Oh little black box of witchcraft, how do you work? Despite how much I appreciate amazing audio the mechanics behind it all are akin to black magic in my eyes. All I know is that sound is something that often gets overlooked from a gaming and filmgoing perspective, and spending the money to get something deliver that sound can change that perspective. It’s not until you splurge on a good set of headphones or a speaker system that you can appreciate how much you weren’t hearing.
These days motherboards, even the cheap ones, provide surprisingly good audio to the point where the average person doesn’t need to worry about it. You can plug in any decent set of headphones or speakers and get pleasing results. But there are folk like me who just want better because we’re greedy like that. With that said while I love getting the best quality I can I’m not an audiophile by most definitions, so this isn’t going to be a review filled with complex terms. No, this is a review from an average gamer with a few sets of good headphones lying around. With that said later on we’ll be getting an opinion from someone who knows what they’re talking about.
The history of this little box, and indeed many similar devices on the market, is a strange tale indeed. An audiophile by the name of Nwavguy challenged the industry by measuring many of the claims made by various companies about their products and finding them completely lacking. He came to the conclusion that the prices were absurdly high while the performance was merely adequate, and thus eventually he decided to try his hand at building a budget headphone amplifier named the 02 Headphone Amplifier. He then moved on to crafting a DAC to go alongside it, which takes digital information and turns it into analog before sending it the amplifier. Both of these devices were open-source, meaning anyone could build or even sell one, and provided incredibly popular as they were cheap and delivered great audio. Sadly Nwavguy and his blog have since gone silent, his project to combine the amp and DAC having been seemingly abandoned. However, various companies have released versions of his creation, and its one of those that I’m reviewing today.
The box has two seemingly simple jobs: the first is to amplify your chosen headset without distorting the sound, while also providing enough raw oomph to power even the most resistant of cans. The other job is to act like a soundcard, taking the audio being pumped out by your game or album or movie and ensuring it’s the best quality possible so that you can enjoy every bang, boom, screech and scream. Nwavguy’s objective was to deliver 100% transparent sound, meaning it doesn’t get altered during the journey from computer to headphones or speaker.
So the first thing to chat about is the overall look and build quality, both of which are solid. This is a small device at a mere 4.27 x 3.15 x 1.16 inches and has a metal frame, so it feels like quality when you hold it. Some stick-on pads are included to stop the whole thing sliding around, too. On the front we’ve got the amplifier and ODAC segments marked with the headphone socket clearly displayed. Weirdly the second socket isn’t marked at all. It can actually be used to input audio if you won’t want to use the USB input, so it’s a tad odd that it isn’t clearly marked. You’ll also find a low/high gain button on the front, plus your volume control.
Installation is incredibly easy as all you have to do is plug in the included power cord into the back of the box and then into a handy wall socket. The only gripe is that JDS are supplying optional low cost power adapters that some users have reported aren’t capable of delivering the power needed when dealing with headphones that have an impedence of 300 or more. I can’t personally comment on this, though. Other variations on this design have included batteries rather than requiring a direct source from the wall which obviously makes it more portable.
Once the magic box is all hooked up there are absolutely no drivers to install or any software to fiddle with, so it quite literally is plug and play. All you’ve got to do is pick the ODAC from your list of playback devices in Windows and then plug some headphones in. Easy. The downside to this ease of use is that unlike something like my Sound Blaster Z internal sound card there’s absolutely no software for tweaking available. You can’t alter the bass or play with the equalizer or anything like that. What the box supplies and your headphones deliver is exactly what you get. Nwavguy was shooting for a minimalist design with nothing altering the source audio, so in that sense JDS have stayed true to the original vision, but that didn’t stop me from wanting some tweakage options without having to resort to third-party methods.
The box certainly does the first part of its job well, ramping up the available level of racket to extreme without losing any of the detail or distorting the audio. It goes way up beyond what I can personally ever imagine needing, easily hitting levels of volume that could only be described as freaking LOUD. On a more technical level the USB interace can handle 24 bits versus the 16 bits often seen on other products. If this sounds like gibberish then basically when the volume control in software is maxed you would get the full 16 bits of resolution, but when you turn it down that amount is reduced which in turn drops the overall quality if what you’re hearing. By having a 24 bit interface the 02+ODAC has a broader range to play with when you’re adjusting volume from the software side. That said, it’s still a better idea to have everything maxed on the software side and use the control knob on the box itself to adjust to the volume to your liking as that way you get the best possible sound.
It’s the sound card aspect where things start to get trickier. In theory the box should be delivering it unaltered, the original sound design of the game or tone of the music being sent through with no tweaking. It’s also important to realise that no amount of technological sorcery can make a poor MP3 or something sound better, so naturally for testing I was using high-quality copies of various tracks and a mixture of games that included Rainbow Six Seige, Lawbreakers, Far Cry 4, F1 2017 and The Witcher 3. I even popped in a few movies.
My impressions of the audio were good. For starters, with nothing getting pumped through the headphones I could only detect the slightest of hisses at the very top end of the amplifiers volume, which is pretty damn impressive as most amps have a low-level buzz. Once I fired up some music I was happy with how clear and detailed the sound was. It’s hard to compare to my cheapish SoundblasterZ internal soundcard because I don’t feel like I’ve got a good enough ear to pick out some of the subtle differences, but the 02+ODAC was consistently delivering brilliant sound and I couldn’t detect any alterations from the original source material. Games were much the same with the ting and tangs of bullets coming through sharp and clear, and the deeper basses of explosions packing reasonable punch while all the middle tones seemed rich and detailed. In Rainbow Six Seige it as easy to pick out the small sounds that spell the difference between victory or defeat, and pinpoint their direction.
While I appreciate good audio I’m no expert, so I handed the little box of wonders over to Geoff Sharp, qualified sound engineer, owner of RAWR Audio and musician with two albums to his name. Simply said Geoff knows audio in a way that I can’t having spent a lot of time studying the subject, and has a very demanding set of expectations when it comes to anything sound related since he spends a lot of his time editing audio with a pair of cans strapped to his head. His final opinions were surprising in that he found the amplification and sound quality to be good, but also struggled to find a reason to buy this over other products that provide more options at a cheaper price.
“I’ve read up a bit, done a bit of research, and here’s how it is. The ODAC will take audio from your PC in data form, amplify it and play it out through the headphones socket, OR, it’ll take in audio from the 3.5mm socket on the front, amplify it and play it out through the headphones socket on the front, what it will not do is take an audio input from the front and transfer it into a digital format or allow it to be used as audio input for a DAW (digital audio workstation.)
This summary leaves me in a position where I don’t see a justification for its existence. For less money than I’ve seen these advertised at, you could get a Behringer USB audio interface (£22 and has multiple input and output formats plus monitoring…) and a decent small desk from Mackie Electronics (£70 ish for a 6 channel with 2 good mic pre’s and a number of ins and outs to allow pretty much whatever routing you’d like.), that would give you a usable 2 in/2 out and a lot more control over the in and out sound.
The unit is good looking, it has an LED on the front to tell you whether it’s on or not and a nice alloy knob which is made all the more enjoyable by the addition of a couple of small rubber ‘O’ rings for grip. It works well, the amp is quiet (doesn’t create much hiss) and it has a lovely clear tone in the headphones, although it did seem a little harsh at times, and did seem to add its own ‘colour’ to the music.
For the sake of testing, I gave it a good selection of tunes to work its way through, from The Dead South, through a glut of Pink Floyd, and then on down the road of Disturbed and System of a Down. All sounded good, punchy where necessary and yet still subtle enough to bring out the gossamer threads of excellence
The Audio input level seemed quieter than the USB input level, even when ensuring everything on the way in was running at unity, and the final output drive was certainly quieter at full volume than it’s USB fed comparison.
As a headphone driver, it had enough punch to run my BeyerDynamic DT770 Pro’s up to a good working level from the audio in, and from USB was driving as hard that I’d have struggled to keep the cans on at top whack. It’d certainly be a handy thing to have if one was critically listening from a laptop with a high impedance cans on (My DT770 Pro set are 250Ω, so take some driving.).” – Geoff Sharp.
Interesting thoughts as while he seems more than content with the sound itself he’s questioning the usefullness of the entire product versus other offerings on the market. Really, then, it comes down to what you intend on doing with the 02+ODAC. For myself I’d probably advise a lot of people to stick the standard motherboard audio because these days even budget boards can put out really good sound, certainly up the standard of most headphones or speakers. With that said if you do want some extra oomph then the sound being delivered through this little box of sorcery is genuinely superb. Geoff’s solution is interesting but does involve a bit more faffing around versus having this one small device which would be idea for laptops, although having to plug it in at a wall socket does limit its portability somewhat.
If you’re wondering about the pros and cons of this versus an internal sound card for your desktop computer, well that’s more complicated. Sound cards can be picked up for less and often support surround sound as well as digital output along with headphones, and can have inbuilt amplifiers to boot. However, internal cards can be effected by electromagnetic distortions generated by your computer. An external system tends to be more expensive and typically only supports standard stereo but is free of potential distortions.
But none of that helps with the final question of whether or not I can recommend the JDS Labs 02+ODAC combo. If we put aside pricing and Geoff’s thoughts regarding potential other thoughts and focus purely on the sound then yes, I can absolutely recommend it. It delivered clear, crisp audio across the board while amplifying the sound with very little distorition even at the highest volume.