I posted a review of my Shure SE846 on Reddit and somebody commented on the post and left a positive opinion about the JDS ATOM amplifier. He told me that for my over-ear monitors (we started to ask about the other gear we have), a separated amplifier would benefit the performance of the headphone a lot. For big cans that are not so easy to drive, an amp would take the extra juice out of them.
I heard about JDS Labs but had never visited their page nor I was familiar with the price of their products. If you are at the same point as me at that time… they are cheap, very affordable. I contacted the customer support, offering a review of the amp if they provided me a unit for testing. I was so intrigued by the results they might deliver. Right at the bat, the customer support was outstanding, and that is a good thing to hear really. The brand of my DAP is Astell&Kern, which has players that gained critical acclaim worldwide, the quality of their products is very good, but the customer experience is quite bad I’ve heard. It’s nice to have a nice treat, having someone to go to if there is something wrong with your purchase.
After a week the AMP has arrived at my home. I’ve obviously read some reviews online about the amp, the thing that most people complain about is the built quality. I haven’t mentioned this until now, but JDS Labs manufacture their products in the US. The shell of the amp is made by an injection molding technique. There are lots of people complaining that this thing is made out of plastic and that it feels cheap while holding it. I can ensure that I have not found that issue. The amp feels pretty solid for me. I had no issues whit that whatsoever.
For the listening test, the source I used where:
- Astell&Kern AK70 DAP powered by FLAC lossless files
- Pro-Ject Debut Carbon turntable
- SEIIKI U-Vision for CDs and Bly Ray Audio
- Pioneer AMP
The output was delivered by:
- Shure SRH1540
- Shure SE846
- Tannoy Eclipse 3 Loudspeakers
Before telling my opinion about the sound, I would like to mention the importance of having a separate amp in your audio system. First of all, how are you listening to your music? The vast majority of people are using their smartphones for that task. If you think that in your .2 .3 inch thick device will be capable of holding a camera, cameras really, touchscreen, NFC, CPU, and memory to satisfy de demand that the phone is submitted by… and they also have some space to place a DAC and amplifier. Our smartphones are very good, extremely good at doing everything, they are supposed to do all the tasks. That doesn’t mean that they are the best for doing every single one of them. But that’s is because is not possible. Just by thinking about the space you notice that a separated amp would be capable of doing his job better. Think about it, look at two things: dimensions of the amp and the fact that they have a separate, dedicated power supply for doing their job.
Hopefully, by now I convinced you that may be having an amplifier would be needed for reproducing high-quality music.
Let’s talk about the ATOM AMP. Oh my god… that was the first thing that came into my mind. The sound that came out of this little amp is so damn powerful. To me two key factors of determining the quality of audio are the separation of layers of sounds, meaning the drums, voice, guitars, piano, synth… every sound is nos jammed together. This is what I called: the presentation of the sound. This job is made by the source and de DAC, they decode and present the audio. Another key factor is how those instruments sound. And that’s where the amp steps in. If the instruments are separated, that will give you a 3D effect in your hear when you hear music. But the 3D effect would be so much noticeable if all those instruments sound better. What I’ve found with my tests was that heavy music was so much pleasure to hear. It is like the instrument can express themselves effortlessly.
I would like to share an audio geek story with you guys that happened with the ATOM. One of my favorite bands is Avenged Sevenfold. And I always liked the album Nightmare, for me, it’s a masterpiece. When Hail to the King came out, which is the album that comes after Nightmare, my impressions were good, but I was not amazed. Then I listened to both albums with my AK70 and my Shure SRH1540. Well, after a few tests I came with the conclusion that even though I like more Nightmare in terms of lyrics, song structure, and artist performance. I liked the sound of Hail To The King better. I thought that because it’s a newer album, they have more money to invest in production. And that’s it. Pretty simple right? Well, then I added the ATOM AMP to the equation. Boy, that was the thing I was missing. An album like Nightmare requires power. And the power was served. That album now sounds so much better. This experience opened my eyer, well… actually my ears. I begin listening to metal records by bands such as Gojira, Power Trip, Slipknot, Fantomas, so on and so forth.
The benefits of the amp are more noticeable in metal music, that was my experience, but also with other music styles, you’ll hear the difference. I’ve listened to Ennio Morricone, Daft Punk, Bruno Mars, Michael Jackson, Pink Floyd, Tool, Eminem… the list goes on and on.
Just to give you an idea about the amount of power that this amp delivers, I was never needed to turn the volume higher than 9 o clock. And the impedance of my Shure SRH1540 is 37 Ohm. Making them not very easy to drive headphones. I would like to share with you a quick tip: If you are using a DAP or any source that allows you to control the volume, set it closer to the maximum level. Then control it once again with the ATOM. For me, that resulted in the best results.
To me, the best way to listen to music is in concerts. Yeah, assuming the band has good sound equipment/engineer, the venue is suitable, it has good acoustics, and the band is in good shape and not drunk to the point they’ll pass out. Assuming all that is OK. The live sound is the ultimate way of enjoying music. Adding the ATOM AMP to my sounding system puts me a step forward in that direction. When listening to songs with the ATOM I begin to smile and to headbang without noticing it. Just like I would in a gig. And that makes me very happy.
One feature that most people don’t take advantage of the ATOM, is that it can be used as a preamp. I plugged it with my turntable before taking the audio signal to my amp. The difference in sound is substantial in this case as well. Making the low current output of the analog source bigger makes the amp’s work to be easier. You can hear how your loudspeakers will moove air with less effort. If I don’t use a preamp, all the job is made by the main amp. That will result in having undesirable noise in the final sound. I will talk about the importance of a preamp in another video.
What is true is that no one will complain about this AMP about anything that really matters. Some people will say that is made of plastic, some will say that is very lightweight… The reality is: this AMP is 99 dollars, is made in the US and it delivers so much power that could drive any headphone effortlessly. This is, what I would define, as the perfect under 100 bucks headphone amp.