The D2 is Cowon’s first ultra portable video player and their first foray into the wondrous world of touch screens. Although similar in appearance to the iriver clix, the D2 sports some significant differences under the hood: things usually not found in this class of players like TV output, support for lossless audio codecs, and an SD/SDHC card slot for unlimited expansion.
Let’s see if the D2 lives up to the reputation Cowon earned with some of their earlier players…
Please check out the iAudio D2 Forum for discussion and help with the D2.
- Quick Look
- Audio: MP3, Ogg Vorbis, WMA, FLAC, APE, WAV, AAC (only on older firmware versions)
- Video: MPEG4-SP (DivX, XviD, …), WMV9 – 320 x 240, 30fps
- Photo: JPEG (no size limit)
- Screen: 2.5″, 24 bit (16 million) color, 320 x 240, TFT-LCD
- Dimensions: 78.0 x 55.4 x 16.6 mm (3.07 x 2.18 x 0.65 inches)
- Weight: 91 g (3.21 oz)
- Rated battery life: 52 hours for music, 10 hours for video
- Other features: Touch screen, SD/SDHC card slot, TV-out, FM radio, voice/line-in/FM recorder, BBE sound enhancements, user-configurable effect presets, text viewer, date/time/alarm, bookmarks, on-the-go playlist, deleting files on the player, dictionary (only with Korean firmware)
Inside the box you will find earphones (rebranded Cresyn phones), AC adaptor, standard USB to Mini-USB cable, stylus, quick start guide, and a software CD (JetShell, JetAudio VX, Windows 98 drivers).
The first thing everyone should consider is an upgrade to better phones. The Cresyn phones aren’t really bad, but to enjoy the sound quality of the D2 you should definitely get some better ones. Other accessories are sold separately, such as the TV-out cable, line/mic-in cable converter, cases, and screen protectors. Unfortunately no docking station, remote control, or line-out cable converter is available at the moment.
The player is even smaller than it appears in pictures, or at least that’s my impression. Build quality seems solid, and the weight feels right. Nothing is flimsy or fragile on the D2, except maybe the cover for the USB ports. The slightly rough-textured plastic frame and back plate appear to be scratch resistant, and the back plate has four small bumps to further prevent abrasion. The D2′s housing doesn’t overly attract fingerprints.
The same cannot be said for the touch screen, however. You’ll see every tiny smudge, as is the case with any smooth touch-sensitive interface. It’s not a big problem, since any grime can be wiped off easily with one’s shirt (or whatever else might be within reach). The screen doesn’t seem to scratch easily, but using a screen protector is highly recommended, especially when carrying the D2 around in your pocket.
The stylus, a small plastic triangle used for operating the touch screen, doubles as a stand for the D2. This only works relatively well; the D2 topples over rather easily. Furthermore, there’s no silo to store the stylus, unlike on every Palm PDA or Pocket PC. You’re supposed to attach the stylus to the D2 with a short lanyard. Imagine the scratches that could happen to the screen resulting from that practice. I stopped using the stylus altogether after spending about five minutes with the D2. The stylus/stand combination is a neat idea, but not very well executed.
No software is needed to use the D2 on any halfway-modern computer. Being a MSC/UMS compliant device, it works on Windows 2000/XP/Vista, Mac OS 9/OS X, Linux, and others as soon as you plug it in. Drivers for Windows 98/ME computers are included on the CD. The player and SD slot are recognized as standard removable storage disks. You can drag and drop files over to the player’s internal memory or SD card and sort them in folders, the same way you would on your computer’s hard disk. The option to use MTP transfer is also available with newer firmware versions, but this will only work on Windows XP and Vista without too much trouble.
ess, Cowon includes two applications on the CD that comes with the player. One is JetShell, a file manager for syncing your audio collection to the D2. The other is JetAudio VX, a multimedia player and audio/video converter. I do not use them since I already have other software for these tasks. However, both may come in handy if you’re not already accustomed to using other applications. They both work fairly well. Freedom of choice indeed is a great thing since you’re not forced to use any specific software with the D2.
Almost everything is controlled by using the touch screen, so it might take some time getting used to the controls. At first, single-handed operation seems almost impossible, but it is actually possible to perform most clicks with the thumb of one hand while holding the D2 in the same hand. Of course, operating the D2 with only one hand is definitely impossible when using the stylus. A further annoyance is that even the most simple steps take at least three clicks – the first click activates the screen, the second activates the onscreen menu, the third click finally does what you want it to do (e.g., fast-forward). Scrolling has been made easier on recent firmware versions. A “virtual motion” control has been implemented, similar to the iPhone’s method of navigation. Sliding up and down anywhere on the screen scrolls lists, and sliding to the left exits folders or leads to the main screen, depending on where you are. The controls still could use some refinement; let’s hope Cowon continues improving the usability in further firmware versions. Another positive point is the smooth responsiveness of the menu. Clicking on menu items opens them immediately; there’s no noticeable lag.
Only three hardware buttons and the power/hold slider “clutter” the upper surface of the D2: two buttons for volume and a (rather superfluous) menu button with assignable secondary function (play/pause, skip track). Newer firmware versions let you redefine functions for all three buttons when the hold switch is enabled. For example, the volume buttons can be mapped to fast-forward and rewind tracks . . . but then you lose the volume control function. You would have to disable hold to adjust volume, and then enable hold to fast-forward and rewind. In short, the D2 does not have enough buttons to be operated comfortably while in your pocket. With some practice one could get used to “guessing” where the hot spots for fast-forward and rewind are on the touch screen. But since it’s not advisable to stick the D2 in your pocket without hold enabled (since the touch screen reacts to unintentional pushes rather easily), I very often find myself taking the player out of my pocket and looking at the display for even the most basic of operations – a lot more than I’m used to with other players. Standard 5-way navigation would have been much better, be it joystick, click pad, or anything else.
This rant applies mostly to the D2 used as an audio player on the go. The touch screen is a lot more reasonable for the video and image viewer modes when you are most likely to be looking at the screen all the time. Usability as an audio player would improve immensely if Cowon released a remote control with enough buttons for the D2, but it’s not known if the hardware would actually support this.
Graphical User Interface
The main screen provides direct access to all major functions of the D2: Audio, Video, Picture, Text, Radio, Record, and Settings. Compared to the tacky user interfaces of some older Cowon players, the visual appeal has improved a lot on the D2. Colors are toned down, and everything looks more professional.
The audio playback screen of the D2 shows you nearly every bit of information you could possibly wish for. It might overwhelm casual users, but it’s certainly a good thing for people who like to keep track of what’s going on. The screen shows the ID3 tags in three lines (album/artist/title), album art, track time (elapsed/remaining or total – simultaneously), stereo peak level, bitrate (kb/s) and sample rate (kHz), 5-band EQ settings (yes, it shows the EQ bands on the main screen), BBE enhancement settings (BBE/M3B/3DS/STE/MPE), volume level, real time clock, random/repeat settings, and battery level.
The menu is available in several languages (English, Korean, Japanese, German, French, Chinese, Spanish, Swedish, Italian, Dutch, Russian, Greek, and Hebrew). On a side note, Cowon’s programmers obviously forgot to implement a 24-hour clock. Even though a lot of European languages are available, there’s only an American 12-hour AM/PM clock.
Browsing for music must also be done via the touch interface. It can be handled through both common approaches, by file/folder browsing or by ID3 browsing. Deleting audio and video files is possible directly on the player; folders cannot be deleted, though. A slight annoyance when browsing by file/folder is that there is no quick way to switch between the internal memory of the D2 and the SD card. Navigating out of several subfolders back to the root folder or using the “Music Library” button, which takes you to the ID3-browsing screen (not the folder view), are the only ways to go from internal memory to SD card, and vice versa. In ID3-browsing mode, the internal and external files are merged together.
I wish ID3 browsing could be disabled altogether so the D2 doesn’t need to rebuild its ID3 database after disconnecting from a computer in MSC mode. It’s not really a big issue; the rebuild takes about 20-30 seconds and a normal bootup only takes 2-4 seconds, but I’d still like to have a clean file/folder-based player without seeing the ID3-browsing options at all.Album art for audio files works very well. It can be embedded into ID3v2 tags, or simply as a JPEG located in an album’s folder. The album art gets resized automatically for the screen so there’s no need to convert the images. Some of my MP3 files have JPEGs with a size of 800 x 800 pixels embedded and they work fine. The images are only displayed during music playback, not while browsing files.
Battery life is excellent, with a whopping 52 hours for audio playback and 10 hours for videos. Of course this is the “optimal” time as stated by Cowon. But even when playing high-bitrate VBR files with all sound enhancements turned on, the D2 will run for days.
The included AC adaptor fully charges the D2 in 3.5 hours. Charging over USB takes 7 hours due to the low power output of USB ports. The player can be used while charging from AC, but not while it’s connected via USB.
SD/SDHC Card Expansion Slot
The SD slot is arguably one of the best hardware features of the D2. With a recent firmware update it supports newfangled SDHC cards, currently available up to 8GB. In a 4GB D2, this makes for a hefty 12GB of total storage. Not bad at all for a device of this size. The only thing that still needs to be fixed in the firmware is a quicker way to switch between browsing the internal memory of the player and the SD card when using file/folder navigation, as mentioned above.
The FM radio is as basic as they come; it’s possible to auto-scan for stations and store 24 presets. The presets cannot be named and RDS isn’t supported either. Reception is not the strongest, but it might depend on the headphones plugged into the D2, since those are used as the antenna. Newer firmware versions slightly improve FM reception. Recording from radio is simple and works well. Unfortunately it’s only possible to record at up to 256kb/s WMA quality; recording to MP3 is not supported. A timer can be set for automatic FM recording.
The voice recorder has some proble
ms. On recordings made with the internal microphone, there is an audible high-pitched whine in the background. It picks up voices well even in noisier environments, but the whine the D2 adds to the recordings is rather irritating. Maximum possible quality is 256kb/s WMA. The mic’s sensitivity can be adjusted in five steps, but for some reason no voice activation feature is included (this was available on older Cowon players).
It is also possible to record from an external microphone when using the line-in converter cable (sold separately). There’s no high-pitched background noise when using an external mic, and it sounds better than the internal mic of the D2. However, recordings can’t be set to mono. When a mono microphone is attached, the recorded sound will play only on the left channel of the stereo recording. One more firmware issue for the list.
Line-in recordings at up to 256kb/s WMA can be made via the optional line-in converter cable, and sound quality is good. It is possible to pause a recording and resume later. The D2 can also split tracks automatically when it detects silence, a useful feature when recording directly from vinyl records, for example. Record gain level and split sensitivity are manually adjustable.
This is where Cowon’s choice of using Microsoft’s proprietary WMA codec annoys me the most. The D2 would be a great recorder if it used the more widespread MP3 format instead of WMA. There are several free applications out there to manipulate MP3 files losslessly, or non-destructively, like MP3Gain, MP3DirectCut, and others. As far as I know, you can’t do that with WMA files. With WMA, you have to decode the audio to uncompressed WAV to do any editing. Some quality is lost by converting the audio files to another format.
Transferring Files / Removable Disk
Being UMS Mass Storage Class compliant means the D2 is nothing but a removable disk. You can store any files anywhere on the FAT16/32 formatted internal memory or on the SD card and access them on any modern operating system. The only downside is the USB transfer speeds of 35-40 Mb/s, very slow considering USB 2.0 is capable of 480 Mb/s.
With recent firmware versions the player can also be switched to MTP operation, a transfer protocol that only works well on Windows XP and Vista.
The supported format for the image viewer is JPEG, and there are no size limits. It is possible to zoom and rotate images, or pan and scan around them. Pan and scan works very well (this is where the touch screen really makes for a useful interface), and it’s also possible to run a slide show. The speed of the slide show is adjustable and can be paused or stopped. Music playback continues while viewing images.
In thumbnail view, the D2 displays twelve small images at once on its screen. Building the thumbnails is rather fast and takes less than a second for a photo taken with a five-megapixel camera. Loading full-sized images is fast, too: less than two seconds. Images can be set as wallpaper and will show up on all screens of the interface.
All in all, the image viewer is really well executed, with only one obvious flaw: images can’t be deleted directly from the player. Seems like another oversight in the firmware, since audio and video files can be deleted from the D2.
Other noteworthy features are the alarm clock with three different modes (audio player, FM radio, and FM recording) and a sleep timer, adjustable in 10-minute steps up to only 60 minutes. Almost every other player’s sleep timer goes up to 120 minutes; I wonder why Cowon thought they had to reduce the maximum time to an hour.
The bookmarking feature seems to work well for both audio and video files. However, sometimes the bookmarks disappear or get corrupted after the D2 has been connected to a computer. Trying to open a corrupted bookmark was the only time when my D2 crashed and had to be reset. Let’s again hope for a fix in future firmware versions.
One thing that really bothers me is the “resume” setting. It does not resume. It just remembers the location the D2 has been within an audio or video file, but doesn’t automatically resume playing after turning the player on. Three clicks are needed to actually resume playback (enter audio/video mode, activate on-screen menu, press play). Someone obviously forgot to look up the definition of “resume” in the dictionary.
A simple text reader is also included; it’s reasonably useful and quite readable at 14 lines per screen. Several font and background colors for the reader can be selected from a list. Audio playback continues while displaying text, and lyric display for songs is also supported.
Upgrading the firmware is kind of a hassle compared to some other Cowon/iAudio players. You have to drag and drop the firmware in three separate steps into the D2′s root folder and several restarts between the steps are needed. All content gets deleted from the D2′s memory in the process, and all settings are reset to default. As you already may have noticed, the current firmware (v2.41) isn’t very mature.
The D2 is top notch when it comes to sound quality. Without any equalization or enhancements turned on, it reproduces the whole audible frequency spectrum evenly distributed and linear. The treble and mids are there, as is the exceptionally good bass response without any roll-off.
The 74mW amp is one of the strongest – if not the strongest – for portable players today; it drives even difficult headphones up to at least 100 Ohms impedance with ease. Channel separation is very good. The Wolfson CODEC and Telechips SOC used in the D2 have a good signal-to-noise ratio and are overall great sounding. Can’t get much better than that. You have to hear the player yourself to appreciate the difference in sound quality, compared to most other companies’ offerings.
No background noise is audible with medium- to high-impedance headphones. However, with the most sensitive low-impedance phones I use, the Ultimate Ears Super.Fi 5 EB (rated at 11 Ohms, 119 dB/mW), almost no background hiss can be heard at any reasonable volume setting. However, turning the D2 up to maximum volume, I can hear the hiss quite clearly. Mind you, I only tested this when no sound was playing; my head would explode instantly playing music with these phones at that volume level. So it’s not a real issue and shouldn’t bother too many people. Other phones with higher impedance than around 30 Ohms are completely noise-free at even the highest volume levels.
Almost any audio format you can throw at the player is supported: MP3, Ogg Vorbis, WMA, FLAC, APE, WAV, and AAC. Supporting two lossless codecs, FLAC and APE, next to uncompressed WAV seems like a bit of overkill for a flash player. But considering unlimited storage via SD cards, lossless audio might certainly be of use for some people. On a side note, AAC was only available in firmware versions up to 2.21. What made Cowon ditch the format again? No formats are played back truly gapless, but the gaps between tracks are usually just a fraction of a second, almost negligible.
EQ and Sound Options
Cowon provides a basic 5-band equalizer on the D2, which works quite well. Bands are adjustable in the +/- 12dB range. The EQ has six presets (Normal / Rock / Jazz / Classic / Pop / Vocal) and one user-definable setting. The interesting thing is that all the presets can be modified; tweaking the EQ is not just limited to the user preset. A very intelligent move by Cowon to not force any arbitrary presets on their customers, but to just deliver suggestions for useful settings that can be further tweaked to one’s personal liking.
Advice: “audiophiles” should consider skipping the next few paragraphs and continue reading further below. The audio enhancement settings on the D2 might not be the most suitable topic for purists. Cowon licensed some quite fine-sounding algorithms from Californian studio-gear manufacturer BBE Sound
, Inc., best known for their Sonic Maximizer hardware, used in many professional recording studios and by lots of artists on stage. For some reason Cowon prefers to call these BBE enhancements “JetEffects.”
If you’re already familiar with SRS WOW or similar enhancements found on other players and you think they sound bad . . . well, I definitely would agree with you. But BBE is several leagues above other psychoacoustic tricks usually found in portable devices. It sounds less unnatural than other algorithms, enriches the audio signal, and crossfeeds the sound so headphones sound more spacious, more like listening to loudspeakers. I’m not quite sure about the difference between “3D Surround” and “Stereo Enhance”: they both create a wider stereo field. “Stereo Enhance” is the less muddy sounding of the two.
For my taste the most important BBE option is “Mach3Bass,” a psychoacoustic bass enhancer that sounds really good and does not distort on quality headphones. It does not sound like other bass enhancers that only bloat the mid-bass frequencies, but really emphasizes the low bass registers without making the overall sound image muddy.
The last and maybe least useful feature is “MP Enhance,” short for “Minimized Polynomial Non-Linear Saturation,” a process used to try to restore harmonics and frequencies lost at compressing music to low bitrate quality. Using it on MP3s at 128kb/s or lower makes the treble sound a bit brighter, but that’s about it according to my ears. The treble might get too bright on some audio material, so I never turn “MP Enhance” on. Using it on high quality encodes doesn’t make much of a difference at all.
Cowon also implemented a novelty feature on the D2; pitching the playback speed in the 50% – 150% range, in 10% steps. This might be mildly useful for listening to voice recordings, but I really don’t see much use for it.
A godsend feature for people using several different headphones or loudspeakers is the possibility to store various EQ and BBE settings in 10 preset slots. This makes changing the overall sound character (for example, when switching from earbuds to full-sized headphones or loudspeakers) a breeze.
Audio Playback Options
The shuffle, repeat, and boundary modes on the D2 are quite well thought-out. Boundary works on the whole disk, a folder, or a single file. Combining this feature with shuffle and repeat modes makes for a rather versatile tool. A-B repeat is possible within one audio file. All these functions are quite comfortable to use with the touch screen interface. They’re just two clicks away from the main audio screen.
When using a reasonable folder structure on the D2, there is no need for playlists since shuffling over certain folders is much more intuitive and much less hassle to set up. Playlists are supported, however. Tracks can also be added to a dynamic playlist with a few clicks. ID3 browsing and connecting via MTP is also supported in the recent firmware version, but it’s still buggy and not really that great to use.
It is possible to specify a fade-in time (adjustable from 1-5 seconds)for resuming playback after the sound was paused. That’s just a small detail, but one I wouldn’t want to miss. It makes resuming audio playback less brutal for the ears than jumping to full volume straight away.
This is what the D2 does best. The screen is stunning with its 24 bit (16 million) colors, albeit a bit small at 2.5″ for comfortably watching the director’s cut of Lord of the Rings. However, I already watched some full-length movies on the D2; the screen size didn’t trouble me much. Color gradients look really smooth; there’s no comparison to 16 bit (64K colors) or 18 bit (260K colors) screens, as found on most other video players. Viewing angles are very good from the sides and from above. Watching from an angle below center doesn’t look that good. I wish they would have put the screen upside down into the D2, as watching from below seems to be the more natural way.
Supported video codecs are MPEG4 Simple Profile (XviD, DivX, and others) and WMV3, also known as Windows Media Video 9 (to make things a bit more confusing). The D2 only eats videos at a screen size of 320 x 240 pixels, which is a shame. Official specs show that the D2 is able to play MPEG4 videos at an utterly insane bitrate of 2000kb/s. Usually 500 to 700kb/s is more than enough for a screen size this small. This makes me wonder if the D2′s hardware would actually be strong enough to play 640 x 480 movies, and if the need to convert any video to 320 x 240 is only a limitation by the firmware and not the chipset. The TV-output would benefit immensely from a bigger video size.
Watching video on a TV over the D2′s optional TV-out cable looks surprisingly good, considering the measly output size of 320 x 240 pixels. I noticed no distortions or interferences on my 32″ TV; the image is crisp and colors are saturated. Only edges, diagonal lines, and similar visual material looks rather jagged due to the small video size. But overall I’m impressed by the quality.
Another nice feature is that the EQ and BBE sound enhancements work on video files, too. Dropping the phat bass while watching Bambi or Beethoven’s latest MTV hit video clip might certainly come in handy.
Considering how tiny the D2 is, the rated battery life of 10 hours for video playback is absolutely excellent. Only Cowon’s huge A2 video player is rated the same; most other popular video players have a considerably shorter battery time.
Since the D2 can be fed with standard MPEG4-SP files, there are lots of options to get your videos to the supported screen size and codec format. Of course this wouldn’t be necessary at all if the D2 supported files with bigger screen sizes than 320 x 240. My favorite application for this tiresome task is the free iRiverter since it’s the most simple, hassle-free one-click video converter I know of. Of course, the included JetAudio app works well, too. Other great free software would be Virtualdub or SUPER. The choices are almost endless; it’s just a matter of preference.
If you want the tiniest video player with the best screen quality, battery life, and expandable memory, then look no further. There’s nothing that compares to the D2: highly recommended for lovers of near-microscopic gadgets that perform almost like their (much) bigger brothers. It even surpasses most of them in terms of screen quality and battery life.
However, if you want a simple, easy-to-operate audio player, then the D2 is probably not the right one for you. Sure, it’s an audio aficionado’s dream – sound quality is excellent and the strong amp drives demanding headphones with ease – but a touch screen interface doesn’t quite cut it for operating the player easily on the go. I somehow learned to live with these shortcomings, but I still find myself having to take the player out of my pocket to look at the screen for simple things I can do blindly on other players.
I’ve gone through three different firmware versions while writing this review, and none of them was perfect. With every one issue fixed, another one was introduced. Let’s hope Cowon gets their act together and releases a firmware without annoyances soon. Don’t get me wrong, the D2 is a really nice player – great sound, video, battery – but the handling definitely feels somewhat unrefined as of yet.
- Excellent audio quality, very strong amplifier
- Excellent video quality, very good screen
- Excellent battery life
- SD/SDHC card slot
- TV output (with optional cable)
- Huge variety of supported audio codecs
- BBE audio enhancements
- Preset slots for various EQ and BBE settings
- Line-in (with optional cable), FM, and voice recording
- UMS Mass Storage Class, works on any modern operating system without any software (but MTP also available)
- Audio tracks sorted by file
/folder, next to ID3 browsing
- Informative screen
- Fast, responsive menu
- Standard Mini-USB jack for data transfer and charging
- Firmware still needs a lot of work (inconsistencies, bugs, annoyances in v2.41)
- Touch screen control isn’t overly user-friendly or time saving
- Not enough hardware buttons for comfortable operation, no remote control available
- Impractical stylus/stand design
- Records only to WMA, not MP3 or WAV
- Absurdly high bitrate for MPEG4, but no bigger video size than 320 x 240 supported (for TV-out)
- Bookmarks and dynamic playlists sometimes disappear
- “Resume” doesn’t really resume
- Slow USB transfer
- Still no gapless playback (Cowon, are you listening?)
Cowon doesn’t sell through brick-and-mortar retailers in the US so your best bet is a search on Amazon (Amazon UK) or other online retailers. For those of you in the EU and UK, you can find Cowon at select B&M retailers or you can get one from AdvancedMP3Players.