Over the past several weeks, I've been getting acquainted with these players' features and sound signatures. I wanted to share my experience and thoughts on their strengths and weaknesses. A/B testing was with the E500 listening primarily to hip hop, electro, freestyle, euro, trance, R&B, and pop, along with a splattering of classical, new age, and jazz using lossless files (wav, flac, m4a), and lossy mp3 tracks with bitrates ranging from 160-320 kbps to see how these players scale with quality source material. While this post was initially targeted to be a 4-player shootout, the source-fickle E500 did not get along with the Fuze. Similarly, the touch 2G is a solid audio player, however, it's not on the same SQ level of the X and S9. As a result, much of the audio discussion will focus on the flagship OLED touchscreen PMPs with peppered commentary on the touch and Fuze. All the players were tested using the following settings: X: Equalizer - None, VPT (Surround) - None, DSEE (Sound Enhance) - Off, Clear Stereo - On, Dynamic Normalizer - Off S9: BBE ViVA (You can learn more about BBE here and check out demos here) touch: EQ - Off Fuze: Flat EQ You may be wondering why the S9 was not tested with the Normal setting. Under Normal, the mids receded; soundstage narrowed; bass became ill-defined; and the music was cold and dull. The X would win and this post would end here. Build Quality Sony knows hardware and it's evident when you pick up the X. It has a nice heft and it screams quality build. A few people may think the faux-granite edging looks cheap. I like it as it provides a reassuring grip. I would prefer the back to use the same material for a consistent feel and not the fingerprint-magnet glossy finish, but glossy is sexy and as we know sex sells. The phone jack has considerable play and it appears to be a common occurrence. Similarly, the volume rocker is loose and has considerable lateral play such that when I shake the X, you can hear the plastic rocker rattle. The touch also screams quality and Apple's minimalist design philosophy reveals tight tolerances between the back and front screen and home button. The side volume rocker is tight, however, the top button has a tiny bit of lateral play. The thin profile of the touch makes it difficult to grip securely. I'm always afraid that I'll drop the touch with its slippery chrome back and lack of side grips. The back plate scratches easily so factor in a case to your budget if you want to preserve its newness. The S9 feels cheap at first due to its use of plastics and lack of heft; however, after field testing the reduced weight in my pocket is welcomed. The S9 in titanium black has a velvety-rubber finish and contoured back and sides; feels secure in the hand and holds up well against scratches. No need to buy a case here. Thanks Cowon! The phone jack is recessed and located in the middle bottom side. While it's location is questionable, it's my favorite jack; providing the best fit for the E500 and acoustic feedback once locked in. The Fuze is an inexpensive DAP and it's not a fair comparison with the other top-of-the-line players. That being said, the rubberized back offers a non-slip grip and the scroll wheel is fluid and functional. What ticked me off is the poorly-designed phone jack chewed up my plug. It's a known issue so exercise caution. 1. X 2. touch/S9 4. Fuze Screen The X uses a 3" OLED screen that maxes out at 262K colors. The S9 uses a 3.3" active-matrix OLED screen supporting 16.7M colors. Looking at the same images on both screens at the brightest settings, it's difficult to see any noticeable loss in color fidelity. The extra resolution (480x272 vs. 432x240) and 0.3 inch display on the S9 over the X makes it more useful in selection, control, viewing images and videos. The touch sports a 3.5" 480x320 glass LCD and offers the most screen real estate and ease of use in icon and menu controls. While images look sharp, it just can't match the OLED's vibrancy and viewing angles. The touch and X have very responsive screens, while the S9 may require a second tap on occasion. The Fuze has a 1.9" 224x176 64K color plastic screen. Serving primarily as a DAP, viewing images from cover art to photos is unexciting. As the only non-touch screen player, it's prone to scratches, while the S9 offers the greatest durability with its use of Corning's Gorilla glass. 1. S9 2. X 3. touch 4. Fuze USABILITY UI While Sony's strength is in hardware, Apple rules software. Icons are slick, scrolling is fluid, and menu options are readily available. I won't go into iTunes as it's a love/hate relationship on this forum. The other players support MSC mode if you prefer sideloading via drag-and-drop. The X is pretty refined with nice touches such as the orange highlights on selections. Menu options and placements are easily accessible and intuitive. Scrolling is very sensitive and it requires finesse in your flicks and stops. Initially, I did not like the speed; however, once adjusted it's highly functional as the song lists grow. The S9 is not as polished out of the box; default icons look a little Mickey Mouse and it takes some tinkering before the UI grows on you. Kinetic scrolling is the worst amongst the three touchscreens and you have to take a caveman approach in your flicks to get any scrolling speed or defer to using the side scrollbar. In music mode, one-handed operation is easy with left/right thumb swipes on the screen to access next/previous tracks. You also have the option of using the hardware buttons on top. With the touch, you can only press the back/forward arrow icons. Cowon provides firmware updates and the developer community offers some slick themes and customizable UIs such as the impressive Claw UI, which makes the S9 more polished. You can go nuts on RGB color schemes, different fonts and sizes, customized icons, wallpaper timelines to reflect the time of day, etc. If you're a power user and like to overclock PCs, cook up ROMs for Windows Mobile devices, you'll feel right at home tweaking the S9 PMP. 1. touch/X 3. S9 4. Fuze Blind Control The X has three dedicated buttons--RW, Play/Pause, and FF--on the top, a volume rocker on the right side, and a noise cancellation switch just below. The top three buttons have a metallic titanium finish and have a nice tactile feel to them. The volume rocker and NC button is a black plastic. Not sure what prompted the designers to change materials, but I prefer the metallic buttons. On the rear is a large metallic Hold slider. Below the front screen is a nice thumbprint-size metallic Home button, which I prefer over the smaller Home button on the touch and the triple function Play/Pause/Home stubby button on the S9. The S9 has two rocker buttons on top; one for volume and the second for RW and FF. A stubby button sits in the middle controlling Play/Pause/Home. On the bottom is a Power-Hold slider along with the phone jack. I'm not a fan of having the phone jack on the opposite of the control buttons; however, the positioning grew on me as I could press the buttons on the bottom of my pocket. Also, the rocker-style RW/FF buttons grew on me as it's easier to seesaw control of previous and next tracks, rather than feel your way across the Play/Pause button on the X. Given the phone jack is located on the opposite side of the main controls, the likely scenario is that the S9 would slide into your pocket control side first with the phone jack on top. As a result, the control buttons will be more difficult to feel if you're wearing jeans with the thicker fabric and stitching. If your phones have L-shaped plugs, then you can get away with having the controls on top. Unfortunately, the E500 has a straight plug so it's a little more difficult to feel the controls in my pocket. On volume adjustments, the S9 has the finest incremental changes followed by the X and touch. I found chilling out to some tunes at a modest level was hard on the touch as it was either too soft or too loud with the E500. Both the X and S9 have no problems driving the DT880/250s and the latter has more volume headroom if you have more demanding cans or if you're losing your hearing. 1. X/S9 3. touch 4. Fuze AUDIO Highs The E500s have a laidback sound and the S9's analytical detail complements well bringing out added extension. I originally felt the S9 had more treble extension than the X; however, after further listening and burn-in, it appears the X extends a tad more than the S9. Treble is detailed and does not sound harsh or fatiguing. 1. X 2. S9 3. touch 4. Fuze Mids Mids are velvety smooth on the X, while the S9 has more texture in the vocals. The X has more forward mids than the S9, while the touch has the most forward presentation and for select tracks, it becomes fatiguing. Acoustic guitars sound great with richness in tone and lively strings on the X and S9. I put the two as equals as it boils down to which presentation you prefer. 1. S9/X 3. touch 4. Fuze Bass With BBE ViVA, the S9 has plenty of punch and it hits hard. For the bassheads in the house, BBE ViVA2 and Mach3Bass will be right up your alley. On the X, there is less bass quantity than the S9; however, bass is a tad tighter and more controlled. The touch has the leanest bass amongst the three touchscreen PMPs. Extension would have to go to the S9 and watching movies with BBE+ is entertaining, especially explosion scenes. The Fuze had flabby bass coming out of the E500. 1. S9/X 3. touch 4. Fuze Attack & Decay The X is one fast audio player. Listening to some old school hip hop with complex scratching, the X handles mixes with precision. For the metallers, the X easily handles fast runs on electric guitars. The S9 is also pretty fast, though decay is a little slower leading to some loss in definition when bpms rise above 140. As for the touch, it takes the bronze medal and can't compete against the Usain Bolt of audio players in the X. 1. X 2. S9 3. touch 4. Fuze Soundstage BBE ViVA adds a holographic soundstage to the S9. It sounds natural and eerily good. I originally thought the touch had the widest soundstage, but after a few critical listening sessions, the S9 was clearly wider. Listening to Enrique Iglesias' Do You Know? (The Ping Pong Song) on the X, the ping pong ball seemed to be travelling just over the net and past my ears, while on the touch the ball was travelling an inch or two wider. Lastly, the ball on the S9 was travelling an additional inch or two wider and higher. It sounded like the ball was being lobbed up travelling halfway across the ping pong table. The touch has a large soundstage though more so in width than height and depth. The Fuze sounded narrow and congested with the E500. 1. S9 2. touch 3. X 4. Fuze Clarity This was a tight race; however, the S9 edged out the X with a little more resolution. The sound coming out of the S9-E500 pairing sounds similar to my Compass (Earth)-DT880 setup. Plugging the E500 into the Compass, the mids are too warm and mushy. Given the versatility of the Compass, it's clear the E500 is picky with sources. The touch has a slight veil. The highly-sensitive E500 will reveal hiss on just about any DAP. The touch has the blackest background with a minute amount of hiss. The S9 has a bit more hiss, while the X is the worst noise polluter. On tracks with silent passages, it's unfortunate the hiss on the X shatters the ambiance. The S9 screams for high bitrate music. While not unforgiving of lossy tracks, it scales well with quality source material and reveals unabashedly the bitrate and mix quality of lossless tracks. Fortunately, Cowon does not disappoint with its lossless codec support of flac, ape, ogg, and wav. This is serious audiophile gear. 1. S9 2. X 3. touch 4. Fuze Phone Synergy While much of my testing and impressions have focused on the E500, you can map your listening preferences and phones in finding complementary synergy. The X would benefit most with bassier phones to elevate bass quantity and impact. As well, phones with wide soundstages would be helpful, unless you prefer a more intimate presentation. The mids are more forward on the X than the S9 and the DT880 complements well with the X. The S9's neutrality and detail would balance out with warmer phones. The touch is a good all-rounder and a detailed phone should help lift the veil. Duncan has a stable of popular IEMs and he could share his thoughts on various pairings. VIDEO The S9 easily takes the crown when it comes to the video experience. Simply drag-and-drop your avi/wmv/asf files and you're ready to go. No resizing required and messing around with converters. Besides ease of use, the 3.3" AMOLED screen is simply stunning. Colors pop and black levels are KURO-like. When viewing still images, the X is equally impressive as the S9; however, when playing video, black levels are not as deep. The touch may have the largest screen conducive to portable video viewing; however, it needs to transition over to OLED on its next product refresh to leverage its content library. It's good to see manufacturers are finally taking portable video seriously with the upcoming Zune HD and Creative Zii EGG releases. In a year's time, let's wish PMPs with high resolution OLED screens, multi-core processors, HD cameras, encoders/decoders, stereo mics, flash storage sizes of 128GB plus, memory card slots, and integrated HDMI 1.4 connectors emerge in pushing HD video capture, playback and output to the next level. 1. S9 2. touch 3. X 4. Fuze Misc Features Below are a number of additional features worth considering in your decision process. touch: Wi-Fi, excellent browser, YouTube, Bluetooth, firmware updates (at a cost), huge app, games, content library, platform support whether it's SW developers, HW peripherals, auto manufacturers, line out, speaker, accelerometer S9: FM radio and recording, external mic, voice recording, Bluetooth, regular free firmware updates, Flash apps and games, enthusiast developer community, accelerometer, long battery life X: Wi-Fi, questionable browser, YouTube, FM radio, Slacker Radio (US), quality ear buds, noise cancellation Fuze: expandable memory, scroll wheel control 1. touch 2. S9 3. X 4. Fuze Value While price is a measurable criterion, value is more subjective based on your weighting system for a given functionality, feature set, performance so ymmv. In the US, Amazon's current pricing for a 32GB S9 is US$270; touch is US$369; and the X is US$390. In the UK, the X is the least expensive at £216, followed by the touch at £263, and S9 at £269. In Canada, the S9 is going for C$294, touch at C$400, and the X at C$500. There's considerable regional price variance so be on the lookout for sales promotions or if you're travelling/have friends/family willing to shop for you, that's worth exploring. Based on the Head-Fi community's primary interest in SQ, the S9 should be top of mind for the Americans and Canadians. For the Brits, the X would take the value crown. CONCLUSION So which PMP should I get? Well, it depends on your sonic and genre preferences. If you're into hip hop, R&B, electro, freestyle or eurodance, either the X or S9 will keep your feet tapping. If your listening preferences center on trance and techno, the S9 will put a smile on your face with its holographic presentation; while the X offers the transient speed to keep your head bobbing to each beat. If classical is your cup of tea, both the X and S9 are worthy performers; however, they each have their strengths and weaknesses. Violins shine on the X and it has the treble extension and speed to attack complex passages. Not that the S9 is a slouch, its decay is slightly slower and adds a tiny smear here and there. The S9 has the largest soundstage and best instrument separation, and it struts its stuff in this genre. Background hiss is very noticeable on the X with the E500, while the S9 hiss is faint. If you're concerned with hiss, then go with the super quiet touch or look for less sensitive and higher impedance phones to mate with the X or S9. Jazz sounds very good with the S9-E500 combo and the vocals are rich and nicely textured. On Holly Cole's I Can See Clearly, bass is relaxing and pianos sound dynamic. Pianos sound flat on the X and background hiss is clearly evident. If you prefer a smoother and intimate presentation, go with the X. For heavy metal, the X would probably work best for its highs, speed, attack and decay. Electric guitars sound lively. If you're looking for a multi-functional PMP/PDA computing device with decent sound quality, then the touch should suit your needs. While I was not able to find E500 synergy with the Fuze, I saw promising signs with the Sony buds that came with the X. With the right phone pairing, the Fuze offers good audio value either as a primary DAP or as a backup for working out. From an audio ONLY perspective, you will not be disappointed with either the S9 or X. Both players provide exceptional clarity and high fidelity. If you're concerned about squeezing the last ounce of resolution out of your music collection, you'll have to go with wav files on the X while the S9 offers support of the full suite of audiophile lossless codecs. Personally, the S9 suits my A/V needs and listening preferences. The touch was very close in my decision process with respectable sound quality and the excellent ecosystem/platform support. I considered the scalability of the line out to a portable amp in boosting the SQ, but I was looking for a portable rig and not a transportable. What about the X? Well, I really like the build quality and tactile button controls. UI is clean and intuitive. It has great treble extension, attack and decay to handle fast genres. Where it suffers is the incessant hiss paired with the E500 that's difficult to block out. Listening to music should be effortless and not an ongoing battle in filtering out background noise. At the end of the day, the S9 sounded sweeter to my ears and there was more synergy with my E500 and listening preferences. Without question, the S9's secret sauce is BBE+ and it's the first PMP to market with this audio technology. There's plenty of bass impact; mids are prominent without being in your face/head; and the highs are revealing. After taking a day or two break from listening sessions, I still get the occasional shiver being enveloped in the holographic presentation and clarity of this Korean creation. The S9-E500 pairing sounds more like an open full-size headphone paired with a SS desktop amp than a portable rig. Lastly, video quality is icing on the cake and it's a joy to be able to carry a KURO in my pocket. All three touchscreen players have very good SQ and it took some time to identify their nuances, especially between the X and S9. I suggest you listen to all the prospective players under controlled conditions i.e., in a quiet environment using your go-to phones and test tracks, and pick your favorite. Fall is shaping up to be an exciting time in the PMP/PDA market with the launch of the touch 3G, Zune HD, and Zii EGG. Until then, enjoy the summer and happy listening!