Let's find out just how good a $299 USD DAC can sound

[JDS ElDacII+ - front view]
[Italian version here]

Product name: JDS Labs EL DAC II+
Manufacturer: JDS Labs - USA
Approx. price: $299 USD
Reviewer: M.L. Gneier - TNT USA
Reviewed: May, 2023

JDS Labs, and the brand's EL DAC II+, may not be exactly household names, not even in the high end world...yet. But, I predict both the product and JDS Labs are on a serious upswing and one that's not likely to level off any time soon. John Seaber is head honcho at JDS Labs so you can thank him for the EL DAC II+ and thank him you should.

The EL DAC II+ is a tidy and attractive little box that's CNC milled from a block of aluminum. Its overall look trends toward the stealthy though the different color input indicator lights, glowing in a ring in the center of the faceplate, blue for USB (16/44.1k thru 32/384kHz and DSD64-128), red for TOSLINK and yellow for our old pal COAX (16/48kHz thru 24/192kHz), bring the little DAC a nice dash of visual panache. I used USB the most but also checked out COAX just for fun. All of my serious evaluations were done via USB. The position of the JDS Labs and logo on the top-center speaks to the likely anticipated use of the EL DAC II+ as a desktop DAC. Perhaps JDS needs to be a bit more ambitious when it comes to the role of the EL DAC II+.

Please have a look at the official website for more technical details.

The back panel of the EL DAC II+ is small, befitting the size of the enclosure, to be sure. Balanced connection is achieved via 6.35mm TRS. It's been a good while since I terminated a TRS so it was fun making up a cable when the EL DAC II+ first landed. Later, I swapped in very short (16cm) cables I had made by Coluber Cable. Coluber is mentioned (though not to the point of explicit recommendation on the JDS Labs site). The cables they supplied worked perfectly and looked the part to boot. The one I made were kinda ugly, I'll be honest. Not surprisingly, the rear panel also has a COAX, USB and TOSLINK input as well as RCA outputs. Sorry, I do have to say more about those RCA outputs. The first time I tried to use them I was surprised by how much the rear panel flexed. My brain went back to the days of early PCB-mounted RCA and ground sleeves coming off with the removal of an RCA plug. Ugh. Not interested in having a replay of that particular scene I found some old (really old) interconnects with RCAs that I recalled to be on the loose side. Even they were a quite snug fit but I inserted each fully with a little extra care.

[JDS ElDacII+ - rear view]

Playback source material went from FLAC (many of my archived LPs live at pCloud since their playback system for both iOS and the Mac OS is so good) to AppleMusic Lossless to AAC to plain old Spotify. Source devices included an ancient CD player with COAX digital out, to my MacBook Air and my iPhone. The EL DAC II+ locked on to each source instantly and never burped, skipped or suffered even a momentary dropout.

[JDS ElDacII+ - inside view]

That might not sound like a big deal but I was very impressed by the overall seamlessness of operation of the EL DAC II+. This kind of ease should always be the case but occasionally it's not and I'm tired of being forced to use silly OTG cables, suffer inconsistent DAC locks, weird noise bursts and dropouts. Using the EL DAC II+ was an operational pleasure from start to finish. Well done, JDS Labs.

I cannot say why but I was expecting a somewhat buttoned-down presentation from the EL DAC II+ but that's not what I heard. Instead, the DAC has a big, confident presentation. Dynamics are effortless and the sense of swing and drive is excellent, better than I would have thought possible in such a reasonably priced DAC. I started off listening to The Shins (AppleMusic Lossless) and the sound reminded me of the sound of the very same LPs from that bad. The sound had excellent jump and energy, just as it should. Ramping down a certain kind of energy and ramping up the juice in another, I switched to Chet Baker's Moon & Sand from the Let's Get Lost soundtrack. In this song, Baker sings very softly accented by the bass while an occasional, but also very quiet, high-hat strike punctuates the beat even further. It's a subtle piece and the EL DAC II+ nails it with great separation between voice (and then trumpet) and the rhythm section. As good as the sound is it was also this song that led me to identify a bit of flavor from the EL DAC II+. There's a subtle leanness to its sound. Everything sounds solid but there's not a great sense of bloom to the music. The bass is exceptionally precise and extended. It's not that the EL DAC II+ sounds lightweight or lacks in impact and dynamics are exceptional as I noted earlier.

So, I decided to change musical gears yet again. This time it was two Bach piano preludes from the Anna Magdalena notebook from 1725. I was listening to whether the piano sound lacked for harmonic richness or sounded thin or dare I say, digital. It didn't and this made me wonder if the fault (if that's what you want to call it) might lay somewhere other than the EL DAC II+ (my ears, perhaps?).

The EL DAC II+ was used as a part of my main system but also upstream of my two headphone amps. I enjoyed it in both applications. The EL DAC II+ puts out 2 volts through the RCAs (and 4 through balanced). I think it would make a perfect source for a passive front end system. The 2 volts is a little more than my system (or headphone amp) needs for full output but I can imagine it would also sound superb driving an amp directly (assuming, of course, that the amp had its own attenuation control). Best of all, thinking of passive system, is the fact that the EL DAC II+ is unimaginably quiet. Everything that comes of out of it emanates from an inky-black background. It is the best I've ever heard? Well, that's a tough call since the best DACs I've ever heard cost well over $5000 and output significantly fewer volts than the EL DAC II+. It's a brave new world out there and some amazing work is being done.

That brings me to my wishlist. No, I'm never happy leaving well enough alone. I wish the EL DAC II+ rear panel was a bit more stout and accommodating to typical audiophile cables. Hey, they're out there. People are going to use them. A product, especially one as good as the EL DAC II+, should be ready for them. I must admit that I am more than ready for at least one new product from JDS Labs. It would be an amplifier suitable for passive monitors. It doesn't have to be a Class A monster or yet another Lilliputian Class D. Someday I might get the chance to hear the JDS Element III which brings together the DAC in the EL DAC II+ with the company's flagship headphone amp. Fingers crossed!

In the end, the EL DAC II+ is unexceptionally well-executed DAC. I have no doubt that you (or I) could spend far more but I'm not sure you can get anything better anywhere near this price. If pressed, I would add that the leanness of its presentation needs to be kept front of mind. That said, the EL DAC II+ is consistently musical and works flawlessly. I've gotten very used to fundamental musicality of the EL DAC II+. It's the kind of component that draws your attention away to what it's doing and toward the music that is, in the end, the reason you've bought all this gear in the first place, I hope. If you've heard a better DAC for less than double the cost of the EL DAC II+, please let me know. I want to hear all about it.

Listen well but listen happy, my friends.

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Copyright © 2023 M.L. Gneier - mlg@tnt-audio.com - www.tnt-audio.com