Sound Science – JDS Labs Atom Headphone Amplifier Review
JDS Labs Atom is a high-power Amplifier for headphones, made to drive almost anything under the sun, or under the moon, because it does have its limits. This being said, it is priced at 100 USD, where it doesn’t really have a lot of competition, even something like Periodic Audio Nickel, Cyrus Soundkey, and Burson Play, still costing quite a bit more. It pairs well with large, hard to drive, and analytic / neutral headphones, like Kennerton Thror, Ultrasone Signature Studio, and HIFIMAN Sundara making great pairings for the Atom.
JDS Labs are actually one of the larger companies in the USA having a few amplifiers and DACs, and often being backordered due to high demand, so don’t worry, if public demand is any sign of quality, then JDS Labs is surely desired by music lovers from all over the world. On the other hand, you also have the excellent communication, and great delivery times, regardless where you find yourself, to increase the enjoyment of owning a JDS Labs product.
It should be noted that I have absolutely no affiliation with JDS Labs. I’d like to thank JDS Labs for providing the sample for this review. This review reflects my personal experience with JDS Labs Atom. Every opinion expressed is mine and I stand by it, the purpose of this review is to help those interested in JDS Labs Atom find their next music companion.
First things first, let’s get the packaging out of the way:
JDS Labs Atom comes in a really basic package, and unlike FiiO Q5s, FiiO Q5, iFi xDSD and other DACs or AMPs that are priced higher, it really doesn’t have much to mention about the package.
The most noteworthy thing about it is that the AMP and the power converter come in different boxes.
Other than that, they are cardboard boxes, with no big logos or nice photos, and the package feels fair for 100 USD. It is actually kind of similar to Periodic Audio Nickel, but they have that much higher price point, combined with the interesting scientific facts about the materials used in their products to make up for the price point.
All in all, for 100 USD, the package of Atom is not disappointing at all, but not fancy or interesting either. Just practical.
What to look in when purchasing an entry-level Headphone Amplifier / PreAmp
The build is all plastic, but from the looks of it, it is a pretty high-quality plastic, not the cheap toy kinda plastic. More like the 3D Printer reisin kind of plastic. It doesn’t feel like the Atom is made on a rush, and there are no build mistakes. At the front, there is the volume potentiometer, there’s the headphone output, in 6.3mm, and there’s the gain selector, as well as the input selector.
This isn’t talked about enough, but the tiny Atom has both an RCA input, an RCA output, and a 3.5mm input, so you can switch between the Aux input, and the RCA input.
It is funny that they made it usable as a Pre, but those of you who have active speakers, or speakers who needed a Pre, and needed it on the affordable, you can always get an Atom and be done with it.
The unit is really well balanced, and overall, feels much more high-end than the price point would make you expect. There are rubber feet that help with keeping it on the table, but you should know that the Atom gets pretty hot during usage. After all, there is one whole Watt of power.
I could detect no EMI or electromagnetic interference, I could notice no weird or odd noises coming from it, but the unit runs on 16 Volts, so if you decide on ordering any external power supply, you would need to make sure it matches the voltage and power outputs of the original unit.
Which brings us to the power supply, which is one of the heaviest, largest power bricks I have seen in my entire reviewing career. There’s something nothing quite like it, and judging from the weight, it has almost a kilo by itself, that power supply. This being said, the power supply is an LPS, or a Linear Power Supply, but you can’t use anything else besides the one included in the package. This being said, with the prices of almost any linear power supply, you won’t be using aftermarket anyways…
The functionality is simple, you just plug everything in, and it works. There’s some hiss on the headphone output, but with such a high power output, this would have been expected. You wouldn’t really want Atom for really sensitive IEMs anyways, because the potentiometer would reach pretty high levels and would get loud very early in its cycle.
The JDS Labs Atom is a warm and thick sounding AMP, but it doesn’t choke your music, nor does it make itself too forward.
The bass has excellent reach and extension, and if you like rumble, and if you like to hear the sub-lows, Atom performs quite well. Even with something like Audeze LCD-MX4, which is a fairly hard to drive headphone, it is able to deliver an outstanding punch and blow. The bass resolution is well above what you typically find at the 100 USD price point. The overall signature is a bit warm and thick, so you can expect some extra lows compared to what would be an absolute neutral.
The midrange is mostly flat, linear and neutral. There’s not much depth to the sound, and the width is also pretty much room-sized. This being said, instruments sound natural, and there are no odd coloratons, and in fact, the textures also surprise me, sounding well above the 100 USD price point.
The treble is also surprisingly well extended and energetic, with good sparkle, and good overall presence. There is no harshness and no sibilance, and it balances well against the bass.
If anything, I was really surprised by the kind of quality the whole sound of the Atom has. It sounds pretty much like a FiiO K5 PRO, but slightly thicker, warmer, and smoother. It costs even less, and has an even smaller design, and you can even stack other devices on it or below it.
You can’t really use the Atom portably, since it needs a constant connection to a power outlet, and it really wasn’t made for portability.
Instead, we can brag an entire day about how nice it is for a desktop device. It practically disappears from your desk, especially because the matte plastic used in the build doesn’t really reveal itself. You could place it below your monitor, or even better, you could place it right above or below your DAC unit. Since it does require a DAC unit, you can’t go around that anyways. Something pretty flat and small, like a Topping E30, an Earmen TR-Amp, or an iFi xDSD should work just fine.
Now, you may be wondering why you’d go to such lengths as to use the Atom, if you already have a DAC, which usually is a bit more pricey than the Atom itself.
Well, one of the reasons may be power. Let’s say you have something like the Pro-Ject S2 Digital, which is an outstanding DAC, but you also own something like HIFIMAN Sundara, or Sennheiser HD660S, both of which require quite a bit of driving power. In that situation, you’d want something like the Atom to complement your already nice DAC, so you can drive your headphones.
Another reason is because it has that Pre Function, although I suspect that most people would favor something that also includes a remote for this. There are very few Pre or even Amplifiers in this price range, and almost none with the power of Atom, so if you consider going for something like iFi’s xCan, you could probably switch to the Atom instead, if you don’t need the portability, and if you only have hard-to-drive cans.
There are setups that would be pretty affordable, like, for example, using the Loxjie D10 as a DAC into the tiny Atom, that should give you a great sound for a tiny price.
There’s nothing that’s quite like the Atom in terms of price and especially price / performance, but I tried my best to select a few devices that would suit this review. For this reason, I have picked Cyrus Soundkey, Periodic Audio Nickel, and the mighty Burson Play. There’s also FiiO K5 PRO, which will be featured in this comparison, but honestly, since all of them are from a higher price point, none of the comparisons won’t be exactly fair towards the Atom. Still, let’s see how it competes sonically.
JDS Labs Atom vs Cyrus Soundkey (100USD vs 100USD) – The first part you should take into account is that the SundKey has both a DAC and an AMP chip inside, but you can’t use it as a source for the Atom, as it doesn’t have a true line out. One of those is necessary, otherwise you’d be running into double amping and your final sound will be quite dirty. The size is much smaller on the SoundKey, and it has a pretty good driving power, and good overall voltage. What it doesn’t have is the kind of power that Atom has, and if you need something portable, that works both for most headphones, and for IEMs, the SoundKey is fine, but if you have Sundara, Thror, or other hard-to-drive headphones like Audeze LCD-2C, you will need the Atom instead.
JDS Labs Atom vs Periodic Audio Nickel (100USD vs 300USD) – The tiny Nickel costs 3 times the price of Atom, but sadly it is the only other Amplifier in this entire comparisons list, everything else has a DAC chip inside as well. The Nickel doesn’t have quite the driving power of Atom, but it has a different sound. Just like Mojo from Chord had that magical smoother, liquid sound, Periodic Audio took some lessons and gave some of that magic to their Nickel as well. Not only that, but they managed to make their tiny matchbox-sized Amplifier drive some big power-hungry cans as well, and if you have something that’s bright or neutral and you want it smoother and more heavy, you can always rely on the Nickel. That being said, the Atom does a similar job, but for less money, and with more power. The main difference here is that Atom is not portable, and the Nickel still has more detail, and a cleaner sound. The Nickel does not have a larger soundstage than the Atom though.
JDS Labs Atom vs Burson Play (100USD vs 200USD) – Burson Play has a DAC chip inside, and has more driving power than the Atom, but it does cost twice the price. But, since you would need a DAC for the Atom, you’d end up with a pairing that costs at least 200 USD. The magic here is the synergy, and Burson works best with thick, warm and heavy cans, like Final E5000, Rosson RAD-0, Sennheiser HD660S, and other thicker, bassier headphones or IEMs that really need the extra power, or the extra sparkle and neutral sound of the Play. By comparison, the Atom works best with neutral to bright headphones, and with those that need a little extra touch in the lows, and a smoother top end.
JDS Labs Atom vs FiiO K5 PRO (100USD vs 150USD) – FiiO K5 PRO is probably the best direct competitor to the Atom because it costs 150 USD, but it comes with a DAC, and can also act as a pre. It even has similar driving power compared to the Atom, and it has a better body, metallic, with a more elegant design. The key here is knowing what you need, because it is hard for me to recommend the Atom over K5 PRO unless you like the design of the Atom more, or you really want a separate amplifier from your DAC. You can pair them together, as K5PRO has a separate line out, but I’m not sure if it is worth doing so, given that Atom has a bit more driving power, but not much more. At any rate, if you have only 100 USD, the Atom delivers the same performance as K5PRO does at 150 USD, but lacks the DAC, and the design of K5 PRO.
The pairing part of this review is simpler, especially choosing the headphones is simpler, because we know that Atom has a slightly thick and warm sound, with a slightly smooth top end, so it is clear that Kennerton Thror, Ultrasone Signature Studio, and HIFIMAN Sundara would all make great pairings for it. There’s also the surprise pairing, which is Master & Dynamic MW65, which would also make a sweet pair with the Atom. It can drive both high impedance and low impedance headphones just fine, for example it drives Verum One, which is a very low impdance headphone, and which brings most amplifiers into current clipping with its ultra low impedance, really well, but there you can hear some hiss.
JDS Labs Atom + HIFIMAN Sundara – Sundara is one of those closer, more neutral headphones that has a really friendly price point. In this sense, it would make great sense to pair it with JDS Labs atom, because it can add a bit of thickness, weight and depth to its sound. The low reach of the Atom is also pretty much the perfect pairing for little Sundy, as it helps increase the bottom end hit, as well as the overall size that the sound has on Sundara. There is no hissing, and Atom has enough power to take Sundara to a whole new level compared to most lower powered amplifiers or DAC/AMPs.
JDS Labs Atom + Kennerton Thror – Thror is another headphone that I really wanted to try with the Atom, because although Thror costs quite a bit, it is easy to drive, and I wanted to see what kind of sound would you get from a headphone that is this expensive, and an amplifier that is about 100 USD, which is just a fraction of Thror’s price. In all honesty, I was not expecting it, but the Atom is able to make Thror move, to deliver an outstanding rumble and low end blow, along with a detailed and clear midrange. The stage is more intimate from this pairing, but the overall tonality is fairly natural, and the smoother treble, with zero-harshness of Atom, compliments Thror quite nicely.
JDS Labs Atom + Master & Dynamic MW65 – Master & Dynamic outdid themselves with MW65, and they sound way better than their usual, and I’ll give you an early surprise, hint or spoiler. Although I’m not a big fan of spoilers, you have to know this, I have both Deva and MW40 Wireless from Master & Dynamic, and they are really close to each other, M&D really increased the sonic performance of their products with the last few releases, so you can expect a full fledged high-end sound from them, with the upcoming models. As for MW65, the more natural nature of JDS Labs Atom manages to smooth out the slightly cold and slightly bright overall signature of MW65, and if that was not enough, the low end delivery also makes it sound big and rumbly, opposed to the more neutral and precise sound that MW65 usually has.
JDS Labs Atom + Ultrasone Signature Studio – Signature Studio is one of those headphones that really surprised me with its detail, clarity and soundstage, but also made me feel a bit tired of that same detail, when I noticed that although it had no harsh sounds, it was pretty sibilant, and it lacked weight and body to the sound, being a pretty thin-sounding headphone. In this sense, Atom comes quickly and evens the sound a bit, adding more low end impact, taking off some of the heat from the treble, and making them slightly smoother, less sibilant, and more open overall. This being said, the soundstage itself is slightly smaller than with most pairings, now being room-size compared to the hall-sized Sig Studio usually has. Adam Audio Studio SP-5 is basically the same thing, and you can check them out as well, if you were interested in Sig Studio.
Value and Conclusion
For some products, the value is not their main strength, but for the Atom, it is its main aspect, it is such an excellent value that it may cost less than your Chifi IEMs, but it will still manage to sound pretty much spot-on. Furthermore, it may not have the most interesting or stylish design, and it may seem like a downright simple device, but when you think about the fact it costs just 100 USD, but it can drive some big game headphones, you may start considering whether it is worth making it a part of your system.
The whole design of it is to provide two main functions, that of a headphone amplifier, and that of a preamplifier. It makes such a compelling device, because it can do both, but it does them well. The large headphone output, in the size of a 6.3mm output tells you from the start that you will most probably be driving large, hard-to-drive headphones with it, and although you may want to dip some IEMs in that crazy power, you will still probably want something that has a more granular control over the volume, as the Atom was made for power, and power it delivers.
On the other hand, the sound is as good as it can get for about 150-200USD or so. The only trick is that it doesn’t cost that, so you’ll be happy with it, if you want a more organic, smoother and a slightly thicker / warmer sound.
At the end of this review, if you want a Pre or a headphone amplifier, to drive your big cans, your bad boys, and if you want to pay just 100 USD, and if you already have a DAC, you can count on the JDS Labs Atom to give you one of the best times you could ask for, especially if you love a more organic sound.
Full Playlist used for this review
While we listened to considerably more songs than those named in this playlist, those are excellent for identifying certain aspects of the sound, like PRaT, Texturization, Detail, Resolution, Dynamics, Impact, and overall tonality. We recommend trying most of the songs from this playlist, especially if you’re searching for new most, most of them being rather catchy.
Bats – Gamma Ray Burst: Second Date
Eskimo Callboy – Frances
Incubus – Summer Romance
Electric Six – Dager! High Voltage
Kishida Cult – High School Of The Dead
Dimmu Borgir – Dimmu Borgir
Breaking Benjamin – I Will Not Bow
Thousand Foot Krutch – The Flame In All Of Us
Gorillaz – Feel Good Inc.
Infected Mushroom – Song Pong
Attack Attack – Kissed A Girl
Doctor P – Bulletproof
Maximum The Hormone – Rock n Roll Chainsaw
Rob Zombie – Werewolf, Baby!
Escape The Fate – Gorgeous Nightmare
SOAD – Chop Suey
Ken Ashcorp – Absolute Territory
Machinae Supremacy – Need For Steve
Ozzy Osbourne – I Don’t Wanna Stop
Crow’sclaw – Loudness War
Eminem – Rap God
Stromae – Humain À L’eau
Sonata Arctica – My Selene
Justin Timberlake – Sexy Back
Metallica – Fuel
Veil Of Maya – Unbreakable
Masa Works – Golden Japang
REOL – Luvoratorrrrry
Dope – Addiction
Korn – Word Up!
Papa Roach – … To be Loved
Fever The Ghost – Source
Fall Out Boy – Immortals
Green Day – Know The Enemy
Mindless Self Indulgence – London Bridge
A static Lullaby – Toxic
Royal Republic – Addictive
Astronautalis – The River, The Woods
We Came As Romans – My Love
Skillet – What I Believe
Man With A Mission – Smells Like Teen Spirit
Yasuda Rei – Mirror
Mojo Juju – Must Be Desire
Falling Up – Falling In Love
Manafest – Retro Love
Rodrigo Y Grabriela – Paris
Zomboy – Lights Out
Muse – Resistance
T.A.T.U & Rammstein – Mosaku
Grey Daze – Anything, Anything
Katy Perry – Who Am I Living For
Maroon 5 – Lucky Strike
Machinae Supremacy – Killer Instinct
Pendulum – Propane Nightmares
Sirenia – Lithium And A Lover
Saving Abel – Addicted
Hollywood Undead – Levitate
The Offspring – Special Delivery
Escape The Fate – Smooth
Samsara Blues Experiment – One With The Universe
Dope – Rebel Yell
Crazy Town – Butterfly
Silverstein – My Heroine
Memphis May Fire – Not Over Yet