Change is in the air!
Not sure if I’m qualified to talk about the “change” since I never actually tested 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 Plenue M2 (PM2) review. Seems that 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 Plenue 2 (P2), I expected to hear a similar sound inside of an updated chassis, just like in a recent refresh of their mid-fi PM2 or their latest releases of an entry level Plenue D (PD) and a flagship Plenue S (PS). But instead of a similar scaled design featured in PD, PM2, and PS, the new P2 surprised everyone with a new dual Wheel controls, one dedicated to a volume adjustment and the other one customizable with different functions.
Preliminary Sound analysis.
Turned out that the dual Wheel wasn’t the only surprise change. 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. As I already mentioned, I didn’t hear the original P1 and only familiar with PM2, but certainly can draw a conclusion that a sound change is in the air because I’m hearing 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, detailed, layered, and dynamic type of sound with a fast-transient response of notes, black background, and a natural timbre of instruments and vocals.
For example, I consider DX200 to have more reference type of sound quality. In comparison, P2 is a little smoother, with a little fuller body and more low end impact. While testing P2 with W900 hybrid IEMs, I hear the bass punch coming through stronger, with more articulation and authority. In comparison to P2, PM2 is smoother and warmer, not as layered or revealing, and I consider P2 as an upgrade to PM2 where I need to use JefEffect to bring PM2 to P2 level. Based on my early impressions, P2 with its AK4497EQ DAC doesn’t have your typical AK4490 smooth/musical sound, but rather has a smooth reference sound, like a crossover between DX200 and Opus#2. And surprisingly, it sounds very close to LPG, though PAW Gold still uses PCM1792A. I do hear a slightly better layering in sound with LPG, but overall tonality and bass impact are very close. Based on my impressions after 100hrs+ of standalone burn in, I can summarize P2 as being like a crossover of the reference quality DX200 with a fuller body smoothness of Opus#2 and layering and low end impact of LPG.
Another thing I’m very pleased to inform about is that in comparison to other flagship DAPs I have on rotation (LPG, Opus#2, and DX200), I found P2 to have the least amount of hissing with sensitive Zeus XRA. For me it became almost like a requirement to test Zeus w/1960 cable and different DAPs to determine which one will yield the best synergy with the least amount of hissing (when idling).
In addition to 3.5mm single ended HO which doubles as optical digital output, P2 also added 2.5mm balanced HO. Per the available spec, each port is rated at 2Vrms with output impedance of 0.6ohm (3.5mm) and 1.2ohm (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. But after a closer listening with higher res IEMs to compare and to analyze unbalanced vs balanced outputs – the difference is actually noticeable. I used W900, Zeus XRA, and UERR for this test, all with balanced terminated cables, and compared P2 straight from 2.5mm vs 3.5mm w/adapter. Volume remained the same and I used the same track for comparison. In every case I found balanced output to yield a little higher volume (more power), to have a wider soundstage, and to have a blacker background with a cleaner on/off transition of notes. These changes were not necessary night’n’day, but they were noticeable.
While there are no surprises with GUI interface (common to many Plenue DAPs), the biggest difference here is a new DAC and the volume and the multi-function wheels. I like being able to use the wheel to change 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. Both volume and multi-function wheels have a nice click action as you turn them, but at the same time they are not very tight. That makes their control very easy, with just an index finger as you hold P2 in your hand, but at the same time there is some rattling when you shake P2.
Also, as part of AKM DAC architecture, now you have access to 6 filters (short delay sharp, short delay slow, sharp, slow, low dispersion short delay, and super slow), 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.
The new case is gorgeous, with deep burgundy rich color and high quality cowhide leather. It fits the DAP like a glove and doesn’t hide the beauty of P2 design. Personally, I do prefer cut outs around hw control 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 softer thinner leather which is easy to press. Furthermore, to make sure no dust gets inside, the case also covers the microSD card slot.
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 a customizable 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, plus you get 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 nice click action as you turn it. While other manufacturer implement a bar guard over the top or around the sides of their volume wheel, here Cowon used a different approach with a top of the chassis in the upper right corner lifted to form a guard bar covering only part of those 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 either white/red LEDs lit up when corresponding wheel is being turned. As I mentioned before, even so both wheels turn with a controlled click action, they do feel a bit loose to enable operation with just a finger, thus when you shake the dap you can hear a bit of rattling around these wheels, though I didn’t find it to be distracting.
Also, as previously mentioned, GUI is identical to PM2 and other Plenue models, the same very intuitive and highly responsive touch interface. If you’re familiar with other Cowon Plenue DAPs, you will feel right at home with P2. You also should expect a support of majority of lossless and lossy audio formats, such as DXD, DSD (DFF, DSF), FLAC, WAV, AIFF, ALAC, APE, MP3, WMA, OGG, though it still only supports up to DSD128 but not quad (DSD256). Of course, JetEffect 7 is there as well with 50 included presets and 16 user configurable ones, 10 band semi-parametric EQ (with adjustable frequency band and bandwidth), BBE+, and other special effects.
The rechargeable battery has 3,050mAh capacity, and I verified 9.5hrs of playback with 320kbps mp3 and over 8.5hrs of playback with lossless hi-res files. For a touch screen DAP with plenty of power this seems to be above the average performance, so no complaints here.
Conclusion (based on first impression).
When I started to write this first impression, my original intention was to post a few lines and pictures describing some initial thoughts about Plenue 2 DAP. As I started to type, a few lines turned into a few paragraphs, and then a short first impression mini-review fueled by a handful of my readers’ requests to describe the sound relative to other DAPs I have access to. Of course, you can expect in a near future a full detailed review with more in depth sound and design analysis, a pair up with various IEMs and full size headphones, and a more detailed comparison to other DAPs. 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.
I use a handful of DAPs in my daily rotation, each one with some unique sound signature suited for different headphones. To my ears P2 almost combines the best of them into one very compact design. I really like the sound signature of this DAP, the design ergonomics, the performance of the new DAC, and the addition of balanced output which to my ears has an improvement over single ended HO. Plus, you still have access to JetEffect which I find to sound very natural for dsp effects. Furthermore, you still have flexibility of a touch screen interface with a customizable GUI (different skins and meters), and optical digital out and LO (when volume set to the max). I do like the volume control with a wheel 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. So far, I’m very impressed with P2 and can see it becoming one of my daily drivers.
Cowon Plenue 2 is already available on Amazon.