Cowon S9 32 GB Video MP3 Player with Touchscreen (Titanium Black)

General Information

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Pros: Sound Quality, Amazing EQ and Effects, Customization, Tweakability, Power Output, AMOLED Gorilla Glass Screen, Drag & Drop, Codec Support
Cons: UI not as simple as Ipod, Tv-Out and Line in Cables cost extra, Doesn't play nice with macs, Line-in Only records up to 256kbps WMA, no WAV
This is the player I was looking for all along. Seriously, this has given me a new found respect for Cowon, as well as Korean Innovation as a whole. So, lets get to the basics.
Audio Quality is unbelievable. Now that the price has gone down to $200, this is the best-sounding player for under $300. No compromises either, this has been compared favorably to the Sony X, which is twice the price, with fewer audio features.
The EQ is equally incredible. If your coming from an iPod, be prepared to start tweaking. Before, with my ipod, I had one way to play music. If it didn't sound the way I wanted it, I had to just accept it, beyond a few primitive EQ settings that usually failed to help the sound. With the S9, you have unlimited possibilities for sound tweaking and customizing. Don't like the closed-in feeling of your headphones? Use BBE Viva or make your own custom EQ with 10 levels of Surround Sound effect. Want more/less bass/treble. Easy. Say your just listening to a song, and it doesn't sound right. The Genre settings are optimized for Rock, Dance, Classic, etc and will lift you out of your depression. If there is any DAP that will convince you not to buy an amp, its this one. You will never run out of ways to improve the sound.
The Screen. Oh the screen. Active Matrix Organic Light Emitting Diode. I don't know how it works, and I don't care. It looks so amazing, especially with its 16 million colors. Play a colorful movie like Avatar on it, and you will be literally blown away. The new Samsung Vibrant actually includes this movie, and has the same AMOLED-type screen as the S9, but is newer and much better advertised. When they say cinema quality they aren't joking. It's so amazing that if I had the choice of watching a movie on my laptop or on my S9, I would choose the S9 every time. Your xvids will come to life. There is a 2gb file limit for videos, but it doesn't matter, as I have watched 700mb xvids on the amazing screen without complaint. If encoding video for the S9, just set AutoGK to xvid at 75% quality, and it will look amazing and be under 2gb 99% of the time. I didn't buy it for the screen, I bought it purely for audio quality and flac support. But I would be lying if I said I didn't appreciate the screen almost as much as the superior audio quality. The EQ can be used while watching movies as well, settings like BBE Headphone will add soundstage and bass without sacrificing clarity. Really amazing.
Codec Support - FLAC, WAV, OGG, MP3, WMA, APE. Everything you need. I would choose FLAC if going for the best Audio Quality possible, as the Tags are easy with Mp3tag, and the compression of APE is not an excuse for lacking error checking and error robustness, which FLAC uses to make sure your lossless files are truly lossless. In a study over at HydrogenAudio, someone tried to play FLAC and APE that were both corrupted using a hex editor. The FLAC file had a second of silence, while the APE file refused to play at all. So really. Load it with FLAC and enjoy the sound. It is amazing with lossless and good headphones. The stock ones are complete crap, but everyone here probably has something $100+
Drag and Drop - Comes with software, but you don't need it at all. Just drag and drop. So easy, and you can keep your own folder system as an alternative to going by tags, as the S9 can navigate folders easily and quickly.
Tv-Out Cable is really cool with well-encoded Xvids, have watched a lot of movies at friends houses using this feature. Quality is limited only by the TV and the encoding. Great job on the cable, but it costs like $15 extra. Should be included in the package.
Line-in Cable is awesome too. Record any song from a friends DAP or a sound mixer or anything, but only at 256kbps WMA. Sounds great, but no WAV, sorry. Also costs extra, should be included in package.
Proprietary cable for USB and charging. Not a big deal, but Mini-usb would have been another pro.
UI: Easy when your used to it, takes about a week to get in the groove, after that your set. Also, Custom UI's from iaudiophile forums make your player infinitely customizable. I found a couple that work great with a bunch of user options and they look really cool too. One called "Dark Evolution" takes advantage of the S9's killer screen and displays album art as large as it can go. I tagged all my FLAC with mp3tag with 500x500 album art from Google Images, looks AMAZING. But I have to say, Ipods UI is the best. But you have to use their software and be another apple sheep. UI is definitely good, great if you consider the customizing options. I like it a lot better than the ipods' but I've seen people complain. All in all, if you have a little time on your hands to figure out and customize this bad boy, you will be totally happy with the results. I didn't get an anp because my headphones are IE8s and the ATH-M50, but you will want to if your connecting to a hard-to-drive headphone.
The new Itouch is $400 and doesn't sound or play video as well as the S9
The new Zune HD doesnt sound as good, or have as many sound tweaking options
The Sony X has noise canceling that messes with the sound that you have to use the bundled headphones with, an internet browser, you'l never use, inferior codec support and battery life, and far less sound customization.
This has no Line-out. So for you amp-loving people this might be a no-go. But if you use earphones or easy-to-drive headphones (I use ATH-M50 on Volume Level 10/40, and its completely loud enough) this should be your next purchase. Really, discount the haters. The UI is simple and intuitive once you get into it, and you won't have any problems unless you use a Mac, which is known to have problems with these. If you need more than 32gb (you probably don't, for portable use, just pick your favorite albums that you listen to the most) you can buy the Cowon J3, which is $100 more for an SD card slot and a crappy internal speaker. Anyway, I love it and use it everyday, and it completely meets my sound quality needs as well as others, enough that I use it at home with my M50s as well as portably with my IE8s.
Pros: Battery Life, Screen, Looks, File support.
Cons: Audio quality, Build quality.
[skip to the end of the review for the punchline]
I purchased one of these (the 8GB version) from ebay second hand since I'd heard so many positive things about Cowon's audio quality and my Sony NWZ-B135F/B needed an upgrade.
The previous user had had it in his possession for 5 months, at first glance it looked very nice (though a little bit larger in real life) very faint scratches on the back and the screen was perfect.
I then realised the tilt-detector completely failed within an hour of use, the play/pause button was very loose, and the lock switch was quite sensitive or not working, hm, oh well, I actually don't care about that stuff, they're not important anyway, I'm just after the audio!
I loaded a heap of songs in various formats and genres along with a few videos onto the s9, the video support is very nice! very nice portable video player from my brief impression of that feature, I also loaded some comic books onto this player as a test, then using the picture viewer, yes, I think I could read comics on this thing, you have to zoom in here and there on small text and then scroll around the page, but those features work quite nicely so yes, you can pull it off.
The UI is okay, a tiny bit of delay at times with the touchscreen, and not the most intuitive interface, but once you're used to it it seems fine.
[the above information is mostly nonsense, so you can skip to this part of the review if you want]
Now... onto the audio!
For the past 7 hours I've been listening to the s9 doing side by side comparisons with my laptop audio jack, cd-player->amp and sony dap, with three different headphones and two earphones.
My laptop and cd-player/amp are just for reference, it's a standard-issue laptop and cd player and vintage amp with nice sound.
My Sony NWZ-B135F/B is a discontinued model ->
It is however quite likely to be very very similiar to the rest of the B-Series Sony Walkmans series, it's the size of a large cigarette lighter with a very basic screen, I'm purely using it for audio.
Ok, now for the sake of authentic reviewing, I am going to list every song, setting, and model number for the following comparisons.
Track 1: "true... (Trance Sunrise Mix)" mp3-320 | Artist: Riyu Kosaka | 2001 single "true..."
Track 2: "SILENT KNIGHT" mp3-320 | Artist: Versailles | 2008 single "prince and princess"
1st - Vintage Amp via laptop with normal EQ and 12% volume hooked to Sony MDR-SA5000.
2nd - Dell laptop using foobar with normal EQ and 65% volume hooked to Sony MDR-SA5000.
3rd - Cowon S9 with normal EQ and 100% volume(40) hooked to Sony MDR-SA5000.
4th - Sony Nwz-B135F/B with normal EQ and 100% volume hooked to Sony MDR-SA5000.
These headphones require a nice amp, so 1st place outclasses the others with a richer, spacious, and more lively sound.
The laptop has slightly better sound quality than the S9 and is only at 65% volume compared to 100% on the cowon (so if you like your music particularly loud and have 'high-end' headphones, the S9 won't do the trick).  As soon as I select a decent EQ setting on my laptop though, the difference becomes more apparent, trying to match this with a good EQ setting on the cowon is interesting, sometimes they sound pretty good, but more often than not they sound like complete jokes (crystal clear, reverb stadium, X-bass etc.), in this case the best I could find was the BBE ViVA, Classic, or the Reverb Room (which became a quick favorite), Vocal is also a very effective EQ setting for just listening to vocals, all in all, the S9 has a powerful, colorful EQ.  I'd like to note though, that even at "normal" EQ the S9 still has coloration in the sound, more on this later.
The Sony Nwz-B135F/B is not quite powerful enough for an enjoyable listening experience on the SA5000's.
This is interesting, because the mW output of the sony is 5mW+5mW, and the mW output of the S9 is 29mW+29mW, I suspected this difference should be huge, right?  Well, it's not, it's fairly noticable on these 'phones... but then on the smaller or lower ohm phones like basic earbuds, the volume difference is hardly noticable anymore, sure, it's there, but it feels more like 5mW vs 7mW, and not 29.
Next... I compared Fostex T5's and then Koss Portapro's (the S9 matched with the Koss's quite well, at least with electronic music, if you can live with muddy bass, these were a pretty good match for the S9.)
Then... I compared the earphones that come with the S9 and a pair of Sony MDR-E708 earphones.
The stock issue earphones look cheap and plasticky, but they are actually quite responsive and have a tamed projection across the spectrum so they sound half-decent with the otherwise over-the-top S9 EQ settings, but I am skipping their comparison since it's the same as the conclusion below.
So, now comes the Sony MDR-E708 earphones, the final part of my review, these earphones are fairly cheap and standard-issue, I'd say just above the included earphones for the S9, but they certainly can shine for cheap earphones.
Anyway, with all the headphones I tested, the S9 came out on top of the SonyNwz in delivery of sound, mostly related to power(mW) I'm guessing, it also came out on top in surround/spatial sound.
Now then, in terms of sound quality, even though at lower volumes, the Sony player came out on top, the sony sounds more real, more lustrious, more alive, punchy and present, more effective in delivering music, the way music sounds.
So, how can this be so? The S9 is supposed to have some of the best sound quality out there? How can a cheap sony player be better?
[here comes the punchline]
... I have a hard time enjoying music on the S9, there is a veil, like, some kind of filter on the music, as if I were at a concert and there was a thin glass wall between me and the music, that's what music sounds like on the S9, it sounds like someone stabbed the songs prior to me listening to them, so that when I hear them all the stereo and surround and details are pretty much there, and sometimes it sounds nice and good, but it's simply lifeless.
In lack of a better word, there is also an early 90's sound to the music, it sounds like the eq has been permenantly adjusted so the midrange is lower than the bass and treble, lending itself towards a sound signature of clarity, but lacking in body and presence.
If you value any of the following terms in your music, then the S9 is not for you:
rawness, noise, distortion, gravity, kick, presence, airiness, pureness, conductivity, sexiness.
They're the words that come to mind that are lacking in this mp3 player, and that's why I'm selling it tomorrow, two days after my purchase with extensive reviewing, If you want clean music with a powerful EQ and a videoplayer with good battery life and you're not concerned about the pricetag, then sure, get it!
If you want almost the same features at a lower price and better build quality (I think), get the Samsung YP-P3, if you don't want video, the Cowon iAudio U5 might also be an option.
If you care about pricetags and want the best portable audio quality you can get, don't get this, start burning cd's! get a portable cd player and portable headphone amp like the fiio e5 at half the cost, with the money you saved, get a shoulder-bag for transportation and a good pair of earphones or headphones that suit your tastes.
[I know this review was lengthy, but in what I'd read I'd only heard good things about the cowon's, so when I was disappointed, I felt I had to let others know so they wouldn't waste their time like I've done.]
Hope this was helpful, good luck.
- kiteki
p.s. this is my first post on head-fi. d.s.
Pros: Sound, Screen, Interface.
Cons: Proprietary USB Connection
Value: Not cheap; Not expensive. Does the most basic function of a DAP... it plays music... Perfectly.
Audio Quality: Once you spend over $100 on a pair of headphones, your source suddenly becomes the limiting factor in the quality of sound, a distorting Ipod would not suffice, neither would a Zune. I bought the S9 and have yet to hear a legitimate competitor. Custom settings make anything sound as bass heavy as you like, can improve the sound on cheaper headphones, and really make nice ones shine. BBE is better than SRS, better than Creative CMSS3D, Sony CLEAR BASS, DOLBY HEADPHONE, and most any other audio enhancement you can think of.
Design: Buttons on the top of the unit are perfectly integrated, control all playback functions from your pocket, scratch proof screen, rubberized backing.
Battery Life: It is made by Cowon; Cowon, to say the least, does not skimp on battery life.
Interface: User Customizable Interface, made completely of modular .swf files, managed by a launcher set at 24fps, upgradable to 60fps. Store up three or more interfaces on the device at one time, each functions appearance can be modified down to the smallest detail. Faster scolling than an Itouch, Brighter screen than the Zune HD, more adaptable to the user. It's not an apple fed and windows barred prison, it's a palace.
Overall: Multi-Media playback quality is the best. If you want internet, get a phone that does flash; If you want fully functional software apps, get a laptop.


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