It amazes me how much the tech can change, or not change at all, in the span of just two years. I’ve always been a fan of Cowon products, but let me tell you straight up right now at the beginning of this review…I am livid over my experiences with this Cowon DAP and I can’t wait to express just how upset I am.
Jumping on the bandwagon of absurd pricing is something most companies have done lately in our Audiophile world. So naturally, it didn’t come as a shock to me that Cowon wanted to board that cruise ship as well, setting sail for the financial ruin that will become your wallet and Paypal accounts. The Plenue M is now two years old, so you might ask yourself why I am even bothering to review it.
The DAC Factor
Well, the reason is the lovely DAC inside of it that I had somehow been ignorant of for the duration of the last 700 or so days since the Plenue M was released. I don’t like the 9018 chipset, I prefer the 17xx series due to its common warmth and less articulate, less prone to neutrality tonality offerings and that is why I was so interested in this specific model from Cowon. They’d invested in the Burr-Brown 1795, which I’d assumed would be a wonderfully yummy, warm and visceral experience from top to bottom. Boy, was I wrong…I hadn’t noticed that Cowon advertised this model as highly neutral until I’d actually received it. Totally my fault for listening to other reviewers…
Not This DAC
The 1795 is the polar opposite of the sound I thought it was going to be and that got me interested in it in the first place. As a musicality lover, it ruins the tone of all of my personal amps and headphone rigs. It is simply overly neutral, which I suppose is a great thing for a lot of listeners, but horrid for those like me who share my preferences in listening.
A lot of owners said it sounds more like a typical 17xx DAC than a 9018. Nope. Not to my ears. This sounds like a very dry and neutral sound to me. Plenty of clarity, very nice clarity in fact…but nowhere even close to the level of musicality and warmth that I’d hoped for.
I have a Pioneer X100R DAP that came out last year, which houses a 9018K2M DAC (The exact same DAC in the iBasso DX90 that can be purchased for $250 these days) and a vividly different 9601K DAC as well inside of it.
Low and behold, I cannot for the life of me hear a lick of a difference between these two DAPs in most testing scenarios. One of them has just one 1795 DAC (Plenue M) and the unit costs $900, the other (Pioneer X100r) has a severely cheaper DAC setup and rightly costs more like $650 today.
Ignore the fact that the cheaper Pioneer offers identical sound quality and also has a full Android operating system with full access to the Droid market, Internet and Bluetooth capabilities. With that fact alone, the Plenue M gets an F rating from me on Features and Usability.
Beyond this, the DAC refuses to stay connected and will break and error if you skip tracks too fast with your PC music software. I confirmed this with three different owners of the M over social media, who I’d asked to try out Foobar2000 with while connected to the DAC. Everyone reported this to be an issue.
For reference, I have the newer iDAC2 from iFi with full 256 DSD capabilities and it works wonderfully, I’ve never disconnected and errored once on that great DAC! But, I can’t use the Cowon Plenue M as a DAC, because it is super sluggish with track skipping, has a nasty delay on playing and pausing music and will simply error itself if I move too quickly.
This is, in fact, the most poorly implemented DAC in a very expensive audio source that I’ve ever come across. For shame.
Bloody amazing. The M boasts without question, one of the best builds in a portable player that I’ve seen. Seriously, this bad boy is not only the perfect size for a portable but also dense as all hell and seriously weighted feeling.
The Pioneer 100r is much larger and roughly the exact same weight. Solid aluminum body, a drool-worthy OLED screen, and well thought out button layouts adorn it, I couldn’t be happier. As much as I hate this player in other various ways, I absolutely adore it for its tactility and overall design.
Messed with almost every single high-end DAP out there, this is one of few that screams high class that is also moderately sized and not too big to fit in my pocket.
Fantastic build and it fits perfectly in my hand, 10/10. Also, that OLED screen is magnificent and similar to the Calyx M’s lovely screen as well in its stunning visual appeal. Vivid colors, crisp, popping text and a fantastic brightness factor all make me very satisfied.
One super annoying thing I can’t understand is a blue LED that blinks when I turn the screen off. That could be the most annoying and useless LED function in the entire audiophile world, it serves no purpose other than to annoy you.
Storage and Battery
Ok, so why is it that Astell and Kern, as well as CalyX M, can offer dual SD slots, but Cowon can’t? Why is it that both of those other companies can implement BlueTooth streaming output in their DAPs, but Cowon felt obligated to design nothing at all into their system in that regard?
The Plenue M is capped at 192gb and only has one Micro SD slot…for a product that originally cost $900 and beyond? I can’t even use OTG! I’m just stuck with a 200gb Micro SD and that just isn’t okay at this price tier.
Always nice to know I can pay $900 for a new one and get a few hours of usage. I don’t understand what the deal is here, the Plenue M acts like it pumps out a ton of voltage or something and ends up getting overly warm. It isn’t like this player is geared for Planar headphone usage or anything, so why does the battery struggle this much?
Hard to slam it for that because the Pioneer 100r gets too warm as well. But, I can keep the M on low volume without the screen on, only use my CIEM’s and the rear plate will still get hot. Why is this happening? Why aren’t there any vents or ports here? Check out most other reviews of the unit and everyone mentions how warm the product gets. There is no excuse for a portable music player to get hot in your pocket.
If you are lucky, you’ll get 4 hours off it with the screen off, likely less with it on and playing DSD files. What’s worse, the unit does not retain juice when you turn it off. Fully charge that bad boy, shut it off and leave it for a day or two and you’ll come back to one bar in the red, at least that is what happens in my case so maybe my battery is dying already. Cowon’s cheaper Plenue D portable player that came out right after this Plenue M has almost 80 hours of battery life and a better EQ system.
I rather enjoy Cowon’s set up in a physical sense, their UI is basic. It is just as it should be without clutter and without lists and bins you’ll never use. Everything is nice and neat with a home screen and bin browser that functions very well.
Since this product came out before the Plenue D (the M’s little brother), Cowon has improved the slickness in their newer models. Evolution took place and that is a wonderful thing, the D, and the newer S model have superior and better thought out user experiences in their interfaces.
They didn’t need to do that if they replicated the M’s UI in the D’s design, that would be fine. Hard to imagine they could even improve it, but they did. Favorites work fantastic, search functions via a little keyboard pops up quickly and is seamless. I can’t complain, this is a great UI and Cowon has always been the best at this, at least in my opinion.
Now for the sad part, JetEffect is awful on this player. I just reviewed the cheaper Plenue D recently and I swear to the audio God’s that I want to sacrifice the M, all because I miss the Plenue D’s tone that severely. I’d easily achieved my desired sound type on the Plenue D, but I’ve yet to get the Plenue M to play ball properly. I can toggle the MachBass in this Plenue M up all I want and still not achieve the level of quantity the Plenue D put out in abundance.
This Plenue M is just too linear and neutral sounding, it is also very unresponsive with the EQ system. Dialing up EQ toggles doesn’t do much to alter the sound. Where the Plenue D had a ton of great-sounding presets, the Plenue M has one.
Rock is the only preset that doesn’t sound like garbage, but the entire spectrum is relaxed and the mids are pushed back. I can kind of fix that in custom EQs, but I lose clarity and I just can’t replicate the cleanliness of Rock at all with a custom set. Hip Hop is actually the next best, followed by the Funk preset. They are both have bloated bass, however, but offer nice and forward, clean sounding treble and mids.
The low-end quality and purity are excellent, there is no doubting that. This player sounds great, but it is not musical nor fun sounding like the Plenue D. This M is pretty much neutral and has a very hard time altering tonality with custom EQ.
99% of all the preset EQ’s are trash and useless and you are bound to either underwhelm yourself in bass quantity or go overblown in the rest. You are stuck with Rock EQ if you want purity and clean sound down below, or Funk or Hip Hop EQ that overdrive it too far. Are you a bass head? Too bad, you’ll never achieve good things with it outside of excellent raw purity.
The mids are linear and well-formed, overall solidity is very good and I rate it pretty much the same as the Calyx M in terms of raw quality. However, the Calyx M offers more spaciousness and realism, pushing a more well-formed setup from the bass to the midrange.
By this, I mean that the bass and mids are separate and don’t judge each other on the Calyx M, they are their own entities. Here in the Plenue M, they are skewed and intersect too much, the lines are blurred and I can’t feel as much instrument separation between bassy instruments and most other types of sounds coming through the midrange. This player is not good for vocalists, as it is hard to achieve a forward midrange without screwing up the treble or bass quality.
The Treble is the best quality of the entire experience, by far. You can get a nice and sweet sound up top, but not so much in the bass or midrange bands. I don’t know why. Most EQ presets are painful and severely thin out of the entire experience, like Classical for example, an unlistenable monstrosity of an EQ that I’d not force upon my worst enemy. Do know that you can achieve a very good treble response with some toggles here and there, but nowhere else.
Soundstage and Imaging
I don’t hear anything special here. In fact, I think the CalyX and the Pioneer 100r both sound more aired out, spacious and vast by a small degree and without sacrificing density. The Cowon Plenue M feels condensed and lesser, by comparison, it doesn’t sound all that different from my iBasso DX90 either.
But, swapping up to the CalyX M or 100r definitely offers me a noticeable amount of extra airiness. I don’t think staging properties are lacking on the M, but I do think they are far from extending enough to be considered very good or worth while.
This becomes very noticeable when I compare and contrast with my Noble K10 between the 100r and the Plenue M: that Pioneer DAP sounds more effortless and expansive by a small degree, the M sounds condensed and more intimate with a lacking sense of width and depth of field.
If not for the sweet and very solid feeling treble response of the Plenue M, it would be that much harder to spot which player I was using during blind testing. I even went as far as buying a nice A/B switch to compare two sources on one headphone. The results were that on flat EQ, I could not hear any difference between the Plenue M and the 100r from Pioneer. But, with certain EQ setups, I could spot them, especially easy to spot with the focus on treble toggling on the Plenue M, which sounds more dense and solid, more substance and more focused than the 100r.
This Plenue M sounds IDENTICAL to the Pioneer 100r in most cases, minus the small but noticeable treble differences between them that require sensitive imaging products to even notice. Could not hear it with my Flare Audio R2Pro, but could hear it with my Noble K10, could not hear it with my Grado GH1, but could hear it with my ATH ESW11LTD.
Cowon gave us literally nothing beyond the music experience in the UI. No BT, no Internet, no nothing and just a music player that cost $900 at the time and that had one Micro SD slot. Remember the ZuneHD from like a decade ago? That had Wifi and a Net Browser. We’ve taken 50 steps backward in the extra tech and a few forward with quality audio components used. Remember the older, original Astell and Kern AK120? That thing had BT streaming output and two Micro SD card slots, so there is no reason Cowon can’t do the same.
If you are cool with being stuck with how the players sound as is, I still would recommend it because make no mistake, it does justice to my K10. Purists will go bananas for this DAP if they can score one used. It sounds fantastic with excellent clarity everywhere but refuses to alter in tone with EQ inside its own JetEffect EQ system.
They’ve also somehow altered the general sound of the 1795 DAC inside of it to sound more natural or neutral-sounding compared to what I and most others assumed would be a wonderful musical and fun sound. I prefer the much cheaper Plenue D, not only due to the price at under $300, not only due to the absurd 50+ hour battery life but mostly because that product was insanely responsive to EQ. The Plenue M is none of those things roll on the M2 (editor – which just launched this week).