Cowon iAudio 9 first impressions

CNET's Donald Bell offers a photo gallery and first impressions of the Cowon iAudio 9 MP3 player.

Close-up photo of the Cowon iAudio 9 MP3 player.
Cowon's iAudio 9 offers excellent sound, but is it enough to take on the iPod Nano? Donald Bell/CNET

Some people just can't stand the iPod. Maybe an iPod Mini ran over their dog or burned down the family farm, or maybe they just feel fundamentally offended by the idea of using iTunes. Whatever the rationale for rejecting the iPod, companies such as Microsoft, Samsung, Sony, Creative, and others are all jumping at the chance to be your iPod rebound.

And then there's Cowon. A small company whose products are often available only through online retail channels, Cowon has maintained a niche following with customers who value sound quality and extensive format compatibility above all other concerns.

Cowon's latest portable media player, the iAudio 9, is the company's spin on the Apple iPod Nano. Sharing the Nano's same basic shape, with a 2-inch screen and 8GB ($129) and 16GB ($169) capacities, the arrival of the iAudio 9 probably won't be giving Apple any heartburn, but audio connoisseurs have good reason to take notice.

You can read up on my previous blog posts if you're looking for spec info. For the remainder of this piece, I'll just be giving my initial personal impressions.

Right out of the box, the first thing I noticed about the iAudio 9 was how light it feels. At just 1.4 ounces, you can barely tell this thing is in your pocket. Another impression I got right away was how much more masculine the iAudio 9 looks next to the latest candy-coated, rainbow-hued line of iPod Nanos.

Unfortunately, that's about where my enthusiasm ended--especially once the Nano was on the table, flaunting its video camera, pedometer, podcast support, time-shifted radio tuner, and video rentals. Holding both players in my hand, I was stuck that the Nano, despite being half as thick as the iAudio 9, feels twice as sturdy. The iAudio 9 gets points for being thin, but its all-plastic design doesn't inspire confidence--bending easily under light pressure. I'd be concerned to put this in a back pocket for fear of breaking it.

Navigation is a mixed bag. As a big fan of Cowon's previous model, the iAudio 7, I was already accepting of the unique diagonal scroll bar design, which is actually pretty fun to use. Of course, on the iAudio 7 it made sense to come up with a funky navigation solution, since the device was only an inch wide. With the extra room on the iAudio 9, I really wanted a center select button or the capability to use the back key to back all the way out to the main menu. Instead, you have to use the play button to make selections and hit a slim, nondescript menu button on the side to get back to the main menu.

While I'm waxing nostalgic, the iAudio 7 had a few other features I'm sad to see missing from the latest model. For instance, the line-input is gone. Granted, having a dedicated recording input is a pretty niche feature for an MP3 player, but it really helped to make the device unique (and made recording from Pandora a snap...theoretically, of course). Cowon also ditched the Mini-USB connector for the smaller, micro-USB type. I know micro-USB is the latest craze--especially for mobile phones--but I still find it much easier to locate a Mini-USB cable if I'm in a pinch.

And then there's battery life. The iAudio 7 boasted 60 hours of continuous music playback. Sure, all that extra battery made the player look like a miniature soda can, but it was the gold standard for audio battery life. Now Cowon's giving us a new and improved device with 29 hours of audio and 7 hours of video. Those numbers aren't bad compared with the competition, but its still a step backward for the product.

Complaints aside, there's still plenty to love about the iAudio 9. More than anything else, this thing sounds phenomenal. The iAudio 9 uses a BBE+ sound enhancement preset right out of the box, giving even poorly encoded digital files more life than you're likely to hear from an iPod. And for people who really like to tinker with EQ settings, the iAudio 9 offers four custom, five-band EQ settings that allow each band 12dB of boost or cut, as well as frequency band width adjustments and variable frequency ranges. Yes, it gets really nerdy.

After you get past the audio, the rest of the player is rather humdrum. Videos look decent on the 2-inch screen, but you'll need to convert everything down to 320x240 to get things working. The text reader is somewhat pointless on a device this small, photos are straightforward, and the same goes for radio. The voice recorder is better than average, recording to WMA with a variable quality up to 256kbps that applies to FM recordings as well. I haven't thrown anything into the Flash player yet, but I'm curious to see what it can handle.

So there you go, my initial thoughts on the Cowon iAudio 9. I'll try and wrap up a full review soon. If you have any specific questions, be sure to post them in the comments section.

 

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