Editor's note: Although CNET's battery drain tests revealed that the iAudio 7 is unlikely to meet its claim of 60 hours of continuous music playback during realistic conditions, we still feel it is an excellent player worthy of the Editors' Choice distinction.
While the Cowon iAudio 7 is cosmetically indistinguishable from its previous life as the iAudio 6, it still proves to be a significant upgrade. Under the hood, the 4GB microdrive technology found in the iAudio 6 has been transplanted with up to 8GB of faster, leaner flash memory and an improved battery life. We still feel that Cowon's Swing Touch interface takes some acclimation, but with the 4GB player selling for $170 and the 8GB selling for $220, the iAudio 7 is one of Cowon's most competitively priced and full-featured MP3 players to date.
When we heard that the latest iAudio player would toss out the microdrive in favor of flash memory, we presumed the result would be a slimmer player. Thus, it was a bit of a letdown to find that the iAudio's dimensions went unchanged. Granted, the iAudio 6 was small to begin with, but it's certainly not as slim as the iPod Nano. Side-by-side, the iAudio 6 and iAudio 7 are indistinguishable aside from the iAudio 7's screen being slightly offset and the back cover changing from a matte to a glossy plastic. The good news is that by resisting the temptation to go skinnier, Cowon was able to fit a higher-capacity battery into the iAudio 7.
One of the most notable design elements on the iAudio 7 is Cowon's unique Swing Touch user interface. While we admit it does take some getting used to, the iAudio interface is an effective and novel way to quickly navigate through files. The diagonal bar can be used to scroll through lists in three ways: swiping your finger up or down, holding down one corner, or just tapping a corner. The Record and Play buttons on each side of the scroll strip also serve to take you in and out of file directories.
Cowon players are seldom light on features, and the iAudio 7 is no exception. Cowon packed this little dynamo with an audio player, a video player, a photo viewer, an FM radio, a line-input recorder, a voice recorder, a radio recorder, and even a text reader. With support for an exhaustive array of file formats, including MP3, WMA, OGG, FLAC, and WAV, the iAudio 7's music player is really the crown jewel of this device, especially given its exceptional sound quality (see Performance). While support for purchased and subscription WMA is great, we wish we could have seen format support for Audible.com audiobooks.
Using the included Cowon Media Center software, adding and optimizing photos and videos for the iAudio 7 is mostly painless. We quickly converted AVI, MPEG, and XVID movies for playback on the iAudio 7's small screen without any audio or visual artifacts. You also have the option of adding cover artwork for your music, which displays as a background image during music playback.
The Cowon iAudio 7 has an exhaustive array of customization settings that make it a gadget-tweaker's delight. Beyond the adjustable 5-band EQ, users can also enhance the player's sound by adjusting BBE settings to add clarity, Mach3Bass settings for low end, MP Enhance to compensate for harmonics lost in music compression, and 3D Surround to improve stereo separation. Users with hearing loss will appreciate the iAudio 7's panning control for balancing the volume from one ear to the other.
If you're looking for a flexible MP3 player that can be used on Mac, Windows, and Linux operating systems, the iAudio 7 can jump between MSC and MTP USB connection modes for maximum compatibility. Linux users will be especially happy that the iAudio 7 supports open file formats such as OGG and FLAC.
While we're happy to see Cowon finally making the jump to 8GB flash players, we would have been excited to see a memory expansion slot on the iAudio 7 as well.
Cowon consistently produces some of the best-sounding MP3 players on the market. No other manufacturer offers so many useful and customizable sound enhancement features. Does it sound better than an iPod? No question. Listening to Timbaland and Magoo's "It's Your Night" with a dash of Mach3Bass enhancement made the kick-drum thick and snappy--not just louder. A live recording like Gillian Welch's "I Want to Sing That Rock & Roll" presents a great stereo soundstage right out of the box, but with the MP Enhance setting switched on and the 3D Surround setting turned up halfway, the live sound becomes much more vivid.
The photo viewer is colorful and sharp and allows music to be played simultaneously without slowing down. All the recording functions of the iAudio 7 encode to a WMA file with a Kbps resolution that can be adjusted between 64, 80, 96, and 128. By default, the voice recorder encodes to a 64Kbps WMA file and does an adequate job despite common issues of background hiss and rumbling created by handling the player while it records. FM recording encodes to a default 128Kbps WMA file, making a very clean recording. Line-input recording also encodes to a 128Kbps WMA file, and allows for volume adjustment, autodetection of pauses between songs, and real-time monitoring of the recording through the headphone jack.
Our CNET labs found that the iAudio 7's battery life is realistically capable of 41 hours of audio playback and 22.6 hours of video playback. While 41 hours of audio playback is still remarkable for an MP3 player, it does differ dramatically from Cowon's claim of 60 hours of playback time. To test the possibility of the iAudio 7's capability to reach the 60-hour mark, we performed an unofficial retest using Cowon's less-realistic playback scenario: volume set at 15 (out of 40); screen brightness set to its lowest setting; and all audio enhancement turned off. Using Cowon's test conditions we were able to coax 56 hours from the iAudio 7, but we believe these playback settings are unlikely for most users.
The Cowon iAudio 7 delivers an unbeatable combination of size, features, sound quality, and battery life. But if you're looking for a MP3 player with a bigger screen for your videos, the Cowon D2 may be a better option.