Disclaimer: I am in no way an audio engineer or even one of those self-proclaimed audiophile guys. All I know is that I love music and I know what sounds good, to me. The tests I use will not be scientific and will be something that anyone will be able to emulate and relate to in their own life. Cheers!
There are a lot of factors that come into getting the best experience out of music, from the type and style of headphones you use, the source of the audio, and the actual music file itself. I’ve been using the ATH-M50x’s and the AKG-K7xx’s for a little while, and while these are both great headphones, I’ve wanted to see if I could get better sound from my computer to my ears. In comes, The Element by JDS Labs.
The Element is a headphone amplifier and DAC all-in-one, and it looks great at it. If you don’t know a simple definition of a DAC is that it’s a Digital to Audio Convertor that take the digital information from audio files and transforms it into an analog signal so that we (as humans) can hear it. Everything that allows you to listen to music has DAC of some form inside, although probably crappy. Also note that the better the DAC, the better quality of the audio you’ll hear.
The Element comes to us in a small minimal black box with only one giant knob on top. On the back you can either go with a standard version with an automatic line out or the version with both analog in and out for $20 more. The over look and feel of the two versions remain the same, as well as the output and input specs. I’ll list the official technical specs below for anyone out there that wants the preference of knowing.
Looking away from the tech specs for a moment, let’s take a look at this beaut. The Element is one solid matte black cube, with a giant knob on top to control volume (or as I like to call it, intensity). It’s a very minimalistic product which can fit in to almost any setup, unless you absolutely despite black. On the front is where you’ll find a quarter-inch port for studio headphones, and on the back is where you’ll get your power buttons, output switch, and input/output ports. The buttons on the back are also super easy to maneuver, even if you can’t see the back of the device. They are evenly spaced from one another (about a half inch between them) and are very tactile, then again I never turned my Element off so I didn’t have to go back there often
Now besides the super simple, minimalistic look, the most important thing about the Element (and any DAC in general) is how it performs. Now as I said in the beginning, I’m no super scientific audiophile with millions of science-y tests to perform, so i did what’s best when testing out something dealing with audio, I listened to it. Constantly. Which was as hard as you may think, especially since i play a lot of music naturally in my home. The main source of the music I listened to came from my AKG-K7xx (open-back) headphones as well as my ATH-M50x (closed-back) headphones. I don’t have a dedicated speaker system with analog ports, so I couldn’t test the rear sound adjustment but I assume it’s as good as how the headphones were.
My music tastes range from EDM (mainly), to Rap and Hip Hop, R&B, Rock and some Pop as well, so I tried to remain well versed in different sound styles. With the M50x’s, the sound was dramatically changed as far as me hearing different sounds from my music, everything though was amplified — which is good. The bass hit harder and all the instruments and vocals were clearer. With the K7xx’s though, the change was much more impressive (which may have came from switching from closed back to open back headphones. The lows punched on each and every type of genre, the soundstage was much wider, even when listening to the background music that I add to my YouTube videos. I could easily pick apart each and every instrument track on every song that pleased my ears and nothing hurt (when having the sound on a respectable level). The Element easily has enough power to drive the K7xx to their potential and seems to be made to make your open back listening, the best experience you’ve ever tried.
Now, you will have to pay for this heightened clarity and sound for your listening need and this DAC isn’t the cheapest around that you’ll find. The standard version runs for $350 while the ‘advanced’ version will cost $20 more — that’s $370. JDS Labs also offer ‘B-Stock’ units for $300, which they consider to be devices that are “BRAND NEW WITH MINOR COSMETIC IMPERFECTIONS. SAME WARRANTY!“. You’ll be able to buy this DAC/Amp on JDS Labs’ website below if you want to pick one up.
On the last note here, I just want to let you know that many higher end headphones (especially using open back styles) really plead to be paired with the right amp or DAC to achieve their upper limit of sound. Even though this is one of my first Amp/DAC reviews, you’d be hard-pressed to find another that performs and looks better than the Element, especially in their price range. I fully recommend it to anyone who loves their music.JDS Labs