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Review and Measurements of JDS The Element DAC and Headphone Amp

amirm

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#1
This is a review and detailed measurements and comparison of JDS Element DAC and Headphone Amplifier. It is on a kind loan from a member. I have been anxious to review one for a while due to attractive industrial design and JDS Lab's typically good work in producing desktop audio products. The Element retails for USD $349 plus shipping.

As noted, this is one nice looking unit and quite a departure from typical hobby box units we see from other companies:
JDS The Element DAC and Headphone Amplifier Review and Measurement.png.jpg


I was going to photoshop out the little scratches and marks but I thought I leave them there to show the propensity to show imperfections.

The ball in the bell is the large volume control. Alas, it feels looser than I had imagined. And while it looks beautiful mounted in the center, I would have wished it was pushed back so that you could rest your hand in front of it. As it is, your hand rests on the rather sharp front edge.

That said, it is very nice in use and has a very large range allowing precise volume control. It is addictive in that manner in that I kept wanting to adjust the volume as I went from track to track in my library. :)

The switches in the back to turn the unit on and off and select gain are very high quality.

Power is provided by a pretty large external AC power transformer which is a good choice as they can derive positive and negative DC from it without resorting to switching converters to get negative out of positive DC supplies.

Operation of the unit is rather odd though. To use the DAC by itself, you actually turn the unit off! It then acts like a USB DAC. Once turned on, there is another logic that determines if it takes its input from analog in RCA jacks or USB DAC. It saved them having to put in a couple of selector switches and I guess it works. But it is a bit odd to have overloaded the power and cable insertion operation this way.

Overall, this is a very well executed unit that puts a smile on your face and gives you pride of ownership sitting on the desk.

I am sure you all are anxious to see how it measured so let's get into that.

Measurements
For this testing, I thought I separate the DAC portion from its amplifier. The reason for this will become clear as you read on. Let's start with our dashboard view of the DAC, driving the rear RCA out connectors with the unit turned off:

JDS The Element DAC and Headphone Amplifier Dashboard Measurement.png


We have nice 2 volt RMS output which is the nominal voltage you want to have for RCA output.

JDS rates the THD+N at 20, 100 and 100 kHz at -0.15 dBFS, not the common 1 kHz as I use. Still, there is good agreement between my measurements at 0.002% and theirs. JDS is one of the few companies out there which actually measures its audio products so this is not a surprise.

Alas, 93 to 95 dB SINAD (signal above power of noise and distortion) while not bad, is certainly not class leading or competitor for top-class desktop DACs as we see in this comparison:

JDS The Element DAC and Headphone Amplifier DAC SINAD Measurement.png


Let's look at intermodulation distortion versus level:
JDS The Element DAC and Headphone Amplifier DAC Intermodulation Measurement.png


We see the somewhat higher noise floor and rising distortion at levels get higher than a couple of other desktop DACs.

Here is how she does in Jitter and Noise:

JDS The Element DAC and Headphone Amplifier Jitter and Noise Measurement.png


We have a few spikes here and there. All are benign from audibility point of view but would be nice to see a clean noise floor.

Dynamic range ("SNR") is pretty good:

JDS The Element DAC and Headphone Dynamic Range Measurement.png


THD versus frequency at full 90 kHz (and even 45 kHz) shows a lot of noise. Reducing the bandwidth to 22 kHz helps a lot:
JDS The Element DAC and Headphone DAC THD vs Frequency Measurement.png


On well performing DACs, the difference is usually a lot smaller.


Finally, let's look at linearity:
JDS The Element DAC and Headphone Amplifier Linearity Measurement.png


That is very good but just shy of being excellent.

So objectively, the DAC in the DAC in The Element is a tier below some of our best performing desktop DACs.

Let's see how the amp section does in our Dashboard. As of my recent strategy, I try to eke out the best performance I can out of the device given infinite number of settings of gain, volume, input level, etc. that can be used:

JDS The Element DAC and Headphone Amplifier Analog In Dashboard Measurement.png


Right away we see reduced distortion level and by definition, improvement in SINAD of more than 5 dB.

Some mains leakage is there which reduces the numbers more than it should. I tried different grounding options but they all made the measurements worse so I left it in the default setup. Mind you, this is not an audible concern but just the nature of THD+N measurement which is sensitive to anything in the output that is not our fed 1 kHz tone.

Even with that extra mains contribution, it is clear that the amplifier is more transparent than the DAC. Indeed, this matches the measurements from JDS which shows lower distortions just the same (I used the 150 ohm load as they stated to make comparison easier).

Let's look at power output versus distortion and compare it to my just reviewed Arcam rHead and Aune X7s headphone amplifiers:

JDS The Element DAC and Headphone Amplifier Analog In THD vs Power at 300 ohm Measurement.png


We see more power than Arcam rHead here and the gain set such that The Element does not distort at max volume (green curve). It simply stops before horrendous clipping distortion sets in. Noise level is slightly higher though.

Using 150 ohm load we get:
JDS The Element DAC and Headphone Amplifier Analog In THD vs Power at 150 ohm Measurement.png


We have some clipping here but again, we get more power than Arcam rHead and just as well, more noise.

Finally, here is the output at 33 ohm:

JDS The Element DAC and Headphone Amplifier Analog In THD vs Power at 33 ohm Measurement.png


Here, The Element loses to Arcam rHead with higher noise and clipping which occurs before the latter does.

Measuring the output impedance, we can have a sigh of relief:

JDS The Element DAC and Headphone Output Impedance Measurement.png


My 1.0 ohm measurement as usual is higher than the manufacturer spec of 0.1 ohm but it is still in the same excellent ballpark. For this reason, The Element pushes the Aune X7s out of running due to its much higher output impedance of 11 ohms.

Last but not least, let's look at channel matching as we adjust the volume control manually:

JDS The Element DAC and Headphone Amplifier Channel Match Measurement.png


Not as good as it could be with 0.7 dB of error at times. Changing the gain did not make a difference.

Listening Tests
I compared The Element against Arcam rHead using my Sennheiser HD-650 headphones (levels matched and driven by Topping DX7s DAC). There was excellent correlation with measurements here. At low to moderate listening levels, I could not detect any difference between the two. At higher volumes, the Arcam rHead got louder but *much* more distorted. I am talking about levels here where your earlobes are vibrating. :D Still, between the two, I would pick the JDS Labs Element as I could listen to any level without distortion from the amplifier.

Switching to Hifiman HE-400i generated similar results. Both units sounded wonderful at normal listening levels with nothing to pick from them. But at the extreme, the rHead was more distorted.

So as good as the Arcam rHead was, at least in the case of these two headphones and my propensity to push the amps hard, I would pick the JDS Labs as the amplifier.

To test for level imbalance, I used two of my IEMs and could not detect any issues. Nor could I hear any background noise.

Conclusions
The JDS Labs The Element is a beautifully designed and executed DAC+headphone amp. Its DAC is a bit weaker than I like to see from measurement point of view but given the price and inclusion of headphone amp, it is hard to complain. The amplifier section coupled with the nice volume control provides a captivating option and easily earns my recommendation!

So if you are looking for an all-in-one DAC+headphone for a few hundred dollars that has ample power to drive just about any headphone with little distortion, your search is over.

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

If you like this review, please consider donating using Patreon (https://www.patreon.com/audiosciencereview), or upgrading your membership here though Paypal (https://audiosciencereview.com/foru...eview-and-measurements.2164/page-3#post-59054). It will enable me to pay for gear that is not offered for loan.
 

Veri

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#2
Haha, I think I recognize the print on the DAC from the headphones subreddit. Cool to see measurements!

So on the DAC side, very good but just shy of being excellent linearity. On the amp side slightly more powerful than RHead and very close to Aune, quite nice! The only thing I did not find as excellent was the channel matching. For the money you can do so much worse for an all-in-one unit though.

Glad it did not dissapoint :) (PS @amirm I got the forum RSS feed working! views:1 ;)) Hats off to you and your measurement work.
 

amirm

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#3
Glad it did not dissapoint :) (PS @amirm I got the forum RSS feed working! views:1 ;)) Hats off to you and your measurement work.
Ah, I am glad the RSS feed is working.
 

siluah

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#4
Haha, I think I recognize the print on the DAC from the headphones subreddit.
First thing I noticed as well.

I love the huge knob on this thing, it is so much fun to adjust the volume and feels great (except for the wobble but it's easy to look past).
 

Grave

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#5
Thank you for measuring.

Both the DAC and the amp have much higher distortion than the Topping D30/A30 I replaced the JDS Labs Element with, but it sounded excellent never the less. I would still recommend switching to a Topping DAC/amp if you have a JDS Labs DAC/amp.
 
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#6
Oh good, so I'll take this as an official mark of: I don't have to send mine in. I'd been wondering since I hadn't heard any updates on that for the past few weeks since I'd offered.

Overall the measurements are within the realm I expected, and I'm fairly happy with. Especially that linearity measurement on the DAC. Harmonics from signal and power supply are a little higher than I'd have liked, but good enough for my music collection which is just CD-rips for the most part.
 
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#7
I would have bought this if it weren't for the bad channel matching :(
Can you measure the FR? I remember the JDS OL DAC having quite a bit of roll-off.
 

amirm

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#9
Oh good, so I'll take this as an official mark of: I don't have to send mine in. I'd been wondering since I hadn't heard any updates on that for the past few weeks since I'd offered.
Sorry about that. My system of having conversation with people about what gear to send it is pretty poor so hard to remember at times who has offered what. :)
 

Grave

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#10
Oh good, so I'll take this as an official mark of: I don't have to send mine in. I'd been wondering since I hadn't heard any updates on that for the past few weeks since I'd offered.

Overall the measurements are within the realm I expected, and I'm fairly happy with. Especially that linearity measurement on the DAC. Harmonics from signal and power supply are a little higher than I'd have liked, but good enough for my music collection which is just CD-rips for the most part.
"Just CD Rips" is as good as digital audio gets IMO. CD quality has an SNR of 96 dB or higher with noise shaping.
 
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#11
"Just CD Rips" is as good as digital audio gets IMO. CD quality has an SNR of 96 dB or higher with noise shaping.
Well, I have some Bandcamp FLAC that's 24-bit/44.1kHz(I don't know why Erutan chose 24-bit files, but I am not really complaining), but yes. CD-quality is good enough for me, and this DAC/Amp is good enough for CD-quality music, so overall, I'm happy.
 
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#12
Sorry about that. My system of having conversation with people about what gear to send it is pretty poor so hard to remember at times who has offered what. :)
It's not a big deal. I just wasn't sure. My logic was that: If he didn't get it, he would have remembered to talk to me about mine again. Since he hasn't done that, he probably got the other one.
 

mindbomb

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#13
The ol dac usb edition and o2 from jds labs seems like it generally performs better than the element, outside of headphone power. and it costs a little less.

@amirm can you compare these?
 

amirm

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#14
@amirm can you compare these?
Here is the overlay of their graphs at 300 ohm load:

1535582829806.png

So less noisy but much less power.

And its Dashboard:

JDS Labs O2 Headphone Amplifier Dashboard measurement.png


So somewhat similar even though the O2 is producing half as much output.
 
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#17
Forgive my lack of searching, but do we have data on the JDS EL Dac and EL Amp to compare the Element to?
The EL DAC is a completely different DAC. JDS Labs has a few measurements on their blog of it comparing the different inputs against each other. The EL Amp should be identical to the Element tested here through it's analog inputs, just not having the DAC in it.
 

restorer-john

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#18
As it is, your hand rests on the rather sharp front edge.
I can't understand why companies do this. We got rid of our Macbook air because of that wretched edge. When aesthetic design trumps ergonomic design I get frustrated.
 

Grave

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#19
The EL DAC should be similar to the OL DAC, they use the same DAC chip IIRC.
 
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