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Cowon S9 review:

Cowon S9

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 colors, 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, 256 Kbps). 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 touch-screen 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 20 feet.

The Cowon S9 comes with an average set of earbuds, an unusual USB cable, and a software CD (not shown). An optional video-output cable (top right) can be purchased for an additional $15.

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. Thirty sound presets are included on the S9, including four user-defined presets that allow you to tailor the S9's 5-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 colors 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. CNET Labs test results found the S9 realistically capable of an average of only 36 hours of continuous audio playback (still excellent by most standards), but validated Cowon's claim of 11 hours of video.

Final thoughts
The Cowon S9 has plenty to brag about: an OLED touch screen, 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, Samsung, Haier, and even Memorex have announced their new touch-screen 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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