A Survey of Digital Audio Players Part 3 Cowon Plenue 1

DAP3_CowonPlenue1_Photo_Main

Cowon Plenue 1 ($699)
Cowon should need no introduction to personal audio enthusiasts. The South Korean brand was a leader in what I call the "first wave" of portable players—back when storage capacity was measured in Megabytes. I spent many an hour listening happily through their early iAudio branded products and later the Cowon D2 which was quite impressive a decade ago.

Time passed and the DAP market (or PMP or MP3 player, whatever folks wanted to call them) took a major dive. As smartphones became ubiquitous, the masses no longer felt a need to carry dedicated audio players; the phone could do it all. While the company may have continued to flourish in other markets, Cowon flew under the radar for years in the USA. The few releases I did see where not very well received and audio enthusiast demand for Cowon products seemed pretty much dead.

Then came what I'll call the second wave of players led by the desire for higher sound quality than what most phones can give. Cowon jumped into the fray in 2014 with their Plenue 1—a $999 statement product meant to compete with the best of the best. The company has since expanded the Plenue line to include models like the Plenue S and Plenue M, while dropping the original Plenue 1 price to $699.

Note that you'll often see the Plenue 1 referred to as the P1, which makes total sense but is not technically correct. For my purposes I'll just called it "the Plenue" since I don't have any of the newer additions here to confuse matters.

External Design
The Plenue, to my eyes, is well built and straight to the point. Simple. Clean lines. The power button is recessed and the side panel transport and volume controls stick out just enough to be easily felt. Low profile is the term that springs to mind. The expansion and connectivity slots are hidden underneath a removable cover, so all you really see most of the time is the headphone jack on bottom.

Its a sleek look that works well if you like understated design. Never once did I feel I was missing out due to lack of a fancy rotating volume knob or carbon fiber rear panel. My only real complaint is the bezel around the display is unreasonably large. I'm not a smartphone snob who demands a razor thin bezel but this thing is out of control.

That said, the 3.7" AMOLED display has excellent color and contrast, with generous viewing angles as well. 480 x 800 is not the highest resolution but there is more to life than pixel peeping on a dedicated audio player. No real complaints here.

Worth noting: Cowon bundles a very nice leather case straight out of the box. It's the sort of case you'd expect to pay decent money for, so this is a nice touch.

Internal Design
Cowon bases their device around the TI PCM1792A DAC chip. It may not be as trendy as the ESS Sabre line or the new 32-bit AKM chips, but this is a technically excellent DAC. To extract peak performance, Cowon uses a low jitter TCXO clock, and claims high-performance capacitors, resistors, and opamps in the design. Not much in the way of specifics are really mentioned, but the headphone out can supply 2Vrms and has a measured output impedance of just under 3 Ohms. The Plenue handles most formats, with PCM going up to 384kHz. That includes playback of 352.8kHz material, which is often called "DXD" format though it's still technically just PCM. DSD tops out at DSD128—sorry, your massive collection of native quad and octuple-rate DSD recordings won't work here.

The system is driven by a dual core ARM A9 chip running at 1.2 GHz per core. Volume is handled in the digital domain with 140 steps available. Holding volume up or down buttons results in a satisfyingly speedy adjustment, individual clicks give .5 dB changes. This works out very well in practice.

I also like that Cowon gives menu options for Headphone mode and Earphone mode. Headphone mode allows full scale 2Vrms output while Earphone mode is capped at around one quarter of that level. The result? Sensitive headphones used in Earphone mode take higher volume settings and this reduces digital attenuation, while more difficult headphones can still get the full output voltage if needed. It's win-win and I'm surprised more designs don't do similar when using a digital volume control scheme.

User Interface
Rather than using Android underpinnings as Pono, iBasso, and others have done, Cowon went with an embedded Linux solution. The look is not too different from Astell & Kern in some aspects, but of course each has their own unique way of doing things. I find the Cowon UI generally intuitive and self explanatory after just a bit of practice. My only real complaint is that the menu icons are a bit on the small side, and packed too tightly together. This makes it slightly more difficult for us big and tall users to catch the right option on the first try.

DAP3_CowonPlenue1_Photo_Display

Customization is provided allowing for different looks to the main playback screen. Users can choose "analog" VU meters for example, along with other enhancements and color/texture changes. I believe I mentioned the display being of higher-than-average quality which is always welcome, and overall I found I enjoyed interacting with the Plenue more than the Calyx, iBasso, Pono, and HiFiMAN players. I put it on equal footing with the Astell & Kern stuff, and just a hair behind the Sony ZX2.

As for sound tweaking options, Cowon gives us their JetEffect7 engine which is fairly robust. There's an effective 10 band EQ, simulated surround and other processing enhancements, bass boost, etc. It works better than most, though honestly I generally leave these things turned off when I'm not testing them out for a review. I particularly like the BBE Headphone enhancement options which are something like an "excitement" EQ setting. Certainly not appropriate for all music but there were times I actually used it during normal listening—a rarity for any sort of sound processing on a DAP.

Connectivity
The Plenue comes with 128GB storage which can be expanded via micro-SD slot. The device can function as a USB DAC using a standard micro-USB connection, and there's also optical digital output (in 3.5mm form) for those using external DACs. Cowon doesn't give any wireless connectivity at all, so no WiFi or Bluetooth here.

Also missing is what we'll call a "true" line-out connection. Cowon recommends just using the headphone jack and turning volume up to full blast. This results in adequate output levels, though an argument can be made that it's not as transparent as a dedicated signal path would be. My view is that this sort of thing really hinges on the quality of the existing headphone amp stage—if it's good enough, and decently powerful, I won't likely need an external amp. If it's not, there had better be a proper way of accessing that signal. Fortunately for Cowon I think this device falls into the former category.

Battery
This end up being pretty standard at about 9 hours, give or take. Nothing exceptional by any means, but enough to not stand out as being sub-par in the category of high-end players. I've decided that 7 hours is my minimum and anything less is unacceptable. Perhaps I arrived at that conclusion based on a theoretical 1 hour worth of listening per day.... I'm actually not sure why I settled on that exact number. Whatever the case, the Plenue passes that test pretty comfortably, though as always I would have loved to see significantly more time available.

Sound Quality
The Plenue has a warm, inviting tone that screams "analog" without going too far overboard. Resolution and detail retrieval are quite well done, but overall the Plenue seems more focused on producing an organic sound than being a microdetail monster. It's slightly dark feeling at times, just enough to take the last bit of shimmer and sparkle off certain sounds, though I rarely feel like it's a bad trade-off considering the musical enjoyment it brings. The result is very much in the same school as the Pono, Cayin N6, Calyx M, and HiFiMAN HM802 in terms of warmish, smooth tonal balance, and I'd say all of these tend to give "encouragement" to otherwise mediocre sounding recordings and headphones.

Of those, Calyx probably remains my top choice for sound, with the Cowon and Cayin just inches behind. The Calyx has such poor battery life that I don't really find it competitive though, and the fairly high price plus lack of any firmware support puts it squarely into "novelty" status as far as I'm concerned. That means the Cowon and the Cayin players—both very similarly priced—duke it out for top honors in the "musical" DAP category.

While Cayin's EQ is surprisingly useful considering their somewhat basic UI, it can't touch the effectiveness of the Plenue, which sports dozens of options for sound tweaks. If that's your thing, there's really no competition. On basic, unaltered sound quality, the two are very closely matched. The Cowon has a more liquid, flowing midrange, and slightly better bass texture. The N6 does bass kick and impact in a more satisfying way though, and perhaps retains a touch more sparkle up top. My theory is that Cowon has a better DAC implementation while Cayin's amplification stage is superior, but it's hard to know for sure.

The Plenue isn't quite as potent as the Cayin when it comes to driving more difficult headphones. Something like a Sennheiser HD650 will respond better to the extra juice from the N6. Not that the Plenue sounds terrible driving higher impedance cans, but it does seem more comfortable with low impedance models. My Grado PS500, Ultrasone Edition 12, and Audio Technica M70x are all superb with the Plenue, to the point where adding an external amp doesn't really show much improvement. Of course, that could be the line-out issue holding it back, but I really am quite satisfied with the results I'm getting straight from the player.

IEM matching is impressive as well. It seems the output impedance is just low enough to squeak by without causing much trouble, though I'm sure I could find an IEM or two which doesn't sound ideal. For the most part though it's a non-issue. The Plenue's silent background is very welcome, and the liquid midrange and smooth treble work wonders for the occasionally overbearing IEM. As much as I love my JH13 Pro FreqPhase, it can get fatiguing during longer sessions, especially with certain music. The Plenue really helps take the edge off for long term listening, while maintaining a very natural feeling. Unlike the HM802 which is fun but pretty obviously colored, the Plenue takes a more subtle path to achieving its signature musicality.

As enjoyable as it is, if this thing was still at the old $999 price I'd probably lump it in as being mid-pack overall. But with Cowon launching a newer flagship and positioning the Plenue 1 at $699, it's very hard to overlook, and certainly in the running for Wall of Fame status.

COMMENTS
tony's picture

This is one hell-of-a-summary!

Battery life, efficiency, Streaming, Quality, Design Integrity, you're hitting all the key points. What do I owe you for this? Buying the wrong feature Set is an expensive mistake.

Can you offer an opinion on the New Phones as Audio Players? the V20 for example.

It would seem that the World will be using their Phones as DAPs, I hope to encourage you to continue your "important" work in this new area.

Thank you for all this work!

Tony in Michigan

John Grandberg's picture

...are getting better (at least some of them). Unfortunately it seems like LG and others don't want to bother with us lowly audio journalists. I have a heck of a time getting replies from their PR people, which makes it tough to properly investigate. I'll keep at it though.

I'm currently using a ZTE Axon 7 as my daily driver and it's pretty impressive, both as a phone and in terms of audio quality. Not a true "DAP replacement" but very impressive for what it is.

flohmann's picture

A big omission, it seems to me, since the X1a is about $650, supports up to 400gb, and runs a newer version of Android than the Sony player (so runs all the apps that the Sony player does). Maybe Part 4?

John Grandberg's picture

I had the original DP-X1 when it first came out. Weird battery issues, and then the 3.5mm jack went sideways. I figured it was just an anomaly, but then a friend with a pretty decent measurement rig got some wild results with his DP-X1 - *extreme* deviation from the published specs. Those two experiences were enough to put me off when it comes to Onkyo.

Don't know if those issues are still present with the DP-X1a, and honestly I haven't kept up with it. But from now on I'll be doing updates one DAP at a time so I should manage to be more nimble going forward. Perhaps an Onkyo is in my future one of these days.

logscool's picture

I also had issues with my original DP-X1 and almost didn't get a second one after trying the not very good OPUS#1 I went ahead and got a second DP-X1 I've had no issues with the new unit. There is a pioneer unit coming out that looks to be identical (XDP-300R). There is also the single ended only version Pioneer makes (XDP-100R).

Meshail's picture

Why do you find the opus #1 bad or ( not good ) where is it lacking, I'm asking as I want to grab one now as price is like 290$ & you are the second person who is saying it is not good

logscool's picture

It just didn't have a lot of weight or dynamics to the sound pretty "digital" sounding in comparison to better sources. If you have a chance to try it then definitely try it as you might like it's signature.

Meshail's picture

Can you please suggest me a better dap in the sub 300 $ range as the opus#1 runs for 289$ on amazon

Long time listener's picture

I note you mention the Fiio X5, but they now also have an X7--disappointed not to see it as I would appreciate comparisons. I trust the Fiio brand, they use a good DAC chip, and the sound seems very good at the $600-700 range. But is there better?

Also, to Tyll, a review of the new Shure electrostatic IEM would be appreciated. Thanks

John Grandberg's picture
See, there's the dilemma I mentioned - always another worthy model coming out. I finally had to put my foot down and just go with what I had, else it all became irrelevant. But I definitely intend to catch up on newer models from Fiio, Cayin, Astell&Kern, and perhaps the new Sony models. One at a time though!
thefitz's picture

I use the DX90 because you can plug in a USB hard drive via OTG. Use Western Digital drives. 2TB+ at my fingertips!

John Grandberg's picture
The literature for the Acoustic Research M2 also mentions the same OTG functionality. I never actually tried it but I can see how that might come in handy in some cases. Thanks for the info!
jcheadphone's picture

Thanks John. Really enjoyed reading your three part series on DAPs. I used to own the Calyx M and agree it sounded wonderful. I ended up selling it because of the shortcomings that your mentioned and others. I currently own a ZX2. It sounds great and is able to drive all my headphones from my Shure SE846 to Audeze LCD-XCs with good results (although the XCs as expected certainly benefit from a desktop headphone amp). I also picked up a pair of Sony MDR-1000x wireless noise cancelling headphones for travel. The LDAC streaming with the ZX2 sounds very good. In A/B tests with 16/44 ALAC and FLAC tracks I can't distinguish a difference between the wired connection and the LDAC wireless streaming. I note that Sony has now made LDAC available on the licensing market so maybe we'll see it on other non Sony Bluetooth products in the future.

Three Toes of Fury's picture

As a big fan of better quality sound on-the-go, the ever evolving DAP market is of big interest to me. I very much appreciate you taking the time to review so many entries. Its great to see this site evolve in its review and wall-o-fame offerings.

Great stuff...keep it up...even if you dont do the huge comparison reviews (takes loads o time im sure), drop in with a 1-off review of a DAP every now and then. Would be much appreciated

Peace .n. Living in Stereo

3ToF

GlennT's picture

I own a Questyle QP1R and I love it. However, I agree that the scroll wheel's functionality is disappointing. Before I bought the QP1R I had the expectation that the scroll wheel on it would be as useful as the old iPod scroll wheels used to be, but that's not the case. I find that the touch-sensitive buttons around the outside of the scroll wheel as well as the button in the center of the wheel become usability obstacles when scrolling. It's too easy to accidentally brush against the touch-sensitive buttons when scrolling. It can be very frustrating when trying to scroll to a specific selection only to suddenly be dumped back at the home screen because your finger accidentally brushed against one of the touch-sensitive buttons surrounding the scroll wheel. The wheel is also pretty slippery, making it sometimes difficult to grip. However, they have an adhesive film that goes over the scroll wheel that Questyle will provide to you upon request at no cost that mostly solves this problem.

husafreak's picture

I am a huge fan of my QP1R. It is beautiful and sounds fantastic. Clean, dynamic, and detailed. Your review is on the money. I would say that the scroll wheel cover is a must to facilitate its use. I believe the unit ships with them now but they are free and easy to get, actually something as simple as a generic stick on rubber dot can solve this design flaw.
I use mine with a set of 64 Audio U6's, TH-X00's, and now Mr Speakers Ether Flows. It is amazing to me how much detail and life I can hear with the Ether Flows. I had to comment because my son is a drummer, a professional now, and so I really get into the nuances of drums and cymbals. I swear I could hear the double bass chain mechanism rattling away when I was auditioning the Flows through my QP1R! I look forward to hearing the Spark album you used in your review.
By the way there is a very active QP1R thread on the Head-Fi forums and the company has been very proactive in releasing timely updates. In only one year they have solved many requests.

John Grandberg's picture
...for the comment. Glad you are enjoying the QP1R. The firmware aspect is yet another category which I probably could have used to judge each model, or at least each brand. Questyle is indeed one of the better ones in terms of frequent updates.
Jayhawklaw's picture

I love comparisons like this. I hope you (and your sister publications) do more. So much more meaningful data for the "everyman." I would love to see a similar survey for portable dac/amps (e.g.: Audioquest Dragon Flies Red and Black, Oppo HA-2SE, Chord Mojo, etc.)and how a smartphone with one of said dac/amps connect compares to the dedicated DAPs.

jcheadphone's picture

At first I was disappointed that Sony decided to go with a proprietary WM port rather than micro USB. When I contacted Sony tech support via phone to ask about this the tech rep said the WM port was intentional because it allowed the left and right channels to be separated for optimum line out sound quality. Don't know how much this explanation holds water but thought I would mention it.

John Grandberg's picture
They say the same thing about their 3.5mm jack. Not sure it really makes a notable improvement of any sort in terms of SQ, but it's a perfect example of Sony being Sony.
Martin.'s picture

The only DAP that seems "consumer friendly" in my eyes is the Sony NWZ-A17, which is priced at 300$. Is it even worth buying a DAP for 300 usd when you can save a bit more for a mojo at ca 500? The real question being, other than portability, what advantage would a 800$+ DAP have over a 500$ portable DAC like the mojo and, most importantly, would it make a discernible, audible difference? Thanks for any answer :)

John Grandberg's picture

Different folks will have different priorities, and each solution has pros and cons.

I like a dedicated DAP because it's smaller and easier to manage than a phone-plus-Mojo type solution. Also many phones don't have expandable storage so a DAP with 128GB or 200GB (or more) can be useful if your phone is stuck at 32GB or even 16GB. If we're talking Sony ZX2, then battery life is supremely better than a Mojo. Last but not least, there are various sound signatures to be had with different DAP models. Not everyone loves the Mojo presentation, as popular as it seems to be. The target market who prefers the sound of a Cowon Plenue 1, for example, is not likely to be thrilled with the Chord.

On the other side, it could be argued that you always carry your phone with you anyway, so a DAP isn't really saving any space over a Mojo setup. And a decent phone is usually superior when it comes to display quality, ability to run apps, etc. In some (many?) cases the Mojo sound will be superior depending on your criteria.

I agree that there aren't enough affordable options right now. I'm still looking for a true replacement for the Sansa Clip/Clip+/Clip Zip. Only reason I can't put those on the Wall of Fame is the fact that they are long since discontinued.

Martin.'s picture

Thanks for your answer. Being a novice, I usually want a "this is best" answer because I feel I need to be told what is best by veterans in the field. It is nice to be reminded that audiogear is personal and that "different strokes for different folks". Your well balanced answer is much appreciated.

br777's picture

has convinced me yet to give up my sansa clip zip.

Rblnr's picture

Very comprehensive and useful reviews. I've been using the Plenue 1 for a couple of years after testing it against others at the time of purchase and am still very happy with it driving JH Audio Angies and some over the ear headphones as well. Surprised that Cowon doesn't get more attention. The sound is as described, smooth and easy, but by no means lacking dynamics micro or macro. Sometimes I want a more 'in your face' sound and the BBE and other profiles ( as noted in the review) can provide that to a point.

I also have to say that I have little tolerance for wonky interfaces anymore -- time for those manufacturers to enter the 21st century, whether or not interface is really their expertise. The Cowon's ergonomics, while perhaps 'merely' utilitarian, are at least direct and unfussy.

Peragulator's picture

No love here for the X7 I see.

John Grandberg's picture
I just had to stop accepting or seeking out new models at some point, or else I'd never get this thing finished. I intend to revisit different models from time to time, so a Fiio of some sort is certainly on the horizon.
Trebor74's picture

Hi, great review! Are there, or will there be, any measurements available at some point to complement the reviews? I'm especially interested in the Cowon measurements - Cowon and a couple of other sites have posted THD figures for the player but these are probably not with any load. I'm curious to see how well it performs (in terms of THD both in earphone and headphone modes) on some low impedance cans. Thank you!

Peragulator's picture

AK300 ($899.00) Sony 1a ($1,199.00) FiiO X5 3rd gen ($400.00) Pioneer 300r OPUS #2 ($1,400.00)

yc627's picture

I'd Love to see some flagship phones' real world comparison in their ability to reproduce sound through headphones... Such as:

Sony Xperia XZ premium: they say it can do 24bit 192kHz audio. And Sony's own LDAC bluetooth codec. How does it sound like with Sony h.ear go SRS‑HG1 bluetooth speaker compared to other devices... + Sony Xperia Z series and to the XZ lineup, they had this noise cancelling earphones that needs no battery boxes like the Sony MDR-NC750 and MDR-NC31E I also wonder what you guys think about those earphones.

Samsung Galaxy S8: I hear it can do 32-bit/384kHz audio and I wonder what audiophile people would think about that.

LG V10, V20, V30: I heard they got 32-bit/192kHz audio and B&O Play certified. LG seems like they don't really do a lot of marketing on the audio parts what do you think about the B&O Play certification?

Just a question from a college student who is somewhat regretting getting a Sennheiser Momentum 2.0 just because it had a huge discount on Amazon and is thinking that I should have gotten the V-Moda M100 or Sony H.ear on MDR100ABN or just go crazy and go with Sennheiser Momentum Wireless...

trl's picture

Based on https://reviewzorro.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/08/HifimanHM901s3.jpg seems that Hifiman 901S has 2 x ES9018S inside. Quite impressive, so that explains the price indeed.

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