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Amp/DACs item created by Music Alchemist, Jun 17, 2015
Pros - Form/Factor, Simplicity, Versatile, Neutral
Cons - Soft Sound,
From the humble cMoy Bass Boost, to the polished Element. JDS Labs has really grown over the years! When I got my Beyerdynamic DT 880 in the summer of 2013 my humble little Fiio E6 was not enough, digging through the threads I came across the cMoy Amp. Built into an Altoid Can and sold for right around $60, I immediately snatched it up just because of how cool it looked. Well fortunately for me, I grabbed the JDS Labs cMoy with Bass Boost, it was my first real hi quality portable amp. So I have some blood with the guys at JDS Labs, as I spent a lot of time emailing them after getting that amp, and every time they were happy to answer my questions, and even offered me a sweet upgrade that fit my needs. Fast forward to today, and I'm happy to say that same level of quality and visual cool factor are present in their flagship amp/dac The Element.
You can order JDS Labs The Element, right on their website!
The Element feels solid in the hands, the power and gain buttons have a nice click to them. The USB input doesn't wiggle either, it sits nicely. Best of all, the volume knob is HUGE and very smooth. I had no issue's making fine adjustments to my volume as the knob has a nice heft to it. My only gripe is the 6.5mm headphone jack, with some of my smaller 6.5mm plugs there's a little wiggle at first. My Audio Technica W1000X 6.5mm is my heaviest and most luxurious. Gold plated and seated in American Cherry, it was the only 6.5mm jack to have a very solid and sturdy feel when plugging in and out of The Element.
· Frequency Response 20Hz-20kHz+/- 0.1dB
· THD+N 1kHz, 150 Ω0.0009%
· IMD CCIF 19/20kHz 150 Ω0.0004%
· IMD SMPTE 150 Ω0.0005%
· Noise, A-Weighted-108 dBu
· Crosstalk @ 150 Ω-67 dB
· Output Impedance0.1 Ω
· Channel Balance+/- 0.56 dB
· Max Continuous Output, 600Ω140 mW (9.4VRMS)
· Max Continuous Output, 150Ω505 mW
· Max Continuous Output, 32Ω1.1 W
· Peak Output Power, 32Ω1.5W
· Frequency Response 20Hz-20kHz+/- 0.15dB
· THD+N 100 Hz -0.15 dBFS0.0023%
· THD+N 20 Hz -0.15 dBFS0.0016%
· THD+N 10 kHz -0.15 dBFS0.0019%
· IMD CCIF 19/20 kHz -6.03 dBFS0.0011%
· IMD SMPTE -6.03 dBFS0.0012%
· Noise A-Weighted dBu 24/96-102 dBu
· Dynamic Range (A-Weighted)>112 dB
· Linearity Error -90 dBFS 24/96-0.02 dB
· Crosstalk -10 dBFS 100K RCA-100 dB
· USB Jitter Components 11025Hz-113 dB
· PCB Stackup4 Layers
· Maximum DAC Line-Output, 100K2.10 VRMS
The Element has a basic set of input and output features, nothing special. I'm not a huge fan of having the gain button on the back out of sight right next to the power button. Thankfully I never shut my off accidentally. It's layout is simple though, spaced nicely and easy to take advantage of.
Overall, I find my self very satisfied how The Element is assembled, and I love the design! The volume knob looks great and feels good, the placement of the 6.5mm works well with the visual design, and the glowing ring during play back is the icing on the cake for me.
I had an excellent week with The Element, and during this time I paired it primarily with a Magnum V7 Driver, mounted in Black Limba housings, sleeved in Maple. Sadly, this beautiful headphone isn't mine, but I found it to be amazingly transparent and very easy to drive. Hence forth, I did my usual listening with this headphone, as opposed to my HE 4.
Power wise, The Element boasts a peak of 1.5w per channel, with a sustained output of 1w per channel. While ample enough power for the newer breed of efficient Planar Magnetic Headphones, like the Oppo PM3, The Element did not drive my HE 4 very well. It got me to a loud listening level, but really lacked any low end authority. Compared to my iBasso PB2 and my Audio GD NFB 10ES2, The Element sounded very weak with the HE 4. Which is to be expected, the earlier Planar Magnetic headphones, tended to lack sensitivity and be very power hungry. That said, I really loved listening to it with the Dynamic Magnum V7 Headphone.
Thankfully, many modern Planar Magnetic Headphones, such as those sold by Oppo, Hifiman's and Audeze are easily driven by The Element.
I found myself most impressed with the Dac Portion of this unit, as the overall sound was warm, smooth and detailed with a very good natural tone through most of the spectrum. It pulled out all of the details I'm accustom to hearing in my Audio GD NFB10ES2, the only draw back was the overall sound was a little diffuse. Good width, but height and depth weren't as discernible. Still, while it fell short compared to my HM 901 and Audio GD NFB 10ES2 in this regard, it was a clear step above my Behringer UCA 202 and my Hifiman HM 601's internal amp and line out to my iBasso PB2. It performed exceptionally well within it's price bracket.
The Element has a nice sense of dynamics, moving from louder to quieter passages quickly and naturally, It has a very wet sound overall, with a nice emphasis in the bass and a good fullness in the low and central mid range. I really loved the sound of the double bass in Miles Davis So What, as well as the beautiful tone in Igor Levot's Goldberg Variations.
What The Element does really well, is bring a natural warmth to a lot of the amazingly detailed but often dry and cold headphones, such as the Superlux HD 668B, Beyerdynamic DT 990 and Audio Technica AD 900X. It offer's an amazingly well designed small foot print, with beautifully simple visuals. It's easy to use, easy to own and easy on the eyes, a lot like my first JDS Labs amp! Bringing with it good detail with a warm natural sound The Element is a very elegant convenient solution for any one looking for an all in one.
Check out my deep dive into JDS Labs The Element, here on Head fi!
Pros - Unique form factor, Build quality, Powerful, Transparency
Cons - Limited input options, You can't drive a bus with it (untested)
JDS Labs is an American company based in Illinois. According to their mission statement their intent is "To help headphone enthusiasts enjoy their music." Do they succeed in doing this? Well today I'm reviewing the JDS Labs Element and after spending some time with this Headphone Amplifier+DAC I would say that they do indeed. Read on to find out why.
This unit was loaned to me for the purpose of this review. I do not benefit financially or otherwise by doing this and all opinions here are my own based on my experience with the product. I'd like to thank JDS Labs and Jude for the opportunity to test the Element.
The official website has a host of detailed specifications here: https://www.jdslabs.com/products/151/the-element/
JDS Labs website: https://www.jdslabs.com/
Package and accessories:
The JDS Labs Element came in a plain brown box with the JDS Labs logo printed on the top. I have seen a different box in pictures which is a glossy black and more "retail" looking so perhaps my unit was a previously opened one. Upon opening we are presented with the Element packed in black foam. Sitting underneath are some warranty and social media cards, a USB cable and 16VAC Power Adapter.
The unboxing experience is fairly mediocre but all that is forgotten once the Element gets into your hands.
Build and functionality:
The Element is crafted from a matte black, cast aluminium housing that feels as good as it looks. The top and four sides are aluminium while the bottom is a black plastic with a large JDS Labs logo. The sample that I received has the new and improved solid rubber feet which grips surfaces well and makes inserting and removing headphones easy. On the top is a rather large volume knob with a single white dot indicating position. Actually the knob is huge (that's what she said). Despite the knob's girth it doesn't look or feel out of place at all. In fact its perfectly suited for what it's meant to do. It's very smooth and allows very precise volume adjustments and it's practically impossible to miss - there's no need for fumbling about or even to look while using it. I feel a bit like I could be driving a bus with this thing but that's not a negative. On the contrary it gives you a hands on experience that makes you feel more connected with the device and mixes a bit of old school feeling along with its modern form.
On the front panel is a single 6.35mm headphone jack, right in the middle. That's all there is and I wouldn't want anything else. It's this kind of simplicity that makes the Element so appealing. It doesn't need to be a show pony with flashing lights or an impressive panel of buttons - it just works.
Moving to the back panel we find the inputs and outputs and above these a simple "The Element" printed in white text. There's the 16VAC power input next to which is the power button. Note that the power button doesn't actually power off the unit but simply switches between headphone and RCA outputs. When powered "Off" it sends the signal out via RCA. When switched to "On" a white LED lights up under the volume knob, indicating that it's now in headphone amplifier mode. This is one of my favourite features of the Element. It makes switching between headphones and speakers extremely easily, with only the slightest of delays when switching. Also, while using the RCA output, the volume knob does not have any function - it is functional only when using the headphone amplifier.
Next to the power button is the High/Low gain button. This is fairly self-explanatory. It's recommended to use Low gain unless you're not getting a loud enough signal from your headphones.
Moving across to the center of the rear panel we have the RCA line inputs, followed by RCA line outputs. Last but not lease is the USB input which allows you to connect a laptop or desktop PC or a smartphone via an OTG cable.
There were no additional drivers that needed to be installed on my PC so it was a plug and play experience. Tick another box for that one. Due to the Low (1.0x) and High (4.7x) gain settings the Element should work well with anything from low impedance in-ear monitors to hard to drive, full sized behemoths.
Music used for testing:
Mathias Eick "Midwest" full album [flac]
Earthside "A Dream in Static" full album [flac]
The Pineapple Thief "Your Wilderness" full album [flac]
Jan Garbarek "In Praise of Dreams" full album [flac]
The Element has a mostly neutral sound to my ears and delivers excellent detail across the spectrum. There might be a slight emphasis on the low end but this could be my imagination at work. During testing I wasn't able to detect any background noise or hiss even with low impedance earphones, despite it having enough power to drive whatever you can throw at it. It has an impressive soundstage and extends well on both top and bottom. When listening to Mathias Eick's "Midwest" you can clearly hear parts of the percussion well outside your head-space and the imaging is top notch. With Earthside's "A Dream in Static" the Element kept up well with the busier segments and retained good separation. Playing through my Elac B6 speakers this album got a little harsh at high volume but that was due to the neutrality of the Element and brightness of the Elacs.
JDS Labs Element vs Arcam irDAC-II
The Element comes across as being slightly more aggressive and slightly leaner in its presentation than the Arcam. In contrast the irDAC-II is smooth and mature while perhaps retaining slightly better detail. For functionality the Element fares very well with its smooth volume control and the magic button at the back that makes it so easy to switch between headphone amplifier and speaker outputs. The irDAC-II has more connectivity options and the addition of Bluetooth and a remote. The Element however, is less than half the price of the Arcam unit making it a viable option for a wider audience who can't or aren't willing to shell out that much cash on a DAC.
JDS Labs' The Element does a lot of things right. In fact, pretty much everything it does is done right. It's simple, attractive and functional. With its linear sound, precise volume control, digital and analog input options it's also versatile. Some might wish for more input options such as optical or coaxial but for those simply wishing to connect their laptop or desktop computer, the USB line in should be adequate. Coming in at $349 for the basic version or $369 with the added analog in it isn't exactly cheap but it's not unattainable either. If you want something that looks good and just works The Element is an easy recommendation.
Pros - All in one, Lot of power, fantastic sonics
Cons - Limited digital inputs
As much as I like the idea of a separate amp and DAC having a all in one solution is really nice. I setup to listen in a few places in my house and only having to grab a single unit and a single power cord is nice. This is how I ended up with the Chord Mojo, a portable solution with desktop performance. When I had The Element in house as part of another review, I asked for some extra time to do a review and compare it to my Mojo. The Element is $230 cheaper than the Mojo and uses a more traditional DAC but initial listening tests put them very close together in terms of performance.
I received The Element while doing some beta testing for JDS Labs ( http://www.head-fi.org/t/811385/jds-labs-is-looking-for-2016-2017-beta-tour-members ) and they sent along The Element to use during my review of their beta equipment. After I sent the beta equipment back I asked if I could keep The Element around and do a review of it. After I completed this review The Element was sent back to JDS labs. They did send me a t-shirt for participating in the beta tour, but I shunk that in the wash and gave it to my wife, so I shouldn’t be influenced by their generous gifts.
ABOUT ME / LISTENING PREFERENCES / MY REVIEWS:
I am not a critical listener; I don’t find enjoyment in listening to music and trying to listen for every last detail. When I listen to music I generally am sitting in a comfy chair, or in bed, and relaxing and enjoying the music. I appreciate detail and accurate reproduction but tend to lean towards a warmer more laid back sound. In the past I have had a pair of DT880s which while very technically competent were just too bright and aggressive; I much prefer something like my Ether Cs.
I don’t claim to be a golden ear and all the opinions I state in my reviews are just that. I try to use songs that I have listened to on a number of setups in my reviews; both speaker and headphone based. I know how I have heard a song in the past and how I think it should sound and that's what I base my opinions off of.
HARDWARE AND SPECIFICATIONS:
I am not big on packaging. To me, people get too concerned with what their gear comes in. The Element comes in a very nice but simple package. The actual unit is sandwiched in foam and the transformer ships in a separate box. See the pictures below for further detail.
The Element comes with the necessary power supply (wall-wart) and a USB cable to connect to your source, that's it. Enough to get you playing and enjoying music and nothing else.
Technical Specifications (From JDS Labs Site): https://www.jdslabs.com/products/151/the-element/
Frequency Response 20Hz-20kHz+/- 0.1dB
THD+N 1kHz, 150 Ω0.0009%
IMD CCIF 19/20kHz 150 Ω0.0004%
IMD SMPTE 150 Ω0.0005%
Noise, A-Weighted-108 dBu
Crosstalk @ 150 Ω-67 dB
Output Impedance0.1 Ω
Channel Balance+/- 0.56 dB
Max Continuous Output, 600Ω140 mW (9.4VRMS)
Max Continuous Output, 150Ω505 mW
Max Continuous Output, 32Ω1.1 W
Peak Output Power, 32Ω1.5W
Frequency Response 20Hz-20kHz+/- 0.15dB
THD+N 100 Hz -0.15 dBFS 0.0023%
THD+N 20 Hz -0.15 dBFS0.0016%
THD+N 10 kHz -0.15 dBFS0.0019%
IMD CCIF 19/20 kHz -6.03 dBFS0.0011%
IMD SMPTE -6.03 dBFS 0.0012%
Noise A-Weighted dBu 24/96-102 dBu
Dynamic Range (A-Weighted)>112 dB
Linearity Error -90 dBFS 24/96-0.02 dB
Crosstalk -10 dBFS 100K RCA-100 dB
USB Jitter Components 11025Hz-113 dB
Maximum DAC Line-Output, 100K2.10 VRMS
Interface USB, Audio Class 1
Native OS Support Windows XP/7/8/10, OS X, Linux
Audio Formats 16/44, 16/48, 16/88.2, 16/96,
24/44, 24/48, 24/96
DESIGN AND BUILD:
Digital via USB only
Analog via RCA
Line out via RCA on rear (If configured as such **)
¼ (6.35mm) Headphone jack on the front
**Note that there are two options on the JDS labs site for The Element. Basically you can order it with or without a set of lineout RCAs on the rear. The Element starts at $349.00 and adding the line out RCAs adds $20.00 to your tab. Some early reviews may not include this as the Element was announced in June 2015 and the line out option added in October 2015.
DAC and Amplifier design:
“The Element processes digital audio through an SA9023 controller and PCM5102A DAC. While the PCM5102A supports 32-bit, 384kHz audio, we’ve intentionally selected a UAC1 controller for maximum software and OS compatibility.” and “Linear regulators provide 30VDC to clean LME49600 buffer amplification stages, with peak output power in excess of 1.5W at 32 ohms”
I really like the aesthetic of The Element. Minimalistic and simple with the majority of the sockets and buttons hidden on the back. The orange ring below the volume knob and the LED lighting are both subtle and less obvious in person than they appear in pictures, in my opinion.
The top of the chassis and the knob (and I assume the orange ring) are all machined from Aluminum. The bottom of the unit is some sort of plastic and has a bit of give to it. However, once you put The Element on your desk you're never going to notice that again. I loved using The Element as it was plug and play and volume adjustments with it are a pleasure. As a Mojo owner/user it was really nice to have a big physical knob to reach for and make adjustments rather than finding specific buttons and making multiple clicks. The knob has a very smooth movement and could only be improved with slightly more drag.
The rear contains all of the I/O with the exception of the ¼ inch headphone jack which resides on the front. All of the I/O were solid and I didn’t have any loose connections or connectivity issues. As part of my review of their beta equipment and this review, I was doing a lot of cable swapping and all the connections remain solid, I likely did more plugging and unplugging in the weeks I had the Element than many will do in its lifetime.
USING THE ELEMENT:
The element only has a single digital input via USB. No drivers are required on Windows (7, 8.1 and 10 tested) or Linux (Ubuntu 16.04 LTS and RuneAudio tested). I don’t mind drivers that are easy to install but if something can run driverless it's really a perk to me, I keep my computers pretty clean I like driverless DACs. Sorry I didn’t have a Mac to test but JDS Labs cites no driver support for Mac also and as the Element is USB Audio Class 1 it shouldn't need drivers. The Element will also play via a iPhone (and I assume iPad) via the apple lightning Camera Connection Kit (CCK). Be sure to use a longer USB cable going into the CCK as the element picked up some interference from my 6S when placed directly next to it. Moving a foot or two away alleviated the issue.
The JDS labs site cites support for 16/44, 16/48, 16/88.2, 16/96, 24/44, 24/48 and 24/96. However, 24/192 from all of my PC based sources played without issue.
There are two gain levels on The Element, 1.0 and 4.7x pushing the button on the back switches between the two. Using the 1.0 with my Ether Cs required generous use of the volume knob and I tend to listen slightly lower than many (I often turn down rigs when at head-fi meets after someone else was listening) The 4.7x setting is where I did 99% of my listening. I kept the knob between 9 and 12 o’clock the majority of the time. (Note that the volume knob starts at 6 o’clock and moves clockwise back to 6 o’clock at full power)
Connecting RCA cables to the input automatically switches to the line-in input and by-passes the DAC. There is no button to switch between the two.
JDS Labs provides some nice flow charts of the functionality of The Element and rather than repeat all of it and explain them, go check their instructions!
HOW DOES IT SOUND:
I wanted to be able to quickly A/B the Element and Mojo so I loaded up two identical laptops with Volumio, created some playlists and clicked play on both simultaneously. I also used a digital multi meter to ensure both units were putting out the same voltage. (a 1Khz test file was used)
The keen observers (or those that know both units) will spot the ⅛ to ¼ adapter being used on the Mojo. I also used a ¼ to ⅛ adapter with my ⅛ terminated cable at times to make sure the playing field was level. I have also never noticed either of the adapters causing issues when using them.
Other Gear Used During this Review:
Mr. Speakers Ether C V1.1 (No tuning pads): https://mrspeakers.com/shop/1-headphones/ether-c/
Chord Mojo: http://chordelectronics.co.uk/mojo/
[Source 1] Raspberry Pi running Volumio: http://www.head-fi.org/t/795895/a-70-bit-perfect-audio-player
[Source 2] Desktop PC (Windows 10 via USB running Foobar)
[Source 3] Dell D630 Running Volumio
As I usually do with a review I will take whatever I am reviewing and listen to it for a few days just to get familiar with it, see if anything pops up and note any thoughts I have against my normal setup, the Mojo in this case. During general listening I really found that The Element was giving what I thought was the same presentation I get from my daily driver, The Mojo. I was impressed that I was getting the same ques in width and placement that I get with my Mojo. Overall I found The Element to have a very balanced sound accompanied by very nice soundstage. I think the objective measurements really show what I was hearing, really flat response and plenty of power to go around.
I initially started my A/B the same way I normally do, no volume match but get them close and then listen to some test tracks, pick out details or a drum beat and see how The Element compares. When switching back and forth I noticed that I would think there was a difference and then I would switch back and think it was just in my head. After a few days of doing this I decided to set up the A/B station pictured above. I volume matched the output of the two and listened to the tracks listed below. Here it really became apparent that I could not pick out any differences reliably. Any differences that may be there are so tiny that I figured I couldn’t pick them out in a blind test.
Enter the blind test. With the same two computers playing the same track (and still volume matched) I had my wife switch between the two with my back turned. However, I was able to hear the plug being inserted which made the test not blind so I abandoned the idea.
After that failed exercise I went back to listening to them sighted. I listed for overall response, soundstage, detailed, sound placement, everything trying to pick out differences. I would focus on a single element within a song, like the way a drum is struck, and switch back and forth. I listened for small details and where they were placed and how clear they were (the Keb Mo track is great for this). After two weeks of going back and forth and really trying to pick out differences, I still could not pick them apart.
Detailed listening notes:
I generally use this section to give detailed notes on the differences noted, as I couldn’t reliably pick them apart, so I'll instead list the songs I used during the A/B. These songs cover a pretty a large chunk of the music I listen to and cover a lot of things that I was listening for between the two units. The Keb Mo and Clapton tracks are great for listening to soundstage and placement, The Foo Fighters is a OK track sonically but is in 24/192 and as it's not specifically supported per JDS labs I wanted to see if anything showed up. The Eagles tracks are well known demo songs and are tracks I have heard a ton and on a lot of different setups. Money for Nothing is a great recording and has a lot of dynamic elements. The Daft Punk track I generally use for a bass test on headphones but it also has quite of bit of detail throughout the song.
Daft Punk - Random Access Memories - Bring Life Back to Music (16/44) Eagles - Hell Freezes Over - Hotel California (16/44) Tom Petty - Damn the Torpedos - Refugee (16/44) Steely Dan - Aja - Home at Last (16/44) Dire Straits - Brothers In Arms - Money For Nothing (16/44) Eagles - Hotel California - Hotel California (24/96) Foo Fighters - Saint Cecilia - Iron Rooster (24/192) Eric Clapton - Unplugged - Lonely Stranger (16/44) Eric Clapton - Unplugged - Running on Faith (16/44) Keb Mo - Slow Down - Everything I need
The scientific side of this hobby will say that any two pieces of equipment that measure well and are volume matched will sound identical. I think that is the case here, both of these DAC & Amplifier combinations measure extremely well and are overall very neutral and therefore were indiscernible to my ears from one another. I spent a lot of time trying to find differences between these two and listened to all kinds of music but found that they really perform identically to my ears. With harder to drive cans or another person's ears these two may seem further apart but with the Ethers and to my ears the Element provides a ton of performance for the cost.
It is really tempting to sell my Mojo and pick up a Element and pocket a few hundred dollars. However, I have a few flights and travel coming up and the portability of the Mojo will come in handy.
OTHER ELEMENT REVIEWS:
OTHER REVIEWS FROM ME:
Pros - Easy to use, Slick and simple design, Tons of power, Able to drive everything from in-ear monitors to power hungry headphones
Cons - There's lots of competition at this price range, No indicator for gain switch, Limited input/output options
At the time this review was written, the JDS Labs Element was for sale on their website. Here is a link to the product which also explains their specifications and features:
Not too long ago, I had a chance to review Zach’s flagship headphone, the ZMF Omni. Here is a link to the review:
The Omni left a lasting impression. So much so, I purchased a pair upon the conclusion of the review. As stated in the write up, the Omni gave me a chance to also try the JDS Element desktop DAC/AMP. This write up will focus on the Element.
I’m not going to list specifications in this review. Those can be viewed by looking at the product page link provided at the top. What I will go over in this review is the functionality, and compare it to a couple of my other DAC/AMP models.
The Element is a all-in-one desktop solution for those looking for a fidelic upgrade from their computer’s headphone jack. It improves not only the sound quality, but also significantly increases the output power.
JDS Labs takes a “less is more” approach to its functionality and presentation with this unit. It is a minimalistic yet very stylish piece that will look great on the desk of those looking to maximize simplicity with their desktop rig. Truth be told, the Element is designed to be everything a music lover needs to listen to their earphones with the versatility to drive every earphone, from high sensitivity in-ear monitors to power hungry full size cans.
The Element connects to a source in one of two ways, either via a USB 2.0 plug from a computer’s USB output, or a pair of left and right analog inputs on the back of the device. Aside from whatever audio input you use, the only other plug needed is a 16 volt wall wart to provide power to the device.
Connecting via USB
When connecting the Element via USB cable (included) to my windows computer, the drivers uploaded and installed automatically. I was up and running as fast as my computer could load the drivers. In this mode, the Element operates as a replacement to the computer’s sound card and amplifier. When the DAC is plugged in and running a signal from the computer while the Element is turned off, the analog ports on the back of the unit are a line out to go to a receiver or pair of speakers. Turning the Element back on, the analog ports switch to an analog input.
Connection via Analog inputs (white and red jacks)
The Analog inputs operate in one of two modes. It can be plugged in from any source with analog or headphone outputs with the correct corresponding cable (not included).
There are two buttons on the back of the device. One is for power and the other is for gain settings. There are two gain settings (High and Low). The low gain setting will power in ear monitors and less power hungry earphones. The High gain setting is monstrous and will power just about any power hungry headphone there is. One thing about the Element I find as a fault is the fact that there is no indicator letting me know what gain setting the Element is functioning at. It can only be done by switching back and forth to see which setting is louder.
The dial of the Element is a large disc that rests on top of the unit. When powering up the Element, a white LED light shines from underneath the dial, illuminating a ring around where it connects to the body of the unit.
There is one jack on the front of the unit, a quarter inch headphone jack. There’s not much more to say than use this or with a ¼ to ⅛ jack.
The Element sound to my ears is a rich and dynamic sound that provides an impressive and slightly emphasized lower frequency range and formidable and accurate top end. To be honest, the Element had an almost tube like sound to my ears. Not only does it rock my Omni pretty well, it was an ideal compliment to my Sennheiser HD600. In terms of sound quality and quantity, it’s leaps and bounds better than my laptop’s headphone output.
Here’s something very nice to say about the Element. I got no virtually no hissing, even from sensitive in-ear monitors when in low gain (high gain is a different story). There was no signal noise, timing glitches, or popping noises when turning the device on/off, or switching gains.
Hifimey Sabre 9023 (used as a DAC) + Bravo Audio Ocean class A tube amplifier + Mullard 12AU7 tube (re-manufactured in USSR)
(Combined total of all three items: $250)
When I got my first pair of what I consider to be “audiophile” headphones (Sennheiser HD600), I knew I needed to upgrade to a higher quality and more powerful source. To be honest, having just spent $350 dollars on headphones, I didn’t have a lot to spend on a desktop rig to push them. I did my homework and came up with this set up. It’s been a year and a half since obtaining this rig, and to be completely honest I haven’t felt the need to buy anything else because in order for me to get something that I consider as being better sounding, I would have to spend many times more. I love this setup, and anyone I’ve had listen to this combination agrees it sounds really, really good for the amount of money I have into it.
So for this total we are still one hundred dollars cheaper. Do I find the leap in price to be worth the investment? The answer is yes and no.
The Hifimey/Bravo/Mullard setup has two distinct advantages over the Element:
#1. The amount of power I get from this setup is ridiculous. I can push any power hungry headphone with ease. I can’t go past the ⅓ mark with the HD600 (300 Ohms) before they are deafening.
#2. This combination runs at the same bit rate (24/96k) and has a warm tilted and expansive sound with full size cans that I feel sounds just a hair more entertaining to my ears than the Element.
And with that being said, every other advantage goes to the Element:
#1 JDS Labs made an all in one solution, so there’s less wires
#2 The Element has a more sleek and sophisticated look.
#3 There is no popping, snapping, clicking or signal noise coming from the Element (even when switching the unit on/off or switching gains). I occasionally get all of the above from the other set up.
#4 The Element drives everything from sensitive in-ears up to power hungry full size cans. With the other rig, I can pretty much only use power hungry full size headphones.
#5 The Bravo amp gets HOT to the touch. If it were in the shape of a frying pan I might be able to cook an egg on it. The Element is a solid state amp, so there’s virtually no issues with heat dissipation.
Would I ditch the Sabre/Bravo/Mullard rig and upgrade to the Element? If I didn’t have a plethora of portable sources, DACs and Amplifiers that I can use to push my sensitive earphones, the answer would be yes.
iFi micro iDSD + Gemini Cable + nano iUSB3.0 ($900 total)
The iDSD is a boss. It’s a Swiss army knife with its multiple options and settings. There’s so many bells and whistles my head was spinning at first while trying to get used to it. Loading the firmware and drivers can be a pain. But man oh man, once it’s all set up, this thing is pretty incredible.
So we’ve now taken a leap from something a hundred dollars cheaper to something almost three times more expensive. Here’s what I can say about both devices, and how they compare:
*Each of them are very versatile in terms of their ability to drive any in-ear monitor or headphone. However, the micro iDSD has the ability to tweak the output power a little more, and also tweak the tuning a bit with it’s patented 3D and XBass switches.
*The micro iDSD is portable (kind of) while the Element is not. The iDSD runs on a rechargeable battery, and although it’s not what i consider to be pocket friendly, it does operate without the need of a power outlet.
*The micro iDSD runs at max 32/192k on my windows 10 computer after drivers are installed, a higher bit rate than the 24/96k of the Element. Most people won’t be able to perceptually tell the difference (especially with anything lower resolution than FLAC or DSD) but to some this will matter.
*The micro iDSD has a cleaner and more neutral and detailed sound to my ears. The Element sounds more dynamic and musical.
*The Element is much easier to use. Drivers installed on my laptop automatically. The Element only has two buttons and a dial. The iDSD needs someone seasoned in computers to download drivers and firmware. It has several switches and dials that can be tricky, and leave some questioning if they have the ideal configuration for the earphone they’re using.
So, does the iDSD justify its higher asking price? The answer depends on what you’re using it for. Yes, the iDSD has more features and versatility. Yes, it has a slightly cleaner sound (to my ears). Yes, it’s portable. Truth be told, usually by the time an aspiring audiophile gets to the point that they are thinking about purchasing a desk rig they already have a quality portable source. I personally think the iDSD is incredible, but I can see most people looking for a all-in-one solution saying the Element fits the bill perfectly, and leaves room in their budget for other gear.
Do I think the Element is the greatest sounding thing I’ve ever heard? The answer is no, but for it’s asking price it’s an awesome deal. The sound quality is excellent, and for some it may be the only DAC/AMP they will ever need and then some. It’s super easy to use, drives just about every earphone under the sun, and doesn’t break the bank.
I understand why Zach would recommend the Element. It has great specs, works pretty flawlessly and is hard to fault. It gets my vote for an ideal first desktop DAC/AMP or budget oriented all in one solution to significantly upgrade the sound quality and output power of a computer.
Thanks for reading and happy listening!
Pros - Warm, engaging sound. Nice design. Simple functionality. Big knob.
Cons - No coaxial input. No visual gain indicator.
Photo courtesy of JDS Labs.
I've been looking around for a pair of full-size cans, and one of my Head-Fi buddies was raving about his new pair of ZMF OMNI. In fact, he's so in love with them that he wanted to share the love and ended up loaning them to me for a couple weeks. In addition to the pair of ZMF OMNI, he also threw in the JDS Element for me to try. He said that was a good pairing, so I thought I'd relate my experience with that combination to you in a "quick review". In addition to the Element, I also paired the OMNI with the Apogee Groove, Aune X1S, and iFI Micro and will provide some brief listening notes on those pairings.
ABOUT ME While I'm primarily a portable audio enthusiast, I've been getting more interested in desktop gear recently. I mainly listen to classic rock, electronic, and metal these days, but I do throw in some alternative rock, jazz, and modern/minimalist composition from time to time. And as with a lot of people my age, I've got some hearing issues. I've got mild tinnitus and suffer from allergies, which can affect hearing in my right ear. I'll admit it, I'm not blessed with a pair of golden ears. That said, I've been listening to audio gear for a long time and feel confident in assessing gear. I just wanted to be transparent up front.
Frequency Response 20Hz-20kHz +/- 0.1dB
THD+N 1kHz, 150 Ω 0.0009%
IMD CCIF 19/20kHz 150 Ω 0.0004%
IMD SMPTE 150 Ω 0.0005%
Noise, A-Weighted -108 dBu
Crosstalk @ 150 Ω -67 dB
Output Impedance 0.1 Ω
Channel Balance +/- 0.56 dB
Max Continuous Output, 600Ω 140 mW (9.4VRMS)
Max Continuous Output, 150Ω 505 mW
Max Continuous Output, 32Ω 1.1 W
Peak Output Power, 32Ω 1.5W
Frequency Response 20Hz-20kHz +/- 0.15dB
THD+N 100 Hz -0.15 dBFS 0.0023%
THD+N 20 Hz -0.15 dBFS 0.0016%
THD+N 10 kHz -0.15 dBFS 0.0019%
IMD CCIF 19/20 kHz -6.03 dBFS 0.0011%
IMD SMPTE -6.03 dBFS 0.0012%
Noise A-Weighted dBu 24/96 -102 dBu
Dynamic Range (A-Weighted) >112 dB
Linearity Error -90 dBFS 24/96 -0.02 dB
Crosstalk -10 dBFS 100K RCA -100 dB
USB Jitter Components 11025Hz -113 dB
Maximum DAC Line-Output, 100K 2.10 VRMS
File Format Support PCM up to 96/24
Price: $349 for the standard configuration or $369 with RCA output (LINK)
PACKAGING & ACCESSORIES
The JDS Element comes in a simple box just big enough to hold the Element and USB cable. The power adapter is included in an extra box. You can download the user manual here: LINK.
BUILD & ERGONOMICS
Simple is the word that comes to mind when thinking about the Element's design. It looks like a black Mac Mini with a giant knob on top. Doesn't get much more simple than that. I'll go over it in a little more detail in pics below.
Photo courtesy of JDS Labs.
Looking at the front of the Element, two elements caught my eye. The first is the big, black volume knob. The second is the 1/4" headphone jack. If you look hard, you can even see that the bottom of the Element has a different finish. The top of the Element is aluminum, while the bottom is grippy soft-finish rubber to keep it from sliding around and scratching your desktop. Nice!
Of course the 1/4" jack means you'll need an adapter if you want to use headphones with a 3.5mm plug. No worries, just add one to your cart for an extra 99¢ making your purchase an even $350 (or $370 if your want RCA input). Or if you're like most of us, just grab an adapter from your audio junk drawer. That's what I did while testing the OMNI, which are terminated with a 3.5mm plug.
Photo courtesy of JDS Labs.
Looking at the back of the Element, from right to left we see the USB input, RCA input, vents, gain button, power button, and adapter jack. Simple, simple, simple...
Connect up via USB for DAC/Amp, turn the volume knob down, push the power button, and a white LED lights up inside the Element, giving the volume knob a soft white outline. Okay, we're all ready to go. Start playing some music, turn up the volume, and start jamming. If the Element doesn't get loud enough, you can always engage high gain.
The only nitpicks I have from a design / functionality standpoint are that there is no visible gain indicator. Personally, I'd be happier with gain and power switches instead of buttons, although this would disrupt the Automatic DAC Line-Output functionality (where you press the power button to toggle between Headphone vs. RCA output). And I'd love to see coaxial input, so I could use one of my DAPs as a transport instead of being tied to my computer. JDS Labs has the option to add RCA output for a measly $20, but there's no option to add coaxial input which is something I really like about my Aune X1S and the iDSD Micro I've been testing out.
I’m a Mac user, so for me the Element (as with pretty much every DAC/Amp I try) was plug n play. Easy peasy!
I’m the first to admit that describing sound isn’t an easy thing to do, so I’ll try to describe this as clearly and concisely as possible. As mentioned in the introduction, I was lucky to be able to listen to the Element + ZMF OMNI pairing for a couple weeks. At the end of that time, I broke out some other gear I had around to see what I thought of those vs. the Element. The other gear was the Apogee Groove, the Aune X1S, and the iDSD Micro.
BASIC SOUND SIGNATURE
I found the Element to have a warm sound signature meaty bass, warm lower mids, forward upper mids, crisp treble, and good soundstage and spacial cues. It's an analog-ish, easy to get along with sound that I really enjoyed with the OMNI, but don't go in expecting a linear sound signature.
Element vs. X1S: Element is warmer, with more bass emphasis and impact. Element's bass feels meatier. Element's lower mids are a bit warmer. Element's upper mids are more upfront and can get a bit more forward than I'd prefer. Element's upper end a bit crisper. X1S has tighter, more neutral bass. X1S mids are are more linear. X1S upper end sounds more present and extended but smoother. Element has slightly larger soundstage and better separation.
Element vs. Groove: Again, Element has meatier bass and that makes the Element feel more ponderous. Mids are comparable. Groove has more forward treble that gets a bit hot for me. Groove has larger soundstage and with more air and better separation. Out of this gear, Groove sounds the most digital to my ears.
Element vs. iDSD micro: iDSD micro is falls between X1S and Groove. It has tighter bass vs. Element. Mids are a bit more forward vs. Element. Highs are a bit more forward than X1S but not as much as Groove. Good soundstage and separation but not as expansive as Groove. Bass boost doesn’t do too much with OMNI. 3D makes the sound more holographic but can make upper mids a bit bright for me.
I enjoyed my time with the JDS Element and encourage you to check it out if you're looking for a warm yet engaging all-in-one DAC/Amp solution. I could easily see this being a good piece of gear for my office at work. I can't find much to fault with the Element. Sure, it only decodes up to 96/24 PCM files, but I don't typically listen to files with higher resolution and bitrate than that. JDS has a great blog article that explains the choices they made while designing the Element. It's an interesting read, and if you're interested in picking up the Element I suggest you head on over and take a few minutes to read the article (LINK). The major nitpick for me is that I'd really like to see a coaxial input, so I could use one of my DAPs as a transport for those times I don't have my laptop around. I'd also like to see a switch instead of a button for the gain setting to give me a tactile and visual indicator of what state the device is in. Other than that, the Element is a well-designed piece of kit that has a nice, engaging sound. Thanks again to my Head-Fi buddy for letting me take a listen to these. I appreciate it!
Photo courtesy of JDS Labs.
Pros - Great measured performance, ergonomics, build and look, price.
Cons - Knob is a bit too wobbly to my taste
I am not going to comment on the sound of The Element, as to me this is electronic device, and there's not much to describe without measured values, which are posted on JDS Labs site (I am engineer by trade, numbers is my language). My ear did not notice any gaps in their testing, no weird noises, clicks, hum, stuttering, and I get enough volume on all of my headphones, so I am happy. I bought it to replace O2/ODAC due to ergonomic issues with them (tiny, uncomfortably positioned volume knob, front connections).
What I would like to comment on though, are the things I just love about this device, and that prompted me to post this. Firstly, wow! I just love this box. It has hardware relay for protection. I did not expect it to be this big, and it is really comfortable to use. I like build details, like rubber/plastic bottom with JDS Labs logo, pleasant finish and great knob. Nice USB cable included. Very, very good job JDS Labs!
Nothing is perfect, if I'd wish for more, here it is:
knob should be more sturdy or stepped, like on High-End receivers (but, this probably will bump the price in all fairness). To me, it is a bit too wobbly and easy turning.
I wish there was both DAC in and out option. As a compromise to keep current enclosure, input could be minijack in size.
After number of amplifiers/DACs I had, I am finally very happy and I know one thing for sure: just as when you upgrade from good car to better car, you miss some advantages of the older car, same will be with The Element. I am pretty sure that if I ever upgrade, I'll miss some things about the Element, it is that good.
Pros - Powerful, Clear defined sound, Great design, Sturdy construction, Made in USA
Cons - Wish the RCA input/output worked on a switch rather than factory jumper
I received the Element around Christmas and have now spent a few hours with it. I am by no means as experienced as most on here, but I thought I would throw out a quick novice review.
The Element comes well packaged in a nice box. JDS does a good job with their overall marketing design. I like the look - if I was designing a headphone amp, it would be much like the Element. I think the large volume knob is and should be the main feature. It is smooth and I do not miss any "notches" or clicks as some have mentioned. I rather like the smoothness. The white dot is visible to me and I always know where the volume is set. As the knob is the main "element", it is easy and convenient to adjust.
My listening area for headphones is set up to use a laptop with some FLAC files and streaming Tidal. For headphones, I have tested with HiFiMan 400i and Senn 598SE. Both are fairly new to me. The 400i pair are probably not quite burned in yet but I found their sound to be absolutely fantastic already. I can hear musician's breathing where I never had before. Instruments are clean and crisp. The Element has to be turned up to at least 2/3 power to drive these cans. My favorite listening is of live albums. I cannot stop listening Little Feat - Waiting for Columbus. It sounds like I am there live.
The Senns sounded great as well, but the sound was smoothed out a bit and somewhat warmer. I can see why some like that, but I tend to like detail and a live music sound. For example, I am a vintage Klipsch speaker fan where there are those that prefer more warmth and bass. I do not want more bass than the instrument would put out. I think the Element does a good job with the Senns as well but only requires the volume to be turned up about 1/20 for a reasonable listening level. You would hurt something if you cranked up the Element very far. There seems to be a lot of power.
Overall, I would recommend the Element, although I do not have much independent headphone amp experience. I have some time using the headphone jack on some vintage Luxman and Yamaha components and the Element compares favorably.
If there are any cons, it would be the ease of fingerprints and the location of the power button. The power and gain button are close together, on the back next to the power cord. They are out of sight and you just have to feel them. I hit the wrong button a few times before I got the hang of it.
Pros - Gorgeous one box solution, with a warm inviting sound!
Cons - Price/features can be beat if you are willing to go two boxes or up in price.
JDS Labs The Element is a DAC and AMP enclosed in an attractive small black box, intended for desktop use. It is 5.8 by 5.8 inches square and 1 inch tall. On top of the main enclosure is a large knob, 2.8 inches in diameter, and adding another 0.6 inches of height. When powered on, there is a ring of light that glows, beautifully illuminating the knob. The box has four rubber feet, which sit flush against the bottom, giving it a sturdy footing. It weighs just over a pound. It has a modern look and a solid feel. It is a sharp contrast from the ungainly appearance of the O2+ODAC, from which much of the technology originates.
Operation and Features
The Element is quite easy to use, but it has many uses. So…the following sections, outlining its operation and feature set are unfortunately a little complex. The Element can be used as an AMP, an AMP/DAC, and a recently added option allows it to be used as just a DAC - this new option is selectable from the factory, and its operation is described below:
Powered off, DAC power and data are sourced from USB. Sound is output to an external system through the line-level RCA outputs. In this mode The Element does not control volume. The external system must provide both amplification and volume control.
Powered on, power and data are still sourced from USB and fed through the DAC. However DAC output is routed to an internal headphone amplifier, powered by A/C and controlled by The Element volume knob. The RCA outputs are disabled.
In keeping with the posh look, all switches and RCA connectors, and the USB and A/C power inputs, are on the back. The only output on the front is a 1/4 inch headphone jack. I have the original version of The Element. The original configuration works only when powered on, as outlined below:
When RCA cables are connected, input is from the external RCA source.
When RCA cables are not connected, input is from the internal DAC (fed from the external USB source).
Output in the original configuration is always passed through the internal A/C powered amplifier through to the headphones. The settings for the headphone volume can be adjusted for 1x or 4.7x gain. And that's about it!
The DAC in The Element is an ODAC rev B ($149), and there are many reviews of this DAC. I, having never heard it, decided to compare it against my HRT microStreamer ($170 - $190). Both DAC follow the USB Audio Class 1 standard. Meaning they are limited to 24-bit/96kHz. Yet they do this without a Windows driver. I connected both DAC directly to my Macbook (2008), and the sound was just okay. I marginally preferred the sound of the The Element over the sound of the microStreamer - they were close.
Spoiler: Warning: Spoiler!
Let me explain a little - if you read my review of the microStreamer, I made no mention of sound issues. I did however mention a potential issue related to a USB timing problem. Though the microStreamer is the only DAC I have owned with that problem, I still take the ownership of the issue as a personal problem due to my choice of a poor USB source. And ultimately I used a REGEN to solve my source issue for that review. And, I made no mention of it because I used the REGEN to feed all the non-battery powered USB DAC/AMP used in that comparison. Thus everything was on a level playing field. Here however, I make particular note of the USB cleanup device used because there has been considerable debate and concern as to why it would be necessary to use such a device. And I feel it worthy to note in a DAC/AMP that is only partially powered by A/C, exactly what parts of the box are fed by wall power and what parts are fed by power and data from the USB source. Last…I want to be absolutely clear on what everything cost, and which accessory upgrades and procedural modifications I employed to get to the sound that I ultimately chose to review. For example, though I have read that solid-state devices require no warm-up, I chose not to listen critically to each DAC until it had been connected to USB power for at least an hour. And I honestly believe allowing your component a little time to warm-up does make an audible difference. But enough aside - back to the review.
My Macbook is poor source for anything reliant on USB power, so I added my Schiit Wyrd ($99) between my laptop and The Element. With the incremental cost increase, I felt it worthwhile to compare it against something a little higher end. I decided to compare The Element with Wyrd against my Meridian Explorer2 ($300), which is a considerable step up in terms of pure DAC performance. I plugged my laptop directly into the Explorer2, and used the Wyrd between my laptop and The Element. The sound I heard was fantastic. To my ears, the Explorer2 is a litmus test, a price point where I feel the sound changes from entry-level, okay sound, to sound that captures the listener's full attention - The Element was now in the realm of the good stuff!
In the Radiohead song Nude, from their album In Rainbows, there is an intense, paused moment wrapped around the line "go to h*** for what your dirty mind is thinking." The music halts, and the listener is forced to focus on the sound of just Thom Yorke's voice. Through the Explorer2, I can feel the intensity at the tail end of the line, after the music has already stopped and we are left with the intense vocal. But through The Element, I can feel the moment as it approaches. I had to hold my breath, clench my fists, close my eyes, to get through the same passage. This is indeed good stuff!
What would I say about the amplifier? It's good - it is very good, possessing plenty of clean power reserve. It is a solid state amplifier, with a low output impedance. Thus it pairs well with a wide variety of headphones. The two gain settings and large volume knob allow you to dial in your exact volume. Though the amplifier is solid-state, it imparts a satisfying sense of warmth. It is a well-implemented design that produces an inviting sound. However do not mistake it for a giant-killer.
When I first bought The Element, I briefly compared it against my collection of similar class amplifiers - some solid-state and some tube. Note, these are not the latest release versions of these amplifiers:
Schiit Magni2 ($99)
Schiit Valhalla ($279)
Schiit Vali ($129)
Because of the higher impedance of the tube amplifiers (no gain switch at that generation of the Schiit products), I made the comparison to The Element using my high impedance Sennheiser HD650 headphones. And…my personal preference was The Element. It imparted a clean, effortless sound, with enough detail to also keep me focussed. And it allowed me to use some of my lower impedance headphones, such as my Denon AH-D2000. The Denon sounded quite good - I used it to have my first listen to Multibit.
However since then, I have purchased other amplifiers that I think do a better job:
Meier Audio Corda Rock ($215)
Schiit Vali 2 ($169)
I truly wish I knew more about the science behind headphone amplifiers in terms of what I like. I know I am particularly selective with regards to my HD650 - having owned them for many years and hearing through them the sound that I want, but only on a few systems. A good amplifier cannot be muddy. It cannot have bass bloat or treble emphasis. But an amplifier must have weight, and must extend the highs far enough to hear the parts of the recording that give clues to things in the recording mix, like room acoustics and space between each instrument and vocalist. Amplifier design is not simple. Yet once you have heard the proper balance, you know it.
Reflecting back on The Element versus the original Vali, I found the original Vali to lack certain details. And those details were easily heard through The Element, yet it did so without adding harshness or unnatural treble energy. I hear this same progression today, in switching from The Element to the Corda Rock. Bass depth and slam, treble detail and spatial cues, all seem to be a notch up from what I heard in The Element - but again without any etched harshness. The Vali 2 also fixed the murkiness of the original Vali - from my limited inventory today, the Vali 2 is basically to me like a Corda Rock with a tube.
The Element is a single box. And in my opinion, it should not be strictly compared against just DACs or just AMPs. With its single power connection, and single USB, you have a compact and portable tool for listening to music - vastly better than anything your laptop could provide. The other options are here just to keep the consumer/shopper informed.
However, let's say the shopper does not mind having two boxes, as long as they are the same form-factor. The Element is $329 as an AMP and USB DAC/AMP. You could instead get a Schiit Magni/Modi Uber stack for $298. The advantage is the Schiit DAC is self-powered, and has COAX and Toslink inputs, and it can be used for pre-amp outputs, or swapped in the future with another DAC or another AMP. In short, the Schiit stack is very versatile. You could also get The Element for $349 (with the factory change) for use as a DAC/AMP and DAC. You could then use it to feed another AMP, assuming that AMP comes with a volume control. But again, the Schiit stack already had this covered. In short, there is no winning feature set comparison between the Schiit stack and The Element. If you are okay with a stack, it'll give you more options down the road. Though my perfect stack would probably be a Schiit Modi 2 Uber and Schiit Vali 2 for $318 - still less cost and oh my, the sound.
If you insist that you must have just one box, the only box I know today is the Grace Design m9XX at $499. So what does the $150 premium get you:
In my opinion, you could consider this similar to The Element and Wyrd upgrade (at only a $50 difference). The m9XX comes with a USB power brick, which suffices to fully power the DAC and AMP, thus bypassing the need for clean USB power from a laptop or other source. And in my personal A/B sound comparison, I believe it works!
You can use other sources, not generally good at supplying power. Meaning, you can easily use your cell phone as a USB source. The Element will likely draw too much power from a cell phone source.
You get a digital (Toslink) input in the m9XX.
You get volume controlled DAC output - you could feed something externally, that does not itself have volume control.
You get volume readout - I could write a whole paragraph on how useful this is for A/B, or simply to switch between headphones.
You get two headphone outputs.
You get more options on the DAC implementation - m9XX has a few filters and a cross feed, useful for headphones.
You get the higher USB Audio Class 2, for data rates higher than 24-bit/96kHz. In my opinion, this is minor. I tend to think asynchronous versus adaptive USB technology is more significant. But some people just gotta have their DSD.
One more minor point - it's smaller. That is the m9XX is still suitable for desktop use, but is smaller than The Element. And the USB power box is also less likely to take up more than one space on your surge protector versus the power brick that is required to be plugged in for The Element.
Anything missing…well, if you still must have an AMP, the m9XX will never have that feature. You must always use the DAC in the m9XX, while The Element can be just an AMP.
I've wandered a bit through this review. Some of my wandering was due to the feature set on The Element. But most of it was that I wanted to be honest on where The Element fits regarding its price/performance/value and other options. It has so many features that it competes in many different categories of audio electronics. And no matter what you buy, there are always other options. And there are always better sounding options at higher cost. But here's my overall opinion…
The Element is a great single-box USB DAC/AMP, with the amplifier portion powered by an A/C source and the DAC powered by USB. Depending on your personal USB chain, you may have fantastic sound straight from your source or benefit from some form of a USB cleanup like a powered hub (cheaply found for around $15). Regardless, and keeping with the simple nature of the box, the original USB connection will be just fine. And though I have thrown in other options, I'm not advocating that path. I'm simply trying to inform those people looking at this device, and asking themselves how good is the sound and what other options are out there, at or around the same price. In my opinion, the options can be summarized to a few:
A Schiit stack, which to me has only the drawback of two power bricks and managing two boxes.
A more expensive single box design such as Grace Design m9XX, which you can only purchase when they are available from MassDrop - you cannot just decide to and go and buy. Note - the first drop just finished sales, so the future production schedule and future quantity of this item are unknown.
My TL;DR opinion is that The Element has a good feature set in a single box. And depending on your requirements, you are likely to only beat it by spending significantly more money, or opting for something of a different design.
Pros - Design, size, sound.
Cons - Currently none.
Just unpacked and started listening. I have the Shiitstack Modi2 Uber/Magni2 Uber to compare with. First off, the Bass coming through the Element is deeper, richer, more detailed, more refined. At the same price point, the JDS Element is doing a better job separating the bass into clear, deep notes. The Shiitstack is looser in the Bass and not as refined. The Doublebass notes become blended and distorted compared to the Element. My HD600's are sounding much deeper, better detailed, with plenty of power to push them effortlessly. As I settle into a music session, I occasionally switch back to the
Magni/Modi and appreciate the mids and treble, but that Bass really does sound muddy enough that you lose the artist's playing. Instead there is just a continuous bass beat din. Switching back to the Element, you can clearly make out the plucking of each note, the bass line distinctly there, under the Sax, the interplay of the artists is clear and exciting.
As for comparing to tube amps, I do not yet own any. But, from all the blogs, and sonic descriptions, I'd say the JDS Lab's ELEMENT is tuned to behave warmly/deeply like the better tube amps, w/o being excessively warm. Vocals and mids are excellent, treble exciting but not at all harsh. From one night's listening I would give the Element a 5 star rating, best designed as a standalone dedicated desktop headphone amp. The design and build are minimalist, w/ a large volume pot the only knob or button visible from the front. There is an on/off push button, a High/Low Gain button, both out of sight along the back. Power, USB2 input and RCA L & R "in" only.
The ELEMENT is only a headphone amp/DAC. At the moment I do not see anyway to connect external speakers. There are RCA input jacks, but no RCA (or anything else) going out. I suppose you could add an external pre-amp device?
All in all, this would be a great addition to a workstation at your workplace, or at your home.