We shouldn’t begrudge Cowon describing its Plenue 2 as the “world’s finest DAC”, but these things must always be taken with a pinch of salt. After all, for every ABBA Gold there is a Milli Vanilli Greatest Hits.
Let’s also not forget the Plenue 2’s primary function is as a hi-res personal music player, with its alternative use as a portable DAC more a welcome bonus.
It’s a fairly weighty unit – make sure to tighten your belt before putting it in your pocket – but that befits the amount of technology Cowon has managed to fit inside.
Build and features
But let's begin with that DAC: it’s a premium AKM model – the AK4497EQ – incorporating ‘Velvet sound’ technology, which is said to reduce any noise and distortion. Working alongside a SoundPlus amplifier, it's capable of supporting playback of up to 24-bit/192kHz PCM files as well as DSD.
The Plenue 2 also combats jitter by using an Ultra Precision Dual Temperature Compensated Crystal Oscillator (TCXO) Clock, and features JetEffect 7 & BBE for EQ, tone adjustment and other personal sonic tweaking.
At almost 200g, the weight of the unit itself makes the Plenue 2 feel like a high-end product – and first impressions matter.
The general build and tactility is evident throughout: two analogue wheels on the top control volume and navigation of settings, and are as pleasant to twiddle as they are useful.
Beneath buttons for power and playback on the Plenue 2’s side, pand rotected from dust and the elements by a leather case included in the box, is a microSD card slot, which enables doubling of the 128GB internal memory.
Turning it on, however, we don’t find the Plenue 2 to be the most user-friendly product. Aside from its nine-hour battery life (less if playing hi-res) not being overly impressive given it takes around three hours to reach full power, the whole interface could be a lot more intuitive.
More after the break
Menus aren’t always the easiest to locate, and the volume increasing in steps of 0.5db means a lot of scrolling to reach the output we’d like. It all just feels a bit clunky and laboured, sometimes to the point of frustration.
It’s also worth mentioning the Plenue 2 has no way of connecting to the internet. So if you’re looking for a hi-res player to access Tidal as well as store the music you’ve already bought, your only option here is to use this as a USB DAC alongside your phone or laptop.
However, when we finally manage to fill the Plenue 2 with music and hit 'play', the initial returns are impressive.
There are class-leading levels of detail in Ólafur Arnalds and Nils Frahm’s collaborative EP Loon. The Cowon exposes textures in the synthesizers other personal music players simply aren't able to dig out, and sets them in oceans of space.
The balance is spot-on as well. There’s plenty of depth to the low end but it remains taut and lean, refusing to forgo any of the levels of detail immediately apparent through the midrange, while the treble is quite happy to stretch its arms upwards with plenty of room to spare.
Essentially, the Plenue 2 feels comfortable picking out notes wherever in the frequency range they may lie, not bothering to overdo or roll off any part.
'Maturity' is a word that comes to mind when describing this Cowon’s performance, as is 'precision'.
Again, the Plenue 2 keeps time with ease, letting instruments come, go and intertwine as they please, introducing each with care as and when they want to converse.
But that maturity comes at the expense of a little fun. The performance could do with some extra punch, a greater sense of engagement to take it from being exact to becoming truly musical.
It isn’t that the Plenue 2 is dynamically flat – there are swells, as there are leaping crescendos – but it’s all done with a tight grip. We’re never quite immersed in the music the way we could be if the Plenue 2 were to let itself go once in a while.
The same is true when using it as a DAC. By plugging it in via USB and selecting the DAC option when it pops up, we gain access to the extra insight our laptop cannot reveal.
It isn’t the world’s finest DAC. If you’re after a portable DAC rather than a personal music player, the Chord Mojo (£400) is still the way to go.
MORE: Chord Mojo review
Overall, we’d be more than happy using the Plenue 2 as our main source of music on the move.
It doesn't have the drive some listeners might crave, but it more than makes up for that with incredible levels of detail and insight.
For anyone sceptical of the benefits of hi-res audio, this effort from Cowon should be more than capable of convincing you.
See all our Cowon reviews