Cowon iAudio M5
The Cowon iAudio M5, available with either a 20GB or a 30GB hard drive, is essentially a bare-bones version of the company's older iAudio X5. The X5 has a color screen, shows photos, and plays videos and music, but the M5 has a grayscale display and plays only audio. The M5 is a great-sounding audio player, but its outdated, directory-based music-navigation system, along with lack of compatibility with online music stores and subscription services, can't be overlooked. What's more, the 20GB version of the M5 ($249) costs only somewhat less than the 20GB X5 ($299).
Measuring 4.1 by 2.4 by 0.6 inches and weighing 5.1 ounces, the silver and black Cowon iAudio M5 is based on the same scratch-resistant aluminum case as the X5. The unit is about the same size as an iPod, but it's lighter, with a thin lower half that slopes inward from the 2-inch display. Just below the screen is a tiny, five-way navigational joystick that's identical to the X5's. The play and record buttons, as well as a power slider, sit on the right side of the device. While the sparse layout gives the iAudio M5 a clean, uncluttered look, it's a pain having the Play button relegated to the right side of the player; we wish it were right next to the joystick for easier access.
The left side of the Cowon iAudio M5 hosts a USB 2.0 port, as well as a headphone jack with a data port for an optional LCD remote ($49). The M5 includes an AC-adapter charger cable that plugs directly into the player's USB 2.0 port. If you want to add line-in or line-out jacks to the unit, you can purchase a separate subpack adapter from Cowon for around $10 or buy a pricier cradle ($29) that does the same thing. The M5's greater independence from the subpack is generally seen as an advantage over the X5. For example, the X5 requires a subpack to enable basic functions such as charging and data transfer. Because that's not the case with the M5, you can travel lighter. In addition to the AC-adapter charger, the M5 comes with a USB cable and passable-sounding earbud headphones. A carrying case is available for $19.
Using the USB 2.0 port, you connect the player to your PC or Mac. The Cowon iAudio M5 appears as a separate drive in Explorer or a removable device in Mac OS X, allowing you to drag music and data files on to the player. You can also use the included Windows-only JetShell application to organize your tunes, but that's optional. The M5 supports standard M3U playlists and conveniently allows using the five-way joystick to create a playlist on the fly without interrupting playback. The unit has a text-file viewer that lets you listen to music while you read, and it doesn't skimp in the types of audio files it supports. The iAudio M5 plays MP3, OGG, ASF, lossless FLAC, WAV, and unprotected WMA files. However, the player isn't compatible with DRM-protected WMA files--a major drawback. As a result, it can't play tracks purchased from online music stores or downloaded as part of a subscription service such as Napster To Go. Furthermore, you can't browse your tunes by artist, album, or genre--a critical omission for a player with enough capacity to store approximately 5,000 MP3s. If your MP3 files aren't neatly organized into accurately named directories, the M5's old-school folder-tree-style navigation system can be especially unwieldy.
Like the X5, the Cowon iAudio M5 has a good assortment of sound-optimization features. For starters, there's a five-band EQ with Rock, Jazz, Classical, Pop, and Vocal presets, as well as a user-defined mode. The player also has the BBE sound-field enhancer, the Mach3Bass adjustable bass boost, MP Enhance, and a 3D surround simulator. In general, the effects are well designed and do a better-than-average job of enhancing music without making it sound too unnatural. We like that you can bookmark your music tracks, which is helpful if you're listening to podcasts, but adding a bookmark is a cumbersome process. You must navigate to the bookmark directory while your track is playing, then bookmark it there. You can record voice memos with the built-in mic with bit rates ranging from 32Kbps to 128Kbps, and the player supports voice-activated recording.