Custom Engraving Examples

Custom engraving is free with any new JDS Labs amplifier or DAC ordered through jdslabs.com. It’s a fun process, both for us, and for you.

When you click the “Engrave” button during checkout, our production staff receives and pastes your custom text or image into Adobe Illustrator, then prints to one of our two laser engraving machines. Here’s our new Trotec laser engraver in action:

A full image takes just 2-3 minutes, and custom text takes only seconds.

Engraving Examples

Engraving image quality is comparable to that of a black and white laser printer. The key difference is print media. With a laser printer, black toner prints onto white paper. With a laser engraver, the result is always white onto all anodized aluminum, regardless of aluminum color.

Like a laser printer, black and white images engrave perfectly:

A monochrome image with a black background needs to be inverted. Our production staff uses their best judgement and corrects images as necessary, for example:

Laser engravers handle shaded images acceptably. This customer did not realize his image contained shading, and was surprised to see the result. [Note: We use calibrated IPS monitors. Check your screen brightness if you cannot see shading in the dark images!]

A gradient test pattern reveals engraver shading limitations:

Color images and photographs can be engraved reasonably well even with limited shading:

In summary, custom engraving works best with monochrome images.

Machining an Audio Company

We build amazing headphone amplifiers and DACs. Obviously, this niche market appeals to owners of nice headphones. More interesting is a look at Google Trends for the search phrase “headphones”:

Google Trends - Headphones

It’s clear that headphone popularity has grown in the past 3-4 years (and the average consumer searches for Beats by Dre…). Easy to explain is the annual spike in headphone interest around the December holiday season, followed by a return to normal interest by summer.

Since interest in headphones directly correlates to interest in headphone amps and DACs, we’ve learned to use summer for two things:

  1. Building our company
  2. Enjoying the summer!

Upgrading our Office

We moved into a 950 sq. ft. office in May 2012. We knew orders were growing at 300% annually in 2011, and hoped that our 2012 office would be large enough to last for 1-2 years. We ran out of space in 3 months. Our inventory room was packed full, our soldering benches were feet away from our CNC machine (noisy and messy), our shipping station doubled as an assembly table, and we had no room for additional desks in our front office. Our product display table and couch turned into a lunch table and conference “room” for visitors. We even resorted to storing an engine hoist in our restroom. At least the rent was low!

We began looking for a larger facility as soon as the 2012 holiday rush ended. There was a slight difficulty: We require an unusual mix of office and warehouse space. Large machines, dock access, and concrete floors are normally found in huge warehouses. We needed all of this, plus professional office space in a relatively small space.

In March, we were pleased to find a 2500 sq.ft. office just days away from undergoing a construction makeover. We signed a lease and moved into our fully customized facility on June 1st.

New Assembly & Shipping Benches
New Assembly & Shipping Benches

Frequently accessed inventory is now footsteps away from our two main soldering benches. Nick also spent a laborious weekend assembling a massive table for assembly and a 7ft tall shipping station.

Not pictured: About 60% of this room is unused for now. Room to grow!

Laser Engraving Station
Laser Engraving Station

Soldering and laser engraving stations are equipped with 4″ industrial fume exhaust lines.

A Soldering Bench
A Soldering Bench
Front Office
Front Office
New CNC Room
Dock and CNC Machining Area

Building a Machine Shop

Last year we bought a Tormach PCNC 770 as our first foray into the world of machining. Within 12 months, we’d machined over 5000 parts on the Tormach. Notice it’s absent from the picture above.

As much as we valued the ability to machine our own parts, the PCNC 770 turned into the weakest link of our production process. We frequently found ourselves waiting for parts to be machined. It struggled to keep up with our busiest weeks, so Nick was forced to work 12+ hour days in December and January.

Plus, moving a CNC (even the entry level Tormach 770) is no trivial matter. Industrial movers quoted 10% of the cost of the Tormach just to relocate it from our old office to our new facility. I didn’t want to invest more in a machine that was holding us back.

Nick found a lightly used 2012 Haas Mini Mill 2 the week before our move. At 7.5x the horsepower and 4x the speed of a Tormach, we placed the PCNC770 for sale and upgraded to a Mini Mill 2.

Our new CNC (Haas Mini Mill 2)
Our new Haas Mini Mill 2, CNC

The Tormach was capable of producing about 45 Objective2 front plates per day. We’re now able to machine 135 of these parts in the same amount of time (3x faster).

To give you an idea of how quickly the Mini Mill 2 moves, here’s the first 30 seconds of machining a batch of endplates

And here’s the entire, 3-step process compressed into less than 3 minutes:

How to Finish Aluminum

Disclaimer: This article has no audio related content. We hope the following manufacturing information will be useful to others.

A couple years ago, we naively expected that aluminum manufactures would perfectly interpret our engineering drawings and produce beautiful, black parts. After rejecting 4500+ aluminum cases in these past two years, I can tell you with certainty that this guy gives a false impression. There’s much more to fabricating a nice aluminum product than simple anodizing. Photos below are a chronicle of our progress.

Raw Aluminum

Our raw cases arrive from the aluminum manufacturer looking something like this:

Raw Aluminum
Raw aluminum extrusion for C5, “mil” finish (i.e., no finishing)
Scratch on right -- oops!
Right-most part was scratched prior to anodizing

Rough, huh? Sometimes we see deeper scratches and dents, and parts can even arrive covered in grease and oil.

Anodizing fixes none of this! Any scratches or defects visible before anodizing will remain visible after anodizing.

Brushed + Anodized Aluminum

We added brushed finishing to c421 after realizing that we couldn’t expect aluminum manufacturers to deliver parts in perfect condition:

Similar case w/brushed texture and black anodizing

Brushing solved the immediately visible problem in our first manufacturing attempts, but created new issues. The texture of production parts was rougher than samples. And here’s what happens with a heavy brush intensity:

Brushing can remove too much material, altering the case profile
Heavily Brushed piece at Left, Original piece at Right.

Pros:

  • Relatively fast to perform
  • Generally low cost
  • Brushed appearance is popular

Cons:

  • Since brushing a part is essentially like rubbing sandpaper against its surface, brushing can alter part tolerances (see above image).
  • An aggressive brushed finish can create a rough, undesirable texture.

Bead Blasting

When we began designing C5, we knew that enclosure quality needed to match the awesome new circuit board. Brushed cases had to go. Our local anodizer suggested a very fine bead blast (aka, “peening”).

Bead blasting is essentially like a pressure washer that uses “abrasive media” instead of water. Any media can be used: walnut shells, sand, and glass beads are common. Pick a media, a pressure, a distance from the part, and then blast the surface. Most shops say it’s an art.

Ultra fine glass beads produce a soft appearance similar to Apple’s Macbook:

Same part with bead blasting
Bead blasted extrusion (C5 case)

Bead blasting dulls the part finish. While appearance is excellent before and after anodizing, surface texture oddly changes after anodizing. In some cases, the texture is comparable to a chalkboard.

We also noticed that black parts turned out especially dull, unlike other colors.

Same bead blasted parts in Red and Black anodizing
Same bead blasted parts in Red and Black anodizing

Pros:

  • With the right bead blasting media and pressure, a bead blasted part looks excellent
  • Part tolerances are not altered

Cons:

  • Requires significant sampling/experimentation from your metal finishing shop
  • Cost is 50-100% higher than brushing
  • Most shops manually blast parts, which can lead to surface inconsistencies
  • Especially rough parts must be tumbled prior to blasting (even higher cost)
  • Anodizing yields a matte appearance, especially unsuitable for black

Bead Blasting + Bright Dipping + Anodizing

Aluminum parts are normally caustic etched immediately prior to anodizing. If you substitute etching for a process called Bright Dipping, dullness is magically replaced by a brilliant appearance and pleasant texture.

Bead blasted parts at top; bead blasted + bright dipped parts at bottom
Bead blasted parts at top; bead blasted + bright dipped parts at bottom

The bright dipped parts shown above are not actually brighter. At another angle, you can see instead that light reflects more brilliantly at all angles. Notice the bright dipped pieces appear darker in this photo:

Bead blasted pieces at Top; bead blasted and bright dipped pieces at Bottom
Bead blasted pieces at Top; bead blasted and bright dipped pieces at Bottom

Pros:

  • Excellent surface appearance
  • Excellent surface texture
  • Cost is comparable to standard anodizing

Cons:

  • Bright dipping is extremely corrosive, so it’s rarely offered in the United States
  • Carries all other downsides of regular bead blasting (see above)

Hopefully this helps someone in their manufacturing adventures. Special thanks to Tom at Archway Anodize for making our experiments possible!

Happy 2013!

Happy New Year, everyone! 2012 was by far our best year ever, at 430% revenue growth over last year. Incredible!

No surprise to us, “Erik” at Headfonia.com named the O2+ODAC combo his personal Product of the Year:

“I have heard and seen more gear in 2012 than in all the years before combined. For me, the rise, and subsequent disappearance, of NwAvGuy has probably been the most prolific event this year. Like it or not, the release of his maximum-value Objective2/ODAC combo (designed in 2011 but properly distributed in 2012) really shook up the scene and therefore deserves it’s place as my personal Product of the Year 2012…”

Well put. While we can’t claim absolute responsibility here, we ramped up production of the Objective2 and O2+ODAC combos in 2012 and the effect has been nothing short of amazing. NwAvGuy completely changed our business plans for the year, as well as my perspective on product development and customer recommendations. As the Objective2 gained popularity, we gained even greater respect for NwAvGuy’s contributions to the DIY scene, especially in the way of subjective bias.

Objective2, Black Edition
Objective2, Black Edition

A little surprise: Yes, we have black O2’s and O2+ODAC combos in stock. These have been available for a while now upon special request. We’ll add greater store visibility for the Black Edition O2 as soon as our knob supplier catches up.

Inventory Day

The end of the year is peak season for us, and that means two things. First, our production team is as busy as Santa’s elves. Second, we’re preparing for tax season. Part of this preparation is an annual Inventory count, in which we count everything in the office: chairs, computers, soldering irons, circuit boards, resistors, capacitors, IC’s, etc…

On the flip side of this enormously busy month, it’s equally important for us to reinvest spare cash in new equipment. We’d already acquired a CNC and laser engraver back in the summer. So in the name of NwAvGuy, we made one final acquisition in December–a PrismSound dScope Series III audio analyzer.

Our new dScope Series III Audio Analyzer
Our new dScope Series III Audio Analyzer

The dScope III is an amazingly powerful tool, which enables us to continue developing great products, with or without NwAvGuy.

We may find other uses for the dScope, aside from R&D. Rockford Fosgate ships unique test performance sheets with some of their car audio amps. Maybe some of you guys would like to see actual printouts of your new amplifier’s output? Tell us!

Thanks to everyone for another terrific year!

Endplate Experiments & RCA Jacks for ODAC

** Scheduled Maintenance: We’re moving our server tomorrow night at 1:00AM CST, Saturday, July 14th. Anticipated downtime is 1-4 hours. JDSLabs.com may be difficult to access in some parts of the world for the next 24-48 hours while our new IP address propagates. **

CNC Experiments

Nick has spent the past three weeks making noise, breaking drill bits, and splashing super fun blue coolant all over the office. Most people don’t pick up mechanical engineering and machining as new “skills” in just three weeks, but we do what we have to here.

First batch of reasonable test parts, despite artwork mistakes and over-sized screw holes

With the basics of CNC’ing out of the way, our attention has turned back to the reason we bought the CNC in the the first place. We want brilliant quality, and we want our parts now.

We’ve specified brushed aluminum on our endplates since they were first designed. It turns out that most aluminum suppliers do not offer brushing. The process is a time consuming and challenging task even for most machine shops. That was a disappointing discovery!

Our endplates will still be brushed, but this sourcing realization led us to experiment with the aluminum. The test pieces shown above were machined at our shop on Friday afternoon, then plated on Monday morning in downtown St. Louis. Clear alodine and black anodizing finishes both look fantastic. And it was all done in under 2 business days. 🙂

O2+ODAC Rear Panel with 3.5mm Output

Rear B2-080BK endplate with 3.5mm ODAC output

Although we don’t recommend that you install a 3.5mm output jack on your O2+ODAC, some customers have requested to do so anyway. This is for you: Machined O2+ODAC Endplate w/3.5mm output. These are made from stock endplates included with the Box B2-080 cases, thus, the price is lower than other endplates.

RCA Jacks for ODAC

RCA jack on an O2 Endplate. Hey, it fits!

Okay, this isn’t an ODAC or even a reasonable device. But it is a proof of concept for our Standalone ODAC w/RCA outputs.

We’ve avoided RCA outputs on the Standalone ODAC for several reasons. RCA jacks take longer to assemble and cost more than a 3.5mm jack, but this has been irrelevant to our decision.

We haven’t offered RCA jacks on the ODAC due to virtually identical performance: Why complicate a product with multiple variations and increased build cost at no benefit? The 3.5mm jack on the ODAC circuit board is wired to the same line output header as used by RCA jacks. Some customers have asked, “Aren’t 3.5mm cables more lossy than RCA?”. As NwAvGuy has stated, characteristic impedance is a non-issue in unbalanced audio systems. There are no impedance mismatches to be concerned with, and there are no significant losses resulting from the use of a 3.5mm cable. Crosstalk might change negligibly (1-3dB), but overall, it’s a myth that RCA cables are less lossy than 3.5mm cords. Case in point, why would NwAvGuy (an audio benchmark and measurement fanatic) have designed the ODAC with a 3.5mm jack if it were “lossy”? He wouldn’t have! I’m sure NwAvGuy can provide benchmarks if badgered.

3.5mm to RCA Cable
3.5mm to RCA Cable

Moreover, you can use a common 3.5mm to RCA cable for direct connection of a 3.5mm device to an RCA device.

With all of that said, it’s easier to build products customers want, than to convince everyone that what we’re building is the best solution.

So last week we set out to fit RCA jacks into our Standalone ODAC enclosure. I had briefly collaborated with Stefan of Head ‘n’ HiFi earlier this year on the Standalone ODAC case. We’d been asked by NwAvGuy’s contractor to lead the design and distribution of a standardized ODAC case for the DIY community. I wanted ultimate enclosure quality, and was willing to wait until late July for a custom case fabricated in the USA.

However, Stefan wanted cases immediately, and didn’t think he could fit RCA jacks into our thin case, with only 10mm to work with (a typical RCA jack is 9.5mm). Stefan’s a nice guy, but we had to agree to disagree on our design goals. Product excellence is more important than expedited delivery and cost, especially when a product will stick around for years to come.

Despite the tiny clearance, we’ve managed to design ODAC endplates that will accept 2x RCA jacks and still fit into our thin ODAC enclosure, without losing ground isolation. This is only possible due to a beautiful, black anodized finish. More pictures are coming soon. For now, imagine the gold RCA jack pictured above on our Standalone ODAC.

ODACs are scheduled to arrive July 19-25. All Standalone ODACs will ship by the end of July.

Setting Up Shop

Each Friday I realize how much we’ve accomplished over the week, and wish I had more time to share the news. This entire month has been huge. In trusty bullet point format, we’ve recently:

  • Moved into a new 900 sq. ft. office in Glen Carbon, IL
  • Shipped several hundred ODAC preorders
  • Hired ‘Jimmy’, a new solder technician
  • Added two massive new machines to the shop
The office is still a mess, but here are couple pictures as we moved in:
Engineering and “Business” Workstations
Semi-Automated Shipping Table

Stepping up Production

First of all, ODAC looks as awesome as it sounds, so we were eager to get these out the door and into your hands.

Standalone ODAC

After shipping the first 100 ODACs, our machine shop informed us that they were 1 week behind on ODAC endplate production. “Okay”, I told them. Rushing a job tends to compound problems, as frustrated workers make more mistakes. I flew to California that weekend and visited the shop Monday afternoon. They were doing excellent work, so we waited.

Around this time, we began receiving upwards of five e-mails per hour from customers requesting shipping updates. To keep the story short, 75% of our machined endplates arrived late, in a series of small shipments over a course of 4 weeks. The final box of O2+ODAC endplates shipped this morning.

Nice, Smooth Edges – O2 Front Panel from California Machine Shop

Delays forced us to reevaluate how we handle production. Every machine shop delivers their own mix of quality, cost, and lead time. In two years, we’ve found several excellent machine shops, but none who can build what we want either as fast as required, or as well as required. Balancing cost/quality/time is impossible when you need low cost, high quality, and delivery NOW!

We came up with one daunting solution: If we can’t find a machine shop that meets our customers’ needs, let’s make our own.

Will a 700lb CNC fit through the front door? Yes!

The first challenge was getting a 700lb CNC into the office. After we learn how to use it, this machine will produce our endplates from raw metal.

We’re stocked up on endplates for the summer. This gives Nick has a few weeks to overcome the second hurdle of learning the CNC. He’s already come a long way:

Nick’s Early CNC Attempts – Making progress! Screw holes and edges not programmed.

Machined parts come out of a CNC looking plain, as you can see in the top piece. We print artwork to the parts using a laser engraver:

If you want something special on your c421, O2, or ODAC, just ask. Custom engraving on any new amp or DAC is free.

ODAC Orders

PREODERS: We shipped 100% of ODAC boards and Standalone ODAC preorders this week. Most O2+ODAC combo preorders have already shipped. All remaining orders will ship upon arrival of rear endplates (early next week).

NEW ORDERS: We secured the largest batch of ODACs in the world, but demand has exceeded everyone’s expectations. Once sold out, the next batch will arrive in late July.

Raffle Results

Special thanks to everyone who contributed to the 2012 Challenge Tanzania Raffle. We helped raise over $500 in charitable donations. Prizes have been shipped to the lucky winners, #121 and #51.

Preparing for May – ODAC and New Office

ODAC Progress

Those seeking to retrofit their O2’s with an ODAC can now preorder the O2+ODAC rear endplate for the Box B2-080 enclosure:

Not sure why this rendering is so dark (Nick?!). They’ll match our O2 Front Plates.

We’ve switched to a specialty machine shop based in Silicon Valley. Artwork on new endplates will be laser etched instead of silkscreened. Cost is slightly higher, but overall machining quality of our O2 and ODAC plates will be better than ever.

All ODAC options are now available for preorder:

  • Assembled ODAC Board
  • Standalone ODAC
  • O2+ODAC Combos

The assembled ODAC board is sold barely above wholesale price, at the request of NwAvGuy’s manufacturer. This is to keep the DIY project cost low. Longer explanation here.

We’re Moving!

Our case manufacturer asked for a favor earlier this week. He’s speaking today at a big corporate meeting and needed to show off a customer with “the most interesting application”. We provided a short summary:

Growing so quickly hasn’t been easy. We’ve streamlined most tasks to keep up with production and shipping, but now we’re out of space. So, we’re moving 1 mile down the road to a new office in Glen Carbon, Illinois.

c421 Pre-order Goes Live

Someone reminded us that we haven’t posted a c421 update in “forever”. Today’s your day:

  • The c421 preorder page is now up! Note that the release date is tentative, so the page cannot yet be found through our store, and the formal announcement e-mail has not been sent out. We’ll send the official message when the date is 100% certain.
  • Features, specifications, and a description of c421 can be found on the preorder page.
  • Fewer than 95 amps are available for pre-order.
  • Price: $169

Quality Inspection 1…

The first batch of enclosures arrived Monday, but we rejected the shipment due to a total lack of packaging. Every single case was scratched. I don’t know about you, but if I’m paying $169 for a device, it better look decent! The manufacturer is redoing the job immediately. This sets us back 1-3 weeks, but high quality is more important than speed.

Timeline

Assembled c421 circuit boards are scheduled for arrival by October 24th [Edit: Arrived OCt-21]. If you preorder now and get impatient, we can send the amp in a temporary rejected enclosure. You can order another enclosure later for the cost of shipping. Just send us a note.

October 31 is the earliest expected shipment date. Realistically, we anticipate all preorders to ship by November 14.

Rocky Mountain Audio Fest

It’s 1PM Wednesday and I’m scrambling to fly out to Denver for the 2011 RMAF. We’re not exhibiting, however, I will be wandering around the show. Tweet (@jdslabs), e-mail, text, or call if you’d like to hear c421!

Preview of c421 Enclosure

While we eagerly await the release of c421, here are a few rough, rendered previews. The enclosure will be composed of black anodized aluminum with black or natural brushed aluminum end panels, unless we’re persuaded differently!

Screws, light pipes, and the battery are not shown…

Rear view of c421, showing countersink screw holes. Color of end panels not final!

 

Obligatory size comparison to a popular portable source
Size comparison at another angle

We expected to have real samples in hand by now. So what happened?

A reputable aluminum extrusion shop promised us 6-8 week lead time and a a competitive price, so we faxed over the deal on July 1. Three weeks passed and I recieved a phone call from their company president, Bob. He said, “Hi, John. I have some bad news . . . We dropped the ball on this one.”

Bob’s company  had severely underestimated their bid and refused to fabricate C421’s enclosures unless we forked over another $10,000. Wasn’t gonna happen, Bob! $10k would have ruined our project goals.

Although this delayed c421 by three weeks, everything has worked out for the best. We’ve used the extra time for additional circuit tweaking. And, we signed a better enclosure deal with an amazing extrusion shop whose manufacturing plant is only four hours south of our office! Their staff has kindly invited JDS Labs to witness on-site sample inspection.

Samples are due approximately 4 weeks from today. I will personally inspect the enclosures and post pictures if possible. Final device specifications and pricing will follow soon afterwards.

One final note: We’ve received countless offers from past customers and new faces seeking to review c421. Thank you! The first production batch will be a small run of only 100 units. Just two amps will go out for initial review (more later). A pre-order page will be posted around the time reviews go live, no more than 4 weeks before we can ship.

Like the design? Hate it? Let us know!

Headphone jack at front of C421 (rendering with transparency)