The Cowon J3 is a well-built portable multimedia player with good sound quality.
While the majority of the consumers are running after every new multimedia phone that comes out in the market, there are devoted class of people who still prefer to use dedicated portable media players (PMPs). Cowon is a well-known brand among this class of people and its range of players are highly regarded in the PMP community. The latest player from its stable, the iAudio J3 is a flash-based PMP which is basically a refinement of the older iAudio S9 with more features and new design.
Following its tradition, Cowon has loaded up a healthy list of features in the iAudio J3. You will find all the S9’s features like a 3.3-inch AMOLED capacitive touchscreen of 480 x 272 pixels resolution, onboard storage of 16GB with 4GB and 8GB options also available, but unlike the S9, the J3 accepts microSD card up to 32GB.
The J3 does not support Wi-Fi connectivity like the iPod touch, but there is Bluetooth 2.0 with A2DP/AVRCP support. It has stereo FM with recording and also voice/line-in recording. The player’s maximum sound output via headphones-out is rated at 29mW + 29mW which seems lower than what was offered by the older Cowon D2+ (37mW + 37mW) but much in line with the new range of Cowon devices. In case you forgot, the S9 also has the same rated output wattage as the J3. The J3 also has TV-out function but a cable is not included.
Like any other iAudio player, the J3 plays MP3, WMA, OGG, FLAC, APE and WAV, but has no support for AAC. For videos, DivX, XviD and WMV are supported but it is disappointing to see no support for H.264 codec. Flash (SWF) files can be played though. The music player offers adding upto 256 files to favorites and bookmarking option. Browsing music files can be done based on folders, tracks, albums, genres, artist, title etc. The J3 has an accelerometer which enables shake-to-skip-track and landscape album-art view.
The video player also offers a variety features like synching subtitles and multiple bookmarking options which made the J3 video player a cut above the rest. As usual, Cowon has loaded the J3 with its JetEffect 3.0 , BBE+ and Stereo enhance feature which makes the J3 (and the other new Cowon players), the richest feature-packed players in terms of enhancements. Fans of Android or iOS devices would be disappointed as the J3 came only with basic apps like Notepad to read TXT files, Calculator, an accelerometer based game called Hunter, Typist, Stopwatch and Comix. So, if you look for a PMP to play games, install apps and let you browse the net, the J3 is not for you, but for the rest, it won’t disappoint.
Cowon J3: Design, Interface And Usability
The iAudio J3 is a lightweight PMP weighing just 76g and our review unit is clothed in a dark plastic body that feels a bit cheap for a premium PMP; but it has good build quality nonetheless. We are sure it would still be able to withstand a few drops. There are two colour versions (black and white). Its front is dominated by the touchscreen and there is a brushed-metallic strip below the screen. The J3 does not inherit the S9’s curve-back design; instead it employs a simpler flat rectangular design which made the J3 thinner than the S9 by a few millimeters and also made the J3 looks a lot more like Zune HD.
Controls for the volume are located towards the bottom of the right side while buttons for play/pause and skipping tracks are above. It felt a bit unfamiliar to have the volume rocker at the bottom but took little time to get used to. The left side has the power/hold button and the top is clean with no controls, whereas ports for headphones, microSD slot and proprietary data cable port are sealed by a flap at the bottom. External controls for playback made using the J3 easy and convenient even when residing in the pocket. Unlike the S9, the Cowon J3 also includes an onboard speaker along with the mic-hole and reset-hole at the back.
Cowon J3: Interface & Usability
Cowon has given the J3 interface a facelift and we found it easier to use than the S9’s interface. There are three main menus (Dynamic Square, Counting Text, and Smart Widget) which can be selected by dragging the power off/ sleep mode icon at the lower right of the Home screen. The top of the screen shows information like time, play status, earphone/speaker usage and battery indicator. We like the Counting Text Home screen which looks a lot more like the Zune’s interface and it shows the properties of each item (number of files for music/movies etc.) and they are optimized for finger-touch. Menus for Dynamic Square and Smart Widget offered multiple home screens with different customizable widgets and icons spreading across .
Moving around the menu and changing settings was easy enough and the touchscreen did not fail to register touch inputs, thanks to the capacitive touchscreen. There is no multitasking except for browsing menu during music playback. Browsing a long list of files was snappy but the player felt sluggish while it was creating thumbnails for large res images we loaded. In terms of design , the J3’s interface falls far behind the iPod touch’s interface. First time users would take some time to get used to the interface it is easier to use than the S9’s or Creative ZEN X-fi 2’s interface.
Cowon J3: Performance
Booting up the iAudio J3 took 6 seconds with a microSD loaded into it. On first-time boot up the player took a few more seconds to update the music database. The player, as mentioned before, responded well to touch inputs and the pinch-to-zoom worked smoothly while viewing 14 mega pixel pictures. Transferring 2GB of files from my PC to the player’s onboard memory via USB 2.0 port finished in 6 minutes 9 seconds which is normal.
The 3.3-inch AMOLED screen shows vibrant colours with crispy details. Outdoor visibility is also good and so are the viewing angles. The screen size is good enough for viewing short video clips or music videos but not so much for full length video.
We did not have much expectation from the bundled earplugs and we were right. So, I tested the player with a variety of In-Ears like Beyer Dynamic DTX 100, Apple In-Ear, Sennheiser CX300, Philips SHE9800 and Soundmagic PL30. I first started the tests with Normal setting on the JetEffect and what I heard was a clean, laid-back and very well balanced sound. The bass was punchy, mids were crisp and well-focused while the highs were airy and showed good resolution.
However, compared to the older Cowon D that we reviewed two years back, the iAudio J3 lacked energy which is quite obvious while using a different pair of in-ears as while listening to some softer/quieter music. The overall sound output sounded a bit low especially outdoors, while indoors they sounded just fine. Turning on BBE or other enhancements did help, but we started to hear more sound colouration than we’d like.
To give more synergy, I plugged in the FiiO E5 as usual and the sound became livelier and richer. With the FiiO amp, Alice in Chains’ Take Her Out sounded rich with crunchy guitar sound and the good reverberation on the lead guitar were reproduced naturally. We could easily distinguish each instrument from the crashing cymbals to the slap bass while listening to our FLAC files which included tracks from artists like Patricia Barber, Diana Krall, Infected Mushroom, Dream Theatre etc.
Overall sound reproduction is as good as what I heard from the Cowon S9 and much more neutral and natural than what I heard with the iPod touch 64GB. In terms of brightness and loudness, the iPod touch 2G (64GB) scored over the J3, but the J3 has warmer and more laid-back sound. So, the choice between these two players would be based on their sound signature and we recommend you invest in a pair of good headphones and portable headphones amp if you plan to get the iAudio J3.
The onboard speaker is nothing great but is much louder and better than the iPod touch onboard speaker. FM radio with auto-tune feature worked as expected and reception was satisfactory both outdoors and indoors. The onboard mic which resides at the back also picked up voice clearly but would be better if it had background noise suppression.
For video, the screen showed vibrant colours and smooth frame rates. Controls responded well even while watching a full length movie which is great. Image viewer on the other hand turned really sluggish when we loaded around 30 pictures of 14 megapixel resolution; the player took too long to create thumbnails whereas the pinch-to-zoom function worked smoothly.
The rated battery life of 64 hours is great with the player singing out loud even after 55 hours of continuous audio playback which was about when the older S9 petered out.
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