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 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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.