Under the hood.
While P2/mk2 design used AKM AK4497EQ DAC, in PL Cowon made another leap forward with a desktop grade top of the line ESS ES9038Pro DAC. 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 a lot 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, and DCF. Also, it finally supports DSD256, while P2/mk2 was only up to DSD128.
Display is the same 3.7″ AMOLED touch screen with a basic 480×800 resolution and deep rich colors. As I mentioned before, PL has 256GB of built-in memory and microSD card expansion. In addition to 3.5mm single ended HO which doubles as optical digital output, PL also has 4.4mm balanced HO, a welcome step up from previous 2.5mm BAL (in P2). Per spec, SE 3.5mm port is rated at 2.1Vrms with output impedance of 0.9ohm and balanced port boosts the output to 4.05Vrms with output impedance of 1.8ohm. Based on the rough calculation, balanced output of PL can drive over 500mW into 32ohm load. Also, I’m glad the output impedance went down in comparison to P2 mk2 model.
The rechargeable battery is the same 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 while playing a mix of mp3 and FLAC files, I was getting closer to 9hrs of battery life, as it was advertised by manufacturer. Of course, as expected, when you play hi-res DSD files which requires more processing due to native decoding, the battery life will decrease. While this is a typical average battery performance which is OK for AK4497EQ DC, it’s very impressive for PL considering it uses a more power hungry ES9038Pro desktop grade DAC.
As I mentioned already in my P2 and P2 mk2 reviews, 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 the only one that makes sense to me is when 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.
If you owned any of the Plenue DAPs in the last 4 years, there is zero learning curve once you turn PL on. 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 some variations driven by features of a newly introduced DAC or some other enhancements, but everything is easy to figure out and very intuitive even for those who are not familiar with Plenue DAPs.
With a few words about the display, I know some might find 480×800 resolution to be not the greatest, but for displaying artwork and other elements of the GUI it was more than enough. It’s not the highest resolution but, for example, the analog needle of level meter display wasn’t choppy and looked very convincing. The AMOLED display is crisp with nice vibrant deep colors. 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. Here, the touch screen response was on a level close to my smartphone.
When you turn the power on with a start up time depending on the database update, the DAP goes into 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, 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, Playlist, 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 playback 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), select Headphone mode On (high gain) or Off (low gain), Remove silence (gapless), set the track skip interval, set Rewind/FFWD speed, Select a skin and a level meter, show time elapsed or remaining, and load the background image used in the menus.
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 Fast (min), Slow (min), Fast (linear), Slow (linear), Apodizing, Hybrid, and Brickwall. Display setting has a selection of Language, Brightness, and 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. AI Audio with AI volume, JetEffect, shuffle, and shuffle options. System setting with selection of Hearing Protection (volume limiter which can be enabled/disabled now), 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), usb DAC power (from PC/smartphone or internal battery), 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).
AI Audio was already introduced in P2 mk2 update, and here are more details about it:
AI Volume – enabling this feature makes the volume between the tracks remain at the same level. Some might have noticed that different audio tracks have variation in loudness, and this AI Volume feature normalizes the levels. But it doesn’t normalize the tracks by compressing them, like it’s done in WM1Z which I personally don’t like. Instead, it’s done in a very transparent way without ruining the dynamics.
AI JetEffect – enabling this feature randomizes JetEffect presets, which I think is done based on the ID tag of the song genre. I wasn’t too crazy about this feature since JetEffect can really alter the sound, while I prefer to be in control of this setting. It’s a fun feature, but if you decide to enable it, make sure to select AI Volume as well because some of the JetEffect presets can really change the volume. When both AI Volume and AI JetEffect are enabled, volume variation is down to a minimum.
AI Shuffle – I’m still trying to figure out how it differs from a regular shuffle, when enabled. It does come with additional settings, where you have Shuffle by Preference (normal, high, and reverse) and Shuffle by Time (normal and high). In my opinion, AI Shuffle is just an enhanced version of a regular Shuffle Play where you have additional controls, such as Preference and Time.
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 semi-Parametric 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 semi-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.
JetEffect DSP effects of Plenue DAPs is a great tool if you like to tweak the sound, if you want to fine tune the performance, and if you need a powerful EQ tool.