Editors' note: In September 2010, the rating for the Cowon S9 was lowered slightly to account for its relative value compared with newer products.
The Cowon S9 is the first-touch screen MP3 player of 2009 to give Apple's iPod Touch a run for its money. Available in 8GB ($199) and 16GB ($239) capacities, the Cowon S9 is distinguished by its phenomenal audio quality and OLED touch-screen display.Hardware design
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 onscreen playback controls.
On the same top edge of the player you'll find a track-skip switch (also duplicated onscreen) 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 cell 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 specialized 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 colors are vibrant, contrast is excellent, and there isn't a single viewing angle that doesn't look great.
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 onscreen user interface of the S9 is one of the best we've ever seen from Cowon. The main menu is spacious, the touch screen 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 touch-screen media players, which have benefited from the parallel development of touch-screen 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 touch screen.
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 an additional $9, you can also buy an accessory cable that enables the S9's 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 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.
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.
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.