** UPDATED 2014/08/22 ** (scroll to bottom)
If I had to boil my thoughts down to two words to describe the Cowon Plenue P1, it’d be: artificial analog.
Sounds like it’s a bad thing, huh?
Well, I don’t know. I really don’t, I swear.
It was a five minute listen with a track I was familiar with (Kendrick Lamar’s “Swimming Pools (Drank)“), but that track wasn’t going to test the limits of anything. It had requisite warmth, but not too much so, and a smoothed out top end that is more relaxed than the bevy of ESSTech-equipped digital audio players from iBasso. Listening to the screwed voice on the track droning, “Pour up (drank), head shot (drank)” seemed a foreign experience to me. Normally, on any modern DAP or DAC, the snares are unnaturally sharp and piercing, especially through my UERM. The P1 seemed to pull it back a few notches, in addition to the crispness in all the voices as well. It was as though I were listening to Good Kid, M.A.A.d City in a vinyl transfer that required the levels to be stepped back a few dB because vinyl discs can’t print deep enough grooves. The core fabric of the sound still felt digital — everything about the bleakness of the background and separation of space was too clean and precise — but the music that played back in my ears was clearly trying to pose as analog.
I did also go through some other tracks embedded into the player’s internal memory, and the results all came out similarly — the Plenue P1 seemed purposely voiced to replicate the texture of analog vinyl recordings, despite every track’s digital origins. The technical side of me wondered if Cowon managed to permanently enable the digital de-emphasis filter on the Burr-Brown PCM1792A for all 44.1/48 kHz tracks.
Is this “artificial analog” type of sound necessarily bad? Again, I want to reiterate — I don’t know. It merely sounds different. But different it clearly is — I’m very much so not used to it, and perhaps I might end up liking it, as it seems conducive to non-fatiguing listening, but it definitely does not sound like anything I normally come across in digital audio.
On paper, the P1 is stellar. It’s got world-class performance for all recognized performance benchmarks: SNR, THD+N, crosstalk, etc. It remains to be seen whether real-world performance with true headphone loads gets close to laboratory benchmarks, but from the little I heard of the Plenue, I think the listener has little to worry. It’s got gobs of detail, especially in the lower midrange portion. Bass impact from an UERM (see gallery here) feels solid and textured, but not overly so.
The modern rectangular design can be a bit boring, but there’s nothing wrong with it per se. If you dig regular shapes, then the P1 is a perfectly good design. The materials feel sturdy, somewhat like a cross between the AK120 and the Calyx M (read Mr. T’s rapid reaction here). Physical buttons click positively. So while I don’t exactly love the Plenue P1‘s design, no one would really be able to identify any sins of commission either.
One nice plus is that Cowon includes a very high-quality leather case from Italian leatherwork Ottawapel instead of needing to purchase one separately as in the case of iRiver’s Astell&Kern. Box presentation also gives off the feeling of a true luxury item, from the packaging to the instruction manuals.
Unfortunately, the UI is not as nice as I’d hoped; I was a bit confused by its operation — the physical buttons on the side for volume, play/pause, and forward/backward do not have corresponding buttons on the screen, and returning to playlist view during playback took me a few tries to get the hang of. In this aspect, Astell&Kern has managed the best UI of any high-resolution DAP around with their Android-derived OS.
Aesthetically, I appreciate the various design skins for the UI, and I enjoy seeing the levels meters to monitor how hard a certain track is pushing the limit. However, certain UI elements are questionable, such as the choice of using a running seconds counter to record elapsed time on a track, rather than the traditional hh:mm:ss format. I’m not sure whether the display format is switchable within UI settings, but I could not find the option to toggle between different display options for track times.
Speed of operation is good, but not completely smooth. Swiping and scrolling exhibit occasional stuttering, but I wouldn’t say the occurrences are particularly problematic.
So yeah, I really don’t know what exactly to make of the P1 at the moment; on one end, it feels a bit unnatural, but on the other, it feels perfectly competent. Probably a waste of words to write anything on it without going in-depth.
I managed to get another listen to the P1 — this time much further in-depth (used my own music, both in high-resolution and in FLAC-compressed Red Book, as well as MP3)— with a short comparison to the Astell&Kern AK240.
My new thoughts still fall in line with what I thought previously: the P1 is a player intentionally made to be a smooth and “non-digital” sounding as possible. While nothing ever really sounds truly “analog”, as the too-clean background gives away the fact that these are digital recordings, no DAP on the market at the moment gives less hint of digital crispness than the the Cowon Plenue 1.
It’s relaxed, subtle, and elegant — in many ways, I love the way the P1 sounds. Burr-Brown chips, when implemented well, all seem to take on this type of character. Modern music doesn’t come off as grating, and “audiophile recordings” feel sublimely smooth. Don’t mistake this smoothness for “warmth” — while everything does hint at warmth when played back over the Plenue, the reality is that it is only slightly warmer than the AK240, while being less warm than than the Calyx M. There’s an illusion of more warmth if only because the P1 doesn’t “bite” at any note — notes simply come on. Despite its smoothness, it doesn’t lack in articulation — it’s very transparent, and nowhere is it more apparent than in bass tests. Listen to any tracks that reaches down low, and you’ll hear just how clean and articulate flagship DAPs like the P1 and AK240 get — simply, there’s just not one modicum of distortion to be heard anywhere down low, whereas something like my comparatively “lowly” NWZ-F886 (thoughts here) can’t even reach down that far. With respect to the AK240, the AK240 does have a bit more “digital crispness”, which contributes to a better sense of imaging. I believe the AK240 also offers up the illusion that it drives headphones more authoritatively, but I believe that’s just a product of our imagination, given that it has more “digital headroom” in its volume control.
There are two DAC filter settings: slow rolloff and fast rolloff. They’re derived from the options that TI gives audio designers on the PCM1792A chip.
In general, I kept it at the slow rolloff setting because it preserved the smooth character of the P1 rather than the slightly edgier feel of the fast rolloff (more of a traditional “brickwall” filter, contributing to band-pass ripple and the psychoacoustic effect of a steep cutoff with ringing). If we examine the datasheets for the PCM1792A, we’ll see that the slow rolloff filter suppresses very little of the signal (about -6 dB) at the Nyquist frequency, while the fast rolloff filter cuts off pretty sharply, starting at 0.45 · Fs or so.
The choice for using either the fast or slow rolloff filter probably depends on personal preference as well as the way the recording was made — if the recording were made with a very well-constructed analog low-pass filter before the ADC inside the studio, we wouldn’t have to worry about the suppression of anti-aliasing images too much.
Let’s talk about “Earphone Mode” — this mode drops the output voltage drive of the Plenue down to around 0.65 Vrms (according to measurements made by Seeko.co.kr). At first whiff, this property might cause the average audiophile used to extremely high output power to be alarmed by how much they have to “push the volume”, but that’s a good thing — in digital volume controls, there’s no “sweet spot” in the middle — if anything, the “sweet spot” is max volume! That’s why I highly applaud Cowon for taking this risk (a move that may possibly alienate audio enthusiasts) to deliver output levels that are reasonable for use with IEMs and portable headphones (the main transduction pairings for a portable device) without sacrificing the core dynamic range of the digital music at hand.
In usage, the P1 still feels like it doesn’t match the intuitiveness of the Astell&Kern operating system. It’s not that the P1‘s UI is bad — I had a much better time navigating through the UI this time around and it became pretty easy to use after a few go-arounds, but the handling characteristics of the AK240 still feel better. In terms of UI, the Astell&Kern and the Sony Android Walkman UI are both superior — any child or grandfather could pick these devices up cold-handed and use them nearly as well as they can with an iOS device. Thus, despite their ample experience with DAPs, Cowon might need to tighten up their user experience just a bit.
There are redeeming qualities to the Cowon UI — as I mentioned previously, I love the VU meters, and the various skins don’t feel like re-textured versions of the same exact thing (as is the case with the Astell&Kern system) — they actually do move things around a little bit and provide different color schemes that play into various contrast scenarios (bright light outdoors, dimly-lit room, etc.). In general, the look and feel at least seems thought-out and polished, unlike the one on the Calyx M, which still needs a lot of optimization (see comments here).
So to conclude, is the Cowon P1 on my “to buy” list? The answer is tricky — I like the Plenue 1 quite a lot, but I don’t know if it’s something I’d necessarily “must want”. If the velvety smooth sound agrees with you, then you’ll love it. If not, the Astell&Kern AK100-II has a better UI, about equal construction quality, and a slightly more conventional “digital” sound signature, at a lower price. Same goes with the Sony NWZ-ZX1 (comparison against the iPhone 5S here).
If we’re battling on the same performance tier, I do prefer the P1 to the AK120-II (read very brief comments in the TAA show report). Even though I can’t imagine ever buying an AK240 (read my hate-filled rant), the AK240 is growing on me, and despite that fact, the P1 can be seen as a “better value” than the AK240. Yet, when we’re all playing in the $1200+ range, you might as well cough up a few more (okay, maybe more than a few more) bucks for the AK240. It feels better in the hands, has eye-popping design, and sonically feels more “complete”.