Saturday, 12 May 2012

Cowon i10 Review

Cowon i10 Review

Thanks to Advanced Headphones for the samples (AMP3’s sister site)

First Impressions: Oooh looks swish, box is a touch on the hippy side but the DAP its self looks nice. When you pick it up it feels very nice. The back of it is all curved and has some soft matte plastic that’s very tactile. It feels as though it fits my hand perfectly, I like. Hmmm what I don’t like is that it doesn’t have micro USB on it. I don’t know quite what the connector is called but it would appear to be the same connector my camera uses. I can sort of let it off a little given the port can do other things regardless of whether they are things I, or anyone else will care about. What I don’t get is why it has capacitive buttons.

Giving a bit of a listen and first thoughts are really positive. The amp in there is clearly somewhat of a beast. Mightily impressive.

Screen: At first the screen flashed lots of colours and the screen looked great but when more fully lit up it was less impressive. Still everything looks crisp and clean. I can’t really say a vast amount about album art as pretty much nothing I added to it worked. I haven’t the patience to check why or do anything about it but is probably related to my having to convert everything to ogg. Apparently AAC isn’t supported which seemed weird but hey ho. So yes the screen looks good but there’s really nothing magical going on but I did find it nicely crisp. What was less good is the viewing angle range, that rather sucked bit given its a tiny hand held device I’m not sure that’s really much of an issue.

Battery Life: The like is quoted as 38 hours for music and 6.5 hours for video. I certainly wasn’t planning on watching video on it so I’ll take their work for it. For music the 38 hours seemed somewhat on the generous side but will be rather dependant on what you use with them earphone wise. It’s easily enough to go for a few days before you’ll need to find a charger. Which is good as it’s not like it has micro USB with cables everywhere around you.

UI: Well there are a lot of things the Far East can really get right but time and again they demonstrate that UI’s are not one of them. This one is reasonably inoffensive but just why does it have a 7 way pad thing on it? It took me a good couple of minutes looking at and thinking how the F do I skip to the next song. Okay I may be exaggerating a touch but it’s not something that should take a whole second of thought. While there is an up and a down there is no left and right so you have to hit diagonal up right to move to the next song. That is retarded. It’s not that the UI is ugly, its actually rather pretty and clearly some thought has gone into it. It has this whole “colour therapy” thing going on which basically means you can change the colour of everything. It’s pretty, useless, but petty. Just why any thought was devoted to that when you have things like diagonal up right actually just seems to mean right everywhere. So in documents you scroll down a page by hitting diagonal up right. It is utter idiocy.

Photo Viewing: It can display photos, I guess could be useful if you have the TV out cable attachment or you don’t own a phone. Tbh it’s not like it does any harm being there I’m just not sure why you would ever use it on screen this size.

Video Viewing: Urgh, it’s rather mediocre and seems to have issue scaling things to fit the screen which is already tiny. Maybe more useful if outputting to a TV but I don’t have the optional cable for that. Honestly thought who is going to use it for video?

Radio: It has one. It does work but I’m not sure I was using it correctly. Was it auto tuning and scanning? If so it was pretty snowy. If truth be told I just couldn’t be bother huffing about with it and I’m sure it didn’t help that I don’t know any radio stations so it’s not like I could manually punch them in.

Sound Quality: This is probably the bits that of most interest. Up until now this review has been pretty short tempered and snarky because they were all aspects that are a bit crap. The sound however is awesome. It’s nothing short of fantastic that such noise can come out of such a dinky little thing. I gave a it a bash with my 300 ohm HD600’s and it could drive them no bother. It could even make them go louder than I’d want. Its performance is pretty staggering for something so small, light, pretty and mainstream. This is the first Cowon player I have heard and it lives up to their reputation well. It sounds great, and if pushed I might just say its the third most enjoyable DAP I’ve heard. Of course thats just going by memory so may not be true, audio memory is a funny thing. Either way it’s great and I like it a lot. Testing it a with a few different things it seems to me that it has a bit a V shaped sound happening. The EQ is set to normal so I assume that means off. The V shape does mean that when you pair it with other V shaped things or for me more so anything with a lot of treble then this was making it all a bit too much. Sure it sounds dramatic but was getting rather wearing on the ears. Still that is a minor quibble particularly when I played about with the EQ. For some reason that escapes me it’s called “Jeteffect” rather than EQ but whatever. Usually applying an EQ effect is the quickest way to make the sound go to hell but no, here its actually really good. I may have no clue what BBE ViVA 2 is or BBE Headphone 2 is but they still retain the high quality sound output. If you want you can pick one that will really boost the bass but not turn he rest to crud. Easily it’s the best EQ functionality I’ve seen. I just wish I knew what some of them were doing.

Setting things back to normal which is how I’d leave it anyway. Overall the bass output is very clean and weighty. It does feel like it is not quite going all the way down with the same degree of energy but that is the most minor of quibbles. The bass is tight and punchy, a little bit elevated in quantity but that it can seemingly just as happily drive the IE7 as it can the ER4 is quite an achievement. It’s just wonderfully capable in its flexibility.

The mid-range is a tiny bit on the dry and open side. They are unfortunately a little pushed back from the bass and high’s too but it’s a bit of a trade. Their very openness and the more obvious transparency that offers means you can live with it. It’s only the slightest bit V shaped anyway and I think the touch of dryness works superbly. If I’m honest I’ve never been the biggest fan in the world of rich warm DAP’s. I do prefer sources to be either bang in the middle or a touch on the dry if they must be flavoured. This does it so well it’s happy with a dry cooler ER4 or really warm stuff like the IE7 or 8. That is a pretty impressive versatility that it can cope with arguably the two extremes so well. The air and transparency served up in either is just great. The only down side is if you want things to go really warm and rich, smooth and soft then the i10 will not go there in the same way that a Sony can. It’s really more about what style you prefer than either really being correct but I don’t recall the Sony A846 offering up this level of detail and versatility. The mids here are so transparent and open, just great.

The highs are a touch forward for my tastes and the quantity they produced when paired up with other treble forward things was a bother. I’m rather treble sensitive and these could push me to a place where I was skipping songs because they were too bright. As DAP’s go I wouldn’t say it was the worst for this but it was still a bother. More positively they really didn’t have any edge or brittleness to things. Believe me I goaded them too and yet they stayed perfectly composed and smooth. It could possibly be event too smooth for some; I know some people like it to be a bit gritty up top to better capture their attention. Besides there being a touch too abundant there is really nothing I can fault.

In the Hand: As an object to hold it’s actually really nice. Super light yet solid and weirdly curved. I know it doesn’t look anything special when you see the curve in photos but it’s actually very nice to hold, or maybe it just happened to fit my hands perfectly? Not so sure about the button arrangement though, the on off button was possibly in the most irritating place possible but yet that’s fairly minor in comparison to the capacitive buttons. They are a total pain. Whoever at Cowon okayed putting them on the i10 should be fired. I repeatedly hit down when I was aiming for the middle, play pause, button. Also the use of capacitive buttons means I have to lock the keypad before I can put it in a pocket. Once it’s in the pocket I then can’t do anything to it without having to pull the damn thing out again. For the love of god Cowon, why did you do this?

Format Support: Hmm, when I first looked it thought wow, impressive. So impressive they even have APE an OGG support. Bizarrely they don’t have AAC which I can only assume is because Apple said give us all your money if you want AAC. That’s a shame but not really a big deal, just a little inconvenient for me since I already keep a library of stuff in AAC. Otherwise the spec sheet says it can do FLAC so I know that will please a fair number of people.

Conclusion: Toss a coin. Something’s about the i10 were stellar, namely its sound quality but other things like the capacitive buttons were horrific. I cannot for the life of me think of a good reason why Cowon put them on in place of real buttons? I don’t think is much more to say about them as for me that would be the deal breaker issue. I need real buttons on a DAP so I don’t have to look at it to control it. To remove that ability and give nothing in return, no touchscreen niceness as compensation I just don’t know what they were thinking.

For me the other side of that coin is the sound quality. It was just outstanding and I loved it, just loved it. Sound is a bit V shaped and if the UI was less rubbish I might see if I can find a way to bump the mids up a tiny fraction as the EQ is superb. Even with just the presets the sound quality remains great and that means if you are the sort of person who needs a bass boost, then you can. You don’t have to go buy a bass boosting amp to raise it and retain sound quality. That in itself is pretty damn impressive as it means you could live with just this little DAP on its own. You really, really could, so long as you don’t skip songs with the frequency I do. There is just no way I could buy one and live long term with it.

Now you may not mind capacitive buttons in which case if sound matters then this is a great player. (I am pretty much ignoring all its other functions as they are just stupid.) Who in their right mind going to use this for reading documents? Even video or photos that are fed to a TV, I bet no one ever actually done that with one of these. If you are going to buy one of these it is because you care about sound quality, that’s it, well or you’re Korean. Actually if you have ever heard of Cowon and you’re not Korean then you probably are someone who cares about sound quality.

I really struggled with the i10, as an all round device I can’t decide what to make of it. The sound quality I adored but the stupid capacitive buttons made the device useless for me. I tried a day out and about with it but got so annoyed I swapped to the Shuffle I had spare in my bag. I was then made instantly miserable by how they sounded in comparison. I know not everyone hates capacitive buttons and not everyone skips tracks like I do so maybe for you the i10’s faults won’t matter. For me they did big time but I can’t ignore how fun sounding it was, it’s a real dilemma.

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