Ever since Sony introduced me to portable music with its iconic Walkman series, my enormous collection of tunes has never been far from reach. I've been through tape cassette players, mini-Disc and CD players, and MP3/OGG/FLAC digital players but have stopped short of carrying my music around on my smartphone - preferring uninterrupted listening rather than risk being bothered by incoming calls and messages. My current digital music player has been giving me serious battery life issues of late, though, which shouldn't be an issue with Cowon's C2 MP3 player with its whopping 55 hours of claimed audio playback. Announced back in April, and made available in my neck of the woods a couple of months later, I've been spending some quality time with the 16GB model. Is there still room for the dedicated digital music player in a world dominated by media-playing mobile phones? I think there is, and here's why...

The Cowon C2 is described by the Korean audio company as a multi-functional MP3 player with music and video playback capabilities. In essence, this very pocket-friendly entertainment device is a stylish update to the D2+ - it's about the same size and weight (if a little less chunky and a touch lighter), is available in the same storage capacity versions, has about the same size resistive touchscreen panel and comes with a built-in FM radio. For the C2, Cowon has shrunk the storage expansion medium down from SD to microSD, has at last dropped the familiar sliding power/hold button, included an external speaker and a new user interface, but left out the multi-purpose stylus.

What's in the box?

The Cowon C2 comes supplied in attractive eco-friendly packaging that can be re-used as a desk tidy when no longer housing the player. The C2 comes bundled with a pair of white Cowon SE2 earphones, which are OK and an improvement over earlier efforts but don't offer quite the same audio experience - or do anywhere near enough justice to the player's audio quality - as my own bud-type phones.

Also in the box is a quick user guide (although I would recommend pawing through the PDF manual stored on the device itself to get the best from this device) and a USB charging/file transfer cable with a rather annoying proprietary connection at the player end. An official AC charger and a composite TV-out cable are also available as options from Cowon.

The player itself has been designed to keep things simple and elegant. There's a shiny metal case on the back with engraved branding and serial number (a classy touch), and a plain plastic screen surround at the front. The glossy, resistive touchscreen is 2.6-inches diagonally across, has a 4:3 aspect,and a resolution of 320 x 240 pixels. This all combines to make both finger marks and daylight glare somewhat problematic, and the mirror-like metal is also a little prone to micro-scratching.

At 84g (2.96 ounces) and 12.8mm (0.5-inches) thick, the C2 is a little on the chunky side by today's standards but whereas some players and phones look like they might snap if in a pocket when you sit down, this one has a very solid feel to it - no creaking or bending at all.

The touch panel is certainly one of the better resistive flavors I've tried, but a little disappointing given Cowon's recent dips into capacitive touch panels. As you might expect, it did need the occasional repeat touch to confirm an action, but not annoyingly so. The display's horizontal viewing angles are a little restrictive, too, with the vertical axis faring a little (but not much) better.

Moving around the edges, the top is home to power/hold/mic, Menu (like the Home button on a smartphone or tablet) and volume buttons. One long press of the power button turns the unit on, a short click puts it in hold and turns off the touch sensitivity on the display, a further short press turns off the display. Another quick press of the power button reactivates the device from power-save mode. The Menu and Volume buttons can be used for play/pause and skip track functionality while the unit is in hold, very useful for pocket operation.

There's a covered USB 2.0/AV port on the right side, along with the microSD card slot that caters for expansion up to 32GB in the SDHC format. I should mention here that the lid of the cover did seem to want to work against my efforts to push in the plug, which tempts a little more force than is probably good for the player. The C2 supports both MSC and MTP file transfer modes, although I only needed to use the former.

There's nothing on the bottom edge and just a 3.5mm audio jack input on the left. Round the back is a small built-in speaker which pumps out sounds when the earphones are not plugged in. It's surprisingly loud and clear when playing audio books, although there's not a great deal of bass presence, certainly not enough for prolonged music playback and offers a similar listening experience to that of a youngster who insists on sharing his favorite mobile phone-based hip hop drone with the rest of the train passengers. It can always be switched off if it's not needed.

Switching on

The passage of time between powering on and being presented with a rather twee, if grammatically-lacking, "Daily Life" user interface can be quite long. There is a progress indicator shown onscreen but the writing is so tiny that you probably won't be able to determine where you're at. If you're not fond of the UI, you can opt for Cowon's signature Visible Layered UI, but I stayed with the former, although I chose to have the device save my exit preferences (which displayed a plain digital clock instead of one of those six time-sensitive messages, shown below).

Access to the player's various functions and settings is achieved by scrolling down through four screens made up of a three by three grid of icons, although there always seemed to be a few missing. The first grid collects most of the frequently used functions into one place, with icons for music, video, radio players and a JPEG photo viewer surrounding a clock in the center.

Subsequent screens host such things as a voice recorder, a flash games player (none included), a calculator and a simple text document viewer. You can also drag your finger around the screen and leave notes for yourself in the NotePad doodling app, although the size of the display does necessitate brevity. Unfortunately, the available icons can't be changed - which is a shame as there are some settings I would have liked to bring up from the bowels of the system screens.

The built-in FM radio uses the earphone cord as an aerial so all you'll get through the external speaker is static. You do have the ability to record what you listen to, and favorite stations can be saved but there's no station name listed, just the frequencies (although, by editing the radio.ini file, users can manually name presets).

Anyone who has used a Cowon player before will know that navigation can be, well, not so much problematic as not very intuitive. Improvements have clearly been made in the C2 but users are still taken on a multiple-icon-pressing ride in order to switch between albums or artists, so there's still room for improvement - it takes a little getting used to but is no major downer.

There are a few included media files on the player but the first thing you'll want to do is get your stuff stored in the library.

Filling up the memory

The C2 comes with up to 16GB of onboard storage, which is quite generous but I have more than double that in my current digital library so I opted to have the player share its storage load with a microSD card. Files from a computer's music library can be dragged from folders and dropped onto the player via the USB 2.0 connection - which may take some time, depending on the size of your music collection. This simple functionality is a such welcome relief after spending far too much of my time lost in the often inadequate proprietary music managers of the numerous digital players I've either owned or tried.

I was also very pleased to find that I could drag and drop files onto the inserted microSD card, which was treated as a separate drive by my PC - this saves spending money on an adapter and having to keep removing and re-inserting the extra storage just to update my library. Also a big tick in the plus column is the device's ability to merge all media files into one long list (in tag view) or view them separately (in file/folder view).

Updating the database after the insertion of a microSD card can take ages, so I recommend doing so infrequently - get yourself the largest storage capacity you can afford so that you don't have to keep swapping it out.

The all-important sound quality

Up until this point, I've mentioned a few things I like about the C2 and brought up quite a few niggles and nitpicks - but I haven't yet got to the audio reproduction capabilities.

With such a low screen resolution, it's evident that (despite any claims to the contrary) the C2 is first and foremost a music player, and it's here where most (if not all) of my gripes and grumbles disappear into the mist. Cowon is world-renowned for its audiophile-pleasing audio quality and I was intrigued to learn whether this has been sacrificed in the name of budget. It hasn't.

The player will support MP3, WMA, OGG, FLAC, APE and WAV audio files, and can handle anything up to 320kbps/48kHz. It has a 29mW/16 Ohm headphone output, a signal-to-noise ratio of 95dB and a frequency range of 20Hz to 20kHz - and the top notch audio reproduction is comparable to the company's more expensive players. Returning briefly to my opening point, if you think that the quality of the music pumped out by the your smartphone is decent enough then, well let's not mince words here - there's simply no comparison.

Like other players in the Cowon range, the C2 benefits from a sophisticated sound technology called JetEffect that's said to give users a more natural and live-sounding listening experience. JetEffect 3.0 puts 39 different sound fields, as Cowon calls them, at the user's fingertips, including four user settings. The available EQ presets range from Crystal Clear to Jazz to Rock, some genuinely bringing out the best in the music being listened to, and others less so.

Personally I found the reverb effects were not to my taste but the consistently high quality of the output - hiss-free, low distortion and beautifully clear - was not adversely affected. The included sound enhancements from BBE Sound (BBE+) used in the C2 refine the audio output beautifully (take note SRS), whether it's tightening up the bass sound or adding a three-dimensional feel.

The JetEffect presets can be engaged directly from the device's music player but it might be worth taking a small diversion here to explore something that isn't fully explained in the manual but might be useful to know - setting up the any of the four user EQ presets.

From the second of the main grid menu screens, you need to enter the Settings option. If you choose JetEffect 3.0, you'll see the four User presets. Each of these has a little cog icon to the left, choosing this will take you behind the scenes - a five band graphic EQ (each band can be raised or lowered by a step at a time), BBE+ and Stereo options, with the latter allowing activation of Stereo Enhance or 3D Surround.

Dropping by the System option while in Settings will allow users who suffer from out of sync hearing problems to adjust the left and right balance to suit.

It's playback time

Moving onto the C2's music player - it's all a question of taste of course, but I quite like the animated graphic of a vinyl record spinning on a turntable which accompanies each music track. Some of my library already had album art with it, which replaces the standard
Don't Stop the Music backdrop with something that looks somewhat like an old picture disc. Adding your own album art is simple enough, although the quality of the image reproduction of such manually-introduced images can be somewhat pixelated. Cowon does produce some software that helps create and manipulate album art images called Album Art 2.0 software, but I've only been able to find it in Korean.

As the faux record spins on the make believe deck, a semi-transparent progress bar moves across the screen as the track is played. Tapping anywhere on the screen brings up the main playback menu, featuring icons resembling those found on a CD player and from which various sub-menus are available - to add tracks to favorites, browse album art (which is shown without descriptive text, so you have to know what you're looking for), and look for music elsewhere on the player.

It is worth mentioning at this point that much of the text displayed on the various screens is absolutely tiny - just a few pixels in height, in fact, making most of it so small as to be worthless. Perhaps it's just my aging computer eyes but I found myself regularly seeking out a pocket magnifying glass.

The C2 also plays video files of course, with codec support for DivX and WMV. Although not mentioned anywhere in the specs there does appear to be some support for the MP4/h264/AAC format too. There's also support for some subtitle formats, with bilingual display.

Practically speaking, I found the video image too small to enjoy anything but the shortest of music videos, animations or news items. If you want to watch a movie on the C2, I think you'll struggle. Anything dropped into the video folder that's too big a resolution, or in a format that's not supported, simply won't appear in the list of available files.

Finding your files is made easy with a very useful browser feature with built-in search functionality. I did find the C2 to be a little picky about audio meta tags - on more than one occasion I had to remove audio files from the device, alter the ID3 tags and then return them before it would correctly display the track information. Video files stored in different locations are not merged into one long tag list like the audio files so you may have to look on both the built-in and the media card storage to find what you're looking for.

The device is Audible-ready for audio books, and features MyPodder software for podcast creation.

The claimed lithium polymer battery life of 55 hours audio playback or up to 10 hours of video enjoyment is more than some devices can manage in stand-by mode. In reality I got just short of two days of constant music playback, although I was fiddling around with various menus and settings during that time. Battery recharge time is 4.5 hours at 500mA (via USB connection to a computer) or 2.5 hours at 750mA (with a Cowon-approved mains adapter).

In conclusion

Minor moans and groans aside, the
Cowon C2 is a mighty audio reproduction device which puts others in the same price bracket to shame. The lack of modern bells and whistles like capacitive touchscreen, integrated Wi-Fi, user customization, and so on might not to be everyone's taste but if the quality of the audio output is your main concern - the C2 kicks some serious sonic butt. I would expect to be paying at least twice the asking price for such a capable player.

The C2 comes in 4GB, 8GB and 16GB storage sizes, and in white, black or gray. There is supposed to be a special pink edition with a signature engraving from actor Dong-won, although I haven't seen any for sale. A 16GB C2 will remove about US$145 from your savings, but it's money well spent in my opinion.

One major downside, if you can call it that, is that the C2 will likely make you want to invest in a decent set of earphones, such as the Grado earphones - which cost significantly more than the player itself.

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