Change is in the air!
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.
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.
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.
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 (http://www.cowonglobal.com/zeroboard/zboard.php?id=C09&category=&no=79&bmenu=support&category=60). 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.
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.
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 480×800 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.