How much color do you like in your music? Do you like your bass thick, your mids warm, your soundstage wide as the hills? Or do you prefer no color at all, with an aggressively analytical sound that lets you hear the music as the artist intended? if you find yourself on the latter side of that particular equation, then the objective2 amplifier from jds labs is what you need to hear. In this review, we break down the Lens2’s sound, design, packaging and accessories, specs, and more. To see how it compares, check out our list of the best headphone amps.
Before we really get into what makes jds labs objective2 work, and why you should buy one, we need to talk about the most mysterious figure in the audio world: nwavguy. no one knows his real name. To this day, he and his blog remain completely mysterious. The only thing we know about him (if that is him) is that he lived somewhere in the Pacific Northwest, hence the name, and that he was a serious audio engineer. he has been absent since May 2012, but it doesn’t matter.
Reading: Objective2 headphone amp review
Whoever he was, or is, he left an enduring legacy in his open source amplifier design. The goal of his design was twofold, and very simple: create an aggressively neutral amplifier that rectified what he saw as the problems with many mainstream maps, and release it as an open source design so that anybody could have a go at making one. He made the design incredibly simple, creating it so that it could power just about any pair of headphones, within reason, and present almost zero noise while doing so.
It’s an admirable goal. To the surprise of many, nwavguy didn’t seem to want to capitalize on his design. instead, he explicitly stated that he didn’t want to. many companies happily embraced that goal, using open source design as a foundation to further refine the sound and offer something beyond a basic circuit board. One of these companies was JDS Labs, based in Illinois. we’ve reviewed his element amp before, and his version of nwavguy’s design was the amp that preceded it. They have not only strictly adhered to their measurements and precision, but have also gone to great lengths to make an amplifier that has a design that matches their audio quality.
One of the things this particular amp design is famous for is being noise free. audio engineers talk about floor noise, which is the low hiss of circuitry that you can hear if you turn an amp up all the way. the less noise there is, the more ‘black’ the background is and the lower the background noise. nwavguy’s boast was that his amp had none. so the first thing we did was find the most sensitive pair of in-ear monitors we could and see how true that really was. we found someone with a couple of unique miracle tunes (sensitivity: 114db, and check out this page if you’re not sure what that is!). then, without playing music, we turn up the volume of the amplifier to the maximum.
nothing. we listened for a full two minutes, in the quietest possible circumstances, and couldn’t hear a thing. there was no hiss. it was an impressive demonstration of how good this particular amp design is. in normal, less sensitive headphones, the background was blacker than the darkest space. zero distortion. any. nothing zippo. when the music was playing, it was clear that the target2 had one of the most distinctive sound signatures we’ve ever heard. that is to say: he had none. it was aggressive, almost obnoxiously neutral, and refused to color the music in any way. it was the purest definition of the word amplifier, boosting the audio to acceptable volume levels according to the connected headphones and then getting out of the way. it added absolutely nothing to the signal, which, compared to the deep black background, meant we could hear everything just fine.
We are on record here at TMS as loving the sound of tube amps, which take the opposite approach and lather huge globs of warm, gooey peanut butter onto sound, fattening it up and smoothing it out. Even in solid-state amps, like the Sony TA-ZH1ES (full review here), we appreciate anything that sharpens and colors the sound, even a little. It was quite startling for an amplifier to absolutely refuse to do it. And yes, we enjoyed the experience. We quickly found it was a lot of fun to run through our headphone locker and test our existing models out, comparing them with our impressions from other amplifiers. Nothing revealed their character more; if they were deficient in one area, the Objective2 was absolutely merciless in exposing them. While we didn’t have any major wobblies – because, come on, our ears aren’t that bad – it was interesting to hear new elements of how the headphones handled sound.
testing objective2 with the focal utopia
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and one of the things that was a real joy was putting headphones like the focal utopia (full review) through the lens2. nothing made these headphones, which, in our opinion, are the best on the planet at the moment, shine brighter. Is it wrong that we vastly prefer the o2 to something like the $4,399 primaluna dialog hp amp? Don’t get us wrong, we love it, but for everyday use, there’s no question about it. the o2 was a consummate artist.
Its sound is also its biggest weakness. Part of the fun of a headphone amp is seeing how it colors your music and changes it, sometimes in unexpected or surprising ways. very obviously, that’s not going to happen here. As such, you should be careful when buying this amp if you want to add any kind of character to the sound coming out of your headphones. this is definitely an amp for a select group of people, rather than everyone. it’s functional enough, but it doesn’t have the versatility of other amps (there’s no dac or preamp functionality), which means if a completely neutral sound doesn’t appeal to you, you can tire of this amp quickly. U.S? we loved it. It definitely won’t be for everyone, but we revel in how successful it was in achieving its goal. it’s the very definition of reference grade, an impressive audio experience that shows off a really cool trick. bravo.
appearance and build quality
at first glance, it seems utilitarian, maybe even a bit sterile. it’s a simple black metal box, with stenciled writing, zero logos, and chunky controls. but hold it in your hand and you’ll quickly realize that it’s very well built. the construction is solid and robust, with nice textures in the metal. it’s not going to win any beauty contests, but we have a feeling you could happily throw this on the floor without too much trouble. and as you can imagine, due to its open source nature, it shares a virtually identical design with amps like the mayflower electronics objective2 (full review here).
other than that, there is very little to report, in terms of design. it’s functional, clean and works. while the industrial look may not appeal to some, we enjoy it: as you’re about to read, it works perfectly with the kind of sound this amp puts out. it’s very similar to their odac unit, so much so that we stack one on top of the other quite comfortably, and we’d love to have this amp permanently in our collection. jds labs offers a solid two year transferable warranty when you buy one of these, which is perfectly acceptable.
Inputs and Outputs
Controls on the front and back are clearly labeled and easy to use. there’s a power switch, a standard 6.3mm headphone jack, a high-low gain switch, and a protruding volume knob. On the back, a simple pair of analog RCA inputs and a power jack. if we have one criticism, it’s the volume knob: it works well, but sticks out a bit too much for our liking. however, that is a very small detail: for the most part, the design works very well. we even like the name of the product on the front, which marks it as a “02 headphone amp – distrib. by jds labs”. nwavguy’s name may not be on the case, but this little nod to the fact that that jds didn’t create the circuit plans is a nice touch.
Accessories & Packaging:
For one thing, the packaging of this amp is absolutely basic. It comes in a plain cardboard box, with a couple of business card-sized sheets of paper to serve as instructions. really, that’s all. But in a strange stroke of genius, JDS Labs sealed the amp in a silver package, reminding us how high-end computer components like hard drives are packaged. It’s a small thing, but it adds to the idea that you’re buying equipment that’s been thoroughly tested, something the company is no doubt known for. we really liked it, especially since we care about the whole experience. as for accessories, you get very little, but then, very little is needed. you get a small set of rubber feet that attach to the bottom of the amp and a basic wall wart with power cord. all very functional and nothing surprising.
What We Like:
- the jds labs objective2 has the lowest noise levels of any amp we’ve heard, and offers an incredibly neutral sound.
- the amp is solidly built and of solid quality.
- the design, while not exactly unique, works very well.
what we don’t do:
- jds labs objective2 is definitely not for everyone, especially those who prefer a warmer sound.
- the amp lacks a built-in dac and no preamp functionality, which can turn some people are turned off.
- there are not many accessories in the package.
*rhi = recommended headphone impedance **wpc = watts per channel ***dac = digital to analog converter
See also: Headsets that can be used with both desk phone and computer (and Cell phone too) – HeadsetPlus.com Plantronics, Jabra Headset Blog
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what better alternative to lens2 than…another lens2! The Mayflower Electronics Objective 2 is functionally identical to the JDS Labs Objective 2, right down to the construction. offers the same direct neutral sound and low noise floor, creating a nearly identical experience. the disadvantages? you don’t get the twin rca inputs, and jds has a much stronger reputation than mayflower. our take? if you really can’t afford the extra thirty bucks, this will work for you. but if you can, jds is the one.
then there is the cold a5. A slightly different beast than the Objective2, the Fiio Pocket Powerhouse offers clean, clear sound in a very solid design, with the added benefit of being highly portable. It was versatile enough to make it on our list of this year’s best headphone amps, and it’s an easy choice if you want neutrality with portability, something the o2 can’t do. in our review, we said, “if you’re the kind of person who continually reaches for your phone in your pocket, probably not. it will get in the way, despite its excellent design. But if you’re the kind of person who enjoys things like DJ mixes or podcasts, or if you don’t mind leaving your phone in a bag or purse, then yes. Oh yeah. the excellent sound quality and instant, crisp boost to your music will be worth it, and at this price, $130 on amazon [identical to lens2], it’s pretty much a no-brainer.”
Ready to spend a little more? Want some added functionality? Go for the iFi Audio Nano iDSD. It not only packs a powerful headphone amplifier into its tiny frame, but it also offers a very reasonable digital-to-analogue converter, making it an all-in-one solution. Products from this company can sometimes be a little clumsy in design and labelling, and their shape definitely isn’t for everyone, but we really like it
one of the problems we noticed with the objective2 is that it doesn’t come with a dac. Fortunately, there is a solution for that, and it is provided by jds labs themselves. objective2+odac rev b may have a complicated name and may cost more than objective2 ($279 vs. $129 for the latter), but it offers a brilliant converter and is a very good all-in-one solution for the desktop.
goal 2 is proof that sometimes all you need to do to be successful in life is to do one thing really well. just ask michael buffer or stephen gostkowski. when you think about it, it’s actually quite amazing that he pulled it off. For an amplifier to offer absolutely zero noise during operation, and we mean zero, and provide no character at all while playing audio, is very difficult. actually putting such an amp on the market, and making it in such a way that it’s a joy to use, requires even more skill. Fortunately, JDS Labs has proven they can do it, both in terms of staying true to the original amp design and making it something people want to use. It may not have the versatility or adaptability of other amps, but if you value music in its purest form and love the idea of hearing nothing but what the artist originally intended you to hear, then you’ll love this one. it is an essential purchase.
see the goal of jds labs2 see the best headphone amplifiers
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