One thing’s for sure: never bet on what name/number Cowon is coming up for consecutive players in a series, you will most definitely be guessing wrong.
The D2/D2+ was a very popular player for its time, some four years ago, and many people craved for a more modern successor ever since it was released. Recently, when the D3 was announced, there were quite some outcries to be heard since it was a large Android phone-without-a-phone, with nary a resemblance to the D2 at all.
Enter the newly released C2. As I said, do not try to make sense of Cowon’s naming schemes – the C2 is ‘the real D3’, so to speak. It actually is still more of a D2 than anything else – basically the same hardware, the same form factor, the same screen, more or less the same functionality as its four year old ancestor. The most obvious differences are in the looks of the user interface, the move from a full-sized SD slot to MicroSD, the use of a power/hold button instead of a slider, and the addition of a speaker on the back.
Does that mean Cowon’s decision to move this revamped D2 one letter down the alphabet is a step back? Not necessarily, there are certainly some features to be found in the C2’s firmware that are fit for a 2011 player. Read on for the full review.
- Cowon C2 Specs
- Capacity: 4/8/16GB internal (+ MicroSDHC slot up to 32GB)
- Display: 2.6″ 320×240 TFT, resistive touch screen
- Size/weight: 78.7mm x 53.0mm x 12.8mm / 84g
- Color: White with silver back / Black with silver back / Black with black back / Gray with silver back / Gray with black back
- Battery: 55h audio, 10h video (synthetic benchmarks)
- Charging time: 4.5 hours at 500mA, 2.5 hours at 750mA
- Audio codecs: MP1/2/3, Vorbis, WMA, FLAC, APE, WAV (unofficial AAC/MP4/M4A support)
- Video containers: AVI, WMA, ASF (unofficial MP4 support)
- Video codecs: Xvid, DivX, MPEG4-SP, WMV (unofficial h264 support)
- Subtitles: SMI (unofficial SRT support)
- Images: JPEG (baseline and progressive)
- Documents: plain TXT
- Recording: WMA – from internal mic, FM radio, or line-in
- Accessories: Proprietary USB cable, ear buds, printed quick start manual
The C2 comes with the bare necessities – an USB cable and a pair of earbuds.
The USB cable is of the semi-proprietary kind, which is a bit of a nuisance for usage of the player. Everything the C2 does could be achieved with a standard Mini- or Micro-USB port as well. Cowon however decided to go with a 20-pin Korean Telecom connector in all their newer players. They are not the only ones; Iriver and Samsung often use that port as well. It is a standard in South Korea, but not in the rest of the world. So don’t forget your C2’s cable when you’re on the go – chances are slim that you’ll be finding this cable in the wild.
The included earbuds sound surprisingly decent for what they are. They have the same looks and build as all other Cowon stock earbuds so far, but they clearly have an updated driver inside. As expected, they have no bass response to speak of – but their midrange, treble, clarity, and stereo imaging are definitely comparable to brand buds like the Sennheiser MX400 or the Sony MDR-E818. Of course they don’t really do justice to the player’s audio quality. If you value sound quality – which you probably do when you choose a Cowon player over other ones – you should definitely look into upgrading to some better headphones or in-ear phones. Also, these included earbuds are white: an iconic/ironic statement reminding of Apple iBuds – and common decency suggests nobody should be seen with those in public.
One accessory that came with the D2 is missing from the C2 – the little dangling ‘cellphone charm’ stylus. Personally I never used that stylus, but with some of the C2’s tiny interface buttons it sure would come in handy for people with fat fingers. I can’t see Hellboy operating the C2 with his Right Hand of Doom. It is also impossible to calibrate the resistive touch screen with bare fingers – this procedure definitely needs a stylus.
Some accessories aren’t included but can be bought separately. Cowon sells a line-in cable for recording, a composite TV-out cable, and an AC charger. Of course any USB AC charger will do, you don’t have to use the one by Cowon.
One thing Cowon doesn’t sell is an audio line-out cable. Actually, since 2004’s iAudio X5, no Cowon player even had fixed-level line-out functionality. Strictly speaking, this isn’t necessary – ‘double amping’ the headphone output results in very good sound quality (since it doesn’t have to drive a difficult headphone load), and I doubt a real line-out would sound any different with the player attached to a home hifi rig. However, for a company where the CEO’s nickname is ‘Golden Ears’, one would expect them to cater to an audience of people that want to link their C2 ‘properly’ to a home setup or to a portable amp.
First thing one notices is that the device is on the heavier side, considering its small size. It has the same weight as the old D2 (85g), and it is slightly heavier than the larger S9 (77g) or J3 (75g). Obviously the metal back of the C2 doesn’t add weight compared to the taller D2, yet it sure gives a sense of quality. Some people complained about the S9 being ‘too light’, dismissing it as having sub-par build quality (which isn’t the case at all, the S9 is built very well). Well, those people should be happy with the C2’s perceived heft.
This ultra-shiny metal back sure looks pretty in photos, and until you take the player out of the box. However, once you take it out of its protective packaging, it scratches as soon as you look at it. Without exaggeration, the very first time I gently put the C2 down on a wooden table, it already gained some hairline scratches. Personally I’m not bothered by that, but persnickety folks might want to leave the included foil on, or get a clear screen protector for the back of the C2. The D2 had a plastic back that didn’t scratch as easily, and it had little bumpy feet as well that protected the back from touching surfaces. These bumps sure would come in handy on the C2. One classy detail is that the inscriptions on the back appear to be laser engraved, not printed – including the unique serial number.
The front of the player is made from high quality matte plastic. It’s very sturdy feeling, nothing creaks or bends. The tactile buttons on top give a solid clicky feedback, although they’re a bit small and narrow spaced for comfortable in-pocket use. I wish the C2 had the same button layout as the J3, but of course there’s not that much real estate to accommodate this.
For the longest time Cowon used a slider for the power on/off and hold functionality on all their players. This changed with the J3, and the C2 has this new single button as well. I find this to be an improvement over the slider, it is somewhat easier to handle. A long click on the button turns the player on, a short click engages hold mode, and another short click turns the screen off. To turn the screen on again, simply tap the button again – and to turn the player off, hold the button for a few seconds.
Next to this we find the menu button and two more for changing the volume. The menu button is basically like the home button on smartphones, bringing you back to the main interface from any sub screen. These three buttons can be assigned with alternate functions when the player is in hold/lock mode, which makes operation even easier on the go. The menu button can be mapped to function as play/pause, and the volume buttons can be used for fast forward/rewind and track skipping – both these functions can be assigned separately. While this might not be exactly as elegant as the J3 or Sansa Clip+ who both have dedicated buttons for all these functions, the C2 sure beats most other available touch screen players in usability and comfort on the go, when you don’t want to take the player out of your pocket and turn on the screen for a basic command like pausing the playback. (There is a slight bug in the current 1.10 firmware, where the alternate button mappings won’t work when the player is merely in hold mode – the screen has to be off as well for it to work. I hope this will be fixed in an upcoming firmware version.)
On the right side of the C2 we find Cowon’s trademark latch that hides the USB port and the MicroSD slot. Nobody really likes these latches (as I gathered in our forums); they’re just an additional step to get to the functionality beneath them. Yet they sure make the player look tidier. Beneath it there’s the proprietary USB port which I already complained about earlier, besides it we find the MicroSD slot. The slot of course handles SDHC cards up to 32GB capacity, but unfortunately modern SDXC cards with even more storage space are not supported. Usually, there would also be a reset hole somewhere around here, but the C2 omits that for a much more comfortable long push of both volume buttons to reset the player, in case it crashes or acts up. I’m grateful for not having to carry a bent paper clip around with me in constant fear of a firmware hiccup.
Another improvement over other Cowon designs is that the C2’s headphone jack is on the opposite side of the housing. On most other players it’s right next to the latch, so one often has to unplug the headphones to get to the USB connector or SD slot. It’s only a little detail, but certainly an improvement.
Cowon managed to include a speaker on the back of the C2, which is the most obvious difference to the D2’s hardware. It is a bit on the quieter side, but still audible in modestly noisy surroundings. Sound quality is what one would expect from a tiny speaker: acceptable for audio books or radio shows, maybe for some short video clips, but probably not so much for listening to music. The speaker can be set to always off, always on, or auto mode (unplugging the headphones turns the speaker on and vice versa).
Time to mention the not so great part of the C2, which unfortunately is also its most prominent – the screen. It is the exact same screen as on the four year old D2: a low resolution 4:3 320×240 pixel TFT with sub-par viewing angles, and hard to operate resistive touch control. For the year 2011 this screen is somewhat of a letdown, especially compared to Cowon’s own stellar capacitive AMOLED screens on the J3, S9, and D3. On the C2 I often have to tap twice to get a command executed. Sometimes it even misfires, doing something different than I intended (for example, tapping on the audio screen to open its context menu often opens the album cover browser instead). It also is barely visible in direct sunlight, even on maximum brightness; the screen turns a milky grey and needs to be shaded to see anything on it.
Well, I guess this screen keeps the price of the player down… To its defense, the C2 is one of the more affordable players in Cowon’s lineup, but I would have wished for at least a slight improvement over the old D2 screen – especially since nowadays customers are spoiled by phones like the ZTE Blade, which has a 800×480 capacitive AMOLED screen for a price around $100, or the Nook Color, which sports a fancy 1024×600 IPS panel for around $350. Those comparisons might be a bit far-fetched, but I guess you catch my drift…
Battery life – as is usually the case with Cowon players – is excellent. Besides the BBE audio tweaks it’s one of the strongest selling points for the company’s products. The specs claimed in the manual and on the website (55h audio, 10h video) are of course artificial, but I got some 40 hours of audio playback under real world conditions. Because of the tiny screen I mentioned above – and because I value my eyesight – I didn’t test battery life for video. Judging by my experience with many other Cowon players, I would however guess that one gets some 6 to 8 hours out of it, depending on brightness settings and such.
Basically, the C2’s user interface can be compared to the cartoon show everybody loves and adores: My Little Pony – Friendship is Magic. So cute. So cheerful. So many colors.
It is a very ‘Korean’ user interface, and different cultural perceptions of how much ‘cute’ you can pack in an audio/video player interface often led to criticism of Cowon’s design decisions from western users.
Turning the player on, one is greeted by a screensaver with ‘cute’ messages in somewhat broken English. “It’s a sunny day – getting out of bed every morning and thanking God for another beautiful day”, “Siesta now – after happy lunch”, or “Before sunset – lovers are meant to meet each other – however far they have gone, they meant to return”. Those are three of the six messages one can choose from, grammar mistakes inclusive. This gimmick gets really old really fast when one is confronted with it on each startup of the player. Pro tip: when using sleep mode instead of full power off, the C2 starts on the last used screen, not on the main menu.
Sliding these messages up or down reveals the real main interface, which is spread over four separate pages – two for the C2’s main functions (audio, video, radio, etc), one for additional apps (calculator, notepad, etc), and one for quick access to often used system functions. This last page is a new feature, not found on other Cowon players, and sure is a welcome addition. One can quickly change the screen brightness here, or choose between sleep mode and full power off. There are a few not so useful features here too, like rotating the screen 180° (but not 90° or 270°), and it unfortunately lacks the option for customization. I sure would love to put some features on the main menu that are buried deep in the system settings, such as sleep timer or pan/balance.
There’s an alternative second main menu included as well, which offers no really different functionality than the first one, just larger icons and lots of pastel colors (there are also some different gimmicks in the second menu that are eye candy without functionality, but since they don’t get in the way of usability, I leave it to you to find out about them). The advantage of this second main menu is that you don’t get the ‘cute’ screensavers at startup – the disadvantage is that they forgot to include the screen brightness control that’s found in the other menu. Noteworthy to mention, unlike the J3 or S9, neither of the C2’s two menus can be customized in any way. One can’t rearrange icons, not even a background image can be set. Both menus have white backgrounds. I wish they could at least be set to a less bright color.
Speaking of colors – there are lots of them in the various sub screens. Nearly every screen has a different color, some screens even have fully animated backgrounds (turning gears for system settings, for example), other screens have textured backgrounds (like the album art display) while others have solid colors, and so on. This makes the interface look rather incoherent as a whole. Confusingly different screen layouts for several option/setting screens and different font sizes, paired with obscure icons don’t make it look tidier as well. It almost seems as if several different designers were working on the various screens, without ever communicating a common guideline for the overall appearance and usability.
Navigating around various screens is also rather incoherent – sometimes one has to slide left or right, sometimes one has to push tiny on-screen buttons to go left and right, some other screens have sub-tabs, sometimes one has to push an on-screen symbol to go up one level, sometimes one has to push the menu button to achieve the same. While one certainly can get used to the slightly weird way of navigating the C2, it sure could use a more intuitive, unified control scheme and unified looks/layouts to give the interfaces a more polished and ‘mature’ feel. Maybe upcoming firmware versions will improve that a bit.
Since a video says more than a thousand screenshots, I’ve whipped up a short flick of the C2’s interface. Do not adjust your set; the video has no audio track.
This being said, I can’t help but notice the old D2 interface being easier to operate, less convoluted, and even feeling snappier and more responsive. I haven’t used a D2 in over three years, so I borrowed one from a friend. After turning it on I felt right at home, and didn’t find many issues getting around the interface. I enjoyed having a single main menu screen with logical submenus, instead of having it spread out over several sliding screens. Menus were consistent in their structure and appearance; there was no noticeable lag between screens, and so on.
The C2 is clearly the more gimmicky player of the two, sacrificing some usability for ‘unique’ looks and ‘playful’ interaction. The D2’s interface is tightly integrated into an embedded real-time OS while the C2’s interface is made in Flash. One notices how the designers of the C2 had ‘fun’ in mind, with a ‘look what we can do’ attitude – while back in the days of the D2 they were limited to the available UI framework of the underlying operating system. In this case it sure feels to me that the older approach was the more reasonable one in the long run.
The positive side to a Flash UI is that users can create their own interfaces from scratch – given sufficient skills in ActionScript coding, of course. Owners of popular Cowon players like the J3 or S9 can choose between literally hundreds of different user-made interfaces, some of them being vastly superior to Cowon’s stock UIs in usability and appearance. If some skilled UI designers like Claw or Kizune began working on an interface for the C2, there would certainly be some hope for improvements. We can only wait and see if the C2 becomes a popular player, if a coding community evolves around it… the price of the player sure seems to be fair enough for it to gain popularity.
The music screen is probably the one you’ll be seeing most the time on the C2, given it is an audio player first and foremost.
Well, this screen is made to look like a turntable, with the currently playing track’s album art cropped in a circle – and spinning. There is no way to stop the spinning, no way to display normal square album art. Flash doesn’t handle resizing and rotating images all too well on the C2, so the whole affair is slightly choppy and pixelated. I know I already dropped the “getting really old really fast” line before, but for my taste this is somewhat over the top as far as visual gimmicks go. I hope Cowon – or some users from the community – will give us an alternative, more conservative music screen in the foreseeable future.
Besides the vinyl gimmick, the screen shows the usual basics in the middle: artist name, track title, elapsed/remaining and total track time. The background for that info field is a semi-transparent time progress bar. There is no info about codec or bitrate displayed, as can be found on most other Cowon players. In the top right there’s a very tiny status field with a clock, volume, battery level, and so on (a friend of mine who goes towards the age of 50 needed to put on his glasses to make out the literally 5 pixel tall fonts). In the top left corner is the access button to the album art browser. All playback controls and other options are hidden, revealed by a tap on the screen.
The album art browser shows eight covers in two rows, but unfortunately no artist or album names. The list can be swiped left and right, it feels responsive enough – clearly an improvement over the S9 in that aspect, and about on par with the J3. Tapping a cover pops up its track title list, tapping a title plays it instantly. The browser doesn’t return to the main audio playback screen after that, one has to manually tap the tiny back button twice – another item for my firmware improvement wish list.
Regular browsing for music is done in a familiar list view. The C2 supports classic file/folder view – thank you Cowon! – and of course tag browsing as well. In folder browsing mode files on the internal memory and the SD card are separate, but in tag browsing mode they’re fully integrated into one list. Unlike all other Cowon touch screen players – including the old D2 – the C2 has a major flaw in its list view behavior: swiping left doesn’t let one go back/up in the folder hierarchy, one has to tap the top of the screen to get out of a folder. This is less natural than the standardized way of swiping left, and I really hope Cowon is going to fix that in an upcoming firmware version.
Other list features include “favorites” – the C2’s single on-the-go playlist function – and bookmarks. One can create further playlists on a computer and transfer them over to the player, though. This has been the same for most every Cowon player lately. People used to dealing with lots of playlists might not like Cowon’s lack of powerful playlist support compared to other brands’ players.
Bookmarks are the only feature related to audio books and podcasts on the C2 (or any other Cowon player, for that matter). The C2 doesn’t separate audio books from music files at all; in shuffle mode it is very likely that you hear a chapter of a book right after a song. This is quite cumbersome, especially compared to e.g. Sandisk’s stellar audio book handling (completely separating audiobooks from music, auto-bookmarking each file on exit, preventing track skipping, etc). Even if this might just be relevant to a minority of their user base, Cowon has a lot of catching up to do in that aspect.
Well, one could say that the C2’s audio playback speed control is an audiobook-specific feature as well. It supports slowing down and speeding up in the 50% to 150% range. Pitch correction is also implemented; it can be manually turned on or left off, for that classic chipmunk voice style.
Same as the J3, the C2 also has a search function. However, I didn’t really find anything of relevance with it – not to mention the size of the QWERTY keyboard on the tiny screen. I’m not sure if it looks for file names or tags, but search results were either mysterious or empty for me. An A-B repeat function is present as well, which might come in handy for people wanting to loop certain parts of an audio track.
The one feature that’s been missing from all recent Cowon players is proper playback resume. There is a ‘resume’ feature in the system settings, but it actually doesn’t resume playback as soon as the C2 is turned on – it just remembers the place in a track, instead of starting it from the beginning. One still has to tap the screen twice to resume playback. Many user made custom UIs for the S9 and J3 have proper resume functionality, so maybe we see it on the C2 too if someone skilled starts coding for it.
Audio Features and Enhancements
This is what it’s all about, where Cowon leaves most of the competition in the dust. While the interface and some design decisions might give a wrong impression about the C2, there is no denying that it is a very serious music reproduction machine.
The C2’s amp is powerful enough to drive most any headphone with authority, yet it is also completely silent and hiss-free with even the most sensitive of low-impedance, multi-armature in-ear phones. Same as all other Cowon players, it might show a slight bass roll-off with very low impedance phone in measurements, but this is generally inaudible to the human ear. Dynamic range is high, distortions are very low, and channel crosstalk is perfectly fine. And yes, using an additional headphone amp on the C2’s output would be plain silly for most applications (except for driving 600 Ohm phones or unpowered speakers) – there’s really nothing to fix or improve, the C2 sounds great.
On the software side of things, it plays properly encoded files gapless (tested with LAME MP3 and FLAC). There’s nothing more distracting to my ears than pops, clicks, and silence between tracks of a live album, a symphony, or a DJ mix. Cowon are one of the very few developers that get this right – others are Rockbox and Apple, to a certain extent. However, while the S9 and J3 also play some ‘badly’ encoded MP3 files gapless (i.e. FhG or Xing encoded MP3s), the C2 is more prone to clicks between such tracks.
It supports more audio codecs than one can shake a stick at. While many aren’t that relevant for most people out there, it sure is nice not having to convert exotic formats like APE for a quick listen. The best thing is – even if Cowon doesn’t announce it anywhere – the C2 plays AAC/MP4/M4A files just fine. It displays their tags as well, only embedded album art isn’t supported (one can simply put a cover.jpg in the folder as a workaround).
The sound enhancements Cowon licensed from BBE Sound, Inc. are state-of-the-art. To my ears they’re the best, most natural and clear sounding ones found on any portable player, surpassing competitive products like SRS or DSEE. The D2 had an old, more ‘in your face’ generation of BBE effects, the D2+ a transitional set, a mix of new and old – and the C2 has the current generation, known as “BBE+”, as found on the S9/J3/i9 as well. This current set is rather refined sounding when used properly – meaning, when you don’t turn everything up to eleven.
BBE itself is a sort of musical exciter, restoring dynamics, improving stereo imaging, and giving the impression of ‘crisper’ sounding audio. BBE Mach3Bass is a phase-aligned bass booster that’s very tight and punchy – clearly superior to a mere EQ or the bass booster algorithms found on other players. BBE MP claims to restore treble portions of the signal that have been omitted due to lossy compression. While this is not really physically possible, MP sure might put some sparkle back into muddy, veiled sounding tracks. On other, better recorded tracks it might be too much and increase sibilance a bit. Stereo Enhance does exactly what it says – it widens the stereo image and provides some better spatiality to audio tracks.
Redundantly, there’s also a so-called 3D Surround feature implemented, next to Stereo Enhance. This is not part of BBE, but as far as I know a hardware feature of the Wolfson audio CODEC used in the C2. In my opinion it doesn’t provide the same clear quality as Stereo Enhance, so I never use it. Same goes for the reverb effect – it’s the usual ‘bathroom’ reverb as found on Realtek sound cards and the like. Some people sure might enjoy it, but it’s more of a gimmick than a sound improvement.
The C2’s semi-parametric EQ is also hardware-based on the Wolfson CODEC. Main advantage of a hardware based EQ over a software implementation is reduced processing power and increased battery life – not to mention it sounds really good. ‘Semi-parametric’ means the EQ has 5 bands that can be moved up and down on the frequency scale, but only in fixed steps. Bandwidth, commonly known as Q-factor, is also fixed to ‘narrow’, ‘normal’ and ‘wide’. Still, despite not being fully parametric, the C2’s EQ is a much more powerful tool than the usual graphic EQs found in other brands’ products.
The EQ and BBE tweaks can be mixed and matched to one’s personal preference, and can be stored in four user slots. If that’s too overwhelming, the C2 has several BBE presets stored, such as BBE ViVA or BBE Headphone, which are a simple one-click affair to activate. Those presets can sound very good, depending on one’s preferences and/or headphones. Cowon also added a huge amount of non-BBE sound enhancement presets; some with flowery names such as ‘Maestro’ or ‘Feel the Wind’, others more conservatively named ‘Rock’ or ‘Hip Hop’. The audio quality of those varies – some sound good to my ears, others not so much. Either way, one of the 39 presets should hit the spot for most people’s tastes – and there are always the aforementioned manual fine-tuning options as well.
Last but not least, Cowon is the only company I know of besides Archos that still supports pan/balance in their players. It is not a fully 100% left/right balance control – more like 50% – but it works for my needs. I’m one of the 10% of the world’s population that has slight hearing loss in one ear, and thus a player without balance control is basically useless for my needs. Except on the D3 and the V5 Cowon always implemented balance in their players, and I hope they continue this tradition. I can’t fathom why other brands – including the market leader Apple – ditched this most basic of all audio features (after volume control, of course). Thank you, Cowon, for caring about us ‘lopsided’ folks.
Basically the only feature missing for true audio zealotry bliss in Cowon’s firmwares is Replaygain. For those that don’t know, Replaygain is a widely used algorithm that analyzes the loudness of audio files and adjusts them to the same perceived volume level – non-destructive and reversible, by just writing specific tags into the file headers. This comes in very handy, especially when you queue up a death metal track right after a piano sonata. So far only Rockbox and newer Sandisk players support Replaygain, as far as hardware is concerned. On all other brands’ devices one has to make do with MP3Gain (which physically alters the files, and is very slow compared to Replaygain), or with some proprietary dynamic levelers various brands came up with (which usually don’t work well at all). If Cowon would start supporting Replaygain, I would be very happy.
The C2 supports both established USB transfer modes: MSC (Mass Storage Class), the same any external hard disk or USB memory stick uses – and Microsoft’s MTP (Media Transfer Protocol), which is needed when one uses music subscription services or other DRM-locked audio files.
There’s not much to say about MSC – it just works. The player shows up as two drives (internal and SD slot) in any modern operating system, and any files can be dragged and dropped over without issues. Of course one can also ‘sync’ in MSC mode with most audio management apps, such as Media Monkey or Winamp.
MTP on the other hand was always a bit of a cumbersome procedure, especially the way Cowon implemented it. It gives much slower transfer speeds than MSC, even if the player still has to rebuild its database after being connected via MTP. It also complains about files not being supported, even if they clearly are – such as FLAC, Vorbis, or even JPEG. However, after one clicks away the annoying warning message, such files are transferred over.
A real bug however is that AVI videos cannot be transferred over in MTP mode – on Windows XP with WMP11, MTP pops up an error message and crashes. On Windows 7 it’s even worse – here the whole Explorer crashes and needs to be restarted. The only way to get AVI movies onto the C2 is in MSC mode. To add insult to injury, officially unsupported MP4 videos are transferred over without issues, and without warning. Why Microsoft’s AVI format doesn’t work with Microsoft’s MTP protocol is a mystery to me.
Another MTP bug is that embedded album art in audio files won’t be displayed, even when the same files work perfectly fine when transferred over in MSC mode. The only way to get working album art with MTP-transferred files is by putting a cover.jpg image in their folder.
This is the same behavior as on all current MTP-enabled Cowon players – it is clearly buggy and broken. The only reasons I can think of to use MTP mode – besides having to work with DRM-crippled files – is that playlists are easier to create in MTP mode, and that one can scrobble track data to Last.fm via QTScrobbler and similar apps. If you don’t need any of those functionalities, you should definitely stick to MSC mode – as I doubt Cowon is going to fix these bugs that have been around for several years, since the introduction of the S9.
When I got the D2 in 2007, it was the player with the biggest screen and highest resolution I had back then. I used it for watching videos on a regular basis, and I didn’t even mind much that I had to convert every single video due to its extremely limited spec support, or that the D2’s screen viewing angles were very narrow.
That was four years ago, and time sure hasn’t stood still. In the meantime I had portable video players with screens ranging from 480×272 to 800×480, or even 1024×600. However, the C2 has still the exact same 2.6” 320×240 screen as the D2. While the C2 has much improved video playback capabilities over its D2 ancestor, I can’t really imagine someone watching a full length movie on this tiny low-res 4:3 screen nowadays – especially now that most video material comes in 16:9 widescreen, effectively resulting in only 320×180 useable pixels for watching (without cropping or zooming).
Of course one can’t put a bigger screen into the C2’s housing – then it would simply be another variant of the J3/S9 or the O2/V5. However, the jump from the C2’s 2.6” fullscreen to the J3’s 3.3” widescreen display makes already a world of difference as far as video enjoyment goes – not to mention the difference between the average colors/contrast/saturation of the C2’s TFT compared to the eye-popping AMOLED technology used in the J3.
Be that as it may, the C2 does play videos, and its screen should be decent enough for a few Youtube clips or short cartoons on the go. In one aspect it is actually better than Cowon’s dedicated PMPs: the C2 supports EQ and BBE sound enhancements for videos – a feature the O2 or V5 sorely lack. Once you heard your action movie explosions with Mach3Bass, you certainly won’t to go back to movies with flat, boring sound.
The C2 plays almost any AVI or WMA you throw at it, up to a resolution of 800×600 without converting. It doesn’t support MPEG1/2, but those formats are a dying breed anyways. Unfortunately it doesn’t support the popular MKV container, or advanced subtitle formats like SSA/ASS. It does however support standard SRT subtitles, even if the manual only mentions the less popular SMI format.
Same as AAC/MP4 audio, the pleasant surprise is that the C2 supports MP4/h264/AAC baseline video to a certain extent – a fact Cowon doesn’t mention anywhere. This gives a far better compression-to-quality ratio than Xvid, DivX, or WMV and is today’s de-facto standard for video encoding. This stealthy bonus codec support has been going on since the S9 came out – makes me wonder why Cowon doesn’t officially announce these goodies. Not that I’m complaining…
Video can also be output to a TV, over a separately sold composite USB-to-RCA cable. Analog-only, no newfangled HDMI connections.
The video interface is basically the same as the audio interface – just displaying a video instead of a spinning turntable. Tapping on the screen brings up the main playback buttons, tapping left and right goes to the various setting screens. The inconsistency of the overall interface shows here as well – while many setting items are the same in the audio and video interfaces (audio enhancements, bookmarks, etc), they’re located on different pages to the left and right of the main controls. For example, in the audio interface you have to tap right to go to the Jet Effects menu, on the video interface you have to tap left. This is rather confusing and should really be unified for a more coherent feeling.
Instead of a cover art browser we find an icon of an eye in the top left corner. Tapping it starts scanning through a video and displays 15 thumbnails over the whole duration of a video. This might come in handy when one wants to quickly jump to a specific part in a movie. Screenshots can be captured, and video playback speed can be altered in the 50% to 150% range. It also supports pitch correction for the audio track. There’s also an A-B repeat function, same as in the audio interface.
Video display settings are very basic – one can choose between original aspect ratio, or 16:9 and 4:3 aspect, which stretches and distorts the image when it’s not the movie’s native format. There is no pan/scan or crop/zoom feature, which would be sorely needed on a small screen like this. Cropping a 16:9 or 1:2.35 video to make use of the whole 4:3 screen would be very useful in many situations. There are no color tweaks or contrast adjustment, but the screen brightness can be set from within the video interface as well.
As rudimentary as those basic image controls are, the subtitle settings on the other hand are surprisingly exhaustive. The C2 supports dual subtitles, which seems to be very popular in Asian countries. I guess it might help in learning foreign languages, displaying the movie’s native language and the translation simultaneously. Subs can be resynced over an insane time range (I stopped tapping the sync button after 5 minutes, when I reached +/- 2000 seconds), their screen position can be altered, and their font size and color can be changed.
As for the video file browser, unfortunately the C2 doesn’t merge the internal and SD card memories in video mode, unlike tag browsing in audio mode. This is one of the J3’s features I really like – its video browser shows thumbnails of all videos, and displays them as one big list, no matter if they’re on the internal or external memory. I wonder if we’ll see that feature in an upcoming firmware for the C2.
FM radio is a fairly basic affair, without RDS data display, EQ or BBE. It supports automatic scan and 24 presets. A nice hidden feature is that those presets can be named, so the station ID shows up on screen. One just has to edit the radio.ini file found on the C2 with a text editor.
Reception is about average, not excellent, not bad. This of course depends on the headphones that are plugged in – some work better than others as an antenna.
Radio can be recorded – unfortunately only to WMA, not MP3 or WAV. One can even set an alarm timer to start recording FM at a given time. This timer can be set to always on, or it can stop the recording again after a given duration, ranging from 20 to 120 minutes.
The image browser supports baseline and progressive JPEGs, no other formats like GIF or PNG. The picture file browser merges both internal and external memories into one. It displays six thumbnails at once, and slides up and down.
Tapping an image shows it full screen, double-tapping shows it in its original size. Images can be rotated and zoomed. Since the C2 doesn’t support multitouch pinch-to-zoom, zooming is done via an on-screen slider. Pixel interpolation is somewhat blocky. In this view, one has to slide left and right to get to the next image (unlike the up/down slide in thumbnail view).
Slideshow functionality is also implemented. One can choose between fade and slide transitions, shuffle the images sequence, and choose the slideshow delay.
Music playback continues in image viewer mode.
One would expect a viewer named ‘documents’ to support Word, PDF, ePub, or similar fancy files. However, it just supports plain text files without any formatting.
Different combinations of text- and background colors can be chosen, font size can be changed, and it supports auto-scrolling with adjustable speed as well.
Same as above, music continues playing while reading texts.
Recordings can be made via the built-in microphone or via line-in (proprietary line-in cable sold separately). As already said, FM radio can be recorded as well, but not with this dedicated recorder interface.
Recordings are unfortunately only available in WMA – not MP3 or WAV, which would be easier to edit and can be used with a wider range of devices and/or software editors. WMA quality ranges from 32 to 256k, and input volume can be manually adjusted in five steps.
The built in microphone is fairly decent for voice recordings, although outside in windy weather it catches a bit too much background noise to be really useful. In closed rooms it should do fine, however – up to a range of maybe 5-10 meters or so.
The C2’s Flash player supports only Flash Lite files, not full-fledged Flash files of version 7 or higher. I’ve tried a few Flash games on it, but the touch screen was too small for most of them to work – or at least for my fat fingers to tap the right spots. It might work for you, if you hunt down a game that’s optimized for this small screen – but the Flash player sure doesn’t turn the C2 into a Nintendo DS.
A calculator is never missing on any Cowon device. This one is pretty basic, but you rarely ever need more than the four basic arithmetic operations on the go anyways.
Notepad is a doodling app with pens and brushes in adjustable sizes and colors. It also sports several predefined backgrounds (clouds, smileys, polka dots, etc), an undo function and an eraser. Up to 30 images can be stored. I didn’t find them anywhere on the player’s memory, so I assume they’re stored in Flash and can’t be transferred over to a computer.
Typist is a memo pad with on-screen keyboard. The keyboard is of course rather small, but with a bit of practice one should be able to hit the right keys most of the time. 60 memos with 200 letters each can be stored.
The C2’s stopwatch is precise up to 1/100th of a second, and it has a basically unlimited lap counter as well (I stopped tapping the button after 150 laps).
A countdown timer always comes in handy, no matter if you cook an egg or do some applied rocket science. Maximum countdown time is 99 minutes and 59 seconds.
Sleep timer and alarm are unfortunately not accessible directly from the main menu, but buried in the system settings.
This is especially cumbersome since the sleep timer is not permanent – one has to set it anew after each startup. For people (like me) using a player in bed on a daily basis, this isn’t optimal. Sleep timer duration goes from 10 to 120 minutes, in 10 minute steps.
Alarm settings are better thought out than the sleep timer. The alarm can be set to go off only once or daily repeating. Its active duration can be set as well – either always on, or ranging from 20 to 120 minutes, in 20 minute steps.
Alarm source/mode can be audio or FM radio playback, or timed FM recording.
The Cowon C2 is a very good audio player, packed full of features and top notch sound tweaks. It would be a decent video player too, but the low-res 4:3 screen isn’t really up to today’s standards. Resistive touch controls are also a bit dated for people being spoiled by snappy capacitive touch screens, but it certainly is usable.
The user interface works, but it’s a matter of getting used to its gimmicky looks and some awkward usability decisions. Mind you, we’re only at the second firmware revision now – and as far as I know Cowon’s modus operandi, we probably can expect several improvements in the foreseeable future. They have a track record of supporting their players for a long time, and I bet the C2 will be no exception. I’ll keep my hopes up that some user-made interfaces will start to appear as well.
Battery life is excellent, the player’s form factor is nice and small, build quality is very solid – and the price is fair, as far as Cowon players go.
While I wouldn’t take the C2 over my beloved J3, I do prefer it over the i9. If you want to give the fabled BBE sound a try and/or want huge battery capacity that needs to be charged only once a week, the C2 is certainly the ticket. It’s clearly more than an ‘entry level’ player, yet it sure is a nice entry into the wonderful geeky world of Cowon, especially if you never had one of their players before.
- Best-in-class BBE sound enhancements, very good sounding hardware EQ
- Gapless audio playback (with properly encoded files)
- Excellent audio codec support, good video codec support
- Undocumented features: supports AAC/MP4/M4A audio, some h264/AAC/MP4 videos, SRT subtitles
- MicroSDHC slot
- Internal memory and SD card fully integrated in audio tag browsing mode
- User-selectable MSC and MTP transfer modes
- No background hiss, loud internal amp
- Excellent battery life
- Fair amount of tactile buttons (but, alas, not enough to be really comfortable)
- Solid build quality, good look and feel
- Decent price/value ratio for a Cowon product
- Outdated low-res TFT screen, sub-par resistive touch response
- Awkward, incoherent/inconsistent user interface, too ‘cute’ looks
- Gimmicky ‘spinning vinyl’ album art
- Sub-par support for playlists and audiobooks
- Video interface lacks pan/scan functionality
- No proper resume functionality
- Broken, buggy MTP transfer mode
- (Semi-) proprietary USB port
- Metal back scratches very easily