In this test I was using PL with 64 Audio U18t and Campfire Audio Solaris (both balanced) while playing the selection of my favorite test tracks, such as Agnes Obel “The curse”, Sandro Cavazza “So much better” (Avicii remix), C-Bool “Never go away”, Ed Sheeran “Shape of you”, Galantis “Hunter”, Iggy Azalea “Black widow”, Indila “Boite en argent”, Robin Schultz “Oh child”, David Elias “Vision of her”, and Michael Jackson “Dirty Diana” to analyze the sound of this DAP.
I did compare the sound out of the box and 100hrs later after standalone burn-in, and was surprised to find a noticeable difference, perhaps due to capacitors burn in? Out of the box the tonality of PL was nearly identical to P2 mk2 which puzzled me at first. After the burn in, I hear PL to have a tighter, better controlled, more articulate, layered bass with a deeper extension and noticeably more textured rumble. Also, the lower treble became a little smoother, more natural. I made these observations while comparing to P2 mk2.
The signature of PL is still closer to neutral with a more revealing natural tonality and excellent retrieval of details, reaching micro-detail level. The sound is very layered with an impressive separation, especially from balanced output. The same with vertical expansion of dynamics which I expected to stand out once I read 128dB Signal-to-Noise ratio spec.
Soundstage expansion is very spacious in every direction with a precise imaging of instruments and vocals placement. Of course, this is all based on how I hear it with selected pairs of IEMs I used for testing but considering that I have tested dozens of sources – I can draw a conclusion that PL lets the soundstage of any earphone/headphone open to their full potential.
Another thing that stands out with PL is its nearly pitch-black background with zero hissing even with sensitive IEMs like Andromeda and Solaris. Even from a high-power Balanced output, there was hardly any hissing when I’m idling the playback or dropping the volume down to zero during the playback. With such quiet black background, the transient response of note on/off is very fast, making the details pop up with more clarity and cleaner edge.
I already mentioned significance and superior quality of the Balanced output in PL a few times, and there is a good reason for that. Besides a difference in output power, Single Ended requires about 7-8 more volume clicks to match Balanced output, there is a noticeable difference between their sound performance. BAL output soundstage is wider, and it’s quite noticeable. Also, BAL output has blacker background, making its sound tighter and with faster on/off note transient. In contrast, I find SE output to be a little less resolving and with an overall warmer tonality.
Also, I was quite impressed with DSD playback performance of BAL output, something I rarely test since I have only a handful of DSD high res tracks. With PL, while testing DSD64/128/256 files, in comparison to LPGT, SPK SS, and DX200Ti (w/amp8), the sound has the most holographic soundstage expansion with the best vertical dynamics I heard out of these 4 flagship DAPs.
As it was mentioned already, ES9038Pro DAC offers a selection of 7 digital filters: Fast (mix), Slow (min), Fast (linear), Slow (linear), Apodizing, Hybrid, and Brickwall. These digital filters do affect the bass performance, almost like there is a band-pass filter around sub-/mid-bass since upper mids/treble weren’t affected, though the effect is subtle. Here is what I hear:
- Fast (min) -> Slow (min): slow has a subtle effect of a slight sub-bass attenuation, giving more power to the mid-bass punch.
- Fast (min) -> Fast (linear): linear adds a little bit of rumble in the sub-bass, it’s a subtle effect.
- Fast (linear) -> Slow (linear): similar effect to when comparing fast/slow “min”.
- Fast (min) -> Apodizing: apodizing rolls off deep sub-bass rumble, making bass a little leaner and a touch faster. This effect is a little more noticeable than fast->slow.
- Fast (min) -> Hybrid: I hear a little more sub-bass rumble, but also the attack/speed of the mid-bass is a bit slower; this effect is more audible when focusing on kick drums.
- Fast (min) -> Brickwall: I hear a little more punch in the mid-bass, this effect reminds in of the brickwall compressor with a focus on low end, trying to help the kick drum cut better through the mix.
All these changes are subtle, but if you have earphones/headphones with a good low end extension and a set of trained ears, you can spot the difference after careful listening.
In my pair up test I had PL set in high (headphone) gain and noted either BAL or SE connection and volume level in every case.
64 Audio U18t (BAL, V49) – wide soundstage expansion, more balanced signature, revealing natural tonality, especially in mids (vocals), good low end extension, nice airy treble with a controlled sparkle.
64 Audio Fourte (BAL, V49) – wide soundstage expansion, more v-shaped signature, deep visceral bass, lean lower mids, revealing upper mids, sparkly bright treble (not harsh) with a nice definition. Due to elevated bass and extra sparkle, mids perception pushed a little back.
64 Audio U12t (SE, V70) – wide soundstage expansion, more balanced signature with mids pushing a little forward, bass being closer to neutral, though with a nice extension, mids being neutral and natural, still with a good retrieval of details, treble having a nice airy extension with a well-defined sparkle. Good pair up, though the sound was a bit raw.
iBasso IT01s (BAL, V45) – wide soundstage expansion, nicely balanced signature with a deep low-end rumble, natural revealing mids with great retrieval of details and slightly out of your head presentation, good airy treble extension with a well control crisp sparkle.
Noble K10UA (SE, V58) – wide soundstage expansion, nicely balanced signature with a very good low-end extension and a nice mid-bass punch, more natural revealing mids which are slightly pulled back, and a crisp revealing well controlled non-harsh treble.
Westone W80 (SE, V54) – wide holographic soundstage, nicely balanced W-shaped signature with deep laidback bass, fuller body natural mids (slightly pulled back in quantity and with more out of your head presentation), and airy treble with a well-controlled sparkle.
Sennheiser IE800S (BAL, V61) – wide soundstage with further out of your head depth expansion, slightly v-shaped signature with a deep sub-bass rumble and a nice mid-bass punch, more neutral lower mids, natural detailed upper mids, and crisp airy treble. Bass is more noticeable here, almost between the v-shaped and slightly L-shaped signature.
Empire Ears Legend X (BAL, V57) – wide soundstage expansion, pure L-shaped signature with deep bass that goes low with a resonating sub-bass rumble and hard-hitting mid-bass punch, neutral natural detailed mids, and well controlled treble sparkle. This is probably the most bass I heard from LX out of any pair up, and while the bass is clearly dominating here, it’s still well controlled.
Campfire Audio Andromeda (BAL, V35) – wide soundstage expansion, a balanced signature with a more forward mids presentation, deep rumble, laid back mid-bass, more neutral lower mids and brighter more revealing upper mids, and crisp airy non-fatigue treble.
Campfire Audio Solaris (BAL, V31) – wide soundstage expansion, very nicely balanced sound signature with a natural revealing tonality, deep sub-bass rumble, fast mid-bass punch, natural revealing mids, crisp airy non-fatigue treble extension. Great pair up.
VE ZEN ZOE (BAL, V80, 320 ohm) – wide soundstage expansion, nicely balanced signature with a laidback organic natural tonality. Deep warm laidback bass, full body smooth natural mids, very well controlled treble definition. Quite detailed for a laidback smooth sound.
Oppo PM3 (BAL, V80, Planar magnetic) – wide soundstage expansion, smooth balanced signature with a very good retrieval of details. To my surprise, here bass goes deep and hits harder than usual, very well controlled without any spillage into lower mids (very rare for PM3 pair ups). Mids have full body and sound very natural with a little brighter more revealing upper mids, and a moderate treble with a good definition. This pair up was quite unique for PM3.
Audeze EL8C (SE, V100, Planar magnetic) – wide soundstage expansion, noticeably mid-forward signature, though there is a nice sub-bass extension and fast mid-bass punch, just that the quantity of low end is closer to neutral level. Lower mids are lean, upper mids are brighter, more analytical and treble is very crisp. I do hear a little bit of metallic sheen in this pair up. This wasn’t my favorite pair up with EL8C since tonality was too thin and revealing for my taste.
Audio-Technica ATH-R70x (SE, V106, 470ohm open back) – wide holographic soundstage, nicely balanced signature with a natural revealing tonality. Unlike other pair ups, here the sub-bass rumble goes deeper, and mids-bass has a nice punch, the bass is very well controlled and nicely layered. Mids are natural, smooth, revealing, excellent retrieval of details, and treble is airy, expanded, and a has a nice natural sparkle. In this pair up, bass comes out and shines and so does excellent retrieval of details in mids.
Beyerdynamic T5p2 (BAL, V66, Full size Tesla) – wide soundstage expansion, nicely balanced signature with a natural revealing tonality. Deep sub-bass rumble with a punchy mid-bass, more neutral lower mids and natural revealing upper mids, along with a crisp airy well controlled treble. I do hear in this pair up mids being slightly pulled back, but it’s done in a tasteful way, giving a little more power to the bass and crisper definition to treble.
Previous Plenue DAPs had a satisfying pair up with IEMs, but not with full size more demanding cans. PL breaks that mold with some great full size pair up surprises.