When it comes to audio players one cannot only compare the sound signature, today, the feature set is almost equally important when looking for a new DAP. The high end segment has been inhabited by a small number of manufacturers for a long time. Now, in 2019, that has changed. We have seen new entrants to this summit-fi level of DAPs challenging the big names and veterans.
Today, we will compare the Cowon against two models of their South Korean rivals from Astell&Kern and the all new PAW Gold Touch from Chinese Lotoo. I have used the balanced outputs of each model.
Astell&Kern – SP1000M (2,499$)
The AK offers potential customers a few things the Cowon simply doesn’t have. Like WiFi, implemented streaming services, side loading APK files, a PEQ, USB C and aptX HD Bluetooth for example. However, the Cowon offers more storage (256GB – 128GB) and JetEffects sound processing, both of which the SP1000M lacks. If you want to use your DAP as a transport, then both players offer digital output. The Cowon uses an optical signal, while the AK outputs ones and zeros through the USB C port. The SP1000M has a bit more juice in its battery and can hold a charge a little longer than the Cowon.
Sound wise, these two are similar on a few fronts, yet differ on others. Both, the Cowon and the AK, have a warmish tonality. The M has more boost in the bass department, where the Plenue L has a smoother midrange. Treble might be the point where they differ the most. The Astell&Kern has a more direct and bright sounding top segment, whereas the Plenue is more relaxed and laid back. If you’re concerned about sibilance with your monitors, you should give the Plenue a more serious consideration here.
When we’re looking at technical performances, these two are pretty much head to head. Sound stage dimensions go to the Cowon, while resolution might be a bit higher on the AK. Layering and imaging are equally good to my ears for both.
Astell&Kern – SP1000 (3,499$)
The flagship AK does come at a much higher price than the Cowon, but it also offers a few things on top. Like the M it also brings streaming, WiFi, DLNA, aptX Bluetooth and a parametric EQ, while the Cowon again offers JetEffects to add a little flavor to the sound. This is something AK doesn’t want to do, as they want their customers to listen to what they think is best.
Both DAPs come with a bobbling 256GB internal memory and optical output, though the AK also adds USB C, fast charging and digital output via the USB port. The AK is much heavier and bigger, that’s what makes the Cowon a lot more pocket friendly. The AK gives me more play-time though, as it offers 10+ hours of music listening.
On a sound level, these two are pretty different. The AK goes for hyper precision and accuracy, while the Plenue L is warmer and smoother. The SP1000 to me is more spacious and detailed with higher resolution. It creates a bigger and more holographic sound stage, where musicians are performing in front of you, while the Cowon keeps the party close to you.
The Astell&Kern has higher dynamics in its sound, it creates a very exciting signature, while I find the Cowon to be more enjoyable, the AK wows me more.
Lotoo – PAW Gold Touch (3,199$)
Lotoo’s latest flagship also comes at a hefty price tag, but it again offers things no other DAP does. It has a built-in hardware SRC, a very powerful parametric EQ, ATE sound effects and the fastest software on the market.
Compared to the Cowon it lacks internal storage and a digital output, though Lotoo is working on that one. Both come with a 3.5 and 4.4 mm output, where there are clear differences in sound with the Plenue L, the Lotoo has none. PAW Gold Touch offers a fast USB 3.1 connection, which lets you fill your card much faster than from the Cowon. It also has bi-directional high resolution LDAC Bluetooth. Battery life time again is shorter on the Plenue L.
The Lotoo is much more neutral sounding than the Cowon, which has more body and weight in its audio performance. PAW Gold Touch is faster, crisper and tighter, but the Cowon is more emotional and organic sounding with emphasis on the lower frequencies.
The Plenue L creates a slightly bigger venue than the PAW Gold Touch, but the Lotoo has more air in it, so instruments get separated with higher precision. The resolution of both is very good, but the Lotoo to me wins on this front. Imaging on the Plenue L and the PGT is excellent
Plenue L to me sounds richer across all areas, whereas the Lotoo is dryer and more direct, especially in the upper end segment. This is where the Cowon differs the most again, it’s more relaxed and softer than the Lotoo’s presentation, which might be too bright for some folks.
In today’s market, the Plenue L offers something else. It’s a back to basics DAP with focus on excellent sound and a mature and well designed interface. Yes, you’re not getting any modern connectivity or streaming with it, but you’ll gain a musical sounding and enjoyable flagship DAP that won’t drag your pants down with weight. It’s the most pocket friendly high end audio player I’ve seen, and for the performance the MSRP is spot on.
I wish Cowon would have added USB C instead of the micro USB port. It’s just a much better connection, giving the user a transfer speed that’s miles ahead in terms of performance. The eight hours playtime are also not up to today’s standards, as the minimum nowadays is ten hours and up for flagships.
The Plenue L is for the audio purist, who doesn’t need WiFi, Streaming or Bluetooth. It’s for the one that cares only about sound played from internal memory or from micro SD. Cowon offers a significantly bigger storage size than any of their competition in that price range, giving you 256GB worth of space for your music.