How Atom Amp has Improved in 2019

Atom Amp has been an enormous success in its first 11 months, with around 7000 amplifiers in the wild, and thousands more in production. At this rate, Atom Amp is on track to exceed 8 years worth of Objective2s in just 18 months. We are full of gratitude to have so much community support! Thank you!

We do not sit idle at JDS Labs; I despise complacency and prefer instead to constantly improve. With high success, though, small improvements are easily lost in the noise of discussion. To recap the years’ progress:

Build Improvements

This Atom Amp update was shared at Head-Fi back in September:

Within the first months of release, customer feedback indicated a few areas for possible improvement:

1) Gate ejection mark on the volume knob [Resolved in March 2019 batch]
2) Injection molding marks on top surface [Resolving in September 2019 batch]
3) Flow marks on front of enclosure [Acknowledged]

The knob update was integrated by March. I am pleased to report that marks on the top surface have been successfully eliminated in the production batch arriving today.

There is no ETA for item (3) due to isolated customer comments and high risk of altering the mold (problem could worsen or persist, while delaying production).

Quality Control Improvements

Let’s preface with repair and return rates. Zero (0) Atom Amps have been delivered faulty in the past 30 days. Return rate is comparable to our other lines, meaning we accept single digit numbers of non-defective returns in a 90 day period for thousands of shipped amplifiers. Our production team closely monitors these statistics and is rewarded for success during performance evaluations. No one wants to see Q/C troubles–not you, not me, and not JDS Labs employees.

Alas, perfection is fleeting. We document every instance of Q/C failures reported by our customers so that we can analyze patterns and implement changes where possible. Atom Amp’s 30-day repair rate was 0.3% at release, and it took a few short months to move from 99.7% to 100% success. We’ve made the following Q/C improvements throughout 2019:

  • Automated Optical Inspection: DOA amplifiers (only 3 in the first 2000) were found to be caused by insufficient inspection time, allowing an amplifier to pass before later failing due to SMT assembly errors at the AC input. Our SMT assembly team in California implemented corrective action via AOI, and we increased our final inspection time at JDS Labs.
  • Fixed Stuck Buttons: Stuck buttons were addressed by altering our assembly process, and triple checking button fit during inspection.
  • Improved Relay Break-In: Stuck relays accounted for most support requests. We pinpointed the reason (micro-arcing) and evaluated two solutions. Replacing a fast MLCC capacitor in the AC rectification stage with a slower tantalum version presented an easy fix, but with a risk of total failure in the event of lightning strikes or other power surges. Instead, we chose to alter our inspection process. Any Atom Amp with a stuck relay is subjected to a minimum of 1 week of break-in, followed by repeat inspection. Support requests are now at or near zero per month.
  • Improved Potentiometers: A small, but vocal number of customers expressed dissatisfaction with Atom’s channel balance. I could have ignored the rare negativity and let knowledgeable community members respond helpfully as they did. After-all, Atom Amp is assembled with the same size Alps branded potentiometer as we have used for 12 years. We chose to evaluate and improve in two ways. First, our production team was trained to adopt higher standards and reject more Atom Amps based on channel imbalance. Any potentiometers bordering unacceptable are now pulled and swapped. Second, we asked Alps to set stricter tolerance gang-matching for our RK097 pots. Alps initially declined based on our aggressive goals. After further discussion, their engineers agreed to a small gang-matching improvement at higher cost.

Metal Case?

A few visitors have inquired about a rumor that JDS Labs will release Atom Amp in a metal case. This rumor is just that.

We’ve invested considerably to our in-house machine shop, and are certain that our CNC’s cannot keep up with Atom Amp’s demand at the current price point. Even a price increase of +$50 would be insufficient to build something like Element. Yes, we could revert to an aluminum extrusion with front/rear plates like the older Objective line. But we’ve done that. It’s boring and ugly. Why raise cost to take a step backwards? How about stamping? Already been done. We decided to try injection molding for Atom for the following reasons:

  • Consistency – Every unit is the same without variations in finish.
  • Flexibility – More mechanical design options compared to metal.
  • Scalability – We can build a million just as easy as one. Increasing production with metal demands more machines.

We’re happy with the end result because we’re able to assemble Atom Amp quite efficiently as designed, and focus expenses on genuine components and top-tier SMT assembly in the United States. That said, we’re passionate about working machined aluminum into future releases where doing so makes sense.

12 thoughts to “How Atom Amp has Improved in 2019”

  1. I wanna buy an atom so bad, but when is the matching DAC coming? please make it have optical and match the Atom aesthetically, I’d buy it in a heartbeat!!

  2. Thanks for Atom! Need DAC+Amp combo/monoblock device with USB input (to have ability to send HiRes signals into DAC). Please use top chips and Amp not worse than Atom is. Thanks!

  3. Thanks for writing this blog and keeping us in the loop. JDS Labs treats its consumers well and I look forward to buying something from you in the future.

    I just wanted to chime in on the aluminium case rumour/discussion. I’m quite saddened to hear that this rumour is indeed just a rumour. In my eyes, JDS Labs has the best looking products around – small, elegant, black aluminium designs – nobody else does this. Although I’ve read your post and understand your reasoning, it’s still unfortunate that this core design brief isn’t extended to the Atom, which is the JDS Labs product I’m most interested in. To get the type of product I want, I have to look to your Element or EL stack, which are significantly more expensive and (for me) don’t make sense from a value-performance perspective when the Atom, Magni 3 and Liquid Spark exist.

    Perhaps if a matching Atom DAC is ever released (which I thought I read was happening this year, but I can no longer find the comment on your blog), you could consider merging them into a DAC/AMP combo with a black aluminium chassis, with a suitable price markup? Maybe a unibody product would make more sense (logistically and financially) for you to manufacture.

    Best of luck with ongoing sales!

    1. Thanks for the feedback!

      RE Atom DAC: In a company of this size, some engineering goals are attainable, and some are impacted by unpredictable timelines or budgets dictated by market size. Yes, I previously mentioned plans to release Atom DAC this year. Someone immediately pointed out that was uncharacteristic of me to share, and I agreed I was being optimistic that morning. Will know more Very Soon.

      1. Are there any news regarding Atom DAC? Since the release of the EL II Line we haven’t had any info on new products.

        1. We are pushing for release as soon as possible. There have been some supply chain setbacks, to be discussed upon release.

  4. Are we going to see an Element style unit with the components of the Atom Amp and new Atom Dac? Would totally buy if that giant knob could be used for preamp control.

  5. Just pulled the trigger on the Atom. Looking forward to trying it. One question re the seemingly controversial plastic enclosure: Mine will sit on a desk along with two computers and a DAC. Is it a good idea to keep the Atom as far from the computer(s) – one Mac mini and one iMac- as far apart as space allows? (Generally only one computer on at a time). Computers emit RF and plastic doesn’t block it, so just wondering what recommendations you would have here. Thanks

    1. @Dave – Thanks for checking. This is an often misunderstood topic. Atom Amp, and all JDS Labs amps and DACs for that matter, undergo full FCC/CE compliance testing. We use a 1.5GHz spectrum analyzer and an array of antennae to characterize and understand RF behavior well before we submit designs for production releases.

      In short, it’s a myth that metal enclosure shield unbalanced amps and DACs from noise. Noise enters through the AC cable, headphone cables, and RCA cables! In other words, it is irrelevant whether the enclosure is composed of plastic or metal.

      Ensuring proper RF immunity and emissions is a separate study from audio performance. Over the years, we’ve found again and again that building circuits to perform well across the broad RF spectrum tends to mean they will also perform well in the 20-20kHz audio spectrum. Symmetry in audio circuitry and feedback loops lends to RF immunity. Important topics indeed. Make no mistake, we’ve put tremendous thought into RF compliance.

      To answer your question, there is little concern positioning Atom Amp near your Macs. It’s always good practice to keep audio equipment positioned away from WiFi routers and cell phones. Atom Amp RF performance is well suited to reject even rather noisy environments. Few accommodations are necessary. No worries!

      1. Thanks very much. Just powered the unit up <10 mutes ago & listening for the first time. Just using my 45Ω Etymōtics for now. Dead quiet and very smooth are my first impressions. The other first impression is first class, very responsive customer service, something definitely missing with my imported DAC (nice though the sound is). I think this will be a happy purchase.

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