The Cowon iAudio CW200 is an impressive flash-based player that has great features for MP3 playback, voice recording, and FM radio all packed into a compact, easy-to-use, rugged design. Anyone in the market for a new MP3 player should give this model serious consideration, although at $180 (list), it's not the least expensive option out there. Despite its svelte, 3.3-by-1.4-by-0.6-inch size and light, 1.9-ounce weight (with the battery installed), the CW200 is remarkably rugged. During testing, we dropped the device onto the cement a number of times, but it suffered no damage, thanks to its solid construction and USB-port cover. The iAudio has only four controls--two jog dials, a record button, and a hold switch--so it's easy to use, even by touch alone. The jog dials are so firm that we didn't even need to activate the hold function to stop them from being inadvertently pressed.
We were initially concerned that the 1/4-inch-wide, backlit display might be too small to be useful. However, once we powered up the device, our fears were allayed by the smart menu system, in which features not being used are hidden. This system enables the CW200 to display all relevant information clearly.
The included white carrying case fits the device snugly and has a sturdy clip for attaching to a belt or a bag strap. However, you should be familiar with what the jog dials do, as the case covers the button labels.
Cowon says that it will include an armband as well, starting in March. Anyone who purchased a unit before then will be entitled to one complimentary armband, with free shipping and handling. For such a small, simple-to-operate MP3 player, the CW200 packs a slew of features, including some that are not currently found on any other device. Cowon's JetAudio application starts things off on the right foot by ripping MP3s to your computer's hard drive or directly onto the unit itself. The software can transfer MP3s to any of four numbered folders, thereby creating up to four de facto playlists. To play all 128MB of tunes at once, you put all the music in the same folder.
Though the iAudio doesn't play WMA files--or any other audio format--it's a master of MP3s. Besides four EQ presets, the CW200 sports the most customizable sound options of any player to date, allowing you to tweak settings for bass, treble, loudness, and dynamic bass on a scale of 0 through 8. Sure, three of the user-defined variables control bass, but that's the frequency that most people like to add to their music. Other salient playback features include AutoResume, which starts playback where you left off, and the ability to upload MP3s to any computer that has the software installed (some players lack this feature due to SDMI restrictions).
If you grow tired of listening to MP3s, the CW200 boasts an FM tuner. Reception is above average for such a small device, but it's not perfect. The 12 radio presets are easy to set and scroll through. If you hear a tune that you like, with one touch of the record button, you can start copying it onto the internal flash memory as an MP3. You can then upload the file to your PC, although, as one would expect, MP3s recorded from FM radio don't sound too great.
The CW200's voice-recording capabilities blew us away. First, the included JetMail application can turn voice recordings into self-playing executable files that you can then e-mail as attachments--a great tool for busy professionals. You can even process the message with simple DSP effects such as Reverb Hall, Helium Voice, or Darth Vader, and you can edit the content to remove incorrect information or reorder the topics mentioned. A Voice Activation feature lets the CW200 record only when someone is talking. Cowon also includes nine different levels of voice-activation sensitivity to ensure that background noise doesn't start the recorder. To begin recording quickly from a powered-down state, just hold down both jog dials. Another thoughtful touch: Whenever you're recording either voice or FM radio, the digital timer on the display counts down the remaining time allowed to fill the internal memory's free space. You can delete the contents of any folder to make more room since you can use the entire 128MB to store voice recordings.
Unfortunately, the CW200's memory cannot be expanded. Before you purchase this player, think about how much storage space you need and choose accordingly among this 128MB version, the 64MB version, or the 256MB model. If you want clean, rich sound quality, the CW200 has your number: A 95dB signal-to-noise ratio, which is a better spec than that of almost any other flash-based player we've tested. (Only Creative's hard drive-based Nomad Jukebox line scores higher, with signal-to-noise ratios of 98dB.) In terms of volume, the CW200 puts out 6mW per channel--driving our large test headphones to levels loud enough for our taste. But those who prefer excessive volume should look for something with more oomph.
We wish that Cowon included a rechargeable battery, but it's some consolation that the CW200 plays for 10 to 12 hours on a single AAA battery--for once, longer than the manufacturer's estimate of 9 hours. Files transfer over USB at a brisk 0.76MB per second, meaning that you can fill the 128MB player in less than three minutes.