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HolidayBuyer's Guide
Headphones

Your music deserves better than your phone's sound quality

If you want to take portable sound to the next level, you'll love the Cowon Plenue M2 music player.

The Cowon Plenue M2, with Hifiman Edition X headphones.

Steve Guttenberg/CNET

By now it's old news that the iPhone 7 ($738.00 at Amazon.com) ditched the 3.5mm headphone jack, but if you really want music to sound its best you shouldn't be using a phone anyway. It's time to consider a dedicated music player like the Cowon Plenue M2.

The crisp styling and solid build quality are commensurate with the Plenue M2's $667, £590, AU$1,199 price. The 3.7 inch touchscreen is responsive and menu navigation is straightforward, but I never figured out how to create playlists. That's true for most new music players, though. None are as easy to use as my trusty old iPod Classic.

With 128GB of internal memory, plus a microSD slot that can add 256GB of storage, the Plenue M2 has room for lots of high-res audio files. The 3,000mAh Li-Polymer battery has enough juice for up to 9 hours of music playtime. As for connectivity, the 3.5mm headphone jack doubles as an optical digital output. And there's a Micro-USB port.

Sound quality is where the Plenue M2 comes into its own, especially with a great set of headphones. So I started my auditions with an Audeze LCD-2. George Harrison's aggressively distorted guitar and Paul McCartney's rubbery bass lines sounded remarkably fresh when I played The Beatles' "Taxman." I followed it up with "Here, There, and Everywhere" and found the heavenly background vocals especially nice. And I was able to pick out finger snaps in the mix that I'd never noticed before.

I also listened with AudioQuest NightHawk headphones, which can sound a tad soft with some headphone amplifiers, but the Plenue M2 had clarity to spare. The sheer transparency of the sound with high resolution files from MA Recordings let me hear deep into the soundstage. Acoustic instruments sounded natural and believably present.

When I returned to the same music on my iPhone 6S, it flattened the soundstage, crushed dynamics, and cast a hazy veil over the sound. Frankly, there's no comparison.

I also compared the Plenue M2 with an original Astell&Kern AK120 music player. The Plenue M2 had a bigger, more expansive sound, with pumped up dynamic oomph and liveliness. It also sounded more powerful, the AK120 scaled back the sound.

High-resolution music players only make sense if you already own a set of high-end headphones from a manufacturer such as AKG, Beyerdynamic or Sennheiser. So if you're currently using ear buds, don't buy the Plenue M2 or any other high-res music player. First invest in a decent pair of headphones -- they'll instantly upgrade the sound of your music. Then if you want even better sound down the road, you'll be amazed by what the Cowon Plenue M2 can do.

Of course there are less expensive high-res music players. Tune in over the coming weeks for reviews of more affordable alternatives.