kmmbd

100+ Head-Fier
Trend-breaker
Pros: Class-leading battery life
- Great build quality
- Stable OS
- Good output power for the price-class, low output impedance
- Warm signature is unique in the price-class
- JetEffects are awesome
- EQ settings are limited but useful
Cons: Sharp corners can be a bit difficult to handle
- Display resolution is poor
- OS is still slow by 2020 standards despite the speed-bump over older budget Plenue models
- 200GB memory limit
- No wireless connectivity
- Not for those who prefer a more neutral/bright sonic representation
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This review originally appeared on my blog.

Ah, Cowon, never change!

While every manufacturer are focusing on providing streaming, BT, WiFi and all the bells and whistles inside their DAPs, Cowon is one of the few who are keeping things simple and basic.

Put in an SD card, load some music, go about your way.

The Cowon Plenue V is a good showcase for Cowon’s philosophy. It has one of the best DAC chips in the market for budget devices (CS43131), the battery life is awesome at 45hrs (rated) and of course Cowon’s entire focus went into sound tuning and overall sonic performance. It does have its own sets of quirks (proprietary OS with no connectivity features) so let’s see if the trade-offs are worth the price of admission.

Installed Firmware: 1.13 (latest)

Relevant specs are here.

Note: the ratings given will be subjective to the price tier. I purchased the Cowon Plenue V from their official store. Disclaimer

Price (when reviewed): $130. Available on
Amazon.

IEMs/Headphones used: Final E5000/E3000/E1000/E500, Moondrop Starfield/A8, Tin T4, IMR R1 Zenith, Shuoer Tape, , Sennheiser IE40 Pro, Final Sonorous III, Sennheiser HD650

Accessories:
Barebones, basically. There is a Cowon branded USB-cable and that’s it. No fancy screen protector, case or any extra. For the price I can’t complain too much given how much Cowon usually prices their cases but I expected at least a couple spare screen-protectors. Ah well…
1.5/5

Build: Build quality is where Cowon Plenue V pulls ahead of its competition by a margin. The entire chassis is a combination of CNC-cut aluminium and rubber-coated plastic. This is quite a departure to the more commonplace glass-aluminium combo that’s prevalent at this price-point.

The design is striking especially in the Ferrari-Red color that I’ve got. The sheen of the red-metal as light reflects off of it is something to behold and looks unlike anything I’ve seen in the price bracket. The body has sharp angles and an unapologetically bold design.

There is the headphone jack at the top-left side, whereas the bottom side tapers into a chisel-like shape with no physical controls or ports. On the right side of the device you can see the playback and volume control cluster. The buttons are clicky and has a nice feedback. They also don’t trigger accidentally when in the pocket. I also didn’t confuse among them when trying to change tracks or volume without looking since the tapered bottom pretty much ensures you know which orientation the device is in.

On the left side, there is the micro-USB port (ugh!) and a microSD slot (populated by a dummy card to keep out dust and debris). The Cowon Plenue V supports upto 128GB or cards but unfortunately that’s a hard limit apparently. If you have more than 200GB or music in your library the Cowon Plenue V will be a no-go for you.

At the back of the Cowon Plenue V we find a conspicuously hidden power button/status LED combo within the Plenue logo. The led is set to blink intermittently by default and it’s blindingly bright. I simply turned it off within first few minutes of use (Settings -> System -> LED -> Off). Most of the backplate is grippy rubber which feels great while handling but can attract oil and dust.

The top display is covered by what appears to be non-oleophobic coating tempered glass. It’s not one of those Corning variants and it will get smudged pretty quickly.

Overall, I can’t really complain about the build quality. All metal-build might have felt more dense but I like the grippy back here as well.
4.5/5

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Display: The display is quite meh and even players half the Cowon Plenue V’s cost has better ones. It’s a 2.8" 320*240 pixel capacitive-touch display which translates to a paltry pixel density making texts look jagged/blurry. On the plus side, the display is bright enough to be used in sunny days outdoors and has a great viewing angle with decent colors/contrast.

The bottom bezel is pretty large but due to the red-color accent it doesn’t look as distracting. In short: not a great display in terms of resolution, size and panel quality but it gets the job done and also consumes little battery. Given the price, I’d be less critical.
2.5/5

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Handling: In terms of weight and size of the player, the Cowon Plenue V fits entirely in your palm and weighs a mere 100gm which makes them very pocketable/portable.

Unfortunately, the design has its drawbacks with sharp corners that dig into the hand as you grip the player. It’s not “gonna cut yourself with it” level of sharp but it’s not a comfortable experience at all. A case is highly recommended.

Another issue is the location of the headphone jack but given the design decisions here (the bottom part completely tapers off) it’s understandable. Also the player doesn’t like sitting stable on the table as the oddly shaped back makes it spins and tilts randomly.
3/5

UI/Responsiveness:
Not much to say about Cowon’s custom OS for their players. It’s based on Linux, it’s got all the audio functionalities you are likely to ask for including Parametric Equalization, DSP Effects, playlist management, true gapless playback and so on. True gapless btw is a very neat feature which pretty much stitches together all songs in your playlists in a contiguous single track and you can seek/forward through them with just the side buttons. Very neat and handy and kinda difficult to go back to regular players once you get the hang of this.

The OS has two basic (and kinda major) issues: Confusing iconography, and poor animations/slow frame-rate UI navigation. The CPU inside the Cowon Plenue V is nothing to write home about and it just barely gets the job done.

There is kinetic scrolling in the lists an of Artists/Tracks etc., it just doesn’t work reliably enough and abruptly stops at times. Fortunately just grabbing the side-bar on the UI and fast-scrolling to the desired location is pretty straightforward and works great. Going to Now Playing and tapping on the top-right icon shows a handy little shortcut screen and you can nearly change every useful setting right from there. The UI in general is mostly intuitive, unlike some of the stuff I’ve tried from Fiio and co (non-Android ones). There is also a handy clock up top so that you may keep track of your time while listening.

General navigation is simple enough and you get the hang of it quickly. It’s also a pretty stable platform and major slowdowns only occur when loading a track with very large album art. Even then it’s mostly tolerable. As a side-note, performance is definitely better than the old Cowon Pleune D which is a plus.

The Cowon Plenue V updates its song database at every restart. Fortunately that doesn’t take too long and boot times are pretty fast at ~13s for me. So yes, the UI isn’t good in terms of polish and overall smoothness but it gets the job done without much fuss and also has a positive impact on battery life (more on this shortly).
3/5

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Connectivity: None. Yup, offline is the name of the game and I like this player for this very reason. If you need BT/WiFi this ain’t it. The only thing we find is that microSD slot and even that should be a type-C in 2020.
0.5/5

Battery Life:
The Cowon Plenue V doesn’t have the absolutely jaw-dropping battery life of the Cowon Plenue D I reviewed before. However, at 40Hrs of playback time the Cowon Plenue V lasted ~2 weeks on a single charge for me with a few hours of use everyday. It’s beyond refreshing to have to only charge a device few times every month and not have yet another thing to charge daily.

Given the newer DAC chip, better performance and more output power, the Cowon Plenue V actually does an admirable job over the older Cowon Plenue D in terms of battery life, and that’s a huge positive of these Cowon players.
4.5/5

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Great performance on paper, let’s see how the sound quality holds up.

Sound Quality: Talking about how a DAP sounds is bound to raise eyebrows in certain circles, but hey — you gotta talk about what you hear otherwise what’s even the point?
The Cowon Plenue V sounds unlike most of the DAPs you find around the $150 mark. Most of them go for the tried-and-tested Sabre ES9218P chipset which is a well performing chipset and has an otherwise analytical, sterile signature (unless you do something on the amp end or mess with reconstruction filters).
The Cowon Plenue V chooses a Cirrus Logic CS43131 chipset and the accompanying op-amp based amplification. They also didn’t go for the analytical route, rather chose for a smoother signature. The bass notes have more heft than neutral so you can even call it somewhat warmly tuned. Everything sounds as it should, so no coloration is going on in the mids and treble. The bass comes out a bit more prominent than most DAPs around the price, so pairing with bass-light IEMs can balance things out nicely. There is no background hiss even on the most sensitive IEM I have (JVC FX700) so that’s great news.

We also gotta talk about them JetEffects. They are some of the best DSP presets you can find in a DAP and goes toe-to-toe with Hiby’s MSEB. There is also a 5–band PEQ that offers 3 different frequency bands and q-factor adjustment on three levels: wide, narrow, normal. These are stuff that you have to try for yourself to see if they are suited to your tastes. I personally kept everything off and only tried the PEQ for Shuoer Tape (and it worked well). Finally, you can select reconstruction filters and there are five of them. I went for the Fast/Low-latency filter. These filters determine the nature of pre and post-ringing artifacts and thus can have some slightly perceptible sonic changes. Again, try them out and see what works for you.

On the downside, the Cowon Plenue V isn’t the most dynamic sounding player however, but this is only noticeable when A/B-ing against higher-tier DAPs. Also I wish it had the option to be used as a desktop DAC/Amp or there was a line-out option, but alas. Other than that, I think the Cowon Plenue V has a more mature and less aggressive sound compared to the more common DAPs in the price bracket.
4.5/5

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Amp performance: The amp is pretty powerful and can drive most IEMs with ease. Only in cases when you need high current in low-ohm load do we run into troubles. Thus, using planar magnetic headphones like Hifiman Sundara is not the best idea. Sennheiser HD650 also got loud but lacked the dynamics you get from a beefier amp. Then there are inefficient dynamic drivers like Final E5000 which didn’t fare well. Final Sonorous III on the other hand was absolutely fine with its easier to drive nature.

The output is as powerful as other DAPs in the price bracket but will fall short of dedicated dongles/Amps or anomalies like E1DA PowerDAC V2.
4.5/5

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Select Comparisons

vs Fiio M6 ($150):
The Fiio M6 has the Android smarts and looking at the spec-sheet you’ll feel really enthused about them.

And then you try them out.

They are one of the most unusable DAP in existence. Everything stutters, grinds to a halt. The thing is slow and clunky and unlike the Cowon you don’t get consistent performance at all. Fiio Music is torture-tool that tests your patience to its limits. And the sound is literally nothing to write home about. Treble extension and layering is poor and there is the usual Sabre glare you find on poorly implemented Sabre DACs. Just avoid buying this thing altogether unless you really hate yourself or are just too enamored by playing Tidal on them (which doesn’t work btw, huh!)

vs LG G7 (~$250): Is it an upgrade over the LG phones? Yes it is, in terms of sound quality. Usability and feature set is on another plane on the LG phone and really no DAP in existence can match the performance of a SD845 totting ex-flagship so if you mostly want to stream songs via your BT headphones/TWS IEMs just don’t bother with another DAP as your phone will be the best bet indeed.

vs Sony NW-A55 (~$200): I love this Sony player for its usability, long-battery life, no-nonsense and smooth UI, and pretty great sound (when using a modded firmware, courtesy of MrWalkman). Too bad that these are a bit overpriced (in typical Sony fashion) for what they offer. I’d pick the A55 over the Plenue V as it has a more dynamic presentation and also has far more features/usability perks. Too bad that they cost $70 more so it’s something you should keep in mind.

vs Hiby R3 Pro (~$200): More power than the Cowon Plenue V? Yes. Better specced and has more quality-of-life improvements? Yes. Has similar epic battery life? No. Is the sound a big upgrade over the Plenue V? No, in fact, I prefer the Plenue V signature to the R3 Pro. The R3 Pro from its single-ended out is a bit too sterile for my tastes while the gentle warmth of the Cowon Plenue V can be very inviting. The R3 Pro however is very competitively priced and should be a great option if you want an all-in-one solution for your DAP needs.

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Conclusion

The Cowon Plenue V caters to a niche, and if you fall in that particular niche they’ll serve you exceedingly well. I like weird things, especially if they sound good, so I also have a soft-spot for the Cowon Plenue V as I don’t really need to bother with the battery life for the most part.

If you need streaming services and a faster UI with more customization and options — stay away. In fact, stay away from everything Cowon, they won’t serve you and it’ll be an exercise in frustration.

If, however, you value great battery life, UI stability and sound above all else — be my guest.

Cowon after all doesn’t set the trend, they break it, for better or for worse.

Overall rating: 3.75/5
Recommended, if you don’t need the smart features and can live without balanced out
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If you can get your hands on a Cowon Plenue M2, don’t hesitate, this mid-fi DAP is a masterpiece along with the Plenue S.
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kmmbd
I nearly bought a Plenue M2 but that deal fell through. Later got the R2 from another gentleman in Switzerland and it was worth every penny. Vanishingly low noise floor, fantastic separation/staging/imaging, and great textured bass. I do miss the physicality of the QP1R and its exceptional dynamism but the Plenue R2 is the most versatile DAP in my collection right now. Plays well even with the finicky E5000.
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Never listened to the R2, but you telling me you are satisfied with the E5000 paired with it is very nice to read! Cowon is very silent at the moment and it’s a shame. They know « rghs » about digital processing and good amping.

someyoungguy

500+ Head-Fier
Pros: Great detail retrieval, soundstage and presentation, highly portable, great battery life
Cons: If you're after Bluetooth, wireless streaming, a USB DAC function, dedicated line out or optical/coaxial out, this isn't the DAP you're looking for
*edit 15/07: Cowon have updated their website to reflect the firmware 1.10 updates - the product info now includes support for DSD, DFF and SACD file formats, and images show the updated black/orange UI theme which is similar to the UI found on the higher end Plenues.

Right... let’s just get this out of the way to start with: who the hell would buy this player? 3.5mm audio only, no balanced out, no USB DAC function, no Bluetooth, no wireless, in 2018!? And the look – you’re either going to love it or hate it, but it looks a bit like a spaceship. Well, curiosity got the better of me and the Plenue V made me think of that saying when someone screws something up and an onlooker says “you only had one job”. In this case, the Plenue V has one job, and I started to wonder just how good it would be at that job. That curiosity was added to by the profound lack of any reviews in English on the interwebs.

So, thank me later interwebs, but I spent my hard-earned cash on one of these crazy DAPs just to find out what it’s like. That, and I figured my interest in the player came down to three things:
  1. maybe single-ended output is all I want; balanced is good if it improves the sound quality, but there’s all the extra expense of aftermarket cables. Perhaps Rob Watts from Chord is onto something when he says that a well-done single-ended (SE) output is all you need.
  2. the combined DAC/AMP chip has some great specs
  3. it would be paired with Cowon’s JetEffects, familiar OS (I’ve owned a few Plenue’s already) and flawless gapless playback
The DAC/AMP:
One thing that intrigued me about the Plenue V is that it contains the CS43131 chip which is both a DAC and amp. A lot is made of a player’s DAC chip here on head-fi, but the tide seems to be turning a bit where people are paying more attention to other components such as the amp and power supply, which color the sound and are important determinants of the overall sonic characteristics of a player. I think it’s an interesting, and perhaps risky, move for a DAP manufacturer to use a combined off-the-shelf DAC+amp combo – it leaves them less room to claim that they’ve added their own “secret sauce” to the sound or painstakingly trialled various amp pairings to hunt out the best one for you. On the other hand, Cirrus Logic chips have been used in a lot of well-received players in the last few years and I’m more than comfortable leaving the amp component decisions in the hands of the engineers at Cirrus Logic as well, who in my books clearly know their stuff.

So far the CS43131 and its predecessor the CS43130 have mainly been used in mobile phones – the Samsung S8 and S9 Exynos editions, Meizu Pro 7 and Nexum AQUA+ wireless headphone DAC/amp.

Why buy a dedicated DAP using a chip mainly used in cell phones? You can see right on Cirrus Logic’s site that the CS43131 has the highest specs on paper of any of their range, equal to the CS43198, now used in players such as Opus #1S and A&norma SR15: https://www.cirrus.com/solutions/playback/hifi/#psearch. Plus, this is actually the first time Cowon have used a Cirrus Logic chip in their players, as far as I’m aware. Reviews on Cowon’s Korean language site (plenue.cowon.com; which are embedded as images so not easily google-translatable), include measurement graphs which are universal in any language, and pointed to some great specs on paper for this DAP. Plus, one of the main drawcards (for me at least) of the Cowon players is their incorporation of JetEffect DSP – so here I think is where Cowon can claim they do have their own secret sauce added to the mix. A Cirrus Logic DAC/amp chip with great specs on paper + JetEffect? Count me intrigued.

Comparisons:
I’m a minimalist and prefer to only own a few audio items that I use heavily, so typically sell off my previous DAPs/DACs/headphones when I get additional gear. So at present the only DAP I have to do direct comparisons is the Plenue R. But I’ve owned various others and will provide some indirect comparisons and thoughts in the conclusion below.

I have a ZX300 on order from Joybuy, which is taking ages to get here, so will update this review once that has arrived and I have it burned in. There’s approximately 40 hours of burn in on the Plenue V at writing, perhaps 80 on the Plenue R single-ended and 30 on the Plenue R balanced out.

Headphones:
  • B&W P7s
  • Meze 99 classics with Meze silver upgrade cable
The B&W P7s can do 3.5mm SE only, so I’ve only used these with the SE outputs on the Plenue V & R. With the 99 classics, the silver upgrade cable is 2.5mm terminated, but comes with a 2.5mm balanced to 3.5mm SE adaptor, so the comparisons made with the 99 classics are:
  • 99 classics + silver cable into Plenue R 2.5mm balanced
  • 99 classics + silver cable + Meze 3.5mm adaptor into SE outputs on both players
Obviously the adaptor may change the sound slightly, but any comparison of balanced & single-ended outputs will suffer the same limitation.

Comparisons were made with both Plenues set to fast, low latency DAC filters, since both players have these options and I haven’t really noticed much difference between filters on the R.
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Sound:
My first impressions were that the detail retrieval on the V is fantastic, and that impression has not changed at all with use. I get that clichéd hi-fi experience of noticing extra details in music I know well, and it’s been some time since I had experience. I’m sure most people on head-fi are sick of hearing that impression, since it truly is a cliché, but I can’t deny that’s what my ears hear. Pity I no longer have a Chord Mojo to compare, but I feel like the detail retrieval of the V would be right up there.

The V has a good spread of energy across the whole bass, mid, treble spectrum, and keeps the separation between instruments nicely spaced in busy sections – the emotion and intensity of the track can pick up, but the player doesn’t feel like it struggles.

With the R, I feel like the energy and focus of the sound is more on the upper mids and treble; in that sense, the R is reminiscent of the IFi sound –bright and with a mid-treble centric sound. Personally, I was hoping the R would be my go-to player when I bought it earlier this year, and I don’t want to bad mouth it as it’s a great player and certainly no slouch. I preferred it over the Plenue M I previously had, which sounded veiled in comparison. The R offered more detail and a more neutral sound and I concluded I preferred the R to the M after direct comparisons. But, the R definitely has a different presentation in the low end to the M – the bass is there, but it doesn’t have quite the same solidity and impact as I’d like. That improves to some extent with the balanced out, and I feel that the R reaches its full potential from the balanced rather than single-ended out.

The V has a bass presence more like the M, there’s an extra weight to it that I don’t get with the R, and the V to my ears sounds weightier than the balanced out of the R. I can’t be certain, but I think this sound impression may reflect the output power of the respective players– the M is 2.0 Vrms, the R 1.4 Vrms on single-ended, with 1.6 Vrms on the balanced, while the V has 1.7 Vrms output.

All in all, the stereo imaging on the V is great, there’s balance across the bass, mid and treble spectrum, it keeps control in complicated passages, and detail retrieval is excellent. The V presents a very immersive sound, and I find myself with a stupid grin on my face where it feels like everything just comes together as it should and you connect with the music rather than thinking about the player and its pros and cons.

Headphone pairings: Personally, I find the combination with the B&W P7s is more to my liking with the V than the Meze 99 classics. Both sound great, but JetEffect settings like BBE or incremental adjustments to Mach3Bass give a deeper bass response on the P7s, compared to a more mid-bass elevation on the 99 classics, and I do likes me some deep rumbles…mmmm….

Burn in: I should note that straight out of the box and during the first 10 hours or so of use, I did note some prominent vocal “S”s, depending on the track being played - like sibilance but without any glare on cymbals that can occur with sibilant sources. It was present with both headphone pairings of B&W P7s and 99 classics. But, that has eased with use. I’m not sure how far into burn-in it disappeared but I haven’t noticed any S’s jumping out at me for some time.

DSD: Interestingly, I had been thinking when I bought the V that the CS43131 product page on the Cirrus Logic website says it can handle DSD256 playback, but there wasn’t any mention of DSD support on the Plenue V documentation. That has changed with the 1.10 firmware update just released – Cowon added DSD support up to DSD 64/128 (but no mention of DSD256) as well as extra FLAC file support (it isn’t stated exactly on the firmware release what extra is supported, but I presume higher res options given DSD support was also added). Cowon should really update the product marketing info on their websites to match. After downloading a DSD sample file (from https://www.oppodigital.com/hra/dsd-by-davidelias.aspx) I can confirm DSD playback works too, with a little DSD icon appearing at the top of the screen (see photo) where the equaliser icon typically sits. JetEffect settings aren’t applied to DSD playback.
DSD.JPG

DAC filters: The CS43131 has five filter settings:
  • Fast, low latency
  • Fast, phase-comp
  • Slow, low latency
  • Slow, phase comp
  • Non-oversampling
Typically I haven’t noticed much difference with using DAC filters in the past – apart from treble roll-off filters. With the Plenue V the DAC filters make quite a noticeable difference. Switching from fast to slow filters changes the decay, resulting in a fuller, more resonating sound on the slow filter - but it might have downsides with busier music where rapid, quick fire presentation is needed; the low latency filters have a touch more attack. The switch to phase comp settings is more difficult to put into words – some aspect of the stereo imaging and depth or placement of instruments in the soundstage is altered. All of these four filters sound good to my ears, and if I picked up the player without A-B comparisons, I think “brain burn in” would mean I’d be happy to listen to any of them.

The non-oversampling filter is different again to the others. I’d heard talk of non-oversampling DAC filters on head-fi but had never heard a non-oversampling source before. The change is quite interesting, bringing a sound that can seem more lifelike and organic, like hearing a live performance. The balance of bass, mid and treble is altered; the emphasis seems to shift higher towards the mids with less thickness in the bass register, although bass can still go quite deep when called for, and the overall sound can seem a bit airier. Even though it may seem contradictory – given I’ve just described it as more organic – at times I feel like the presentation on non-oversampling can come across a bit more digital, depending on the track being played. Which of these is “best” no doubt depends on the track and the sound you’d like.

Other non-sound stuff

Unboxing: comes in a black box, minimalist, like all other Plenue boxes, you open it, there’s your Plenue V inside, a Cowon-branded micro-USB cable, warranty card & quick start guide.
Unbox 1.JPG Unbox 2.JPG Unbox 3.JPG

Memory: the Plenue V has 64 GB of built-in memory. That also houses the system files etc. so out of the box there’s 59 GB of usable memory (the player does come with four free files in FLAC format and multiple language options of the manual pre-loaded, which could be deleted). The microSD slot takes cards up to 128 GB; sorry, I haven’t got any larger capacity cards to try out and see if they’d work too. But the Cowon manual states the built-in memory can handle 8000 files and 4000 folders, and the microSD card 16000 files and 8000 folders. So there may be a firmware limit to the amount of microSD memory the player can handle anyway due to this file limit. microSD cards above 64 GB have to be FAT32 formatted.

UI: I group the Cowon players in two tiers:
  • Upper tier - Plenue R, M, M2, 1, 2 and S: bigger screen + matching big screen UI, JetEffect 7 with 10-band EQ
  • Lower tier - Plenue D, J & V: smaller screen, different UI, JetEffect 5 with 5-band EQ
I don’t have an inside ear to Cowon or anything, so this is my personal speculation, but I suspect a key determinant here is the processor used. On the upper tier product pages Cowon proudly announce they have an ARM Cortex A9 1.2 GHz processor. On the lower tier pages, no mention is made of the processor which makes me think it isn’t something they want to draw attention to. I suspect the A9 processor can handle the digital conversions required for JetEffect 7 and the 10-band EQ, as well as the graphics requirements for the larger screen + better UI on the top tier players. The lower processor probably can’t handle those effects and video output, so goes hand in hand with a simpler display quality, 5-band EQ and slight stutter in the UI fluidity. Perhaps that is also why the top tier players can function as USB DACs but the lower tier can’t. But the bonus for the lower tier is the less intensive processor and smaller screen make for better battery life.

I was going to start this review saying the Plenue V has the same UI design as the Plenue D and J. If you haven’t used any of these lower-tier models, I’ll say that personally I find the UI pretty intuitive and easy to use and think most people won’t have any problems. I say “was going to” as with the 1.10 firmware upgrade the UI has changed somewhat – the V now has the same “database update” graphic on start-up, and UI theme designed to match the black & orange menus of the higher tier players. The orange highlighting in menu items is an orange pixellation (see photo - visible on "Dawn of Ashes" menu item), but the emulation of the higher tier players is there. In addition, there’s a new skin for the “Now playing” screen which matches the A skin on the higher tier players. The other skins on the V include the typical brown themed skins used on the D and J. One thing I didn’t realise until comparing the A skins on the V and R side-by-side, is that the V shows the actual time elapsed and total track time at the bottom (see photo) – the R includes various options for time display, but shows a count of elapsed seconds, which isn’t as intuitive. The A skin on the V also drops off the bottom line options of “Folder/track boundary”, “Repeat all” etc. – personally I think it’s better without and had been wondering how to drop those on the R and my previous Plenue M, as I would accidentally hit shuffle or set the boundary as one track only, then be confused why tracks weren’t playing in the expected order. So in all, the firmware 1.10 update is quite a step up in the UI usability.
Theme A comparison.JPG Theme B.JPG Theme C player skin.JPG
Menu orange.JPG

UI lag: the Plenue D had a laggy interface. It’s still a well-loved player and when I owned one didn’t find it too much hassle – I tend to find an album I want to listen to, hit play and listen through, so a UI that had a slight delay didn’t bother me. I haven’t tried the J, but from reviews I’ve read and videos I’ve seen it doesn’t have the same extent of lag as the D. It seems it’s still not as snappy as the upper tier players, but not as slow as the D. The V is probably the same as the J – it’s slightly slower than the UI on the R, but in all honesty it’s not too bad, and I think was improved somewhat with the 1.10 firmware release. Scrolling through lists isn’t as smooth on the V, due to a touch of lag and that fewer items in a list are visible on the smaller screen. Probably the most laggy function is when you switch to the “now playing” screen, which is when the player needs to load the album artwork. At first I would hit the “now playing” icon twice, wondering why the screen wasn’t changing, but now I’ve got used to it and remember that there’s a small delay, it’s not really a problem.

Volume: The Plenue V has a volume dial which goes up to 140, like the higher tier players, compared to 100 for the D and J. Also, the V remembers the volume setting from the last session – so comes back at the same volume when you power it up again. The 1.10 firmware also added “Hearing protection” which I think means if you really want, you can purposely turn on the volume limitation for the EU if you’re in a non-EU region – how thoughtful of them!

Database update on start-up: The Plenue UI updates the database on start-up (for all Plenue models). When I first loaded music on the V it took a good few minutes to update the music database, with around 100 GB of files on the microSD card. With subsequent start-ups it seems that the update function just scans for new/changed files, because when I turn the player on/off now it’s about 14-15 seconds from hitting the power button until it’s ready to go (without any tracks being changed). On the R it’s slightly shorter at 11-12 seconds with the same microSD card. So yeah, some people hate the database update but it’s over quick and doesn’t bother me.

Battery life: Cowon claim 27 hours of playback with FLAC files on their website. My whole music collection is FLAC, either 16 or 24 bit. In normal use I haven’t actually managed to run the battery down yet – I’ve reconnected the player to the computer to load new music or update the firmware before the battery has run out. So for regular use, that means the battery life is great and doesn’t leave me high and dry.

Power button/LED: unlike the other Plenues which have the power button on the top right of the player, the Plenue logo LED on the back is actually the power button on the Plenue V. So that means you have to press your finger around the back and hold it to turn the DAP on/off, and tap it to turn the screen off. Once you’re used to it, it’s quite intuitive. Also if you hold the player in one hand, and use the other to navigate using the screen, the way your hand cradles the player means it’s actually quite simple to use your index finger to hit the P button. Like other Plenues the light glows red when the battery is low or while charging, and green when fully charged. In the menu settings you can set whether the LED is on or off during playback to save batter life - when on, it flashes blue intermittently to indicate that the player is on when the screen is off (see photo).
IMG_2254.JPG IMG_2258.JPG

Miscellaneous: In the UI settings you can also change the L/R balance, and the 1.10 firmware also added playback speed adjustment – something that was previously on the J3 (and I think S9) but so far I haven’t seen on any other Plenue model.

Ergonomics/Usability: Damn this thing is small. I’d read the dimensions beforehand and knew it would be, but somehow the stand-alone photos on the Cowon website make it look bigger – perhaps it’s the unusual shape. But when you get it in person it’s not much bigger than the D. The specs on the Cowon website show it’s the same width as the D and J, and the length in between the D and J. It’s 6 g heavier than the D, and about 50-90 g lighter than the bigger Plenues like the R, M, 1 and 2. So it’s highly portable.

Lay the V on its back and it sits slightly on an angle, like in the photo below. It means the screen is angled towards your line of sight. But - due to the player being so light, and sitting the way it does on its back, it doesn’t take much force to spin it around when you have it sitting on a desk. So, for example, the headphone cable dangling off the side of desktop can spin the player around so it doesn’t face you anymore. Then you have to re-right it when you want to use the menus again etc. The black rubbery material on the back is slightly grippy, and so far I haven’t had a headphone cable or anything actually pull it off the desk, but depending on the surface and size of a long, heavy cable I think that could be a possibility. But well, that’s the physics of a small and light player.
IMG_2207.JPG IMG_2213.JPG
Overall, the player is nice and portable, and although the shape may seem off-putting, it actually sits quite nicely in the hand and slides into a pocket well.


Conclusions:
The V does one job and damn it does it well. There isn’t really anything I feel is missing from the sound signature, nothing I would wish to add or think needs to be taken away.

Previously, I had a J3 for about 5 years, and about 3 years ago moved on from it. Since then, I’ve gone on something of a tour of various audio products – partly as I caught the hi-fi bug and was curious what’s out there, partly because each option left me hungry for more. I upgraded to the D and did a side-by-side comparison on this review: https://www.head-fi.org/showcase/ibasso-audio-dx80-high-resolution-audio-player.21124/reviews (see DX80 Vs Cowon Plenue D Vs J3 Vs S9). The D was a small, but noticeable improvement in sound to the J3, but left me wanting a bigger change. The DX80 sounded fantastic, but switch on the EQ and the beautiful soundstage was lost. I had a Plenue 1 for a while and somehow it didn’t gel with me. I saw one person in a head-fi thread call it “stuffy” and while I wouldn’t necessarily use that phrase myself I appreciated the inventiveness of it – the Plenue sounded good, but throw on something busy and I felt like the sound didn’t come together right. I had a Chord Mojo for about a year, loved the sound and do occasionally wish I hadn’t sold it. But I moved on as I often found myself thinking “this sounds great, if only I could switch off that smooth treble roll-off!”. The DX90 had sabre-glare and a slightly awkward UI, the X3 2nd gen was a trusty player and I kept it for about a year; it was good, but not great. I found a Plenue M going second hand in the forums and couldn’t resist trying it out; it has a nice weighty sound, but seemed a bit veiled and distant for my liking. The R fixed that problem – a Plenue with a brighter, more detailed sound than the M, but I did find the lower end of the presentation on the R doesn’t have the same weight and impact.

With the V I feel like I’ve hit the sound I’m after and can stop looking. There’s a quote on Cirrus Logic’s Master Hi-Fi product page saying that they deliver “a very pure, natural audio quality with exceptional fidelity” and I feel like that’s how the V sounds. I wouldn’t really describe the sound as warm, but certainly not cold or harsh – it just sounds good, there’s excellent detail retrieval and the pieces all feel like they come together to produce an enjoyable, immersive sound. It’s likely to be my go-to player for years and take its place in my black little heart like the J3 before it :)
Z
zazex
Great job;; terrific review! Insightful, useful, and thorough.
Just received my Plenue V a couple of days ago and I like it quite a bit.
Also, I found that when I sent the output through another amp (in this case
a Topping NX4 w/ DSD), the sound improved considerably. It's the way
I intend to listen to it going forward. Not a big deal - to me, anyway.
Have plenty of those thick rubber bands around. :)
So, again - thanks for the excellent review!
someyoungguy
someyoungguy
@zazex Nice, I use mine as a source for the Massdrop CTH (as well as portable use). It’s a good pair - the V has great detail and the CTH gives it a touch of tube :)
T
toolapcblack
Purchased one on the back of this review(thanks someyoungguy) pretty blown away sounds amazing through Beyer T1 Gen 2s, i also own a DX200 and a QP1R(recently gone faulty ) and to my ears the Cowon V has the edge.
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