Here I tested and compared PL vs other DAPs, volume matched in each comparison using U18t (w/Leo II cable) and Andromeda (w/stock cable). Of course, you need to keep in mind that PL lacks Bluetooth (especially duplex receive/transmit BT to stream from smartphone) and the ability to run apps due to no WiFi and app store support. If that’s your important requirement, PL is not for you. But if you are into a pure playback and need a flexibility to shape the sound – JetEffect DSP effects and PL’s semi-Parametric EQ are among the best.
PL vs theBit Opus#2 – a similar soundstage expansion, with PL being just a little wider. In terms of tonality, PL sounds more natural, smoother, while in comparison #2 is a bit raw and brighter in tonality. Also, PL has a more expanded dynamics with a better layering and separation of sounds. I wouldn’t say #2 is congested, but I’m just hearing PL a little better in this technical performance. Also, #2 has a lot more hissing in comparison to nearly dead quiet PL when used with Andro.
PL vs iBasso DX200 w/AMP1 – very similar soundstage expansion, both in width and depth. DX200 with default amp tonality is a little brighter, making its sound more reference while PL sounds a little smoother. In terms of sound signature, PL bass is more neutral while DX200 sub-bass has a little lift in rumble. Technically, they both have a similar sound dynamics expansion and layering/separation of the sounds. Used with Andro, DX200 has more hissing.
PL vs Luxury & Precision L6 – very similar soundstage expansion, both in width and depth. Regarding tonality, due to higher output impedance of L6/BAL out, without iEMatch L6 bass is leaner and tonality is a lot brighter in comparison to a more natural neutral PL. With iEMatch, the signature and the tonality of L6 is a lot closer to PL, except PL treble is a little smoother and more natural in comparison. Technically, they are on the same level with dynamics expansion and layering/separation. With Andro, PL is nearly dead quiet while L6 has a noticeable hissing.
PL vs Astell & Kern SP1000 SS – very similar soundstage expansion, just with PL being a little bit wider. In terms of tonality, SPK is smoother and a little bit warmer in mids, while PL is more neutral and a little more revealing in mids. Both have a similar treble rendering which is more natural and less peaky. Technically, I feel PL has a little better layering/separation where I hear a little more air between the layers, while SPK is smoother and more musical in comparison. With Andro, SKP has a touch more hissing, while PL is nearly dead quiet.
PL vs Sony WM1Z – very similar soundstage expansion, just with PL being a touch wider. In comparison, WM1Z has more sub-bass rumble with a little stronger mid-bass punch and a little more sparkle in treble, while rendering of mids is nearly identical in both DAPs. So, the tonality is rather similar, but the signature change stands out, especially due to stronger bass impact in 1Z. Technically, they are nearly identical when it comes to dynamics expansion and layering/separation of sounds. With Andro, 1Z has a touch more hissing, while PL is nearly dead quiet.
PL vs Lotoo Paw Gold Touch – very similar soundstage expansion, just with LPGT being a touch wider. This comparison has a lot of similarities. While both are neutral and very resolving, I can still spot a difference in a blind test with LPGT being a touch more neutral and slightly wider in soundstage while PL having a little deeper low end, a bit more revealing upper mids, and a touch more sparkle in treble. Technically, they are a good match with a similar dynamics expansion and separation/layers between the sounds (you can hear more air between the layers). Both are also nearly dead quiet with Andro.
PL vs P2 mk2 – Plenue L exterior is very similar to Plenue 2/2mk2. Interface is nearly identical as well. Of course, you get ES9038Pro DAC and a more powerful 4.4mm Balanced output. I hear PL with a more holographic 3D soundstage and improved imaging in comparison to Plenue 2/mk2, also the sound is more dynamic, more layered, especially when playing higher res DSD files. PL has a tighter, better controlled, more articulate, layered bass with a deeper extension (more textured rumble). Also, the lower treble is a little smoother, more natural. Perhaps there is not as big gap in tonality, but in terms of sound performance you can really hear the difference. Plus, with a lot more powerful BAL output, you can easily drive demanding headphones more efficiently in comparison to P2/mk2.
I’m not a big fan of using a dedicated audio player as USB DAC because I usually look at a DAP as a portable standalone source. If you are not happy with an audio output of your computer, there are plenty of dedicated USB DAC choices. But in some cases, when you are traveling and don’t want to bring multiple pieces of equipment, using DAP as USB DAC has its advantage.
Using PL as USB DAC was very straight forward. Drivers were installed automatically as soon as I connected PL to my Win7 ThinkPad T430s, there was no need to install custom drivers. When connection is detected, you have a choice from the touch screen to either select USB DAC or USB MSC (for a file transfer). Once you select USB DAC, my laptop volume was set to the max and I was able to adjust the volume from PL. The only negative here, DSP effects are disabled when in USB DAC mode.
In terms of the sound quality, playing the same song from laptop while using PL as USB DAC vs playing it directly from PL – there is a noticeable sound difference where the quality is higher playing it from PL directly. Using PL as usb DAC is convenient to enhance your laptop audio output, but for the best audio fidelity I recommend playing audio directly from PL. Also, seems that after you disconnect PL as usb DAC, it automatically powers down since there is no way to turn off DAC mode without rebooting PL.
PL vs PL + Micro iDSD BL – In this pair up test with iDSD the sound is a little warmer and has a deeper low end impact when compared to listening directly from PL which has a more transparent tonality with a more linear low end response. The rest is similar. It’s a great option to be able to use PL as a digital touch screen transport driving external DAC/amp supporting optical input. Also, in this pair up the volume can only be controlled from iDSD.
Plenue DAPs don’t have a dedicated Line Out port, and instead they suggest setting volume to the max in high gain where the HO acts as LO and there shouldn’t be any distortion. I have verified this in the past with previous Plenue DAPs but didn’t have interest to try it with PL since I found 3.5mm SE output to be inferior to 4.4mm BAL and I don’t have any BAL amps to test it with 4.4mm output.
While I never had a chance to hear Plenue S, based on every other Plenue DAP I have tested so far, PL is got to be my favorite one to date. I honestly don’t know why Cowon chose to call it L and what it even means, but Plenue L clearly follows the design evolution of P2 -> P2 mk2 -> PL with a very similar exterior design which almost calls for this DAP to be P3. But, regardless of what it’s called, PL is their new flagship DAP which takes all the previous legacy elements and ups it with an updated audio performance optimized around the latest desktop quality ES9038Pro DAC and high power 4.4mm BAL output.
Cowon philosophy was always focused on sound performance as their highest priority. Even so they did implement a basic Bluetooth functionality in Plenue R model, it seems that Cowon is one of the few companies who doesn’t care as much about streaming or app support or even the latest trend of duplex BT to stream from the smartphone. That certainly will play an important role when you’re choosing your next flagship DAP. But if high resolution audio playback from a local storage is your top priority, and you are looking for a lightweight, compact portable DAP with a fast customizable interface, top quality audio performance, high power BAL output (low noise and hiss-free), beautiful design, and very powerful JetEffect DSP effects for sound shaping – Plenue L deserves a serious consideration.
I have access to a lot of flagship DAPs, but not all of them are portable enough for everyday use on the go. In the last month Plenue L got a lot of mileage when I’m choosing which DAP I bring with me to work because it’s one of the smallest and the lightest flagship players in my review rotation. Unfortunately, other flagships are getting bigger, heavier, less portable, so I’m glad Cowon is in tune with consumers demand, still keeping the portability and the sound quality as their top priorities.