Pros: Transparent, Powerful, Compact, Audibly Silent, Reference Grade Performance
Cons: Aesthetically challenged in some respects, No RCA in or out,
The JDS Labs O2 + ODAC combo (and just about every other version) is built into a simple metal enclosure (mine is black) and all of the inputs and outputs, save for the USB input are located on the front of the device. Aesthetically, I don’t love that design decision but I understand it’s one that was likely made due to the O2 being designed originally as a portable (sort of) amplifier, not a dedicated desktop amp.
So the aesthetics aren’t that great but functionally; I don’t take issue with it. In fact, I’m more than pleased with its performance. Besides, I’m not buying audio equipment based on aesthetics; I’m buying it based on performance. And oh boy can the O2 perform. There are certainly prettier amps out there but amps that can perform as the same level as the O2? Well, probably not in the same price range.
First off, this amp is dead silent. Even with my Creative Aurvana 3 IEMs, the most hiss-prone of all the IEMs I own, the O2 is completely silent. Very impressive.
But the best thing about the O2 + ODAC is how they don’t offer any of their own color to the sound. The two of them disappear completely from the signal chain, allowing you to hear your headphones like you’ve probably never heard them before. If you plug in a pair of HD 600s, the O2 + ODAC will sound like the HD 600. The same goes for the ATH-M50, Triple.Fi 10, RE-262 and just about every other pair of headphones and earphones you can think of. The O2 + ODAC are entirely colorless and transparent, allowing for the sonic characteristics of the headphone that’s plugged in to shape the sound.
And that’s what a good amplifier should do, in my opinion, tube amps obviously exempted due to added coloration inherent to their design. A good amplifier should provide ample amounts of power or current to power hungry earphones without altering the sound itself. That’s what the O2 + ODAC does.
But before you rush out to buy an O2 + ODAC, thinking they’ll make your headphones sound better, keep in mind what I said before about them being transparent. The O2 + ODAC aren’t going to magically make your iPod earbuds sound amazing but they will allow for just about any headphones or IEMs to reach their full potential. Though some earphones and headphones are easy enough for an iPod to drive on its own, high impedance ‘phones like the 150 ohm RE-262 and 300 ohm HD 600 need the extra power provided by a dedicated amplifier to sound best. That’s what the O2 does. It doesn’t make headphones sound better; it helps them sound as good as they’re supposed to.
A word of warning though. I keep harping on the transparency of this setup for a reason. Namely, the old adage of “garbage in, garbage out” still applies. If your music collection is filled with crappy 128kbps MP3 files you’ve…”obtained” over the years, this amp will not make them sound better. If anything, it will make the flaws even more obvious. Provided you have good enough headphones, of course. But then again, if you’ve got good headphones, I’d imagine you’d be cognizant enough to make sure your music collection is up to snuff.
But I’ve been wrong before.
Anyway, this is a well built, well thought out and high performing amplifier. I’ve got to hand it to He Who Must Not Be Named on Head-Fi (Not Voldemort), as he talked the talk and proved he’s got the engineering chops to walk the walk. The O2 + ODAC is about $300 fully assembled and shipped or $150 each individually (and the stock O2 has the ability to function as a battery powered “portable” amplifier) so they’re a bit pricey for most people but for music lovers, this is an investment that will pay off in spades every time you hit play.