Firstly I would like to thank JDS Labs for the loan unit, I will admit I am a big fan of the OL DAC which I bought after participating in the Beta test, and I wanted the added coaxial port the EL DAC has. So I plan to purchase this unit once this review is written. I also strive to write honest reviews.
Opus #2 DAP / Marantz CD-52 / HP Laptop > EL DAC > Marantz PM-5005 / Feliks Audio Espressivo > Grado SR60e wood / German Maestro GMP 8.35d / Mission 702e speakers
All outline on their website in greater detail than is worth posting here: https://www.jdslabs.com/products/174/el-dac/
Packaging, Accessories and Build Quality:
The EL DAC comes in a fairly simple card box, held neatly in place with foam wedges. The PSU comes in a smaller separate box. I don’t mind that JDS Labs have not gone to extreme efforts to present it in a flashy box, because once it’s out of its box you don’t really pay attention to it anymore. The box may be plain but the product isn’t, that seems to be the ethos of JDS Labs, modest looking, high performing devices.
Accessories included are good, you get a PSU, optical cable and also a USB cable, again nothing over the top, just the essentials.
Build quality is superb, the housing uses the same aluminium as the rest of the Element line and it is sleek black but a bit of a fingerprint magnet. The bottom is plastic with rubber feet and all the connectors are on the back plate. On the front you have a single button that has a power ring around it. All the inputs and outputs are of good quality, the only slight thing I will mention is the feet are removed quite easily.
I have just had the new Windows 10 update and was surprised that I plugged this in and it worked straight away. If not JDS Labs provide the drivers on their website. This is a USB Audio Class 2 device and supports a wide range of sample rates but does not support DSD.
The front button is touch sensitive and not a physical button. Tap it once to turn it on, and the illumination ring will let you know what input is being used. Blue for USB, Yellow for Coaxial, Red for optical. To cycle through the inputs you tap the button, to turn it off you long press the button. This device is so easy to set up and integrates seamlessly into your system.
JDS Labs have hidden a little extra feature into this and the OL DAC, that is solder pads for a DIP switch so you can change the DAC’s filter.
Let’s keep this fairly concise, this device is in my opinion a no brainer for your system. For me anyway it fits into my hifi setup perfectly, I use the coaxial out of my CD player into it, optical for my player and USB for my laptop, all into one device that then feeds my amp.
If you are used to plugging a low end source into your hifi/headphone setup you will notice increased clarity, but not only this, it is smooth without any glare. I used to love the ESS Sabre ES9018 chip, and I know DAC’s are all about implementation, but I find the AKM chip in this to be more natural sounding with the ES9018 sounding clinical in comparison.
Do not mistake the above for meaning the EL DAC is warm and lush, it isn’t, it just has a more natural tone, the bass is full with proper impact, the highs are extended and mids are just plain natural.
JDS Labs have done their homework, the AKM chip is a very good choice and strikes a fair balance between being clinical and warm, and it has sweetness to the sound without any veil. The soundstage may not be artificially increased but it portrays it as it is recorded, without making you analyse and pick out the flaws.
Now you can change the sound a little if you are willing to solder on a DIP switch, I have done this with the OL DAC and the changes are very small, but still subtle so you can tailor it to your system somewhat, on the OL DAC I opted for Short Delay, Slow Roll Off (a tiny bit more low end control without losing the natural tone) as explained here:
1 -> SLOW (off = Low)
2 -> SD (off = High)
3 -> SSLOW (off = Low)
2 -> SD (off = High)
3 -> SSLOW (off = Low)
Conclusion: What I like most about JDS Labs products is that they don’t sugarcoat their products with claims it’ll magically make your system the best in the world, they just say here is our product, it works and here are our objective measurements to back it up.
And that’s what this DAC does, the perfect standalone DAC if you don’t need multiple Coax/Optical inputs, or balanced outputs. It is a very good, easy to use DAC that does not disappoint in the sound or aesthetic department.
And I like it that much that I am buying it, I have the OL DAC for my main PC setup, and the EL DAC for my hifi system, they just do what they say on the tin very well, for a very good price.
Sound Perfection Rating: 10/10 (simple, elegant and it sounds very very good)