You can tweak the sound of your tunes with the five-band EQ (which comes with Rock, Jazz, Classical, Pop, and Vocal presets, as well as a user-defined mode) or with the various sound-effect settings, such as BBE, Mach3Bass, MP Enhance, and 3D Surround. 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 use the included JetShell application to move music to the player or create playlists, but you can't sync your PC's music to the X5 à la Apple iTunes.
The X5's serviceable FM radio boasts 24 presets, and you can tune to stations manually or let the player seek the strongest stations. Unfortunately, the X5 won't program the presets automatically, a feature we've seen in plenty of portable music devices. Hear a station you like? You can record it to an MP3 file at bit rates ranging from 64Kbps to 320Kbps, although you can't browse to any other screens while you're recording an FM feed. You can also record voice memos with the built-in mic with bit rates ranging from 32Kbps to 128Kbps. Voice-activated recording is also supported, and you can even encode MP3s from another audio source with the line-in port, which comes with an autosync feature that chops your tunes into separate MP3 tracks when it detects a pause in the music.
The iAudio's picture viewer falls well short when compared to the iPod's picture-handling capabilities. Once you've dragged and dropped images into the X5's Picture directory, you can scroll through your snapshots one by one or view them in a thumbnail format (nine at a time), and you can zoom in for greater detail. However, there's no slide-show feature, and you can't play music while viewing your images--key features that the iPod Photo gets right. This half-baked photo option reminds us a lot of the iRiver H320's. At least you can create folders in the main Picture directory, and you can turn any photo into the player's wallpaper, making for a clever way to personalize the X5.
Want to view the photos sitting in your digital camera? The X5's USB Host mode lets you connect a camera and view or copy the snapshots to the player--a nice feature, save for the fact that only about 30 cameras from Olympus, Sony, Nikon, FujiFilm, Konica Minolta, Kyocera, Panasonic, and Kenox are supported. Cowon says more cameras may be added to the list in a future firmware upgrade.
Extra features include a text-file viewer that lets you listen to music as you read; an autoresume, in which music files resume where you left off but movie files start at the beginning; several repeat modes, including A-B repeat; and an alarm.We were impressed by the Cowon iAudio X5's sound quality; music sounded clear and crisp on the high end with plenty of room for rumbling bass (20Hz to 20KHz) and almost no perceptible hiss, thanks to a signal-to-noise ration of 95dB. We were able to crank the volume to earsplitting levels of 20mW per channel. The included dumbbell-style earbuds sounded fine to our ears, but we recommend swapping them out for a better pair.
We had no trouble with our test recordings. There was no obvious sound distortion when recording from the line-in port, even with a reasonably loud source, and our voice memos and FM recordings came in loud and clear.
As mentioned above, the X5's video quality is about as good as you can expect with a 160x128-pixel display. The 260,000-color LCD rendered rich, vivid colors, but the relatively low resolution results in a slight screen-door effect, and we detected a little jerkiness in movement due to the player's ceiling of 15 frames per second. As for digital photos, since the X5 doesn't transcode larger images into a device-friendly size, you'll have to wait a few seconds for images that are 1MB and more to render on the screen. Transfer time to the player over USB 2.0 was a brisk 12.4MB per second.
Cowon promises up to 14 hours of playback from the non-user-removable rechargeable lithium-ion battery. CNET Labs was able to coax 14.4 hours playing back MP3 files. This is an average figure these days, but expect to get less if you're watching movies or checking out digital photos. If you've fallen in love with the Cowon iAudio X5, we recommend at least checking out the X5L version, available for $330 and $380 for the 20GB and 30GB versions, respectively. While they both add thickness (about 1/5 inch) and weight (6.42 ounces), the battery life is rated for up to 35 hours. CNET Labs was able to coax 27.2 hours out of the X5L, well below the rated battery life but still impressive. Transfer times came in at a brisk 12MB per second.