Join Date: Sep 2004
Cowon D2 Review
Cowon is one of the few companies that managed to stick around in the DAP scene pretty much from the start. Sure, they've had their ups and downs, but generally-speaking they're still going strong.
Although Cowon's players have (naturally) improved in terms of output qualities, versatility, portability and functionality, they did recently face the same threat as any other DAP-producing company: lack of innovation.
There's very little "excitement" left to add to a DAP nowadays. Most of them have various built-in functions such as movie playback, picture viewing, a little color screen and all that. Even within Cowon's own flash range, this caused players to kind of "look alike". Combined with the availability of certain high-ranking competing models, this could cause you to believe that "It really doesn't matter all that much which one you choose".
Luckily enough for us, Cowon figured as much and went back to the drawing board. They came out all sweaty and excited, carrying a rectangular little box dubbed "D2" in their hands. This would be your typical "Hey I haven't seen this kind of material before too often" concept - a flash-based, SD-expandable, feature-packed DAP slash PMP that comes with its very own touch screen (plus TV-out).
So, yeah - that's "new" and 'exciting" in theory alright. We're here to give it a good shakedown and see whether the D2 does indeed live up to its promising... err... promises or not. But let's first start by dumping a list of useful specifications hereunder.
Note: this review was written using various versions of firmware - some information may prove to be outdated due to the availability of more recent firmware.
The D2 comes in a neat-looking box, well-protected from the outside world yet lacking a few basic accessories on first sight. It seems Cowon doesn't ship their little multimedia marvel with a proper case, for instance. Seeing as how the whole concept revolves around a rather large, touch-based screen area (prone to scratching and dust), the lack of a (translucent) case comes off as a bit of a let-down. It's possible to purchase an optional pouch, of course.
Also "optional" is the TV-out cable; unfortunately, the D2 has a rather unusual TV-out port installed into its bodywork- "regular" composite or S-video cables won't help you any further. Since my sample came without said proprietary cable, I wasn't able to test the D2's TV-out capabilities. Same goes for the aspect of "line-in encoding", as this requires a separate (thus optional") 3.5mm-to-proprietary port adapter as well.
Oddly enough, there's no belt loop/necklace to be found in the standard package either. A power adapter is supposedly part of the standard accessory set, although none was included with our sample (probably by mistake). A more explicit (and English) manual would have been nice too. Luckily, a standard USB (mini) cable and some earphones weren't forgotten.
Cowon switched from Cresyn's "buds-on-a-stick" earphones a while ago, replacing them with more traditional (yet still quite stylish-looking) ones. Usually, "bundled" earphones aren't of much use but Cowon's stuff is actually quite good. Even at high volume levels, distortion isn't a very common phenomenon; both low and high tones are being outputted in an acceptable manner as well, without damaging the mid-section too much. Still, given the D2's rather exceptional output capabilities, I'd still recommend switching to some high-end earphones or a full-sized headset.
A little, triangular-shaped plastic stylus and some software (on CD-ROM) complement the accessory set. Both elements will be discussed in later sections of the review. For now, it's sufficient to say that the accessory set isn't too impressive - one could even call it "skimpy", to Cowon's standards anyway.
It's hard to make any DAP/PMP to look exciting or original these days - it's mostly "form follows functionality", resulting into dozens of players kind of looking alike. Not a big deal if you can look passed exterior beauty.
The D2 doesn't look very special either, at least not when switched off. It's a nice little box, with a colored (or in my case, black) framework surrounding the unit's large screen area. At the sides we'll notice some slick silver stuff, concealing the I/O ports (including the SD card slot), a few buttons and a loophole for the stylus. A small, shiny company logo at the front side provides the finishing touch to the D2's "minimalist" looks.
It's pretty cool that we can hook up the stylus to the D2 through its loophole, making the triangular piece of plastic act as if it were a kickstand. This adds to the feeling of the D2 being a cute little picture frame - it also kind of takes away worries about the device toppling over whilst watching videos (although this still happened to me occasionally).
As for build quality, all is well (as is often the case for Cowon's players). Though the D2 consists mostly out of plastic, it's the good kind of foresaid material - you won't punch a hole into this thing without the use of brute force. Keeping the player in my pocket together with my keys wasn't a very good idea, resulting into a rather noticeable and deeply-embedded scratch at the back of it all.
The formerly-described situation once again points towards the necessity of a proper protective pouch, as does the vulnerable screen area. Other than that, the solid yet lightweight plastic combined with a relatively compact form factor makes the D2 look good on paper as well as in real life. Sure, they could have made it a little bit slimmer or smaller (the framework surrounding the screen is rather extensive) but it hardly matters overall.
Data transfer / management
As we've come to expect from Cowon, the company bundled their own software (including JetShell and JetAudio) to facilitate the uploading/playback of various media files. Whereas in their early stages, these programs were kind of a drag in terms of looks and handling, things have vastly improved over the years. JetAudio's looks and feel are quite coherent with the Graphical User Interface of the D2, for instance.
The use of such tools is entirely voluntarily, though - the D2 will be recognized as a UMS-compatible device, meaning that one can just drag and drop stuff to/from the unit's flash memory. The SD card slot pops up as an additional drive letter as well, which is handy in case you're running out of "built-in" storage room. Should one prefer using MTP, then it's possible to switch to this mode by flipping a switch in the firmware.
Copying and moving contents to/from the D2's internal memory can be done at very acceptable velocities; 2 or 4GB worth of internal flash memory plus SD(HC) support should prove acceptable for storing music, pictures, text files and even (short) videos as well.
Speaking of videos, there is a drawback to be noted for this section: videos have to fit a very strict profile in order for them to play on the D2. Basically, this means you'll have to use Cowon's bundled video converter program - locate the original video file, pull some switches and push a button and wait while the movie is being converted to either XviD or WMV. Although this process is relatively painless and quite speedy in nature, one can't help but notice a stark contrast with the audio side of things - the D2 natively supporting Ogg Vorbis, FLAC and even APE, for instance. Strangely enough, the "converter app" did crash a few times on my PC, but this is probably due to some wrongfully-installed codecs.
One huge step forward for Cowon is the fact that the D2 supports file browsing through id3 tag fields (such as "Artist", "Album" and "Genre"). Up till now, we had to make do with a folder-based data organization - which is still present in the D2 - but the company seems to have understood the everlasting calls for id3-based browsing after all, and decided to implement it in their latest D2 firmware. As a result of this, the unit's boot time seems a bit longer - the D2 has to profile all information by itself during startup - but the obvious advantages will be highlighted in a different section of this review.
A small setback is the fact that we're allowed to store "only" 500 folders and/or 5000 files in total on the D2 - not much of a problem for any sub-10GB device, one would assume, though.
Cowon is presenting the D2 as a miniature PMP rather than a DAP, and although traditionally PMPs come equipped with 3.5-inch (or over) screens, there's certainly something going for their claim. As we'll find out later, the video functionality is more than just the usual "gimmick" so often found in relatively-small flash DAPs.
Contributing the D2's "PMP factor" is it lovely 2.5-inch screen. Up till a few months ago, I was kind of unimpressed with Cowon's sub-4 inch screens, which often came off as a little pixilated (X5) or overcrowded (U3 and earlier). The iAudio 6 already showed great improvements and with the D2, the company has taken another step into the right direction.
In terms of brightness, saturation levels and overall detail levels, this player reminds me a lot of Meizu's M6 - and that's a compliment alright. Thanks to its QVGA resolution (320 x 240) and an extensive color palette (16 million colors), there's room for lots and lots of legible text as well as clear icons all over the screen. Cowon's software developers wisely decided to go easy on dynamic visual gimmicks, which is why everything seems to fit quite right into the bigger picture.
The D2's GUI is certainly more appealing than that of the formerly-mentioned Meizu M6, thanks to the mixed use of both icons and text (rather than long lists of just text items) as well as a nifty "pop-up" system at the bottom of the screen. Some items are a bit estranging upon first glance, but overall the GUI requires very little practice. This has a lot to do with the way you're controlling the player, namely through its touch screen - virtually everything seems to be "in the right place", as we'll find out further on in this review.
Due to the touch-based interface, it's probable that some compromises had to be made here and there. Viewing angles aren't too great on this thing, and sometimes the display is noticeably reflecting environmental lighting; colors can look a bit pale too. Apart from that, the GUI does come off as a bit boring from time to time, whereas stuff like the ever-present "bitrate/equalizer/BBE/Mach3Bass/3Dsurround/STE/MPE setting" bar might be a bit obsolete to mainstream users in some aspects.
That's just nitpicking though; the D2 is all about the screen area, and in terms of actual output quality… they've hit the nail right on its head.
So this D2 thing comes with its very own little stylus and a touch screen. Quite an original and daring concept, compared to the bulk of the competition out there. So far, the use of touch screens has more or less been limited to PMPs - often to no avail (cost-ineffective or compromising in terms of output quality), which is why most PMPs still have "regular" controls installed.
It's fair to doubt the practicality of this system beforehand - DAPs/PMPs have been around for years by now, and if 99% of all players out there use dedicated controls (be it tactile buttons or touch-based strips), there's probably a reason for it. The question that immediately pops to mind is this one: "How would I control a touch screen-based player whilst walking/biking/whatever?" This is the same issue I've pointed out with PMPs in a previous review - watching a screen all the time requires your full attention span; it makes it harder to "multitask" so to speak.
And although the D2 is an excellent video player, it's still more likely to be used as a DAP while on-the-go (e.g. when jogging through the park). Now imagine yourself trying to beat your PR whilst struggling with the D2's small stylus and its relatively-cluttered interface. I found myself running into ditches and lamp posts on a few occasions.
Naturally, Cowon figured out this issue for themselves and so they've installed a few tactile controls at the top of their player: a power/hold slider and three separate buttons for volume/menu control. Dedicated volume control is a great help already, and the menu button can be adjusted to act as either a "play/pause" button or to zap to the previous or next track in line. I'd rather have seen an additional button to facilitate all of the above functions, but I guess this will have to do - at least they tried.
If you somehow managed to lose your stylus, and are uncomfortable with using your paws or any small blunt piece of plastic instead, don't expect to get much further than the main menu. The D2 houses much functionality, which in turn requires a lot of switches and items - sometimes the three tactile buttons will allow you to scroll through a few options, sometimes not even that. Cowon wants us to show off this player to other people badly, apparently - you'll find yourself tapping the screen a lot, wherever you are and whatever you are busy doing.
Needless to say, there are better players out there for sporty types. Also needless to say, many of us aren't easily categorized as "sporty" at all, or just want a neat little gadget like the D2 for "in betweens". If you're in no rush and under no threat of having your player stolen while exposing it to other people (sadly, this is the cold harsh reality these days), then you should pay attention to the plusses and perks offered by the D2's touch screen mechanism.
It's more or less a matter of "what you see is what you get" here. The D2's GUI offers you plenty of choices, and most of these options can be activated through a simple tap on the screen. Besides the advantage of transparency, this system also greatly speeds up routine procedures such as scrolling through menu items. The probability of, say, overshooting items is lower compared to traditional control mechanisms as well. Furthermore, it allowed Cowon's firmware developers to come up with a consistent-looking interface.
Neat little tricks such as the "Now playing" screen's popup menu (hidden while unused, a simple tap will bring it up) and the use of large, easily-accessible icons to enter/alter options add to the global practicality of it all.
Sure enough, there's always room for improvement - why not add "touchable" shortcuts for e.g. the equalizer/play mode directly from the "Now playing" screen (through its displayed icon), for instance? Why can we pinpoint an exact position on the "track progress" bar, while having to step our way through custom equalizer bars? And why is there no "left-handed" version of the GUI available?
Overall though, I was pleasantly surprised by the D2's ease-of-use. It's kind of a mixed bag if you're one of those active types, but maybe the D2 will help you to sit back and relax a bit more often anyway.
One thing, Cowon managed to get right pretty much from the start: sound quality. Their players have displayed excellent output capabilities pretty much throughout the company's existence. It's no different for the D2.
Now, this has a great deal to do with "configurability". One can define one's favorite output in various ways, although Cowon's default "flat" settings will probably appeal to a large mainstream crowd right away. I can easily imagine some customers actually feeling overwhelmed by the sheer amount of enhancement options, not knowing what to do with all these sliders and switches. However, the "perfect sound" is just a few clicks and taps away, so let's take a quick look at some additional options.
Next to a few equalizer presets ("Rock", "Pop" and all that), it seems as if there's just one user-definable slot consisting out five bands (each 25 steps in size). In fact, all of the "presets" are fully-customizable as well, a very nice example of high-end configurability. Now, this is where most manufacturers would draw the line - some tend to implement some form of SRS WoW (or a similar sound enhancement technology), but that's pretty much it.
Tending to their traditions, Cowon decided to throw in BBE, Mach3Bass, 3Dsurround, Stereo Enhancement and MP Enhancement - all of which can alter the D2's sound-technical output capabilities very clearly. It takes a bit of fidgeting before the exact effects of each of the abovementioned enhancement tools, but in the end all is well. A very smart move on Cowon's part is to allow us to save up to ten combinations of one's preferred equalizer settings, BBE, M3B et cetera through a special "JetEffect Preset" submenu, so that we won't have to reconfigure the preferred output all over again, e.g. when switching from classical music to electronic tunes.
In terms of sheer output power (37mW per channel at 16 Ohm) and harmonic experience, the D2 doesn't disappoint either - maximum volume levels will easily get you deaf within a few minutes, while bass, mid-sections and treble levels hardly interfere with each other (unless you want them to). Distortion isn't a very common problem either, unless you're going to use those ungodly 30+ volume levels in combination with cheap earphones. Speaking of which, the D2 is very well capable of driving full-sized, power-hungry headsets.
Although Cowon likes to think of their D2 as a PMP, luckily they've kept a close eye on its DAP-related capabilities. This thing's wide array of supported file formats - including APE, next to the more "common" FLAC and Ogg Vorbis standards, as well as stuff like WMA DRM10 - combined with an excellent output quality and a huge array of configuration options pave the way for many pleasant hours of listening to all sorts of music.
The bulk of all high-end (and a lot of mid-end) DAPs are capable of playing movies in one way or the other, these days. Then again, it's often a rather miserable experience watching some poorly-converted movie stutter its way across a sub-2 inch screen - mostly, the "movie" feature is to be considered a gimmick rather than anything else. Others are doing it, so no manufacturer wants to "fall behind the pack" so to speak.
Once every while, exceptions to this rule can be found, and the D2 is one of them. Of course, the basic screen size of 2.5 inch (diagonally) isn't exactly PMP-worthy, but it's noticeably more enjoyable than having to watch films on e.g. a 1.8-inch screen already. As we've noted before, the D2 comes packed with a very healthy display as well as TV-out, so things are starting to get more interesting on the video front.
And indeed, video playback is smooth; stuff looks very sharp on the QVGA screen and frame rates (30fps listed in the specs) won't drop unexpectedly either. There are a few quality standards to pick from when converting videos to D2's profile, with results ranging from "acceptable" (low quality WMV) to "woohoo" (high-quality XviD). A common problem, namely the de-synchronization of sound and video tracks, didn't roar its ugly head this time.
Since I didn't have a proper (proprietary) cable to test the D2's TV-out capabilities, my experiences with video playback are limited to "on-screen" performances. I still wouldn't recommend watching a 9-hour epic trilogy through just the internal display - but for a few episodes of your favorite sitcom, it's pretty much spot-on. It's no 54-inch, widescreen plasma television with perfect viewing angles, but the D2 nevertheless performs better than 90% of all other compact DAP/PMP hybrids out there.
A minor drawback (probably a big issue to some) is the lack of a user-removable battery. It won't run on stuff like AA(A) batteries, nor can we clip off the lithium-polymer battery through a latch system or anything like that. Nope, it's in there, somewhere, doing its job rather anonymously - and rather excellently as well.
This will probably start to look like some sort of "Praise all things Cowon" commercial, but it has to be said that these guys also have a reputation to maintain in terms of battery efficiency. It's not uncommon for a Cowon DAP to run over 30 hours per charge, be it through a traditional AA(A) battery or something like the D2's built-in power source. The unit's theoretical specifications look pretty impressive on paper indeed - 52 hours for audio and 10 hours per charge while playing video files.
As mentioned before, no power adapter was included with my D2 so it's a good thing that it'll accept USB juice as well. The bad news for me: it can take up to 7 hours to fully replenish the battery through USB (compared to "just" 3.5 hours when charging through a wall socket).
For my first test, I switched the backlight timer off (leaving the screen illuminated at all times) and fiddled around with the player pretty much consistently. The D2 played a few albums, displayed two videos of 20 minutes each, showed some slideshows and loaded the occasional text file, while I was busy experimenting with JetEffect and whatnot. All in all, the D2 switched off permanently after some 9 hours - I take it that this more or less reflects battery life for videos as well (didn't really test that particular aspect too precisely).
Secondly, I switched to "Music only" mode and allowed the screen to go dark after a few seconds of inactivity. A combination of MP3s, WMAs, Ogg Vorbis and APE files (declining in numbers according to the aforementioned order) and an enabled "shuffle all" mode gave me a total playback time of roughly 38 hours - volume levels varied from time to time, but were "up" pretty high all around. I imagine that it's not impossible to reach the manufacturer level of 52 hours per charge for audio indeed.
A good thing about the internal polymer battery is the fact that it won't drain much over time. One can easily leave the D2 behind for a few days or weeks, without having to recharge it prior to using it reactivating it.
As usual, there's the built-in microphone that can be used for voice recording. Luckily, Cowon has increased maximum bitrates for such recordings over time (from 128 to 256kbps), although there are no intermediate steps between foresaid bitrates to choose from. On the other hand, you can select four sub-128kbps quality levels. On the whole, the mic picks up signals from a few meters/yards away quite decently - and the resulting output quality isn't too bad either, apart from a light humming noise in the background.
A pretty important feature to quite a handful of people is the FM radio, which happens to be present in the D2 as well. It comes with an auto-scan function, which picked up no less than 24 channels over at my place - only 7 or 8 of these channels had decent reception, though (on-par with most DAPs out there). Recording directly off of the FM band is a very simple procedure and the resulting quality is pretty much what you'd come to expect. The whole preset-management thing is pretty straightforward and useful compared to the average FM-equipped DAP's systems out there.
I couldn't test the line-in encoding capabilities due to the lack of a line-in adapter (encoding is processed through the proprietary TV-out port somehow). Moving on the text viewer then; this is pretty cool in terms of font quality as well as the amounts of displayed data. Should you feel the need for even more space-for-text, then one simply has to tap the screen and stuff will go into "full-screen text mode". I did find it rather difficult to navigate through text files (no traditional scrollbar present), and some lines were cut off rather resolutely… but on the whole, it's a pleasant extra, even more so because music can be played in the background.
The same goes for the photo viewer - it'll allow you to play your tunes, while you are busy rotating or zooming pictures. It takes a while for relatively high-res pictures to fully load, but all in all the "photo album" function found on the D2 has its perks and uses. The possibility to set any picture as one's standard D2 wallpaper and the slideshow option add a little bit of extra flair to it all. It's also possible to load pictures straight off an SD card, by the way (same for different types of content).
Then there are the firmware-technical bits and pieces, such as a dynamic playlist (available right from any "Now Playing" screen) and the possibility to set/load bookmarks within tracks/movies/text files. All quite handy once every now and then, for instance prior to running a marathon (remember, you'll only have one button to either control play/pause or previous next track when not using the touch screen).
Finally, some nice timer functions (clock, wake-up on music/FM, record on wake-up, sleep timer, auto-ff) complement the D2's extensive array of functionalities. It's also "Podcast ready", should you find this important - and I've seen the Korean version being equipped with stuff like dictionaries (as well as DMB for a separate version), so perhaps there's more work in the pipeline. For now, all of the above will do fine. Come to think of it, perhaps a little calculator would have been nice… and an agenda… or a calendar… you know, the typical PDA-like material.
The D2 struck me as a bit of a boring object at first glance. I wondered why Cowon would need yet another flash-based, compact yet versatile MP3 player - they've got plenty of those already. But over time, the little fellow has managed to win me over through a combination of sheer quality and a certain degree of much-needed tech innovation.
It's hard to define what kind of territory the D2 is trying to cover, as it offers certain PMP-based features in quite a convincing manner whilst still providing loads of DAP-related fun. Aside from the rather attention-hogging (touch-based) control system, the D2 really doesn't seem to compromise in terms of ease-of-use, versatility and output qualities all that much.
Yes, the basic flash memory might seem a bit skimpy to heavy-duty movie watchers; then again, they've moved up to 4GB already and there's an SD slot allowing you to hot-swap data on the go. And sure, the accessory set isn't exactly overwhelming; videos have to be converted to certain standards using specific software, plus there's the issue of the unit's price tag… but consider the "plusses" and you'll have to agree that Cowon has moved forward quite a bit (yet again).
We now have on-the-fly profiling (including id3 tag-based browsing, hurray!), an audio format support base that surpasses almost anything out there, very decent battery life all around and dozens of options to configure the device's actual sound output. It might not be the ideal running partner, but the D2 is sure to attract lots of attention while you're busy operating it. Much-deserved attention, might I add.
I hereby want to thank Cowon for providing the review sample, and Kevin particular for keeping his patience with me
For more info on the Cowon D2, kindly visit Cowon's website.
DAPreview | More stuff to come | Proud owner of iAudio 4
Last edited by Mr. Black; 08-09-2008 at 06:21..
Join Date: Dec 2009
I accept with information:
Join Date: Apr 2011
eeesh, bad memories, those rio players.....cant even block the bad memories of working for a shop that repaired them for over a year back in the day.....so many bad hdd's, so many broken dpads/switches........gotta give cowon this, the d2 was def a better design durability wise then alot of other devices of the same era....or for that matter even today....
we also repaired iriver players....I really really wish I had bought a referb h340 back in the day.....those things where the "russian ipod" (nick name) built like a bloody tank.....and rockboxed very well to boot (i got a buddy with a 240gb hdd in his he got back when we worked at that place....before i became a fan of dap's)
thanks for the flash back.....*bands head into desk*
Last edited by AshenTech; 02-12-2013 at 21:40..
Haters gonna hate,...
This was the review that made me get my first Cowon,...the 8gb D2. Memories,...
The ones that market themselves as Audiophile products are often the ones to be suspect of. --shigzeo
Join Date: Apr 2011
8gb for the day wasnt bad tho, i remember when 64mb players and even smaller where considered huge by some people......
at least with the d2 unlike most other players of the day, you could expand it.....
I also had creative players you could expand but....their firmware SUCKED.....(so horrible so so horrible, you had to manually change between internal and external on my last one... and external cut battery live in half....)
oh the memories of repairing all those old bricks....including first-3rd gen ipods.....(we did out of warranty service for ipods for a local mac shop), those horrible hdd's that broke if you breathed on them wrong....hehe...rio karma....those things hdd was just a POS....by the time i quit that job, the shop was starting to do cf mods for people....because it was less likely to fail then the 20gb hdd's that would fit in them)
eeesh.....162 for 20gb
oh the memories thou replacing all those hdd's.....many times with hdd's that tested out to have the same problem (Click click click)....eventually they stared sending us another brand of drives.....I think when they ran out of the bad ones....
what got me to get my first cowon was stuff on abi and a few other forums as well as a friend having owned an older cowon that worked great(the x5 hes still got it and did a mod after seeing somebody on abi had done one to stick a big arse high capacity card in it) hes quite happy he also did some hardware mod he found(hes like me, dab hand with a soldering iron)
I like my c2, liked my d2+ even more(because i REALLY loved the theme i was using), but, gotta admit, i would love a fully moded x5 with a 64 or 128gb flash drive....and extended battery!!!
Join Date: Apr 2011
found the mod
he did that and the cap mod that you can find on head-fi
he didnt expect to keep using it but decided the mods looked fun....thou he did pick his own components and ordered them threw his companies suppliers rather then sticking to the parts on their list(in part because some of the stuff is hard to get, in part because he feels some of his choices where better for the application)
all in all, If i could talk him out of his x5 I would....he gets over 30hrs battery life, can use OF or Rockbox, and he could easily upgrade to 128gb as sdxc cards come down in price!!!
though, I have seen CHEAP 64gb cf cards(Slow but plenty fast for a dap).....hehe