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Old 02-06-2005, 12:00   #1
Martinp
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Default Cowon iAudio U2 Review


Introduction

Before I start off with the U2 review I would like to introduce the company that made this player: Cowon.

Cowon is a South Korean Company based in Seoul. They started out in 1995 as a software programming company for applications like jetAudio. In October 2000 Cowon extended its business to the Portable Audio Market and released the iAUDIO CW100. This player was never sold outside Korea and to be honest, it wasn't terribly exciting either. But it should be noted as being one of the first generation MP3 players on the market and for its time it was a good device. Everything changed though with the iAUDIO CW200. The jog wheel design of the player was simple and easy to understand. Integrated FM Radio and Voice recording made the player extremely versatile. The CW200 earned many awards and it received one of the highest customer satisfaction ratings ever on Amazon.com. Soon afterwards the CW300 followed, basically a re-hash of the CW200 - just with better design and much longer runtime due to the use of AA batteries. An interesting fact about Cowons products is that they always seem to get a lot better with every new generation released. By listening to their customers and evaluating reviews Cowon examines what needs to be done next. The next player so released was the iAUDIO4 including Mass Storage, support for new codecs and line-in recording. Most importantly though the i4 added BBE Sound (no other MP3 players supports this sound enhancement) and a 124 colour backlight.

Now comes their new player: The iAUDIO U2.

Technical Specs

File Formats: MP3, MP2, WMA, ASF and WAV (OGG & DRM WMA promised through firmware upgrades)
Features: Line-In Recording, Voice Recording through integrated mic, FM Radio, FM Radio recording
Flash Memory: 256MB, 512MB & 1 GB
Size: 73.8mm X 25.0mm X 18.0mm
Weight: 34g (Includes integrated Lithium Polymer battery)
Power Output: 13mW 13mW @ 16 Ohm
Interface: USB 2.0 with 20mbps

First Impressions and Package contents

My first thought on receiving the player was: "Okay, the CW200 was small, the iAUDIO4 was very small, but this is tiny". It is smaller than a packet of gum and also weighs slightly less.

Included with the U2 are following items:

• Cresyn AXE 599BL Headphones
• CD & User Manual in 6 Languages (English, French, German, Spanish, Swedish & Russian)
• "Fashion Necklace"
• Carrying Case
• USB and Line-in cable
• Portable USB Port that can go on your key ring
• 2 screen protectors (don't throw that tiny little piece of cardboard away!)

Strangely enough there is no power adapter included in the standard package. This item can be purchased separately though.


Size

The iAUDIO U2 is one of the smallest flash memory based players I have ever seen (especially considering its features set). The player has roughly the same dimensions as a pack of gum, just thinner. In comparison to the iAUDIO4 it is not as wide, but otherwise the dimensions are roughly similar.

Design

The U2s design is based on one main principle: Simplicity.

The box shape of the U2 is neither exciting nor a brilliant fate of engineering but it still looks really nice. The lower body of the U2 is metallic silver and the upper body is available in three different colours: red, blue (256 & 512 MB versions) and black (1 GB version).

The most prominent part of the U2 is undoubtedly its metal navigation joystick. It shines and shimmers nicely in the light. The U2s next characteristic design feature is its display that occupies roughly 40% of the players face. Below the display the words Digital Audio Player shimmer nicely in varying colours.

The words iAUDIO and Color Sound are printed to the left of the display in the silver colour that is also used on the lower body.

Build Quality

Although Cowon decided to use plastic instead of lightweight aluminium for the outer shell, the player generally has a solid feel. When applying pressure with my fingers to the plastic I could not feel movement or anything that might be a weak point. On the backside of the player there are 4 tiny screws that easily allow servicing should it be required.

The materials used for the U2 seem to be of high quality - I have been using the player for 2 weeks now and there isnt a single scratch on the unit even though it has been in my pocket.

Regarding the cap that protects the USB port: it is made of thickish vulcanised rubber that can withstand being pulled at, twisted and bent. It looks as if it will last.

Controls

The U2s main controller is its metal joystick. But apart from that it also has a record / repeat button and a play / pause button. It also has a hold button that locks the controls. These 3 additional elements are located on the side of the player.

The Joystick control system is ridiculously easy to use and I had the entire navigation figured out within 2 minutes and one consultation of the manual. I do admit that I have a history with Cowon players, but even some of my non-technical friends had the basics figured out within seconds.

There are 5 operations one can do with the U2s navigation stick: Push Right & Left; Push Up & Down; Press Down. Depending on where you are in the player the joysticks controls always has different assignments, but it all makes perfect sense. I would even go as far as saying that navigating with the player is fun.

The only minor issue is that sometimes the Press Down of the joystick does not register properly. Its not really a problem though, seeing that over time you know exactly how much pressure to apply to get the device to register your press down.








Screen, Loading Music & Data, Codec Support

The Screen is a 4-line monochrome LCD without greyscales (128 * 64 pixels). Text is easily legible and the contrast of the display is very good. The blue backlight is *bright* - like really bright; roughly twice the brightness of the iAUDIO4s display and still noticeably brighter than the M3.

The only minor complaint I have about the display is that the Now Playing Screen is slightly cluttered. Otherwise there is nothing wrong with the players screen (well, of course OLED would be cool ...)

Loading Music & Data

Connecting the U2 to a computer is easy as pie. On Windows ME, 2000, XP, Linux with Kernel 2.2 (and higher) and Mac OSX the player automatically registers as an external drive. You can then copy any file to and from the player without restrictions. For 98 Users there is a driver on the included CD-Rom.

Seeing that the iAUDIO U2 supports the USB 2.0 standard, copying data to and from the player is a breeze. Transferring files to the player works at 2.45 MB/s and copying files off the player is slightly faster at 3.0 MB/s.

An important point to remember is that even though players might be advertised as USB 2.0 compliant, they by no means transfer at the same speeds. The iAUDIO U2s transfer rate is roughly 60% faster than that of the iRiver iFp 700&800 series, even though these players are also USB 2.0 (LINK).

Should you ever need to format your player do not worry about the system files and folders located on the player. These are recreated on start-up when the player recognises that it has been formatted. You will need to re-apply your settings though.

Just a word on Windows Media Player Support: The iAUDIO U2 works with Windows Media Player 10. You can synchronise your files on the player with this program.

Codec Support

At current the U2 supports the WMA, MP3, WAV and ASF format. Cowon has promised to add support for OGG (OGG Vorbis) and DRM WMA (online music stores use this protected format) in future firmware upgrades.

While using the U2 I had absolutely no problem with any files at all. They all played without any problems. The only issue I had was that for some VBR MP3 files the time display was slightly off.


Recording General

Currently recording in any of the 3 modes is limited to 96, 112 and 128 kbps. This is not optimal, but Cowon are good on Firmware updates and have promised to release new Firmware in the future.

FM Radio / FM Radio Recording

To get straight to the point: The FM is alright, but could be better.

To express technically what I have experienced:

On low-power signals the U2s display introduces distortion. Every time the content on the screen changes distortion is introduced. While only listening to the Radio the screen content is static and thus just listening to Radio is okay.

However seeing that during recording there is a lot of stuff going on the screen, the FM Recording quality of low power signals is bad. There is however one way of dramatically increasing the FM Radio quality:

The U2 uses the headphone jack as an antennae and thus the longer the cable the better the quality - I noticed this when hooking up the player to my stereo with my 5 Meter extension cable. I started up the player and it was still in FM mode and I noticed it picking up a signal in really good quality that had sounded pretty bad before.

Altogether the iAUDIO U2s FM radio quality compared to the other iAUDIOs (first named have very good FM Radio Quality and last named have okay radio quality): iAUDIO 4, iAUDIO U2, iAUDIO M3 without remote, iAUDIO M3 with remote, iAUDIO CW200.

Voice Recording

Strangely enough the U2 has its microphone located on the bottom side of the player. Once you have got used to this fact this is not a problem anymore.

The U2s integrated Microphone is more than adequate for recording voice notes and meetings.

An interesting feature the U2 supports is Voice Active. When no sound is there to be recorded, then the U2 will stop recording to conserve space.

Line-In Recording

Line-In Recording works very well on the iAUDIO U2. Of course it is not professional grade recording equipment, but for quickly grabbing something off someone elses CD player or recording from your stereo set with a radio in it the U2 does exactly what it should.

The Line-In recording mode also features a sort of Voice Active. Its just called Auto Sync and should you be recording from a CD, then the U2 will automatically notice when there is a gap between two tracks and start a new file.

The only disturbance I noticed with the recording mode that monitoring the recording can sound bad in cases where the source volume is very high. Annoying crackles can be heard especially in songs with a lot of bass. Be sure to reduce the source volume if possible or reduce the Line-In volume on your U2.

Dont be worried about these crackles being in the recording though. They wont be.




Clock Feature

This issue caused me a lot of frustration. Not because the feature is not good, but because a new firmware had been released just a few days before I had finished the review which forced me to re-test everything and add e.g. this part of the review.

Note that this is still beta firmware I am using for this review and I am sure that some things will change with the final version of 1.10 and upcoming releases.

The Clock feature is a very nice addition to the iAUDIO U2. Not only is it possible for watch less people like me (my watch is currently being repaired) to be able to tell the time again, but you can also let your iAUDIO wake you up with your favourite tune or Radio Station.It is even possible to start recording a specific radio station at a certain time for a set amount of time. Wonderful!

Dynamic PlayList and Bookmarking

The unit also features a Dynamic PlayList (DPL) and a bookmarking feature (for up to 20 bookmarks).

Adding files to the DPL is easily done in the navigator. A drop down menu on a music file lets you select Add to List and thats it. The only thing that bothers me about the DPL is that items in the Playlist can not be moved around freely. Its not really a great burden, but if it were possible for Cowon to add this functionality in a future firmware upgrade I would be very happy.

Sound Quality and EQ

Sound Quality is always a very subjective matter. But personally I really like how the iAUDIO U2 sounds. Apart from its five-band equaliser the U2 also features many BBE Sound Effects that in combination with the EQ lets you do 1.6 Trillion different things with your music.

Testing the U2 against my iAUDIO4 I think that it sounds slightly better. At Extreme volume levels over 38 slight distortions become noticeable. With BBE sound effects the distortions become a little more prominent.

I would like to mention the small issue of track jumping here. While going from one track to the next there is second gap with a very mino crackle noise. I tried to record this noise, but I failed for the reason that the noise is extremely quiet and only noticeable on some headphones. Im confident that 90% of the people using the U2 wont even hear this noise though.






Included Headphones

Personally I do not like the Cresyn headphones a lot. Its not that the Sound Quality is bad, but I do not like the size of them. They do not fit my ears correctly seeing that they are rather large and have the tendency to fall out all the time.

This however is a personal preference; I have also heard good comments on the included headphones. I would definitely not make the purchase of an Mp3 player dependant on the included headphones!

Other Accessories

The other accessories that come with the iAUDIO U2 are very good. For one there is the carrying case - it protects your player from scratches and gives it a "sporty look". All buttons and features can be easily accessed even when the carrying case is being worn (only the line-in jack is not accessible; it is protected from dust and dirt by the carrying case). You can simply attach the player to your belt, because the carrying case features a convenient belt loop. If you happen to have an armband it is also possible to strap the player to your biceps.

Don't be disturbed if the carrying case is an extremely tight fit at first - after a week it will have perfectly adapted to the player’s size.

One of my favourite accessories though is the Portable USB Port. Other Flash Mp3 players have the USB port integrated (making the player bigger), but the U2 comes with a miniature USB port that you can attach to your key ring.

Operating System

The devices Operating System (OS) is very stable. I haven’t managed to crash it once. Boot up times are very short. It is also possible to remove the start-up animation by just deleting the Logo.ilb file in the players System folder for an even faster start. Music starts playing 2.5 to 3 seconds after you hit the play button (autoplay is a really nice feature).

Battery

The U2s battery is an integrated Lithium Polymer Battery. This battery allows long playback times (I got something like 18-19 hours at volumes of 13 on my Sennheiser PX200). The U2s battery can easily and quickly be recharged over a computers USB port. I would say that after 1 hours the battery was 80 percent full again from a total discharge. After roughly 2 hours the battery was completely full again.

If you plan on travelling a lot without a Computer I seriously recommend purchasing a U2 charger that plugs into a wall socket.

With the inclusion of an integrated clock I tried to check for any battery drain while the unit was switched off. I did not notice any.

Conclusion

The iAUDIO U2 is a solid piece of Portable Audio Hardware. I can recommend it to pretty well anyone who is on the lookout for a new Flash Based MP3 Player. The only people who I can not recommend it to are those who will be doing a lot of Radio Recordings on low power signals.

Apart from that the U2 is in my opinion Cowons best Flash Memory player to date.

Pros

• Power Output, Sound Quality, Equaliser & BBE settings
• Very small, extremely light, build quality
• Very good screen and bright backlight
• Fast and easy navigation
• Integrated battery (no more buying disposables or bothering
about rechargeables)
• USB 2.0 and Mass Storage Support (also works with Linux and Max OS X)
• Feature packed: Voice Recording, Line-in, FM Radio
• Clock (wake up with Music, wake up with Radio, Record Radio at a
certain time)
• Bookmark Feature (great for listening to Audio books)
• Dynamic PlayList

Cons

• No included charger
• FM radio - poor quality recording on low power signals
• Gap and miniature crackle between tracks (less than iAUDIO4)
• Integrated battery (when its empty its empty)
• Plastic instead of Aluminium
• Included headphones

Add points when updated through firmware

• ogg and m3u playlist support
• Higher and Lower bitrate recordings
• DRM WMA support

Final Score: 87 / 100

(please note that this rating system is different to the ones I used before)

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Last edited by austinv; 08-09-2008 at 20:59..
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