The S9 comes beautifully packaged and remains even more beautiful to touch. Its 84mm (3.3-inch) AMOLED display is sharp, with 16 million brightly displayed colours, and the capacitive touch screen is responsive, like the iPod touch.
In fact much of it resembles the touch, such as the accelerometer, which automatically -- and quickly -- rotates photos when you change the player's orientation. Large sliding zoom controls let you zoom in on photos and menus, too.
The main menu itself is clear and well-laid out, as you'll see in a photo a few pages on. But deeper menus -- music and video selection, for example -- resemble the more traditional file-folder structure seen on previous Cowon models. ID3 tag info is obeyed, however, meaning you needn't organise your music into folders as you did with previous models.
One of the biggest features of the player is its sound quality. We've not had time to put it through our usual and rigorous few hours of A/B comparisons with other players, but compared to listening to the iPod classic over CNET Editors' Choice award-winning Sennheiser IE 8 headphones, it's potentially one of the best-performing players available in its class.
In our tests, the following audio formats played without issue: MP3, WMA, APE, FLAC, OGG and WAV. However, AAC, AIFF, Apple Lossless, MusePack and Real Audio files did not play. And although WMA Lossless files began to play, after a few seconds the sound became distorted and the entire player locked up. Oops!
As for video file support, the S9 played DivX 5, Xvid and WMV. That's decent, but MPEG-4 SP would've been a bonus, as would H.264, which would not play in our tests. Obviously HD content is out of the question, unlike on the A3 or O2, but optional cables will allow the output of standard-definition content to a TV. Unfortunately for the hearing-impaired and anime fans, soft-subtitling is not supporting. Look at the Cowon O2 for this feature.
Still, an interesting new video feature allows the S9 to search through the video you're watching, identify the different scenes, then generate moving thumbnails that allow you to quickly skip to that scene. A dedicated on-screen button also allows you to take screen grabs of currently playing videos, which are saved as simple JPEG files.
In fact, the player only supports JPEG images -- PNG, TIFF, BMP and GIF are all unsupported. The terrific screen quality on the S9 makes well-encoded video look superb -- crisp image, rich colours, deep blacks, smooth motion -- and we'd happily watch video podcasts or TV shows on here. When displayed at their native resolution, photos look great as well. But when the player tried scaling down a 3,648x2,736-pixel JPEG, all we saw was distortion and the blatant artefacts of bad scaling.
We also must admit we haven't found it to be the single most fun player to navigate, although it's easily the best Cowon player to date. Most options are shown as icons rather than text, and at least so far we've not found it to be that intuitive -- but if you got on with the Cowon D2, you'll have no problem at all. But if you're looking for iPod-like simplicity, you're out of luck.
Flicking long lists of artists and albums up and down using your finger is extremely similar to the iPod touch, however. And the bonus of physical back, forward, play, pause and volume controls on the top of the player is a much-respected design addition.
Our first impressions are very positive on the audio side, and above average for everything else. It's a solid and hugely stylish player, but it isn't breaking any ground the iPod touch hasn't already broken, and it's the touch the S9 clearly has its crosshair hovered over.
But it's Cowon's finest effort to date, and one for the iPod-hating audiophiles for sure -- as long as they don't want microSD support, which is conspicuous by its absence.
Should you already be tempted, you can head over to Advanced MP3 Players and order now. The 8GB model sells for £169 while the 16GB model goes for £199. And if you have any questions, hit up our S9 questions thread in the forums. We'll have our usual full review and video review ASAP.