Pros: JetEffect 7, solid build quality, smooth touch-screen, great sound quality, customizable GUI (skins).
Cons: battery life, leather case is a separate purchase.
The product was provided to me free of charge for the review purpose in exchange for my honest opinion. The review was originally posted on my blog, and now I would like to share it with all my readers on head-fi.
If you ask anybody who considers themselves an audio enthusiast about one of their first digital media players, there is a good chance someone will mention Cowon. The company has been around since 1995, and rose to success in early 2000 with releases of popular mp3 audio players, followed by personal media players. Some know them as Cowon, while in the Western world they have been released under iAudio, but regardless of the name it’s the same company that always made sure to put high emphasis on sound quality, design ergonomics, and user interface. If you think about it, Cowon paved the way for many other audio companies, but throughout years lost some of the momentum. Today, the DAP market is rather saturated and very competitive, and many people are confused when faced with so many choices, especially since the lines between mid-fi and summit-fi performance are starting to blur.
Cowon Plenue line of high end DAPs was always on my radar, but I never had a chance to audition it until the recent opportunity when I got my hands on their latest Plenue M2 (PM2) model. As soon as I mentioned about upcoming PM2 review, I received a number of questions from my readers asking to compare it to the original PM or the recent PS flagship. I will not be able to answer these questions since I don’t have access to either of these for testing, but I certainly will go into details about PM2 design, my experience of using it for over a month, how it compares to other daps, and its pair up with various headphones. As my usual Intro “spoiler”, I do want to mention that PM2 became one of my go-to DAPs when I’m away from home. To find out why, let’s proceed to the review.
Unboxing & accessories.
Unlike majority of headphones and earphones that come in a colorful packaging, lately I find a common unboxing experience with different DAPs to start with a plain gift box and a company name across the top, where PM2 wasn’t an exception. I actually call this a “smartphone” unboxing experience where it’s less about the info printed on the exterior and more about the surprise anticipation of what’s awaits you under the cover. Coincidentally, today’s DAPs with their large touch screens, occupying most of the front view, have a very close resemblance to smartphones, thus I didn’t expect PM2 unboxing experience to be any different.
With a box cover removed, you get your first formal introduction to the product sitting securely inside of a precise foam cutout. I will go into more details about the actual design later, but have to say that I was very impressed when I saw a large glass display surrounded by a relatively slim asymmetrical brushed aluminum bezel. I already mentioned an analogy to a smartphone look, and unfortunately some DAPs with large touch screens and without analog volume knob can lose their identity by trying to look just like a plain vanilla smartphone. But this is not the case with PM2 which stands out with a distinct design.
I go through so many reviews that sometime lose a track of certain details, like removing a protective cover from a screen protector which I believe was already applied to the screen. There was also a high quality micro-USB cable and a quick start guide along with a warranty card. One thing you don’t have to worry about is the manual, Cowon website has a comprehensive PDF version of it – one of the most detailed User Guides I have seen in awhile. In my typical macho way of “I don’t need to ask for directions”, I like figuring out GUI and controls on my own, and I still missed quite a few things until I got to read the manual. I actually highly recommend visiting Cowon Support Page where you can freely download all of their manuals to educate yourself about the product even before you decide to buy it.
Another accessory I received along with my review unit of PM2 was their exclusive leather case which is optional and has to be purchased separately. During the initial launch of the product, as part of the celebration, Cowon even gave away a handful of these cases, but now it’s an optional accessory where I have seen it being sold for about $45-$50.
When it comes to leather cases, I’m sure many will agree that nobody can touch Dignis which I actually have on many DAPs in my review collection. To my pleasant surprise, I found PM2 leather case to be on par with Dignis cases, both in quality and functionality. The leather feels soft and durable, and according to Cowon it’s resistant to temperature fluctuations, thus being able to maintain its rich, supple texture. The grey tone of the leather goes very nice with a platinum silver color of PM2 metal body, and the blue stitching adds a nice accent to the design. The imprint of Plenue logo symbol on the back was just a classy touch. I also think it was a good idea to have a thicker padding on the back to cushion the DAP from any extra shock when you place it down. This case provides an enhanced grip of PM2 without adding too much extra bulk, and will protect it from minor bumps and scratches.
The case was hugging PM2 like a glove, revealing the unique shape of the left side edge bevel, and providing a snug fit without a worry that a DAP will slide out. The bottom of the case has a generous opening for micro-USB charger port and headphone port with plenty of room for bigger connectors. MicroSD card port is covered for extra security and dust-free protection. On the right side you have a generous combined cutout giving access to volume and playback control buttons. I’m not a fan of cases with covered buttons, making them hard to feel during blind operation, while here it felt just perfect and buttons became recessed, protecting them from accidental pressing. Also, the top was completely open for direct access to a power button and for easy removal of the case when you push the DAP up (I typically use a rubber eraser side of the pencil, pushing through micro-USB port opening).
The first thought that came to my mind when I took PM2 out of the box was - Solid! In the past I have tested many solid plastic and metal portable DAPs and DAC/amps, but this DAP gives a new definition to a solid body design. Cowon refer to it as a full metal closed unibody design since it’s carved out of a piece of aluminum block that functions as an electric ground to reduce the circuit noise and also to help with heat dissipation. This unibody design creates a seamless look of platinum silver brushed metal with anodized surface wrapped around 3.7” AMOLED touch display. The unit, 69mm x 117.3mm x 13.4mm in size, feels very comfortable in my hand, and for the reference I don’t have big hands. Also, considering all metal body, at only 188g it’s relatively light yet with a little bit of heft to make it feel good when you hold it.
The design is quite elegant, though it has a familiar shape with a slightly extended left side found in a few other DAPs. This creates a look of asymmetrical placement of the display with a thin metal edge on the right side and at the bottom, and a wide beveled edge on the left side and a little thicker edge at the top with a cut out in the upper right corner where Cowon has a unique looking power button in a shape of a camera shutter-release with a small power led pinhole right next to it. This particular power button design, including its physical placement, is now common among the latest Plenue releases (PD, PS, and PM2). It almost looks like a multi-function button that could rotate as well, but in reality it only has a small push-button in the middle with a power and screen on/off functionality.
The bottom of the DAP has micro-USB port which is used for charging, data transfer, and connection to your computer as USB DAC. Next to it, you will find microSD card slot which in a spec mentioned as supporting up to 200GB, but I have a feeling the latest 256GB should work as well. 3.5mm headphone jack, also shares optical digital output, is in the lower right corner. On the right side, you have transport control and volume buttons. Volume up/down is placed logically at the top and it’s a combined rounded button, adjusting the volume in 140 steps, 0.5dB at a time. Play/Pause is a separate button below it with a similar rounded shape, just shorter. Track skip fw/rev is next, also a combined button in the same shape as volume, and multi-functioning as rewind/fast forward when you hold it. All the buttons have a clear marking on the top, very nice tactile response, and absolutely no wobbling. They are accessible to control volume and playback with screen either on or off.
The left side has Plenue name in the lower left corner, on the edge of the bevel, and the back is all solid with Plenue logo symbol and a name underneath. In a number of my previous reviews I have seen quite a few unique designs where I mentioned that it’ll be a shame to cover it with a case, hiding its beauty. Here will PM2 I actually felt the opposite. The combination of PM2 design and the case actually compliments each other because you can still see the shape of the left edge, you have all the playback control and volume buttons exposed, and the top is also open with a full access to a power shutter-button. One additional control was a multi-function touch Home button built into the display right below the screen, which you can program in Settings.
Under the hood.
With 3.7” AMOLED touch display (480x800 resolution), ARM Cortex dual core A9 1.2GHz CPU, and built-in 128GB of memory (expandable with microSD), the spec reads almost like a smartphone, though it doesn’t run Android, but rather an optimized custom Unix OS. Also, you will not find wifi or Bluetooth, so if streaming is at the top of your priority list, PM2 will not be for you. But what you do get is a portable digital audio player with a solid build and a fast performance. The response of the touch screen was on par with my smartphone. Also, there was no lag using hardware transport buttons with a screen off. The boot-up time was very fast, about 10 sec, which in my case included database-update scanning at the start-up with about 6GB of files on internal memory.
I wasn’t able to find any specific info about the amplifier section of the DAP, though Cowon is very proud to mention about the implementation of Burr-Brown (TI) PCM1795 DAC. I know some people might question, why not PCM1792 flagship, found in other high end DAPs (including PS) and desktop systems. Many people are very particular about the DAC and the amp selection, but in the past I've tested DAPs with the same PCM1792 that sounded night’n’day in comparison. Thus I try to approach every DAP review like a black box, making my sound judgment based on what I hear instead of components used in the design. But nevertheless, the spec is important and it’s nice to see that Plenue M2 now has 1ohm output impedance with 2Vrms rating. Regarding the battery life, I have been getting 8.5 hours of playback time with a mix of mp3s and flacs, getting closer to 9hrs. It’s not exactly stellar, and I hope with more charge/discharge cycles it will improve down the road. I know, touch screen devices consume more battery, but I still would like to see closer to 10hrs battery performance.
With a fast processor and a powerful DAC under the hood, you definitely have enough power to decode majority of popular lossy and lossless formats. Everything from MP3, to WMA, APE, OGG, FLAC/WAV/AIFF/ALAC, and DSD (up to DSD128) and DXD (up to 384kHz) is supported. Furthermore, it also supports track info CUE (tested to work quite well), SACD ISO (2ch), and also various lyrics formats and ID3 tag lyrics. Regardless of what you throw at PM2, it smoothly decoded every supported format without any lag or stutter. But the biggest credit goes to handling of JetEffect 7 DSP effects. These are CPU intense DSP effects which you enable on a fly and still get a smooth performance without a single hiccup.
Before getting into the User Interface, let me first talk about the quality of the display. I know some might find 480x800 resolution to be not the greatest, but for displaying artwork and other elements of the GUI it was just perfect. It’s not the highest resolution but, as an example, the analog needle of level meter display wasn’t choppy and looked pretty convincing. This is probably one of the best DAP screens I have seen in awhile, with vibrant deep colors and very responsive touch screen on a level of my smartphone. I personally never put too much emphasis into the display quality unless I’m planning to watch videos, movies, or play games, but even for a basic operation a lag in touch screen response can ruin the experience. In my opinion, PM2 got it right!
When you start the DAP in the main playback screen, you have a clear layout with a very efficient interface. Starting with notification bar, upper left corner will show you icons corresponding to playback modes and selected dsp effects, in the middle there will be a current time (I forgot the last time I’ve seen a time displayed on non-Android device), and upper right corner will have a volume level, gain setting (IEM – low, headphone – high), and a battery indicator, though I wish it would show a numerical value of the remaining capacity.
Right below notification bar there is an icon which takes you to Music Selection screen. In there you can navigate up to the top level to select between Folders, Favorites, list of All songs, sort by Artist, Album, Genre, view Cue/SACD, and New. Under each selection you have another icon which brings up either Add to favorites (a song or a folder) or Search using a touch-keyboard with a full alphanumeric search. Next to Music Selection screen icon, you have the area for artist and song name with a scrolling text. To the right is Playback Setting icon which I will talk about separately.
The main screen with an album artwork occupies upper half of the screen, and if there is available lyrics, you will notice a corresponding icon in the upper right corner. Clicking on the album/song art will zoom in to provide you with a more detailed info view about the song format, and while scrolling down from there you will see all the corresponding tags. Underneath the album/song art, you have quick shortcut icons to enable/disable Looping, enable/disable Shuffling, and selection to play a Single track or tracks from a current Folder or to play All tracks. Below it is Playback control Play/Pause and Next/Prev touch buttons to skip or forward through the track. Also, you have a bar to advance through the track playback to a desired point by swiping through it, and this scroll bar will be either below or above playback buttons depending on the selected skin. All the way at the bottom, you have L/R channel level meter in either analog needle dial or digital bar displays.
There are quite a few customization options to change the skin of the GUI where you can switch between analog or digital level meter, including turning it off, as well as 5 different skins which affect the layout and graphics of the touch controls. Going back to Playback Setting you will find a plethora of other shortcut options, such as Detailed Setting, Adding current track to favorites, selecting JetEffect DSP effects, Replay a selection of the track (lets you select start/stop marker), Activate auto rotation (normal view in a portrait mode, tile view in a landscape mode), show time elapsed or remaining, set the track skip interval, set Rewind/FFWD speed, Remember and Resume playback of the last track, Skip the silent part of the beginning and the end of the track, Select a level meter, and Select a skin. Last, but not least, you can select Headphone mode On (high gain) or Off (low gain). Skip the silent part actually activates a flawless Gapless playback.
In Detailed setting you have access to select a specific JetEffect preset or to modify your own user preset, Music setting with many options already described in the shortcut Setting menu above. The only addition here is DSD gain and DAC filter rolloff (fast or slow); Display setting with selection of Language, Brightness, and a number of User Presets (from 4 to 16); Timer for a sleep timer, auto off, auto display off, and to set the actual time in notification bar; System setting with selection of multi-function button assignment (music play screen, browser, or settings), button lock, lock screen (on/off), L/R Balance, LED (on/off), USB mode (MSC or MSC/DAC), database update, loading defaults, formatting internal memory, and Info.
In my opinion, JetEffect 7 DSP effects is the crown jewel of this DAP. You get a total of 66 presets with 50 pre-defined ones and 16 user-defined. Furthermore, you have access to 10 Band EQ where each band has 3 selectable values: 63/76/92, 112/135/164, 200/240/290, 350/430/520, 620/750/910, 1.1k/1.3k/1.6k, 2k/2.4k/2.9k, 3.5k/4.2k/5.1k, 6.2k/7.5k/9k, 10.9k/13.2k/16k. You can adjust every band by +/- 12 steps and select bandwidth (Q) of each frequency as normal, wide, or narrow – turning this EQ into Parametric-like EQ.
Next you have BBE+ effects with BBE exciter/enhancer in 10step adjustment, Mach3Bass 10step bass adjustment, 3D Surround 10step adjustment, and MP on/off harmonic-compression restoration effect. There is also Chorus effect which you adjust in 10steps and can select between 3 chorus, 2 unison, and 3 flange types, and Reverb effect adjustable in 10steps where you can select Chamber, Room, Club, Hall, Auditorium, Cathedral, Stadium, Canyon, or Long reverb types.
Some people might not be familiar with Chorus and Reverb effects, but anybody who ever dabbed into a music production, mixer decks, PA system or even Karaoke machines will know that these effects make sound more Live, add an expanded dimension, make sound less dry. Of course, you are welcome to experiment, but usually the sound engineer who mixed and mastered the song already applied these effects, so you can skip it. But precise EQ adjustment or surround sound tweaking or adding bass are all very useful. BBE enhancement is derived from a popular hardware sound processing equipment to add more sparkle and excitement to the sound, and MP really opens up the dynamics by restoring the sound envelope, especially the transient of the attack.
Bottom line, I never tested another DAP with such high level of Setting and Customization options, and never came across another DAP with such high level of quality DSP effects that sound natural and realistic. You can tweak it yourself, but many will probably jump right into the provided 50 presets where BBE and BBE MP were my favorite by far. I know that audiophile purists might not like the idea of DSP effect, but the quality of JetEffect 7 and how they transform even average quality headphones into TOTL sound quality can’t be dismissed. It’s a real deal.
I put PM2 through 100hrs of burn in before starting my sound analysis, and used Zeus-R as reference monitors for my testing.
I found PM2 to have a smooth natural musical laid back signature with a decent retrieval of details. The tonality is close to neutral, leaning a little more toward the warmer presentation. A soundstage is wide and has a convincing imaging and not bad separation (an average). The timbre of instruments is very natural and organic. Background is not super black, there is a hint of a very faint noise floor, but it adds to the analog texture of the sound. The dynamics of the sound is pretty good as well, doesn't feel being too compressed or congested. Also, even though the sound is not super resolving or micro-detailed due to a smoother laid back signature, I still hear an excellent retrieval of details.
But once you apply JetEffect 7, especially my favorite BBE or BBE MP presets - all of a sudden the sound transforms into a very dynamic, high resolution, expanded presentation with a fast transient response of the notes. Tonality becomes brighter, and the sound signature becomes more neutral and with better transparency. Timbre of instruments is still rich and natural, but now it feels like a faint veil was lifted off. The notes have a faster on/off transition, which translates into a faster attack and the most important a noticeable improvement in PRAT. This change might not be as apparent with some warmer sig headphones, but while using a very resolving Zeus-R the refinement was quite noticeable.
This is the first time I'm hearing DSP effects that don't just add sparkle and resolution to the sound, but also keep the natural tonality of it. I'm quite familiar with BBE effect emulations back from my music production hobby days (using as VST plugin), and this Exciter effect could be easily over-done to push the sound toward a cold analytical brightness. But JetEffect 7 is able to refine the sound quality without ruining the tonality. These effects are addictive, and can make even average sound quality headphones to sound their best.
For this pair up test, I switched PM2 to IEM gain setting and noted the volume level used in every case. I do trust my ears when it comes to volume matching, and used the same test track with all DSP effects disabled. The max volume level PM2 can reach is 140 steps, in 0.5dB increments per step, and in all but one case I was able to test it without switching to a higher Headphone gain. In addition to “v” volume level, with some of the earphones I also noted special attributes, like impedance and sensitivity.
Zen2 (320ohm) v117 - warm full body sound, soft bass punch, more focus on mids (vocals), polite treble extension. I hear more depth than width (soundstage). No hissing.
Zen (320ohm) v117 - warm full body sound, more sub-bass, tighter punch, more articulate bass, clear detailed vocals, excellent treble definition. I hear the same staging as Zen2 but a touch more width. No hissing.
Zeus-R (21ohm/119dB) v68 - very detailed high resolution sound, balanced signature, great sub-bass rumble, tight punchy mid-bass, clear detailed mids, and snappy crisp airy treble. I hear an expanded soundstage with an excellent width/ depth. Very faint background hissing.
W80 (5ohm/111dB) v83 - smooth detailed organic sound, deep low end extension with a nice sub-bass rumble, punchy mid-bass, natural detailed mids, well defined crisp treble but not as airy. I hear a wide/deep soundstage. No hissing.
Andromeda (12ohm/115dB) v70 - detailed balanced sound, nice sub-bass extension, good sub-bass punch but the bass is not very tight and a little slower (attack). Smooth detailed mids, excellent retrieval of details, vocals have natural organic texture. Crisp well defined treble with a nice level of airiness. Soundstage has a great depth and a nice width (more depth than width). Very faint hissing.
DN2kJ (8ohm/102db) v93 - bright analytical sound, quality bass with a reduced quantity, nice low end extension and punch but bass is flat, mids are on a thinner, colder, more analytical revealing side, treble is crisp, well defined, extended, and airy. I hear a wide/deep soundstage. No hissing.
Momentum Wireless (470ohm, wired) v108 - v-shaped signature with a deep booming bass (nice sub-bass rumble and elevated mid-bass punch), clear detailed mids (pushed slightly back), nice crisp treble. I hear soundstage with above average width and depth. Bass was a bit overwhelming, but it's part of the signature. No hissing.
EL8C (planar magnetic) v124 - detailed revealing sound with a more mid-forward signature, nice sub-bass extension with a textured rumble and a polite mid-bass punch, clear detailed mids, more toward colder analytical performance with a slight metallic sheen, very crisp well defined airy treble. I hear an average width staging with a nice depth. Overall sound was smoother than with some other sources. No hissing.
PM-3 (planar magnetic) v114 - a slightly v-shaped sound signature with a nice warm bass, not as aggressive but well rounded and controlled with above neutral quantity, mids are warm, full bodied, and pretty clear with a nice retrieval of details, treble is well defined and actually has a nice snap to it though not as airy. I hear a nice above the average width and depth. PM-3 is very picky about the source, often resulting in a bit veiled/congested performance, but PM2 made PM-3 shine. No hissing.
R70x (470ohm open back) v133 - a very natural detailed balanced sound presentation with a great low end extension (excellent sub-bass rumble and nice punchy mid-bass), smooth detailed mids with excellent retrieval of details, and crisp extended treble with plenty of airiness. One of the best R70x pair-ups I heard to date. When switching to headphone gain (high gain) I was able to drop volume to v110, leaving more headroom for adjustment. Soundstage is open and spacious. No hissing.
T5p 2nd gen (Tesla driver) v110 - a very smooth detailed balanced sound signature, powerful bass with an excellent textured sub-bass rumble (deep bass) and a punchy mid-bass impact, very detailed organic mids, crisp extend treble with plenty of airiness. I hear a wide/deep soundstage. The only problem, Beyers original headphone connector was a bit too wide for a leather case.
For this test I was using Zeus-R with a stock BTG SPC cable as my reference pair of monitors, every comparison was volume matched by ear, I played the same track, and all DSP effects were off.
PM2 vs AK120ii - very similar tonality, with PM2 being a little bit smoother. AK has a blacker background and almost no hissing in comparison to a slight hissing with PM2. As a result, AK feels like it has a sharper transient of notes, while PM2 is smoother and more musical. Soundstage expansion is very similar as well.
PM2 vs LPG - PM2 has a smoother tonality while LPG is more revealing, more resolving, and with better transparency. As a result, LPG sound is more analytical while PM is more musical, laid back (without DSP effects enabled). Both are detailed. LPG has a lot more hissing in comparison. Also, I hear PM2 as having more sub-bass while LPG has a tighter mid-bass punch. LPG has a little wider soundstage expansion.
PM2 vs L5Pro - similar smooth musical tonality, but PM2 is more revealing and detailed. PM2 has a little better sub-bass extension with a more textured sub-bass, and more detailed revealing mids. Also, PM2 has a little more airiness in treble, and overall a better treble extension. Both have a similar soundstage expansion. I find a touch more hissing in L5Pro.
PM2 vs X7 w/AM2 - X7 has a more revealing sound with a better transparency. X7 bass is faster and tighter, mids have a better retrieval of details, and treble is crispier. Soundstage expansion is similar. Overall, PM2 is smoother and more natural while X7 is colder and more analytical. X7 has a little more hissing in comparison.
PM2 vs Opus#1 - nearly identical sound signature with a similar tonality. The only difference I hear is that Opus#1 has a slightly more hissing from SE while PM2 has a slightly wider soundstage in comparison to Opus#1 SE.
USB DAC and Optical out.
I personally prefer not to use a dedicated DAP as USB DAC because I consider a DAP to be a self-contained portable standalone source. If you are not happy with an audio output of your laptop, there are plenty of alternative USB DAC choices. But sometime when you are traveling and don’t want to bring with you multiple pieces of equipment, using DAP as USB DAC is very convenient.
Here I found PM2 to pair up flawlessly with my laptop, and significantly improve a sound quality of my aging T430s Thinkpad. The drivers were installed automatically, no need for a manual install of any 3rd party files. Furthermore, I tried pairing up PM2 with my Note 4 smartphone using micro-USB otg adapter cable. As expected, it only worked using Hiby music app which utilizes its own drivers to bypass Android. Don’t expect to be able to use PM2 as USB OTG DAC for your smartphone with every app (it didn’t work with YT or Spotify), but if you’re ok with Hiby – it could be one of the options to boost sound quality of your phone.
One very useful feature is when you connect PM2 to your computer, as soon as the connection is detected it will offer you a choice from the touch screen to either select USB DAC or USB MSC (for a file transfer). Once you select USB DAC, my laptop volume was set to the max and the actual volume control was done externally from PM2. The only negative here, DSP effects are disabled when in USB DAC mode.
Since PM2 doesn’t have LO, you can’t bypass its built-in amplifier to use external amp, but you do have an option to use PM2 as a digital touch screen transport to drive external DAC/amp supporting optical input because its 3.5mm HO port is shared with optical digital output. I have tested it with Micro iDSD and found this pair up combo to work flawless. In my previous tests, I always found optical link to be superior in sound quality to electrical coax cable.
I don’t remember how many times I mentioned JetEffect 7 in this review, but I’m going to say it again - I consider JE7 to be one of the best features of PM2. No, it’s not the only great thing about it. Everything from a quality design to ergonomics of the controls, fantastic touch swipe display and external hw playback controls, optional leather case (which is a must in my opinion) and very logical and responsive GUI – all are a top class. The level of Settings and Skin customization is another huge plus, plus many will be happy with Gapless support. You also get plenty of storage with 128GB of internal memory and microSD card expansion (up to 200GB as advertised, though probably supporting the latest 256GB as well), and the headphone output which also doubles as optical s/pdif output. The sound quality is very good and puts it right into the upper level of mid-fi performance. But with JetEffect 7 dsp effects it can truly scale up to a summit-fi performance without sounding artificial. The only thing missing was Bluetooth for wireless headphones and wifi for streaming. For sure they could have included everything and the kitchen sink, but I hope that maybe Cowon is saving a few bonus features for another TOTL flagship. Can’t wait to see what they are going to release next!