Cowon S9

The Cowon S9 is a sexy-looking gadget with exceptional audio and video quality, but its construction quality and user interface pale in comparison to the competition.

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The Cowon S9 is the first touchscreen MP3 player of 2009 to give Apple's iPod Touch a run for its money. Available in Australia in 8GB (AU$329) and 16GB (AU$379.95) capacities, the Cowon S9 is distinguished by its phenomenal audio quality and OLED touchscreen display.

Hardware design
Picking up the Cowon S9, the first thing you'll notice is how incredibly light it is (77 grams), which is nearly half the weight of the iPod Touch. Normally this is the kind of thing we would applaud, but the S9 is so impossibly light that it feels more like a toy than AU$300 worth of technology. After a week of subjecting the S9 to daily wear and tear, however, we're happy to report the S9 is more resilient than we first anticipated. The 57x105mm of clear plastic that covers the face of the S9 is inordinately scratch-resistant, and the dark-coloured back and sides hide nicks and smudges much better than the shiny chrome of the iPod can.

The Cowon S9 (centre) faces steep competition from the Samsung P2 (left) as an alternative to the iPod Touch (right). (Credit: CBS Interactive)

The only glaring weak point we found with the S9's construction is the thin, plastic play button lodged into the top edge of the screen. Mistaking the button for a retractable stylus, we nearly ripped the button off just moments after taking the S9 out of the box (the button has been a bit wobbly ever since). Luckily for us, the S9's play button is duplicated by the on-screen playback controls.

On the same top edge of the player you'll find a track-skip switch (also duplicated on-screen) and a volume switch. If it were up to us, we'd lose the S9's play and skip buttons to lessen confusion, because more often than not we brushed the play button accidentally or hit track skip when we meant to turn up the volume.

The bottom edge of the S9 offers a power-hold switch, headphone jack, and a 20-pin USB jack more common to mobile phones than MP3 players. Having the headphone jack smack in the middle of the S9's bottom edge makes it a bit awkward to hold in landscape view, and unless there's a good excuse, we always prefer to see mini-USB jacks on portable devices than specialised connectors.

In spite of all the little faults we could nitpick about, the Cowon S9's hardware scores big when it comes to the screen. Not only does the S9 use a lightening-fast capacitive touch interface (comparable to the iPhone's), but its 3.3-inch screen is made from OLED instead of conventional LCD. The S9's screen isn't as large as the 3.5-inch screen on the iPod Touch, but it comes very close and is noticeably more substantial than the screen on the Samsung P2. If you're picky about screen quality, the S9's 480x272 OLED display does not disappoint: the colours are vibrant, contrast is excellent, and there isn't a single viewing angle that doesn't look great.

User interface
Hardware has always been Cowon's strong suit, but its track record with user interfaces has been hit or miss. For the most part, the on-screen user interface of the S9 is one of the best we've ever seen from Cowon. The main menu is spacious, the touchscreen is responsive, and we liked the extra details, such as icon animation and page transitions. Unfortunately, despite being Cowon's best effort, Apple and Samsung have set the bar incredibly high with the interfaces of their touchscreen media players, which have benefited from the parallel development of touchscreen mobile phones.

Our overriding criticism of the S9's user interface is that it tries to do too much. For example, in order to fit controls for shuffle modes, song repeat, play and pause, skip, A-B loop, EQ and tilt-sensor lock onto the S9's music playback screen, Cowon used a control strip across the bottom of the screen that flips around to reveal a second set of controls. When pressed, some of these controls (EQ, for instance) pop up new menus that overlay across the screen, requiring a precise click to close. We can appreciate the ambitious amount of options Cowon is trying to offer the user, but at some point it just becomes messy — especially on a touchscreen.

The S9 is a beautiful-looking device that, unfortunately, feels pretty flimsy compared with the glass and steel of the iPod Touch. (Credit: CBS Interactive)

The Cowon S9 handles an impressive array of audio and video formats and throws in extras, such as Bluetooth audio, FM radio, voice recording, radio recording, BBE+ sound enhancement, a text reader and a Flash media player that begs for games (none are included). If you're willing to shell out more cash, you can also buy accessory cables that enable the S9's line-input and video-output capabilities.

From the audio side of things, the S9 offers support for MP3, WMA, FLAC, OGG, WAV and APE and allows you to sort your collection by both ID3 attributes (artist, album, genre) or folder tree. The music-playback screen includes album art, track controls, EQ settings, file information and options for bookmarking songs or adding them to an on-the-go playlist. Like the iPod Touch, a tilt sensor inside the S9 changes the music-playback screen to an album browser when the device is turned on its side. The S9's ability to connect in MSC and MTP modes allowed us to use it on both a Mac and PC without any problems.

On the video end, the S9 handles MPEG-4, DivX, XviD and WMV formats, but lacks support for the h.264 files common to video podcasts and popular video encoders such as Handbrake. Most files need to be formatted at 480x272 (video-conversion software is included), however, a few of our higher-resolution test files seemed to play just fine. Like the iPod Touch, the S9 lets users delete videos directly from the device and also bookmarks playback automatically.

If you're a fan of podcasts, Cowon includes MyPodder software with the S9 that makes short work of pulling down new podcast episodes. Unfortunately, as we mentioned before, the S9's lack of h.264 support makes watching video podcasts a tricky proposition.

The photo viewer on the S9 benefits from the beautiful OLED display, but the photo application itself is surprisingly light on format support (JPEG only). The S9's text viewer, on the other hand, is packed with features, including a zoom function, auto-scroll, selectable background colours and file bookmarking.

The S9's voice-recording, FM-recording, and line-input-recording features all record to the WMA format, with a selectable range of resolutions (32, 64, 80, 96, 128, 256Kbps). Recordings were clean-sounding, and an automatic track-split feature makes it easy to record multiple songs in a single pass.

The FM radio built into the Cowon S9 offers a large, virtual dial for tuning in stations, as well as an auto-preset feature, selectable world radio bands, and a mono-stereo switch. Radio reception is decent and the ability to record broadcasts directly to WMA files is a plus.

The Flash and Utility folders found on the main menu of the S9 are empty, with the exception of a lonely calculator application. Cowon is planning to release a public software-developers kit in an effort to encourage people to program their own applications and interface themes for the S9. As far as Flash content is concerned, we found plenty of Flash games and animations online that played nicely with the S9; however, not all games are suited for touchscreen control.

Pairing the Cowon S9 with Bluetooth speakers or headphones is about as straightforward as Bluetooth ever gets. The Bluetooth settings include a button that scans for local Bluetooth devices, a listing of previously paired devices, and a button for switching Bluetooth streaming on and off. Audio quality over Bluetooth is on par with competitors, such as the Samsung P2 or Sony A-Series Walkman, with an operating range of around 6 metres.

The Cowon S9 comes with an average set of ear buds, an unusual USB cable, and a software CD (not shown). An optional video-output cable (top right) can be purchased. (Credit: CBS Interactive)

When it comes to audio and video quality, the Cowon S9 hits it out of the park. The BBE+ suite of audio-enhancement effects included on the S9 improves upon the already excellent sound quality of the Cowon D2 and iAudio 7. Included on the S9 are 30 sound presets, including four user-defined presets that allow you to tailor the S9's five-band EQ, stereo enhancement and BBE+ effects to suit your taste. We can say without hesitation that the Cowon S9 sounds better than any iPod we've heard and its sound-enhancement technology is far more nuanced than the Creative Zen X-Fi or Sony Walkman series. The Samsung P2 (soon to be the P3) is the only comparable MP3 player that can rival the S9 when it comes to overall sound quality and arsenal of sound-enhancement settings.

Thanks to the OLED screen, the S9's video quality is superb: the colours are rich, frame rates are fluid, and there isn't a single angle on the screen that makes for poor viewing. Our only complaint about the S9's video player is file compatibility. The omission of h.264 video support makes us wince a little, and the S9's resolution restrictions have more in common with the iPod than file-friendly products like the Archos 5 or Cowon O2.

Cowon rates the S9's battery life at an astonishing 55 hours for audio and 11 hours for video. Of course, when you crank up the screen brightness, turn on the EQ, and start streaming music over Bluetooth, those numbers likely plummet, but it's still worth a tip of the hat to Cowon for raising the bar on battery life under best-case conditions.

Final thoughts
The Cowon S9 has plenty to brag about: an OLED touchscreen, long battery life, exhaustive format support, Bluetooth audio and enviable sound quality. But it's not the only game in town when it comes to iPod Touch alternatives. Sony and Samsung have announced their new touchscreen MP3 players for 2009, which, like the S9, are made to compete directly against the award-winning iPod Touch.

In spite of the Cowon S9's strengths, we still recommend the iPod Touch for the majority of users, because of its superior construction, intuitive user interface and breadth of features. That said — if your sole concern is having the best audio and video quality you can comfortably fit in your pocket, the Cowon S9 is hard to beat.

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Sammy Boyee

Sammy Boyee posted a review   

The Good:Awesome sound!!, Stunning Visuals (AMOLED)

The Bad:The UI .. they can do lot of things better with the hardware (I've tested - ver 2.52)

I've been using the COWON S9 player for some time. Found the sound really awesome thanks to the BBE+ sound. Video quality is really good.. LCD's come no where near to the color contrast of the AMOLED's. Its like watching HD video after viewing PAL format. Best video converting software is the Jet audio software provided with the S9 player itself. Others took more time and the end results was not appealing. The head phones provided are decent, but plug in a good can and you will get to know what this curved thing can do. Touch interface lags a bit, Hope C-S9 engineers do something in new upgrade of software. Overall its an audiophile MP3 player.


Hoss posted a comment   

Oh Yeah I forgot - drop and drag rules.


HOss posted a comment   

The Good:Unreal sound quality

The Bad:The UI is not intuitive

OK I read the reviews and bought the unit. Gee it took a while to work out the UI - (I hate instructions). Once I'd figured it out I was impressed by the screen - really good. I'd noticed that all the iPod people seemed to rubbish the S9 for its interface. Yeah it's different but once you get the hang of it, its a useful tool.
I must say that at first I wasn't impressed by the sound quality - I lined it up with my nano and identical mp3 files.
There wasn't that much difference. So I decided to go out and buy some decent headphones - in this case bose.
Holy Sh*t - that showed why people rave about the S9. Now all my friends are going to buy one.
Once you start using the inbuilt sound settings you won't want any iPod ever again.
I won't be using mine again that's for sure.


woody posted a comment   


The Bad:am i dumb but i cannot use the software fro transfering files!!!!!

How on earth can a product this good have such a awful transfere sofware - my music appears in files and not folders and is all over the place!!! i am not that liturate with these things but this is absurd...


Andrew posted a review   

The Good:Sound quality, display quality, flexible interface

The Bad:Touch screen took a little getting used to because of smallish buttons

This is a great player, I've had it for about a week.

I was a little nervous hearing the reports of poor build quality and flimsy plastic components, but nothing could be further from the truth. Anything heavier would be annoying for an MP3 player, and the screen seems very tough.

The sound quality is remarkable, I can't think of any player (including iTunes on my laptop) that sounds better. And the user equalisers are very customisable.

The screen and layout are nice and there are plenty of themes and games available if you get bored of the initial stuff.

The screen sensitivity and accuracy is sometimes a little off, but after a week I have learnt to use the player better so this isn't really a problem.

You may need to convert some files, especially any protected content, but there is plenty of free software for that.

In summary, a great player and something that I look forward to using for years to come. Long after the shine would have worn off comparable players, I think I will still be enjoying the sound quality of this device.


simpy1 posted a review   

The Good:Sound! Real sound!

The Bad:Some fiddly controls. File names need to be exact. Some ridiculous start pages!

I have had the Cowon S9 32gb for about a month now. I love it. It sounds incredible, and the screen is amazing. TO be honest, it feels just as solid as the ipod touch to me, it's just that it doesn't use a heavy metal back. Weight doesn't always equal quality. It can be a bit fiddly to use but my #1 priority was great sound, and this has it. I gave up on ipods years ago.


shuffle posted a comment   

i have ipod more than 3 years and i tunes just **** all the thing up **** itunes! welcome cowon s9 simply the best


Bor posted a comment   

This review makes it sound like it's not as good as an Apple, but it is miles better. Just because Apple cornered the MP3 market does not mean that its interface methods are the best. Good sound and good video are number 1 and the S9 delivers the best and the most flexible in formats. The S9 interface is very very good - if you don't like it - fine, but that's all it is - a matter of taste.


tarun posted a reply   

i own a s9 now and i feel much comfortable with it....


Rob posted a comment   

I would just like to point out that the S9 IS glass and not plastic. And the 20 pin connector is an emerging standard and needed for TV-Out and Line-In.

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User Reviews / Comments  Cowon S9

  • Sammy Boyee

    Sammy Boyee


    "I've been using the COWON S9 player for some time. Found the sound really awesome thanks to the BBE+ sound. Video quality is really good.. LCD's come no where near to the color contrast of the AMOL..."

  • Hoss


    "Oh Yeah I forgot - drop and drag rules."

  • HOss


    "OK I read the reviews and bought the unit. Gee it took a while to work out the UI - (I hate instructions). Once I'd figured it out I was impressed by the screen - really good. I'd noticed that all..."

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