Cowon's portable media players have a long history of supplying hardcore multimedia mavens with outstanding audio quality and format support. The company's latest device, the S9, does more than live up to the company's reputation. It offers a large and easy-to-use touchscreen, plus features we wish the iPod touch had, including stereo Bluetooth and an FM tuner. Although the S9's design isn't quite as sleek as Apple's flagship device, and it doesn't offer Wi-Fi, this PMP still makes for a solid choice.
Measuring 4.1 x 2.2 x 0.5 inches, the black, silver, and gray Cowon S9 has a smaller footprint than the current king of portable media players, the iPod touch 2G, but its curved back makes it noticeably thicker. Despite the extra girth, the S9 is significantly lighter at 2.7 ounces (the iPod weighs in at 4.1 ounces), but we prefer Apple's steel and glass body, which it feels sturdier in hand.
The top of the player houses volume and fast-forward/rewind buttons; a small divider helped us figure out which set of buttons were which when blindly manipulating the controls. Still, the buttons could have been more conveniently placed on the sides of the player, as they can be difficult to use with one-handed operation. The S9's bottom has a power/hold switch, a nonstandard 20-pin USB port, and a 3.5mm headphone jack sandwiched in between. The player lacks an expansion slot for adding additional storage.
Interface and Touchscreen
At the heart of the Cowon S9 is a sharp 3.3-inch (480 x 272-pixel resolution), widescreen AMOLED display that utilizes a capacitive touchscreen. Although the Cowon S9 doesn't feature the iPod touch's multi-touch functionality, it's one of the best touchscreens we've encountered in the PMP space; the screen was responsive to our finger inputs and we were able to open folders and files quickly.
The Cowon S9 uses a simple icon-based interface arranged in a grid, much like the apps on the iPod touch. Getting to our content didn't require unnecessary digging through menus and submenus. If you're looking to hop on the Web, look elsewhere, as the Cowon S9 lacks a Web browser and Wi-Fi.
Audio and Video Format Support
Similar to other Cowon portable media players, the S9 supports a wide range of audio and video formats and codecs that will bring a smile to the face of any audio- or videophile. Out of the box it supports MP3, WMA, WAV, OGG, FLAC and APE on the audio end, and AVI and WMV on the video end. Unlike the Cowon 02, the S9 supports Windows DRM, which will prove a strong selling point to those who subscribe to all-you-can-eat services like Rhapsody To Go. However, this player does not support DRM-protected video content.
If iTunes is your source for digital entertainment, you're out of luck, because the Cowon S9 doesn't support Fairplay DRM or the AAC format. The S9 only allows users to drag and drop files between itself and Linux and Mac OS X operating systems; you can't launch a song or video clip within those operating systems from the S9 while it's plugged into a notebook, which you can with a PC.
Awesome Audio (Plus Bluetooth)
Cowon's new JetEffect 2.0 audio enhancement and filtering technology makes its debut in the S9, and proves why the company's players are some of the best in the business. When we fired up The Verve's "Bitter Sweet Symphony" MP3, we were enthralled with the audio quality; the highs and lows were nicely separated, and the music was crisp. The included earbuds are the typical hard plastic ear-canal killers, but we had a much more pleasurable listening experience after syncing the Cowon S9 to a pair of Motorola's Rokr S9-HD stereo Bluetooth headphones using the player's built in Bluetooth 2.0 connection.
JetEffect 2.0 powers over a dozen predefined equalizer settings (along with four slots for customizable settings) that bring new life to tunes. Applying the BBE Headphone setting nicely boosted the bass on tracks to a head-nodding level without sacrificing the rest of the soundscape. A handy feature let us Favorite songs (which adds them to a Quick Launch bar) and Bookmark songs (which initiates playback within a song from an anchor).
The Cowon S9 includes an FM radio for tuning into (and recording) your favorite terrestrial radio content. Whether in our midtown Manhattan offices or hitting the bricks of New York City, the S9 delivered loud, crisp audio, with very few pops and hisses.
Video and Photos
Both home movies and a downloaded Terminator: Salvation trailer looked clear and colorful, but playing it in portrait mode restricts the image to the top half of the display; the bottom half shows the resolution, frames per second, equalizer setting, and other specs. The G-sensor accelerometer senses when you turn the S9 on its side, and displays the video in widescreen mode for a much large image. As with audio, you can bookmark clips to begin playback at user-defined points. Pressing the TV icon puts the S9 in TV-out mode, where you can watch your favorite videos on a big screen (cable not included).
Photos looked bright and colorful, and we could make out fine detail. In a nice touch, whenever you load a photo a zoom bar appears at the bottom of the GUI which you can slide to get a closer look at an image, a nice alternative to the iPod touch's multi-touch pinch gestures. A Flip button lives in the lower right portion of the screen, which brings up menu controls for rotating the image (we would've preferred to do this with our finger, but it's not a huge issue), and initiating a slideshow. Unfortunately, the S9 only handles JPEG images, and the included software won't convert BMP, PNG, GIF, or other photo files into a compatible format.
Bundled with the player is the Cowon MediaCenter-JetAudio Basic VX software, which allowed us to convert a handful of videos that recorded were recorded in MPEG-4 into AVI by selecting a video format, conversion quality, and one of several target player formats (Cowon S9, PSP, iPod, and others). A 2-minute-and-30-second movie was transcoded in two minutes and played back without any hiccups. The software can also be used to manage your files and create playlists (either manually or automatically based on certain file criteria).
Included on the same disc is JetCast software, which transforms you into a DJ: broadcast your favorite music to the Internet (or listen to others' streams) using Cowon's servers. The Cowon S9 also supports flash-based games and applications.
Cowon rates the S9 for 55 hours of audio playback and 11 hours of video playback. In our tests, the S9 lasted well over 3 days (with a quality mix of audio and video playback) before we needed to hunt for an outlet.
The Cowon S9 is a very good portable media player for those who want stereo Bluetooth and a touchscreen interface, and can live without the glitz of multi-touch, an app store, or over-the-air downloads. At $199 for the 8GB version (a 16GB version is available for $239), it's also $30 less than a similarly sizediPod touch 2G. Although we lament the nonstandard USB port, odd button placement, and limited photo compatibility, the Cowon S9 is still a prime-time player.