Cowon PM2-128SL Plenue M2 PM2 High Resolution Music Player 128GB Platinum silver

Average User Rating:
4.5/5,
  1. HiFiChris
    4.5/5,
    "Cowon Plenue M2: Clean, Transparent and Neutral by default with a great UI and easy to use + effective DSP Features"
    Pros - great & responsive UI w/ really good search feature, clean & transparent sound, low output impedance, very little hiss, 128 GB built-in memory + µ SD
    Cons - limited included accessories/unboxing experience, no dedicated Line Out

     
     
     
     
    Preamble:

    Cowon (http://www.cowonglobal.com/) is definitely no unknown company at all and doesn’t need much further introduction – founded in 1995, the South-Korean company managed to established to a major “big player” when it comes to digital audio players, with a large international network of resellers and distributors.
    In the past, the company has already released many audio players and was one of the first to use a touchscreen and touch control navigation for their products. Right from the start, their dedication to audio and a clean signal path was strong, as even their earlier players already usually had a low output impedance and noise floor, with the only downside having been a sub-bass roll-off with connected low impedance headphones because coupling capacitors were used in the signal path. These days are fortunately gone and modern Cowon audio players feature a flat frequency response without sub-bass roll-off with all headphones regardless of impedance and a clean, cap-free internal signal path.

    Cowon’s recent line of premium audio players is called “Plenue” and includes a couple of different models, differing in pricing, technical specifications and features.
    In the not too distant past, I had already bought their small Plenue D audio player that was great on the objective side, however I sold it quite quickly because the menu navigation response (scrolling through lists) was a bit slow for my liking, along with a few other subjective trifles that however didn’t stop it from being a sonically excellent audio player (in fact I had even started a private review that I never finished though due to time and work coming into my way, however it would have turned out around 4.5 out of 5 stars).

    Recently I got the great opportunity to get my hands on another of Cowon’s Plenue line, the Plenue M2 (http://www.cowonglobal.com/product_wide/PLENUEM2/product_page_1.php). Equipped with a 3.7” AMOLED touchscreen, Burr Brown PCM1795 DAC capable of DSD and Hi-Res playback, high SNR, low distortion, low output impedance and good crosstalk values, 128 GB of internal memory plus a micro SD card slot, a digital optical audio output next to the headphone socket, a metal unibody frame, and of course Cowons well-known “JetEffect” EQ and DSP internal sound manipulation software (that doesn’t have to be used but offers plenty features to tailor the sound to one’s liking), it should offer a lot of fun and a really clean and precise sound which is to be tested in this review.


    Disclaimer:
    I was provided with the Cowon Pleunue M2 for the purpose of an honest, unbiased review. I was told that I can keep the sample for free for personal use as well as for future reference and comparisons. Before I go on with my review, I want to take the time to personally thank Cowon and especially Hailey who got in touch with me and arranged the shipping.


    Technical Specifications:

    Price: KRW899000/~$799/£590/~€729

     


    Delivery Content:

    The Package the Plenue M2 arrives in is very simple and something I already know from Cowon (from the Plenue D that I used to own). It is a simple and black cardboard box that contains the player (with a temporary screen protector applied), a charging/data transfer cable, a brief manual (the real and very detailed plus informative manual is located on the player’s internal memory) and a warranty card. A cover for the Micro SD slot is also already installed and also something that I already know from Cowon (it is actually quite useful and prevents the player from dust getting insode when intending to use it without a memory card but solely with the internal memory).

    While this is basically all one needs to get started, I would have probably wished for more accessories as well as a more impressive presentation to give the premium player a premium first contact and unboxing experience.
     

     
     
     



    Looks, Feels, Build Quality:

    The Plenue M2 is just beautiful and also looks and feels like a premium product. Its casing is made of a single block of milled aluminium (-> unibody) that is brushed and coated on the back and matte on the sides. On the front is a large 3.7” touchscreen as well as a sensor button below it.
    The design with the added edges of the aluminium unibody on the left side of the screen shares some similarities with some of Astell & Kern’s models without looking as extravagant – the Plenue M2 appears rather like an English gentleman with style, class and understatement.
    On the right hand side, one will find the volume control buttons as well as three playback control buttons that I already found handy on my Plenue D.
    The bottom side features a 3.5 mm output that acts as combined headphone socket and digital optical S/PDIF output. Next to it is a micro SD slot as well as a micro USB socket that is used for charging/data transfer/USB DAC use.
    The top has got a small button on the right hand side with a ring around it that reads “high definition sound” and “Plenue”. Next to it is a small and multi-coloured LED that is useful in some situations (seeing whether the player is on or off (blue flashing), knowing about the charging status (shining red)), however I found the Plenue D’s illuminated ring around the button to be more innovative, but nonetheless I am glad they also implemented a status LED on the Plenue M2. Just as with the Plenue D, it can also be turned off in the player’s settings.
     

     
     
     


    The Player by the way feels very well in one’s hand and is well built. The touchscreen has also got a good resolution (no modern smartphone levels though) and the buttons’ pressure points are crisp, well-defined and precise.
     

     
     
     
     



    Operation, User Interface:

    Firmware Version 1.01:
     


    Who knows Cowon’s more recent UIs will feel extremely familiar with the Plenue M2’s user interface, library, playing screen and settings. I could actually just redirect you to the manual that probably explains everything better than I do here, however I still wrote a detailed guide about the Plenue M2’s user interface.
    By the way, one of the reasons why I sold my Plenue D shortly after I bought it was because the menus felt quite slow and the same went for scrolling in lists, but I can fortunately tell you that with the Plenue M2, the response speed is very high and nothing feels even slightly laggy. Also scrolling through lists works extremely fluently – the benefit of the faster CPU is definitely noticeable.

    The UI can be split into three main screens – the library, a playing screen as well as the settings.

    On the main playing screen, the album cover art takes up the most space and sits right in the centre.

     
    On the top in the status bar, with information about the set playback (order, shuffle etc.), the EQ pre-set, time, gain, volume (140 steps with 0.5 dB per step increments) and battery status being present.

     
    Directly below, the track and artist info are displayed as well as the icon buttons to get to the music library as well as quick settings.
    Below is the album cover art with overlaid track counter and symbols that can be clicked to enable loop play, shuffle and list play.
    Clicking on the album cover art, it gets larger and more information about the track, artist and album are revealed.

     
    Clicking on the tiny red arrow, one can see detailed information about the track.

     
    Below are three virtual playback control buttons that can be used just as the physical buttons on the right side to change tracks and pause songs. Changing tracks can also be done by swiping across the album cover.
    A progress bar is right underneath.
    At the bottom of the screen is a VU meter (that can be turned off).
     
     
    Turning the player by 90 degrees, a quick music library access to the albums with their cover arts (as known from the iPhone and iPod Touch) is displayed in a 2 by 5 array.

     

    By the way, gapless playback with FAC files works perfectly and the gap with MP3 files is just very short (just a small “click” between tracks).
     


    Tapping on the list-like icon on the left, one will get to the music library.

     
    The Plenue M2 has got 128 GB of built-in memory as well as a micro SD slot that reads 200 GB exFAT-formatted cards without any problems. And the best thing is that the database updates itself is performed very quickly.
    In library view, we have a few different tiles that lead to the folder browser, user-manageable favourite lists/playlists, all songs, artist view, album view, genre view, Cue/SACD (yes, the Plenue M2 can read cue-sheets as well as two-channel SACD ISOs) and last but not least the most recently added songs.
     
     
     
    Unfortunately, like the vast majority of players on the market, the Plenue M2 does not read the “Album Artist” tag but only the regular “Artist” tag.

     
    However, this is no problem at all as we have one very handy icon in the upper left corner of the screen that allows us to quickly create and manage playlists but also contains a search feature with an on-screen keyboard, so I am not disappointed at all that the “Album Artist” tag is neglected, as when I am looking for a specific artist but don’t want to scroll through my music folder, I can just use the search function.
     

     
    Depending on the view in the library, the library options icon also lets you delete files/folders and rename playlists.
     
     


    On the main playing screen, the quick settings can be accessed by tapping the icon in the upper right corner.
    Then a semi-transparent grid of tiles pops up.

     
    The first icon leads us to the detailed settings where we can for example set the clock, disable the status LED, change the digital filters from fast to slow roll-off, remove the silent parts at the beginning and end of a song, set how many user-configurable profiles (anything between 4 and 16) are accessible in the JetEffect DSP settings, define whether the touch button below the screen gets us back to the settings, music browser or playing screen, and activate the USB-DAC mode.
     
     
     
     
     
    The other quick settings will let you add the song to a playlist/favourite list, give you quick access to JetEffect (I’ll have a dedicated paragraph about that further down in the sound section), define a part of the song that is re-played in a loop, disable the auto-rotation of the screen, choose whether the elapsed, remaining or both times are shown on the progress bar, define what a short press on the skip button does, define the seek interval of the playback control buttons, enable/disable the automatic resume feature (the last position of the song is remembered after re-booting the player), enable/disable the silence remove feature for the beginning and end of a track and choose between low gain and high gain (“headphone mode”).
    Also, we can choose between two VU-meter styles or disable them completely.
    And lastly, we have five different menu skins to choose from.
     
     
     

     


    The player really does have a good user interface and firmware with many options and customisation features as well as a good library and a very handy search feature with on-screen keyboard. The user interface and navigation feel very mature and touch inputs are immediately recognised. There is no lag or whatsoever and everything runs fast and smoothly. Also, I found the sensor button below the screen to be quite handy at times to get back to the main playing screen quickly with just a tap.
    The team responsible for the user interface and software features has just done a great job.
    By the way, I haven’t experienced any bugs or crashes so far except for an occasionally appearing database update (however just a few seconds) upon start-up and the player crashing once when I inserted a new card and performed the media update. As the software is still in an early version, I am quite sure that this small thing will be resolved over time.


    Battery Life:

    For the battery test, I connected my cheap Superlux HD681 headphones to the headphone output and set the volume to 75 at low gain. Then I played circa 70% CD format (16 bit/44.1 kHz) and 30% 24 bit Hi-Res FLAC files. Occasionally, I unlocked the screen and navigated through the menus.
    With this test method, the battery lasted pretty exactly 8 hours and 45 minutes.


    Sound:

    Needless to say, the JetEffect settings were disabled in the next few paragraphs.

    Frequency Response, Output Impedance:

    Measured without load, these are the two DAC filter settings:


     
    So the raw frequency response is just as neutral as it should be and the slow roll-off filter also works as it should.

    Increasing the difficulty, let’s see how the Plenue M2 performs with critical multi-BA in-ears with a strongly varying impedance response:


     
    My Shure SE846 and Ultimate Ears Triple.Fi 10 are in-ears that react very critically on devices with a rather high impedance response that will skew their frequency response. The calculated output impedance based on these measurements is at ca. 1, maybe 1.25 Ohms, which is ideal for most multi-driver in-ears (SAVANNA, UE900, W4R, SD-2, UERM, SIRIUS, …) and within the ideal spec for multi-driver in-ears (1 Ohm or less are ideal, so a little over 1 Ohm is still very good) whereas only the very low impedance and critical ones showing some slight deviation (that is however around the 1 dB threshold and many people don’t even notice this deviation without training and critical listening, so I have experienced over the years). Therefore the Plenue M2 is good in terms of output impedance although the Plenue D was even a little better here with calculated ~ 0.5 Ohms.

    Hiss:

    I am someone who is quite sensitive to hiss and have got some very sensitive in-ears (the Shure SE846 and Ostry KC06A for example) that reveal even the tiniest bit of hiss when it is present.
    Just as with the Plenue D I used to own, I have positive things to report about the noise floor of the Plenue M2: it is very low wherefore the Cowon is definitely among the better/best devices when it comes to being (almost entirely) hiss-free. The noise floor is very low and lower than with the Chord Mojo which is already a good performer in this regard, and going by memory also somewhat lower than the Plenue D. Only very few stand-alone audio players have got even less hiss (even less hiss in this case means virtually no hiss) (the iBasso DX90 and Luxury & Precision L3 Pro and L3 for example, however the L & Ps’ output impedance is higher as well). So regarding noise floor performance with very sensitive in-ears and for hiss-sensitive people, the Plenue M2 does definitely get a “thumbs up” from me.

    Transparency, Precision, Soundstage:

    Now to the very subjective part of my review. My opinion and experience regarding the sound signature of source devices and amplifiers goes like this: there is an existing audible difference between various devices, but it shouldn’t be overrated – simply because the basic character of a headphone won’t be completely changed (if the circuit follows a clean design philosophy), but sometimes rather “shaped” a little and is extremely subtle in many cases and is (in most cases) just slightly present (if even) and not huge like totally different classes or night and day.
    So let’s continue with my subjective impressions and observations (for this critical listening, I used my UERM, Pai Audio MR3, Sennheiser IE 800, Shure SE846, Audeze LCD-X as well as the Noble Audio SAVANNA and Fidue SIRIUS):

    First things first: the use of 140 volume steps that let the volume increase in very fine 0.5 dB per step is a thing that I welcome a lot. This means that the perfect listening volume can always be found as there is no big gap between two steps like some players have (especially in the low adjustment range). The use of a two-position gain mode is also a good thing and if I am not horribly wrong, the Plenue M2 does have a quieter lowest volume setting than the Plenue D. One thing I would however personally like to see being implemented by Cowon is an ultra-low-gain-mode that could come in handy in a situation where tracks with an average/lower dynamic range are played back through extremely sensitive in-ears (e.g. my SE846) late at night when one wants to listen really really quietly with the music playing quietly in the background. With most in-ears and in most situations though, the lower volume range is perfectly fine (and I am kind of the exception here anyway – still I’d personally love to see an additional ultra-low-gain-mode).

    Let’s move on to my sound impressions:

    It is sometimes said that Cowon players tend to sound really smooth, with an organic presentation – volume-matched (which is the most important thing when doing reliable comparisons) and using my UERM, MR3, the SAVANNA and the SIRIUS, I, who is definitely more on the objective side, wouldn’t agree to this. Just as the Plenue D, the Plenue M2 sounds very neutral, un-coloured and natural to me; basically just like an ideal player should sound like. No added warmth, no thickness, no shift of the tonality in the vocal range, but also no hard edges and no glare in the treble (unlike my DX90 which is just a little more “aggressive” in the highs and represents the “typical SABRE glare”, but it is no night-and-day difference either).
    The only in-ear out of the ones that I used for direct comparisons where I could spot a difference was my Shure SE846 that sounded a little fuller in the mids with the Plenue M2 compared to my Chord Mojo-Leckerton UHA-6S.MKII stack or iBasso DX90, but that is only mainly because the Shure has got such a low impedance that even with the Cowon’s low ~ 1 Ohm output, there will be a slight dip in the upper mids to middle highs area, as the Shure really wants to be driven by a 0.1 Ohm output in order to avoid frequency deviation (yeah, the SE846 is a touchy diva in this regard).

    When it comes to “transparency” and clarity, the Plenue M2 is superb – due to its really good noise performance and otherwise also great specs, the player sounds highly transparent, clear and clean with a “black background”. As we are in an area and class where the specs are that good that there shouldn’t be a distinctly audible qualitative difference between two players when correctly volume-matched, I definitely won’t speak about how I perceive large qualitative differences as I simply don’t. The player just sounds great and highly transparent, just like many others in the same league. If anything, I would say it sounds subjectively a tiny bit “livelier” and probably a touch cleaner separated in the highs than my iBasso DX90, but I definitely wouldn’t tie myself down to it and for the latter, I wasn’t able to accurately spot it in a semi-blinded comparison, so it might be imagination and the infamous “new-toy-syndrome”. And when it comes to bass speed (LCD-X, UERM and SE846 used), it is just as clean and quick as with other players that exceeded a certain tier. And as for the sometimes slight timbre differences between some players and the Plenue M2, I would say that it is a matter of personal preference and definitely no night-and-day difference.

    When it comes to soundstage, I can happily report that it is authentic and has got good instrument separation and placement, unlike the Plenue D that had a quite small and tendentially somewhat mushy spatial presentation (however, this was no night-and-day difference back then either as there are just no huge differences between well designed audio devices but rather smaller ones that are sometimes a little more and sometimes a little less present, if even), likely caused by at best average stereo crosstalk values. The Plenue M2 has got a precise spatial presentation. Compared to the iBasso DX80 that I perceive to have a larger stage than many other players, the Cowon’s is a little narrower but not small. It is also a little less wide than my DX90’s stage but a bit deeper (the DX90 has got a wide but not as deep stage to my ears). I would however say that somewhat similar to the DX90, the Cowon’s soundstage is slightly more oval than round.

    So on the sound side, everything is really good and the player sounds clear, clean, natural, neutral and precise.
     

     
     


    Digital Out, USB-DAC:


    The digital optical output is automatically enabled when an optical cable is plugged into the combined headphone/digital socket. Then a symbol shows up in the status bar and one can see the red light of the S/PDIF connection. Using the Plenue M2 with any DAC with optical input (for example my Leckerton UHA-6S.MKII and Chord Mojo) works flawlessly.

    The USB-DAC feature can be enabled in the settings (System -> USB Mode). Connecting the Plenue M2 to my Windows 7 laptop, the drivers are automatically downloaded and installed within seconds (plug & play) and the player’s internal volume control is still accessible (it even shows up on the Cowon’s screen). There is no stutter and the audio is very clean, without any additional hiss or noise.

    JetEffect 7 DSP and Equalizer:

    One of Cowon’s most powerful features has always been the easy to use and quite powerful sound manipulation features. With this, it also features a parametric EQ and while it is not as powerful and finely adjustable as most desktop software EQs or few Android and iOS app EQs, it offers much more features than most other audio players’ equalizers and lets you select between three Q-values (bandwidth) and also slightly adjust the frequency band.
    What’s even more powerful than the EQ is the number of DSP settings (reverb, adjustable sub-bass boost, loudness, echo, soundstage enhancer, MP Enhance (I assume that this is probably upsampling/re-encoding of MP3 files), …). All of the settings are applied in real time and without any delay.

    If you like playing around with these DSP settings and tailoring the sound to your preference, you will love JetEffect. Also, for example, it allows for incredible amounts of distortion-free bass boost. And all of the 50 fixed pre-sets offer something to like with none of them sounding like crap – it is quite obvious that Cowon is doing these sound manipulation features for some time now. In addition, up to 16 user-configurable profiles can be created (but not renamed as it seems).
     
     
     
     
     

     

    Of course, all of the JetEffect settings are disabled by default and unless they are activated, one is getting a purely neutral and unaltered sound from the Plenue M2.

    On the total, we have 10 EQ bands. The frequency of each can be adjusted in three steps per band and the same goes for the Q-factor where we also have three (narrow, normal, wide) for every frequency band.
     
     

    Then there are the BBE+ settings.

    BBE is a basically an adjustable loudness.


    The Mach3Bass is a bass boost for the lower midbass (unfortunately it doesn’t affect the real sub-bass below 40 Hz).


    And 3D Surround is kind of a virtual soundstage enhancer that works surprisingly well and doesn’t sound the slightest artificial to me.

    MP Enhance is there to enhance MP3 files and I assume it is doing it by upsampling the signal (I haven’t investigated it further).

    Lastly, we can also dial in some chorus and reverb with different characteristics for each. This is nice too and can create the effect of a different location without sounding artificial as long as not driven to the max.

    Overall, if you like playing around with some DSP features that don’t sound artificial but actually realistic and are very easy to use, and if you want an Equalizer that is somewhat more advanced than a normal 10-band EQ, you will find some very useful things here. Even when combining BBE with Mach3Bass and the EQ, there is no hint of distortion or muddiness at all and a massive boost of the lower frequencies that is out of this world can be added if desired.
    The only negative thing about the JetEffect settings is that none of the EQ settings really affects the sub-bass below 40 Hz, which is a pity (it was probably not implemented as it requires more processing power and starts to distort earlier). Only the BBE also elevates the bass, however also the treble as it is a loudness feature.

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    Comparisons:
    Needless to say, the devices were metrologically volume-matched as close as possible. Here, I used the Audeze LCD-X, Sennheiser IE 800, Ostry KC06A, UERM, Shure SE846 and Noble SAVANNA for direct comparisons.
     



    iBasso DX80:

    Both players appear about comparably valuably built to me with the Plenue M2’s upper side being a bit more premium.
    The DX80 has got two micro SD cars slots, the Cowon only one but 128 GB of built-in memory. The DX80 offers some more features/connections (coaxial output, Line Out) and is more powerful, however the Plenue is really more than powerful enough for me.
    When it comes to user interface, both are really good but where the Plenue M2 is superior are things like scan speed, responsiveness and especially the search function. I really like the DX80’s software and interface but have to admit that the Cowon’s is just better and offers more features, too.
    Both have got a very fine-grained volume control with 0.5 dB per step but the iBasso allows for even more quiet listening levels for extremely sensitive in-ears if needed.

    The iBasso has got audibly more hiss with sensitive in-ears whereas the Cowon is almost completely quiet. Both have got a low output impedance that is ideal for the vast majority of multi-driver in-ears but with ca. 0.2 Ohms, the iBasso’s is even lower wherefore it can also drive divas such as the SE846 with zero frequency deviation.
    The DX80 is the somewhat warmer and darker sounding player of the two. I cannot really spot a difference in terms of transparency (we are at a level where no real/greater difference should be expected anyway when objectively compared) with the Cowon sounding clearer because of the much lower and almost inexistent noise floor.
    The DX80’s soundstage appears to be somewhat wider and deeper but both are equally well separated.

    iBasso DX90:

    The Plenue M2 appears more premium and better built due to its aluminium unibody.
    The Cowon has got more possible memory due to its greater built-in memory (128 against 8 GB). The iBasso features a coaxial digital output whereas the Cowon’s is optical (which connection is more practical will be up to you – I personally prefer the optical digital signal transmission). The iBasso offers a Line Out whereas the Plenue doesn’t. The iBasso’s output is more powerful but the Cowon’s isn’t weak at all either and more than powerful enough for me.
    The Plenue M2 has got the more advanced user interface with many more options and has got the faster scanning speed. Both are more or less equally responsive but scrolling is somewhat more fluent and faster with the Cowon and the search function is a huge plus.
    Both have got very fine-grained volume control with 0.5 dB per step but the iBasso allows for even more quiet listening levels for extremely sensitive in-ears if needed.

    The iBasso has got even less hiss than the Cowon and is about perfectly quiet (its tiny bit of noise floor is just barely louder than my blood’s stream noise in an extremely quiet room with extremely sensitive in-ears when playing an empty audio file). Both have got a low output impedance that is ideal for the vast majority of multi-driver in-ears but with ca. 0.1 Ohms, the iBasso’s is even lower wherefore it can also even drive divas such as the SE846 with zero frequency deviation.
    The DX90 is slightly more “aggressive”/rawer sounding in the highs, but besides that I cannot spot any difference in terms of timbre. Transparency and clarity are identically ideal to me.
    The iBasso has got the somewhat wider soundstage whereas the Cowon has got more spatial depth in my ears while both are equally precisely separated.

    Luxury & Precision L3 Pro:

    I only used the Audeze, Sennheiser and Ostry for this comparison as the L & P has got the higher output impedance that somewhat affects the sound signature of multi-driver in-ears.

    Both players feature really high build quality but I find the L3 Pro’s design to be more luxurious and premium.
    The Cowon has got more possible memory due to its greater built-in memory (128 against 32 GB) and takes exFAT-formatted cards whereas the L3 Pro only accepts the FAT32 format. The L3 Pro features a coaxial digital output whereas the Cowon’s is optical (which connection is more practical will be up to you – I personally prefer the optical digital signal transmission). The Luxury & Precision also offers a Line Out whereas the Plenue doesn’t which is also true for the additional Balanced headphone output.
    The Plenue M2 has got the much more advanced user interface with many more options while both offer similarly great scanning speed. Both players feature a really responsive navigation and user interface but at the current state, the L3 Pro doesn’t offer what you would normally expect from a touchscreen interface (swipe-scrolling for example). The Cowon’s search function is a huge plus, too.
    The Cowon offers volume steps with constant 0.5 dB per step compared to the logarithmic increment of the L3 Pro. The Cowon allows for the somewhat more quiet listening levels for extremely sensitive in-ears if needed.

    The L3 Pro has got even less hiss than the Cowon and is about perfectly quiet. The Luxury & Precision has got a higher output impedance that is not as ideal for multi-driver in-ears as the Cowon’s.
    When it comes to perceived timbre, the Cowon sounds slightly smoother in comparison, with the L3 Pro being slightly more direct but not harsh/aggressive in the treble.
    Transparency and clarity appear identically great to me. Directly comparing the two with matched volume, the L3 Pro seems to have the slightly softer bass with the Cowon’s being firmer (more arid).
    The Cowon has got the somewhat wider soundstage while both players have got just as much spatial depth to my ears (the L3 Pro’s soundstage appears perfectly round in my ears with the Cowon’s being just slightly oval). Instrument separation and spatial cues are similarly precise from what I perceive.

    Chord Electronics Mojo (“standalone” use):

    The Mojo is a DAC-Amp and needs to be fed by a digital source device (PC, CD player, audio player or anything that outputs a digital signal). I am usually using my Mojo as pure DAC with an additional amplifier for various reasons, but for this comparison I used the Mojo directly.
    When it comes to design, Chord Electronics’ device is more extravagant compared to the more simple and elegant Cowon.
    The Plenue M2 has got the more fine-grained volume control and also allows for a lower lowest possible volume level.
    The Mojo’s output is more powerful but as mentioned more than often enough, I have personally still more than enough headroom left with the Cowon.

    The Mojo has got a little more hiss with extremely sensitive in-ears than the Plenue M2.
    Both have got a low output impedance, however the Mojo’s output impedance response is not 100% linear due to its simple output stage (its Mojo’s output impedance is higher in the treble), so both will show some slight frequency response deviation with extremely critical and diva-like in-ears. By the way, the Mojo’s frequency response shows the characteristic of a slow roll-off filter in the highs when low impedance headphones are connected but turns into a sharp roll-off-like response when a high impedance load is connected.
    Regarding sound/timbre, the Mojo sounds smoother to me and a bit different than many devices in general. Compared to the Cowon, it sounds somewhat smoother and kind of “warmer/richer” to me which I think is mainly because its treble seems to lack any sharp edges and decays really “quickly” which leads to a more “rounded” perception in the highs (personally I wouldn’t mind a little more aggressiveness in the Mojo’s treble and (unfortunately) could also replicate that treble behaviour in a volume-matched and blinded test).
    When directly compared, the Chord Mojo appears to be a bit more transparent sounding – it is definitely no night-and-day difference and not as “eye-opening” as many people describe it, but the somewhat higher transparency is reproducible to some degree when using highly resolving in-ears.
    With in-ears such as my UERM or the SIRIUS, the Mojo just appears to sound somewhat more transparent, especially in the midrange. And while I am personally not always a fan of its treble behaviour/”timbre”, there is just something magical about its presentation wherefore I also didn’t return it within the 30-day period, as it fails some of my personal must-have characteristics for the “perfect” standalone DAC-Amp but comes close(r) to it in a stack with an external amplifier.
    The Mojo’s soundstage appears slightly more compact compared to the Plenue M2’s larger one but both are equally well separated and placed to my ears.


    Conclusion:
     

    Sure, you can already get some audio players that offer streaming, Bluetooth, WiFi and/or interchangeable amplifier modules for the price of the Cowon Plenue M2. However, it is a premium player for those who don’t need those extra features and solely want to concentrate on the music without any distraction. And this is where the Plenue M2 shines – it offers a premium, valuable build quality with a nice, elegant design, has got a large internal memory, physical playback control buttons, an extremely stable and highly advanced firmware and user interface that allows for very easy database browsing (it offers even a search function with a virtual on-screen keyboard which I think is a huge plus), a very fine-grained volume control (0.5 dB per step with 140 steps in total as well as two gain settings), advanced and well working sound manipulation features without any distortion or degradation of the sound quality and of course a clean, transparent, precise and natural sound with a very low noise floor combined with a low output impedance.

    I really have a hard time finding any actual flaws and what I could list is solely the lack of a dedicated Line Out, the lack of the “Album Artist” tag support (which doesn’t matter though because of the excellent search function) and that the Equalizer of the JetEffect doesn’t affect the lowest sub-bass.
  2. twister6
    4.5/5,
    "Jet into the Effects of a sound bliss!"
    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.
     
    Manufacturer website: Cowon, currently available on Amazon on sale for $649 down from $799.

     
    Intro.
     
    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).
     
     
     
     
     

     
    Design.
     
    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.
     
    GUI.
     
    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.
     
     
     
     
     
     
     
     
     
     

     
    Sound analysis.
     
    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.
     

     
    Pair up.
     
    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.
     

     
    Comparison.
     
    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.
     

     
    Conclusion.
     
    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!
    dsrk, EagleWings, iano and 9 others like this.