Apple's iPod touch sells in droves. Rivals have, of course, been taking notice, and the latest competitor is Cowon's S9, a highly anticipated MP3 player from a company renowned for producing some of the best-sounding players in existence.
The S9 comes in 4GB, 8GB and 16GB capacities, with prices starting at £170 from Advanced MP3 Players.
With its large, capacitive touchscreen and apparent lack of buttons, the S9 may appear to be mimicking the iPod touch, but there are differences. There's no return-to-the-main-menu 'home' button, but, along the top and bottom edges, are physical volume controls and buttons for skipping through songs.
The S9 is also smaller than the iPod touch, with a smaller screen. Cowon gave it an advanced AMOLED (active matrix organic light emitting diode) screen with 16 million rich colours, and deep blacks, and the 480x272-pixel resolution produces stunning images.
The touchscreen impressed us with its sensitivity. Unlike the resistive 'soft touch' screen of the Cowon iAudio D2, which requires slight pressure to select items, the S9 requires none. You can also change the size of text to make menus more accessible.
As for the chassis, the plastic design doesn't deliver the same sense of luxury as the iPod touch. It's like a Lexus pulled up next to a Bentley Azure -- the Lexus will get the girls, but the Bentley will get the models.
A well-designed main interface gives icon-driven access to main features. Deeper down, however, menus can look more like older Cowon players -- long lists of dull text. But, as Cowon now finally supports ID3 tags, navigation is much improved over the D2, and you can smoothly flick up and down lists with your finger.
There are numerous option icons scattered around as you browse, and, frankly, it makes the experience rather complicated. This has always been Cowon's way -- customisation over simplicity -- and it doesn't make it an intuitive system at all -- a feeling shared by many at CNET UK as we tested.
With iPods in mind, only a confirmed fool would argue Cowon hasn't had a go at mimicking Apple's Cover Flow system. The S9 supports JPEG album art (firmware version 2.06 and above), and, as the system incorporates an accelerometer, flip it into landscape mode when browsing music and you can flip, albeit jerkily, through album art with your finger.
Other features of the S9 include stereo Bluetooth, FM radio, drag and drop management of files and a five band equaliser, none of which its nemesis, the iPod touch, offers.
The lack of AAC support, however, is disappointing, and protected -- or DRMed -- WMA content is not compatible, so copy-protected files from the likes of Napster get no love, and neither do DRM-free AAC files from the iTunes store -- unlike on Sony, Creative and Apple players.
In our tests, MP3, WMA, WMA Lossless, APE, FLAC, OGG and WAV all played perfectly. However, AAC, AIFF, Apple Lossless, Musepack and RealAudio files are not supported, and neither is gapless playback.
Also, the S9 plays DivX, Xvid and WMV video formats, but, disappointingly, not MPEG-4 SP or H.264. But, hey, optional cables will allow the output of supported content to a TV, and that's worth a high five. What isn't is that, unlike many players from among the S9's competitors, BBC iPlayer content isn't supported.
We should note that subtitling in the SMI format is apparently compatible, but our tests couldn't confirm this. It could be an issue that's resolved with new firmware, and we'll post an update when we can.
The videos we tested were smooth and beautiful to look at. The S9 lacks the iPod touch's incorporation of movie downloads and video-rental services, but it kills the iPod nano for simple video playback.
The main feature of the S9, however, is its audio quality -- it's one of the best-sounding players we've heard. The headphones that come in the box are utter trash, so get some decent ones (such as any of these) -- if you don't, you'll never hear how good this thing sounds.
It offers a powerful, meaty, full-bodied sound, with exceptional clarity, rich bass and a sparkling treble. And there are heaps of EQ options and settings, which we don't like using, but many people do.
In an A/B listening test, using our ultra-high-end £2,000 test rig, the S9 proved to offer a gorgeous sound quality, although it's almost identical to that of the 160GB iPod classic. To pick hairs, the S9 had an ever so slightly fuller bass when we listened to some Black Eyed Peas songs, but we'd wager £100 that almost no-one could repeatedly tell one from the other without EQ.
There's no question that the Cowon S9 is the company's best MP3 player to date, with superb sound quality, a beautiful display and great features. Where it falls down is with its average user interface, which will take plenty of getting used to, and wouldn't make our list of idiot-proof players by any means.
We don't believe it's as huge a threat to the iPod touch as Cowon would like, with the iPod touch offering a friendlier experience and an even more impressive collection of features. But, as the best portable FLAC player on the market, the S9 could dominate over the rest of the touchscreen-MP3-player market, particularly over the iRiver Spinn and Samsung YP-P2.
Edited by Charles Kloet