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Old 07-17-2005, 12:00   #1
austinv
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Default Cowon iAudio X5 Review (preliminary)

Introduction

First things first - this is not our "full review" of the iAudio X5. I'm still working on that but in the meantime I whipped up this "preliminary review" which answers most of the questions that people have been asking over at the iAudiophile.net forums (a fan site for iAudio players). This covers the basics at least so it should help you figure out if the X5 will fit your needs. It's due out in the US sometime next month.

OK, I've been playing with the X5 for a couple of weeks now and what we have here is an exceptional audio player. It looks good, sounds good, has tons of features, and everything works like you'd expect. I can think of only 2 things which might be an issue for some people: the location of the headphone jack on the side instead of the top, and the way you view content by files/folders instead of by lists of Artists/Albums/Tracks like you have on the iPod. Both are just a matter of preference but they're both different from what most folks are used to (and seem to prefer) here in the US, at least.

200 pictures of the X5

Build Quality
  • Build quality is excellent, as good as I've ever seen. Nice materials and everything fits together perfectly.
  • Case is made entirely of a metallic alloy, feels solid. The paint job has a slight texture and seems to be scratch-resistant.
  • Controls (buttons, joystick) are firm, not wiggly.


Design
  • I have the 20gb model for review which has outer dimensions of 104 x 61 x 19mm and a weight of 145g.
  • Size is nearly the same as an iPod, but a bit thicker - about the same height as a 60gb iPod Photo at its tallest point.
  • There is a proprietary data port on the bottom of the player where you insert a mini-dock that comes with the X5. The dock is only held in by friction, no latching mechanism like you have on the iPod's data port.
  • Power, USB, Audio in, Audio Out ports are located only on the mini-dock, not built into the main player. This means you absolutely need the dock for charging and connecting the player to a PC. Like it or not, keep in mind that the iPod as well as similiar players from Sony, Samsung and Olympus are designed the same way. I'd rather have all the ports/jacks built into the player's body but I suppose it's not too much of an issue. Obviously, you don't want to lose it.
  • Included mini-dock is very light and portable. All plastic.
  • Location of headphone jack on the side of the player (top-left) instead of the top could be an issue since most folks seem to prefer a top-mounted headphone jack. The vast majority of players are vertically-oriented and have the headphone jack set on the top edge. This works well with headphones that have a straight plug since you can put the player in your pocket (vertically) with the headphone plug/cable sticking straight up and out of your pocket. With the same kind of headphones, and a player that has a side-mounted jack, the cord/plug will stick out awkwardly at a 90-degree angle from the player. Picture that in the your pocket... it's not going to be comfortable at all, and it could cause the headphone jack to get messed up over time from the stress of the plug being tugged upwards, the direction that the cable leaves your pocket. However, it's not all bad, because many headphones have a right-angle plug, and with that type of plug the side-mounted headphone jack is actually preferable. You can have the player sitting vertically in your pocket with the right-angle plug swiveled upwards, which points the cable directly up and out of your pocket with no stress on the jack. That also keeps the cable plugged in a bit more securely so that a minor tug won't pull the plug out of the jack, which can happen pretty easily with the top-mounted jacks. I have several headphones with a right-angle plug, including a Sennheiser HD25-1 and MX-500, and a Koss KSC-35. My Grado SR-325 (see pic at the end) have a straight-plug so I'm probably not going to use those with the X5 in my pocket. Overall, I'm not too concerned with their decision to put the headphone jack on the side, it just takes some getting used to. The earbuds that come with the X5 have a right-angle plug of course.
  • The headphone jack as a special remote connection jack attached to it. This is for an in-line, LCD remote - same one that comes with the M3 in fact. I don't have an M3 remote so it hasn't been tested yet.
  • Color screen is a TFT type LCD display, with 160x128 pixels and capable of 260k colors (18-bit). Very bright and easy to read indoors. Can adjust the brightness and contrast in the Settings menu.
  • You need the backlight on to see anything on the screen, otherwise it looks totally dark. I found it hard to read in direct sunlight.
  • Some people have complained about the "hump" on the front of the player (the raised area around the screen) but I don't have a problem with it. With the X5 in your hand it's hardly noticeable.
  • Headphone, line-in and line-out are all use a standard 3.5mm stereo jack (analog only).
  • A battery charging indicator (red LED) is located above the screen.
  • Hard drive and battery are built-in and non-removable.
  • The USB OTG port looks like a standard mini-USB port but it is not and will not work with a regular USB cable. Must use the USB OTG cable that comes with the X5. I checked around and other USB OTG devices use this same type of port so I'm thinking it must be a standard connector for USB OTG.


Controls
  • The 5-way joystick is a more comfortable navigation tool than the "touch-strips" found on a couple of other players (Creative Zen/Zen Micro, iRiver H10/H20).
  • In the Now Playing screen, up/down on the joystick controls volume and left/right controls FF/RW functions. Tap it once to go the file/folder view, or hold it down for 2 seconds to go to the Main Menu. In the file/folder view, up/down goes up and down the current list of files/folders and left/right goes up one folder level and down one folder level (or starts the current file), respectively. Tap the joystick to bring up a pop-up menu with Expand, Play Now, or Add to List. Pop-up menu has different options in the DPLAYLIST folder and USB Host mode.
  • Only 2 buttons: Record/A-B mode and Play/Plause. Both have dual functions depending on how long you press them, either a short tap or a long-push (about 2 seconds), and depending on the current screen. It's not hard to figure out.
  • You can change the long-press functions of the Play and Record buttons. There are several options available in the settings menu, like making a shortcut directly to the EQ or JetEffects, adding a bookmark to the current track, or adding the currently selected track to the dynamic playlist.
  • Power/Hold button is actually a spring-loaded slider mechanism. Slide it up and hold there for a sec, and the X5 turns on. When you let go it springs back in the middle position. Do it again and the X5 turns off. Slide it down to put it in hold mode (no spring action there).
  • Even though the joystick and buttons are on the right side of the player, it's just as easy to use in the left hand. Actually, you have a better grip on the X5 when held in the left hand.

Playback
  • Formats supported: MP3, OGG, WMA, ASF, FLAC, WAV, MPEG4, JPEG. Players that can do FLAC (a lossless codec, popular with audiophiles) are few: the Rio Karma and the iAudio M3.
  • Sound Quality is very good, one of the things iAudio is known for. Power output is strong.
  • Near-gapless MP3 playback. Tracks aren't "spliced" together intelligently like on the Rio Karma but there isn't really a gap either. You can detect a track ending and the next starting, but it's fast, like 1/10th second.
  • Lots of EQ options to sweeten-up the sound. Presets, a 5-band customizable EQ, BBE, MachBass, 3D effects, etc.
  • Has simple OTG playlisting capability. You can add any file or folder to the dynamic playlist. Selections show up as a list of individual files (urls to the files, actually) located in the DPLAYLIST folder on the root, in the order you selected them. Can clear individual tracks or the whole thing and start again. The list of tracks in the DPLAYLIST folder will not clear when you turn the player off, only when you manually clear it. Cannot re-arrange tracks in the playlist, or save and name the playlist like on some players.
  • Now playing screen shows a ton of information: current track's iD3-tag info (Artist, Album, Track name), current play mode, EQ and DSP settings, bitrate, clock, time elapsed, time remaining, volume level, current track number and total track numbers in the list, battery indicator, etc.
  • Playtime per charge (battery life) seems to be around 12 hours with regular use. I haven’t done exact testing yet.
  • Cannot hear audio when Fast Forwarding or Rewinding. Speed that you FF/RW is adjustable in the Settings menu.
  • Create a bookmark in any audio/video file (one per file). Bookmarks are visible on the playback-position line in the Now Playing screen and also a url to each file with a bookmark is available in the BOOKMARK folder located on the root.
  • FLAC support only works up to compression level 2, however, compression level 5 is the most common setting people use when ripping CDs on their home PC.
  • There is a gap between tracks when playing OGG files.
  • Can set the "boundary" for playback modes: all, single, directory, subdirectory.
  • Random playback does seem to be entirely random and obeys your "boundary" setting.


Recording
  • Features line-in recording, FM recording, voice recording.
  • Voice recording quality is very good as these things go. It uses a built-in mic that appears as a small hole beneath the play/pause button.
  • Recording quality selectable from 64kbit up to 320kbit for line-in and radio, 32kbit to 128kbit for voice.
  • Radio recordings at 128kbit sound nearly identical to the original broadcast.
  • Radio recordings can be scheduled using the alarm clock feature. You can set the time for the player to power on and start recording, the duration, cycle, etc. See more about this in the "Other Stuff" section.


Radio
  • FM tuner only. Reception is very good.
  • Save up to 24 radio station presets. Can use the auto-scan function to fill the presets. Can't name the presets (ID is by frequency only) or re-arrange them (you can delete preset-slots).
  • EQ settings are not applied to the radio signal.
  • Can record from the radio on demand and also by scheduling it with the alarm clock function. You can setup the time, station, and duration of a radio recording as well as the cycle - like once, daily, or only on weekdays.


Pictures
  • Pictures look alright but not great, due the screen's resolution (160x128 pixel). It's good enough for me although I won't be looking at pics very often. Doesn't compare well to the iRiver H300 and iPod Photo which have 220x176 pixel color displays (twice the number of pixels) so if viewing pictures is one of your primary wants/needs than the X5 may not be the best choice. If it's only something you'll use once in awhile (as in my case), it should be fine.
  • Can zoom in on a picture, 3 or 4 steppings worth, and then pan around in that image. With big pics, there is a few more seconds of load time when you zoom. You can inspect the minute details of an image this way, helps makes up for the mediocre screen resolution.
  • Can't view pictures while listening to music. If you go into the photo section, music stops.
  • Large pictures (multi-megapixel) can take a few seconds to load and resize.
  • Can view pages of thumbnails, 9 per page. With big pics, each thumb can take a few seconds to appear.
  • Thumbs of pictures are not saved to disk and must be re-cached the next time the player is turned on.
  • User can choose a custom "wallpaper" (background) for the Now Playing screen. Any JPEG picture will work.

Video
  • Plays movies at 15fps. Playback quality is fine considering the size of the screen.
  • Video needs be converted before they will play, using an application called "Video Converter" that comes with JetAudio on the included CD-ROM
  • JetAudio utility makes video conversion easy, basically drag and drop. Fast too, at 3x realtime using Xvid source files (DVD quality) on my Celeron laptop.
  • Small screen size (1.8-inch) makes it hard to see details in video (like faces, text).


GUI, OS, Operation
  • GUI is sensible and easy to use. Looks good. Colorful.
  • No obvious bugs in the OS. 100% stable so far.
  • You can get back to the Now Playing screen at any time, like while in menus or the files/folder view, by tapping the Record button.
  • Lists and menus wrap top to bottom and vice versa (jump from A-Z and Z-A).
  • Has dual-speed scrolling when browsing through a list of files, with the top speed is selectable in the settings (1-16x). Holding the joystick up or down scrolls at single speed for 3 seconds then starts jumping lines (according to your top speed setting) until you release the joystick. In other words, if you have it set for 4x then after you hold the joystick down for a few seconds it speeds up by jumping to every 4th line as you continue to scroll through the list. You can quickly get through longs lists of files this way.
  • Cannot delete files/folders while in the browser mode. Must be in USB Host mode.
  • Boot time is about 7 seconds.
  • No power drain when the player is off. There must be a tiny bit of power usage to support the clock/alarm functions but it hasn't been noticeable.
  • AFAIK, the US-edition firmware will be same or nearly the same as the Korean version (which I have now).
  • Screen can display about 24-25 characters per line with the font used in the file/folder view. Font is not monospaced.
  • While browsing, folders and files with names that are too long to fit on the screen will scroll horizontaly when selected. Single speed, not adjustable in the settings. The speed of the horizontal scrolling is about "medium" - seems fast enough to me.
  • Cannot go into the player's GUI (including, listening to music) while connected via USB. You can operate the player normally while it's connected to AC power.


Library Organization
  • X5 features file/folder browsing only. In other words, what you see on the player's screen is the same directory structure that exists on the player's hard drive. When connected to a PC, you can use a file manager application like Windows Explorer to organize your files however you like into folders and subfolders. Files are listed alphanumerically when browsing a folder.
  • Does not support any kind of ID3-tag database. Literally every player on the market, in the US at least, has this as a basic feature. An iD3-tag database is an index of music loaded on the player, sorted into lists of Artist, Albums, Tracks, Genres, Composers, etc. and built from the user-definable bits tagged on to the end of each track (the iD3 tags).
  • A number of people prefer file/folder browsing but from polls at DAPreview it appears at least 2/3 of our audience would rather have everything sorted in an iD3-tag database. Best solution would be have both file/folder and iD3 database browsing. I was told by a company rep that the reason they didn't include this feature is because it's just not popular in the Korean market, where the X5 was designed.


Transfers
  • X5 is a Mass Storage Compliant (MSC) device, so it works like an external hard drive. No software required to connect it to a PC and transfer any type of file to or from the X5.
  • Does not require any software application to load music. Any file manager like Windows Explorer will do.
  • USB 2.0 transfers are very quick, (subjectively) some of the fastest I've seen from PC to player.
  • USB on-the-go (OTG) works well, even with my ancient digicam (Olympus D40). You can see the files and folders on the attached device and choose which ones to copy or delete onto the X5, or vice versa. You can transfer files/folders both ways. There's a list of devices that have proven compatible HERE although it's not complete. Will know more when the X5 finally reaches the US and more people can report. Other MSC type players like the iRiver H100 and H300 have been shown to work with USB OTG so you can copy music from player to player without a PC. Does not work with the iPod (4g), however.


Other Stuff
  • With the .TXT viewing function, you can listen to music while reading. Read page by page or jump to a specific place in the file (by kB).
  • Support lyrics display (haven’t tried this yet).
  • Has a clock, alarm clock, and sleep timer. You can set the time of the alarm clock, the frequency of the alarm (once, everyday, Monday - Friday), duration (10 - 240 minutes in 10-min blocks, endless), and also the function that it should perform when the alarm goes off: play the last track/movie, or play the radio, or record from the radio. You can set it to play/record from the last radio station you listened to or you can set a specific radio station preset, by number. The player has to be off for the alarm function to activate, and at the time that the alarm is set for, the X5 turns itself on and starts doing the task you assinged it (playing music, radio, or recording radio). This has been tested and works just fine.
  • Default EQ (as it ships) includes cheater settings: BBE 5 and MachBass 10. Can easily turn them off of course.
  • Charges over USB. Can be disabled in the Settings menu for use with laptops, etc. Takes longer than charging from AC power but a handy feature to have. No need to carry around the AC adapter as long as you can find a PC to tap.

Price, Availability
  • Only available in Korea right now, shipping to the US in mid to late May.
  • I expect the basic pack will cost about $300 for the 20gig version - very competitive, considering the 20gig iPod goes for the same right now.
  • Comes with full version of JetAudio and JetShell software on CD-ROM, USB cable, USB OTG cable, and mini-dock.
  • US edition packages probably won't include the LCD remote, a protective case or full-size dock although this decision is left up to the distributors, as well as the price.
  • Besides the 20gb model, I understand that the X5 will be available in 30gb and 60gb models. The 20gb and 30gb models will also be available in an extended battery configurations (X5L) like they did for the M3. The regular 20-gig version may be the only one available at launch (in the US).

What the X5 does NOT have
  • AV output to TV
  • Video recording
  • Audio output in a digital signal
  • Memory-card slots (has USB OTG instead - IMO, better)
  • Powered input for external mic (although you can use an external mic with a power module plugged into the line-in jack)
  • USB or power jack built into the main unit (mini-dock instead)
  • Dedicated volume buttons (instead, use joystick up/down in the Now Playing screen)

What could be added/improved
  • iD3-tag databasing, browsing. Preferably, implemented like it is on the Rio Carbon which catalogues new tracks on its own during bootup if new media is detected - no software required.
  • If they decided not to implement an iD3-tag database, then give us a filename search utility. Often I can't remember where individual tracks are located among all the folders.
  • The scheduled radio recording is great but it would be even better if you could schedule it on specific days in the future. Also, the option to start the line-input recording or voice recording on schedule.
  • Playback speed control. Up to +/- 100% would be good. Aside from practical applications, it's fun to make a singer sound like Darth Vader or one of the Chipmunks.
  • Ability to charge from USB while playing music.
  • Ability to view pictures while listening to music.


Summary

I'm pretty good at finding everything there is to criticize about an MP3 player, but in this case, there isn't much to complain about. You get excellent performance and nearly every feature in the book at a very competitive price ($ 300, MSRP). Being fully mass storage compliant, it works like an external hard drive with all modern operating systems (XP, Mac, Linux, etc) plus there's no software involved in loading music and movies - any file manager will do (like Windows Explorer). The ability to charge-over-USB is a convenient way to keep it powered up without carrying around the AC adapter. USB on-the-go is a rare but handy feature, good for backing up photos directly from a camera and for swapping files directly with other MSC-type devices. FM radio is always nice to have as well as the full range of audio recording functions (line-in, radio, voice). I like the professional-looking design and high-quality build which meets or beats anything I've seen before. It's a bit thick at the point of the "hump" on the front but it doesn't feel any different from an iPod in your hand or pocket.

The screen isn't as big or detailed as a couple of other players (iPod Photo, iRiver H300) although it is bright and colorful and seems perfectly suitable for daily use, for showing off pictures now and then, or for watching a movie while stuck on a plane. Video playback is as good as you can expect from a screen of this size - definitely usable, but not great. Same with photo-viewing, although the zoom and pan feature helps compensate. Audio quality is exceptional, with near-gapless MP3 playback and an EQ/DSP system that gives you a variety of ways to tweak the sound. The number of codecs supported (MP3, WMA, OGG, FLAC, etc) is matched only by the Rio Karma. The GUI is another strength simply because it's easy to use and has all of the little touches that make a difference (accelerated scrolling, looping lists, etc).

An iD3-tag database is the only thing of consequence missing from the X5. Other high-capacity players in the American market feature this so you can browse music by lists of Artist, Albums, and Tracks, like on the iPod. The X5 employs an alternative way of browsing, by giving you a view of the actual file/folder structure on the player's hard drive, which some people prefer. I'm OK with it since it does give you more control over the way music and movies are organized but optimally you should be able to browse by whichever method suits you, like the iRiver H10 and Archos Gmini400. Cowon has a good track record for new implementing features based on customer request so if there's enough demand, it could happen.

I can sum it all up by saying that the X5 has made it onto my short list of favorites, along with the iPod (4g) and Rio Karma. Recommended.



If you have any questions, post them in the comments here and I'll try to respond.

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Last edited by austinv; 08-09-2008 at 20:48..
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