Report – A case for the Cowon Plenue D

Source: Cowon Plenue D; Astell&Kern AK Jr
ADC: Lynx Studio HILO LT-TB
Computer: 2012 27″ iMac

Cables: 1,5m Hosa Pro 3,5mm stereo to dual 3-pin XLR (around 8$); bespoke y-split 2,5 TRRS to dual 3-pin XLR made by Musashi Sound Technology.

Loads:
NL – no load
SM2 – Earsonics SM2

 

  RMAA - Plenue D AK Jr normal listening levels SM2

Assuming my Lynx HILO’s ADC is accurate at insanely low voltage levels, the situation is reversed; Plenue D nearly sweeps the test suite, dropping only stereo crosstalk numbers below AK Jr levels. Unless you’re hell-bent on using external amplification, normal listening levels are where critical focus should be drawn.

You won’t max out the volume of either player through sensitive earphones. I’ll be damned if even a minority of GR10 users listen at volumes of over 50. Which is to say that normal listening levels don’t even begin to tax the limits of 16-bit audio. Not from the Plenue D. Not from the AK Jr. Not from the iPod nano. And not from the AK380 – which is the thesis behind this article. Normal listening volumes limit the dynamic range, noise levels, stereo separation, distortion, etc., values of files certified to fulfil all requirements of 24-bit audio. 16-bit audio spec is the absolute upper limit of most, if not all portable listening needs.

Understanding this should free the mind. Through your earphones and into your ears at safe listening levels, a 3500$ player won’t magically play your music in any higher fidelity. The situation doesn’t change when moving up to portable headphones. Playback volume is the magical, limiting factor.

Which is to say: if you really tax the output (and damage your ears) an Astell&Kern AK380 may best the Plenue D. In other metrics – one of the most important of which is stable frequency response – it will not. Plenue D has it where it counts: low noise, good frequency response, good distortion figures, and all of that shoehorned into a compact player with great battery life. And, while I prefer the warmer sound of the AK Jr’s DAC to both the Plenue D and the AK380, that is no basis to say that it sounds better than either.

Expect Plenue D to be the driver behind most Wright Ups (thanks Fook) about portable earphones and headphones.

My few quibbles and dislikes regarding its interaction method and its stammering scroll engine, could be said of any audiophile-level player out there. Compared to some, Plenue D is far ahead. Do I prefer the ease of use of an iPod nano 7G? Yes. Do I prefer the nano’s size and interaction model? Yes. But my nano is plagued by on-again, off-again battery life, and, as Fook keeps telling me, 16 GB really foreshortens lossless David Bowie, Nick Cave, DJ Tiësto, and John Denver binges.

Cowon: well done. You’ll be back.

Plenue D back

At my discretion and according to my schedule I will update this article with links to drunk analyses of: SD card/library integration, library scan speeds, reboot speed, etc. and so on. Stay tuned.

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Back before he became the main photographer for bunches of audio magazines and stuff, Nathan was fiddling with pretty cool audio gear all day long at TouchMyApps. He loves Depeche Mode, trance, colonial hip-hop, and raisins. Sometimes, he gets to listening. Sometimes, he gets to shooting. Usually he's got a smile on his face. Always, he's got a whisky in his prehensile grip.

38 Comments

  • Reply March 1, 2016

    Kharisma Aditya

    hello Nathan,
    if you dont mind me asking, how would you compare the Plenue D, in term of SQ technical merits (resolution, staging, imaging, bass quality, blackbackground, etc), to players such as ipod video (5g) + vorzuge pure 2 combo or ipod nano 1g + headamp pico slim?

    does the Plenue D alone is enough to put aside those combos?
    and also in term of soundsig, which one do you prefer?

    Thank you 🙂

    • Reply March 1, 2016

      ohm image

      Thank you for the comment, Kharisma.

      Plenue D both measures better and sounds better – according to some non-subjective criteria – than the iPod 5G. It hisses quite a bit less. Subjectively, if you’re a fan of smooth, clear, but liquid-leaning sound, the D is probably a good bet. The iPod 5G is one of my favourite-sounding players, but its output isn’t good on its own. It, like most players of the day, is incapable of holding signal quality very high under load. It also hisses a bit. But its warm, dry Wolfson sound keeps me coming back.

      I’ve not heard the Pico Slim long enough to form a good opinion. Sorry.

      The Vorzüge PUREII is a phenomenal amp, capable of keeping most of its step with the Chord Mojo, which far outpaces the Plenue D in performance benchmarks. So, technically, the two are NOT even colleagues. But an iPod 5G’s output isn’t anywhere near up to the quality of the Vorzüge, so, while it may sound great (to you or me), its technical merits as the source to a combo, are lower than you may expect.

      That said, at normal listening volumes, there is little, if anything between them. The iPod 5G/PUREII combo will demonstrate better delineated stereo detail. But there are loads of people that prefer a more jointed stereo signal. I can’t speak for you or anyone else.

      Choosing between the two based on personal listening habits… I would say Plenue D: its size, battery life, and weight far outstrip any combo out there. Its size alone is perfect. Which is why the original AK100 could be so good. But whether or not you will find its sound better _for you_ is something else entirely. Personally, if the iPod 5G hissed the same as the Plenue D and had a stable output, it would be my only source.

      • Reply March 2, 2016

        Kharisma Aditya

        a very comprehensive reply, nathan..
        thank you..

        btw, have you ever heard a modded (lineout bypass with caps, eg: RWA audio) ipod video (5g)? how does it compare to a stock ipod? is it has a significant margin SQ-wise? is it has less hiss?

        sorry for asking a lot..

        thank you 🙂

        • Reply March 2, 2016

          ohm image

          I have not, but from what I understand, you need an external amp with it, so your system remains large. [You should know that hiss will depend on the external amp you use. The line should be hiss-free.]

          [Edit]

  • Reply March 1, 2016

    Victor Tay

    Hi Nathan,

    How would you fair the SQ of the Plenue D against the Onkyo DP-X1?

    • Reply March 2, 2016

      ohm image

      I don’t own the DP-X1 and haven’t heard it since last year (was it last year?), so I can’t comment. Also, I didn’t really bother listening properly to it. I just RMAA’d it since to me that was far more important as a reference than my subjective opinion about its sound. Sorry.

  • Reply March 1, 2016

    Barun C

    Good Stuff Nathan. Finally a Cowon Review, I guess Darko would love these 😉
    Are you going to review the Plenue S in the foreseeable future?

    Thanks

    • Reply March 2, 2016

      ohm image

      Barun, I don’t have the dosh to review all of them. If I found someone that had an S and was kind enough to lend it me, I’d do it. But I’ll be honest: I don’t want to spend a lot of words on a site like HFN to describe what I really feel about any player’s navigation system. It’s strange, but when I get nit picky, I really prefer to do it exactly in my native style.

      • Reply March 2, 2016

        Barun C

        Nathan. That’s what I like about your reviews, they are very balanced and considerate, you call upon shortcomings or perfection when you observe it.

        About the Plenue D Cowon’s marketing tag ” The Pursuit of Sound Perfection” sounds practical when I couple it with your review. But when I see the marketing jargon (Literally) used for Plenue S it states “Beyond the Best Sound” I am very skeptical about what they mean about best sound and beyond (If something is best then how can something be beyond it?) .

        Cowon if you are reading this, please send this man a unit of the Pleneu S so that we can get an awesome review.

  • Reply March 1, 2016

    dalethorn

    Minus 60 db crosstalk seems fair, especially on a typical headphone, or IEM on low gain etc. Good to see an old name upping their game.

    • Reply March 2, 2016

      ohm image

      Again, that is under load, and at a volume of 20. The Plenue D is capable (as seen in the link) of -110,4dB. Under severe load, it drops more than 50dB, which isn’t good. Stereo crosstalk is the single area that gives me pause. Not bad, but bettered by most audiophile players. Everything else is up there with the better and best players under load.

      • Reply March 2, 2016

        dalethorn

        So much for the numbers. Did you hear any examples of loss of soundstage etc. due to lack of separation?

        • Reply March 2, 2016

          ohm image

          The point of the chart in this article are to show performance at normal to loud listening levels, nothing more. The preceding links show what the player is actually capable of at max volume.

          I did not find a distinct lack of detail. It’s not like the channels bleed; that happens with some collapsed stereo images – and even if it did, it wouldn’t necessary sound bad, but it’s a good question. I’ve found a LOT of people that hear wide sound stages when the stereo separation is flat.

  • Reply March 4, 2016

    Patrick.C

    Cought my curiosity. Especially battery life, UI handling (speedwise) and weight/dimension. What are your thoughts vs Fiio X3SG?

    • Reply March 5, 2016

      ohm image

      I will follow this up with words about each. I prefer using the Plenue D in all cases, but re: SQ, give me a while.

  • Reply March 5, 2016

    Chaiyawan A.

    ^ That is an excellent review. I’ve been waiting for a while for the cowon plenue D review to come out before deciding whether or not to buy it. And your review couple with the RMAA result made me pull the trigger. However, I do still want your opinion on how it will fair against low impedance (10-16 ohm) IEMs.
    Thank you ????

    • Reply March 6, 2016

      ohm image

      The answer to the question in your final sentence is, on the whole: brilliant. The only area it suffers somewhat is stereo separation, but I reckon that a number of people will enjoy that.

  • Reply March 8, 2016

    Piérard Vincent

    Hi Nathan,
    Great review!
    I’m new here and need some advice.
    I still own a Cowon J3 but have the impression it gets old, sounds different than before.
    Anyway, would you think the Plenue D would be a nice upgrade and would I hear a difference. I have been considering the Ibasso D80 too but Plenue D is cheaper. I listen to classical music, mostly, and also country and r’n’b.
    I have Grado GR10e.
    Best regards,
    Vincent

    • Reply March 9, 2016

      ohm image

      Since the J3 is unable to hold a stable signal under load, the difference between it and the stability of the D would be audible. Howe audible is up to you and your listening habits, ears, and earphones, but it is both measurable (a huge gulf) and audible. The D is better in every way, though, as with most ‘large’ sonic upgrades, not night and day.

  • Reply March 11, 2016

    Oscar

    So the Plenue D supports AAC after all? It’s not stated in the offical spces.

    • Reply March 11, 2016

      ohm image

      Yes, and it plays AAC flawlessly. Of course, ID3 tag support is a bit scratchy, so you may have to be very careful when transferring files.

  • Reply March 11, 2016

    deva

    Please someone tell me how it compares to the fiio x3 second generation.

    • Reply March 12, 2016

      ohm image

      I will put up some direct RMAA measurements. But apart from that: better battery life, less dizzy interface, smaller. I prefer the Plenue D by a large margin.

  • Reply March 23, 2016

    deva

    Can this drive a dt990 250ohm to its full potential ?

    • Reply March 31, 2016

      ohm image

      What do you mean by ‘full potential’?

  • Reply April 2, 2016

    just_pch

    How would the Plenue D compare to the Fiio X1 + ALO Rx IEM? I would also appreciate it if you could do a comparison of the aforementioned options with the RWAK100.

    • Reply May 4, 2016

      ohm image

      The RWAK100 tests better, but hisses more. I don’t own the X1, nor would I compare it and an amp against the Plenue D. If I owned it, I would compare the X1 naked with with the X1+ALO Rx IEM amp.

      That is because I don’t agree that an amp and DAP combo are equivalent markets to a DAP alone.

  • Reply May 10, 2016

    Michelle

    Hey Nathan … I’m looking for a good Dap under 300$ to pair with my Sennheiser HD598 SE unamped … I’m a violinist which is a problem 🙂 because i need to hear a very natural and realistic sound especially with acoustic instruments, a very good imaging and ,good sound stage , good layering and separation … i can extend the budget a little to 400 … is the Plenue D for me ? if not what do you suggest ?

    • Reply May 10, 2016

      ohm image

      I think you will find that this player more than keeps up with your timbre requirements. It is a little shiny up top, but it carries great current to volume ratios and will do justice to your best recordings.

      • Reply May 10, 2016

        Michelle

        thank you for the fast respond … one more question how does it compare to fiio’s x5ii & ibasso dx90 ?

        • Reply May 10, 2016

          ohm image

          Michelle, I’m afraid that I don’t have as much experience with the X5ii. My experience is limited to the X3 and X3ii, both of which are great, the former of which is a warm-sounding player.

          The iBasso DX90 is a great player, but because its battery life is poor, it is not great for portable use.

  • Reply June 6, 2016

    Zweite_Stock

    I’m looking to replace my dying iPod Video 5th gen with this one. Would you say the Plenue D sounds much better compared to the iPod Video (with no external amps/dacs)?

  • Reply July 21, 2016

    Moé

    Any thoughts on Plenue D vs original AK100 in terms of sound quality?
    Thanks

    • Reply September 25, 2016

      Joe

      I’m curious about that myself.
      Is the Plenue D a downgrade from the AK100?
      One might think so considering the (always) inflated AK prices.
      Anyone?

      • Reply September 25, 2016

        ohm image

        Joe: by the numbers, the AK100 mk2 roughly outperforms the D for a majority of headphones, but when it comes to very sensitive earphones, is at marginal disadvantage. It outputs more hiss, and fluctuates its FR more than the D. THD and IMD hit ceilings faster than the D, but only at loud volumes. That said, it is more reliable in most every other metric.

  • Reply September 18, 2016

    Sam

    Thanks for the great review; now that the price is $199 on Amazon, I went for it. Having been a Cowon fan for awhile (X5 way back, and a Z2), I can’t wait to hear the next level up.

    I had a Fiio X1 for about a month before I gave it away… Sure, it had decent faithfulness to the source files, but just couldn’t push headphones like a Cowon.

  • Reply September 22, 2016

    Matt

    Does the Cowon Plenue D allow for USB DAC capability?

  • Reply March 18, 2019

    matt giunta

    Just sent you a message on your facebook page about Plenue D playing AAC files. Cant wait to buy this player since I have read here it does play AAC files. So many people have told me it doesn’t but you have changed my mind about this since they actually played for you. Ill be dragging the AAC files from my iTunes account in my iMac so I hope that doesn’t cause issues? Thanks for your help and would love a confirmation from you that AAC files are a go on the plenue D.

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