Cowon Plenue 13 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 Even the once-mighty iPod Classichas been superseded by the convenience of the smartphone.

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.

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.

The 3.7-inch AMOLED touchscreen forms the center of the device and features a 480×800 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.
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 For example, the 1’s squishy power/hold button has been replaced by a smaller, more decisive button on the M.

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.

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.

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.