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Cowon Plenue 2

Rating:
4.83333/5,
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Recent Reviews

  1. Hi-Fi'er
    Cowon Plenue 2
    Written by Hi-Fi'er
    Published Jul 26, 2017
    5.0/5,
    Pros - Soundstage is wide, midrange is forward, details, smooth, never harsh or fatiguing, fast and smooth interface, balanced out, JetEffect, BBE 16 user savable presets, solid build not plastic frame, multi wheel function
    Cons - Same internal capacity as P1, DAC filter is not major effective, resolution same as P1, single MicroSD slot, screen resolution same as P1
    I received the P2 yesterday and immediately compared it to the P1 with Campfire Audio Andromeda. Good news and bad news; depends how you look at it.

    Settings on Both:
    1. DAC filters set on: Slow since P1 does not have Super Slow like P2.
    2. Volume matched; at listened at different levels from 90 to 116 with different music; Pop/Rock/Reggae/Vocals etc.
    3. EQ/BBE/MP Off on both, all DSP turned off.
    4. Single ended (SE) out used.
    5. Set on earphone mode.
    6. P1 owned for 2 years - Well broken in over 400+ hours. P2 fresh out of the box.
    7. P1 Update V 2.20 latest at this time of post.
    8. P2 Update V 1.11 latest at this time of post.

    The Good:
    - The P2 is not a HUGE difference from the P1.
    - P2's major difference is two things, 1. It's soundstage is definitely wider and the midrange is definitely more forward about +2 to +3db more than the P1.
    - You can get the same effect with EQ from the P1 to make the midrange forward sounding like the P2.
    - Highs and lows are very closely sounding, nothing major noticed.
    - Both sound smooth. P2 kind of still sounds like Burr Brown but tad more refined. P2 is musical and never tiring to listen to just like the P1. P2 maybe less analog sounding, maybe tad more realistic.
    - Both act and behave the same loading etc - not surprising and that is good and welcome. Only major difference is the horizontal album browsing is pretty sensitive. Nothing like the P1. P1 was just perfect. The P2 you tilt 20-30 degrees and you are in horizontal album view. Hopefully an update will desensitize that setting. You can turn this off but I like to use it as it shows the album's larger than in any other view and you can quickly scroll thought it to find music.
    - I don't feel like anything major is missing in details.
    - The multi wheel is super handy though. Can be used for quick volume adjustments or switching different EQ presets.
    - The P2 does give and have more ways to control playing music with the multi wheel which is awesome.
    - Maybe the pairing with the Andromeda was not ideal. If you have an IEM that likes below .6 Ohm the P2 on SE is perfect.
    - Plays while charging and NO noise while charging. P1 was the same.
    - The text is larger to read on the EQ settings. I strained to read them on the P1.
    - If you don't like EQ the P2 does sound better mids and width/soundstage.
    - The P2's AKM DAC plays better with the Cowon's DSP and EQ as it does not sound as processed at higher values/settings like the P1. ie: BBE on 10 on the P1 does expand the sound but add sibilance big time as does the MP Enhance.
    - Additional touch settable multi button. Not the wheel but on the screen at the bottom- very handy.
    - The best is that this was all done on SE connection. I will be getting a balanced cable and see if that is where the P2 can set itself apart from the P1 (hopefully).

    The Bad (?):
    - If you have mid forward IEM's or headphones the P2 maybe a touch too thick/forward sounding in the midrange? Some may like this some may not.
    - The DAC filters do not seem to make a HUGE difference as one would think. It's extremely hard to tell the difference if any between Super Slow and Sharp on 24bit FLAC. Maybe a dog or on higher resolution DSD it maybe more noticeable, but didn't test as most of my audio are CD rips.
    - It would of been nice if the DAC filters had a more pronounced effect at different bitrates you can select?
    - The screen resolution on the P2 is the same as the P1.
    - If you like EQ you can make the P1 sound like the P2 midrange wise, but will need the DSP effects to get the same soundstage/width and it may sound too artificial and or processed.
    - Maybe the pairing with the Andromeda was not ideal as on SE as the .6 Ohm is too low? The Andromeda is known to like and prefer 1 Ohm. If you have an IEM that likes below .6 Ohm the P2 on SE is perfect.

    I will report more once I get the balanced cable for my Andromeda. Should you buy the P2 if you have the P1? If you are new to Cowon the P2 is a great place to start, money no object. It's not a blow your socks off difference though hence four stars. It's subtle and for many I would recommend better IEM's if you already have a P1, money better invested and more gained I feel. If you don't have a P1 then getting one that is cheaper now, is a bargain. If you like the latest and greatest and money is no issue and you like more controls and features, a larger sound stage and mid forward, the P2 is great. Will I keep it? Yes.

    Update: 8/2/2017 Great News!

    I can't tell which is the culprit but in using the combination of the balanced out on the P2 and the balanced Litz with the Andromeda it's a match made in heaven. I can't fathom audio sounding more full and realistic and 3-D like. Vocals are less harsh and fell like at times their positions are nose to nose with you and they are singing directly at you. Creepy and amazing at the same time. Instruments and musical artifacts and special effects are all detectable and can be pinpointed in their location in this imaginary field. Sibilance (if and when present due to the track recording not the P2) is not as prevalent and less harsh and a bit smother. Even poorly recorded songs have a new "sound" to them making them sound more realistic and forward and less harsh. I'm not sure which is contributing more to all this, the Cowon P2 using balanced mode or the Andromeda with a balanced cable but both play extremely well together and now all songs have a new life and effect to them.

    All genre of music is now much more full and wide(r) and way much more addictive and realistic to listen to. I never thought balanced makes THAT much of a difference but apparently is does and it's a pretty drastic effect. It's almost like having a new audio tuning function of a setting like Width/BBE of 1 to 20 and it's set on 15.

    Case: If you need a case to put your DAP in BIRUGEAR are perfect and just right. They are available on Amazon:

    https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B006WK8P3G/ref=s9_dcacsd_dcoop_bw_c_x_2_w

    There are different variations/colors but if you stay with the same internal dimensions, these cases fit the Cowon P2 and even the P1 perfectly.

    Update: 8/10/2017 Better News!

    The P2 with more usage 5 hours last night overall 10 hours so far; I find it's extracting more and more out of music that I've owned for years. It's ability to separate, present, and layer instruments and people's voices and artifacts keeps getting better and better. The most amazing is how it extracts artifacts that were always there but masked and the takes that one further and layers and positions it in such a way that it sound so very realistic in making these items very distinguishable in left or right positions and very detailed in that position.

    The major difference after usage/break in between the P1 and P2 is separation/layering/detail/width.

    I can see now why Cowon abandoned the Burr Brown DAC and went with AK's.
  2. twister6
    Change is in the air!
    Written by twister6
    Published Jun 8, 2017
    5.0/5,
    Pros - JetEffect 7, solid build quality, responsive touch-screen, neutral revealing tuning, customizable GUI (skins), leather case.
    Cons - second control wheel looks cool but not very practical.


    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.



    Intro.

    Not sure if I’m qualified to talk about Plenue 2 (P2) "change" since I never actually listened to the original Plenue 1 (P1), but I heard plenty about it and had many requests to compare P1 to other DAPs I reviewed, especially after my review of Plenue M2 (PM2). I noticed how many other people describe P1 as being smooth and organic, without lacking details or resolution. That’s how I painted P1 in my mind after reading reviews and impressions from reliable sources. Thus, when I received and started listening to P2, I expected to hear a similar sound inside of an updated chassis, just like in a recent refresh of the mid-fi PM2 or the latest releases of an entry level Plenue D (PD) and a flagship Plenue S (PS). But instead of a re-scaled exterior design featured in PD, PM2, and PS, the new P2 surprised everyone with the latest AKM AK4497EQ DAC and the all new design featuring dual wheels, one dedicated to a volume adjustment and the other one customizable with different functions.

    As I mentioned in my PM2 review, Cowon has been in business since 1995, and to have this level of longevity, especially in today's competitive market, you need to put high emphasis on everything from sound quality, to design ergonomics, and the user interface. And that's exactly what Plenue line of Cowon DAPs are known for, and the reason why they continue to stay relevant. Well, that and their JefEffect which never seizes to amaze me with its natural sound quality for dsp effects. I don't want to get ahead of myself, so let's proceed to my review of the Cowon latest Plenue release.

    Unboxing.

    When it comes to the unboxing, Cowon takes a lot of pride in presentation of the product like it's a crown jewelry. The all black formal dressed box, which looks and opens like a jewelry box, even arrived with a ribbon surrounding it. When you lift the cover up, you see P2 in a secure form fitted cutout which can be lifted like a tray to find a gorgeous leather case underneath of it.

    I do enjoy unboxing experience, though in many cases there is not much of a surprise element. Here, even after seeing many pictures of P2, I was still looking forward to take a closer look at its dual wheel design, and found the look to be quite impressive.

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    Accessories.


    Cowon usually doesn't spoil us with too many accessories, but the one you get are top quality. You get a warranty and a manual printed on a premium paper, and if you want you can always download a detailed manual in many different languages directly from their website. The provided microUSB cable, used for charging, data transfer, and usb dac connection, is also high quality. But the star of the accessories here is the included leather case.

    The new case is gorgeous, with deep burgundy rich color and high quality cowhide leather. It fits the DAP like a glove, doesn't easily slide out, and doesn’t hide the beauty of P2 design. Personally, I do prefer cut outs around HW playback buttons, but I was informed by Cowon they received several customer requests asking to cover the buttons to protect from accumulation of dust. In this new P2 case, the buttons are covered with a thinner and softer leather which is easy to press. Furthermore, to make sure no dust gets inside, the case also covers the microSD card slot. The microUSB port and both headphone ports at the bottom have a generous opening, and the top of the case is fully open as well.

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    Leather case.

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    Design.

    P2 feels very solid and comfortable in my hand, has a sturdy gunmetal aluminum chassis, carbon fiber glass back panel, and a front touch screen with an assignable home button at the bottom (like in other Plenue models). The footprint of the DAP is very compact, measuring 68mm x 116.7mm x 16.5mm and only 193g in weight. It is shorter than PM2, and with an exception of LPG, also smaller than majority of my other flagship DAPs. The only drawback here if you use headphones with a straight connector plug and like to keep your DAP in the pocket, P2 should be placed with wheels facing down, making volume adjustment not very comfortable in your pocket. If you have right angle cable connector or L-shaped adapter, you can place P2 in your pocket with wheels facing up.

    Upon closer examination of P2, you will find on the left side at the top a power button and below it hw transport buttons (Play/Pause in the middle and Next/Prev above and below it) – all round metal buttons with a nice tactile response when you press them. Also, on the left side at the bottom you have microSD slot which can accommodate 256GB card, in addition to 128GB of internal storage. At the bottom, you have micro-USB connector for charging, data transfer, and USB DAC connection, and 2.5mm balanced and 3.5mm unbalanced (combined with optical digital out) HO ports, reinforced with gold plating around it. At the top in the upper right corner you have 2 identical wheels with a soft click action as you turn it. While some other manufacturers implement a bar guard over the top or around the sides of their volume wheel, here Cowon used a different approach with a sort of a bridge bar guard protecting only the bottom part of the wheels.

    Around the base of the wheels under the guard, you have a white led surrounding the volume wheel and a red led surrounding the multi-function wheel. Both LEDs could be disabled, but when enabled you either see a white led pulsating when screen is off or white/red LEDs lit up when corresponding wheel is being turned. Also, red LED lit up during charging. As I mentioned before, even so both wheels turn with a controlled click action, they do feel a bit loose to enable easy operation with one finger.

    cowon_p2-11.jpg cowon_p2-12.jpg cowon_p2-13.jpg cowon_p2-14.jpg cowon_p2-15.jpg cowon_p2-16.jpg cowon_p2-17.jpg cowon_p2-18.jpg cowon_p2-42.jpg

    Under the hood.

    Stepping away from Burr-Brown PCM series DACs, where in the past PCM1792A was used in P1/PS and PCM1795 was used in PM/PM2, the new P2 design now features AKM DAC where Cowon leapfrogged over other DAP manufacturers who still use AK4490 and introduced the latest AK4497EQ. Also, like in other Plenue DAPs, you have a low jitter dual clock precision TXCO oscillator. And in the heart of the DAP you still have ARM Cortex A9 1.2GHz dual-core processor since we are not running a demanding environment requiring high level of processing power. But you still have plenty of power to easily decode and process any lossless or lossy audio formats, such as DXD, DSD (DFF, DSF), FLAC, WAV, AIFF, ALAC, APE, MP3, WMA, OGG, WV, TTA, and DCF. Just keep in mind, it only supports up to DSD128.

    Display has 3.7" AMOLED touch screen with 480x800 resolution and deep rich colors. As I mentioned before, P2 has 128GB of built-in memory and microSD card expansion to add up to 256GB. In addition to 3.5mm single ended HO which doubles as optical digital output, P2 also adds 2.5mm balanced HO. Per spec, each port is rated at 2Vrms with output impedance of 0.6 ohm (3.5mm) and 1.2 ohm (2.5mm). On a paper, they should sound close and for majority of today’s multi-BA iems, 0.6ohm vs 1.2ohm output impedance shouldn't make a big difference in sound. I will cover more about it in sound analysis section of the review.

    The rechargeable battery is a nicely sized 3,050 mAh li-po @ 3.7V which you can charge in under 4hrs using 5V/2A charger. In my testing with occasional screen on, I found hi-res file playback to be 8hrs and 40min, while mp3 file playback was around 9hrs and 20min. This is a typical average battery performance, not exactly stellar but still good for a touch screen DAP.

    Of course, the biggest difference here is a new DAC as well as the volume and the multi-function wheels. I like being able to use the wheel to adjust the volume, and as you start turning it, the touch screen also gives you an option to swipe volume up/down. With multi-function wheel, it’s a great idea to be able to assign different functions, but for now the only one that makes sense to me is using it as a 2nd volume control knob which has a coarse tuning – faster volume change using 2 steps at a time vs regular volume wheel being one step at a time. There are other functions you can assign to this wheel, like for example DAC filter roll-off, JefEffect selection, PREV/NEXT, REW/FF, and Brightness, but I found those to be less practical.

    Also, as part of AKM DAC architecture, now you have access to 6 filters (short delay sharp - acoustic sound, short delay slow - acoustic tone, sharp - traditional sound, slow - traditional tone, low dispersion short delay - harmonic sound, and super slow - natural tone), which can also be assigned under multi-function wheel to be switched on the fly. I do need to spend more time analyzing every filter, but so far, the changes are subtle to my ears. Usually with AKM DACs I prefer a sharp roll off to have a crisper sound, though sometimes switching to “slow” can smooth things out while taking the edge of a digital tonality.

    GUI.

    One thing you can find in common with many Plenue DAPs is the graphic user interface which doesn't vary too much between Cowon models. I guess it's one of the advantages of the closed OS where you can keep consistency in interface between different models and put more focus into the actual sound tuning and exterior design. Of course, there will be variations driven by features of a newly introduced DAC or the additional functionality due to a second control wheel, but overall the interface is very similar to PM2, thus a reason I was able to re-use parts of that review here.

    Before getting into the User Interface, let me first bring up 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, for example, the analog needle of level meter display wasn’t choppy and looked pretty convincing. P2 AMOLED display 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, P2 got it right!

    When you turn the power on (boot up was 7sec, though I only have 20GB of songs loaded), the DAP starts in the main playback screen where you will find 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), "B" indicator when balanced HO is connected, 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. I know, it sounds like a lot, but everything is very intuitive and easy to figure out without a need for a manual.

    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 a choice to play a Single track or tracks from a current Folder or to play All tracks. Below it is a playback control Play/Pause and Next/Prev touch buttons to skip or forward through the track. Also, you have a scrub bar to fast forward/back through the track 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 6 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 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 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 a DAC filter roll-off where you have a choice of Short delay sharp, Short delay slow, Sharp, Slow, Low dispersion short delay, and Super slow. Display setting has a selection of Language, Brightness, and a number of User Presets (from 4 to 16), and option to show the song change. 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, settings, or volume), button lock, lock screen (on/off), Multi wheel, L/R Balance, LED (on/off), USB mode (MSC or MSC/DAC), database update, loading defaults, formatting internal memory, and Info. As I mentioned already, there are 6 functions you can assign to multi-wheel, but the only one that made sense to me was Volume (at double step adjustment).

    In my opinion, JetEffect 7 DSP effects is the crown jewel of Plenue DAPs. 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 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 music 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, aside from PM2 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, though I have to admit that I enjoyed P2 sound enough to keep JetEffect off versus PM2 where in some pair-ups it was a necessity. I know that audiophile purists might not like the idea of DSP effects, 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.

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    Sound Analysis.

    As I already mentioned, I didn’t hear the original P1 and only familiar with PM2, but based on everything I have read about the original P1, my experience with PM2, and many listening hours I spent with P2 (after 150hrs of burn in), I can draw a conclusion that Cowon decided to take advantage of the new AKM AK4497EQ DAC and move to a more neutral revealing signature with a natural reference quality tonality. And I don't mean "reference" as in thinner, harsher, or analytical, but rather a more revealing sound which can reach a micro-detail level when it comes to retrieval of details.

    In my opinion, the ideal signature of any DAP is to be as neutral as possible so you can evaluate and enjoy the true sound signature of your headphones without additional coloring of the sound. But nothing is perfect, and you have variations of sound being skewed either toward the more revealing or smoother/warmer side of neutral. To my ears, P2 has a tonality which keeps the balance between these two worlds. Also, it has a very impressive technical performance with a sound being layered, transparent, and resolving. The sound is dynamically expanded, doesn’t feel compressed at all, and has a fast-transient response of the notes, and black background, especially when you compare SE (3.5mm) to BAL (2.5mm) HO where I hear a little improvement with higher res files. And it also nicely expanded in terms of the soundstage where the width and the height are only limited by the tuning of your headphones/earphones.

    In a few discussions with the original P1 owners who asked me about the sound of P2, I sensed a bit of a disappointment from some who had expectations of a warmer, thicker, musical type of sound they got used to with the original line up of Plenue DAPs. I guess everybody has a different sound preference, but in my opinion the P2 is a very noticeable upgrade from PM2 which I’m quite familiar with, where PM2 is smoother, warmer, not as layered and not as revealing. If you don’t take JetEffect into consideration, PM2 would make a great pair up with a more revealing or neutral IEMs, but P2 neutral-revealing signature is more versatile to pair up with headphones/earphone of any sound signature and without a need for JetEffect.

    That’s a reason why lately P2 became my go-to DAP (and I’m aware I said that in the past about other daps) where I don’t have to think if I’m using balanced or single ended cable, or to worry if IEMs needs more driving power due to lower sensitivity, or to worry about hissing due to high sensitivity or low impedance. As a matter of fact, the hissing level when paired up with Zeus XRA is very mild - impressive, considering I usually keep P2 in high gain (headphone setting). The dynamic volume range of high gain covers everything I currently have, from sensitive IEMs to more demanding planar magnetics and high impedance open back full size cans.

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    Pair up.

    In my pair up test I had P2 set in high (headphone) gain, and noted volume level in every case.

    UERR (v73) - nicely expanded (soundstage) neutral detailed sound with a natural revealing tonality; the signature is very well balanced with a neutral extended bass (nice rumble), layered detailed mids with a plenty of revealing details, and a crisp well defined treble.

    VEGA (v56) - expanded soundstage, warm upfront sound with w-shaped signature where I hear emphasis in all 3 bands, yet it's not exactly balanced but w-shaped. Powerful, fast, well controlled bass, organic revealing mids, and a crisp airy treble.

    Xelento (v59) - very nicely expanded soundstage, balanced detailed signature with a natural tonality, deep sub-bass rumble with a fast, punchy articulate mid-bass, layered revealing mids with a natural detailed tonality, and well defined crisp airy treble.

    W80 (v54) - nicely expanded soundstage, balanced signature with a natural detailed tonality, nicely extended sub-bass rumble perfectly balanced with a moderate-speed mid-bass, smooth organic mids with a nice retrieval of details, well defined moderately crisp treble with a little bit of airiness.

    Zeus XRA (v49) - very nicely expanded soundstage, balanced revealing signature with a slightly bright tonality, great sub-bass extension and punchy mid-bass, layered revealing mids, slightly forward in presentation with a brighter tonality, crisp airy treble with plenty of sparkle, a touch of sibilance. Very mild hissing!

    Zen earbuds (v100) - expanded soundstage, natural organic tonality with a nicely balanced signature, neutral extended bass with a nice mid-bass punch, natural smooth detailed mids, well defined crisp treble with a natural sense of airiness.

    W900 (v65) - expanded soundstage, balanced smooth signature with a natural detailed tonality, deep extended sub-bass rumble and fast mid-bass punch, full body natural mids with a great retrieval of details, and well defined crisp extended treble.

    U18 (v60) - very nicely expanded soundstage, natural revealing tonality with a perfectly balanced signature, great bass extension with a layered sub-bass rumble and fast articulate mid-bass punch, neutral revealing layered mids with a natural detailed tonality, well defined crisp treble with plenty of airiness and well controlled sparkle.

    T5p2 (v82) - nicely expanded soundstage, natural smooth tonality with a balanced signature through leaning a little more toward v-shaped due to mids being pushed a little back, warm extended bass with a slower mid-bass punch, spilling a little into full body lower-mids, organic natural upper mids, a bit nasal vocals, and a well-defined crisp treble.

    EL8C (v98) - expanded soundstage, revealing balanced signature with a brighter more analytical tonality, neutral extended bass, lean lower mids and analytical revealing upper mids that has a little metallic sheen but no sibilance, treble is very crisp and airy, a bit too much sparkle.

    PM-3 (v87) - nicely expanded soundstage, smooth balanced signature with a warmer tonality, good low end extension with a nice mid-bass punch, full body clear detailed organic mids (a bit too smooth), well defined crisp treble.

    R70x (v107) - very nicely expanded soundstage, smooth balanced signature with a natural warm tonality, extended neutral low end with a nice sub-bass rumble and good mid-bass punch, neutral organic mids with great retrieval of details, and well defined extended treble with a natural sense of airiness.

    cowon_p2-43.jpg

    Comparison.

    In this comparison, I used multiple pairs of IEMs (U18, Zeus XRA, W900, and UERR), volume matched, in order to have a more accurate comparison without a bias of one specific headphone tuning.

    P2 vs LPG - soundstage is very similar, though between 3.5mm ports LPG is a little wider, while P2 balanced matches it perfectly. Tonality is nearly identical, very similar transparency as well, though LPG has a touch better layering and maybe a bit stronger mid-bass. But overall these are very similar, and if you add to the equation touch screen and JetEffect, P2 has an upper hand in this comparison.

    P2 vs Opus#2 - a very similar soundstage expansion and a similar tonality, though #2 is a touch smoother in comparison. Both have an excellent dynamic sound, with a good layering and separation. Maybe #2 has a little more transparency, but P2 comes very close. The only thing I noticed that P2 has a slightly faster and tighter mid-bass which in case of #2 is a bit more relaxed in comparison.

    P2 vs DX200 w/AMP2 - soundstage is very similar, and with AMP2 now DX200 doesn't sound as reference which gets it closer to the tonality of P2. DX200 is still a little bit brighter and has a bit crisper upper frequencies, while in comparison P2 has a touch more body and a bit smoother. But other than that, they have a similar bass impact, neutral revealing mids, and crisp well defined treble. DX200 w/AMP1 had a more reference, closer to analytical sound, while AMP2 brings it closer to P2 performance.

    P2 vs X7 w/AM3 - soundstage has a lot of similarities. P2 tonality has a little fuller body in comparison to a slightly thinner sound of X7, where P2 is actually a little more musical. Both have a similar sound transparency and dynamics, while X7 has a touch better layering of the sound due to more airiness between the layers.

    P2 vs AK120ii - P2 soundstage is a little wider, and in comparison, P2 sound is more dynamic, with better layering and separation, and a little more revealing tonality, while AK is smoother and sounds less dynamic and has not as clear layering and separation between layers of sounds in comparison to P2.

    Next to PM2.

    cowon_p2-44.jpg


    DX200, Opus#2, P2, LPG.


    cowon_p2-45.jpg cowon_p2-46.jpg

    Other connections.

    USB DAC.

    I'm not a big fan of using a dedicated DAP as USB DAC because I usually look at a DAP as a portable standalone source. If you are not happy with an audio output of your computer, there are plenty of dedicated USB DAC choices. But in some cases, when you are traveling and don’t want to bring multiple pieces of equipment, using DAP as USB DAC has its advantage.

    Here I found P2 to pair up flawlessly with my laptop, and improved a sound quality of my aging T430s Thinkpad. The drivers were installed automatically, no need for a manual installation of any 3rd party files. One very useful feature is when you connect P2 to your computer, when connection is detected you have 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 I was able to adjust the volume from P2. The only negative here, DSP effects are disabled when in USB DAC mode. When connected, red led light indicated that P2 was charging while being used as USB DAC.

    cowon_p2-48.jpg

    Optical Out.

    P2 vs P2 + Micro iDSD (optical) w/T5p2 - a great pair up where you get just a little more transparency with Micro iDSD, but otherwise a very similar sound. It's a great option to be able to use P2 as a digital touch screen transport to drive external DAC/amp supporting optical input since P2 3.5mm HO port is shared with optical digital output. In my previous tests, I always found optical link to be superior in sound quality to electrical coax cable.

    cowon_p2-40.jpg cowon_p2-41.jpg

    Line out.

    Plenue DAPs don't have a dedicated Line Out port, and instead they suggest to set volume to the max in high gain where the HO acts as LO. I tried that and to my surprise found no distortion when paired up with E12A external portable amp. As a matter of fact, P2 vs P2 + E12A w/T5p2 was a great pair up, actually with a very similar sound, maybe having a touch more neutral transparency which indicates to me that P2 internal head-amp doesn't color sound too much.

    cowon_p2-39.jpg

    Conclusion.

    When I started to write P2 impressions, my original intention was to post a few lines and pictures describing some initial thoughts about Plenue 2 DAP. As I started to type, it became a mini review where a few lines turned into a few paragraphs, and then a few pages which I published a couple of months ago. In there I mentioned that I do need to spend more time listening and testing P2, but “can tell you with certainty that my final opinion will not change too far from my initial impression which is very positive.” Now, with a full review finished, I can honestly say that I’m still very impressed with this new Plenue DAP. From my experience, earphones/headphones have more longevity when it comes to being considered as "favorite", while due to a frequency of new releases, DAPs often become a flavor of the month. But I have been using P2 for a few months already and still can’t put it down, though I do have to admit I prefer it more with IEMs rather than more demanding full size headphones.

    I use a handful of DAPs in my daily rotation, each one with some unique sound signature suited for different IEMs. To my ears P2 almost combines the best of them into one very compact design. I really like the sound signature of P2, the design ergonomics, the performance of the new DAC, and the addition of balanced output which has a rather subtle improvement with a bonus of me being able to use balanced cables without an adaptor. Plus, you still have access to JetEffect which I find to sound very natural. Furthermore, it has a great touch screen interface with a customizable GUI, can be used as USB DAC, and turns into a digital transport with optical output. I do like a wheel-driven volume control and find the second multi-function wheel to be an interesting concept, though for now I don't find it as practical. And of course, like other Plenue DAPs, you shouldn't expect wifi or BT wireless connections - this is a pure audio player. Having the focus on audio performance is great, but I’m still hoping that one day Cowon will surprise us with Android based dap and wifi streaming.
      buonassi, JNOISE JA, Arghavan and 2 others like this.
  3. HiFiChris
    High Elegance paired with Superb Sonic Performance
    Written by HiFiChris
    Published May 22, 2017
    4.5/5,
    Pros - excellent hiss performance with super sensitive IEMs, low output impedance, great build and design, smooth & spacious sound
    Cons - no dual-mono implementation of the balanced output, DSD junkies might want a bit more than one micro SD slot
    Preamble:

    I originally posted this review on my audio & review site with mixed German and English content, kopfhoerer-lounge.blogspot.com.


    Introduction:

    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 any sub-bass roll-off with all headphones regardless of impedance, along with a clean, cap-free internal signal path.

    [​IMG]

    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 I also briefly previewed in German) 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 an excellent audio player for its price and size.

    Also not too long ago, I also got the chance to review Cowon’s Plenue M2 audioplayer that I really liked, too.


    [​IMG]

    Moving on, Cowon have now released a new audio player that replaces their Plenue 1, logically calling it “Plenue 2” (http://www.cowonglobal.com/product_wide/PLENUE2/product_page_1.php). It doesn’t only feature a totally new, updated and more luxurious design, but also a different DAC chip that, for the first time for Cowon, is coming from AKM instead of Burr Brown and allows for native DSD playback. And of course Cowon’s well-known and powerful “JetEffect” DSP and EQ software is not missing on the player either and should guarantee lots of fun and easy adjustments in case you want to use it.

    Does this sound interesting? I think it definitely does. To see how the Plenue 2 performs, how it compares to other devices and what I think of it, I invite you to follow me through this review that I have written for Cowon’s most recent member of the Plenue family.


    Full disclosure:

    I was provided with a free sample of the Cowon Pleunue 2 for the purpose of an honest, unbiased test and review without any restrictions or requirements. I was told that I can keep the unit for personal use as well as for future reference and comparisons. Before I go on with my review, I would like to take the time to thank Cowon and especially Hailey who organised and arranged everything, and was also open to my questions and suggestions.


    Technical Specifications:

    MSRP: €1220/£1100/$1290

    [​IMG]

    (Image source: http://www.cowonglobal.com/product_wide/PLENUE2/product_page_4.php)


    Unboxing and Delivery Content:

    While the major looks of the Plenue 2’s package are quite similar to Cowon’s lower-priced audio players such as the Plenue M2 or Plenue D, it is still different and has got a somewhat more luxurious feel to it, since after removing the silver “Plenue” sleeve, the lid can be flipped open and will be secured in a 90°+ position by a strap – something that strongly reminds me of the storage box of my Sennheiser HD 800 that operates in a quite similar manner.

    [​IMG][​IMG]


    Inside, surrounded and cushioned by soft, black, carpet-like materials, one can find the player, a manual, an already installed micro SD card dummy that protects the slot from dust when no card is inserted, a micro USB cable for charging and data transfer as well as soft leather case.

    [​IMG][​IMG]


    Design, Haptics & Build Quality:

    I would describe the Plenue 2’s visual appearance as “elegant but modern” – it features a traditional basic form factor and layout of the screen and buttons, but has also got some angles that make it visually less monotone. Those lines and angles are however not overdone and will therefore be, in my opinion, visually appealing to many people (myself included).

    [​IMG]

    The upper part of the player houses two digital, rotary potentiometers that are halfway protected by a bridge and visually somewhat remind me of the microphone heads of a portable audio recorder – which I personally really like. They also somewhat resemble the looks of vintage stereo receiver’s potentiometers with their fine scaling around the knobs.

    [​IMG]

    The player’s left side features four buttons – three for the playback control and one to turn the player or screen on respectively off – as well as one micro SD slot.

    [​IMG]

    On the bottom, one can find the micro USB socket for data transfer, charging as well as using the Plenue 2 as a USB DAC, along with two slightly recessed headphone output sockets with a golden surrounding. The left socket is a 2.5 mm TRRS socket to connect headphones with a balanced cable termination to the player, while the right one shares the regular, unbalanced 3.5 mm TRS headphone output with an optical output that is automatically activated once a matching cable is plugged in.

    [​IMG]

    The player’s back looks especially nice and is another visual highlight for me next the two rotary potentiometers – it is made of glass that is carved, featuring many small micro-grooves that are aligned in a specific pattern, and therefore reflects the light differently depending on where it is coming from, which looks very nice.

    [​IMG]

    On the front, we can find a nice touchscreen with a touch button underneath that can be programmed to take the user back to either the playing screen, settings, music library or to open an on-screen volume slider.

    [​IMG]

    While it is not much of a surprise in its price class, the player’s body is made of a single large block of CNC-machined aluminium.

    As it could also be expected for the price, the Plenue 2’s build quality is very good and conveys a very premium feeling.

    [​IMG]

    While the player isn’t really small or compact, it is a little shorter than many of its competitors, wherefore it can be operated well with just one hand. Due to its angled back side edges, it also feels quite ergonomic and very secure in one’s hand.


    The Leather Case:

    Compared to less expensive models in Cowon’s audio player range, the Plenue 2 already comes with a leather case straight from the factory instead of an additional accessory (still there is no screen protector on the player though).

    [​IMG][​IMG]

    It has got a dark colour that is somewhere in-between dark brown, aubergine and red. It is made of a single piece of leather that is folded and stitched together with red thread.

    The case has got a smooth, soft surface and fits the player perfectly, just like a glove. Its front has got enough space to the sides so that the screen can be still easily operated on the far left and right; and what is really nice as well is that the cut-outs for the headphone sockets and micro USB port are oval which looks definitely much nicer than if they were rectangular. Another nice detail is also that the LEDs of the two rotary pots can still be seen through a gap that was intentionally left on the case’s front.

    [​IMG][​IMG]

    The only negative thing I could say about the leather case is that the playback control buttons become somewhat less well tactile inside the case compared to without it, even though the symbols are embossed to the case, wherefore it really happened more than just once that I skipped a track instead of pausing or resuming it.

    [​IMG]


    The Screen:


    The Plenue M2’s AMOLED touchscreen measures 3.7 inches with a resolution of 480 x 800 pixels. This resolution is good and guarantees for crisp images and is more than sufficient for an audio player (a couple years ago this resolution was only found in some top-of-the-line smartphones), nonetheless the individual pixels can still be seen compared to a retina screen where they are almost invisible.

    The viewing angle is excellent and colours seem to be reproduced quite correctly with a properly set white point. The only thing that I would criticise is that the colour saturation is a bit too high for my preference and for what would be neutral.

    Inputs are recognised immediately, which also goes for the circular touch sensor button below the screen.


    The two rotary Potentiometers:

    It is the first time that I have seen an audio player that has got two rotary potentiometers instead of just one. Both pots can be illuminated when being rotated, however this feature can also be turned off in the settings.

    The right potentiometer is illuminated in white, whereas the left potentiometer’s LED is red. What’s really nice is that they also act as charging indicator – during the charging process, the red LED will be shining, while the white one can be seen once the charging process is complete.

    [​IMG]

    The right potentiometer, quite classically, digitally adjusts the Plenue 2’s volume in 140 steps with a scaling of 0.5 dB over the entire adjustment range, which is something I really appreciate since this also means that there are no sudden jumps and that no matter if being in the lower or higher range, one can always find a comfortable listening level without having the desire of one or two additional steps between two volume positions as it would be the case with audio players that have got a less fine scaling of the volume control in the lower ranges.

    The only thing that I would sometimes personally really like to see, as someone who usually listens at very low levels, is a somewhat lower lowest possible volume setting (or additional gain mode for extremely sensitive in-ears) when listening with very sensitive in-ears. This could be either achieved by adding more volume steps (preferably 256 in total), or as I said with an additional third gain setting for super sensitive in-ears. I am definitely more the exception than the norm in this regard though, so this is likely nothing for you to worry about unless you sometimes like to listen to music with very sensitive in-ears just slightly above the audible threshold.

    There are two gain settings in total and once the potentiometer has been rotated when the screen is on (or once the sensor button has been pressed if it is programmed to “volume control”), an overlay appears on the screen and the user can drag their fingers across the screen to change the volume as well.

    [​IMG]

    The second, left potentiometer can be programmed to do different things – in the settings, you can choose whether it should switch between the 6 digital filters, JetEffect pre-sets, change tracks, wind the currently playing track, adjust the screen’s brightness or change the volume with a scaling of 1 dB (which equals two increments per step).

    While this second potentiometer looks visually really nice, as does its red illumination, I personally don’t really see myself regarding it as a real advantage – I don’t change the digital filters (much) at all, prefer the buttons to change and wind tracks, don’t really change the brightness either and also think that the JetEffect settings are better adjustable in the menu, especially with the configurable pre-sets. Therefore I have set it to control the volume and only find it handy if I want to adjust it twice as fast compared to the regular volume pot, for example when switching from sensitive in-ears to less sensitive full-sized headphones. This is the only scenario where it adds a slight advantage in comfort – at least for me.

    [​IMG]

    The potentiometers are of course made of aluminium as well and feature small grooves so that they can be rotated better. Rotating them is quite easy since their friction is neither too high nor too loose.


    Operation, User Interface:

    If you are familiar with Cowon’s more recent audio players, there won’t be anything unexpected in the Plenue 2’s customised Linux operating system’s interface.

    Firmware Version 1.10:

    The UI is divided into three main sections – the music library, the music playback screen and the settings. Everything is also nicely explained in the manual that can be found on the player’s internal memory.

    On the main playing screen (theme A), the album cover art takes up the most space and sits right in

    [​IMG]

    the centre. In the upper section is the status bar with information about the set playback (order, shuffle etc.), the EQ pre-set, time, gain information (in-ear or headphone mode), volume information and battery status.

    Directly below, there are virtual buttons to get to the music library or to access the quick settings overlay that lets you choose from 6 different player themes (“skins”) with up to two digital VU meters per theme, quickly change the gain mode, change the skip and seek settings, control the playback order, get to the advanced settings, access your favourites, lock the automatic screen rotation, change between the JetEffect pre-sets or play a specific part of the song in a loop.

    Below is the seek/progress bar with a track counter, track information, virtual playback control buttons and last but not least three other symbols to change the playback order and shuffle/repeat settings.

    [​IMG][​IMG]

    [​IMG][​IMG]

    [​IMG][​IMG]

    Clicking on the album cover, you get to a different screen that displays the album cover art in a larger scale and shows some more advanced track information.

    Clicking the small orange arrow, one can see the entire track information.

    Swiping to the left and right on the playing screen also skips songs in addition to the virtual and physical playback control buttons.

    [​IMG]

    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. This feature can also be disabled.

    - - -

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

    While the player has got “only” one micro SD card slot, which is a little sad because two would have been better given the price range and native DSD playback capability, it has got 128 GB of built-in memory, which at least somewhat makes up for the lack of a second micro SD card slot.

    [​IMG][​IMG]

    In library view, there are 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 2 can also read cue-sheets as well as two-channel SACD ISOs) and last but not least the most recently added songs.

    Like the vast majority of audio players, the Plenue 2 doesn’t read the “Album Artist” tag but builds the library based on the “Artist” tag, however this is no issue at all since the folder browser is very good and since there is a very handy icon in the upper left corner that allows you to quickly create and manage playlists, next to a search feature with a pop-up on-screen keyboard that searches all folders as well as the database for matches, wherefore the lack of an “Album Artist” sorting won’t bother anyone who needs this feature since it can be replaced by using the search feature that is much more advanced and quicker to use to find an album or artist in a long list anyway.

    [​IMG]

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

    - - -

    When on the main playing screen, tapping the icon in the upper right corner opens the quick settings overlay that I already described earlier.

    [​IMG]

    Tapping the wrench symbol, the main settings that for example let you choose your preferred menu language, change the digital filters, set the time, adjust the automatic power-off and display off, deactivate the LEDs, set a button lock, activate the USB DAC mode or change the channel balance open up.

    The Plenue 2 really does have a good and intuitive user interface and firmware with many options and customisation features, along with a really good music library with an extremely handy search feature as well as the ability to create and manage playlists directly on the player.

    The user interface also feels mature, complete and bug-free right from the beginning and there is pretty much nothing for me left to be desired, UI-wise.

    [​IMG]


    Performance:

    Booting the player takes about 11 seconds.

    Inserting a large micro SD card, the Plenue 2 will of course perform a database update, which however only takes very little time.

    [​IMG]

    The Plenue 2 is using a 1.2 GHz dual-core CPU that is more than sufficient for playing audio and navigating through the menus without any delays or lags. Touch inputs are recognised almost instantly and using the search feature leads to results right after the virtual “enter” button has been pressed.


    Battery Life:

    To test the battery life, I connected the cheap Superlux HD668B headphone to the Plenue 2’s single-ended (3.5 mm) headphone output and played a mix of 50% CD format files (FLAC, 16 bit, 44.1 kHz) and 50% Hi-Res files (FLAC, 24 bit, 192 kHz) from the micro SD card. Occasionally, I unlocked the screen and navigated through the menus.

    Under this scenario, having the volume set to 70 out of 140 (low gain mode), the player’s battery lasted for around 9 hours and 25 minutes.


    Sound:

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

    Frequency Response, Output Impedance:

    One of the most basic and fundamental things an audio player should have is a flat unloaded frequency response in the important range of 20 to 20000 Hz. While it is anything but sorcery to achieve this in modern days, some (however mainly inexpensive and rather no-name) audio players still fail to achieve this very basic thing.

    Let’s see how the Plenue 2 performs in this regard (measured with Digital Filter #1 through the single-ended output):

    [​IMG]

    As it could be expected, the raw and unloaded frequency response is flat and therefore just exactly the way it should be.

    - - -

    Even when having a flat frequency response without load or with a simple load (such as a headphone that has got the same impedance over its entire frequency response), things are getting quite a bit more difficult with most multi-driver in-ears that have got more than just one driver and a crossover circuit that causes the in-ears’ resistance to vary along with their frequency response.

    If the audio player’s headphone output doesn’t have a low output impedance, the in-ears’ frequency response and therefore heard tonality will be skewed and they will (depending on the player’s output impedance and the in-ears’ specific impedance response) sound more or less different compared to when driven by an audio player that has got a low output impedance.

    To maintain an unaltered sound even with low impedance multi-driver in-ears, it is therefore best to have an audio player that has got an output impedance of less than 1 Ohm.

    This is what the Cowon Plenue 2 puts out when connecting a critical, low impedance multi-driver in-ear to its single-ended output:

    [​IMG]

    The connected load was my Ultimate Ears Triple.Fi 10, an in-ear that is among the more source-picky species of its kind and changes its sound rapidly as the player’s output impedance climbs. I therefore pretty much always use it for measuring the frequency deviation compared to a simple load. Based on this, the output impedance can be calculated.

    The measured deviation in combination with the Cowon is just quite small and can be calculated to be around 0.6 Ohms, which is a really good value and proves that the player can drive any multi-driver in-ear without altering its sound unlike players that have a rather high/higher output impedance. This also backs up Cowon’s specs that also state 0.6 Ohms.

    [​IMG]

    So if you were wondering whether or not the Plenue 2 has got a very low and multi-driver-friendly output impedance, I can confidently tell you that it does (at least over the single-ended output, but it is also safe to assume that the balanced output’s output impedance, that Cowon states to be 1.2 Ohms, is also the truth and no lie or cover-up).

    The 6 Digital Filters:

    The Plenue 2’s AKM AK4497EQ DAC chip has 6 digital filter options incorporated that the user can choose from.

    Digital filters mainly shape the upper end of the frequency response as well as the impulse response, which could be perceived in a subtle difference in the treble and soundstage reproduction but is usually inaudible in most cases as long as the filter does not affect the upper frequency range by too much.

    I will definitely not go into detail about what the filters do exactly and how this affects the frequency response as well as pre- and post-ringing of a signal since this would probably just exceed the frame of the review by a bit too much and because there are a couple of informative websites and contributions about this topic on the internet, but instead I will show you how they affect the frequency response from 20 to ~ 18.5 kHz (because this is the range where my soundcard’s input response measures flat) and briefly describe what, if any, differences I could hear between them and how distinct I found the effect.

    [​IMG]

    So this is how the 7 digital filters measure:

    #1 (“Short delay sharp”):

    [​IMG]


    #2 (“Short delay slow”):

    [​IMG]


    #3 (“Sharp”):

    [​IMG]


    #4 (“Slow”):

    [​IMG]


    #5 (“Low dispersion short delay”):

    [​IMG]


    #6 (“Super slow”):

    [​IMG]


    It is safe to assume that filter #3 is the most commonly used one in audio applications, namely a “linear phase, sharp roll-off filter”, whereas filter #6 emulates a “non-oversampling filter”. Filter #1 should therefore be a “minimum phase, sharp roll-off filter”.

    Where #1 and #3 that have got the same frequency response in the super highs would differ is the impulse response that should have no pre-ringing but a longer post-ringing with filter #1, whereas filter #3 should have an equal amount of pre- and post-ringing visible on an impulse response measurement.

    [​IMG]

    The question once again is – do these digital filters really have a greater audible difference that isn’t caused by bias and psychoacoustics? The clear answer is “no” – the filters’ effect, while measurable

    [​IMG]

    , is in fact at best very subtle for our ears.

    Mainly using my UERM, Shure SE846, Ultimate Ears Triple.Fi 10 and the OstryKC06A for testing the digital filters’ effects, what I was able to hear was probably an ever so slightly, barely even noticeable difference in terms of treble attack when comparing filter #3 to filter #1, where cymbal attacks probably seemed ever so slightly softer/less “aggressive” with filter #1, however this could also be a placebo. I definitely wouldn’t be able to tell the difference apart in a truly blinded test, that’s for sure.

    Another thing I thought I would sense between filter #1 and #3 was a slightly more “clean” space around instruments with filter #1.

    The most noticeable difference could be heard with filter #6 that had slightly less subtle glare in the super highs, which could however be expected due to the NOS-like frequency response anyway, and a slightly wider and ever so slightly more open appearing soundstage reproduction.

    Personally, I am mainly using filter #1.

    Hiss:

    As someone who is quite sensitive to hearing hiss when it is present and as someone who is also using many sensitive and some very sensitive in-ears such as the Shure SE846, Ostry KC06A or Pai Audio MR3, three models that are real “hiss-magnets”, having an audio player with as little audible hiss as possible has always been an important thing for me. The destination of perfection, a hiss-free audio player in combination with super sensitive in-ears, was what I could reach with my iBasso DX90 as well as the Luxury &Precision L3/L3 Pro, though the L & P players don’t have the ideal output impedance for every in-ear.

    [​IMG]

    Using the Plenue 2’s single-ended headphone output with my Shure SE846, Pai Audio MR3 and the Ostry KC06A, I am extremely happy to report that the amount of hiss I am hearing using these very sensitive in-ears with tracks that have silent passages or empty audio files is pretty much inexistent. The Plenue 2 is therefore definitely among the very best audio players on the market in this regard – in comparison, the iBasso DX200 (AMP1 module) that is also really good in terms of being almost hiss-free, has got a little bit of hiss over its unbalanced output using very sensitive in-ears, whereas the Cowon has got pretty much none. The Plenue 2 also even slightly beats my beloved, pretty much hiss-free DX90 in this regard and hisses just very barely noticeable when I am in a really good mood with a very fresh mind, whereas my iBasso shows a very slight, barely noticeable hiss using super sensitive in-ears with empty audio files.


    So for those who are sensitive to hearing hiss and are also using very sensitive in-ears, the Plenue 2 will feel like perfection and gets two distinct, huge “thumbs up” from me in this regard.

    - - -

    Since the balanced headphone output is listed with the same power rating, I expect it to behave similarly excellent in terms of being hiss-free.

    Because I am mainly a 3.5 mm TRS and 6.3 mm TRS headphone plug user and personally do not really care for balanced terminations, the only headphones with balanced cables I have are the Fidue A91 SIRIUS as well as my AudezeLCD-X. Neither is sensitive enough to be sensitive to hissing when the source only outputs very little to hiss, just like the Plenue 2, wherefore I couldn’t hear any difference at all between the balanced and single-ended headphone output in terms of hiss presence using these two headphones.

    Subjective Perception of Transparency, Precision & Soundstage:

    Now to the rather subjective part of my review. My opinion and experience regarding the perceived “character” and “transparency” of source devices and amplifiers is this one: there can be an existing audible difference between various devices, but it should definitely not be overrated – simply because the basic character of a headphone won’t be completely changed (if the circuit follows a clean design philosophy and the output is load-stable), but sometimes rather slightly “shaped” and is usually very subtle in many cases and is (in most cases) just slightly present (if even there) and not “huge” or like “totally different classes” or “night and day”.

    I am not a fan of exaggerations and hyperboles here because as long as the objectifyable parameters of an audio player are neutral and not too shabby (loaded frequency response, distortion, crosstalk, dynamic range, noise, …), the audible difference, if there is any, will be quite small at best if two devices are compared with proper volume matching that cannot be done by ear but only with instruments, since even small differences in loudness can be perceived as a technical advantage by our ear and brain.

    A more detailed, German article written by me concerning the “audible difference between comparable audio devices, if there is any, can be found here: http://kopfhoerer-lounge.blogspot.de/2016/04/Eigenklang.html

    So let’s go on with my subjective impressions and observations (for this critical listening, I mainly used my UERM, Shure SE846, Pai Audio MR3, Audeze LCD-X as well as the Ostry KC06A and Fidue SIRIUS in single-ended mode. I also used more headphones and in-ears from different price and performance ranges for listening but more for personal enjoyment than for the sake of critical listening and comparisons):

    [​IMG]

    It is sometimes said that AKM DAC chips tend to sound subjectively smoother and more laid-back compared to some of their competitors. I would sometimes agree to this to a slight degree – for the Yulong U200 and Hidizs AP60, the latter however unfortunately having a rather poor overall implementation for modern standards already when being measured unloaded, using mainly efficient in-ears, there is indeed a less “aggressive” reproduction of cymbals, but since this is also true for the Yulong’s amplification stage, the DAC isn’t the only responsible component there, and for these two devices, I guess that a part of this impression is coming from the slightly elevated noise floor – it is still the whole implementation that matters in the end.



    The Plenue 2, while it uses an AKM DAC chip as well and measures flat anyway, appears subjectively mostly uncoloured and neutral to me, with just a slight bit of “smoothness” and “body” compared to generally neutrally appearing devices such as my Leckerton UHA-6S.MKII or the iBasso DX200 (stock AMP1 module). The Plenue 2 doesn’t seem to mask anything and doesn’t tend to sound too smooth or unaggressive, in contrast to my Chord Mojo tends to do so at times using sensitive in-ears (the latter (“sometimes too smooth”), since the Mojo doesn’t mask anything), but it is also clearly not as “sharp” or “aggressive” as for example the DX90, and just slightly “smoother” than the DX200.

    As stated above, the differences should however be definitely more regarded as being pretty small when properly volume-matched instead of big or even “night and day”.

    [​IMG]

    What I am hearing is a very clean, detailed signal that is noise- and hiss-free even with very sensitive in-ears. Transparency, partly due to the very good signal-to-noise ratio, is also very high when using well-resolving in-ears such as my UERM.

    Seldom, audio players seem to have a slightly soft bass response using very sensitive in-ears or some planar magnetic headphones, which might be caused by some hissing in the lower frequency ranges. This is also absent on the Plenue 2 when I am using sensitive multi-BA in-ears or my LCD-X.

    To my ears, the Cowon’s transparency seems to be on-par with the Chord Mojo and iBasso DX200, and a little higher when compared to the Plenue M2, iBasso DX80 or DX90.



    While I usually cannot hear a reproducible difference in terms of soundstage reproduction among various audio sources when using full-sized headphones, there can be a slight difference to my ears when using sensitive in-ears with a three-dimensional soundstage on various sources (that have an output impedance that is low enough so that it doesn’t change the in-ears’ frequency response).

    To my ears, for example using my UERM and SE846 for this, what I heard from the Plenue 2 was a nicely spacious, three-dimensional and spherical reproduction of spatial cues, with more depth and width than what would be about average (e.g. iPhone 4, Cowon Plenue M2, Chord Mojo), making its spatial reproduction quite comparable to iBasso’s DX200 or DX80.

    - - -

    When it comes to sound, the Plenue 2 definitely delivers what I would expect from a great audio player (measured and perceived neutrality with not too much subjectively perceived smoothness, good noise performance with sensitive in-ears, low output impedance, good volume scaling, flawless transparency and tightness, impeccable spatial reproduction with sensitive in-ears, …).

    Digital Audio Output, USB-DAC:

    A handy thing about the Plenue 2 is that its 3.5 mm headphone socket can also act as a digital optical output that is automatically activated when a matching cable is plugged into it. Then the red light of the S/PDIF connection coming out of the cable can be of course seen as well.

    Using the Plenue 2 with any DAC that has got an optical input works flawlessly, for example with my Leckerton UHA-6S.MKII or Chord Mojo.

    [​IMG]

    The Plenue 2 can also be used as a USB DAC. This feature can be enabled in the settings (“System” -> “USB Mode”).

    Using my Windows 7 laptop, the drivers were automatically downloaded and installed once I connected the Cowon to it for the first time (-> plug & play), which is quite nice because no manual driver installation is required. What is quite nice, too, is that the volume setting is still displayed on the player’s screen and that the signal remains clean and without any additional hiss or noise.

    Gapless Playback:

    Playing FLAC files, gapless playback works perfectly and there is no gap, silence, hiccup or whatsoever between two tracks that have been recorded/cut/mastered with the intention of being played back without any audible gap between them.

    Balanced Output:

    The same output power as from the single-ended output and roughly identical specs (just a very slight advantage on paper) leave the question whether the balanced output features a “true” (internally fully) balanced implementation (dual-mono with separate DACs and amplifier paths) or just a “regular” balanced headphone socket and implementation so that the Plenue 2 can be used with in-ears and headphones with balanced termination without having to use adapters or changing cables. When it comes to internal implementation, the latter is the case and the player uses a “regular” balanced architecture without a dual-mono implementation.

    [​IMG]

    Even though the Plenue 2 doesn’t have fully balanced internal implementation, it is still nice to have it, and the digital audio player is not the first on the market of players in the $1000+ price range and below that isn’t fully balanced internally and doesn’t provide a greater power output over the balanced output compared to the single-ended implementation, even though this is a slight bit disappointing.

    Listening tests using my Audeze LCD-X and the Fidue SIRIUS didn’t show any reproducible difference between the Cowon’s balanced and unbalanced output, unlike with the iBasso DX200 and Luxury & Precision L3/L3 Pro where I was indeed able to hear a slightly different sound.

    While it wouldn’t have been “necessary” to hear an advantage using the Cowon’s balanced output since its unbalanced 3.5 mm output is already exceptionally good and leaves nothing left to be desired, I probably expected to hear a slight difference, be it a slightly different spatial reproduction (like for example a little more width) or a greater respectively lesser amount of “smoothness”, so from my point of view, there isn’t really a sonic benefit of the Cowon’s balanced output.


    So the only real advantage of the Plenue 2 having an additional balanced 2.5 mm TRRS headphone socket, from my point of view, is that users who have got in-ears and headphones with balanced 2.5 mm TRRS plugs don’t need to use adapters to connect them to the player.

    JetEffect 7 DSP and Equalizer:

    A Cowon DAP wouldn’t be complete without JetEffect, would it?

    [​IMG]

    JetEffect has always been a very easy to use and powerful sound manipulation feature built into Cowon’s audio players. JetEffect’s 7th generation is built into the Plenue 2 and offers everything that was already known from previous versions.

    Of course, JetEffect is disabled by default but can be easily enabled in the overlaid quick settings and further adjusted in the main settings.

    [​IMG]

    Besides many pre-sets made by Cowon and up to 16 user-configurable pre-sets (that can however not be renamed), one of its features is a semi-parametric 10-band equalizer that lets you select from three frequencies and three bandwidths per band.

    [​IMG][​IMG]

    [​IMG]

    Even more powerful are the various DSP settings such as “BBE”, a variable loudness with built-in resampler, “3D Surround”, a virtual soundstage enhancer, or various adjustable chorus and reverb characteristics that allow the user to tailor the sound to their preferences in real time and without any added audible distortions.

    Quite remarkable is also that most of Cowon’s fixed pre-sets are very well usable and don’t appear out of place.

    - - -

    To round out this brief summary of Cowon’s JetEffect 7, let’s see what the equalizer and DSP settings actually do:

    As mentioned, there are 10 total frequency bands built into the semi-parametric equalizer. Each band can be adjusted in frequency and bandwidth, with three settings being available for both parameters:

    [​IMG][​IMG]


    Then there is BBE, an adjustable loudness with built-in resampler:

    [​IMG]


    Lastly, from what alters the frequency response, there is Mach3Bass, a variable bass boost:

    [​IMG]


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


    All settings can be combined of course, by the way.

    - - - - - - - - -

    Comparisons with other Audio Devices:

    Comparisons were made with metrologically matched volume levels, using my UERM, Shure SE846, Pai Audio MR3, Audeze LCD-X and the Fidue SIRIUS for direct comparisons.

    iBasso DX200 (AMP1 module):

    Both players appear comparably well built and premium to me. The Cowon is a bit thinner as well as shorter and has got a unibody design, whereas the DX200 consists of more chassis parts. The Cowon’s leather case is softer and appears a bit more premium and practical in comparison. Regarding design, I find the Plenue 2 to be a bit more unique and appealing.

    Both have got only one micro SD card slot, however the Cowon’s internal memory is twice as large with 128 GB. With a coaxial output, true line out, (real dual-mono) balanced output, Bluetooth as well as WiFi and replaceable amplifier modules, the iBasso has got more features and outputs. It also features the more powerful output even though the Cowon’s is really more than sufficient for me in about any case.

    When it comes to user interface, both are extremely good, but ultimately, I think that the Plenue 2 is a little ahead in terms of having a clear layout that seems a little more mature, complete and intuitive (it is simpler than the DX200’s and visually not as “impressive” or modern, but somehow appears more complete and offers more features). Especially the search function in Cowon’s interface that most DAPs in the DX200’s price range and below nowadays have is an advantage, and I also think that the “cover flow”-like album view when turning the device can be practical in some scenarios since it is easy to access.

    While the Cowon’s processor is plenty quick and there are no delays, the DX200’s more powerful 8-core CPU is a bit more advanced, resulting in even more instant inputs and super fluent animations in Android mode.

    Both players have got a really fine-grained volume control – the Cowon’s is adjusted in 0.5 dB per attenuation step and the iBasso’s also in 0.5 dB per attenuation step over the whole attenuation range in Mango OS and somewhat larger steps in Android mode at the very bottom of the scale, but also 0.5 dB per step attenuation in the higher and medium ranges while the iBasso allows for even quieter listening with extremely sensitive in-ears if needed.

    Both players are very good when it comes to signal-to-noise ratio with very sensitive in-ears such as the Shure SE846, however the Plenue 2 manages to slightly outperforms the DX200 in this regard, as it is almost entirely hiss-free with super sensitive in-ears whereas there is some very minor hiss audible with the DX200 in single-ended mode and somewhat more through the balanced output. In this regard, the Cowon even manages slightly outperform my DX90 that I thought was already perfect in terms of being hiss-free.

    Both players have got an output impedance that is ideal for pretty much all in-ears (the Cowon has got around 0.6 Ohms and the iBasso around 0.3).

    When it comes to subjectively perceived timbre, both sound about comparably neutral and uncoloured to me while both of course also measure flat, with the Plenue 2 just sounding a little smoother and fuller in comparison.

    In terms of subjectively perceived transparency using well-resolving in-ears such as the UERM, SIRIUS or SE846, I hear both players as being on the same level when comparing them with correctly matched volume.

    The DX200’s soundstage appears ever so slightly wider to me while depth is similar, just like the “separation” that is also equally good.

    [​IMG]


    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 normally using my Mojo as a pure DAC with an additional amplifier for various reasons, but for this comparison I used my Mojo with the in-ears and my LCD-X being plugged directly into it.

    The Mojo’s visual appearance is for sure more extravagant and probably polarising compared to the simpler and more elegant lines of the Plenue 2.

    The Plenue 2 has got the more fine-grained volume control while the Mojo allows for the lower lowest possible volume level.

    The Mojo’s output is more powerful but as mentioned before, I have personally still way more than enough headroom left with the Cowon with about any in-ear and full-sized headphone, even with my Beyerdynamic DT880 Edition 600 Ohm (your mileage may vary though, but it would extremely surprise me if people found the Cowon to be shy on power).

    The Mojo that many people perceive as being hiss-free still has got some audible hiss with very sensitive in-ears compared to the Plenue 2 that is pretty much hiss-free – even slightly more so than the already great iBassoDX90.

    Both have got a low output impedance, however the Mojo’s output impedance response is not 100% linear due to its simple output stage (the Mojo’s output impedance is higher in the treble than in the lows), so the Plenue 2 will measure more linear with very low-impedance multi-driver diva-like in-ears such as the Shure SE846. 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 to it, but turns into a sharp roll-off-like response when a high impedance load is connected.

    Comparing the two, volume-matched of course, the Mojo appears a bit smoother and a bit “different” in terms of subjectively perceived timbre – cymbal attacks seem somewhat less “glary” as well as less “aggressive” on the Mojo in comparison.

    Transparency with highly resolving in-ears is on the same level to my ears, while the Cowon has got the larger soundstage in comparison with more width and height, with the Mojo having an ever so slightly more “precise” separation between and around instruments.


    Conclusion:

    Sure, digital audio players with more power, built-in Bluetooth, WiFi for online and network music streaming and other innovations do exist in the price range of the Cowon Plenue 2 and also for less money, however those who have those features on their list of requirements for their next audio player will likely not look into the Plenue 2 as a potential candidate in the first place anyway.

    No, instead, Cowon’s Plenue 2 is a very premium, high-end audio player for purists who especially don’t need or want those features, but instead lay their focus on an excellent design, a perfectly stable, mature, responsive and sophisticated user interface as well as software, and last but not least a very good, detailed sound that leaves nothing left to be desired. And this really is where the Plenue 2 shines: it is made of high quality materials, feels very good in your hands, has got a very nice design that combines both traditional, elegant, as well as modern lines and elements, features a very well-made, responsive user interface with a great music library that can be edited directly on the player and also has got an excellent included search feature, and of course the Plenue 2 is a truly excellent sounding device with a low output impedance (0.6 Ohms), a fine-grained volume control (0.5 dB per step with 140 total steps), really high transparency, a nicely open and spacious soundstage rendering and a noise floor that is so low even with super sensitive in-ears that it even beats my iBasso DX90 in this regard, whom I considered to be the most hiss-free audio player until this day.

    [​IMG]


    So to wrap it up, the Cowon Plenue 2 is a purist’s audio player with a premium build and design, very good user interface and a superb sound.

    - - -

    While it is a really great device, the Plenue 2 is not perfect though:

    - It has no “real” (dual-mono) balanced headphone output circuit for its 2.5 mm TRRS socket. While this isn’t as important since the overall implementation is what matters, and the player’s implementation of the sound-related circuit is very good indeed, there is, in my opinion, no real benefit in having this output except for being able to use headphones with balanced termination directly without the hassle of adapters.

    - It has got only one micro SD card slot. These days, it is more appropriate to have two slots in a high-end, Hi-Res & DSD-capable audio player that has no WiFi or streaming. While the 128 GB of internal memory in addition to the single card slot are quite good indeed, a 2nd micro SD slot or at least 256 GB of internal storage would have been even more appropriate.

    - The 2nd digital, multifunctional potentiometer, while it looks extremely nice and contributes a lot to the player’s premium and elegant appearance and lines, won’t add much of a real advantage for most users and scenarios.

    [​IMG]

    ///edit: My final rating would be a little higher than 4 stars (4.3 stars actually), but the new Head-Fi update only allows full stars and no half stars anymore.

    ///edit 2: Since half stars are possible again on Head-Fi, I was finally able to adjust my rating to the 4.5 stars I initially intended to give but wasn't able to.

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