Saturday, May 11, 2013

Review: Cowon Z2 portable DAP

The Z2 is a $300 DAP from Korean company Cowon in the 32GB configuration.  Cowon specializes in high-end portable audio players.  While behind apple in software and shininess of design, they make the best sounding players at a reasonable price.  The Z2 is the flagship Portable Media Player (PMP), or Digital Audio Player (DAP) and is flash storage based.  The Z2 can play just about every single format under the sun, including FLAC and (unofficially) AAC files. This review will cover everything anyone who has heard of Cowon or who is interested in using a dedicated PMP instead of their phone or an iPod (read: audiophiles) will care about, leaving out the fluff content and features.  Sections will be presented in order of relative importance or interest.

size: Z2 vs zHD
The Personals:
I don't have 20 years of experience reviewing products, nor do I have 10+ years experience with high-end audio, but I know what sounds good to me.  I've used three pairs of headphones with the Z2, all IEMs, and used all of those IEMs with a Zune HD (from here on, zHD) as well.  In order of experience with them at the time of review: Shure SE215s ($100), Sennheiser IE80s ($450, paid $340), and Heir Audio 3.Ais.  Curiously, that's also the order of headphone quality there ;)  My desktop equipment is a High Resolution Technologies (HRT) MusicStreamerII (MSII) connected via monoprice premium cables to an Objective2 (O2) headphone amplifier.  Now, on with the show!

The electric castle: on Z2 and on disk
Sound Quality:
The Z2 is the best sounding portable device I've ever heard.  I haven't heard tons of them, and certainly no exotic $700 DAPs, but it smokes the iPod Touch (2nd generation) and beats the zHD.  It's cleaner, clearer, and has  a very black background with very low noise, though obviously not as low as my MSII/O2 combo. It sounds very crisp, with a bit of an emphasis on highs, or reduction in bass to aid clarity.  At 100Hz, it measures -0.5dB, at 50Hz -1dB, at 30Hz -4.5dB.  Significant, yes, but not spoiling.  It prevents sound from getting super muddy, as headphone bass combined with destructive interference gets messy really fast.  It does not make my bass-emphasized IEMs bass shy, but it does make them quite close to neutral.  There are links to great measurements here at ABI, including this graph.

output FR comparison including J3, which has the same pipeline as Z2

Output Characteristics:
The Z2 has output impedance of 0.54Ω, providing ample electrical damping with any headphones; you'll find no signature changes, other than the bass rolloff.  Comparatively, most iPods are 4Ω, the iPhone 5 is 5Ω, iPhone 4S is 2Ω, and the zHD is 4Ω.  The Z2 provides a far greater damping factor than any of them, making it the best candidate for IEMs that require such low output impedance.  For full-sized cans, impedance of 4 or 5Ω doesn't matter. However, the Z2's amp isn't very powerful, and both the zHD and iPod touch I own are louder. The Z2 does sound better though, pretty similar to my desktop setup actually.  Obviously it can't actually match it, but it gets pretty darn close.

Z2 vs MSII + O2 combo, without cables
The Z2 is clunky. The D3 (predecessor to the Z2) seems like it was a beta 0.5, and the Z2 feels like a beta 0.9. The UI has between 1/4 and 1/2 second of delay on first swipe, which dies down to a noticeable, but not infuriating <1/4s delay on subsequent swipes. This "resets" after 7 seconds of not touching the screen. Speaking of seven seconds, that's an important number. The media buttons, play/pause/prev/next stop working after seven seconds of screen inactivity. The volume controls continue to function, however. That's pep peeve #1, if I stop playback to talk to someone or whatever, I need to turn the screen on to restart it. 

The player also is extremely specific about files. It supports every format under the sun, but to get artist/album/genre fields read correctly is random. My library is ~25GB of content at the moment, and at the letter F it stops reading artist stuff correctly, despite the metadata being perfect, and defaults to artist being <unknown>, though it still interprets album art and album/song association correctly. 

The internet browser and wifi work fine for casual use, but are not the greatest for serious stuff. The document app is useless, since it can't make files and can only view specific types (and curiously, it can't open PDFs). Android apps can be sideloaded, but the play store is not supported. 

The UI is good enough, and 90% of the time I'm just using the music app in folder view mode (my folders are artist -> album) for the best browsing, and it works reasonably well for that. The UI is much better on the zHD for music though, especially with on the fly playlist expansion.  The Z2's UI gets the job done, and has most of the speed a touchscreen should provide, but isn't iPod like in responsiveness.  You get used to the little delays, but they're there. 

Z2 vs MSII + O2 #2, guess which I would want to take along?
Playback, JetEffects, & Sound "Enhancement:"
Playback is smooth, but there are no gapless transitions. There is a very small to very large gap between tracks, depending on CBR vs VBR, and filetype. It isn't huge, but it's there. When you resume or begin playback, it makes a little micro-skip, the first 20ms or something stops and starts again. Not a huge deal, but every pause has that on it. Rarely, but sometimes it will refuse to play a file; producing 7 seconds of silence followed by skipping to the next track.  There are never hickups, stops, or any other glitches once playback is underway.

The physical next and last buttons can have anywhere from zero to five seconds of delay on them, depending on track length, position, bitrate, and whether the file being read is CBR or VBR, that is annoying as hell. The UI buttons have a consistent delay of somewhere between 1/4 and 1/2 second.

JetEffects is a built in package of stuff run through the music app, it has an EQ, a reverb effect, and some bass and stereo modifications. The EQ is really, really nice, and behaves very much like a hardware EQ. You get 3 programmable frequencies per band, wide/normal/narrow band, 5 bands, and +/- 12 units (not dBFS) per band to adjust with. The EQ works very well, it's only JetEffects feature I would use. There's also "Mach3Bass,"(guess what that does?) and "BBE+," an artificial stereo widener that I would never use.

A mobile match made in heaven: Heir Audio 3.Ai + Z2
Build Quality:
Build is nice, but it is not the little tank my zHD is. The device must be mostly plastics, because it is very, very light for its size. The screen is covered in gorilla glass, and the rubberization of the whole backside makes it feel good in the hands. I've dropped it 4ft into a thin layer of snow with ground beneath it and got some "chewed pencil" (but shallower) dings on the corner, nothing else.
I've gotten it wet, rather wet, from rain and snow, but not submerged or subjected to pressurized water and it just chugged along. Cowon makes no claims to it being waterproof, but it has not shorted out in the rain.

Battery life:
Battery life is ok, it runs about 20 hours without using jeteffects. With jeteffects in use, it gets about 14 hours. 

However, it cannot sleep. The device is completely incapable of truly sleeping. The sleep function merely turns the screen off, it won't even stop playback. In sleep, it still eats the battery, dropping 14% overnight if you forget to turn it off. If you turn it off, the meter will still say you lost 2-3% overnight. It really can't hold a charge that well...  I charge it nightly, so it's not that big an issue, but the lack of ability to sleep is annoying and will probably bite owners like me in the ass every once in a while.

The Bottom Line:
The Z2 is a hell of a playback device. Most of its operation is flaky, but it sounds exceptionally good, and has a touchscreen for speed of navigation. The lag times and lack of snappiness suck, hard, the battery life isn't great, and the lack of working sleep sucks, bad, but it has no competition. There's the iPod, offering 423423414134 other functions in the same package, but worse sound output. There's sony's players, which don't sound as good, have no microSD card slot, and don't have the file support. There's the zHD, which is decapitated and doesn't sound as good.  The firmware is also in active development, with updates rolling out improving speed, the last of which was put out 19 April, 2013 at the time of this review. 

It's unique in the touchscreen+fidelity+microSD combo, and if that's what you want, you are getting a Z2. The X9 exists as well, but it is very sluggish (resistive, not capacitive touch) and bulky.
The Z2 is... worth it if you can afford it, and the only better sounding players are usually bigger, heavier, have worse battery life, and have godawful UIs while costing over 2x as much . There is no way to get straight DAC output (unless you could get audio over USB working in the newest android, but I am not sure the firmware can be updated to that, Cowon doesn't have a DL for it), but the SQ and low impedance make that a nonissue, unless you need to drive some hungry cans.  For that I would probably start looking at an iPod + line out -> DAC -> AMP, but then you're transportable, not portable.

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