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The outer limits: the Cowon Plenue 1 music player

The Cowon Plenue 1 is a strong contender for best-sounding portable high-resolution music player.

Audeze LCD-X headphones with the Cowon Plenue 1 music player. Steve Guttenberg/CNET

Neil Young's much touted and highly anticipated Pono high-resolution music player will hardly be the first of its kind. HiFiMan has been making awesome sounding hi-res players for five years, and just last week I reviewed Sony's superslim Walkman NWZ-A17 player. Pono might be great -- we'll see -- but I can say this right now: the Cowon Plenue 1 music player is the best I've heard to date.

It's a solid-feeling, elegantly designed metal component, with a large, 3.7 inch (80mm) touch screen. The user interface is good, thanks in large part to the actual control buttons for power, volume, play/pause, and previous track/next track. Measuring 4.6 inches long by 2.5 inches wide by 0.5 inches thick (116.4x64.5x13mm), the Plenue 1 is a lot smaller than an iPhone 6 Plus, which measures 6.22 inches long by 3.06 inches wide by 0.28 inches thick (158.1x77.8x7.1mm). The bottom panel houses a micro USB port, microSD card slot and the headphone jack that also doubles as an optical digital output. Accessories include a real leather slip case and a USB charging cable.

You get 128GB of internal memory, and that can be expanded up to 256GB with a microSD card. The Plenue 1 plays WAV, FLAC, AIFF, APE, ALAC, WMA, OGG, MP3, DXD and DSD files, up to 192kHz/24-bit resolution. Playback time is just 8 hours, which might be an issue for some buyers.

Comparing the sound of the original Astell & Kern AK120 player with the Plenue 1 with high-resolution FLAC files, the differences were anything but subtle on my Westone ES5 custom in-ear headphones. First up, the newly remastered, high-resolution "Led Zeppelin II" album, and the Plenue 1's prodigious bottom end oomph provided a rock solid foundation, so John Bonham's drums kicked harder, and Zeppelin's high voltage rock was more electrically charged on the Plenue 1. On Miles Davis' high-resolution "Kind of Blue" album, the AK120 imposed some distance between my ears and Miles' trumpet; the Plenue 1 closed the gap. The breathiness of the horn was subdued over the AK120, and restored over the Plenue 1. The live-in-the-room sound of the musicians on my MA Recordings audiophile CDs was much easier to hear over the Plenue 1.

The Plenue 1 was a lot better driving my high-impedance (300 ohm) Sennheiser HD 580 and (250 ohm) Beyerdynamic T 90 headphones than the AK120. The Plenue 1 really clicked with the low impedance (20 ohm) Audeze LCD X headphones, and that combination produced the best sound I've ever heard from a high-resolution music player.

The bass punch and definition on Kraftwerk's "Tour de France" album was so strong, I thought I might have accidently turned on bass boost or EQ, but I hadn't. This recording's extreme low-end is MIA on most portable players, but here on the Plenue 1 it came roaring back to life over my Sennheiser IE800 in-ear headphones. Drummer Shelly Manne and guitarist Jack Marshall's duets work best when you can hear the two musicians improvising in the moment, and the Plenue 1 zeroed in on that on their "Sounds!" Album.

Gear that advances the state of the art never comes cheap, the Plenue 1's street price will be around $1,249 in the US and £749 in the UK. It sounds great, but it makes sense only for buyers who already own at least one high-end headphone. If the Cowon Plenue 1 is out of your price class, go for the FiiO X5 music player.