Just mention the company's name, and a pair of things come to mind: world-beating sound quality, and above-average prices. Such is life when you're Cowon, which has informed us that its Plenue Z2 portable media player will be shipping to the US of A in May. Based on details shared to us from a Cowon spokesperson, "early May" is the targeted release window, which makes sense given the unit's FCC debut back in December of 2011. We've learned that it'll ship in 16GB (white only) and 32GB (black only) sizes, with prices set for $279.99 and $319.99 in order of mention. As for specs? Glad you asked. Rather than relying on one of Cowon's proprietary operating systems, the Z2 will ship with Android 2.3.5 (Gingerbread), while measuring 62.8- x 116.5- x 11.8-millimeters, weighing 116 grams and boasting a 3.7-inch (800 x 480) capacitive touchpanel.
On the audio side, you'll get a typical 20Hz to 20,000Hz frequency range, 29mW + 29mW maximum outlet and a 95dB signal-to-noise ratio. There's also an HDMI output, a microSD expansion slot, built-in FM radio tuner, 802.11b/g/n WiFi module, Bluetooth 2.1+EDR and an internal microphone. The outfit claims that this guy can last some 22 hours when playing back music alone, while video junkies will see 8.5 hours of their favorite Family Guy clips before needing a rejuvenation session. Not surprisingly, the Z2 also supports a smorgasbord of file formats, including AVI, WMV, ASF, MP4, MKV, MPG, DAT, 3GP -- tired yet? -- DivX, XviD, H.264, WMA, OGG, PMC and FLAC. We managed to grab hold of a unit prior to its launch here in the States; head on past the break to hear our take.
Cowon Plenue Z2 hands-on and unboxingSee all photos
In many ways, the Plenue Z2 is a refashioned D3. If you'll recall, we applauded Cowon for choosing Android as the underlying OS on its D3 around 13 months ago, but the underpowered processor and kludgy nature of it all made it impossible for us to wholeheartedly recommend. The Z2, in a phrase, is what the D3 should've been. The design isn't anything jaw-dropping -- the hard, sharp corners remind us of an era gone by -- but it manages to work. The soft-touch rear is smooth to the touch (and won't easily slip out of a sweaty subway palm), and in addition to a volume rocker, there's a thoroughly brilliant trio of buttons that allow users to skip to the next track, rewind a track or play / pause whatever's spinning. The ability to throw a playlist on and use physical buttons to do the rest while the device stays in one's pocket is a serious boon for fitness junkies.
The screen itself is surprisingly crisp and responsive. Thankfully, Cowon has opted for a capacitive display here, and the touch response was just as good as on our Galaxy S II. In fact, that's indicative of the overall system. Unlike the D3, which pained us with its sluggishness, the Z2 is stunningly quick. Bootup takes but a few seconds, and both apps and new screens load instantly. This is how an Android PMP is supposed to run. Commands are simply accepted and completed; there's no perceived lag, no "thinking." It just works. The system speed improvement is the single most impressive update to the Z2, and it's sure to give those looking into a Galaxy Player something else to consider.
Per usual, Cowon's ability to support a multitude of files and deliver them with the world's best sound quality makes this unit a contender. We're thrilled to report that the audio quality here is just as good as it has been on all prior Cowon units, and in fact, it may even be a bit better. We tested out a number of earbuds -- everything from the (fairly substandard) included ones to the higher-end Klipsch Image X10i -- and were consistently blown away. Lows were tight and punchy, mids were powerful without being muddy, and highs were punctual without being shrill. It's also worth commending Cowon again for the JetEffect EQ presets. We're typically not ones to hand praise over to gimmicky audio filters, but the ones included here are genuinely useful, and we're pretty sure there's a preset that'll bring more life out of whatever headphones or car speakers you have at your disposal.
There's also Bluetooth (for audio streaming) and WiFi, the latter of which we found to be greatly useful. Cowon has thrown in a basic calendar, email client, VoIP dialer, web browser and Twitter application, all of which help to make this more than your average MP3 player. Sadly, there's still no access to
the Android Market Google Play, but sideloading APKs is indeed supported. It's worth noting that the internal storage arrives formatted as NTFS, so devout Mac users will need to invest in Paragon (or similar) in order to write files to the memory. That aside, we're pleased as punch to see a microSD slot for adding your own room, and a conventional micro-USB port instead of some proprietary socket.
Overall, the Z2 is a fantastic unit for those who cherish audio quality above all else, but there's no question that the price tag will frighten off all but the most serious audiophiles. The gap isn't as large as it once was, but a 32GB Plenue Z2 is still $20 higher than a 32GB iPod touch, and Samsung's new Galaxy Player 4.2 will soon sell for just $199.99. That said, we'd rate Cowon's audio quality, file support and battery life higher than either of those rivals; if your priorities are arranged as such, you'll find lots to love in May.