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Old 12-13-2005, 12:00   #1
austinv
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Default Cowon A2 Review Part 1 (firmware 1.46)

Cowon A2 Review

The A2 is a new portable media player (PMP) from Cowon Systems, a Korean company that specializes in high-end MP3 players. Cowon also has branches in Japan, Germany, and in North America (CowonAmerica.com) for software development and product distribution.


A2: Key features

• 4-inch wide-screen TFT display (480 x 272 pixel resolution)
• Supports MPEG-4 SP, Divx, Xvid, and WMV videos
• Most video files do not require format conversion or resizing before they will play
• Supports 5.1 channel AC3 audio tracks and subtitles for movie playback
• Supports MP3, WMA (unprotected), OGG, and WAV audio formats
• TV output
• FM radio, radio recording
• USB Host - download files directly from a digital camera or other mass storage device
• A built-in microphone for voice recording to MP3
• Line-input audio recording to MP3 (up to 192kbs)
• Ability to schedule alarms and recording sessions
• Video recording up to 640x480 pixel resolution, 1Mbs, with MP3 audio
• JetEffects audio effects (including a 5-band EQ)
• Picture display, including zoom and pan capability
• Supports BMP, PNG, and JPEG image formats up to 6.5mb
• Text display
• Battery that lasts for 8+ hours of video or 16+ hours of audio playback.
• Mass storage compliant, no software required
• Compact design, fits in your pocket
• Available in 2 capacities: 20gb ($ 400) or 30gb ($ 450) hard drive


All testing in this review was done using the latest firmware release (1.39) as of early December, 2005. Some parts updated on 12-09-2005 to reflect newest firmware 1.46C (beta).

OK, let's get this thing started...


History

The first time I saw the A2 was when me and Rob (the main guys behind DAPreview.net) went to CES, back in January (2005). We tracked down Cowon's booth but all they had on display were mock-ups of the A2 and the iAudio X5. A couple of months later, we found Cowon again at CeBIT (March 2005) and much to our delight they had a functional A2 on display. I was impressed - it had a gorgeous widescreen display.

DAPreview reports on iAudio, from CES 2005
DAPreview reports on iAudio, from CeBIT 2005


Cowon was getting ready to launch the iAudio X5 at the time and couldn't tell us when the A2 would be ready.


After CeBIT, we didn't hear much about it for the next 6 months. By September, the A2 was ready, and made its first appearance in Korea. The A2 just recently launched in the US (November 2005) through the CowonAmerica.com webshop.


Pictures

Take a minute to check out the galleries. I took pictures of the A2 from every angle, side-by-side comparisons with other players, and a snapshot of most every screen.

Gallery 1: Cowon A2
Gallery 2: Screenshots

The screenshots do not look as good as the actual screens but that's the best I could manage with my old digicam. Likewise, the video quality on TV looks much better than it does in the pics.

You can also check the A2 Gallery at CowonAmerica.com.


Accessories

The A2 comes packaged in a small cardboard box with a full set of accessories.

Included:
  • Protective case
  • AV cable
  • Mini-to-mini plug cable (for audio recording)
  • AC adapter
  • USB Host interconnect cable
  • USB cable
  • Earbuds
  • Wrist strap
  • Manual, quick start guide, Jet Audio CD

You don't get a remote control or dock with the A2 because it wasn't designed to sit in a dock and it doesn't have a wireless receiver. Cowon does make a wired remote for the A2, which plugs into the headphone jack and provides basic playback controls, but it's only available in Korea right now.


Case

The A2 comes with a nice, leather-like protective case. The case is designed to hold the player like a cradle, with a flap that folds over the front to protect the screen. The flap is held in place by a strip of velcro on the back. If you fold the flap around behind the case and attach it to the velcro, the case turns into a desktop stand.

When the case is closed, you can still access all of the I/O ports and controls around the perimeter of the A2. They designed the case with an opening for each, including the speakers. However, on the right side, you have to unbutton a flap before you can get to the AV jacks and USB Host port. The Joystick, menu buttons, and microphone are hidden with the case is closed.

I believe it's made out of vinyl, but looks and feels like an expensive leather case. The stitching is near perfect. Inside, the entire surface is lined with a velvet-like material to keep the player from getting scratched. I don't recall getting a better case with any of the players I've had over the years.

The only problem I see with this case is that it leaves the 4 corners of A2 exposed. I usually carry my gear in a small backpack, where various things bump up against each other, so I found a small pouch to hold the A2 (in its case) during transport.

The case doesn't have a belt loop, although it's a little too big and heavy to carry on your waist anyway.


Earbuds

The earbuds supplied with the A2 are white, with light grey foamies, brushed metal accents, and iAudio branding. They have an unusual configuration, where the length of the cord to the right driver is about 3 times as long as the cord to the left driver. You're supposed to loop the cord of the right driver behind your neck for better cord management although I find this awkward.

I like the styling more than the average pair of freebies, but they don't sound any better than average. Audio is muffled and boomy. For movies, it doesn't really matter but you'll want to get something better for listening to music.


Build quality

I have another player made by Cowon, the iAudio X5, and the build quality is exceptional. The A2 looks to be equally well constructed although I like the painted metal chassis of the X5 over the plastic chassis of the A2. Still, the A2 feels very solid, much like metal. There's no flex when I try and twist it in my hands.

Looking over the body, all of its pieces line up precisely and seamlessly. The joystick, buttons, and hold switch are all set firmly in place. The body itself has a smooth, medium-gloss finish. If you look closely at the white paint on the back and on the bevel around the front, you can see it has a pearlescent sheen. I've seen this before on players from Olympus and Creative, it's a nice touch.

As for durability, I had a chance to test the A2 when I accidentally fumbled it in my hands and it bounced across my desk. I was worried about the screen more than anything... but lucky for me, or as a testament to it's strength, the A2 wasn't damaged at all. Not even blemished. I'd say it's pretty tough.

The A2 has proven to be scratch-resistant as well. I've had the A2 for about 6 weeks, using it casually, and it still looks new. No scratches. I've had the new iPod for about the same length of time and it's already showing signs of wear.

UPDATE 2005-12-12: By now, the A2 has survived a number of additional traumas, including a 1-meter drop from my desk onto my hardwood floor. As before - no damage, no problems.


Style, Design

Judge for yourself, but I say the A2 looks classy. I like the minimalist design and conservative styling. Nothing flashy or toyish about it.


The A2 has the standard layout with a screen on the front, a set of controls to the right of that, and all of the I/O ports situated around the perimeter. The same layout is used by Creative and Archos on their PMPs, and most others. You have to operate it with your right hand, although you don't need two hands to hold it. I can operate the controls with my thumb while balancing the back side on my fingers. Clumsy people (like me) might want to use both hands just in case. However, there is a hole in the upper right-hand corner of the A2 where you can loop a wrist strap (included). With this you can tie the A2 to your hand so it won't hit the ground if do you lose grip.


Controls

The A2 has four main controls on its face: a 5-way joystick, a Back button, and A, B, and C option buttons. The 5-way joystick is the main tool used to navigate through menus, and for volume control and playback control (rewind, pause/play, fast forward) during music and movie playback. You use the joystick move the cursor around the screen, and you press it down to make a selection. The Back button is pretty straightforward, allowing you to back up to previous screen or menu. It's also the only way to get back to the Now Playing screen if you start wondering around the GUI during playback. The A, B, and C buttons do different things depending on the screen. There is a context menu across the bottom of each screen which tells you what they do. These functions include changing the settings, accessing the playlist, bookmarking, etc.

Around the perimeter of the A2, there are two more controls: the Power button and the Hold Switch. The Power button turns the A2 on and off, plus you can tap it to turn off the backlight. The Hold switch has 3 positions. In it's normal position, LCD, you operate the A2 using it's built-in screen. In the AV OUT position, the screen is turned off and the A2 will output a video signal to a connected TV, including an overlay of the GUI so you can operate it as you normally would. In the Hold position, it locks out the other controls and allows the battery to charge from USB. You want to keep it in the HOLD position during transport so the A2 doesn't get accidentally switched on if something bumps up against the power button.


The last control is buried in a small hole hidden on the bottom edge of the player, RESET. This will reboot the player should the system lock up or something of the sort. You have to use a safety pin or needle to get in there.

Overall, the focus on simplicity works well for design of the A2, but it means that a lot of functions were wrapped into only a few controls. A similar compromise was made for the click-wheel on the Apple iPod. For instance, the A2 does not have dedicated playback controls or volume control buttons, as these functions are integrated with the joystick depending on the screen. There's no dedicated recording button either, which is a handy feature of the iAudio X5. It also helps to have a button which jumps directly to the Now Playing screen or the Main Menu, as seen on the Dell DJ. Dedicated controls just make a player easier to use, especially for people who have a hard time figuring out gadgets.

One possible solution is that Cowon could make the functions of the A, B, and C buttons customizable through the Settings Menu, as they did with the two buttons on the iAudio X5.


Screen

The A2 has a 4-inch wide, true-color TFT display. The resolution is 480x272 pixels, giving it a 16:9 aspect ratio which matches the style of widescreen formatted movies. Along with the Archos AV500, the A2 is one of the first portable media players to feature a widescreen type display. We've seen them on portable DVD players for some time, but they've been rare on PMPs. Older models have used a 4:3 ratio display, with a typical screen size of 3.5 inches and a resolution of 320x240 pixels or less.


Quality is just as important as size, and the A2 has one of the best screens I've seen on a portable in terms of visual quality. It's a beautiful thing to look at, with excellent color, contrast, brightness, and clarity. It also provides a wide angle of view, which makes it easy for people around you to see the screen just as well. Good for watching, good for sharing.

You can tune the display characteristics a bit in the preferences, where the contrast (high, low) and brightness (1-9) are adjustable. The default settings (contrast: high, brightness: 7) look OK to me, although sometimes I like to up the brightness one or two notches.

One issue with a standard TFT LCD like this is that the backlight has to be on in order to see anything on the screen. In comparison, the iPod has a transreflective type LCD which is more versatile, allowing you to see what's on the screen using just the ambient light around you (although it is fairly dark without the backlight).

Like most TFT LCDs, the A2 has a screen that doesn't do well in direct sunlight. The Sun tends to wash out all of the colors and detail. I wouldn't recommend it for viewing movies or pictures when outdoors in the daytime. However, you can see enough to navigate through the menus and get some music started.


Input/Outputs

Most of the I/O ports are located on the left side of the A2, including a standard 3.5mm stereo headphone jack and an A-type DC power input jack. Between those, and under a fold-out protective flap, sits the a 3.5mm composite A/V input jack, a 3.5mm composite A/V output jack, a mini-USB port, and a mini USB Host port. On the top edge of the A2 there are stereo micro-speakers on each end and small microphone pickup right in the middle.



The speakers are a nice feature to have, but they are fairly small and in turn they just don't get very loud. Even at the highest volume settings, it's difficult to make out voices in places where there is a moderate level of ambient noise. At my job, for instance. They are handy in quieter settings and can be used for audio playback, video, FM radio, and to replay your voice recordings. I like to use the speakers mostly for listening to a morning radio show when I'm working at my desk.


The A2 is missing a couple of I/O features that would have been nice for use in a home theater. There's no digital output for 5.1 channel surround sound. It has no IR or RF receiver for a wireless remote, and no connector for a dock.


Size/Weight

The A2 is bigger and heavier than I'd prefer for an audio player that I'm going to carry around in my pocket all day, but that's not what it was designed for anyway. As a video player, it's relatively compact. I can fit the Sony PSP in my pocket (barely) and the A2 is smaller than that, so its size hasn't been a problem.


In comparison, Creative's Zen Vision and the Archos AV500 are both a bit smaller, slimmer, and lighter, but the A2 has a double-capacity battery which probably accounts for the difference.

133 x 78 x 22 mm, 298g : Cowon A2, 20gb/30gb
124 x 76 x 18 mm, 255g : Archos AV500, 30gb
124 x 74 x 20 mm, 239g : Creative Zen Vision, 30gb
104 x 61 x 14 mm, 145g : Cowon iAudio X5, 20gb/30gb
104 x 62 x 11 mm, 136g : Apple iPod (video), 30gb


Battery

The A2 has a 4300mAh, lithium type battery. This provides an exceptional amount of playtime, up to twice as much as other portable media players. I'd count this as one of the main reasons to choose the A2 over the competition.

Cowon rates video playback at up to 10 hours and audio playback of up to 18 hours per charge. I did some testing and my results were pretty close. I'm getting around 8 hours of continuous video playback.

The battery is built-in and non-removable. Like the iPod and many others. They do this to keep the player's dimensions as small as possible. The only problem is that Lithium batteries don't last forever. After 3 years or so, depending on use, battery performance will degrade and eventually it will need to be replaced. When the time comes, you can send it to Cowon and they will install a new battery. I'm not sure what the fee is.

Creative's Zen Vision and the Archos AV500 are both designed with a removable battery, and you can order spares to use whenever you need. I can see this being useful when traveling, as you might need more juice than one battery can provide, or you might not be able to recharge very often. However, with the double-capacity battery in the A2, you only have to recharge half as often. You'd need to buy an extra battery for the AV500 ($ 50) or Zen Vision ($ 40) to get the same amount of playtime as the A2.


OS (Operating System)

From what I understand, the A2 is based on an embedded Linux operating system (2.6).

It usually boots up in about 5 seconds. You can customize the boot logo by dropping a 256 color BMP image in the root directory.

As far as stability, the A2 has locked up a few times during my testing, but it's rare and less of an issue with each new firmware. I was able to fix it each time by power cycling or poking the reset button.


GUI (Graphical User Interface)

I like what they did with the GUI. It looks good and it's easy to use. Features and options are located where you where expect them to be. The system responds to your commands in a reasonably fast manor.


At the top of every screen, an information bar tells you the current menu area, a play status icon (play/pause), the volume level, the time, and the remaining battery charge (represented by 4 power bars). At the bottom of every screen are the A, B, and C options which change depending on the menu area.

One simple feature that I like is the ability to personalize the GUI by setting your own background image, similar to setting the wallpaper on your computer's desktop. See some examples HERE.


Content Organization

You can organize content on the A2 however you want, by putting media files into various folders of your own making. This is done on a PC with Windows Explorer or a similar type of file management application. The A2 is Mass Storage Compliant so it appears as an external hard drive in Windows, Linux, or OSX (Mac) without any special software or drivers. You can simply drag and drop files from your computer's hard drive to the A2 and vice versa.


This is typically referred to as file/folder organization, file-tree browsing, or something to that effect. Basically, whatever structure of files and folders you make on the A2's hard drive, using your PC, is the same structure that appears in the A2's GUI. You navigate through your system of folders to find the files you want to play.


The A2 comes pre-formatted with folders like Music, Movie, Photo, and Text on the root of its hard drive, although you don't have to put a specific type of file in any particular directory if you don't want. You can put media files in any directory, and the during its boot sequence, the A2 will find them and make them available in the appropriate sections of the menu.

For instance, you can drop all of your Elvis tracks in a directory called E:\Elvis (where E: is the logical drive letter of the A2 on your PC) and you will see that folder listed in the Music section of the A2's GUI.

The advantage of file/folder organization is that you can totally customize how your media is sorted and only the file names need to be recognizable. There's no need to tag the files with correct metadata. The disadvantage is that it may be difficult to remember where you put a certain file since they aren't indexed in any other way.

The iPod uses a different method of sorting media, by indexing the metadata (iD3 tags) in each file to build lists of Artist, Albums, Tracks, Genres, etc which you can browse through to find what you want. You don't see any files and folders on the iPod. Songs appear as a name or title within the categorical lists. Some people find this easier since content organization is handled for you.

The drawback of this type of system is that sorting is limited to predefined categories (Artist, Albums, Tracks, etc) and your files need to be properly tagged (with the accurate metadata) or else they won't sort properly, making it a chore to find what you want. Also, with the iPod, media has to be indexed with a specialized PC application like iTunes or Ephpod. You can't just drag and drop songs to the iPod in Windows Explorer.

Preferably, every player would support both methods so you could choose for yourself how you want to organize and browse through your media. Some already do, like newer models from Archos, RCA, and Rio. Unlike the iPod, these players can index the iD3 tag information from the tracks they carry, without need of a PC application. Hopefully we'll see something like this on the A2 sooner or later. For now, all of Cowon's players are limited to file/folder browsing.

Note: tagging is only related to audio files. There isn't a standard tag format for movies and photos that would make them easy to index in the same way.


File Browser

To find and play media on the A2, the GUI provides a File Browser which is similar to Windows File Explorer. From the Main Menu, when you select Movie, Music, Photo, or Text, it brings up the same kind of file browser. On the left hand side, you see a list of files and folders, and on the right hand side you see an information window with data about the selected file or folder.


You move up one folder level by pressing left on the joystick, and you move into folder (down a level) by pressing right or clicking the joystick. Once you have a specific file selected, you can press right to bring up a context menu with various options (Play, Add to Playlist, Delete, etc) or you can press the joystick down to start playing that file. If you a select a file with a name that is too long to fit on the screen, the name will scroll back and forth horizontally so you can read the whole thing.

The difference between the file browser in each section is that only the associated type of files are displayed, and the folders which contain them. For instance, from the Movie Browser, you only see movie type files and folders that contain movies. Also, the information window in each section displays data specific to the types of files in that section.


• In the music section, when you select an audio file, the information window tells you the file size, running time, audio codec type, sampling rate (kHz), bitrate (kbps), and channel type (stereo/joint stereo).
• In the movie section, the information window tells you the file size, video resolution, video codec type, frames per second (fps) and bitrate (kbps) of the video, running time, the audio codec type, and the sampling rate (kHz), bitrate (kbps), and number of channels of the audio stream.
• In the photo section, the information window tells you the file size, image resolution, color depth (bit), and image type (JPEG, PNG, BMP). Also, if your camera inserted metadata (EXIF tags) within the file, it will show the file speed, F-stop, shutter speed, and the brand name and model of the camera. Above the info window, a thumbnail of the selected image is displayed.
• In the text section, the information window just tells you the file size.

In each section, when you select a folder, the information window tells you the number of movies, music, image, text, and unknown files contained within. In the upper right hand corner of each browser it tells you the total number of files listed on the current folder level, and your position (current file number) within those files.

The Main Menu also has a section that is simply called the Browser, which is like a master file browser that displays all of the files and folders on the A2's hard drive except for the system files. You can launch any type of supported file from this area. This browser does not display any detailed information about the files and folders.

A useful option in the file browsers is the ability to delete any file, so you can immediately get rid of music, videos, or pics that you don't want.

With the newest firmware (1.46), you can perform actions on folders just like you can on files. This is done with the A option at the bottom of the screen, now listed as Popup Menu. When a folder is selected, the A button will activate a context menu which includes Play Directory, Add to Playlist, and Delete directory.


Playlisting

The file browser supports on-the-go playlists, and you get a separate playlist for movies, music, and photos. Only one OTG playlist for each, but that should be enough for most people. You can add files to a playlist by selecting a file in the file browser, tap right on the joystick, and a context menu appears with an Add to Playlist option. You access a playlist by hitting the C button from the file browser, and a window pops up over the right hand side of the screen with a list of all the files in the playlist. To add more files, you can toggle between the file browser and the playlist with the B button.


Once you are in the playlist window area, you can select a file and tap the joystick right for a context menu, which gives you the option to play file, move the file up in the list, move it down, delete that file, or delete all the files in the playlist. Deleting the file in the playlist does not delete the actual file, it is only removed from the playlist. The files you put in each playlist are remembered until you manually clear them. The list is not lost when the player is turned off.


Curiously, there is an OTG playlist for the Text reading section, but I can't think if any use for it.

As of the latest firmware (1.46), you can send all of the files within a folder to the playlist, with one command. Select a folder, tap the A button, and a context menu appears which includes an Add to Playlist option. Also, the number of files that can be stored in each playlist has been increased to 100 in the Movie section and 300 in each the Music and Photo sections.


Bookmarking

The bookmarking feature lets you mark a spot in any music or video file so that you can return directly to that spot. This is handy to save your spot in an audio book, or mark an interesting spot in a movie or whatever.


The way it's implemented on the A2 is a little odd, though. During playback, you can hit the A option button to Bookmark to Playlist, and then that audio or video file is added to the OTG playlist. When you start the file from the playlist, it begins playing at the point you marked. The thing is, your bookmarks and your regular playlist are mixed together. It would be better if they were separate, since bookmarks and playlists are generally used for separate things. Also, bookmarked files in the playlist are not indicated as being bookmarked. They look the same as other files in the playlist, so you just have to remember which ones are which I guess.

One nice feature is the ability to create multiple bookmarks in any audio or video file. During playback, you can Bookmark to Playlist as many times as you want.


The A2 has an auto-booking function as well, which is really handy. From the main menu, you can hit the A option button to bring up the Recent Files list. The A2 tracks the stopping point in the last 10 media files you played, and provides a url to those files here. You can select any one to resume playback from the place where you stopped.


Audio Playback

The A2 supports MP3 (including VBR), WMA, WAV, and OGG audio formats. Hopefully FLAC support will be added in the future, as they did for the iAudio X5. More importantly, they need to add support for WMA DRM so it works with online music stores, most of which use WMA. Support for WMA DRM10 (aka Janus) would be even better, to make the A2 compatible with music subscription services like Napster and Yahoo Unlimited.


After you start a song from the file browser, it launches the Now Playing screen. This gives you all kinds of information:

• File name
• Current track number, total tracks in the list
• Artist, Album, and Track name from the iD3 tag (if available)
• A real-time visual of the audio spectrum being played
• Current track position, current track time, total track time
• Playback and repeat mode indicator
• Bitrate, Sampling rate
• EQ states - the active preset, BBE, Mach3Bass, MPenhance, 3D surround

You can hit the B option button from this screen to change the EQ settings and JetEffects, Shuffle Mode, Repeat Mode, and Playback Boundary.

Playback boundary can be set to All, Folder, Sub-Folder, or Playlist. This controls if it will continue playing through all the music on the A2, or if it will only play through all the files and subfolders in the current folder, or if it will only play through files in the current subfolder.

While playing, you can press the Back button and browse around the GUI for other files to play or other things to do. You can't view photos while listening to music, however. This probably has something to do with the available memory.

Aside from support for WMA DRM, the only thing the A2 is missing for audio playback is album art display. It's kind of whimsical, but a popular feature found on some other players like the iPod and the Archos AV500. With such a big color screen, why not? It could go in place of the animated CD icon, above the iD3-tag info in the Now Playing screen.

A note about OGG playback - JetEffects don't work with OGG, nor does the spectrum visualizer.

Lryics:
Like all of Cowon's iAudio players, the A2 can display song lyrics during playback which are synchronized to the music. You have to tag your audio files first with the LDB Manager application (included on the JetAudio CD), but it's pretty easy. The app comes with its own database of song lyrics, and if it has the song you want, it only takes a few seconds to match the lyrics with your audio file and then you can insert those lyrics into the file's iD3 tag. Many popular artists and songs are included in the database but certainly not all. Nothing that's halfway obscure, for sure. You can make your own lyrics for any song and sync them yourself, it's just time consuming. When played back on the A2, song lyrics are displayed on the Now Playing screen under the CD icon, where the Artist, Album, and Track name would normally be. I played around with this a bit and it works pretty good.


Sound Quality, Testing

Cowon's line of iAudio players are known for having exceptional sound quality and the A2 lives up to that rep. Audio playback on the A2 is clean and well balanced.

Power output through the headphone jack is strong. Plenty of juice to drive most any set of headphones. There are 40 volume steppings so you can fine-tune the volume to your liking.

I tested the A2 against the new iPod and the iAudio X5 by playing the same tracks at the same apparent volume, with EQs turned off, and by swapping my headphones (Grado SR325, custom) between each. Not the most scientific method but good enough to get a basic idea of the differences. I tried several kinds of music including pop, rock, electronica, trance, etc.


In my opinion, the A2 sounds better than both the iPod and the iAudio X5. By better, I mean that the A2 has the most balanced sound characteristics. It sounds much like the iPod from the midrange through the treble region, including the quality of vocals. However, on the A2, midbass is more prominent, with increased energy and deeper extension. Midbass on the iPod is a bit weak - flatter but less fatiguing over the course of a long listening session. With the X5, the midbass region is exaggerated, sometimes to the point of being boomy. Also, vocals are somewhat recessed on the X5, often lacking the clarity present on the A2 and iPod.


EQ

Like the iAudio X5, the A2 offers a robust EQ system with many different ways to tweak the sound.

Besides the usual selection of presets (Rock, Jazz, Classical, Pop, Vocal), it has a user-customizable EQ with 5 frequency bands, which you can set 9 steppings above and below the baseline. The frequency of the bands isn't displayed but basically you have bass, mid bass, midrange, mid treble, and treble. This is a huge benefit compared to the iPod, which only offers a selection of presets, none of which sound very good.


In addition to the EQ, the A2 provides a unique set of sound effects, called JetEffects.

JetEffects are a sound enhancement system designed by JetAudio, the software branch of Cowon. This is similar to the SRS WoW effects system seen in some players, like those made by iRiver and Samsung. The various effects can add bass, (apparent) clarity, or spatialization to the sound, dynamically, which sets them apart from plain EQ settings.

There are 4 JetEffects for audio: 3D Surround, BBE, Mach3Bass, and MP Enhance. 3D surround adds a spatial effect, like being in a concert hall. BBE is a general-purpose enhancement, adding a little emphasis on both the mid-bass and mid-treble frequencies. Mach3Bass boosts the low end, kind of like Sony's MegaBass. MP Enhance is supposed to add sparkle to low-quality MP3s. There is 1 effect just for movies: 3D Stereo. This simulates a bigger soundstage and a surround sound system. Each effect can be set in intensity from 1 to 10 (9 steppings) with 10 making the biggest difference.

You can mix and match the various audio effects and EQ settings and hear what they sound like in real-time (on whatever music is playing).


JetEffects Testing

Method:
1. On the A2, loaded the song "Protection" from Massive Attack, in WAV format, which was ripped from CD.
2. Connected the A2's headphone output to the mic input of my external soundcard (SoundBlaster MP3+).
3. Played the WAV file on loop, and applied various JetEffects while recording, one at a time.
3. Recorded the A2's output to WAV file on my PC using Audacity.
5. Encoded all the resulting WAV files to MP3 using LAME 3.90.3 (APS) to save bandwidth.

The sampler pack includes two control files. One is a recording of the WAV file with no effects for comparison with the recordings that have JetEffects enabled. The other is a 128kbs version of the song (recorded with the A2) with no effects for comparison with the same 128kbs version of the song using the MP3 Enhance effect. Also included is a set of audio samples taken while the A2 was playing a movie, one with no effects, one with the 3D Stereo effect.

JetEffects samples (RAR, 22.7mb)

Content:
• jeteffect test - 3D surround, level 2.mp3
• jeteffect test - 3D surround, level 5.mp3
• jeteffect test - 3D surround, level 8.mp3
• jeteffect test - BBE, level 2.mp3
• jeteffect test - BBE, level 5.mp3
• jeteffect test - BBE, level 8.mp3
• jeteffect test - mach3bass, level 2.mp3
• jeteffect test - mach3bass, level 5.mp3
• jeteffect test - mp enhance, on 128kbs MP3 source.mp3
• jeteffect test - mp enhance, on wav source.mp3
• jeteffect test - no effects (source - 128kbs MP3).mp3
• jeteffect test - no effects (source - WAV).mp3
• movie test - 3D stereo (source - Xvid, MP3).mp3
• movie test - no effect (source - Xvid, MP3).mp3

Results:
The 3D surround effect is mildly amusing at the lower settings but by setting 4 or 5 it adds too much echo (reverb). Mach3Bass is good for some types of music, when used sparingly. It makes the bass more prominent without causing distortion and without drowning out the rest of the music. However, with music that's already bassy, it can get boomy and fatiguing. I didn't much like the MP Enhance effect as it makes the sound overly bright. The BBE effect is the best of the bunch and the one effect I'd use on a regular basis. This one adds a bit of power and extension and helps bring voices more to the front of the soundstage. For movies, I like 3D Stereo effect which makes it feel more like you're in a theater.


MP3 Gap Test

I always get requests for this, so I recorded some examples of the gaps between tracks during audio playback. Preferably, there wouldn't be any gap, but that's not the case for most players including the A2.

There's only a couple of players (like the Rio Karma) that are capable of gapless MP3 playback, where the end of the current song and the start of the next song are intelligently spliced together, making a seamless transition. This feature is useful for some types of albums like concert recordings and continuous DJ mixes which should play uninterrupted from track to track, as they do a CD player.

There's two causes for the gaps between tracks on digital audio players. Part of it is the MP3 format itself, which often has empty frames at the start or end of a track, but it's also because most players do not pre-fetch the beginning part of the next track. Instead, they wait for the current song to end before loading the next song from the hard drive.

Method:
1. Cabled the A2's headphone output to the mic input of my PC.
2. Played an album where the end of each track should blend seamlessly into the next track.
3. Started recording on my PC with Audacity, captured to WAV.
4. Trimmed the file down to before and after a track transition, exported to WAV.
5. Encoded to MP3 using LAME 3.90.3 (APS) to save bandwidth.

I did this with two albums, one being a live 311 concert, and the other a continuous mix CD by Kruder & Dorfmeister.

MP3 gap test (RAR, .49mb)

Content:
• gap test 1 - live concert.mp3
• gap test 2 - continuous mix CD.mp3

Results:
1+ second gaps between tracks on the A2. Not very good, but average compared to most other players.


Audio Recording

The A2 features direct audio recording, which you can use to make MP3s from most any analog audio source. This might be useful to record an album from a portable CD player when you're traveling or in any situation where a PC isn't available. Or, some people may simply find it easier to rip CDs to MP3 with a recorder like the A2 instead of a PC.

The A2 encodes audio to MP3 in real-time, and you can set the bitrate (quality) at 64kbs, 128kbs, or 192kbs. Kind of strange that it doesn't go up to 320kbs like the iAudio X5 but I doubt many people need that high of quality. If you want the highest-quality encoding, it's better to use a PC anyway. Specialized software like EAC and LAME can do a better job of ripping and encoding than any consumer-grade portable recorder.


To make a recording, you start by connecting a cable from an audio source (CD player, stereo, etc) to the line-input jack on the A2. Then go to the audio recording screen, set your options (if needed), and hit the C button to start. When done, hit the C button again to stop. That's it, all done. Recordings are immediately ready for playback, and are stored in the RECORD/AUDIO folder which is accessible from the Music section.

As of firmware 1.39, you can record continuously until the file reaches a size of 1.8gb... which would be a long, long time.


Audio Recording Test

Method:
1. Ripped a track from a CD to my PC with EAC, resulting in an uncompressed WAV file.
2. Edited the WAV in Audacity to cut the track in half (in respect of the artists). Exported the result to WAV.
3. Played the WAV on my PC with JetAudio (flat EQ, no effects) with the output going to an external soundcard (SoundBlaster MP3+).
4. Cabled the soundcard to the line-input of the A2 and started recording.

I also encoded the same WAV file to MP3 with my PC, using LAME 3.90.3 (--alt-preset standard) for comparison with the A2 recordings. The sampler download includes the original WAV for comparison as well.

direct audio recordings (RAR, 46.4mb)

Content:
• 311 - Amber - A2 RECORDING - 128kbs (source - DVD player).mp3
• 311 - Amber - A2 RECORDING - 192kbs (source - DVD player).mp3
• 311 - Amber - A2 RECORDING FROM WAV - 128kbs (source - JetAudio, Soundblaster).mp3
• 311 - Amber - A2 RECORDING FROM WAV - 192kbs (source - JetAudio, Soundblaster).mp3
• 311 - Amber - ORIGINAL RIP FROM CD (clip).wav
• 311 - Amber - PC ENCODE FROM WAV - VBR (EAC with LAME (aps)).mp3
• Massive Attack - Protection - A2 RECORDING FROM WAV - 128kbs (source - JetAudio, Soundblaster).mp3
• Massive Attack - Protection - A2 RECORDING FROM WAV - 192kbs (source - JetAudio, Soundblaster).mp3
• Massive Attack - Protection - ORIGINAL RIP FROM CD (clip).wav
• Massive Attack - Protection - PC ENCODE FROM WAV - VBR (EAC with LAME (aps)).mp3

Results:
I first tried recording from the CD using the component CD/DVD player in my home stereo system but the results were pretty lousy. I could hear encoding artifacts all over the place and it just didn't sound very good. I tried again by recording from audio-out of my sound card and the results were much better. I believe the line-output of my DVD player may be putting out a signal that's too hot (amped) for the A2, as I was getting excessively loud recordings and distortion even with the input volume set to 1. This is the kind of issue that would be easier to identify if the A2 had input level meters on the recording screen.

Using the output of my sound card instead, recording quality at 192kbs is pretty good. Not as good as the same file encoded with LAME on my PC, but that's to be expected.

I'll point out that it's difficult to gauge the correct setting for the recording volume and I had to try several times to get it right. You can monitor through the headphone jack while recording, and you can adjust the listening volume, but adjusting the recording volume during a recording does not make any difference to the listener. You have to make a sample recording and then play it back to see if the recording volume is set right.


Go to Part 2 of the review, HERE.
__________________
References: heatware | head-fi.org | eBay

Last edited by austinv; 08-09-2008 at 22:29..
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