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Power to the people: The mighty, yet affordable JDS Element desktop headphone amp

This sweet-sounding, made-in-the-US, digital converter/headphone amp is a winner, says the Audiophiliac.

Steve Guttenberg
Ex-movie theater projectionist Steve Guttenberg has also worked as a high-end audio salesman, and as a record producer. Steve currently reviews audio products for CNET and works as a freelance writer for Stereophile.
Steve Guttenberg
3 min read

The JDS Labs Element's big draw is big power, which comes in handy if you have a set of power-hungry planar-magnetic headphones. Then again, a headphone amp that can put out more than 1 watt can work its magic on any full-size headphone.

The very first headphone I plugged into the Element was my Hifiman HE6s. These guys suck up power like crazy, so while they'll play with any decent amp, the HE6s only strut their stuff with the brawniest of amps, like Hifiman's massively sized EF6 amp. The diminutive Element fits nicely on my desktop, and its big volume-control knob makes it super easy to dial-in exactly the level I want with a flick of the wrist.

Looking down on the JDS Labs Element JDS Labs

Cranking up my fave dub reggae tracks from King Tubby and Lee Perry demonstrated the Element's power reserves were fully up to snuff. Bass transients and crisp definition were impressively rendered.

OK, so the Element kicks butt, but what about sound quality? Does it actually sound good? Absolutely; it was highly transparent with the HE6 headphones, the detail was all there on Aphex Twin's densely textured electronica, the headphones big soundstage and razor sharp focus were downright vivid.

Switching over to my Audeze LCD-2 Fazor headphones the sound was a tad mellower, but I appreciated the richer tonal balance. That's not the Element's doing, the LCD-2 Fazor is a warmer-sounding headphone. Getting funky with Crazy P's "Walk Dance Talk Sing" was a total pleasure, so I turned the big knob way up, and the Element never lost its cool. Hifiman's new budget-priced HE400S planar-magnetic headphone really shined with the Element, the startlingly clear sound I was getting with this combination defied expectations.

Next, I went for a more mainstream headphone, my Sony MDR-1R, and since I usually listen to this headphone over portable (battery-powered) music players I was taken aback by the MDR-1R's more muscular sound with the Element. Where before I felt the MDR-1R was soft and too laid-back, the Element exerted more control over the sound. The MDR-1R is a much better headphone than I realized.

JDS Labs Element's rear panel JDS Labs

The Apogee Groove USB digital converter/headphone amp has a richer tonal balance than the Element. I liked the added solidity Groove brings, but it seems less clear overall with my Hifiman HE400S headphones. The Groove sounds consistently better with my in-ear headphones than the Element. I'll have more to say about the Groove in a few weeks.

I've reviewed a number of terrific-sounding Schiit Audio headphone amps on this blog, but the Schiits are all just headphone amps, so most Schiit buyers add a separate digital converter. The Element is a combination USB digital converter/headphone amp so it makes for a more compact 5.8 x 5.8 x 1.6 inch (142 x 142 x 41mm) desktop system. The rear panel has a high/low gain button, and connectivity is limited to a set of stereo RCA analog and USB inputs, and there's a 6.3mm headphone jack. There is a separate, oversized wall wart power supply. The Element's digital converter handles up to 96 kHz/24-bit files. The all-metal construction feels solid; the Element is made in the US.

The JDS Labs Element's impressive power output and sound quality make it an ideal choice for anyone who invested in a pair of high-end full-size headphones. JDS Labs ships the Element worldwide; the price in US is $349 and around £229 in the UK, and AU$502 in Australia.