Cowon iAudio X5 20GB Review

...buy the X5 for its true calling
...buy the X5 for its true calling
...buy the X5 for its true calling

Highs

  • Quality build construction; excellent sound; supports multiple audio formats

Lows

  • Does not support online music services; must convert videos; requires an adapter for use

Summary

The Cowon iAudio X5 is in a sticky situation. As an MP3 player, the X5 has a lot going for it. Think Apple iPod photo with video capabilities and you get the idea. The problem here is that with its video capabilities, the X5 falls into a different product category where it doesn’t really belong; with portable media players. Look past its video performance though and buy the X5 for its true calling – high quality audio.

*Edit 10/20/05 – Cowon has updated the firmware on their X5 to be DRM10 compatible. You can download the firmware here.
Features and Design

The iAudio X5 comes in two flavors, a 20GB model that goes for $300 and a larger 30GB model priced only $50 dollars higher at $350. The 30GB version includes an inline remote control and a charging cradle. When physically compared to an Apple iPod photo, the Cowon iAudio X5 is about the same size, measuring in at 4.1” by 2.4” by .06” and weighing only 5.4 ounces. Screen size is about the same as the iPod photo at 2 inches, but other than its physical dimensions, the similarities really stop there. The 2-inch LCD screen is capable of up to a 160×128 resolution and can display up to 260,000 colors. Whereas the iPod photo uses a touch sensitive wheel for navigation and control, the X5 uses a tiny metallic joystick for getting around.

The build quality of the X5 is probably the nicest we have seen, featuring a scratch resistant exterior coating with metal trim, the look is very appealing.  The right side of the player has your play/pause, Rec/A-B and power/hold and reset buttons, while the left side of the player houses the headphones jack and USB host controller. There is a single slot on the bottom of the player which is where the included adapter plugs into. This adapter will be very precious to you since it has the AC adapter plug, USB connection, and line-in/out jacks. You might even want to buy an extra adapter in case you lose this one, otherwise you are screwed. Adapters can be purchased from the company’s website for only $9 dollars, which seems pretty reasonable.

Audio enthusiasts will fall in love with the X5 since it supports MP3, OGG, WMA, ASF, FLAC, WAV and MPEG4 (video) formats. Sorry, no AAC love here, but at least it supports FLAC and OGG. The X5 comes with an FM radio receiver and lets you either record the radio station you are listening to, or your voice, using the line-in recording connection. Other file formats supported by the X5 include Text files, and JPEG picture files, including image enlargement. ID3V2, ID3V1 and filename tags are supported by the X5 as well.

One surprise that hit us is that not only is the X5 compatible with the Windows operating system, but MAC OS and Linux v 2.2 users can also use the X5, although this only includes file transfer since the Cowon software is only compatible with Windows. However, since the X5 is viewed as a mass storage device, this is all you really need anyway. For a complete list of features, please visit the X5 product page at the Cowon American website.

Cowon iAudio X5
The Cowon iAudio X5, iRiver H10, Samsung YH-820, Creative Zen Micro, Apple iPod Nano, Shuffle
Setup and Use

Getting the X5 up and running is a pretty simple chore. You can either use the included JetAudio software package, which will give you a player and a media browser, or you can plug the X5 into your PC and use it as a mass storage device. Simply drag and drop the music or video files you want into the appropriate folder (or create your own folder), and then browse the songs using the player menu – it’s as simple as that. If you are using a MAC or a PC with Linux installed, you will have to forego the included software since it does not support your OS. This is no big deal, because the X5 is still seen as a hard drive and you can just drop the files you want onto it that way.

If you have a digital camera, then all you need to do is set the USB mode as PTP from the camera’s menu and plug the camera into the USB host port on the X5. What this allows you to do is transfer your images directly from your camera onto the X5 without the need of a laptop or PC. This is great for photographers out in the field that need storage, yet do not want to carry around a laptop with them. Most of the newer digital cameras are supported. You can click here for a complete list.

The built-in text and image viewer looks great and is simple to use. The 2-inch LCD is not particularly huge, so make sure you are showing your images to people with good eye-sight. Jokes aside though, an image viewer is pretty much a given feature in most of today’s MP3 players. One feature that we would love to have seen is an A/V output, so you can show images on a television. The Apple iPod photo and Creative Zen Vision both allow you to do this, giving much more purpose to this feature. Also, when you are showing pictures in the slideshow function, you cannot play music in the background, making for a fairly boring experience.

Video playback looks sharp on the X5’s LCD, but again, you are not able to output the video to a television, so you are limited as to what you can do with this feature. Videos must also be converted to an MPEG4 format up to 15FPS. You can either use the included JetAudio software, or a 3rd party solution. If you are a Linux or MAC user, you are out of luck here unless you have your own software. Also worth noting, is that converting videos to the appropriate format can take a very long time, especially if the movie is a large one. The video side of the X5 is more of an afterthought it seems, rather than serving an important purpose.

Where the X5 really excels, is in its audio playback. Cowon Audio is known for manufacturing some great sounding players and the X5 certainly did not disappoint in this department. Capable of playing MP3, OGG, WMA, WAVE and FLAC, the X5 is one of the most versatile players on the market. Once again however, for every positive, there seems to be a negative; the X5 is not compatible with any online music services. So, you better download an MP3 you can own and do what you want with, otherwise it’s not touching the X5.

Audio playback sounds fantastic on the X5. You can either use the JetAudio software to create play lists, or simply keep your lists in M3U format which will work as well. With the lyrics display feature, you can actually view the lyrics while the song is playing; a pretty cool function if you ask us. There are 7 basic equalizer settings to choose from: Normal, Rock, Pop, Jazz, Classic, Vocal, and a user setting. The X5 also supports BBE, Mach3Bass, MP Enhance and 3D Surround DSP settings; an audiophiles dream. We were able to tell a big difference between the EQ settings, as you should. Audio quality is crisp and clear sounding, with surprising bass response from the stock ear buds, and with a SNR (signal to noise ratio) of 95dB, you can turn the volume way up. The integrated amp is capable of 20mW of power to each ear, which is much better than most media players. The stock ear buds which are manufactured by Cresyn, sound pretty good but you are in for a treat if you have a real high-end pair from Etymotic, Sony, Shure or Sennheiser. One caveat to playing back music on the X5, is that the player is not capable of showing album art, and there can be a 1 to 3 second delay sometimes while skipping tracks. Since the X5 has a built-in anti-shock function, we are going to chalk up the delay to the caching of the music, but if you travel a lot, this is worth it. It’s just one of the downfalls to having a hard drive based player.

Battery life is pretty good. You can expect about 12-14 hours when playing back music and about 8-10 during video playback.

Cowon iAudio X5
Image Courtesy of Cowon America
Conclusion

The Cowon iAudio X5 is one of those players that you want so much to fall in love with. It looks great, has a solid build construction, and is compatible with so many music formats including FLAC and OGG Vorbis. The adapter which you must use for charging, transferring media and so on, is the dumbest idea we have seen in a long time. If you lose this adapter, you are pretty much screwed until you can buy a new one. Fortunately, they are only $9 bucks a piece, so stock up on them. We really think Cowon needs to update this baby to make it compatible with music services as well. If Cowon can fix these mistakes, there is no reason why they would not be able to compete against Apple head-on, because, there is so much going for this player.

Buy the X5 for its music capabilities, not its video. The sound quality of the X5 is certainly top notch, and if you can look past the X5’s shortfalls, by all means go for it. Otherwise, go with the tried-and-true Apple iPod.  For audiophiles, the X5 is certainly for you.

As the audio quality sounds so great, we are going to give the X5 an 8/10. However, don’t be fooled; this player is far from perfect. Luckily, Cowon has been updating their firmware, let’s just hope they continue to do so.

Pros:
Awesome sound quality
Compatible with OGG, MP3, WMA, and FLAC audio formats
Quality build construction
Beautiful, albeit small LCD display
Easy navigation
Works well with digital cameras
Cons:
Limited video compatibility
Videos must be converted
Cannot output pictures or video to a TV
Not compatible with online music services.
Requires a goofy adapter for charging and transferring music
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