CanJam at RMAF 2014: JDS Labs, Configuring the O2, and Where's NwAvGuy?

This is a bit of a tough pill to swallow.

As chronicled on his blog back in 2011, an audio engineer known only as NwAvGuy developed "THE (nearly) PERFECT HEADPHONE AMP" and called it The Objective 2. Commonly called the O2, NwAvGuy gave it to the world by publishing all the documentation, CAD files for panels, and Gerber and drill files for circuit boards, then released it openly under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

I think it was very thoughtful of him to do so.

And then he disappeared.

Which saddened me because I thought he did some great work explaining the technical ins-and-outs of headphone audio on his blog. Okay, the only constant is change, he decided to move on, fair enough. Except for one little thing: His Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs License allows for no changes whatsoever to the O2. No big deal for DIYers, but one hell of a pain in the butt for companies like JDS Labs that produce the product commercially under the license.

For example, last year the power input connector that the board is drilled for became unavailable, and the pins on the replacement part were too large to fit in the holes. In other words, with the discontinuation of a single part, the entire O2 amp essentially became obsolete because modifications is disallowed under the license, and NwAvGuy, the only person that can change the files, is nowhere to be found. JDS Labs had to make a tough ethical choice: Discontinue a worthwhile product, or break the license and modify the circuit board holes to fit the new power connector. I think they made the right choice in opting to modify the board—not within the letter of the law, but certainly within the spirit of the project.

Well, there's another problem. All the connectors for the O2 are on the front panel, and it's a bit crowded. The line-in is on a 3.5mm jack, but what if a customer wants JDS to make an amp that has RCA inputs? You're out of luck, can't modify the board. Or maybe a 1/4" headphone jack? Sorry Charlie. The good folks at JDS Labs don't want to say no to their customers, but they're stuck between a rock and a hard place.

They chose the hard place.

If you go to the JDS Labs website and go to either the Objective2 or O2 with ODAC pages and select the configure option, you can configure an O2 with numerous connection options. How does JDS Labs do this without breaking the license? Simple, all the connectors are panel mounted and hand wired to the pads of the unchanged circuit board. No mods to the board, no lisence broke...but oh-my-goodness, all that hand work is expensive compared to simply modifying the board and using board mounted parts.

Thank JDS Labs for putting in the hard work to make the O2 a better suited amp for folks with varying needs!

And NwAvGuy, would you please come out of hiding for just a little while and help clean up this little mess with your O2. It's a nice little amp, thank you very much, but we shouldn't have to be stumbling over it.

QuartBernstein's picture

I know the spiritual isn't kosher to mix with technology; but perhaps if we imitate an amp and have a seance somewhere. Then we may be able to summon him from the underworld, known to us internet folk (to describe those astray from the digital overworld, or from using a different pen name).

Tyll Hertsens's picture
...I think NwAvGuy would be far to objective to participate in such non-sense. :)
RudeWolf's picture

Peh, all of my jacks are legsoldered!

thune's picture

The branding/trademarks NwAvGuy, O2, and ODAC must sell. It would be easy enough and and legal enough for JDS Labs to create new schematic drawings, generate a new layout ("artwork"), and give it a new name; as those are the only things protected by copyright and trademark [not the circuit itself, as only patents can grant that protection]. There is nothing to stop them...except maybe the fear of a legion of NwAvGuy drones crapping all over the internet calling you blasphemous and your design unclean.

Maybe it's time to leave "ODAC", "O2", and "NwAvGuy" trademarks/branding behind, after all ... isn't the purpose simply a design that meets a set of specifications regarded by NwAvGuy as being "audibly transparent."

Also, NwAvGuy never really delivered on implied promises of price, and it seems there are other products in the market (or coming to market) that meet the specs and destroy on price, leaving the ODAC/O2/ODAC+O2 as nothing more than an dated expression of excess, reliant on brand caché. So why are these products needed anymore?

Willakan's picture that the O2 was not conceived as a commercial product. It was designed to prove a point. For instance, if it was designed purely as a desktop amp you could drastically shrink the PCB by removing the batteries, improve the layout, and vastly improve ease of construction by simplifying the battery-monitoring circuitry with those o-so-sensitive MOSFETs.

Hell, it's really an indictment of everyone else that the O2 still represents a sensible proposition in amplification (largely by offering much more flexibility in gain settings than its competitors). An O2 that was designed from the ground up to be sold as a desktop amp (same circuit, but smaller, using SMD parts, and minus batteries and associated circuitry) could be a nigh unbeatable value proposition.

As for whether NwAvGuy will return...god knows. My own "research" seems to show that NwAvGuy is not the first username this engineer has gone by: his previous pseudonym (and I'm pretty damn sure it's him) shows a much more unguarded approach to his image, but similar likings for, erm, proselytising (:D) and dubious automotive metaphors.

The old account/s then go inactive for years and years (he was active for a while on other forums, but on the popular one I first found him we're talking a single month of frenzied activity over a decade ago), before the new identity emerges, courtesy of his blog.

So, in short, he's been feeling this way about audio for a while, and has buggered off for extreme lengths of time before. I expect he'll be back.

castleofargh's picture

obviously you're right about the money nwavguy's name is bringing. the JDS guys really look like they're sitting on a gold mine thanks to it.
I think I've seen the epiphany guy in Forbes "rich list" too.

tony's picture

Here is a guy that delivers two superb designs , back to back , no revisions needed . The Hair guys at JDS base a nice little business out all this , see em smiling . So they change a few tiny things , big deal , they improve the spirit of the devices , everyone but the competition wins . I , for one , am anxious to see if the Schiit Yggy can outperform the ODac , I do know the MSB way-outperforms the JDS but that's a $10k R2R Ladder Dac with a sub picosecond master clock , phew , MSB outperforms everyone .
I as a manufacturer would need to MSRP the ODac at the $750 price point IF it was aimed at the traditional Retail Segment . Going direct , like JDS , eliminates the Advertising ( 5% min. ) , Sales Reps ( 20% ) , Distributers ( can be 30% ) and the Retailer need to make 50% , not to mention 30-60-90 day terms to the Retailers or Floor Planning costs and Advertising co-op costs typically at a conservative 5% and Glossy hand-outs . Phew , JDS direct has a HUGE advantage in delivered Cost Structure , on top of it all : they don't have to pay the designer a few % points on each unit ! It's no wonder to me that these two guys are smiling , they have a free Winner on their hands !
Another thing of importance is that the Review / Publication People seem to like the NwAvGuy's stuff , if it was my product that Tyll was looking at I would be sure to take him to the nicest Food place in Colorado , buy him any Bling that caught his eye , send him a box of Cuban Cigars , and provide him with some serious Stress relief whilst at the Show , he would feel loved by my staff . In the case of the JDS people , I don't think they are doing any of this for journalists , in fact I don't think they are making all that much money overall , one look at these two and you get a pretty good picture of how much money isn't being made . They are spending a few bucks on the table space and the banner stuff hanging behind them but I'll bet they drove their 2002 Honda instead of flying . If this Show was in Northern Europe I'd say these two guys were Communists . I will say that I own some of their stuff and have talked with one of them ( not sure which ) and they are in fact the real thing , nice people , I'll be buying more for gifting , it's nice stuff that isn't all that fussy ( my wife can use it ) .
I like the Designers Work and thank him for it . Nice going !
and nice going to the JDS Lads doing the RMAF 2014 !! , I would've drugged you both and cut your hair ( sorry ) !

Tony in Michigan

ps. oh , Tyll , you look much better here than that guy's spy video of you at this booth !

thune's picture

JDS Labs certainly has sane pricing, given volumes and the necessity of making a living. But the O2+ODAC appears to have 5x+ bag-of-parts pricing (the old standard Hi-Fi markup [even including dealer margins.]) My reading was that NwAvGuy was hoping some Chinese vendor would come in and offer these products at slim margins(<30%) on Ebay, working hard to push the parts cost down. [Probably imagining the O2+ODAC at easily less than $100.] As it stands these are just typical audio products at hi-fi margins, and they didn't generate the disruption imagined (could never do so at these prices.)

To state it another way: the NwAvGuy philosophy would have it that a person would be foolish to buy a $250 product if a $25 product had adequate specs and functionality. And it looks like are getting closer to $25 than we are to $250 for that. So maybe this mission is over.

[Side Note: JDS is awesome. Seaber is a solid engineer with the ability to make his own great stuff.]

thune's picture

I miss the edit button. Even 5 minutes of open edit would save me a ton of frustration.

jmcmasterj's picture

JPS Labs is listed in one of the paragraphs instead of JDS Labs

Tyll Hertsens's picture
Thanks...fxt. I just knew I'd do that somewhere along the line.
AncientWisdom's picture

And here I was thinking you actually had news if the guy... I remember a time I would wait with tons of anticipation for his next blog post... And aside from the issues mentioned in the article he left at least a few things mid way.

Grave's picture

The bashing of the ODAC/O2 is fucking hilarious as always!

What the hell else is out there that is cheap and has detailed measurements to prove that it is reference quality, please do share!

This is almost as funny as people pretending the O2 sounds bad because it is small. It is always fun to read that.

Grave's picture

Just keep spewing out bullshit and pretending it's true.

There is no way that the ODAC/O2 could ever be less than $100 and cheaper products NwAvGuy measured proved to be not quite ideal.

His work had a huge impact on people who are sane and not completely full of shit like you, thune. His blog has over 5 million views.

thune's picture

Well given that 500+ of those view were yours, let's do the math on how impactful this operation was. BTW, there are plenty of sane engineers keeping the objectivist faith over at, ones who didn't cut and run, one's who stick to the facts and refrain from bonfiring straw men.

I read his stuff, I'm not making it up. Other than the lashing out at Fashion-Fi, the down to earth part certain read as: "I'm testing all this cheap stuff and it is not quite up to 'transparency' standards. Here's how I, without manufacturing capacity, can make something cheap that is." Didn't happen and he's out. End of story.

thune's picture

Just to be clear, my comments above can also be read as: he succeeded in provoking manufacturers to develop cheaper products that do what he wanted the cheap products to do in the first place. So congratulations, mission accomplished, mic-drop.

Grave's picture

Did happen and you are clearly retarded. Congrats.