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JDS Labs Element II DAC and Headphone Amp Review

amirm

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#1
This is a review and detailed measurements of the JDS Labs Element II DAC and headphone amplifier. It was kindly sent to me by JDS Labs. The Element II costs US $399 and is a marriage of the JDS EL DAC II ($299) and EL AMP II ($249). So you save good amount of money by purchasing the combination.

From the outside, the Element II looks just like the EL AMP II which is a good thing:

JDS Labs Element II Headphone Amplifier and DAC Audio Review.jpg

The same marquee volume control adorns the Element II as it did with EL AMP II. The back side is a combo of the two products:

JDS Labs Element II Headphone Amplifier and DAC Back Panel Connectors Audio Review.jpg

You lose the coax and s/pdif digital inputs which the EL DAC II has.

The gain button does what you imagine. The power button has double function where you hold it to change modes from RCA in the back and headphone in the front. I did turn the unit off and on by accident trying to change mode. This, combined with it being in the back, causes some usability issue. As is lack of a digital display indicating what is playing.

But oh, that volume control! :)

Audio Measurements
I made a couple of measurements to assure that the heart of the DAC II lives inside the Element II and that is the case:
JDS Labs Element II Headphone Amplifier and DAC Audio Measurements.png


Audio DAC Review.png


JDS Labs Element II Headphone Amplifier and DAC IMD Audio Measurements.png


JDS Labs Element II Headphone Amplifier and DAC Dynamic Range Audio Measurements.png


So let's move on to the headphone output starting with power into 300 ohm load:

JDS Labs Element II Headphone Amplifier and DAC Power into 300 Ohm Audio Measurements.png


It is clear we are bound by the performance of the DAC which is lower than my reference Topping DX3 Pro. Noise level is clearly higher. The AMP II though comes through with higher power than the DX3 Pro.

Switching to 33 ohm load emphasizes the amplifier more, allowing the Element II to do better at max power:
JDS Labs Element II Headphone Amplifier and DAC Power into 33 Ohm Audio Measurements.png


Testing for noise level that might be there with sensitive IEMs at 50 millivolts output we get:

JDS Labs Element II Headphone Amplifier and DAC Dynamic Range 50 mv Audio Measurements.png


Most Quiet Headphone Amplifier and DAC.png


Clearly the DAC is pulling the unit back as the AMP II did much better.

Channel balance was much worse than AMP II for some reason (may be due to this test being in high gain):
JDS Labs Element II Headphone Amplifier and DAC Channel Balance Audio Measurements.png


Output impedance was comfortably low:
Lowest headphone amplifier output impedance measurement.png


Listening Tests
While measurements often were dominated by the performance of the DAC, that did not translate into lack of performance subjectively. Here, the amplifier was front and center providing exceptional fidelity with my low impedance/inefficient (Drop Ether CX) or high impedance (Seenheiser HD-650). There was thundering amount of power with ample headroom -- something I don't get with Topping DX3 Pro. This shows that the headphone amplifier is always more important than the DAC.

Conclusions
There marriage here is comprised of a very good DAC with a superb headphone amplifier. When measuring the former, of course we miss the mark of state-of-the-art performance. The amplifier though is king. No doubt about it. As is the nice and unique packaging. Subjectively it is all you want in a desktop product to drive headphones. Yes, deep inside you will know that you could have had a better DAC if you used such externally. :) But in listening, it won't matter and you will have a less cluttered desk.

I am going put the JDS Labs Element II on my recommended list.

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

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Tks

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#5
Seems a shame the DAC is bottlenecking the otherwise top tier amp performance. Likewise the price :\ If this was exactly about a year ago, it would be fine I suppose on some level. But in a world where SMSL is offering things like it's M500, or Topping with its DX7 Pro, or Sabaj D5 outright plowing everything in sight in terms of DAC performance and at such a price where you get a screen + balanced and such. I'm not too sure about this go around from JDS. There is something to be said nonetheless with the fully custom design, American made, and support for folks in the States.

An easier pill to swallow for sure in this integrated form rather than the stack. But man has competition heated up to where we see devices like this as something to be desired. Though one thing that is pretty disappointing any way you look at it, is the single digital input and channel imbalance due to not going for digital volume control >_<
 

amirm

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#6
Hi Amir
I have bought products from jdslabs and they are very nice people to deal with and good support. I have nothing against company at all. I am wondering why do you recommend JDS Labs Element II DAC
whereas you dont outright recommend old which has a slightly better performance as per your chart?
https://www.audiosciencereview.com/forum/index.php?threads/music-hall-dac15-2-review.9681/
Regards
Hi there. I am not following you. The above link is to Music Hall which is just a DAC. As just a DAC, my recommendation would not be strong for this product. It is its headphone amplifier combined with beautiful build that causes me to give it the recommendation.
 
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#7
Hi there. I am not following you. The above link is to Music Hall which is just a DAC. As just a DAC, my recommendation would not be strong for this product. It is its headphone amplifier combined with beautiful build that causes me to give it the recommendation.
Thank you. If I look at sinad music hall appears higher in list for the dac bit. I would think music hall would be a recomended product vs JDS Labs Element II DAC and Headphone Amp. If I wanted the amp bit I would just buy atom and use with a better dac. -:)
Regards
 

amirm

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#8
Thank you. If I look at sinad music hall appears higher in list for the dac bit. I would think music hall would be a recomended product vs JDS Labs Element II DAC and Headphone Amp. If I wanted the amp bit I would just buy atom and use with a better dac. -:)
Regards
That's what I explained. It is the amplifier, volume control, etc. in one box that makes this a winner. You can indeed do better with discrete products. You can even do that with the Element. Live with its built-in DAC and if you had the itch, get an external DAC.
 
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#10
DX3 Pro is half the price..
It also now has a output impedance of 10 which means its not suitable for a lot of headphones and IEMs. Element has it beat in a big way because of that factor alone. I think this would have been a killer value at 350. Its not outlandish to ask 399 but it is a tough market these days.

Style wise, Element is also a winner. You can make some really cool looking ones with their engravement service. I actually just bought a SMSL SP200 and am going to pick up a dac for it. I kind of wish I had went with the element instead. It may not outperform a separate combo but its a looker!

I think for someone who just wants a little device to sit on their desk that will work with 99% of headphones the element is perfect. Only reason to buy the EL DAC 2 when this exists is for optical in.
 

tktran303

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#11
I had an Apogee Duet a decade ago and this thing has it beat, both from aesthetic, performance and compatibility viewpoint.

I bought the Apogee because it was Made In The USA.

This unit is Great stuff.

Buy your kids a job. Buy local.
 

Jimster480

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#14
The price savings of $150 for both of the units together is a much better deal. My guess is that the case mfg is part of the difference in the price. Such a nice case cannot be cheap to make.
 

bequietjk

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#15
Interesting. Wished to see at least coax input and expected toslink at least, but hey, what can you do with the limited space back there. Still, it looks friggin' amazing and the performance is good. Was going to stack this on top the 789 but thinkin' the ED2 is the better pick.
 

Vovgan

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#16
Conclusions
There marriage here is comprised of a very good DAC with a superb headphone amplifier.
Is this the first time when an amp is more capable than DAC in a bundled product? I don't think this was ever the case with AVRs measured here, but I bet this will be the case with Denon x3500 as adding an external DAC (Chord Qutest) to 3400/4500/6500 (owned them all in succession) proved to be a perceptible audio upgrade. Looking forward to your measurements of x3500!
 

Veri

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#17
@amirm any chance for seeing the dashboard for the 1/4 headphone out :)? To compare against same measurement for DX3 etc.
 
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Veri

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#19
I just packed it away and am getting hammered, really hammered, to review other gear. So I say chances are next to zero. :)
That's all right then :p
 
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JIW

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#20
Is this the first time when an amp is more capable than DAC in a bundled product? I don't think this was ever the case with AVRs measured here, but I bet this will be the case with Denon x3500 as adding an external DAC (Chord Qutest) to 3400/4500/6500 (owned them all in succession) proved to be a perceptible audio upgrade. Looking forward to your measurements of x3500!
No, the amps in RME ADI-2 DAC outperform the DAC to the point that relative to the line out, there is no difference and in the case of the IEM, its residual noise is even lower (and SNR higher) than that of the lowest output level for the line out.

However, in the more affordable end of things, this might be the first.
 

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