• WANTED: Happy members who like to discuss audio and other topics related to our interest. Desire to learn and share knowledge of science required as is 20 years of participation in forums (not all true). There are daily reviews of audio hardware and expert members to help answer your questions. Click here to have your audio equipment measured for free!

JDS Labs Element III Review (DAC & Amp)

Rate this product:

  • 1. Poor (headless panther)

    Votes: 3 1.2%
  • 2. Not terrible (postman panther)

    Votes: 18 6.9%
  • 3. Fine (happy panther)

    Votes: 152 58.7%
  • 4. Great (golfing panther)

    Votes: 86 33.2%

  • Total voters
    259

amirm

Founder/Admin
Staff Member
CFO (Chief Fun Officer)
Joined
Feb 13, 2016
Messages
37,946
Likes
162,073
Location
Seattle Area
This is a review and detailed measurements of the JDS Labs Element III stereo DAC and headphone amplifier. It was sent to me by the company and costs US $449.
JDS Labs Element III Review DAC stereo headphone amplifier.jpg


As you see, the Element III has the treasured and much praised large rotary control which here, doubles as volume control and interface. For the first time, JDS has added a user interface and necessary microprocessor to control the unit. Here is the home screen:
JDS Labs Element III Review UI Home DAC stereo headphone amplifier.jpg


Yes, the display is small but given the desktop usage, I did not have trouble reading it although it did get tougher with the setup screen:
JDS Labs Element III Review UI Setup DAC stereo headphone amplifier.jpg


Physical button is provided in the back to switch between headphone output and RCA:

JDS Labs Element III Review AC Transformer DAC stereo headphone amplifier.jpg


And the trademark external AC transformer. In use the transformer got warm so it consumers some power. The unit itself also warmed up but nothing of concern.

One of the key and rather unique features of the Element III is auto-gain. It will switch from low gain to high gain automatically as you turn up the volume above 0.0 dB. I have this in my "daily driver" DAC and amp and very much enjoy using it. The implementation here though is relay controlled and I guess to keep that from chattering too much there is a dead zone between low and high gains. A bar graph shows up on top and you have to keep turning the rotary control until it switches to high gain (or vice versa to low gain). If you only occasionally go into one mode or the other, this is fine but if you get unlucky and have a headphone and listening practices that straddle the two gains, then it can be somewhat annoying. My suggestion is to have the option to eliminate this gap.

Also note that the transition from low to high gain is not glitchless. Depending on what you are playing, it may be smooth, have a tiny thump or static. It is not a major thing but is something you will notice.

In use, the Element III is quite enjoyable given that nice volume control and smooth feel of it. You want to just turn the volume up and down just for the sake of it. :)

Note: when I first powered up the unit, it defaulted to some slow filter that would not change until I switched inputs between toslink and USB. Then it was fine. My unit is an early production running an older firmware revision (2.06 vs 2.09). I am told this is fixed in production units (company verified by sampling a number of units randomly).

JDS Labs Element III DAC Measurements
Let's first test the DAC section by measuring the RCA output:
JDS Labs Element III Measurements DAC stereo headphone amplifier.png


Company says they left the "SINAD race" and focused on good enough performance and added functionality. This level of performance shows that is indeed the case:


best DAC headphone amplifier review.png


Distortion is well below -120 dB which means it is utterly inaudible (below threshold of hearing in all cases). So it is the noise that takes down SINAD some:

JDS Labs Element III Measurements DAC Dynamic Range stereo headphone amplifier.png


Again, we are at or below threshold of hearing. Performance could have been a bit better if the output was 2 volts as opposed to 1.88 volts.

Multitone shows the very low distortion for most the audio band:
JDS Labs Element III Measurements DAC Multitone stereo headphone amplifier.png


IMD distortion test vs level shows competitive noise floor with devices that came out a couple of years ago but not today's state of the art:

JDS Labs Element III Measurements DAC IMD Distortion stereo headphone amplifier.png


There are regular spikes at 1 kHz intervals which is the USB micropacket size:
JDS Labs Element III Measurements DAC Jitter stereo headphone amplifier.png


Fortunately levels are below -120 dB which once again, is below threshold of hearing so not an audible concern.

THD+N lands in the general area we have assessed so far:
JDS Labs Element III Measurements DAC THD+N vs frequency stereo headphone amplifier.png


Linearity is excellent:

JDS Labs Element III Measurements DACLinearity  stereo headphone amplifier.png


Three filters are provided:
JDS Labs Element III Measurements DAC Filter stereo headphone amplifier.png


JDS Element III Headphone+DAC Performance
Let's measure again but now using the headphone output in low gain:


JDS Labs Element III Measurements stereo headphone amplifier.png

Sorry, I forgot to set the sample rate to 44.1 kHz instead of 48 kHz but that shouldn't impact the measurements. Performance is ever so slightly better than RCA out.

For sensitive IEMs, we care about low output level noise floor so let's measure that:
JDS Labs Element III Measurements stereo 50 mv headphone amplifier.png


This is 3 to 4 dB better than last generation Element II:

most quiet headphone amplifier.png


But can't play with the products still in the performance race.

Where it can play is power availability:


JDS Labs Element III Measurements Power into 300 ohm stereo headphone amplifier.png


My requirement here is > 100 milliwatts and we have 2.6 times that so you should be good with high impedance headphones. At the other extreme of load impedance, we still have good bit of power:


JDS Labs Element III Measurements Power into 32 ohm stereo headphone amplifier.png


Varying the load impedance gives you the output for any of them:

JDS Labs Element III Measurements Power vs load impedance stereo headphone amplifier.png


Output impedance of Element III is very low per above graph. Can you tell how that can be determined from that?

Note that there is no clipping at or above 300 ohm which means any distortion you hear is that of the headphone transducer, not the amplifier.

Digital control of the volume translates into perfect channel matching down to incredibly low output levels:

JDS Labs Element III Measurements Channel Balance stereo headphone amplifier.png


JDS Element III Listening Tests
With my Sennheiser HD650 there was plenty of volume and enough to bring out some of the sub-bass performance of them. It did not manage to rattle my skull but it was powerful enough. Skull rattling did come when I played using Ether CX headphone! :)

With my everyday DC Stealth headphones there was enough volume to enjoy but the sound would get slightly distorted and run out of gain if you tried to play super loud at max volume. Most headphone amps will have trouble with this power hungry headphone so this is not unusual.

Conclusions
The Element III brings delightful functionality, look and general performance. Other than running out of power, it doesn't have impairments that would be audible. So they met their goal of fixing performance at a level and focusing on other things. Personally I wish it had targeted even higher performance but I can't say that I can justify this in the face of priorities they set.

I am going to recommend the JDS Labs Element III. It is a well thought of product with excellent customer support.

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

Any donations are much appreciated using: https://www.audiosciencereview.com/forum/index.php?threads/how-to-support-audio-science-review.8150/
 

enricoclaudio

Senior Member
Manufacturer
Joined
Jan 7, 2021
Messages
468
Likes
714
Thanks for the detailed review, @amirm About the Element III, I like the interface but price wise, I think it's a bit pricy compared with similar and better performing combos. At $449 you can get better performance from Topping or SMSL. Just my 2 cents.
 

MRC01

Major Contributor
Joined
Feb 5, 2019
Messages
2,490
Likes
2,706
Location
Pacific Northwest
Years ago I had the original Element. It was a great amp but the DAC occasionally glitched with brief drop-outs or skips in the music. I figured it had something to do with USB audio in adaptive / "push" mode. The Element III says USB Audio class 2 - does that mean async / "pull" mode?
 

Veri

Master Contributor
Joined
Feb 6, 2018
Messages
8,586
Likes
10,573
Congrats on the great addition to the product line @jseaber!! With the new OLED display this product is everything those Burson dac/amps should have been, with lower noise, better durability, no DC offset in the output, better support and future firmware updates...
 
Last edited:

PuX

Active Member
Joined
Feb 16, 2018
Messages
271
Likes
168
prices are rising, performance kind of the same as before. still pretty good I guess.

edit:
after looking at their blog post, it looks like there are some measurable advantages over the previous model after all.

what's also strange is the absence of coax input. not sure why it's missing, I'd say there is enough free space.
 
Last edited:

Veri

Master Contributor
Joined
Feb 6, 2018
Messages
8,586
Likes
10,573
Years ago I had the Element II. It was a great amp but the DAC occasionally glitched with brief drop-outs or skips in the music. I figured it had something to do with USB audio in adaptive / "push" mode.
No such thing, there is only WASAPI push and event mode (with foobar2000 having an infamously bad WASAPI plug-in for many years) so I'm not sure what you mean. In any case the default UAC2.0 windows driver should work fine and if not there's the latest XMOS v5.30 driver available on the JDS Labs site :)
 

BoredErica

Addicted to Fun and Learning
Joined
Jan 15, 2019
Messages
535
Likes
715
Location
USA
I'd vote this quite positively if the transition across gain was totally glitchless but doesn't seem like it is.
 

vallandar

Member
Forum Donor
Joined
Jan 12, 2022
Messages
18
Likes
14
Years ago I had the original Element. It was a great amp but the DAC occasionally glitched with brief drop-outs or skips in the music. I figured it had something to do with USB audio in adaptive / "push" mode. The Element III says USB Audio class 2 - does that mean async / "pull" mode?
My Element II never glitched, so if there was a problem on the Element they fixed it already with the II.
 

_theLaughingman

Major Contributor
Forum Donor
Joined
Jan 1, 2020
Messages
1,011
Likes
1,429
Location
Ohio
Does the volume knob control the DAC output and headphone output? It sounds stupid, but I haven't seen combo products have that feature.
 

filo97s

Active Member
Joined
Feb 17, 2019
Messages
116
Likes
214
Location
Sestri Levante
What is the "2nd harmonic compensation" that is visible on the display and how it affects measurements?
 

MRC01

Major Contributor
Joined
Feb 5, 2019
Messages
2,490
Likes
2,706
Location
Pacific Northwest
...I'm not sure what you mean. In any case the default UAC2.0 windows driver should work fine and if not there's the latest XMOS v5.30 driver available on the JDS Labs site :)
Early forms of USB audio were "push" (like SPDIF): the source sends the data and the DAC must constantly adapt to any slight differences in clock rates. Sometimes called "adaptive" mode.

More recent USB audio is async or "pull": the DAC controls data transfer from the source so it (the DAC) can use its own clock with no need to adapt to clock rate differences with the source.
 
Last edited:

Bernard23

Active Member
Joined
Nov 25, 2020
Messages
132
Likes
69
The Element II review concluded average DAC, excellent amp; does that change with the III, and apart from the display and auto gain switching, what else is different / improved, and did that translate into a noticeable subjective difference?
 

MRC01

Major Contributor
Joined
Feb 5, 2019
Messages
2,490
Likes
2,706
Location
Pacific Northwest
What is the "2nd harmonic compensation" that is visible on the display and how it affects measurements?
Great question. I downloaded the manual, which says the following, only increasing the mystique:
2nd Harmonic Steps
Default: 0, with a range of -75 to 75
3rd Harmonic Comp
Default: -20, with a range of -75 to 75

Incidentally, it also has a DPLL Bandwidth setting which sounds like the same thing the SMSL SU-6 has. If so (is it?), lower is better; set it to the lowest value that works properly (no glitching or dropouts) with your equipment. The manual says:
DPLL BANDWIDTH
Default: 7, with a range of 0 to 15. This setting directly impacts jitter rejection, with the optimal
value dependent on timing stability of your PC or audio source. Most audio sources produce
stable audio when DPLL is set to 5. We have conservatively increased the default DPLL value to
7 in order to support a wider range of sources, especially modern 4k TVs. If you encounter
stuttering, try increasing DPLL Bandwidth.
 

PeteL

Major Contributor
Joined
Jun 1, 2020
Messages
2,146
Likes
2,143
Is it all plastic?
Early forms of USB audio were "push" (like SPDIF): the source sends the data and the DAC must constantly adapt to any slight differences in clock rates. Sometimes called "adaptive" mode.

More recent USB audio is async or "pull": the DAC controls data transfer from the source so it (the DAC) can use its own clock with no need to adapt to clock rate differences with the source.
UAC2 is Asynchronous yes, I'd be surprised the original Element was not, UAC2 have been the norm for about a decade.

Edit: I read a Paper on original element, it was in fact UAC1, it's a bit of a oddity for a 2015 product.
 

vallandar

Member
Forum Donor
Joined
Jan 12, 2022
Messages
18
Likes
14
The Element II review concluded average DAC, excellent amp; does that change with the III, and apart from the display and auto gain switching, what else is different / improved, and did that translate into a noticeable subjective difference?
Digital volume control is the biggest improvement. Perfect channel balance makes a huge difference when listening at low volumes.

The announcement blog post has some more details on the changes from Element II to III: https://blog.jdslabs.com/2022/01/jds-labs-element-iii-official-release-benchmarks/
 
Last edited:
Top Bottom