JDSLabs Atom stack contains of the Atom DAC (99 USD) and the Atom AMP (99 USD). It is widely regarded as one of the biggest bargains in the headphone audio market. Let’s see how true this statement is.
Sound quality for the price
Both ATOMs are budget devices, which means that JDSLabs had to cut some corners.
So, the first corner cut is the overall packaging – it ain’t bad, but it’s not good either. Just a standard cardboard box, after unpacking your new devices you’d probably be just throwing these away.
I’m digging the “Sound as science” statement on the boxes though, it really explains what these devices are about.
Except of the ATOMs themselves and the power supplies, the DAC also comes with a 3ft usb cable.
Build quality is the second, and luckily the last corner cut by JDSLabs.
Both devices are made entirely of plastic. Nonetheless, these are 99 USD – it’s entirely acceptable.
They don’t really feel sturdy, both are pretty lightweight, but I truly believe it’s not a thing we should expect from these products – I’ll explain later.
I know that Schiit stack (Modi + Magni) is made of metal, of course, that’s beneficial.
ATOMs measure better than the Schiit’s do though, so it’s a fair trade.
In terms of functionality, these have everything that you’ll need from the desktop PC audio stack. The Atom Dac has a USB input and RCA outputs, and that’s basically it.
Automatic standby after 15 minutes of inactivity is a welcome addition, which actually explains the lack of any power switch. Also, it has upgradeable firmware, so you won’t miss any future updates. Sweet.
As for the Atom Amp, its potentiometer is also a power switch, simply turn the volume down to the minimum, and after a click, your amplifier will turn off, which is pretty intuitive.
Apart from the volume knob, at the front, you’ll find a 6.3mm jack output, a gain switch which is pretty self-explanatory and an input selector.
Yes, an input selector, because the Atom Amp has 2 inputs – Rca and 3,5mm Jack, which you can use with your DAP for example – such a welcoming feature. Also, it has RCA outputs for your active monitors for example. I plugged mine in, and it’s something I cannot live without, so it’s great to find that option here.
Atom Dac is using an AK4490EQ Dac, SiTime MEMS oscillators, XMOS software and an external, 15V power supply which is actually heavier than the DAC itself.
As for the Atom AMP, it is worth noting that it’s one of the best measuring AMPs on the market, regarding its low price.
Also, it is pushing 1W of raw power into 32oHm, which is more than enough for the majority of headphones available on the market, even some planars (I’m running my HE400i 2020 through it right now).
It has a gain switch for pairing it with everything from sensitive IEMs to hard to drive planar magnetic headphones. The Dorado 2020 and Vega 2020 from Campfire Audio performed like a charm on low gain setting.
The JDSLabs Atom Amp also has an external power supply, 16V this time, even bigger and heavier than the one supplied with the DAC. It’s great to see a high quality power supply in the device this cheap.
It actually is one of the most difficult sound descriptions I’ve ever had to write. That’s because this stack is so transparent and clean, that it just sounds like…nothing. But oh my, it’s brilliant.
The bass is incredibly fast, layered, crisp and controlled, but it’s also slamming hard and is very physical. It sounds just like it should, being versatile, neutral and textured.
It doesn’t add anything, yet is not restrained nor shy. You’ve got everything here, and the overall performance of the low frequencies is up to the headphones you’ll be using with it.
Anyhow, if you’ll use a bass heavy cans like Audeze LCD3 you’ll get that deep roar full of information and crisp from top to bottom, yet punchy and going very low. On the other hand, if you’ll use something more bass-light, like my AKG K501 then the Atom stack won’t add any bass to them, resulting in just a pure, tight and incredibly detailed low frequencies.
The midrange is the same story. Incredibly clean, transparent and vivid, yet uncoloured and neither bright nor dark, warm or cold, thick or thin. Your headphones of choice will decide which path to take, the Atoms would be just an accompanying element, making sure everything is in its place.
What’s worth noting is that a couple of years back from now, getting a “transparent” and “neutral” Dac+Amp usually resulted in somewhat unpleasant vocals, which sounded just unnatural and artificial, digital.
It by no means is not the case with the Atom stack, which provide a full-bodied, clean and forward midrange presence without making any changes to its timbre. You want some thick, warm vocals? You’re gonna use warm and thick sounding headphones, as the Atoms won’t give you that.
The treble is probably the most impressive thing that changed a lot throughout the last 5 years in budget devices like these two. It is very extended, detailed and vivid, yet never gets sharp or unpleasant on its own. Sure, if you’ll plug some treble heavy, sibilant headphones into it, you’ll probably get this hot and edgy treble response, but that’s a good thing. No cheating!
Anyhow, it is incredibly fast, transparent and full of life, without even a slight hint of sharpness nor veil.
Pairing the JDSLabs Atom stack with the Hifiman HE400i 2020 which I received a while ago resulted in a very prominent, bright yet accurate and very natural treble response.
The soundstage is precise, airy and accurate. It is both wide and deep, has great imaging and an incredible separation. It is once again transparent, resulting in staging which is dependent on the headphones you’re using. It won’t enlarge, neither shrink down the staging capabilities of any headphones you’ll plug into it. The size and the imaging capabilities is totally up to whatever you’re gonna use. Atom stack just ensures everything is of high quality and in its place.
JDSLabs Atom Dac + Atom Amp stack is an absolute steal for the price and probably the best value I’ve ever stumbled upon in the headphone audio market. The build quality could have been better, but to ensure the low price some corners must have been cut. The most important though is the sound quality, and it’s nothing else than exceptional. For many, this is the only Dac and Amp combo they’ll ever need, and it comes at 198 USD. I think that five years ago you’d have to pay 5-10x that price for a performance that good, and that statement sums this review up perfectly.
Gear used during this review for the sake of comparison and as an accompanying equipment:
- Headphones – Lime Ears Aether R, Cayin YB04, Dan Clark Audio AEON2 closed, Focal Clear, Audeze LCD3, Akg K501, Campfire Audio Dorado 2020, Campfire Audio Vega 2020, Hifiman HE-400i 2020, Vision Ears Elysium
- Sources– Cayin N3Pro, PC