The £190 iAudio 6, Cowon's first microdrive player, rivals most flash players in compactness, thanks in part to a 4GB, 22mm hard drive. This feature-packed and excellent-sounding player/recorder supports all sorts of music, video and photo files, and it boasts a slick, high-resolution 33mm (1.3-inch) OLED screen. While the iAudio 6's interface is an improvement upon that of past Cowon players, it can still be tricky to use. We also believe that Cowon, despite utilising cutting-edge hard drive technology, should have opted for more reliable flash memory. Yet, we can't question this player's deft looks and high-octane performance.
The iAudio 6 follows in the Cowon tradition of being packed to the gills with features. It is an MP3, WMA (including subscription tracks), OGG, FLAC and WAV audio player, an MPEG-4 (AVI) video player, a photo viewer, complete with a three-by-three grid of thumbnails and zoom/pan features, an FM tuner with 24 autoscannable presets, and a voice and line-in recorder. High-resolution graphics and data glare off the colourful, 160x180-pixel OLED screen, though the display is highly reflective outdoors.
Photos and video, as small as they are, are sharp and easy on the eyes. The new icon-based main-menu system is arranged in a slick rainbow curve, and the dedicated menu and volume buttons come in handy as you tackle the iAudio 6's array of features.
The Cowon iAudio 6 is an ideal size -- not iPod nano thin but extremely pocketable, at 76 by 18 by 36mm and 60g. It's only slightly bigger than the iAudio U3, but it has a bigger screen and more storage. Cowon employs a new touch-sensitive interface for the main controllers. The diagonal slider stripe (aka Swing Touch) makes for smooth navigating -- once you get used to it. Swing Touch allows for some atypical navigation, including forwarding and reversing through tracks with a slide of the thumb, scrolling through songs on the playback screen when paused, or skipping by track or by 2, 4, and up to 30 seconds of the song at a time. You can specify from many options in the general-settings area.
We also like that you can customise the functions of the Menu button (we've set ours up to activate the equaliser with a long hold) and the red Record/Back button (we have ours on 'add song to dynamic playlist').
The Cowon iAudio 6's menu button is critical to navigation. It toggles through three modes: the main menu, the playback screen, and the file directory. If you're in Music, you'll default to an improved music-browsing screen -- thanks to the latest 1.20 firmware upgrade, one that includes browsing by artist, song, album, playlist, favourites, new music and so on. This is done in MTP mode -- for Mac users and those who prefer the classic folder tree, you can set the iAudio 6 in UMS/file browser mode. The playback screen features lots of customisable info, as well as a graphical level meter. File types are distinguishable icons, such as MP3, WMA or JPG, for example.
Cowon is inching closer to a fault-free interface, but it's not out of the woods yet. The touch-sensitive buttons can be wishy-washy. Sometimes we'd accidentally activate a function and other times we couldn't get the fast scroll (holding at the end of the slider) to engage. We highly recommend activating the hold switch while you're on the move. Operating the diagonal slider can also be awkward: we suggest you handle it with two hands -- just be gentle with it! The rest of the player is so good that it might be worth your trouble to master the controls.
To top off the feature list, the Cowon iAudio 6 can be used as a text viewer and a USB host for transferring digital images from cameras. You can bookmark songs, as well as tweak the playback speed, resume, autoplay, fade in and so forth -- basically, if you want a small player you can twiddle with, this is the one. The iAudio 6 ships with standard earbuds, a line-in cable, a USB cable, a USB host cable and a software CD with JetShell/JetAudio VX software, which -- among other things -- helps you get your photos and video on to the device.
Another thing -- the iAudio 6 uses a small drive, but it's still susceptible to shock. Cowon may have been better off using a flash drive, which it will introduce in the 2GB version of the iAudio 6, though we predict a flash 4GB iAudio 6 would be priced higher than the competitive £190 tag.
The Cowon iAudio 6's sound quality is superb -- it has a good dynamic range with bright sound and nice bass -- and it gets a boost from Cowon's excellent set of equalisers (seven settings, plus a user-definable five-band equaliser) and BBE surround and bass enhancements. It records to 128Kbps WMA files, and they sound great. Voice recordings are easy to make, though the internal mic picks up noise when you touch the device.
Battery life for the internal rechargeable battery is rated for 20 hours. We achieved a little more than 18 hours, which is respectable. While the internal processor can handle multitasking -- that is, viewing photos and listening to music -- you'll notice minute pauses while rapidly skipping through tracks, which is characteristic of hard drive players. You'll also have to contend with a long 20-second boot-up time.
Cowon has produced another gem of a high-end multimedia player. Ease of use has improved a tad -- it's more intuitive, to be exact -- but the physical controller should be tested by prospective buyers. Nevertheless, the Cowon iAudio 6 will be a big hit among the MP3 underground, thanks to great performance, as well as a slick set of features and format compatibility.
Additional editing by Nick Hide