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Cowon Plenue 1 review: Cowon's Plenue 1 player hits the high-end notes

This simple music player lets you listen in virtually any format and sounds great -- for a price.

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Ty Pendlebury
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Ty Pendlebury

Editor

Ty Pendlebury is a journalism graduate of RMIT Melbourne, and has worked at CNET since 2006. He lives in New York City where he writes about streaming and home audio.

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5 min read

The MP3 player is dead. Long live the MP3 player. Fifteen years ago it seemed like this humble gadget heralded a new age, and while it did shine brightly for a time, the dedicated portable music player has been in its death throes for much longer. Even the once-mighty iPod Classic has been superseded by the convenience of the smartphone.

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Cowon Plenue 1

The Good

The Cowon Plenue 1 looks and sounds like a premium player with incredible build quality and nuanced sound. The player offers wide file support including FLAC, DSD and ripped SACDs. It comes with 128GB of memory standard and can be expanded up to 256GB. The ability to function as a USB DAC is pretty nifty.

The Bad

The buttons are easily activated by accident, even with the lock button on, and lack tactile aids. No streaming support with no networking or third-party apps. Short 8-hour battery life.

The Bottom Line

​If you're looking for a no-nonsense, great-sounding player the Cowon Plenue 1 is pretty hard to beat.

Yet there is still a hunger for dedicated music players among audiophiles who want to upgrade from the sound of smartphones. The likes of Sony, Pono and Astell and Kern are all churning out premium devices for premium prices, and while it's not as well-known as these three brands, Cowon from Korea has been there since the beginning: its first digital player came out in 2000.

The Cowon Plenue 1 is the company's flagship device. It offers a premium build, excellent sound and compatibility with almost any file you want to play on it. It's also capable of driving all but the most obscure headphones to satisfying levels of loudness. Only its lack of wireless connectivity, relatively poor battery life and inability to load third-party apps stand as disadvantages compared to the more expensive Sony ZX2 . However if you're just looking for a device that does one thing -- play music well -- then the Cowon Plenue 1 is an excellent option.

Design

Sarah Tew/CNET

Carved out of a solid block of aluminum, the Plenue 1 has the premium feel one expects from a $1,000 player. It has slightly bevelled edges and a satisfying weight in the hand at 173g or 6.1 ounces. Its 4.6-inch length and 2.5-inch width are similar to a phone, but it's substantially thicker at 0.5 inches.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The 3.7-inch AMOLED touchscreen forms the center of the device and features a 480x800 resolution. While most functions can be controlled via the screen, the hard buttons on the side include volume, play/pause and skip forward/back. Unfortunately these aren't easy to differentiate while it's in a bag or your pocket without a lot of practice. They are also raised so subject to accidental activation, whether or not the hold button (which affects only the touchscreen) is engaged. I prefer the recessed design of the buttons on the Sony ZX2.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Place the Plenue 1 alongside the newer, cheaper Plenue M and you can see some of the cosmetic differences, with some improvements. For example, the 1's squishy power/hold button has been replaced by a smaller, more decisive button on the M.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The nested menu system is relatively easy to use. There are a number of different skins on the device if you want to customize your look, and an optional UV meter. My only gripe with the operating system is that you have to go to the Now Playing screen to access the settings menu -- it's not accessible from most screens.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The Plenue package includes a leather case made from "full-grain Ottawapell leather" but it's a little plain compared to the elegant "spectacles case" that ships with the Sony ZX2.

Features

The price for the Plenue 1 has come down a little since CNET's own Audiophiliac looked at the device last October -- retailing for $1,249 in the US, £749 in the UK and AU$1,459 in Australia, it can be found in the US for as little as $949. In the meantime, we have not only seen the arrival of the Sony ZX2 at $1,199/AU$1,599, but the "mini" Cowon Plenue M at $799/AU$999.

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While the implementation is key, there is something to be said about the quality of the DACs (Digital Analog Coverter) in a portable player. The Plenue 1 has the Burr-Brown PCM1792A while the M uses the cheaper PCM1795. The Plenue 1 is capable of playing back material up to 24-bit/192kHz or 2X DSD. The formats supported are DXD, DSD, FLAC, WAV, AIFF, ALAC, MP3, WMA, APE, OGG and SACD iso rips.

If you're looking to improve your PC audio, the Plenue will also operate as a USB DAC and headphone amp.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The connections on the Plenue 1 are hidden under a small tab on the bottom. They include a micro-USB port, an micro SD card slot which can accommodate up to 128GB, plus a combined 3.5mm headphone/optical port.

Unlike its Sony competitor the Plenue is not a connected device -- no Wi-Fi and no Bluetooth -- and so users miss out on being able to stream music to and from other devices. Also in this budding age of streaming the inability to load Tidal and Spotify may stunt it in the coming years as hi-res streams (and offline storage) become more prevalent.

Performance

While it's not as "fun" to use as the cheaper Pono device the Cowon is more stately and no-nonsense, and it sounds better too. But as these players have different sound profiles, I would direct fans of jazz or acoustic music to the Plenue 1 while rock or dance fans would probably be better served by the Sony ZX2.

Sarah Tew/CNET

When testing the Cowon on the subway I had a couple of revelatory "moments" where I felt like I was actually witnessing a band performance. The headphones created a great sense of 3D space, even with cheaper headphones like the Marshall Major 50 FX . The player achieves detail without harshness and forgoes the bloated bass of some competitors for subtle, weighted tones.

The Plenue's superior detail and focus compared to the Sony was evident on the propulsive "Copy Of A" by Nine Inch Nails, but the Cowon was still able to convey the deep synth bass throbs more articulately, and better communicate the space around the singer's voice. By comparison the Pono sounded too lean, and while there was some deep bass, it was relatively inconsistent and choppy.

Given that a new, and very similar looking Plenue M has entered the market, I wondered whether is was worth the $200 upgrade to get the 1. Based on my listening tests, yes it is. Vocal delivery on Villagers' "The Waves" was better on the Plenue 1 than the M, with more separation between voices and greater sense of a performance space. By comparison, the M sounded like it was coming from a vocal booth and didn't sound as alive.

One of the advantages of the Plenue 1 over competitors like the Sony is that its able to run very difficult-to-drive headphones. From the Audeze LCD-X to the HiFiMan HE-400 , the Plenue didn't break a sweat teasing useful volume out of challenging headphones. Of course you wouldn't want to use open headphones like these while traveling.

As a USB DAC the Plenue 1 demonstrated the same sonic characteristics as it did as a player. It has a slightly reticent bass but with better acoustic detail, able to give more insight into the space a singer or instrument is playing in. It's not as capable of rocking though: the $300 ifi iDac conveyed greater sense of scale than the Plenue, with a more powerful bass and greater intimacy with Nick Cave's whispered menace.

Lastly there's the issue of battery life. While not the worst -- that's PonoPlayer at 6 hours -- the 8 hours of the Cowon does pale in comparison to its closest competitor the Sony ZX2 at around 42 hours.

24/96 WAV playback (in minutes)

Sony Walkman NWZ-A17 2,880Sony Walkman NW-ZX2 2,532Cowon Plenue 1 480PonoPlayer 358
Note: Longer bars indicate better performance

Conclusion

While a thousand dollars is a lot to spend on a player, of course you can always spend more on the Plenue 1's competitors. Yes it lacks networking, but little features like USB DAC capability and optical-out help elevate it amongst its competition. If you're looking for something simple that plays virtually any format you can think of and sounds really good, there aren't too many other alternatives.

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Cowon Plenue 1

Score Breakdown

Design 8Features 7Performance 9