JDS Labs Element III

The Element III from JDS Labs offers to be the ultimate wire with gain. Are pure engineering and curious features enough to make some noise in the hyper-competitive DAC/AMP world? We will see if the $449 Element III has its own spot in the market.

Introduction

JDS Labs was a guest at Ear-Fidelity a few times already. My last round with Atom+ stack left me with very fond memories. They offer an amazing starting point for newcomers with a great price-to-performance ratio.

I was inquisitive about the Element III, as it looks like a much more refined design, although based on similar parts. So, I thought it won’t be worse, and that’s a good start. But jokes aside. Even before, JDS Labs amazed us with its no-bs policy and down-to-earth approach. Once again I recommend you to visit their website and their blog. I think that’s a must-read for those technically inclined. The big takeaway is: it’s not the DAC chip, it’s the implementation. I want you guys to understand that.

Naysayers will complain about the old DAC chip used here. Well, maybe somebody finally made the ESS chips sound good? Because until now, I heard only a few devices that sounded good to me with those. One of them was Atom+ DAC, which is a good start for the E3 (Element III). Interestingly enough, according to the blog post at JDS Labs E3 is not a refresh of the E2, but a complete redesign. The analog stage was expanded and tuned, the ESS ES9018K2M was chosen as a DAC, and the knob stayed. Now, the volume control is done in the digital domain, and to be honest, it works flawlessly. Unlike in the E2, the analog input was dropped because of the digital volume control, but it’s not an issue in a DAC/AMP like that. 

Packaging and Build Quality

The E3 comes in a box with a JDS-branded, printed sleeve. The box itself is marked with a slogan: “Sound as science”. Inside you will find the E3 itself and a large transformer-based power supply. No extra bells and whistles.

The E3 looks very good straight out of the box. Sleek black finish, a copper ring, and flush connectors. The top part is metal, probably aluminum, and the bottom is very high-quality plastic. It comes together very nicely, like an audio-batmobile.

The small OLED display is perfect for tabletop use and provides you with all the necessary information. The knob has a smooth rotation but has a little wobble when turned. When you look at it, you see it. When you don’t, it’s not noticeable. It’s a big knob on an encoder’s shaft. Even with a custom, reinforced part, some wobble is to be expected.

Tech 

In terms of tech we can be satisfied too. It supports PCM up to 24bit/384kHz and DSD128. While it’s not top-tier compatibility, I can’t really imagine anybody complaining about it. That’s still more than enough. “But my DAC sounds the best with DSD512 oversampling in Roon!” if your DAC needs that to sound good, maybe it’s time for a new DAC Bro. 

E3 has two inputs: USB type B and optical type as usual. We also get two outputs: a 6,3mm headphone jack and a pair of RCAs in the back. You can freely switch between all of them using the knob. The knob has programmable functions, allowing you to have a smoother user experience. I used the knob as an output selector because I was using both speakers and headphones with the E3. Those outputs have independent volume settings, which make them even easier to use. Besides the sound, E3 was built with user experience in mind. A nice addition can change output filters and influence the harmonics component in the DAC chip itself.

Most manufacturers just crank the compensation to 11/10 to make the measurements look better. JDS Labs gives it to us as a tool to play with the sound. I want to point out that I expect balanced outputs at this price, at least for headphones. Don’t get me wrong, 1,3W is a lot, but planar headphones always gain in terms of sound when connected to a balanced amp. More on that later. For dynamic drivers, it’s gonna be all you might need.

The automatic gain control is excellent and works great. E3 uses internal +/- 15V rails and rail-to-rail opamps (OPA1692), so expect great headroom for high-impedance headphones. It’s a refined, smart design that really puts an emphasis on useability and sound. Exceptional measurements? Apparently, they are a byproduct of sound-focused design. Well, I’m not complaining, for sure. One last thing I want to bring to your attention is the digital volume control. As mentioned before, it’s acoustically transparent and it gives you exceptional channel matching. That is super important with IEMs. 

Sound

Sometimes reviews are easy. Not this time. How to describe something so transparent that you hear everything else besides that? That’s the situation I’m in now. This is one of the best-engineered ESS-based DACs. Chapeau bas.

The sound signature of ESS chips is reduced to a minimum. We get all the pros: resolution, pitch-black background, and insane bass response. The harshness is non-existent. On the E3 side at least. You will hear everything. I mean EVERYTHING. This DAC/AMP can be easily used in a music studio for mastering, it shows every detail in a uniquely effortless way. You have a small hint of the ESS sound. Let’s call it “dark transparency”.

Those who know any modern ESS DAC understand that sentence. JDS Labs included a few options for us to influence the sound. So if you are not afraid to stray from a purist approach, you can play around a bit. Obviously, we can select digital filters. The minimal phase is my choice as the most natural and dynamic. Other filters are a little harsher, which is not a good solution with this amount of transparency.

Additionally, you can regulate the amount of 2nd and 3rd harmonics. I found a slight difference between those settings but liked the neutral setting the most. This is a function built into the ESS chips. It’s nice that we were given access to that. Every regulation is made in real-time, which makes it easier to choose.

Soundstage

It’s excellent. E3 creates layers upon layers of sound, all of them completely independent of each other. The soundstage is very wide and mostly depends on the headphones you use. Even much more expensive devices can’t pull that off. All of that is thanks to an excellent crosstalk separation, low noise level, and linear phase response of the whole device. The soundstage is placed in front of you. Not too close and not too far. It’s just right. That’s it. Reference level sound staging. 

Bass

When it comes to most dynamic driver-based headphones, it is the end of the line. Well-implemented Sabre with a very good, powerful amplifier. With planars, especially more demanding, you can feel that you start to miss out on the punch department. More on compatibility later, so stay tuned. When the compatibility is there, it delivers big time. The bass is rich with information, perfectly controlled, and fast yet sublime. The bass lines in Heaven and Hell by Black Sabbath were a great example. Good bass doesn’t have to break walls with its power. It can also highlight the musician’s skill, allowing you to appreciate the art. Believe it or not, Dua Lipa’s Levitating has a fantastic bass line, and the E3 offered to show it exactly as it is. Even though powerful, the bass never influenced any other range. 

Midrange

I think we all got into trouble even though we were innocent. The E3 gets in trouble here with me. Let’s start with the facts. It gives you exemplary resolution and detail in the midrange. There is spaciousness, breath, and truth in its presentation of midrange. Taking a listen to Muddy Waters My Captain, you can get one of the most convincing musical spectacles. The voice, the guitar, you think you can touch them. Perfectly complementing each other, the gentle guitar background complements the incredible voice of the artist. My version even has a moment in which the mic gets overdriven, and you can pick it up like you have been mastering audio for the last 10 years. So, what got E3 into trouble? Partially, it’s a problem with me and my setup. I like a little warmer and richer sound. With some extra oomph in the bass. Most of my headphones are relatively transparent. The other half of the problem is in the music itself. If you listen to something that wasn’t recorded that well, you are gonna have a bad time in my setup. The question is: do you want full transparency? Great power comes with great responsibility.

Treble

Was a big surprise, and a positive one at that. All the ESS-based DACs I have heard before had a harsh treble. If not harsh, then at least hard. Well, I don’t know how JDS Labs did it, but the treble here is open, relaxed, and very natural. Even now, I’m listening to Bruno Mars That’s what I like. The treble has lots of air, is very open, and fills the whole space easily. Also, even with a lot going on, the highs don’t get tiring as it happens with many other devices. A good example of an intensive track can be Call Me Manny by Justin Hurwitz. It has great big band vibes, very recommended (thanks to DJ TITO for the recommendation). Nicely done, JDS Labs. Color me impressed.

Pairing

HiFiMan Sundara Closed

As mentioned in its review, this headphone goes very well with this amplifier. Sundara Closed has some warmth itself which pairs nicely with the E3. Also, it’s pretty reasonable to drive, so no problems here. Also, their pricing suggests pairing them together. This combo gives you great transparency with just a hint of warmth and an excellent, fun bass.

HiFiMan HE6SE

A fine addition to my collection (post a General Grievous meme plz), but not a good partner for the E3. It can get pretty loud but make no mistake, the HE6SE is a very demanding headphone. Especially when you don’t have a balanced connection. To be fair, HE6SE is not something you would typically match with the E3.

Westone Mach 60

This IEM’s natural, relaxed presentation pairs perfectly with E3. It will make you understand why so many people like the Mach 60 and its predecessor. This is an excellent, universal sound. The E3 has basically no noise, so you can pair it with many different IEMs with no possibility for noise-related issues.

Dynamic driver headphones

I have tried my theory only with the Sennheiser HD518, but I’m confident that dynamic driver headphones will pair with the E3 very well. Dynamic drivers usually have more of their character, which will only flourish with a transparent DAC/AMP like this. Sorry I couldn’t make the arrangements to try any of the obvious choices like Sennheisers HDs, Focals, or Beyerdynamics. I still trust my gut and recommend you try those combos. If you don’t like it, you can cash me outside, how bout dah?

Comparisons

JDS Labs Atom+ Stack

I always try to be as unbiased as possible, but let’s be honest. When you look at the components, the E3 seems a little like a more fancy version of the Atom+ combo. Damn, you couldn’t be further from the truth. The difference in sound is gigantic.

First of all, the Atoms are warmer. Second of all, they have nothing on the E3. Additionally, Atoms don’t work well with IEMs due to the high gain and potentiometer tolerances. E3 has perfect channel symmetry and lower noise. This device destroys Atom+ in every category by a mile. So if you were split between the two, don’t be. E3 is superior in every aspect and has extra features.

iFi Audio Zen DAC Signature + Zen CAN Signature HFM

When having sex, iFi’s safe word is “pineapple”. E3’s is “Panzerkampfwagen VI Tiger, Sonderkraftfahrzeug 181” and you have to say it backwards. Kinda like the famous scene from Euro Trip. The Zen Signature stack has less detail and a smaller soundstage. On the other hand, it has a warmer, more easygoing sound and balanced outputs, which go well with my beloved planars. To be fair, I think that E3 offers more in terms of sound, while iFi offers more practical features (multiple inputs, balanced output).

Summary

Element III is one of the market’s best DAC/AMP combos. It’s super nice to use, offers an amazing sound, and looks good. If you aim for transparent sound and reference sound staging, you will be in heaven.

Its powerful 1,3W amplifier will be enough for many headphones. Low noise and exemplary channel matching will work great with IEMs of all kinds, including full BA ones. JDS Labs is a reputable manufacturer that offers great customer service and a very customer-centered approach to business. There is one caveat that I have to bring to your attention. No balanced outputs for headphones. I love my planars, and they love to get lots of current. Extra power would be welcomed at this price point. If you have planar headphones, I still encourage you to try it. Sundara Closed works great with the E3. Monolith headphones are another great option here. All the dynamic headphones will be absolutely happy with the E3. After considering that, I still give my recommendation to the Element III. It’s a great value for money, and if you are smart enough to work around its only limitation, it might be the last DAC/AMP you will buy.

Highly Recommended.

Big thanks to JDS Labs for providing the Element III for this review. I wasn’t paid or asked to say anything good or bad about this product, all of the above is just my personal, unbiased opinion. JDS Labs hasn’t seen this review before publishing it.

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