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Michael Brown Jun 24, 2008

Cowon iAudio 7 Digital Media Player

At A Glance

Fats Domino

Broad file-format support; great sound; innovative features.

Dominos Pizza

Display is much too small; no support for WMA Lossless; odd touch-sensitive controls

Cowon makes some of the most interesting digital media players we’ve laid hands on. The iAudio 7 is no exception, although it won’t earn a place in our pantheon of favorites.

It’s not for lack of unique features, fabulous sound, or broad codec support; it’s just that we didn’t find ourselves groovin’ on its primitive user interface, chunky formfactor, postage-stamp screen, and odd touch-sensitive control surface. So why are we rating it as high as “7?” Because of its unique features, great sound, and broad codec support.

Let’s start with the features: The iAudio 7 not only has a built-in mic—rendering it handy for recording voice messages or recording a lecture—it also has a 1/8-inch line-level input. Plug in a better-quality mic, or any other audio source, and you can record to the player’s 4GB of flash RAM. You can do the same with the built-in FM radio. The device can also display video (AVI, MPEG-4, and Xvid), photo (JPEG), and even text (TXT) on its 1.3-inch LCD. An alarm clock that can also be used to make scheduled recordings rounds out the player’s long list of features.

We don’t usually talk about the EQ software in media players because it typically sucks; that’s not the case here. If you can’t be bothering dialing-in the five-band graphic equalizer you’ll be cheating yourself if you don’t at least activate the “MP3 Enhance” setting. The effect isn’t nearly as pronounced as Creative’s X-Fi Crystalizer, but the improvement in audio quality is amazing considering the limited hardware that Cowon’s engineers must have to work with. We don’t think we’ve ever heard Emilylou Harris’ voice ever sound as heartbreakingly beautiful on an MP3 player as it did when we heard her sing the opening lines to “If This is Goodbye” (from All the Roadrunning, her amazing collaborative effort with Mark Knopfler). The iAudio 7’s Mach3Bass bass-enhancement features is equally strong—and best deployed in small doses, unless you’re using particularly tinny earbuds.

The iAudio 7 delivered fabulous sound with the broad range of formats and codecs it supports. We listened to tracks in WAV, FLAC, protected WMA, and 320Kb/s MP3 formats and were impressed with the player’s audio fidelity across the board. There’s support for OGG and ASF, too; it’s too bad they didn’t throw WMA Lossless into the mix.

Now for the downside: We appreciate the good ol’ fashioned buttons for volume, power/lock, and mode selection, but the touch-sensitive surface used to control the player’s other aspects droves us a bit batty. It scores high on its technical merits: Using just three movements along the surface, you can play/pause, skip forward and back one track at a time, scrub back and forth within a track, and even loop a segment of a track. (Exactly why you would want to do some of the latter things is a whole other question.)

Flash players should be thin, unless there’s a very good reason for them to be otherwise. Sansa’s Connect is thick around the middle (0.63 inches), but it has a Wi-Fi radio inside (albeit it a soon-to-be--useless Wi-Fi radio, thanks to the demise of Yahoo Music). Microsoft’s Zune has a Wi-Fi radio, too, and it’s just 0.33 inches thick. The iAudio 7 measures a portly 0.7 inches thick. But to be fair to Cowon, Sansa’s and Microsoft’s players aren’t nearly as format friendly (they don’t support FLAC, OGG, or ASF, for instance).

Cowon dedicated more surface area to the iAudio 7’s touch-sensitive control surface than they did for its display. The screen is surprisingly legible for its size, but our eyes tired quickly while browsing folders displayed at a resolution of just 160x128 pixels. Videos and photos look bright and colorful, but they’re so small that we don’t think anyone will spend much time viewing them on this player. To sum up: File support good; touch interface problematic; display much too small.

THE VERDICT

Cowon iAudio 7 Digital Media Player

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