Review of the Cowon iAudio i9

E71-CowonI9

Two months ago, I bought a Cowon iAudio i9 player. I waited a bit before publishing my review because I wanted to be sure that I would have some real life experience with the product. If you do not want to read through the whole review, my opinion is that, while the product deserves its good reputation, I would not consider it perfect and would not advise you to buy one (at least, not before you actually read my review and understand why I can not do so).

Also, please be aware that my review can be biased:

  • I use only GNU/Linux on my system, so I did not use the Cowon tools to drive the player. Maybe some of my comments will be dull here.
  • This is the first “good quality” player I ever bought, so I have no comparison point on this area.

That being said, I’ll try to be fair toward the product and the reader (you!).

Packaging

The Cowon iAudio i9 player package comes with a Cowon iAudio i9 (that is a relief), a proprietary USB cable that allows connection to a computer, a CD that contains the driver and the manual, and a coupon for a free book download to the audible website. The plastic package in itself is advertised to be “green” and could be converted in a vase or in a pen cup (although I do not find it that aesthetic).

Linux compatibility

Well, nothing much to say here. The player is recognized as an USB disk. You can copy and paste our music. The name of the different directories are pretty clear (“Sounds”, “Video”, etc). There is some occasional hiccups when transferring files: the transfer rate drops down to few kilobytes, I do not know if it is a Linux related issue, but the file transfers last forever. Some other times, the files get corrupted (I think it is when I ask for the device to unmount, the buffer are not synced properly and the files do not get transfer correctly).

Audio quality

Let us start by the point that made me choose specifically this music player! Cowon renowned for its good quality audio products.

In my specific case, I combined the player with my Jays D-Jays ear-bud, which provide a wonderful sound, but are most of the time too sensible to the quality of the audio source and produces “the little hummmmm” background sound. Once plugged to this player, as expected, the sound is clear, there is no noise in the ear-bud (as I said, the ear-buds are really sensible, and it is really difficult to get rid of the background noise), and everything is just fine.

The other good point here is that the player comes with some preset equalizers and audio enhancing functions that really improve the sound characteristics. The basses sound even more real, while not being to loud. The trebles are even more dynamic. This is the first time that I see a player that positively enhances the sound quality.

Video

The iAudio i9 can read video. At least, this is one of the advertised feature. While the screen is pretty small, I can perfectly watch slow definition video, such as the one you can find on Youtube or on Academic Earth.

Most of the video format are not directly playable on the reader, however, I found that the next command did a wonderful job at converting the videos (beware of the bitrate, you could end up with huge files):

$ mencoder overview_of_linear_dynamical_systems.m4v -ovc xvid \
-xvidencopts bitrate=100 -oac pcm -o out.avi

Sound format support

Cowon argues on his website that the player can read mp3, wma, flac, ogg, etc. I only tested these four with some of my personal library and some illicit file I promptly delete after my tests (sorry about that, but I only rip my CDs in flac, always using the same software, namely grip). Well, most of the mp3, wma, ogg are working. However, most of the flac files I tested are not. I do not know why, the player often choose to skip the end of the files. I tried once to seek inside one file that was truncated by the player: the software crashed. I had to reset the Cowon iAudio i9 by using the well hidden button near the connectivity plug. This point is really disappointing.

Firmware update

On the good side, we clearly see that Cowon cares about its product and provides updates frequently. The firmware update is rather easy, you drop the firmware file on the iAudio’s memory (through USB), starts the device, wait a bit, and voilà, you’re done. However, the firmware update does not always work as expected. I bumped into an severe problem after my first update: menu was not working properly, and trying to read any video makes the player crash. I tend to believe I am not the only one who experiences this problem as I found other people confronted with this problem on the Internet.

Design & Ergonomics

I bought the white version. I can not say it is the most beautiful tech-object I have ever seen. However, it does not hurt my eyes. It is pretty small (see the picture, where I compare it with my Nokia E71), really thin and seems (and is) really robust.

If I had a neutral opinion to the design, the ergonomic, in the other hand, is really good. The device has three button (two on the left side for the volume and one on the right side to call the main menu), a tri-state switch (on/off/hold) and a tactile area (in front of the device). The sensibility of the tactile area is configurable, however, I did not have to change anything up to now, because it recognizes my finger moves correctly. One thing that I particularly like is the “hold” mode. It is configurable: it can either do nothing when you press the button, or raise the volume (left side buttons) and pause (right side button), or change the track (left side buttons) and pause (right side button).

The menu of the player are quite simples and are commanded by the tactile pad. I failed to see where you can build our own play-list (maybe it is on the proprietary software I didn’t installed).

The battery

Cowon announces that the player should last 20 hours for music and 5h for video. I did not test for video, but for music, I believe that they are not lying. I usually listen to music for some consecutive days before I need a charge.

Also note that the battery charges exclusively through the USB connection. Since this connector is not a standard one, I’m taking a great care not to destroy the only cable I was given.

Overall opinion

Well, the price tag is 180€. This is REALLY expensive (although I was offered a prepaid card to the merchant I bought it from, I thank my friends for that). However, that may sound stranger, but I do not fully regret my choice. I am fully aware of all the issues that plague this audio player, and most of them could be addressed in a firmware update (even though I would not hold my breath here). Nonetheless, the sound quality and the equalizer are really giving some of my old CDs a second life. I was expecting a good quality, and I obtained it, it definitely worth it.

Update from May 2011

It will be almost a year now since I wrote this review. I must say that so far, the iAudio i9 has proved to be great and the quality of the sound never ceases to amaze me. I did not experienced any other crashes. The battery life has not decrease much (if any). If there was only one thing, I would say that Cowon should make the screen more sturdy: scratches appeared really fast on my screen.

Update from January 2016

The player is still kicking and battery is still holding, which is amazing. Cowon keeps on releasing firmware updates.