Cowon (formerly JetAudio) was wise not to tinker with the formula for its exceptional iAudio 4 flash MP3 player. Its successor, the iAudio 5, adds USB 2.0 support and improved battery life, but otherwise offers the same set of rich features and stellar audio performance.
The iAudio 5 comes in four capacities: 256MB (£125), 512MB (£164), 1GB (£199), and 2GB (£249). The one complaint we have right off the bat is the player is on the pricey side. For example, the Creative MuVo Micro boasts the same features, yet costs about 20 percent less on average. It's worth mentioning that Cowon is one of the first companies to release a 2GB flash player, but it's not ready for the prime time, thanks to its colossal price tag. The colour of the device depends on the memory size you choose; the 256MB version is accented with red, the 512MB model with blue, and the 1GB and 2GB units with black.
The black-and-white casing of our 1GB test unit isn't particularly striking, but the iAudio 5 feels well constructed, and at 75 by 35 by 18mm and weighing a shade less than 30g, it makes for an appropriate workout companion. The buttons are small, but feel sturdy enough to withstand constant use.
The play/fast-forward/rewind and menu controls use three-way rockers on either side of the unit; they're easy to activate accidentally, so you'll want to hit the hold switch when the device is in a bag or a coat pocket. Included in the packaging are a USB cable and a removable plug, which allow the device to work as a plug-in player. Unfortunately, there's no armband, which would be handy for exercise.
For a small flash player, the Cowon iAudio 5 has a rather dense menu structure. This can get a little annoying when navigating music files. DRM-protected songs are automatically stored in subfolders in the music folder, which means you have to reverse a couple of layers to get to the main folder. However, once you get used to the fact that you need both rockers to navigate the menus, you should be able to move through the options fairly quickly.
A unique characteristic of the iAudio 5 is its multicoloured LCD backlighting, which can display up to 1,000 randomised hues based on adjustments to the red, green, and blue settings. You can set colours for playback, FM mode, menus and even song changes. As the lights aren't particularly bright, we're not sure how useful they are, but they certainly add to the player's fun factor. The display itself is small but surprisingly wide and packs a lot of song information on the screen.
The iAudio 5 plays MP3, WMA, and OGG files through Windows Explorer file transfers. The device also comes with the easier-than-it-looks JetShell music-transfer software, which is useful only if you keep all your music files in a central folder since the program doesn't import tracks into its own jukebox. Strangely enough, JetShell doesn't support transfers of DRM-protected WMA files. The songs will appear on the device, but they won't play. Instead, you must use Windows Media Player to move those files to the player.
The iAudio 5 supports line-in, voice and FM recordings in MP3 format up to 128Kbps or in WAV up to 32KHz. We found recordings from a portable CD player to be heavily distorted, though FM recordings sounded fine, as did the radio itself. The FM radio holds up to 24 presets and has an autoscanner for quickly finding available frequencies.
As with the iAudio 4, one of this player's main strengths is its superb audio quality. Sound is crisp and clean, thanks to a 95dB signal-to-noise ratio. The headphone output of 13mW per channel means tunes are sufficiently loud, even with a pair of full-size headphones. The included white earbuds are a touch uncomfortable, but unlike most standard-issue 'buds, they deliver decent sound with responsive bass and treble levels. You also get plenty of options for enhancing the sound via the six equaliser presets and a user-defined five-band equaliser, as well as such effects as BBE, Mach3Bass, and MP Enhance.
Cowon has improved the battery life from the previous version, though not as much as the company claims. In CNET Labs' tests, the iAudio 5 scored an average of 14.5 hours of continuous playback from a single AAA battery. Not bad, but it didn't come close to Cowon's rating of 20 hours, and it was noticeably lower than the Creative MuVo Micro's time of 19 hours and the Cowon G3's impressive 36.8 hours. The 1.86MB-per-second transfer speed was about average for a USB 2.0 connection.
Edited by Jasmine France
Additional editing by Nick Hide