Daparison: Cowon Plenue S / Hiby R6 2020

The past few months ive been looking for a replacement to my venerable Cowon J3 for travel and commute. I purchased a Fiio M11 but the synergy was miserable with my headphones. I sold that and started looking again.

Two players popped up, the new Hiby r6 2020, and the venerable Cowon Plenue series namely the S.

I decided to grab both used and compare them. Will the new flashy descended-from-r8-flagship android player and all its features win out? Or will the bare bones, no frills, barely mentioned but highly vetted Cowon come out on top?

More in the following posts…


To Start:
Both players are being used out of their single ended outputs. They both do have balanced but I do not have anything balanced at this time. The Hiby a 4.4mm and the Cowon an ancient weirdly poled 2.5 or 3.5mm. IEMs are nto used as the do punish my ears and cause me more discomfort than anything else. The highest gain settings were used on both DAPs (High on the Hiby, Headphone on the Cowon). The R6 used UAPP as the Hiby player was lacking, audio tweaks were mostly stock with tiny tweaks here and there.

Ultrasone HFI-780, very fun can that gives things a good “touch”. SLO Cable mod flattens out the V a little, though it is slight. I always likes these as they gave highs that realistic sizzle you get from hearing symbols rattle and the slide of fingers on guitar strings. Most other headphones smooth this out.
Focal Radiance impressions will be added once they arrive!

Personal Quirks:
I prefer a slight V or U shape in general with sparkly treble being what i seek first. I prefer tight well behaved bass over quantity or huge amounts of thump. Mids have grown on me and I am happy as long as theyre just not recessed. My big issue is with the 200-350hz range. Too much there puts pressure on my ears and it feels near instantly like I changed elevations or my sinuses just got sent into deep allergy season.

Below is a copy, paste, and tune up of my impressions of the Hiby R6 2020 from the official R6 thread…

Part 1:
Hiby R6 2020

Form Factor:
It’s nice! It fits well in my big palmed hands and I had no issues touching parts of the screen. Materials seem pretty good, buttons are sturdy, finish doesn’t have any issues and is a nice brushed metal. The rotary knob that has a good feel. It’s a bit more square than a cell phone and thicker. It is a few hairs light of hitting the hefty category. Issues here is the preinstalled screen protectors don’t go to the corners, with a case on the volume rotary is a PIA to turn, and every here and there the touch screen seems to not register.

If you know how to use a cell phone you can use this without any issue. It’s quick and responsive. It boots up quick, responds quick, and it doesn’t get in the way of itself or frustrate me. It’s a 1080p screen so at times text can be smaller than you expect but android can scale it up and its never too tiny to click or read. One thing I do not like is the physical buttons are not labeled so its been a guessing game and the rotary seems backward for volume up and down. Speaking about volume you can turn the rotary to change the volume, which is a little slow compared to the room you have per turn, but it would also pop up the on screen volume too. The on screen volume is way too sensitive. It always seems to be touched to increase volume and it WILL blast you out without any questions. I tried this lower volume and it somehow still turned it up and blasted my ears. I made it a point to take it out of my pocket for amd adjustment as I legit feared a hearing loss incident.

So Sound… This is the most important part of a DAP for me. I don’t use the device much outside of travel, commute, and daily walks so this is where it’s at.
Overall Signature — Things here are neutralish but with a dose of thickness. Bass adds thickness and treble is present yet not piercing or not overly smoothed, while the mids dont give way. You get a “wall of sound” type of feel with this player.
Bass — Thick and round. A good quantity of bass from sub to mids, but more towards the mids to my ear. It’s not the hardest hitting or fastest and goes for a more big and thick feel. Unless a recording is more mild and well behaved I do feel the bass started to over step its bounds and the transition between bass and mids was not seamless. This is one thing that got me, this added to that 200-350hz range that I just dont like. YMMV.
Mids — Much better than the M11, there is space here and vocals are nice and easy to hear. There is some layering though not insanely deep. Voices sound like they should and instruments are engaging. Once again, thick. Good texture, good detail. Better than adequate, but I wouldnt say it’s the main reason you pursue this player. I also dont know who this would dissapoint outside the most fickle of mid frequency connoisseurs.
Treble — Finally a player I don’t need to turn the treble up on. Smooth and present and it has a little bit of touch. With the help of the MSEB it gets in the realm of the sparkly and crispy that I prefer. I can not get it all the way there without other adverse effects, but I dont see it ever being in a spot it will hurt… unless youre really cranking it and threw out SQ way far back.
Soundstage and Placement — The stage here has a decent size. Bigger than the NYC basement jazz club of the Cowon J3, and waaaaay bigger than the small ball the m11 offered. Placement didnt seem over exaggerated and was leaning more towards realistic than holographic. Large live recordings felt smaller than the actual stage but not enough to where I think it is sabotaging or taking away from the experience.
Dynamics — Macro dynamics were very good. Chorus sections really exploded so so nicely. Micro dynamics too seemed to provide more to each piece. This really gave everything a good musicality and made you want to move while adding to the feeling of depth. It did this by really having things explode. The player has a mostly quiet background but the play here wasnt because it was inky black into music, it was from how big it made the big parts. I may say this is the R6 2020s strong point and it was a blast.
Timbre and Texture — Adequate. Texture was decent especially in the bass. Timber could be better. The sound of the crowds moving and clapping sounded like they recorded a light rain fall and put it in. It could be worse but wasnt a standout for me
Detail — Good. Details are good. The extended bass overshadowed some things and some small bits needed an attentive ear to really grab. But a bit can be uncovered with the DSP/EQ. I think it is fitting of it’s price range. Some have said it can be analytical but I disagree. I think it may have some good detail retrieval but it smooths over and gels things together that it isnt begging you to listen to every little scratch.

EQ — So I actually didnt touch this or really test it, especially as it’s not a full or semi PEQ. It did pass the first test, when you put it on it didn’t alter the sound or volume! WHY DO SOME PLAYERS DO THAT! Also the EQ only works in the hiby player and for some reason is not system wide like the MSEB. Since it is for the Hiby Player only, for me it is kind of useless as UAPP > Hiby Player
DSP — Hiby calls this MSEB, It lets you tweak things by “explaining” rather than giving you a frequency that you - or +. (ie: Female vocals is one option to change and it can be “intoxicated” or “detoxed”.) You can adjust it between -100 and 100 with 0 being default. I used this to add a little bit more sparkle and crispness to the highs which brought out a lot of detail in that area. That same water drop crowd from before took more shape and I swear I heard someone open a candy wrapper, and now sliding fingers on guitar strings had some sizzle to it. This all needs to be used extremely conservatively. Going more than say 25 points in each way starts to mush the sound and blurs things. The other thing is unlike an EQ that will just cut or boost one thing, I think each option here changes multiple values. When I add to the highs i have to evaluate if its worth the change to the mids and the bass.

I havent tried streaming or the hiby link or anything like that. I also think much of this is subjective to each person and use case but I cannot deny the device is jam packed. It was nice knowing I had the option to go to youtube or a streaming service to grab a song buzzing around in my head but is lacking in my library. Less useful on the go, but still nice while in wifi coverage.

Overall and Notes:
I like the player and its finally an upgrade to my Cowon J3. It had my foot tapping and I only stopped listening to it today as I needed to eat dinner. Musical, engaging, whatever else you want to call it, it has it. It is not a be all end all but it is not severely lacking in anything for me. I will also note some said the sound quality of the default hiby player was lacking. I agree here and prefer UAPP. This does cost me the hiby connect functionality, which I was looking forward to using. UAPP also needs to connect to wifi to check its license before playing? Learned this the hardway on my daily walk and I started the player outside wifi range. A bit troublesome if this will be a travel dap where I will not always be near a connection. There is a lot of mid bass in that 200-350hz range. This is my trouble range and it feels like I hit high altitude and my ears need to pop. MSEB can help this but a system wide eq really is needed.
The unit is very particular with how it charges. My first one was sent back via warranty as it would not charge via my pc and only select cables and wall warts would do. The new device will charge on anything except it will lose power when connected to my PC usb while my pc is off. The mobo has a usb charge feature but i guess its not enough power for the dap even though phones are fine.


Part 2:
Cowon Plenue S & Comparisons
Since the S is no longer available I don’t think the time to do a full review is warranted. But there is plenty that each Cowon player I had in common that I think out lining and comparing will be productive for anyone if interested in the newer Plenue L, P2Mk2, or future releases.
The following will be a review and comparison wrapped up together

Form Factor:
It’s nice! Just like the R6 2020 this fits well in my hand and has good weight without being a slog. It is slightly smaller than the R6 in all dimensions except oddly thickness where they are matched. I was hoping that it was a bit thinner and smaller than the Cowon J3 (I forgot to get that in the pic but its about the size of the actual screen on the S, and as thin as a headphone cable). It is very square with hard corners which I like for grip and the back design is real cool IMHO, especially as it doubles as a heatsink. All controls outside the touch screen are hard buttons which I prefer and are arranged logically. The color is darker than the photos below suggest and its a nice dark silver/titanium with a sandblasted feel. The leather case also is a very pretty orange brown. My biggest gripe, and one that I feel will grow more as time passes, is the outputs are all on top of the player. Most times that is ok but its just goofy having it pop up and out and loop an extra time. There is also the balanced out which is an old 2.5mm jack that at this point I do not know if ill be able to find a cable for. The R6 had line and phono outs for both SE and 4.4 balanced and a modern usb c port, which is pretty tops even amongst current releases.

Cowon made one UI and really stuck with it for years. The biggest changes were different skins but it was all the same thing underneath. All my previous Cowon players had a custom UI flashed which were created by one guy who stopped modding around the J3’s lifetime. It seems although Cowon learned something from these modders, the UI still has a learning curve to it and it feels its age. Compared to the R6 2020s nice new 1080p screen and higher refresh rate you are feeling it. Cowon’s linux implementation just doesnt compare to the familiarity of modern Android despite, oddly enough some of the UI elements like back button placement and drag downs have become very popular on modern phones. Flipping back between the two you can see the R6 is just smoother while scrolling and the small old screen and processor on the Cowon does not help. To their credit they milked the heck out of that hardware as they used it for at least the next 3 years releases.

This is where things get fun and these two start to really have personality outside of age specific design choices.
Overall Signature — The sound from the Cowon is definitely very Cowon. It is a warmed up neutral. I stop myself from saying it is all out warm because it retains enough details and enough of the high end that it’s not all fuzzy cozy warmth. A lot of other reviews have said it is an “analogue” sound. To be honest it’s been so long since I heard anything not digital that I will keep that as a foot note rather than a checked fact. Where the R6 2020 is a Wall of sound, one where you feel youre in the thick of it even during quiet or silent passages, the Cowon Plenue S only pushes when there is something to give. The forward and upward reaching ends of the R6s U shape pull back, flatten and extend on the S and gain themselves some manners.
Bass — Tight and square. There is quality here and it meshes into the mids without covering them up. There is good texture here. Quantity can get up there especially with the DSP tweaks but none of the levels that would be enjoyable give up the ghost or bloat or cover the rest of the spectrum. The R6 really gives it to you with bass pressure and punch and claims some collateral while doing so but the Cowon is just flat and so courteous to it’s own place in the fold and thankfully no 200-350Hz pressure.
Mids — Ooo Ooo Ooo. You know the first time you listen to a Senn HD6-- and you get mids pushed into your ears that are detailed, well sorted, present and just right? That is what I get here. Male and Female vocals are so right with females getting a little additional sweetness to seduce you. Your assortment of stringed instruments never step on each other or get lost. There is definition and they all have a place in the mix. The R6 is just overshadowed by the Cowon and the R6 itself. The flat mids of the R6 do not give anything extra and then get hidden behind the bass without anything to let it poke through.
Treble — It is a little hard to describe the treble. Overall it is further back than the upfront R6, but also the R6 did allow itself go forward and back more than the S. The S seems to want to set its place and stay there and it comes off as a tiny bit flat at times. There is still a little bit of sizzle, and air, and definition but it seems the edge was taken off compared to the R6 or the J3. This all can be added back in with the EQ/DSP if you wish and some tweaks here and there add in some needed depth and layering. The Ultrasone cans always got “hot” in the highs with everything else with about 25% of my catalog especially as here is a lot of metal. Here it only happened on a track or two and when it did it took me by surprise. As I keep playing with with the Cowon I want to see if I can EQ in a little more above the 10khz range and how it handles that. I also want to see how it is with the Radiance once it comes in as that is supposed to have pulled back treble and it may possibly be too smoothed with the S.
Soundstage and Placement — Cowon’s soundstaging always gave their players a very special presentation. From my D2 > S9 > J3 > S they all have this ability to isolate space for every piece of the composition. To visualize, the R6 that movie presentation of watching a band form the 60s record in the studio. The recording room is not that big, it is dimly lit but you can still see everything in the room, and all blank space is taken up by hazy smoke making up that wall of sound. The Plenue S is like the Unplugged Alice In Chains performance (Alice In Chains - Nutshell (MTV Unplugged - HD Video) - YouTube). Everything is so dark and vacant with spotlights on each piece as it’s voice is needed to be heard. The lava lamps and candles give more details out of the black space but nothing crowds each other. Now take that stage and place it in a pitch black room out in space. You know there are walls but you cannot see them and they seemingly move in an out to suit each recording. Expanding to just over music hall size and shrinking to fit into a coffee shop. It is just so good and so right. Width and depth are right as echoes bounce off the unseen black back walls. I usually stay more intimate with my gear and this isnt huge stage hd800s but its so enveloping to have something be able to expand without exaggerating and just having it put you somewhere else. I do not have anything balanced right now but I heard the balanced output brings this all up a notch and is why I am auditioning the Radiance so it can be cable swapped.
Dynamics — Where the macro dynamics of the R6 was a 10/10 we drop down about 2 points here but without comparing it to anything there would be nothing that bothers me. The R6 makes you want to get up and not only power through your day but absolutely mosh through it. Pedal down, all gas, no brakes. The S is more “sober”. There is still plenty of range but it is not trying to get you to embarrass yourself by grooving too much on your morning train commute. Micro dynamics take another point off on the S where at times dynamics that give certain parts of the music their feeling of depth are presented as like a cardboard cutout where all the info is on the same slab.
Timbre and Texture — Great. Things sound like they should especially in the mids. Bass texture is great and exacting and that sets a strong base for the rest of the spectrum. Things lean much more natural here and nothing I have listened to so far sounded out of whack.
Detail — Another great aspect to the S, there is plenty of detail here and it’s so nicely spaced out. The soundstage giving everything it’s own spot enhances the details. It is hard to tell if the R6 had more detail or if it was just more forward giving the impression of increased detail, but the S feels like it is doing it all with less effort.

EQ — The EQ is great. It’s a 10 band semi parametric EQ where each band lets you choose from a few different frequencies and the “width” of that band. Its not a true PEQ, I cannot set a bass shelf and the bass frequencies lowest option is 63hz. The EQ does not impact sound quality and it is highly recommended. Its able to add depth and layering that is a little lacking on the bone stock sound. Even keeping everything at 0 and adjusting band width gets it a little bit more cooking. Do note DSD can not have EQ applied.
DSP — The Jet Effects 7 DSP is also real high quality and works really well with the EQ. They really take any veil away and you just hear the layering better. 1 or 2 points of any of them is enough but you can go crazy with it. I stayed away from the Mach Bass since there was already plenty there and I did not want to mess with it. The reverb settings are also mehh and are really for fun only, and most of the presets can be tossed out.

It can be used as a USB DAC. And that is it. No really, even though this is an older player, the competition of its day had bluetooth, wifi, android, streaming etc wrapped in. This is as bare as it gets. It was $1800 USD new and it didnt even buy into dual DAC chips. They made some android players before this but they decided to cut that out and concentrate on a straight music player.

Overall and Notes:
I really like this and I want to listen to more on it. It scales too with better source content. The DSP helped mp3s never sound ratty, but the classical DSD left on the player by the previous owner sounded fantastically engaging and live, and remember eq/dsp wont apply to those file types. I do think you need to embrace the EQ/DSP to get the most out of the Cowon DAPs. It really gets it all cooking together and kicks it up to 11 with each part layered into it’s own spotlight. The sound comes across effortless and spaced out and that really is the highlight of this player. It all works so well together and the soundstage takes it home.


Part 3:
Wrapping Up the Head to Head

Form Factor:
This is all subjective but I will take the smaller device for travel even if the Cowon has the odd ports on top. The R6 2020 did fit fine in the hand but the hard buttons and form factor do it for me with the Cowon.

You can easily get used to the Cowon, but the bigger, brighter, higher resolution edge to edge screen lets the R6 make a splash. This is followed up with familiar Android layouts and I did not have a single hitch with the R6 while navigating.

Overall Signature — Like Form Factor this will be up to each listener. For me the more spaced out and black void Cowon did it for me. It needed a little EQ and a little DSP but it hit a level I really enjoyed. The R6’s “Wall of Sound” will win people over and its dynamics are really great for making you want to move. To me the constant pressure was a little much especially in my troubling 200-350Hz range.
Bass — Unless you want max quantity the Cowon wins here. It is tight and stays where it should and it wont hurt my head after a long day’s work.
Mids — With the Cowon the Mids are the music and the bass and treble compliment it. With the R6 the mids are there enough to hold their own but the bass and treble are what you notice the most.
Treble — Here the R6 fights back a little bit. Maybe it is just due to it being more forward but overall the treble is a little more there and technically full. The S still gets sizzly here and there and gives cymbals that cut but the R6 is more consistent so it gets the edge.
Soundstage and Placement — The Cowon trumps here in size and accurate placement. Its good enough that it takes you elsewhere and its believable.
Dynamics — The R6 is my standard for dynamics right now. It’s a rollercoaster ride in the best way.
Timbre and Texture — The Cowon is more natural to me and with the time I spent with it so far there was no wonky timbre issues. The R6 had one or two spots that may have been off but it is nothing that detracted from the listening.
Detail — I think that the R6 may actually be more detailed. It’s more upfront with what the music has to bring and its a little easier to hear it’s technicalities. If youre against EQ and DSP the R6 wins. I think the Cowon becomes much better with its EQ though.

It is clear Cowon puts a lot into this and always has. It is better and any hit to SQ is negligible if there is any. The R6 feels like any adjustment takes away from something else and the EQ only applies to the Hiby Player which, imho can be passed up.

The R6 has all the modern features you may ever need and Cowon has… well it is a player.

Overall and Notes:
The Cowon is a straight up great player. It’s effortless ability to present the soundscape it does is why it is a keeper for me. I really wish it did this all with some semi modern features as it’s really nice to pop up youtube to listen to that one tune not in your library.

I am tempted to keep the R6 just for it’s feature set and making it a streamer. It’s easy to use and can be a great backup dap and very easy to use source. As a player it rocks, it rolls and I cant see anyone being dissapoint with it. I just warn people to not blow out their ears accidentally.

I think to get much better new youll need to spend $1200 or $500 more than you would on the R6. And i think that is evident since Hiby already updated their R8 with more storage and ram since the R6 2020 is close to its tail.

The used market is more forgiving. If i paid the $1800 new price for the S, even in 2015, i would feel tricked. Im happy with its priced used and envy those who bought it new at it’s end of life for $700. The used market in this price range has some good options, m6, lowtoo etc (those are also oddly feature skimp) but i dont know if i can afford testing them all out. I will be adding my thoughts with the Radiance once i get those but the Cowon seems to be the winner for me.