I prefer having the gain front and center for easy access as I change it quite frequently.
Your point is generally correct although I had an easy time reaching to the back and changing it by feel.
 

amirm

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#8
great performance!
Does it use the same LME49600 current buffer/NJR2068 combo as the Atom? Judging from the output power it seems that at least the LME49600 has been maintained, since is typically in the 1-1.3W region.
It's like an Atom with improved supply filtering/regulation.
I have not looked but as far as I know, it is just a slight tweak so main ICs should be the same.
 

Celty

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#9
Really gets a big win on looks + performance combination, particularly when combined with the El DAC II. And I do like the M.I.A. origins. Value? I just got the Monolith 887 / SU-8 DAC for a total of $570. These new JDS's combined are $548. with a $22 price delta, that's basically a wash.

If the looks of the combo are the highest priority, I think JDS would be the way to go. If performance and features are the biggest concern, I am content that I went with my combo. Not that performance is vastly different, but the edge does apparently go that way. In terms of features, hmm.. the XLR option for connections, all controls on the front panel of the amp, and the remote for the DAC again for me goes to the Monolith 887 / SU-8.

But I have to admit, I can hardly claim objectivity having already made my purchasing decisions. In any case JDS has surely come up with a great option with these products.
 
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phrosty

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#10
I love the look, but if it were me, I'd have compromised it to get a power button on the front/top area. Needing to fish my fingers back there any time I want to switch to speakers is just... meh.
 
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#11
Yeah sticking with the atom's good enough. I'd fear the mono887 to be more of a sidegrade even.
 

raif71

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#12
I love the look, but if it were me, I'd have compromised it to get a power button on the front/top area. Needing to fish my fingers back there any time I want to switch to speakers is just... meh.
Agreed. I'm okay with the gain switch at the back as I'd expect to use just low gain anyway but the switch to speakers is better in front.
 

Vovgan

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#16
There is no question who is the master in the equation of amp versus headphone: the amp rules.
Chief, may I ask you to elaborate on this point: are you saying that you’re feeling larger differences between different headphone amps rather than between those two headphones that you’re using?
 

amirm

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#17
Chief, may I ask you to elaborate on this point: are you saying that you’re feeling larger differences between different headphone amps rather than between those two headphones that you’re using?
No. I mean that the headphone starts to run out of power handling/distorts before the amp does. I rather have an amp that never becomes the limit, whether it is speakers or headphones.
 

JJB70

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#18
I think that JDS have provided just what many (myself included) wanted, an Atom in a nice metal enclosure and with nice industrial design. Does that make it sound any better? No, but it does make it nicer to own. I have an Atom and think it's probably the best $99 you can spend in audio but I will be buying one of these. The Atom will become my office and travel companion. Personally I think they made a good call avoiding balanced on this as with so much power available I see no point in a balanced output and I have never had an issue using the Atom with RCA inputs.
 

trl

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#19
Damn ASR!! ... No!!! I won't replace my Atom ... I will not replace my Atom ... I will not replace my Atom ...:p
Well, it seems that EL-Amp is a bit better than Atom for unity gain, so for few mW of power. I see no reason to swap Atom for EL-Amp, unless you have very sensitive headphones there (IEMs or >100dB/1mW cans).
 
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