Editors' note: The editors' rating for the Cowon D2 has been lowered from an 8.3 to a 7.3 to better reflect its value as of March 10, 2009. Cowon has also launched a new model of this MP3 player (the D2+), which is covered in a separate review.
Cowon may be a bit of an underdog in the U.S. market in terms of sales, but this Korean company sure does know how to make a quality MP3 player. The latest device to arrive on U.S. shores--or at least, in the CNET offices--is the Cowon D2, a solid and compact player dominated by a 2.5-inch screen. I was able to get my hands on a nearly identical preview model of the D2 at CES 2007 but just recently received the final U.S. version with that ever-important DRM support. Other than that welcome addition, the latest unit isn't much different from the one we previewed in January; it still has a nice, high-quality feel to it and offers a beautiful touch screen as well as loads of features, naturally. That said, you can expect to pay a bit of a premium for this high-end MP3 player. At $189.99 for the 2GB version and $219.99 for the 4GB model, the D2 costs more than the Creative Zen V Plus, which offers similar features but twice the memory for comparable prices.
Photos of the Cowon D2 really don't do the player justice--it has such a nice feel to it, so we definitely recommend some hands-on time with the player before you pass final judgment. The sleek body is wrapped in a brushed-metal border, where you can find some tactile controls: a power/hold slider, volume buttons, and a menu key. On the left edge, hidden beneath a flap, are two USB ports: one standard mini for syncing with the computer and one proprietary for use with the included wallwart power adapter. The bottom of the device features an SD card expansion slot for adding more memory. At 3x2.2x0.6 inches, the player is pleasantly compact overall, though it feels a bit weighty at 2.1 ounces.
The D2 is dominated by a 2.5-inch color screen, which makes it look quite similar to the iRiver Clix. Unlike the Clix, however, the D2's display is touch-sensitive, which means the majority of navigation is accomplished by poking at the screen PDA-style. Your finger will do the trick, or you can use the included stylus--which also acts as a nifty kickstand, by the way. The D2's touch screen is responsive, but we prefer tactile controls for MP3 players since a touch interface makes blind navigation impossible. All in all, the D2's user interface is pretty straightforward, with an icon-driven main menu that reminds me of Archos' PVPs, but deeper navigation will take some acclimation. Still, anyone with a bit of tech experience should catch on swiftly.
Getting started with the Cowon D2 is a simple task on Windows XP. (The player also works with previous Windows versions back to 98, as well as Mac and Linux operating systems.) You can simply connect the player to your computer using the included USB cable and begin transferring content, either via drag-and-drop in Windows Explorer or by using Windows Media Player (WMP). Cowon also includes a software CD that includes JetShell for transferring files and JetAudio for media playback and conversion. We prefer WMP to JetShell for syncing, but JetAudio is a worthwhile install--and necessary if you want to convert video for playback on the D2. Transcoding takes time, but it proved easy to do in testing, and the resulting files played back flawlessly on the D2. However, we had to use drag-and-drop to transfer it over--WMP gave an error message.
As with all Cowon players, the D2 is teeming with features. It offers support for multiple audio codecs, including MP3, Ogg, WAV, FLAC, and WMA--including subscription tracks. We tested the player with Urge and the D2 had no problem playing back the tracks and recognizing prebuilt playlists. (You can also create a dynamic playlist on the device itself.) Music playback options include shuffle and repeat modes, six EQ presets as well as a user-defined mode, and BBE sound effects (Mach3Bass, 3D Surround, and Stereo Enhance). You can also view photos and videos on the device. It supports WMV and AVI natively, and the aforementioned JetShell can help you with other formats, such as DiVX. There's also voice and line-in recording, as well as an FM tuner with autoscan and a seemingly limitless number of preset slots.
And how about that ever-pressing performance issue? As I've come to expect from Cowon players, the D2 sounds great when paired with a decent pair of headphones, such as the Shure E4c. You'll definitely want to replace the set that comes with the player--they sound pretty awful. The multitude of sound-adjustment options should help you find the perfect balance for your tastes. Overall, tunes sounded rich, warm, and detailed with a thumping low-end to satisfy bass-freaks. The stellar sound quality remained consistent across all genres of music. Photos looked crisp and detailed on the bright, color screen, and it's kind of cool to see the chunky, pixilated effect just before an image comes fully into focus. Video playback also proved more than acceptable--we wouldn't mind watching a 30-minute clip on the D2, though we still think the screen is too small for feature-length movie watching. The rated battery life of 52 hours for audio and 10 hours for video is also nothing to scoff at; indeed, it's very impressive, and the D2 pretty well proved itself in CNET Labs testing. We got about 50 hours for music and 10 hours for video--simply awesome.