Cowon Plenue R2 Review

Cowon Plenue R2

Digital source capability

 

 

As well as being a standalone player, one of the benefits of any DAP is its ability to store your music and plug-into a range of other systems, as a link in their ‘chain’. The Plenue R2 is able to do this in three ways. 

Firstly, and most usefully in my set-up – the Plenue R2’s 3.5mm headphone-out doubles as a digital optical-out. I can’t tell you how hugely useful this is for me, and it’s a big selling-feature in my opinion. I was able to connect the R2 directly to the DAC in my two-channel set-up, to the integrated DAC/amp in my desktop set-up, and even to my Chord Mojo in a mini ‘stack’ arrangement for bit-perfect hand-off of digital files. 

The Plenue R2’s 3.5mm headphone-out doubles as a digital optical output.

The R2 can also work as a USB-DAC, allowing it to lend its pair of Cirrus Logic DACs to process files from another source, and pass along to another amplifier down-stream. One feature I would have liked to see is the ability to operate the R2 as a digital source via USB, rather than a ‘static’ DAC in-between other components. 

Lastly, the Bluetooth transmitter capability of the R2 means that you can transmit your stored on-board files to a nearby playback device, such as Bluetooth headphones, or a Bluetooth receiver such as an integrated amplifier. The Plenue R2 also offers users to ‘pair’ with your smartphone to allow you to receive notifications for incoming calls – let’s just say I wasn’t really interested in testing-out this feature, given that the reason I was choosing to use a DAP was to not get interrupted by my phone. I found pairing and playback to work fairly easily with both my NAD D 3020 amplifier and headphones including the Audeze Mobius. The connection seems fairly stable and able to reach all the rooms in my apartment without drop-out. The R2’s Bluetooth capability is more of a ‘nice to have’ feature than a genuine flagship feature – it would be nice to have seen higher-res codecs such as Sony’s LDAC or aptX HD supported; and also the ability to work as a Bluetooth receiver. Because the Plenue R2 has neither wifi nor the ability to accept music from and external Bluetooth source, you’re only going to be able to use local files. I hope you like your music collection…

Headphone Driving 

Cowon’s decision to give the Plenue R2 both 3.5mm SE and 2.5mm balanced headphone outputs is hugely welcome, giving users both the convenience of being able to connect with a range of cables and headphones, but also to access the greater voltage, reduced cross-talk and better-measuring performance of the R2’s fully-balanced architecture. The R2 allows you to switch ‘Headphone mode’ on and off, as indicated by a small headphone, or IEM symbols on the display. IEM-mode decreases gain overall to allow for better volume control with sensitive IEMs. On that subject, I detected no audible ‘hiss’ with any IEMs that I tested with the R2 including the 5-ohm Audio Technica ATH-IEX1. This, combined with the fact that both 3.5mm and 2.5mm are available, the R2 ought to be a flexible option for those of you with a large collection of IEMs, or if you’re looking to start one. Personally, I prefer 2.5mm balanced connectors to the larger 4.4mm Pentaconn variety, mainly for its space-saving benefits but also because I already have a bunch of 2.5mm cables on-hand. 

3.5mm single-ended & 2.5mm balanced headphone outputs + USB-C connectivity.

4.0Vrms from the balanced output is a healthy amount of ‘shove’, and one thing I was keen to test-out is just how well the Plenue R2 played with full-sized headphones, especially harder-to-drive ones. I love to take my 300-ohm Sennheiser HD600’s with me when travelling for use in quiet spaces, and I’m very happy to report that they sound terrific on the Plenue R2, which gets them up to good listening levels at around 85/90 on the R2’s 140 volume increments. The HD600’s aren’t the easiest headphones to drive, so this is genuinely a good sign – their bass felt well-controlled and extended, and dynamics and punch were strong. 

Powering the 300-ohm Sennheiser HD600 via the 2.5mm balanced output.

My go-to portable headphones are the Meze 99 Classics, which were a breeze for the Plenue R2 to power. Pairing the 99’s with the R2 via the Meze 2.5mm cable, Nirvana’s ‘Heart-Shaped Box’ started to get ‘too loud’ at 56 on the volume dial. I did treat myself to a quick test with Focal’s flagship closed-back headphones, the Stellia for a very over-the-top portable pairing with the Plenue R2, but one that is simply addictive (review incoming on these shortly!) with the volume sitting at around 80-85.

Sound Quality

Now the entire reason you opt for a DAP over a smartphone is sound quality, pure and simple. So how does the Plenue R2 perform in the most important test of all? It turns out that it performs very, very well, fortunately. 

The shining virtue of the Plenue R2’s voicing is its clarity. The R2 manages to have a wholly transparent quality to the way it dispatches any genre of music without ever doing so in a sterile or boring kind of way. Individual components in tracks are neatly defined, separated, and able to be placed inside a rather spacious sound stage in terms of both width and depth. In direct volume-matched playback to the Chord Mojo using an A/B switcher, the two devices are nearly indistinguishable in terms of sound quality, which it goes without saying, is a huge compliment to the Cowon device. Closer listening proves the Plenue R2 to have sharper attack and definition to the leading edge of some vocal notes and consonants in particular, whereas the Mojo tends to smooth them out slightly, by contrast. There is also a whisker more tonal mass to bass notes on the Mojo, but we’re talking minor increments here. 

Listening via the ATH-IEX1’s, the drumming track and acoustics guitar parts on The White Stripes’ ‘As Ugly as I Seem’ feel uncannily real, as in, like you’re in the room where it’s being recorded, and you can picture the drums 5 metres away to the left in front of you, and the guitar being plucked just to your right-hand side. 

Cowon Plenue R2.

Sticking with the AT-IEX1’s for a moment, the Plenue R2 is able to unleash their fearsome bass capabilities with both control and impact, delivering a masterful performance the fast, technical detail in Tycho’s ‘Horizon’

Vocals are a treat on the Sennheiser HD600, both the male and female vocal parts on Wilco’s ‘You and I’ given just the right hint of warmth and intimacy. Further exploring the mid-range, Sonny Rollins’ tenor saxophone on ‘St. Thomas’ feels liquid, forward and present in the mix, and altogether analogue – like it should be. 

Cowon Plenue R2 + Etymotic ER4XR.

The Etymotic ER4XR is my go-to pair of daily driver IEMs for both their incredible mid-range and treble detail, as well as their fantastic passive isolation. The Plenue R2 and ER4XR are a simply superb pairing, and could very well make for my preferred public transport pairing. The ER4XR’s aren’t famous for their bass extension, but listening to ‘Within’ by Daft Punk was hugely satisfying. The Etymotics are hugely revealing of source gear and the same track showed the Plenue R2 to playback the piano and cymbal ‘shimmer’ with absolutely perfect decay and reverb.

Fast, live music and Grados go together like mash and gravy. And the Plenue R2’s makes for an all-time rendition of Snarky Puppy’s ‘What About Me?’ on the Grado GH1. Fast, congested passages of competing instruments, snappy percussion and oodles of treble detail are dealt-out nimbly and with terrific imaging capabilities. 

Click-over to page 4 for our the last part on the Cowon Plenue R2.

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Matty's a musician, music-fan, and 'gear-phile' from Sydney, Australia. Outside of his day-job in creative advertising, Matty enjoys live music, lawn bowls, craft beer, and spending far too much money collecting vinyl.

    13 Comments

    • Reply February 3, 2020

      Booker

      As a long time Plenue fan, it was great reading this and seeing a new convert emerge over the course of the article 🙂

      By the way – there’s four User custom EQ settings shown by default, but in the settings you can switch this to show 16. Presumably all 16 aren’t shown upfront to save scrolling through unused presets.

      I haven’t got the R2 as it’s not available here yet. I’ve already owned the Plenue 1, M, M2, R, S, P2 mk2, V, D and D2 – been doing a bit of a tour 😉 My experience of them is they all exhibit slightly different variations in sound signature but with similar Cowon house sound characteristics. More expensive hasn’t necessarily meant I’ll like the sound more either. So R2 is certainly on my list to check out as I loved the sound of the V and D2 using the same CS43131 DAC/amp chip. The larger screen players all have the same functionality (UI, EQ options, USB-DAC function), with the difference of R/R2 having Bluetooth. So if you’re smitten with it, I’d say there’s little to gain in upgrading up the existing Plenue line as you’ll lose Bluetooth only for a change in sound signature, which may not tickle your ears any better either (and maybe also lose some power/balanced out).

      Surprised to see the mocha case, the photos on their website show a much darker hue.

      On a completely unrelated note, hope you and friends and family are doing okay with the fires over there 🙁

      • Reply February 3, 2020

        Ken

        FYI I switched to the R2 from P2 mk1 for its portability, and turn out I like the R2 better, just because its neutral sounding pairs better with my slightly-warm IEMs (the P2 is still a very very good player though)

      • Reply February 4, 2020

        Matty Graham

        Hey Booker, thanks for taking the time to read – it sure sounds like you know your Plenues! Thanks for asking regarding the recent natural disasters we’ve had over here. I have a lot of friends and family who’ve had close calls (and singed gardens!), but thankfully no loss of life nor home.

    • Reply February 4, 2020

      Negleh

      All these “high end” dap’s are just overpriced cell phones with less features. They’re all junk. Just get a cheap cell phone with a good sound chip and an app capable of playback with your selected file: Done.

      I don’t even k ow why I keep seeing these ads for these players. I once bought the Pioneer something something DAP, and that was the worst experience I’ve ever had. The battery life was terrible, it was glitch, it underperformed more than even my cheapest phone.

      Just get a phone as a DAP, stop buying these overpriced, under performing devices.

      • Reply February 6, 2020

        Mark

        Sorry but I don’t want a sales call half way through my music. Phones are for communication. Music players are for music.

      • Reply February 7, 2020

        Saurav

        This is true. The sound quality of a DAP won’t be audibly better than a smartphone at the same listening levels. However, the main reason people buy daps is for the novelty and experience of having a device engineered to do one thing, play music.

      • Reply February 10, 2020

        Matty Graham

        Hi Negleh, thanks for stopping by. That’s certainly one way of looking at it…if you’re looking for a phone. For a similar budget, a DAP ought to be any comparable phone for usability and SQ. Plus, no one can call you on a DAP.

    • Reply February 10, 2020

      Nicola

      Would you recommend upgrading from Cowon Plenue J? I listen to many songs in flac but also 320 mp3s; classical, jazz, songwriters. As headphones I use JVC HA FX 850 wood and Musical Fidelity EB50, Sony R1..the difference would be perceptible? Thanks

      • Reply February 10, 2020

        Matty Graham

        Honestly, it’s probably not worth it Nicola. If it’s powering your headphones just fine, and Bluetooth isn’t important to you, then enjoy your current set-up.

    • Reply March 31, 2020

      ERIC TREMBLAY

      Which one has the best sound? Plenue R2 or Fiio M11?

    • Reply May 27, 2020

      Matt H

      When using the optical out is it making the dap a pure audio source? I would think it doesnt go through the dac or amp since optical is still digital. I would like to buy this to use for travel then, at home, as a pure source and get away from using my old PC. Then optical out to a higher end desktop dac/amp set up. But i do not want it to process anything before sending to the desktop set up.

      • Reply May 27, 2020

        Matty Graham

        Hi Matt, it should be a bit-perfect hand-off to another DAC using optical, therefore making it a pure digital transport in your desktop set-up.

    • Reply June 12, 2020

      Andre

      Hi, congrats for the review, i do like the idea of keep it simple / music quality first.
      still, streaming no-go (on Plenue) is a difficult one to deal with… that said, to what sound quality is concerned, how would you rate this Plenue R2 vs a Shanling M6 ? (or similar competitor, like Fiio M11 / iBasso DX160)

      all the best!

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