review: cowon c2 audio & video player

Here I am reviewing an audio and video player. That doesn't sound particularly special, but I never thought I'd buy an actual, dedicated audio player. Not because even tennis balls these days support audio playback, but because Idon't really care for music that much.

I do go through bouts of listening to music - loudly; typically vocal trance and that sort of thing. What's changed is that I'll be doing a lot of gym work at some point and I hate to chuck weights around without music blaring. Using this flimsy excuse, I decided to buy a new toy.

Let me just quickly mention something before I start. This review has the potential to be gigantic, so I've restrained myself somewhat. I've not really mentioned the company, the history of their players, and so on.

What Is It?

The Cowon C2 is an audio and video player sporting a rather unimpressive 2.6" 4:3 320x240 resistive-touch screen and physically comes in at 79mm(W) / 53mm(H) / 13mm(T), at 84 grams. Available capacities are 4GB, 8GB (which mine has), and 16GB. I personally wanted the 4GB but couldn't find it; I'll be shoving a 32GB Micro SDHC card into it so it would just be money wasted on internal storage that I'd never use.

As standard, the unit comes with a modified USB 2.0 port (more in the Side Notes about this later), 3.5mm headphone jack, FM radio (DAB available in some models - not mine, unfortunately), built-in microphone and speakers. Line-in and TV Out (both PAL and NTSC) are available via an optional accessory that plugs into the bastardised USB port.

Supported audio formats

Supported video formats

Other supported formats

Various audio enhancements are available and detailed below.

The C2 also supports recording (both via an internal mic and FM radio; .wma format only; can be set to auto-start recording at a specific time), Flash files, and has numerous applications such as a calculator, notepad, stopwatch & countdown, and so on.

Packaging, Contents & Installation

The packaging is slightly different to other products in that it's a cardboard box. On closer inspection, it's not just a place-holder cardboard box, but the actual packaging as there is white specification text printed on it. Looks nice in a kind of minimalistic way.

Opening the box reveals another box, Russian doll style. A box that was reluctant to come out of its parent on one particular side. Some wrasslin' later reveals a box with two openable flaps containing everything.

The contents include the C2 unit itself (mine being white), white headphones (ugh), USB to Weird-Korean-Thing cable, instruction manual in various languages, and some crap about free music that I immediately ignored.

The unit itself has a plastic bezel with a solid feel, and an aluminium back with a highly-polished mirror finish. A model featuring an all-metal bezel would've been sexy. There's a 3.5mm headphone jack on one side, with a flap covering a USB/Micro SDHC slot opposite, and a row of buttons along the top that have a nice solid click when pressed.

As far as installation goes, simply connect it to your computer using the supplied mutant USB cable and it appears as a standard storage device (or MTP if you enable it within the options). I haven't received my Micro SDHC card yet and so I cannot say if an inserted card can be accessed this way as well. Nothing else to it - just like it should be.

Usage

Holding down the power button for a couple of seconds causes the unit to fire up. It takes a few seconds for it to boot and whatever, and then you're looking at the status screen... thing. It's Korean. Yeah - that sort of Korean. Cutsie and cheesy is the order of the day. It looks nice - reminds me a lot of Windows Phone 7 - but you wouldn't want strangers to see that sort of thing on your device's screen.

Let me explain.

At certain times of the day, the status screen changes. At the time of writing this, it's 17:02, and the screen has this message for me: "Before Sunset. Lovers are meant to meet each other. However far they have gone, they meant to return. Miss you."

In the morning: "It's a Sunny Day. Getting out of bed every morning and thanking God for another beautiful day. One Fine Day."

Oh, come on. What the hell is that cheddar about? Thankfully, you can cycle through all of this and pick a screen you like. Mind you, there's only one that most Westerner pig-dogs such as myself will like: the one with the white background and nice gradiented clock/date text.

The entire system has an interface that's made in Flash. That's right. This thing runs Flash fine. It can also run Flash games, too - not that I'm going to try that, of course. The status screens look really nice and animates smoothly, despite their high cheese content. Supposedly this allows end-users to create their own Flash navigation system.

Navigation and menus are a bit confusing. There is a bit of a learning curve here as it's not immediately obvious what you're looking at when you're buried in some menu somewhere. Moving around can be a bit clunky as, again, you're not sure where performing a swipe action will take you. In time, you'll learn how it all relates - it'll probably still annoy you, though.

Tagged and folder (yay!) browsing is supported. Tap the file and it immediately begins to play. This is where the device shines.

Cowon are renowned for audio quality in their devices. I've never owned a Cowon before, so it was a reputation I was unaware of until recently. Having used other media players (including an Android Honeycomb tablet) and trying out the C2, I can see that reputation is deserved. Audio is entirely noise and hiss free, and the amplifier has more than enough power to drive almost any set of headphones, so using a headphone amp isn't in the least bit required.

Incidentally, the C2 had no problems at all driving my big-ass Grado SR325i headphones. Of course, you'll need to increase the volume to get the same output from the larger headphones, but no problems at all.

The major feature that drew me to the Cowon range of devices is JetEffect/BBE. This feature is why all of Cowon's competitors are left in the dust such as Crystalizer, SRS and DSEE. The most popular audio player, the iPod, doesn't even have DSP in any form as far as I know - an equaliser doesn't come close as they don't do anything special.

I'm pairing the C2 with my iGrado headphones (which are absolutely spectacular for the price, I might add). Choosing a vocal trance track and hitting play results in what you'd expect from an MP3: muddy mid-range and no highs to speak of. Par for the course with that format.

Going through the JetEffect 3.0 modes completely changes all of that. Mid-range sounds clear and the highs are back with a vengeance resulting in a sublime clarity that isn't present in most other audio devices. Bass - where do I begin? Throaty, tight, punchy, and other such words are how I'd describe it. If I don't have a certain amount of bass in my music and the mid and upper ranges aren't clear, it begins to irritate me to the point I have to turn it off and just settle for silence instead. When I listen to music, I want it to be enjoyable, dammit.

There are 39 presets to choose from - far too many, in my opinion. I've chosen BBE Mach3Bass and it sounds fantastic. A plugin I use to run lossy music through a £500 amplifier doesn't sound as sonically good as this implementation. I will be connecting the Cowon C2 to the amplifier to see the outcome.

Various other options are available such as a semi-parametric EQ based on the Wolfson CODEC hardware which makes it much more powerful than the EQ found on other brands. Even so, I doubt I'd be making use of the EQ when the impressive JetEffect features are available.

I would mention the video, but I haven't tried any. I don't really care, to be honest. Text reading seems fine enough, though.

Side Notes

The USB cable. Cowon is a Korean company, and they have - for some completely batshit insane reason - decided that they will not use a standard mini-USB cable for power/data, but instead some proprietary 20-Pin "Korean Telecom" USB cable that's only used within South Korea. You will need to use the cable that comes with the unit.

To add insult to injury, the design of the connector for the cable is outright terrible. It doesn't go all the way into the C2. In fact, it barely goes in at all - I was there trying to jam the bloody thing in and getting nowhere. When you have the C2 connected to your computer (for data or charging), ensure it is perfectly still otherwise the cable will fall out of it. Lame.

I haven't tried the bundled ear-phones; by all accounts, they're pretty decent in all ranges except bass. They're in white, though, so you'll probably look like a bit of a prick in the street with them on.

The built-in speaker(s? There's two according to the case design) is a nice touch and sound surprisingly decent for how tiny they are. There is literally no bass present, predictably.

Some models of the C2 support DAB/DMB (digital) radio, but I haven't actually seen one, personally. Ensure that you flash the correct firmware for your exact model otherwise you could lose DAB/DMB functionality if your model supports it. The analogue radio works well and allows you to edit the Radio.ini file to put in station names. I did notice there is a short burst of static screeching when navigating the menus while the radio is playing.

Conclusion

The audio aspect of the Cowon C2 is right up there. The only thing you will find better is Cowon's own higher-end models; they look nice, but I wouldn't really pay the asking price for them.

On the other hand, the interface doesn't match the audio. It's confusing and not very well designed. This, coupled with the fact that Cowon decided to use a resistive touch screen (the same as the D2 released four years ago), can result in general annoyance at times.

Visually, the screen looks nice and clear, although the viewing angle is mostly suited to solo viewing. The touch side of things can occasionally be a bit squiffy, especially as some elements of the interface literally use a pixel font and so you can't be quite so sloppy with the way those buttons are jabbed.

Pros

Cons

Pricing

Most of the Cowon products aren't cheaply priced. There are two players that are cheaper than the C2; the iAudio E2 (no screen because it's tiny and designed to hook to a keyring or something), and the i9 featuring a funky input method which I was originally going to get.

The price for this 4GB white model is £109 / $140 USD from Amazon. I'd recommend buying the lowest memory capacity you can and throwing a memory card into it. Devices with high internal storage have never made sense to me for numerous reasons.

You can find more information on the C2 from the Cowon site, including photos of the unit switched on which I've neglected to take photographs of. Speaking of which, apologies for the lighting in the photos below which makes it look like I took the pictures using a camera phone - I'm simply too lazy to properly sort such things out.

Posted: 2011-10-04 at 13:31:12,