For anyone who has been following this device since it first broke cover in August, you'll understand that Cowon is unashamedly attempting to catch eyes with the S9. The press shots are sexy, the packaging is sexy and the marketing is just downright seductive. Upon placing this piece in our hands for the first time, we were struck with an almost unhealthy mix of emotions. On one hand, the incredibly lightweight chassis was a real joy to hold; on the other, we were left feeling somewhat deceived. You see, the press shots we've been force fed all feature what appears to be metal chrome sides and a display with practically no bezel. In reality, the sides are merely graphite-colored slabs of plastic and the display most definitely does not actually extend out to the very edge of the front face. Sure, you could say we were getting our hopes up for nothing, but upon conversing with others who've had a chance to hold this thing, we found that we weren't at all alone in feeling this way.
After using it for a few days, our fears were confirmed: the unit did indeed feel more "cheap" than "solid." This no doubt has to do with the thin, plasticky materials that dominate the sides and rear, and while it's certainly not a deal breaker, we expected a device of this nature to simply feel more durable and sturdy in the hand. All those knocks aside, there was plenty to love about the design, too. For starters, the lack of buttons on the front is a stunning approach, and the carefully placed hardware toggles / buttons on the top and bottom are more than sufficient. You'll find switches for play / pause, volume, next / previous track and power / lock, while the USB connector holds down the final slot on the bottom. Speaking of, we were definitely turned off by the proprietary USB connector; in other words, you can forget syncing / charging the S9 without the special cable that comes bundled in. We know, the iPod has a proprietary connector as well, and in our perfect world, it too would be a straight-up USB / mini-USB socket.
The bottom-mounted 3.5-millimeter headphone jack is satisfactorily located, though the inbuilt microphone -- which is situated on the bottom rear, right where your hand covers during normal operation -- could stand to be placed elsewhere. As you can tell, "mixed bag" really is the best way to describe our take on the design. It's attractive though not sexy, and while nothing in terms of functionality is hindered by the build, we still feel the price is a touch high for the decidedly just-above-average construction.
We have to assume that the 3.3-inch AMOLED display is one of the S9's biggest selling points, and for good reason. The 480 x 272 resolution screen is positively gorgeous to look at, displaying rich, vivid colors on everything lucky enough to tickle its pixels. Video looked superb, images were almost unbelievably sharp and bright, and the overall user interface was quite a joy to gaze at. Couple that with the fact that it's a capacitive touchscreen and you can understand why we're pretty much head over heels on the panel. Other PMP makers should definitely give AMOLED a look; it sucks down less juice, it's brighter and sharper in every circumstance and it makes users (or us, at least) actually want to watch videos on it.
Here's where we resume the whole "mixed bag" theme. At first glance, the S9's user interface looks delightful. The icons grab your attention, everything seems clearly labeled and you're never more than a click away from your stash of audiovisual content. Navigating within the top-level menus is rarely confusing, and there are a fair amount of customization options to keep most everyone happy.
The one issue we continually ran into was, paradoxically, a direct result of something we've already praised in this writeup. The lack of a "home" or "back" button on the front panel means that moving back within the menu system requires screen presses, and that means pressing a ridiculously small "M" button rather than just mashing a dedicated hardware control to escape whatever mess you're in. Additionally, some of the icons deep within menus weren't what we would call "incredibly intuitive," though anyone with a hint of patience will quickly grow used to the environment. We also can't leave this section without stating that selecting songs / videos was kind of... odd. Rather than simply hitting a song and watching it spin up, you either have to hold that selection for a moment or double click it. We guess this could be spun as a feature (no more fat fingers accidentally queuing up a track), but our generally accurate digits found it to be a hassle. As always, YMMV.
All in all, the UI is sufficient enough, though it's nothing to write home about. Any media player interface that's even mildly confusing could probably use some work, and while just about any system is tolerable over time, we fully expect a PMP's operating system to be mostly understandable from top to bottom right out of the box. After all, this isn't SUSE Linux Enterprise we're talking about here. On the upside, the ability to tweak the EQ while on the Now Playing screen was much appreciated, and the decent reaction to our thumb flicks (to change tracks) was also right in line with expectations. There was, however, an annoying amount of lag when waiting for the screen orientation to flip upon the twisting of the device to another angle.
Audio / Video performance
We didn't run this thing through any sort of super sophisticated audio analyzer, but we did give it a listen alongside PMPs from Apple and Sony. The quick and dirty of all this is that the sound quality from Cowon's S9 is stellar. Lows are punchy and decisive, mids are smooth and highs are distinct without being piercing. We listened to a variety of genres, and across the board we found ourselves thoroughly pleased with the unit's audio capabilities. Cowon knows that you're considering this player for its wide ranging codec support and the outfit's heralded audio quality, and it's evident that company engineers put some serious time into making sure the S9 performed the core task -- playing back audio -- marvelously. If you're into audio above all else (with "all else" being applications, internet access, etc.), you can't go wrong with the S9. Oh, and the integrated support for Bluetooth headsets / BT streaming is downright splendid.
Over on the video side, clips were expectedly phenomenal. With such fantastic audio capabilities, the only question left was around image quality. And with an AMOLED screen, this question pretty much answers itself. We've yet to find a player this small that we would rather watch an extended video on; sure, video-centric players such as the A3 easily trump this with their higher resolutions and larger screen sizes, but you'll have a difficult time finding something this minuscule that makes watching video so enjoyable.
By now, you've probably already decided if this thing is for you. For those into extravagant extras and a perfectly polished UI, you simply will not find what you're after in the S9. For those who view pristine audio quality and delightful video playback as paramount, you're probably willing to overlook the ho hum UI and design flaws in order to possess a pocketable player that won't disappoint your discerning ears and eyes. For anyone still on the fence, it really boils down to your needs and desires. Are you willing to deal with an interface that's troublesome to navigate at times if it means the best possible audio quality when the track finally begins to play? Would you take lightweight over solid? Will you be satisfied with your PMP if it does little else outside of playing back joints and jams?
The S9 has a lot of things going for it -- the 2+ day battery life, gorgeous AMOLED screen, impeccable audio quality and featherlight design (just to name a few) -- but at $199.99 and $239.99 for the 8GB and 16GB versions, respectively, we simply expected more. If these fall by $70 or so in the short term, they'll certainly become quite the bargain, but considering that these are apt to be used in noisy subway stations and on windy bike trails (compared to say, in a dead quiet recording studio), we're not entirely sure the small bump in overall sound quality is enough to warrant a purchase over more fully-featured rivals. Is Cowon's S9 worth a look if you're in the market? Unquestionably so. But unless its unique characteristics are exactly what you're after, we'd hold off until the price slips or the interface gets a makeover.